White Coats and Magic Mushrooms
Sylvia Browne in Two Worlds

Book Review - Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis

51YveYk6lcL._SL500_AA300_ Near the beginning of this wonderful book there's a reference to phrenology, the novel nineteenth-century 'science' of uncovering individual propensities by measuring the bumps in the skull. It was surmised that the bits of the brain we use most grow bigger and cause corresponding bulges in the cranium, so by measuring a person's skull you could determine his or her personality.

It seems obviously daft to us now. Those crazy Victorians! Yet as far as Raymond Tallis, is concerned, there's little to distinguish that embarrassing pseudoscience from today's voguish enthusiasm for neuroscience - what he calls neuromania. Almost everything we do and think is being 'explained' in terms of what goes on in a specific region of the brain, illustrated by coloured graphics, and experts in different fields eagerly point to confirmation of their hunches in the firing of neurons and development of neural pathways.

There are repeated references to new disciplines with the prefix 'neuro-' or 'evolutionary': neuro-jurisprudence, evolutionary economics, evolutionary aesthetics, neuro-theology, neuro-architecture, neuro-archeology and so on. Even philsophers - who should know better, being trained, one hopes, in scepticism - have entered the field with the discipline of 'X-phi', or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages, for example, have invented 'neuro-ethics', in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people's intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classical dilemmas.

Cognitive psychologists delight in demonstrating how our decisions are often influenced by stimuli of which we are unaware: we act in response to concealed triggers, not for the reasons we believe we act. You may think you gave spare change to that beggar out of a moral sense of duty, but actually you did it because the nearby bakery was sending out a delicious smell of fresh bread, which stimulated feelings of generosity. Brain scans give powerful new authority to this line of reasoning. While the experience of having free will feels real, it's actually an illusion.

Tallis passionately believes all this is wrong. Human behaviour and decision-making can't be reduced down to what is going on in their brains, any more than it can be explained in terms of evolutionary adaptation. Far from being chained to our evolutionary past, Tallis argues that our consciousness has developed to the point that we have the ability to recognise and subvert the unconscious impulses that are supposed to drive us. He has no patience with scientism, the 'mistaken belief that the natural sciences can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life'. And he takes aim in particular at the orthodox view of the brain, handily summarised by Daniel Dennett:

There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter - the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology - and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain ... we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth.

There are times, Tallis says, when one feels like the poet Robert Browning, 'bouncing up from a table, his mouth full of bread and cheese, saying he means to stand no more blasted nonsense'. What gives his polemic force is the fact that he knows his stuff, as a medical doctor who has also engaged in neuroscientific research and has published papers in the field. He gives a very detailed picture of what is known about the workings of the brain, and the assumptions that are currently being made about it, before going on to demonstrate gross flaws in the orthodox view.

Specifically, he sees an inherent contradiction in trying to find consciousness in nerve impulses, as a property arising out of material events.

Consciousness is, at a basic level, appearances or appearings-to, but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances. So there is absolutely no basis for the assumption, central to Neuromania, that the intrinsically appearance-less material world will flower into appearance to a bit of that world (the brain) as a result of the particular material properties of that bit of the world: for example, its ability to control the passage of sodium ions through semi-permeable membranes. We cannot expect to find anything in a material object, however fashioned, that can explain the difference between a thought and a pebble, or between a supposedly thoughtful brain and a definitely thoughtless kidney...

This makes more obviously barmy the idea that nerve impulses can journey towards a place where they become consciousness; that, by moving from one material place to another they are mysteriously able to be the appearance of things other than themselves. If this is physics, it is not the physics to be found in textbooks.

The enterprise of explaining consciousness faces one challenge in particular - the problem of intentionality. Physical science can explain how the conscious organism can respond to stimuli and send messages to the muscles and glands. However it can provide no clue as to how this flow can be reversed. The brain is not merely acted on, it acts. But what is this 'it'? How is it to be explained?

These questions are easy to lose sight of, especially if, as Tallis suggests, one is a neuromaniac and has a vested interest in concealing it. He is scathing about Daniel Dennett's attempt to explain away intentionality - on the grounds that the inner life we ascribe to others is merely an 'interpretative device' and nothing in reality corresponds to it. On the contrary, he argues, 'it is not out of mere interpretative convenience that we ascribe all sorts of intentional phenomena - perceptions, feelings, thoughts - to people; it is because the intentional phenomena are real, as we know from our own case.'

Then there are the limitations of the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology that produces the pretty pictures. The scans don't directly tap into the brain, as one might imagine from the hype, they merely detect the increases in blood flow needed to deliver additional oxygen to busy neurons. But neuronal activity lasts milliseconds, Tallis points out, while detected changes in blood flow lag by at least two and as many as ten seconds. Furthermore, many millions of neurons have to be activated for this change in blood flow to be detected. So what we see in brain scans is what is happening in one particular area, some time after the activity has commenced.

Small groups of neurons whose activity elicits little change in blood flow, or a modest network of neurons linking large regions, or neurons acting more efficiently than others, may be of great importance but would be under-represented in the scan or not represented at all. In short, pretty well everything relevant to a given response at a given time might be invisible on an fMRI scan.

The design of the studies themselves are 'laughably crude', he argues. Take the famous experiment carried out to observe the brain activity in romantic love, where subjects were first shown a picture of the face of a loved one and then one of a person who was not loved. As anyone knows who has been in love, this hardly scratches the surface of the matter. Romantic love is not a single entity or an enduring state, but encompasses a full gamut of feelings, including lust, awe, surprise, joy, guilt, anger, jealousy, and so on. So although it's superficially interesting the experiment actually tells us very little.

Tallis is particularly scathing about the way academics in the humanities - until recently sceptical of the claims of science - have rushed to embrace Neuromania, developing a whole new line in gobbeldy-gook with which to impress and baffle their readers. An art critic tells us that artist A 'speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4' while artist B 'stimulates V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions'. A literary critic argues that the effect of Shakespeare's verse 'depends on the specific effects certain syntactic constructions have on the nervous system', finding in one case 'an increase in the amplitude of p600 - a particular wave on the evoked response to stimuli-registering syntactic violations...' etc, etc. Gaah!

Meanwhile neuro-economists believe they have pinpointed the neural bases of bad financial decisions. Why are we so willing to run up debts when we pay by credit card? Answer: brain imaging has shown that paying by credit card reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative emotions such as worrying about debts. The result is to ensure that your brain is anesthetized against the pain of payment: spending money doesn't feel bad, so you spend more money. In short, the neuro-economist declares, the credit card takes advantage of a dangerous flaw built into the brain. It overvalues immediate gains at the expense of future costs, because it doesn't understand things like interest rates or debt payments of finance charges.

Tallis has scores of these sorts of examples, which, when looked at closely, do nothing more than make blindingly obvious statements about human behaviour. Explaining them in terms of brain functions doesn't explain anything if you accept that humans can override this programming and make sensible choices (with all the corresponding brain activity that is very considerable but entirely ignored by the studies). And of course we do, or we would be mere robots, zombies, automata.

Interestingly for an atheist, Tallis is no less offended by neuro-theology, rebelling against attempts to locate the human propensity for religious belief in some supposed 'God-spot'. Here too the ability to reason, surely the most significant single thing about human consciousness, is powerfully implicated.

What part of the brain, a material object, could one conceive of as cooking up and housing the notion of something infinite, eternal, all powerful, all seeing, all wise and yet systematically invisible? What kinds of nerve impulses are capable of transcending their finite, local, transient, condition in order to conceive of something that is infinite, ubiquitous and eternal? ... Anyone who believes that churches and their institutionally mediated power can be understood in biological terms has to overlook that, unlike gene products but like moral codes, they are argued into place.... I can no more imagine cathedrals being built out of brain tingles than I can see a gene product requiring a Thirty Years' War to defend it.

Some biologizers are aware of this, which is why, instead, they appeal to the concept of memes - 'in a desperate attempt to bridge the great gap, that yawns widest in the case of religion, between animal behaviour and human institutions'. But the meme is merely analogous to a physical property, not in any way a substitute for it.

Aping Mankind also has a lot to say about Darwinitis in this regard, following in the footsteps of the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, an impassioned foe of selfish genery. Much of this is interesting, but the polemic against the standard scientific view of consciousness is what really stands out. It's powerful stuff coming from an atheist neuroscientist, and once I understood just how completely Tallis rejected the conventional wisdom I was all agog to know what he would propose in its place. Not a lot, as it turns out, but he offers three possible alternatives.

One is to acknowledge that humans are inseparable from a community of minds and the worlds that its component selves have built. In this view, consciousness is to be understood in terms of human relations as much as in biology. (Apparently this trend has been picked up by the MIT, once the capital of mind-brain identity theory.) This is an improvement, he thinks, but still leaves the brain at the 'ontological heart of the human world'. Another approach is to appeal to quantum mechanics, but Tallis has particular reasons for being unpersuaded (he quickly dismisses the ideas of Hameroff and Penrose in this regard). The third is to follow David Chalmers into panpsychism, the notion that consciousness is present throughout the entire universe, which he notes has a certain logic, and is close to the views of the respected British philosopher (and atheist) Galen Strawson. For himself, he concludes, he is content to remain an 'ontological agnostic'.

It would be nice to think that the book will make waves in neuroscientific circles. Alas, I suspect Tallis will just be brushed off as an eccentric - of course the mind is the brain, no right thinking person could possibly think any different. The dogma is too entrenched to be seriously argued with. To his claim - detailed and elegantly expressed - that consciousness is far too complicated to be explained in terms of brain functions the response will most likely be, 'No it isn't!'. At this early stage so much is speculative, there's little chance of anyone being proved wrong. I'm not sure either that it will dissuade journalists from continuing to gush over every new 'discovery' of how we humans are really are really what our brains are doing. The glamour of science has them in its grip.

But I think for the rest of us - and potentially we are a large constituency - the book is a landmark. We're tired of being talked down to by materialist scientists and philosophers, our ideas of being more than our bodies lampooned as 'folk psychology'. Without going so far as to claim that Tallis has proved that consciousness can't be pinned down to brain functions he has provided a great deal of heft to the claim, and arguably made it every bit as persuasive an 'explanation' as Daniel Dennett's.


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Very nice post, Robert. I need to read this book!

Agreed. Excellent post.

Great post, Robert. You get right to the heart of what's important about the book. It's also good that Tallis knows the neuroscience -- frankly, I feel like a rank amateur beside him!

'We're tired of being talked down to by materialist scientists and philosophers, our ideas of being more than our bodies lampooned as 'folk psychology'.'

Yeah, this is exactly what I feel. In researching 'Pluralism,' I had to read a lot of mainstream stuff that was extremely patronizing, overconfident and dismissive of alternatives. I find it fascinating that bigotry seems to be regarded as a sin in social circles, but a virtue if you're protecting 'science' and 'reason'. It gets very wearing after a while!

Thanks, guys.

'bigotry seems to be regarded as a sin in social circles, but a virtue if you're protecting 'science' and 'reason'. Yes, funny that!

I gather your book on consciousness is in the works, Matt, and I'm looking forward to seeing your conclusions.

How incredibly refreshing. I really appreciate this lengthy review.

It has always struck me as an absurd dogma that a lump of matter could, unlike other lumps, suddenly produce consciousness. I remember studying philosopher Gilbert Ryle in college, who poked fun of the idea of the "ghost in the machine" by saying that mind is nothing but a category mistake. But then what else but mind categorizes or understands categories? So what exactly is making the category mistake?

I made a consistent fuss about it in class and wrote a paper labeling Ryle's position as a kind of reverse emperor's new clothes, where a richly clothed emperor (the mind) was seen as naked (nonexistent). My teacher was very unhappy with me.

I think the materialist position is basically a religious faith. What's remarkable, of course, is seeing a neuroscientist--and atheist--come out so strongly against the faith.

Speaking of neuroscientists turning on the faith, I recently came across a great story, in which, three years ago, another neuroscientist, named Even Alexander, was in a 7-day coma, induced by a rare form of meningitis. The part of his brain "that makes us human" (his words) was completely shut down. Yet he had a profound near-death experience, including an experience of God. After the experience (and an unexpectedly speedy and complete recovery), he spent a couple of years intensely trying to figure out, from a neuroscientific point of view, how his experience could have occurred. After producing a few models which did not work, he said he had to admit that his NDE was inexplicable from within his old framework. He now overtly professes belief in the reality of the soul and its existence after death. He's become an important voice in the NDE discussion because of his expertise.

Here's the link to the video I saw:


What an interesting man. Thanks Rob for the recommendation.

This book is on my list now, thanks.

Also the case of Eben Alexander is exceptional and is going to pose problems for materialist sceptics. The guy is a heavyweight, serious player.

I was recently asked to bid on some animation work for an anatomy-based TV series because of my specialty of making high fidelity 3D anatomical models. The producers suggested using FMRI data as a starting point because of its "accuracy". When my team and I looked it over, we decided against this idea because of how much the FMRI technology misses. The models I make by hand are much higher resolution and more accurate in many ways than anything provided by FMRI (though handmade isn't totally accurate either.

I was amazed because I had always thought that FMRI technology actually was capable of all the things it was supposed to be capable of as an imaging device. I never believed the notion that it had anything to say about non-local consciousness, but I at least thought that the graphics we see in magazines and on TV are literally the unadulterated product of an FMRI scan. Imagine my dismay when I discovered how heavily manipulated those images are, and how low their resolution is.

great post Rob... dang that books-to-read stack keeps growing!

Hi Robert,

Be careful. Tallis has his own agenda which is driving his opinions. He has these views because he does not like the consequences of illusory free-will or Darwinian animalism.

He fears that non-free will lead to abdication of responsibility, social breakdown, nihilism. He detests determinism for the same reason. His fear of 'darwinitis' is similarly the result of emotive drives. His constant referral to other animals as 'beasts' emphasises his drive to keep humans on the pedestal erected for man by Western religion, as being above the beasts.

But since when has a fear of the consequences been a sufficient reason for denying science? If this view was at all sensible we would deny atoms could be split because one of the consequences would be the atomic bomb. Science is an attempt to discover what is true, not what we want to be true. He has perceived implication of philosophy and science that Tallis very much does not want to be true, and so he denies the philosophy and science is true.

Tallis argues his points with greater emotion and far less science than any of his accused. Despite his charge of misanthropy, it is Tallis that holds these other scientists and philosophers in bitter contempt. His charge of scientism is based on the grossest pseudo-science of his own.

All science is founded on our empirical perceptions put to the limited capacities of our fallible minds. It's the most rigorous and reliable process of discovery we have. For all its faults and limitations, which are human faults and limitations, it's the best we have. And all that science has ever discovered boils down to space-time-matter(energy), and the laws that connect them.

So, this is the basis of the null hypothesis: that everything we observe, including humans, fall into this system. Nothing we have discovered falls outside. No matter what mystical and magical claims are made for anything else, there is no evidence to support it. Whatever evidence has been claimed to support free-will, dualism, gods, fairies, has always failed to be persuasive.

If Tallis wants to make a claim for the alternative hypothesis, that free-will is real in its commonly held sense, then can he suggest how it fits in with these physical laws and the atoms, molecules, proteins, neurons? What's his scientific view of the connection? I don't see one in his book. All I see is assertive denial of some particular views that put the brain and its processes at the centre of consciousness and the scientific null hypothesis that the connection must be a physical one.

Tallis has a problem. He denies he is a dualist. That would generally lead to physicalism. But it's clear from his writing that this presents a cognitive dissonance for him - his perceived consequences are just too much to take. So he comes up with all sorts of arguments to diminish the role of the brain in order to detract attention from neuromaniacs (the name he gives then it is an emotive one that alludes to the absurdity - ad hominem is hardly a scientific or respectable philosophical move. Now all his accused neuromaniacs know full well that it's not all down to the brain alone. The brain's environment, including the body that contains it, the genetics and the developmental environment of the zygote, fetus, infant, child, teen, all contribute to the current state of the brain; and the brain, in turn, continuously in parallel, effects its environment and itself. But the brain is considered the core of the 'central' nervous system for a reason. I don't call my cat a dog because it occasionally interacts with my neighbors dog. But even if we allow Tallis to de-emphasise role of the brain in consciousness, his problem grows in its explanatory vacuum.

"We cannot expect to find anything in a material object, however fashioned, that can explain the difference between a thought and a pebble..." - but hold on. I thought Tallis wasn't a dualist. Then what does he propose as being both non-dualist and yet non-material about his ideas? What mechanisms that comply with the laws of physics does he propose are at work here?

He has none. What he does have is persistent question begging. In his criticism of Dennett, for example:

"..it is not out of mere interpretive convenience that we ascribe all sorts of intentional phenomena - perceptions, feelings thoughts - to people; it is because the intentional phenomena are real, as we know from our own case." - but that 'we know from our own case' is the very point being challenged! We know from all sorts of illusions and delusions that the human brain is geared to see the world not as it is, but how it is convenient or useful to perceive it.

A lot is often made of 'qualia' as though there is something scientifically verifiable about them, and Tallis jumps on this bandwagon. Perceptually they are real to us but have no more scientific grounding than memes, which Tallis is happy to ridicule. Memes are often referred to as either a convenient notion for the ideas and their transmission, if you're for them, or pseudo-science if you're not. Well 'qualia' is, to be charitable, only a convenient term for 'subjective experience', and not something detectable by science, or to be uncharitable philosophical flim-flam.

Much is made of the richness of qualia, but qualia, those subjective experiences, are anything but rich. They are a massively filtered view of the outer world. When we see yellow we don't see the individual reflections of light that make up a colour, nor do we detect that reflections are light 'bouncing off' a surface, another illusory idea - as they are the emission of photons following the absorption of other photons, so that 'yellow' is the emission of photons of a certain wavelength following the absorption of many photons of different wavelengths.

Tallis also falls for the 'qualia fallacy'. Qualia by definition are subjective. We cannot experience the qualia of another human and only suppose another has them by inference from another's similarly to oneself. He then supposes that other animals don't have qualia because they are not conscious, and their lack of consciousness is assumed because they are not like us. His anti-animalism helps persuade him here. But, if qualia are as subjective and forever beyond science, then how does he know other animals don't have them? How does he know my fridge thermostat does not have a personal qualia of what it is like to feel heat and assess temperature? This is a bird's nest of question begging that is on a par with Kant's declaration of inaccessible noumena, which he then goes on to describe in detail, or the ineffable God of theists, who appear to know just what God wants from us. That Tallis can't see this is indicative of why he can't see how a complex physical system like a brain can't be the location of consciousness. His motive for not wanting to come to what he perceives as necessary consequences is blinding him to these possibilities.

Tallis has some valid questions about how and what we can conclude from fMRI scans. But all those neuromaniacs know the limitations of the science so far. What they are discussing are further hypotheses that come out of the results, within the basic framework that there is no evidence for any other location for consciousness but the brain, and that it follows the basic laws of physics.

He has a better case about ignorant art and literary critics, who are known for reading all sorts of nonsense into art literature - they seem to be so accustomed to fictions and fantasies they mistake them for reality. In these examples they just happen to be using current science instead of, for example, astrology.

Which brings me to another point you covered. The Victorian phrenology looks dumb to us now, with hindsight, as does astrology, an earth-centric solar system, opposition to tectonic plate theory, phlogiston, and many more ideas that were quite reputable in their time. The point is surely that we should not believe these things now, not that people were dumb to believe them then. And given that the human brain is the complex system that it is, Tallis can hardly make a case for the humanities and social sciences, or psychology, which have inevitably considered the human being as a black box, relying only on the clues of external behaviour for figuring out what makes us tick - their history is hardly scientific in many respects. The newer sciences are in their infancy - particularly with regard to the supporting technologies that assist the science. Tallis has no grounds for such a persistent (count his books on the same theme) and malicious attack on science - unless not liking the perceived outcomes is an explanation, which in determinist Darwinian terms is precisely what it is.

Ron, thanks for this - a forceful rebuttal. I’ll let your points stand, apart from a general observation.

Tallis’s approach is clearly in opposition to the orthodox view of mind-brain, and is therefore anathema to those who concur with the mainstream (positivist) idea of science reflected in your comments. To that extent your reaction is understandable.

One reason why some people – many of this blog’s readers, for instance – take issue with this orthodox view is the widespread incidence of anomalous psychic experiences that could not occur if it were true.

It’s clear that this evidence - telepathy, OBEs, etc - is not of a kind that science is willing to admit. On the other hand, we observe that they are widely experienced in a number of different situations, that they are verified by highly competent and qualified researchers (many of them front rank thinkers and scientists), and that the sceptical response consists largely of unthinking ridicule, general abstractions (Hume, Occam’s razor, Randi’s prize, etc), or trivial pseudo-explanations that in any other context would themselves be considered incredible.

It goes without saying that if an accident victim or hospital patient who comes close to death, and is subsequently resuscitated, did actually witness the events that occurred at the scene during the period before regaining consciousness – as many have claimed; or if a remote viewing agent can form a detailed mental image of a distant scene, as has been repeatedly demonstrated to be possible, and so on, the physicalist theory of mind cannot be true.

We infer from all this that the current thinking about mind-brain may eventually be overthrown – an event which is hardly uncommon in the history of science.

I’m not aware that Tallis is interested in parapsychology, and it would not surprise me if he was sceptical. But it’s the reason why I pay close attention to his arguments, even if they are based on quite different considerations. Complaints about a thinker’s agenda are suspect to me, partly because they are often made about parapsychologists and I know them to be untrue. But if his arguments are convincingly demonstrated to be fallacious, then obviously that’s another matter.

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