A misreading of science has persuaded us that we are no more than our evolved brains. But, argues Raymond Tallis, a more expansive philosophy of humanity is mounting a fight-back
For several decades I have been arguing against what I call biologism. This is the idea, currently dominant within secular humanist circles, that humans are essentially animals (or at least much more beastly than has been hitherto thought) and that we need therefore to look to the biological sciences, and only there, to advance our understanding of human nature. As a result of my criticism of this position I have been accused of being a Cartesian dualist, who thinks that the mind is some kind of a ghost in the machinery of the brain. Worse, it has been suggested that I am opposed to Darwinism, to neuroscience or to science itself. Worst of all, some have suggested that I have a hidden religious agenda. For the record, I regard neuroscience (which was my own area of research) as one of the greatest monuments of the human intellect; I think Cartesian dualism is a lost cause; and I believe that Darwin’s theory is supported by overwhelming evidence. Nor do I have a hidden religious agenda: I am an atheist humanist. And this is in fact the reason why I have watched the rise of biologism with such dismay: it is a consequence of the widespread assumption that the only alternative to a supernatural understanding of human beings is a strictly naturalistic one that sees us as just another kind of beast and, ultimately, as being less conscious agents than pieces of matter stitched into the material world.
This is to do humanity a gross disservice, as I think we are so much more than gifted chimps. Unpacking the most “ordinary” moment of human life reveals knowledge, skills, emotions, intuitions, a sense of past and future and of an infinitely elaborated world, that are not to be found elsewhere in the living world.
Biologism has two strands: “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis”. Neuromania arises out of the belief that human consciousness is identical with neural activity in certain parts of the brain. It follows from this that the best way to investigate what we humans truly are, to understand the origins of our beliefs, our predispositions, our morality and even our aesthetic pleasures, will be to peer into the brains of human subjects using the latest scanning technology. This way we shall know what is really going on when we are having experiences, thinking thoughts, feeling emotions, remembering memories, making decisions, being wise or silly, breaking the law, falling in love and so on.
The other strand is Darwinitis, rooted in the belief that evolutionary theory not only explains the origin of the species H. sapiens – which it does, of course – but also explains humans as they are today; that people are at bottom the organisms forged by the processes of natural selection and nothing more.
If the mind is the brain and the brain is an evolved organ (as it most surely is) then, by this rationale, the human mind will be subservient to evolutionary imperatives. The selfish gene will act through our mind-brains in order to maximise the chances of the individual or the group surviving. It is assisted in this work, some Darwinitics believe, by “memes”. These are “units of cultural transmission” – such as “tolerance for free speech” or “styles of cathedral architecture” – analogous to genes (units of biological transmission) whose sole purpose, like that of the genes, is to replicate. Natural selection acts on genes and memes alike through the different degrees of fitness they confer on the organisms that are their vehicles (you and me). Our conscious agency is largely irrelevant except insofar as it is an adaptive illusion.
These ideas converge in various new “sciences” such as Evolutionary Psychology. But the ripples of biologism spread far and wide, even into the traditional humanities and social sciences. New disciplines prefixed by “neuro-”, “evolutionary-”, or “neuro-evolutionary” are increasingly the rage, as if, after initial opposition, humanist scholars are embracing EO Wilson’s view that “sociology and the other social sciences, including the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in The Modern Synthesis”.
There are many reasons for believing that Neuromania and Darwinitis fail to sufficiently capture what it is to be human and many reasons for rejecting their rebranding of Humanities as “Animalities”. The most important reason for resisting biologism is that it rests on the incorrect assumption that human consciousness is identical with brain activity and that the mind is a cluster of “apps” conferred on us by natural selection.
No one in their right mind would deny that the brain is a necessary condition of every aspect of our awareness from the slightest tingle of sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self. It does not follow from this that it is a sufficient condition. The widespread belief that seeing the brain light up when, say, a person is having an experience is the equivalent of seeing the experience is due to confusing correlation with causation, and causation with identity.
Here is the most fundamental of many problems with this idea. The brain is a piece of matter. The very concept of a material object, as elaborated in the physical sciences, is of something that does not have an intrinsic appearance. Think of a rock: it can be looked at from the front, the back, from above or below, from inside or outside, from close up or from a distance. Each of these viewpoints is associated with a different appearance and, clearly, none can be the appearance of the rock in itself. Without viewpoints, there is no appearance. In the absence of consciousness, matter does not have secondary qualities such as colour, smell, warmth and so on. Even less is it able (as consciousness is centrally capable) to make other things have an appearance – as occurs when the world appears to me. Only magic thinking could confer the ability to make things have an appearance on a piece of matter like the brain.
We must resist and do away with the kind of thinking that lies behind Darwinitis and Neuromania. This, however, is where things get interesting.
After “removing some of the rubbish, that lies in the way to knowledge”, to borrow John Locke’s phrase, there is a positive task to be carried out: that of trying to formulate an understanding of who and what we are without succumbing to scientism that sees the entire world, including ourselves, as pieces of matter ultimately in helpless thrall to the laws of material nature; or, alternatively, regressing to supernatural stories about how it was we came to be so different. Work on this task has already started – most notably among those philosophers of mind who are breaking away from the neuro-materialist orthodoxy.
Philosophers such as Andy Clarke, Teed Rockwell, Alvin Noe and Michael Wheeler have looked beyond the (stand-alone) brain for the location of consciousness. They argue that (to use Rockwell’s words) “Even the most private, subjective, qualitative aspects of human are embodied in the brain-body-world nexus.” For philosophers brought up on the notion that the mind is the computational activity of the brain, this “super-sizing [of] the mind” (to use Andy Clarke’s phrase) is shockingly heretical. But developing a cognitive science in which brain, body and world intertwine, and “beyond-the-skin” factors are accorded fully paid-up cognitive status, is objectionable only if we cannot see the inescapably relational aspect of consciousness, which begins in the “aboutness” or intentionality of perceptions and is elaborated in the complex referential structures of the beliefs, factual knowledge and normative sense that constitute most of our consciousness. This relationship cannot be reduced to a causal interaction between one bit of matter (a perceived object, say) and another (a brain). Energy-mediated bumpings of A into B (for example the light entering the eye) do not generate the appearance of the bumper (the object) to the brain (the bumped into). When a cloud passes over a pool, the reflection of the cloud in the pool is not an appearance of the cloud in or to the pool. Causal interactions do not generate the appearance of one of the interacting parties to the other. This is not a way to generate our sense of being in the world.
This new philosophy is heartening evidence that philosophy’s “cultural cringe” before the authority of science that dominated 20th-century philosophy in the English-speaking world may at last be abating. But does it go far enough? The brain still remains central to the thinking of many “supersizers”. Some philosophers, impressed by the insuperable difficulties in current thinking about the mind-body problem, notably David Chalmers and Galen Strawson, have questioned whether we should begin with the brain at all when we are searching for the source of mind. Perhaps mind is more widely distributed in the basic material out of which the world is constructed. Chalmers and Strawson have in different ways embraced “Panpsychism” – the notion that consciousness or awareness is built into the very fabric of the supposedly material universe. Chalmers has argued that consciousness or proto-consciousness is as fundamental to what we regard as the material world as is mass or charge or spin. And Strawson finds minute packages of consciousness in elementary particles.
This produces the opposite problem to the mind-brain identity theory (which could not account for consciousness arising in a particular material object – the brain); namely, explaining how it is that so few objects are conscious. The overwhelming bulk of the universe is made of stuff that seems even less alert than the sleepiest human being. It is not clear how the dust of proto-consciousness adds up in the case of an entity like me to a self-conscious agent operating in an experienced world while in pebbles (and most of the rest of the universe) it does not even add up to a tingle. Nor is it clear what the “consciousness dust” would be conscious of.
I mention these theories because they indicate how those who have fully understood the problems with the mind-brain identity theory are now willing to think beyond the current orthodoxy without succumbing to guru goo, though for some (notably Searle) Panpsychism is precisely that. And they have the added virtue of not appealing to quantum mechanics (QM) to explain certain mysterious properties of consciousness. It has been suggested, for example, that the phenomenon of “quantum coherence” mediated by the membranes in neurons could underpin the unity of the conscious moment, in which a myriad of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and memories belong to a subjective unity. QM-based explanations share the fault of Panpsychism – namely that they do not explain how only a tiny minority of items in the universe (sentient beings) are conscious, while the rest are not. QM, after all, applies alike to pebbles and the material of brains. And QM-based explanations have a fault all of their own: in the absence of measurement (an action of a conscious being), the fundamental constituents of the universe are indeterminate; for example, the method of measurement determines whether a fundamental constituent of matter shall take the form of a wave or a particle. In the absence of measurement, it is neither the one nor the other. In short, QM presupposes the prior existence of that which has to be explained: the conscious observer. And (dare I say it?) looking to QM for help is rather odd given the fact that its greatest exponents (for example Richard Feynman) are in agreement that it is unintelligible, notwithstanding its stunning effectiveness in predicting the observed properties of the world and guiding us in the development of new technologies.
But, when the smokescreen of the pseudo-explanations of Neuromania and Darwinitis starts to clear, truly interesting questions begin to emerge – in particular about the fundamental stuff or stuffs of the world. We atheists have good reason to be ontological agnostics and to believe that anything is possible. As Jerry Fodor (once a leading proponent of computational theories of the mind) put it: “The revisions of our concepts and theories that imagining a solution will eventually require are likely to be very deep and very unsettling. There’s hardly anything we may not have to cut loose from before the hard problem [of consciousness] is through with us.”
But until we get clearer about the nature of consciousness itself, we shall not be able to think at the right depth about distinctively human consciousness. This is illustrated by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran’s latest book The Tell-Tale Brain, in which he (correctly) asserts that “humans transcend apehood by the same degree by which life transcends mundane physics and chemistry” but still goes on to explain the difference as arising out of mirror neurons (Neuromania) and to explain, for example, our appreciation of Picasso by referring to the preferences herring gulls have for “hyperstimuli” (Darwinitis).
In short, so long as we keep pushing consciousness back into the material object inside our skull, we shall lose sight of the huge gulf between ourselves and other creatures, our uniquely conscious agency and its theatre, the infinitely complex human world we have created. (And we shall be even more thoroughly misled if we compound this mistake by allocating separate cerebral billets to “wisdom”, “creativity” and all the norms, institutions and abstract frameworks that set off the most ordinary hour of daily life from the life of animals.) This not only traduces humanity but also discredits neuroscience. We guide, justify and excuse our behaviour according to general and abstract principles; we create the great artifactscapes of cities, laws and institutions unknown to nature; entertain theories about our own nature and about the material world; narrate our lives and relate those narratives to an individual and shared history; and systematically inquire into the order of things and the patterns of causation and the physical laws that seem to underpin that order.
The relevance of this for the future of humanism is self-evident. Our inquiry into human being need not be constrained by the assumption that, if we reject religious explanations of our exceptional nature, we then have to deny that we are truly exceptional. On the contrary, we can accept the blindingly obvious facts of our profound differences even from our nearest primate kin – something we tend to take rather too much for granted when we are not pretending to deny it – and start asking interesting questions as to how we became so fundamentally different. At any rate, we don’t have to believe that the only alternative to supernatural explanations of man is naturalistic ones that see humans as part of the biosphere and, ultimately, of the material world, beholden to its laws. Challenging these assumptions, and waking to the possibility of entirely different views, promises a thrilling intellectual, and indeed spiritual, adventure. For the present, we should no more fill the gaps in our knowledge and understanding with pseudo-scientific explanations than we should fill them with gods and their divine powers. There is much to be said for “living on the acorns and grass of knowledge” (to use Nietzsche’s poignant phrase) for the sake of an as yet undiscovered truth.