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Consciousness - all we can be sure of (by Robert Perry)

[Thanks to Robert Perry for these reflections, on the fact that consciousness is all that we can really be sure about - RM]

As I read skeptical responses to the paranormal, the single biggest issue, it seems to me, is that paranormal claims are labeled highly improbable from the outset. It's as if we know that such things are incredibly unlikely, and so the evidence for them has to be so strong that it overcomes that inherent improbability. There is the classic "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." There is Occam's Razor. There's Bayesian analysis, where one actually formally sets the improbability of a hypothesis before it's tested.

This onus of improbability is no small matter. I read a paper, for instance, in which the authors set the probability of psi, based on purely non-experimental considerations, at 1 in 100 quintillion (.00000000000000000001). That is quite a handicap!

Where does this presumption of improbability come from? Many reasons are mentioned, but it seems to me that at root it comes down to the presumed place of consciousness in the grand scheme. After all, psi is about consciousness being able to reach out beyond the brain, either to gain information or to affect physical things. If consciousness is simply a secretion of the brain, it is very hard to imagine how such a thing could happen.

It seems to me, then, that this is the core "extraordinary claim" - that consciousness is the sort of thing that can reach out beyond the brain, that consciousness has that kind of status in the big picture. That, I believe, is what is so obviously unlikely.

The attitude seems to be that we can be sure about insentient matter and energy. We can see it. We can touch it. We can measure it. We all agree it's there. Consciousness, however, is another matter. We can't see it. We can't measure it or detect its presence. We have no way to objectively verify it. Compared to the physical world, it seems so ghostly and uncertain, so subjective. The physical realm, then, is the given. And consciousness - well, we're not quite sure about it.

I don't know about you, but this just strikes me as so obviously backward. I keep coming back to one fact that seems tacitly obvious to me: Consciousness is the only thing we can be sure of.

Think about it. You can be sure you are aware. You can be sure you are having feelings and sensations. You can be sure you are having thoughts. In short, you can be sure the contents of consciousness are in fact present. If someone took a saw to your arm and asked you, halfway through the process, if you were experiencing pain, can you imagine knitting your brow and saying, "You know, I'm just not sure"?

And yet, we can't extend this same certainty to the physical world. Descartes pointed out in his famous "dream problem" that we cannot distinguish our waking experience from our most vivid dreams. We are probably more familiar with this problem from movies like The Matrix and Inception. But whatever form it comes in, it is a vexing problem, for it seems impossible to truly vanquish the possibility that everything we see is a dream.

So we can't be sure the world is there. Going back to my sawing the arm example, we can't even be sure the arm is there. There is, of course, the well-known phantom limb effect, where people feel genuine pain in a limb that is no longer present. I found an example in Ramachandran's book Phantoms in the Brain in which a researcher asked a man to grab a coffee cup with his phantom limb, and while he was "grabbing" it, the researcher yanked it away. The man reacted, "Ow! Don't do that....I had just got my fingers around the cup handle when you pulled it. That really hurts!" The researcher observes, "The fingers were illusory, but the pain was real - indeed, so intense that I dared not repeat the experiment."

"The fingers were illusory, but the pain was real." This to me captures the situation perfectly. The sensations, the thoughts, the feelings, are undeniably real, but the rest, for all we know, may be illusory. Perhaps the world outside is just one gigantic phantom limb. Or, perhaps more plausibly, maybe what we call insentient matter and energy is just more consciousness, just eddies and currents within consciousness. That would, after all, make a certain kind of sense. If the only thing we can be sure of is consciousness, then maybe all those things we can't be sure of are just more of the same.

This, it seems to me, shows the bizarreness of the bias against psi. Here is the one bit of reality we can be sure of. Why would we assume that it's a second-class citizen in the grand scheme? If this is the one thing we know is real, what is so strange about thinking it has purchase power in reality? I'm not saying we should decide this in the absence of evidence. I'm actually saying the opposite: Why not give the evidence a full chance to speak for itself?

Book Review: Fringe-ology, by Steve Volk

I have mixed feelings about journalists' books about the paranormal. There's a tendency to think they can get to the bottom of it by talking to a few key people, but they only really scratch the surface, and lose interest as soon as they've got enough material to write up.

Volk is a Philadelphia crime reporter, and Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable and Couldn't might have been that sort of book, based as it is on interviews and encounters with researchers and experiencers of various kinds. In fact it's excellent, and as an introduction to science/religion topics is one of the best I've read. Volk has a deeply personal interest, from his memories of the poltergeist that haunted his home as a child and from the impact of the deaths of close family members, and gives a strong sense of caring about the subjects he investigates: near-death experiences, psi research, consciousness, UFOS, poltergeists, mystical experience, neuroscience and lucid dreaming, which he typically explores through the work of key figures. The narrative fiction style is lively and empathetic, and shows a novelist's eye for people, places and situations.

A worry for journalists especially is to seem credible and objective while tackling subjects that many people find suspect. Unlike some writers, Volk is not defensive about this and is keen to be as inclusive as possible, while steering clear of the margins on either side.

We live in a world of false certainties: Whether we are discussing politics, religion, or economics, when we flip on our televisions or open our Web browsers to a news site, we encounter the often strongly held opinions of others - opinions that lead us into a series of binary choices: conservative or liberal, believer or atheist, capitalist or socialist. My argument, simply, is that these are false choices - that there are middle paths that bear more fruit.

All of the figures he describes, in their way, are chipping away at the barriers raised by dogmatists and helping to found a new worldview 'in which science and spirituality serve each other'. At the same time he avoids some of the more controversial areas: psi-research is covered quite cursorily, and there's little about mediums and psychics, apart from a tense phone conversation with Uri Geller, which quietly makes the point that he is keeping such people at arms length (he also admits to incredulity when Mitchell shows him a bag of bent spoons he watched children twisting out of shape merely by stroking them.)

But the problem of the Paranormal Taint, as he calls it, remains a strong theme throughout the book. Volk makes the point well in the first chapter while discussing the case of Kübler-Ross. The Swiss-born psychiatrist might have broken the news about the near-death experience after coming across it frequently in her work with the terminally ill. However she didn't mention it at all in her book On Death and Dying, and it was left to Raymond Moody to publicize the discovery a few years later. A good thing too, Volk points out: the work that helped break taboos and alleviate suffering might have been ignored completely if it had been tainted by a hint of superstitious belief. (Sadly, Kübler-Ross did later go to the other extreme, showing a level of credulity that wrecked her reputation.)

Elsewhere Volk describes an atheists conference attended by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Patricia Churchland, where Stuart Hameroff offered his ideas about quantum consciousness. Anything that smacks of dualism would go down like a lead balloon in such company. Dawkins in particular seemed so upset he could not even look at Hameroff and stared sulkily in the other direction. Generally, says Volk, the talk was greeted with the 'hushed whisper of fabric, of one hundred butts shifting uncomfortably in their seats'.

This sort of classy writing is one of the book's strong points. I liked the discussion of Andrew Newberg in trying to test the idea, promoted by hardline atheists, that religious faith is obviously connected to mental disorder.

Would some sort of malfunction show up that explained the spiritual experience? Or would he somehow get a glimpse of God as a kind of ghost in the machine? In his pursuit of an answer, Newberg has become a curator of human spiritual life - taking snapshots of various transcendent states and hanging them on the walls.

I also enjoyed the chapter on the astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who famously experienced a powerful sense of the interconnectedness of all things on his journeying in space and later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). It seems astronauts as a species are known for undergoing profound shifts in their thinking and priorities, and it's a smart idea to explore mystical experience in relation to such a highly contemporary activity. Here too there's a sense of a perceptual boundary being bumped up against, as the idea of space tourism, touted by entrepreneurs like Virgin's Richard Branson, suffers from the 'giggle factor' - when people hear an idea that is disturbing or challenging they laugh. The implications of this for the paranormal are obviously great, Volk points out. 'Yes, some people want to embrace every New Age idea. But others laugh, just as automatically, before even considering what they're laughing at.'

There are some fascinating examples of the interaction between science and the media. Volk describes the case of a researcher who discovered a statistically significant tendency in people who had experienced an NDE to show the same altered brain firing patterns as people with temporal lobe epilepsy. The study was small and no serious conclusions could be drawn. Nevertheless, it drew a disproportionate amount of interest from the media, with articles in the New York Times and Discover which effectively stigmatized these people as dysfunctional, when actually they rated more highly than the controls on measures of active coping. The study's author meanwhile received letters from believers earnestly thanking her for proving that it the NDE is real, and from scientist colleagues for proving that religious belief is a brain disorder.

One of the most interesting chapters concerns a new mental therapy being pioneered by Allan Botkin. This is based on the recent discovery by psychotherapist Francine Shapiro, which she calls 'eye movement desensitization and reprocessing' or EMDR which actually involves nothing more complicated than getting the patient to move his or her eyes from side to side, as if they were watching a ping-pong match. EMDR faced a good deal of scepticism at the outset, but now seems to be thriving. However Botkin, a specialist with war veterans, stumbled on the further discovery that the procedure can conjure up an image in the patient's mind of the key person in his mental flashbacks - perhaps a buddy he was not able to rescue, or someone he killed in battle - who he can then engage with and receive a kind of closure. Botkin calls this Induced After-Death Communication (IADC) and uses it in therapy, apparently with considerable success.

Volk's own experience was convincing: it induced interactions with two deceased family members. But he is concerned about the name, which he points out may bring opposition, not least from fellow practitioners of EMDR already struggling to gain acceptance for what seems like a fringe idea. This might be a good instance of the value of the 'middle path' - to acknowledge the practical efficacy of a technique which transcends the boundaries of known science, but without insisting on its paranormality.

In other respects, I found myself constantly reflecting on the real meaning of this middle path. It's one thing to be open-minded and avoid being dogmatic. Readers will respond to these things in different ways and those of us who try to engage their interest have to defer to their sensitivities. But a path is not a destination, and detachment should not be seen as a virtue in itself, especially if it encourages the avoidance of any long-term commitment. If humans are biologically uniform - which I believe is a given - there's no sense in which, for example, it is both possible for certain gifted individuals to bend spoons by mental effort, and simultaneously impossible for anyone to do so; or in which it is both possible to remain conscious after the death of the body and to lose consciousness instantly and for ever. Unless we are going to argue that such things are themselves subject to a dual status, like Schroedinger's cat - and I don't think it's come to that yet.

In fact the middle path is a construct, a fudge that we create for practical and sensible reasons. It's a safe place where we can be comfortable, a tree house where we can observe the jungle around us without exposing ourselves to danger. In that sense, a book like Fringe-ology is an artifice, that draws readers deep into the unknown while providing constant reassurance - as indeed are many books about the paranormal, mine included. Involved as I am myself in this authoring business, and knowing how difficult it is, I can only admire Volk's extraordinary skill in pulling it off so well.

Paranormal Aesthetics

I'm halfway through Steve Volk's Fringe-ology, which is excellent (I'll review it here soon).

Outside the gates But something about the cover struck me. Then it came to me: I pulled down my copy of Damien Broderick's Outside the Gates of Science, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago and which in some ways is comparable to Volk's book. The covers are practically identical: an image of a bent teaspoon on a plain white background, and the print pushed to the margins.

Some possibilities:

  1. Blatant plagiarism - the designer was stuck for ideas, so nicked someone else's.

  2. Cryptomnesia - what seemed like an original idea was actually a memory of something previously seen.

  3. Pure coincidence.

(1) is vanishingly unlikely, as surely is (3), except perhaps to sceptics, who happily explain anything as coincidence. (2) can't be ruled out.

I favour a fourth explanation, which is that both designers arrived at the idea by the same creative process, ie: paranormal = Uri Geller = bent spoon.

The fact is, being so abstract the paranormal is desperately hard to illustrate. It's a real headache for cover designers. (I found the spoon motif on two other covers, Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe and James Alcock's Psi Wars, before I lost interest and stopped looking).

Extraordinary knowing

Is there an afterlife Another popular approach is the door to nowhere, usually on a sandy beach, as in Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's Extraordinary Knowing, or a field, as in David Fontana's Is There an Afterlife. I dare say you could find half a dozen other examples after ten minutes in a New Age bookshop. (Debating Psychic Experience also has a door - see image on the left column)

Then there's the floating bald head, which I think is meant to denote an association with telepathy and other weird stuff that goes on in people's heads.

'Fuzzy and misty' is a popular gambit for conveying spookiness, used to quite good effect in Richard Wiseman's Paranormality.

That's about it.

Many books about the paranormal fall back on the photographs of nineteenth century seances, or those melodramatic line drawings that used to illustrate books about ghosts and weird happenings. Which is a pity, as it makes it look as though paranormal experience only ever happened a long time ago.

I had all this in mind when the question of what to put on the cover of Randi's Prize came up. Forget about trying to convey the idea of the paranormal, I suggested; since the book is about opposing arguments, why not think about the idea of 'controversy' instead. I thought that would be difficult too, since it's equally abstract. But I was pleased when the designer came up with the opposing hands, which I think expresses it rather well.

I do think publishers of books about paranormal experience should try a bit harder. It's such a live, fascinating topic, it deserves to be illustrated with more than sterile clichés.

The same sort of uniformity applies to paranormal websites. An unwritten law requires they must have a black background, and ideally a typeface in a murky brown or purple, to keep light to a minimum and make the text unreadable for anyone over 40.

As if the paranormal automatically equates with fear and darkness. It's time we stopped thinking about it like that, and aimed instead for clarity and light.

Sylvia Browne in Two Worlds

I was delighted when HarperOne in San Francisco offered to send me a review copy of Steve Volk's Fringe-ology. As journalists sympathetic to parapsychology we already have a lot in common. But that was a month ago and the book only showed up this morning.

(I had the same experience sending copies of my book to American contacts; they took weeks to arrive and some never arrived at all. What gives? Perhaps I should sacrifice to the postal deities.)

Still, better late than never. I'll review Fringe-ology here shortly.

In the meantime, perhaps by way of consolation, the publisher sent me two other recent books by American mediums: Growing Up in Heaven by James Van Praagh: and Psychic: My Life in Two Worlds by Sylvia Browne. Neither has much exposure in the UK, so I'm not familiar with them, although sceptics complain loudly about them in print.

Browne especially seems to be what is politely termed a 'polarizing figure'. She has a large following in America, thanks to a high profile in the media, but also a reputation for unreliability, vagueness, and claiming successes that really aren't. Few of her predictions come true, according to Michael Prescott here, and her conviction of financial fraud doesn't help.

So I read her book with curiosity. As a human story of a down-to-earth, gutsy woman making her way in the world, I found it engaging and sympathetic. It helps that it's penned by a professional writer, but the wit, sensitivity and passion are obviously hers.

Some negatives: I gather from comments on Amazon that Browne has told the story of her life several times already, so it's unlikely there's much here that's new. In fact it's similar to any number of other biogs by professional psychics that I've read over the years. Even the title 'My Life in Two Worlds' is familiar, used by Gladys Osborne Leonard who was the subject of a number of weighty research papers by the Society for Psychical Research.

As with all such books I found myself rebelling against the sheer literalism of the whole psychic thing. It's easier to believe when it's a family talking about something that happened to them once or twice, that they can describe but can't explain. But it's much harder to take at face value someone who claims to have these experiences all the time, especially when she's on the telly all the time. Even if you accept that there is such a thing as psychic perception you've no way of knowing if any given event she descibes is real, or if she's making it up to get attention and fill up space.

I also feel uneasy about the intimate knowledge that mediums claim of the the geography and demographics of the next world. Browne is big on angels, which she says are 'their own species, God's divine legion of messengers and protectors', and have wings of varying hues that indicate their level of power. Why did mediums of earlier generations never talk about angels? Or perhaps they did, and I just wasn't paying attention.

Allowing for the self-congratulation and exaggeration that's inevitable in celebrity memoirs it's an engaging story well told. Fortunately there's little of the defensiveness or settling scores with naysayers that quite often mar these sorts of books. She might have indulged in self-pity over her financial woes and failed marriages, but doesn't. There's little detail of the case for which she was charged and convicted: her story is that it was a failed venture by her then husband and former business manager who was signing cheques in her name, and she only found out when the shit hit the fan. Well, it's possible.

I'm guessing Browne is a genuine psychic who has overreached her abilities with constant high-profile public appearances that create a demand for results she can't possibly satisfy. But she doesn't care, because she knows she can depend on key friends in the media and an adoring and uncritical public, who all fall for her self-assurance and charisma. It wouldn't be the first time.

There's a paradox here. High-profile psychics like Browne certainly do a great deal to convince large numbers of people - the ones who are easily convinced - about the reality of survival of consciousness. They do good in spreading ideas about spirituality, bringing consolation to the bereaved and helping people find meaning in life. At the same time, their high profiles, and the short-cuts and fudging they are bound to fall into, make them an easy target for sceptics, who only have to point to them to carry their case with their more critical audience. That makes it harder for people like me to insist that psi is real, and not just a way for hucksters to make a killing. Polarizing indeed.

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.