Neuroscience. Or magic, astrology and the humors today

Ray Tallis was doing a great job knocking what he calls neuromania (consciousness is but brain activity; mind is animated matter) and Darwinitus (evolution can explain everything, so the millipede and Mozart are the product of the same natural process) last night at the British Academy. He has a new book out, Aping Mankind. More in the Guardian at the weekend. For now, his killer quote and a few wilder thoughts.

His interlocutor was Robin Dunbar, he of Dunbar’s number, who protested that this is just the way science proceeds. The brain scan of today might be a little crude, but they will get more sophisticated. A material explanation of consciousness, as neural activity, awaits. It’s just that inevitably you have to start simply, to work from the bottom up. Quick as firing neuron, Ray replied: “If you go bottom up, it’s important to go up the right bottom.” He argues they are not.

Thinking on, as I made my way home, I had the distinct feeling there’s something magical, astrological and of the humors about neuro-explanations for this, that and the other.

Magical, because magic is about constraining what your audience sees in order to amaze them with an apparent trick. Take Libet’s well known experiments, that we’ve discussed before. They effectively do the same. They make you focus on the moment of lifting the finger ‘to show’ that the brain anticipated the conscious action. Only, the focus on that moment is entirely arbitrary. Why not focus on the moment hours, days, or even weeks before when the participant first agreed to come to help the good scientist discover the secrets of the mind? Why isn’t then deemed when the action begins? Because that would ruin the trick.

Astrological, because whereas Renaissance astrology was about mapping the macrocosm onto the microcosm of the body, contemporary neuroscience is about mapping the brain – inner space, if you like – onto the microcosm of an individual’s life. We are promised it will tell us why we love, why we laugh, why we lie. But it won’t, Tallis concludes, because there’s far more than the brain involved in these and all conscious phenomena – nothing less than your whole history and the history of the communities of persons of which you’re part.

And then, the humors. It divined that some folk’s temperaments are sanguine, because of their blood; some are melancholic, because of yellow bile; some are choleric, because of black bile; some are phlegmatic, because of their phlegm. It became a complex system in time, and is it so different from ascribing mood states today to hormonal floods, such as trust being but an oxytocin rush? Yesteryear, they bled you to make you happier. Today, they’d feed you hormones to make you love.

Ray noted that some neuroscientists are uneasy about this rampant reductionism. I have Steven Rose and Ian McGilchrist on my list. Alongside Ray, the philosopher Alva Noë has a book, that’s also short. Must reads if neuromania and the like concern you too.