When we meditate or use our powers of perception, we call on more than just a brain

Ray Tallis was talking neuromania and Darwinitus at the British Academy last week. A cut version of my full piece is in the Guardian today. Here’s the full piece.

How does the animated meat inside our heads produce the rich life of the mind? Why is it that when we reflect or meditate we have all manner of sensations and thoughts but never feel neurons firing? It’s called the “hard problem”, and it’s a problem the physician, philosopher and author, Raymond Tallis, believes we have lost sight of – with potentially disastrous results.

In his new book, Aping Mankind – about which he was talking this week at the British Academy – he describes the two cultural diseases that afflict us as a result of assuming that we are nothing but a bunch of neurons.

Neuromania arises from the doctrine that consciousness is the same as brain activity, or to be slightly more sophisticated, that consciousness is just the way that we experience brain activity. Darwinitis is the inflamed or pathological application of evolution to explain every part of human experience, as if millipedes and Mozart were products of the same natural process.

The infections lead scientists into all kinds of absurdities. If you think the brain is a machine then you are committed to saying that composing a sublime poem is as involuntary an activity as having an epileptic fit. You will issue press releases announcing “the discovery of love” or “the seat of creativity”, stapled to images of the brain with blobs helpfully highlighted in red or blue, that journalists reproduce like as many medieval acolytes parroting the missives of popes.

You will start to assume that the humanities are really branches of biology in an immature form. Hence the veritable explosion of new disciplines, such as neuroethics and neuroaesthetics. Or again, as Tallis put it, you will postulate that we don’t lead our lives, but rather enact our biological inheritance.

What is astonishing about this rampant reductionism is that it is based upon a conceptual muddle that is readily unpicked. Sure, you need a brain to be alive, but to be human is not to be a brain. Think of it this way: you need legs to walk, but you’d never say that your legs are walking.

The same conflation can be exposed in a more complex way by reflecting on the phenomenon of perception. It is what we do every moment of the waking day. You’re doing it right now: casting an eye to the screen in front of you and seeing words on a virtual page. But if you were just a brain, you would not see words. All there’d be was the gentle buzz of neuronal activity in the intracranial darkness. The point is that nerves firing cannot of themselves distinguish between that buzz and the words you are reading, anymore than the microchips inside your computer know that they are really displaying a page from the Guardian website on the screen.

The distinguished evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, acted as interlocutor to Tallis at the British Academy event. He didn’t want to pick a fight, though he was clearly not going along with the attack.
Surely this is just the way science works, he asked? We begin with simple levels of explanation and then proceed to more complex ones, working from the bottom up. Well, responded Tallis with his customary quick wit: “If you go bottom up, it’s important to go up the right bottom.”

The complexity argument – as if building better scanners and applying more sophisticated analysis – didn’t wash with Tallis either. Even if neuroscience one day tracks every single neuron firing in real time, you won’t be watching consciousness. You’ll have more precise correlations to play with, yes. But people will still experience pain and say “Ouch!”, not, “Oh, no worries: it’s just neuron cluster 148 lighting up.”

So why can’t consciousness be thought of as just the way we experience brain activity, Dunbar continued? Because that’s dishonest, Tallis retorted. Inside that innocent sounding sentence, you have smuggled those two little words “we experience”. And that’s the entire problem: how do we experience?

Tallis doesn’t claim to know. He described himself as an “ontological agnostic”, the nature of consciousness being a tremendous mystery. “We just don’t know how we should think about being and how mind fits into nature. But we’ll never learn if we start out taking all the wrong paths.”

One thing is for sure: consciousness is not restricted to the brain, but is a phenomenon of the whole person and the community of persons to which belong. Bodies are part of the story, language is part of the story, history and culture is part of the story.

It’s interesting to ask why so many scientists, and many others besides, seem so inclined to ignore these wider issues. Tallis ventured the thought that it could be a product of the decline of religion. Neuromania and Darwinitis may seem to be the only options now. It is as if it is better to have the afflictions than risk appearing to believe in a ghost in the machine. But if that’s your concern, why not drop the metaphor of the machine?

Or perhaps many neuroscientists just makes basic philosophical mistakes. The working assumption that mind is meat has generated such exciting results in the last few decades that they are tempted to write promissory notes that it will, one day, deliver the whole story. But better to have the mystery, Tallis assured his audience, than a vacuous account of your humanity posing as a full one.