Tucker's Reviews > Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis
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Jun 10, 2012

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bookshelves: finished, brain
Read from March 01 to June 06, 2012 , read count: 1

The classic philosophers' debate about mind goes like this: do we have nonphysical spirits/minds, or does mind have a purely physical basis? In favor of a nonphysical mind, one might point out that, even with today's best available technology, scientists are not yet able to correlate a person's every thought with a visual image of their brain activity. Since mind is "invisible" or cannot (yet) be pointed to as a visual image, and its origins are mysterious, therefore it must be "nonphysical". On the other hand, in favor of a physically-grounded mind, one might say that simply because science has not yet unraveled the exceedingly complex and delicate workings of the brain does not mean that the brain will prove insufficient to explain consciousness. Appealing to fanciful spirits will not answer these unanswered questions; it merely creates a silly fiction that looks like an answer. Furthermore, if mind is nonphysical, the very idea of nonphysicality generates some unanswerable questions, such as "How can a nonphysical spirit be located in a physical body?" and "How can a nonphysical spirit exchange information with its physical body?"

Aping Mankind caught my attention because I wanted to hear Raymond Tallis argue against the idea that consciousness is caused purely by physical attributes. In this day and age, are there any good scientifically-supported arguments for a nonphysical spirit? Would Tallis, an atheist and medical scientist, defend the idea of ghosts?

No, he doesn't, which left me bewildered and disappointed. In this book, Tallis bypasses the classic debate. He manages to argue at great length against the idea that consciousness is entirely grounded in the brain without giving adequate attention to the obvious follow-up question: "OK, but there's no ghosts, right?" If consciousness is not in the brain, where is it? He doesn't really explain, at least not in enough detail to satisfy someone who has just waded through his 361-page argument. He alludes to the "pre-modern" nature of belief in ghosty souls but he never explicitly, personally rejects this pre-modern belief nor does he present a clear alternative.

Toward the end, he devotes a few pages to explaining what he thinks is missing from our theory of consciousness. Our sense of self is based on linked ideas and shared culture, he says. Taking photographs of a single person's brain ignores the connections between people, the relationships that make us who we are.

Yes, indeed, our minds are shaped by interaction with other people. But what -- I must ask -- is the metaphysical nature of this interaction, this culture? Is culture, too, a ghost, a nonphysical stratum in which are suspended nonphysical souls? Or does culture, in addition to its behavioral and historical characteristics that are truly shared facts, instantiate itself in each individual's brain as a personal, evolving concept and thus is it as physically grounded as the rest of our ideas? If scientists knew how to fully "read" a living, thinking brain, could they, in principle, see culture in there, too, along with every other part of the personality? Why not?

Tallis is not principally arguing against the idea that mind is material. (At least, I don't think so--it's hard to tell.) That's a question I think he needed to address, but it's not what he focused on. As indicated in the book's subtitle, he's principally arguing against what he calls "neuromania" -- the idea that neuroscientist's photographs of brain activity can explain everything there is to know about human consciousness, including lofty, complex ideas like religion, art, and memory -- and "Darwinitis" -- the compulsive attribution of all human thought and behavior to whatever maximizes survival. The former is more central to his argument. I have never perceived "neuromania" as a special problem. While many people (myself included) believe that their most complex ideas and intense feelings are ultimately grounded in the physical brain, I don't know anyone who suffers the "neuromaniac" delusion that confuses a blurry, uninterpreted photograph of a brain with the subjective feeling of consciousness itself. As Tallis is a neuroscientist, perhaps he has indeed met people who suffer this delusion because they are neuroscientists invested in inflating the significance of their research methods, but if so it seems that neuromania afflicts mainly neuroscientists and not the general population. Maybe the book is best read as a cautionary tale for neuroscientists.

This book has many good qualities. Tallis is witty, well-read, and original. He has firmly held atheist beliefs but doesn't feel the need to remind the reader of it constantly, refreshingly preferring to engage the reader in a discussion of ideas rather than a duel of identities. He believes in evolution and doesn't waste time defending it in this book, presuming that his reader can appreciate a philosophical discussion that assumes twenty-first century science. Nor is he anti-religion. The book even won a blurb of praise from Roger Scruton, a philosopher who has defended the role of religion in public life. Tallis recognizes that religious beliefs contain meaning that is important for anyone studying human consciousness, and he's not averse to the sparse use of the word "spirituality" to describe a certain human need when no other word will do. He has written some delightful passages on what he calls "Thatter," the tendency of humans to use language to represent things as "facts that..." which another book I'm simultaneously reading has termed "metarepresentation."

My frustration with Aping Mankind is just that it elided the question of consciousness-as-ghost consistently throughout many densely written pages through which I spent an inordinate number of hours searching for what I was hoping it would say. This book may be very useful to someone writing a philosophy thesis on the topic of mind, as there are many excellently expressed original ideas, but I wouldn't recommend this as an introductory text because for me it hopped over some of the central issues.
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