Raymond Tallis

Raymond Tallis needs no title though he has many titles. To reduce Tallis to any one title would be wrong . So let me be wrong. Tallis is a gift to the world . A gift based on his extraordinary humanity.





I have an outlook that resists putting any one person on a pedestal. My view is that there is wonder in us all. Titles do matter but are nothing like enough for me:


I would like us all to grow strong like Ray Tallis. He reminds us that we do not need to be in a group to be wind-fast:

Grow Strong:

Ray Tallis was profiled in the Lancet in 2006:


It is difficult to know where to start with Ray Tallis.

It was the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay who chastised the world for resting upon two cultures (he was referring to the “arts” and “sciences”). Hamilton Finlay asked: “why two?” … “why not twenty-two?”





It was ageing (a pursuit that we all share) that brought me to Ray Tallis:




Memory in a dish:

I wonder what Tallis would make of Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Dementia challenge” (which seems to add to a Garrison of “fightinging talk ” by a BIG charity + Big Business:

Fighting talk:


As a doctor I was trained to “understand” the “subjective-objective divide”:


I do not have the gift of Tallis but I do have graft.

Gift or graft, we do however share the same appreciation:


Ray Tallis as introduced on “Desert Island discs”:

I recently wrote a post “we are being regulated to death”. This is the take of Tallis:



Another recent post, in response to Dr Margaret McCartney, a Scottish doctor that  I admire: “I do not want to be a ‘Robodoc'”:


“Care-bundles”, “protocols”, “pathways”, “dashboards”, “tool-kits”, “signposts”, “traffic-lights”:


Paradox by Tallis:



Margaret McCartney also spells out this paradox :

Patient Paradox - Mgt McCartney 3 Oct 2014

Tallis: “this is what is happening: it is becoming almost impossible to live with uncertainty (the essence of good clinical decision-making”.

[note: I had to scribble “I agree” above this consideration]



The Patient Paradox by Mgt


Tallis said this (I think of the BMJ weekly, open access, piece “No holds barred”:



Here Tallis considers a common mistake:



The following applies to science also:




This brings Tallis to consider time:









Following on from the trilogy of books came “Aping Mankind”:




The BMJ has concluded that we need to consider “too much medicine” 















Ray Tallis “Hippocratic Oaths”:


“Improvement science” might consider:


“Big Charities” might take heed:


A professional colleague of mine regarded my “sensitivity” not just as “weakness”  but as “illness”:



Tallis considers:













I do like to wander. I have a few hats but I find that I wear few of them. I am not Ray Tallis.



Darwinism without Darwinitis by Raymond Tallis

Newcastle upon Tyne, October 2008 as part of The Great Debate 10th Anniversary.

Next year, as no-one in this room needs reminding, will see the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Much airtime and column inches will be devoted to celebrating this great book, one of a handful that has utterly transformed human self-understanding. More than any of its peers, Darwin’s great treatise is not only a mighty work of science, as important as those attaching to the names of Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Einstein, and Planck: it also impinges rather directly on our vision of human nature.

This seems therefore an appropriate time to rescue Darwin from Darwinitis; to remove from Darwinism the Darwinitic accretions that threaten to conceal his mighty and incontrovertible achievement under claims about humanity that do not follow from the Theory of Evolution and threaten to give the latter a bad name. And this is the purpose of this afternoon’s talk.

Before I proceed with my critique of Darwinitis, let me first of all make something very clear. I am a good Darwinian.

I am utterly persuaded of Darwin’s account of our origins; that at the biological level, we, like all other living creatures, are the products of the same processes: namely the operation of natural selection upon living tissue undergoing spontaneous variation. The preferential survival of genetic replicators whose phenotypical expression shows an enhanced fitness for survival explains the variety of species, their current structure, the emergence of complex organs and organisms and, finally, our hominid ancestors. Ultimately, these processes are driven by the laws of physics. We did not arrive by some separate or parallel process. We did not fall from the sky. What is more, I do not believe in intelligent design – an idea so stupid as by itself to make one doubt the existence of the putative intelligent designer – or any kind of creationism.

We owe our origins to processes as natural as those that gave rise to chimps, octopuses, and bacteria. And, finally, I have no religious agenda. While, as will become apparent, I am opposed to naturalistic accounts of human beings, that try to explain everyday human life in entirely biological terms, I am equally opposed to supernatural explanations of human difference, if only because they do not seem to explain anything, unless one accepts without question certain assumptions for which, it seems to me, there is no evidence and which, in many instances, actually seem incoherent. Humans are unique in many respects, most importantly that they are explicit animals, but that uniqueness was not implanted by some mysterious process.

I hope these preliminaries statements of ‘where I am coming from’ will reassure you that I am a good Darwinian, indeed a regular guy; but I feel that being a good Darwinian means not succumbing to Darwinitis; just as good science stops when we succumb to a scientism that seems to imagine that it is able to explain everything. Darwinitis is potentially dangerous, as I will discuss; but it is most certainly boring, first because it is wrong and secondly because it grotesquely simplifies humanity. I ought also to warn you that story I want to tell this evening is not stand-alone: it is part of a much wider exploration of human consciousness from a philosophical standpoint.

The fruits of this exercise in philosophical anthropology are described in a trilogy of books I have published between 2003 and 2005 with the Edinburgh University Press. In just under 1,000 pages and a mere half a million words, I have attempted to make the distinctive character of human, as opposed to animal, consciousness both visible and explicable. You will be glad to learn that I will spare you most of this today. It might be of interest for you to know that the trilogy is a recent product of a 45 year quarrel with myself – or, to be more precise, with the Darwinitis I embraced when I was 15. At that time, I was a hard-line evolutionary psychologist avant la letter and neural Darwinist who believed that we were hard-wired into our environment in order to ensure replication of our genome. This was not how I put it then but this was what it boiled down to. This was at first liberating; and then it seemed less so, as it became clear that it offered no basis for freedom, for purpose or even for self-respect. Which is the grounds for my present hostility to Darwinitis – that, and the fact that it is untrue. If it were upsetting but true, I would have to accept it; but the problem is that it is upsetting (or, more often, plain irritating) and untrue.

Valery saw everything from the point of view of intellect. He was preoccupied with the pursuit of consciousness. The conscious mind was his obsessive cenre. Valery reports he had a reckless desire to understand. He says that writing requires a sacrifice of the intellect.

Mr Hurlbird’s heart:

In the novel MONSIEUR TESTE it is stated that a superior man is a man who has deceived himself. The character tries to seek out inner masterpieces amid the brilliance of published discoveries.

The work MONSIEUR TESTE is filled with arresting ideas. The narrator in the story seeks to know Monsieur Teste, to copy him. He is careful not to classify him among the mad.

HIPPOCRATIC OATHS: Medicine and its Discontents:

“Reactive, piecemeal and disconnected from the big picture, much analysis lacks historical perspective and ignores the complex reality of medical care.”

 “. . . this is worthwhile not only because scientific medicine is one of the greatest triumphs of humankind; but also because illness is potentially a mirror, albeit a dark one, in which we may see something of what we are, at the deepest level.” PORTERESQUE

STARTS “a crushed beetle pedals the air for a while before expiring” DEATH by W.B. Yeats Difference between man and animals “the science which gives scientific medicine its efficacy comes from seeing sick persons as if they are stricken animals. There is therefore a PARADOX: as medicine-takers we are not organisms but complex selves; but the effectiveness of the medicine we take is owed to a view of ourselves as organisms.”

“Humans found it easier to assume an objective attitude towards the stars than towards their own inner organs; scientific astronomy antedated scientific cardiology by thousands of years”

“The pill is a meeting point of many hundreds of nunataks, the tips of Everests of discovery and their technological application” 

Medicine is ‘the Youngest Science.’

“The recent emphasis on narrative-based medicine, taking account of individual characteristics of patients, is a healthy corrective to the notion that medical practice can be reduced to a series of algorithims. While evidence-based medicine is a NECESSARY condition of good medical care, it is not a SUFFICIENT condition”

‘Poor communication’ is the most commonly reported reason for dissatisfaction with doctors.

1993; Tomorrow’s Doctors advocated a shift from passive rote-learning and fact-dominated courses to more active problem-based, student-led inquiry.

Communication about illness begins, long before the patient sees the doctor, with patients’ internal dialogue about what their bodies seem to be saying. The doctor will be quite a late entrant into this on-going conversation.

“I have known every allotrope of hurry”

 “Over the last decade, it seems the quickening pace has virtually eliminated a sense of community within my hospital.”

“Since medicine is a probabilistic art, in order to get most things right the consultant will inevitably get some things wrong and occasional things seriously wrong.” “Admission of uncertainty is not readily tolerated”

The post-modern challenge to expertise and professional authority – “though even MICHAEL FOUCAULT, the patron saint of postmodernist attacks on the professions, sought conventional hi-tech care when he fell seriously ill.”

“Thanks to diagnostic creep or leap, ever more disorders are revealed. Extensive and expensive treatments are then urged…anxieties and interventions spiral upwards like a space-shot off course…Doctors and ‘consumers’ are becoming locked within a fantasy that everyone has something wrong with them, everyone and everything can be cured.” ROY PORTER

“These aspects of medicalization make doctors miserable. The bad things of life: old age, death, pain, and handicap are thrust on doctors to keep families and societies from facing them…”

Illness is intrinsically disempowering

“Extrapolating from one’s own experience to that of others is rarely straightforward and this makes some expert patients a liability” 

“Sceptics dismiss individual experience as ‘anecdotal’, but when you are your own anecdote, it’s hard not to be convinced” Rose Shepherd, the Observer

“One of the most characteristic features of wealk mathematics is numerators without denominators, a perfect recipe for ‘PANICDEMICS.’

Lord FALKLAND “It is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

THEODORE DALRYMPLE “Man is born immortal but everywhere he dies . . . The belief is now general that Man has achieved such mastery over Nature that, if life turns out to be unfair, human malevolence must be to blame. Death these days is definitely somebody’s fault”

“The essential humanity of scientific medicine (and indeed of science) is not at all popular among many humanist intellectuals, for whom pessimism and a loathing of modernity is an article of faith”

7,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 from omphalos

“this is what is happening: it is becoming almost impossible to live with uncertainty….”

“Like many geriatricians, I ended up in my discipline by accident.” TALLIS

ENVOI:“While some of us are lucky enough to pass our lives on the leeward side of history and fortune, we all live on the windward side of time.”

Tallis ends with Monsieur Teste “He has told himself everything he knew.”


“If medicine is doing its job properly, it should figure less and less in peoples lives and our health should not become an all-consuming preoccupation, as if a healthy body were an alternative to a full life rather than merely the foundation stone for it” TALLIS

“we should rephrase the goal of medicine ‘making the health span coterminous with the lifespam.” TALLIS

“The ultimate aim of medicine is to make the human body less inhuman.” TALLIS


Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

By Raymond Tallis

Aping Mankind owes its origin to many moments of exasperation but reading Straw Dogs was probably decisive. But his book is less important in itself than in what it represents. It has spared me the need to invent a straw man: in its comparatively small space it illustrates pretty well all the things the present book is written against.” Page 3.

“Pessimistic biologism dovetails with other intellectual trends.” Page 4

“Enemies of Hope drew no responses from the enemies of hope. The overwhelming success of Gray’s ecstatically pessimistic Straw Dogs a few years later shows how ineffective my polemic was.” Page 6

“In view of this you might think that it was about time I learned to recognize a brick wall for what it is, give up and hope that Neuromania and Darwinitis will prove to be fads and, being fads, will pass. Even King Canute would have recognized that the tide could not be turned once the ice-cream vans were bobbing in the sea.” Page 7

“Wherever I looked, I saw the humanities being taken over by neuro-evolutionary pseudoscience.” page 7

“For this reason, along with a more general irritation at a boringly wrong account of human life, at a low-ceilinged inanity getting in the way when we try to stand up from the minutiae of daily life to think about our own nature, I have felt moved to revisit Neuromania and Darwinitis but to do so in a way that is more accessible and comprehensive than the sometimes densely technical arguments in my earlier books.” Page 9

“It is a bitter irony that two of our greatest intellectual achievements – the theory of evolution and neuroscience – should be used to prop up a picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading.” Page 12

“Faith in progress is a superstition.” Gray, “The Myth of Progress”.

“The synapse, at any rate, is the means by which the discrete activity of neurons is brought together. It is the physical basis of what Charles Sherrington (1857-1952), perhaps the greatest neurophysiologist of all time, termed the “integrative action” of the nervous system.” Page 20

“The 25 year collaboration between David Hubel and Torstein Wiesel was one of the great scientific partnerships. It is described in their book Brain and Visual Perception.” Footnotes page 21

“So when people tell you that scientists have ‘recently discovered’ that the mind is in the brain or that mental activity boils down to neural activity, just remind them that this theory was put forward several centuries before Jesus Christ was born. It was Hippocrates, however, who gave the theory its most striking expression. In his famous text On the Sacred Disease, a treatise on epilepsy, he declared that:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arises our pleasures, joys, laughters and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant.”

Localizers versus integrators: “The decisive intervention in this debate was that of Franz Joseph Gall, the father of phrenology and the grandfather and unacknowledged patron sain of one strand [1] in contemporary Neuromania.” Page 33

Dobbs: “Fact or Phrenology?”: “Thousands of fMRI studies have explored a wide range of differences in brain activation: adolescents versus adults, schizophrenic and normal minds, the empathetic and the impassive. Researchers have used fMRI to draw bold conclusions about face and word recognition, working memory and false memories, people anticipating pain, mothers recognizing their children, citizens pondering ethical dilemmas – not to mention why many consumers buy Coke even though they really prefer the taste of Pepsi. Psychologists have praised fMRI for finally making their science more quantifiable. And cognitive neuro-scientists have cited the scans heavily in the recent, vast expansion in understanding of the brain.”

Daniel Dennet and “the contemporary orthodoxy,” namely that:

“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 principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth.[2]

“Our lives are narrated, to ourselves and to each other, never more so than when we are making choices such as whom to share your life with, what job to take on, whether to have children, and so on. The reduction of human life to a chain of programmed responses of modules to stimuli overlooks the complexity of everyday experience and the singularity of the situations we find ourselves in, to say nothing of the role of conscious deliberation.” Page 49

Chapter Two: Consequences. A farewell to Freedom

Our destiny, like that of pebbles and waterfalls, is to be predestined.” Page 51.

“But the incursion of neuroscience into our sense of ourselves as conscious agents is more ‘up close and personal’: so up close that the personal gives way before the impersonal.” Page 53

“Since, as I shall argue, freedom and being an enduring ‘I’ are inseparably linked, it is hardly surprising that those who say’ farewell to freedom’ also say ‘by bye, I. Page 57

“An evolved ‘God gene’ ensures that we are ‘hard-wired’ for religious belief, so that the triumphs of rationalist disbelief will always only be temporary. Atheists are going against the genetic grain.” Page 65.

“Fortunately, we don’t have to be either dishonest or muddled or self deceived to challenge the biologistic picture of humanity. Our questioning must begin with a critical look at the assumption that consciousness is identical with brain activity so that observations made by neuroscientists are casting light on the very nature of the human mind. This is the first step in demonstrating that neuro-evolutionary thought is a castle built on sand.” Page 71

Chapter Three. Neuromania and BOLD claims.

“[Neuro-talk] is often accompanied by a picture of a brain scan, that fast acting solvent of critical faculties[3].”

William Uttal coined the term “Neo-phrenology”. Page 75

“This bit of the brain houses that bit of us.” They are mind-numbingly simplistic. Bartels & Zeki, “The Neural Basis of Romantic Love”. Page 79

The authors observed that “a disturbingly large and quite prominent segment of fMRI scan research on emotion, personality and social cognition is using seriously defective research methods and producing a profusion of numbers that should not be believed. Vul et al. Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies. Page 80

“I first got wind of this article when New Scientist published a mea culpa editorial in 2009 about its own coverage of ‘breakthroughs’ in understanding human beings arising from fMRI studies: “Some of the resulting headlines appeared in New Scientist, so we have to eat a little humble pie and resolve that next time a sexy-sounding brain scan result appears we will strive to apply a little more scepticism to our coverage.”[4]

David Dobbs: “fMRI scanning overlooks the networked or distributed nature of the brain’s workings, emphasising localized activity when it is communication among regions that is most critical to mental function.” Page 81.

“Even more telling is the observation made by Marcus Raichle and collaborators. They used another form of imaging called positron emission tomography (PET) scanning and found that learning something as elementary as the association of a word such as ‘chair’ with ‘sits’ involved not only the language centre in the left hemisphere but extensive stretches of the so-called ‘silent’ areas of the frontal lobes and the parietal cortex.[5] What hope is there, then, of something as global and untidy as my love for someone in a neatly demarcated area of the brain? None, I am pleased to conclude.” Page 83

“Brains in a Vat:” “demonstrates the absurdity of moving from the observation that neural activity is correlated with experiences to the conclusion that neural activity is not only a necessary condition of experiences but that it is a sufficient condition of them and may indeed be identical with them. This way lies the madness of concluding the stand-alone brain could sustain  a sense of a world.” Page 92

“our ordinary memories, and our ordinary current experiences, make sense because they are part of a world. Yes, we are located in this world by virtue of being embodied and we access it through our brains; but it makes sense to us, as a world, not solely on account of its physical properties but as a network of significances upheld by the community of minds of which we individually are only a part.” Page 93

“Even so, if we can’t make sense of simple qualia in neural terms there is not much hope of making sense of the rest. This is why dedicated neuro-maniacs, mot notably Dennett, have taken the desperate measure of denying the existence of qualia altogether, suggesting that they are spurious items left over from a “folk psychology” still haunted by Cartesian dualism. He argues this most thoroughly in Consciousness Explained: a book title that should have landed him in court, charged with breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, for what this, his most famous, book offers is not Consciousness Explained but Consciousness Evaded.” Page 103

“The physical world is what it is. It is not haunted by what it has been (or, indeed, by what it might become): by what was and will be. There are, in short, no tenses in the material world. This is beautifully expressed by Albert Einstein in a letter, written in the last year of his life, to the widow of his oldest friend Michael Besso: “People like me”, he said “who believe in physics know the distinction between past, present and future, is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Tenses are not, of course, illusions, unless the only reality that is accepted is the world as revealed to physics. But they have no place in the physical world. And they therefore have no place in a piece of the physical world: a material object such as a brain.” Page 125.

“Needless to say, neuromaniacs imagine they can deal with this. On researcher – Eric Kandel – received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for research that led him to claim that he could capture ‘Memory in a dish.” Page 125.

“Kandel’s studies were carried out using the giant (almost 30cm long) sea snail Aplysia.” Page 125

“Memory is, of course, a little more complicated with you and me than with Aplysia.” Page 126

Aplysia has little, perhaps nothing, in common with memory as I understand it.” Page 127

“Our discussion of memory has led us to think about the nature of time: more particularly about physics of time. It is important to appreciate that, in the absence of an observer, time has no tenses: not only does the physical world not have past and future in which events are located but it doesn’t have the present.” Page 132

“It is [Bishop] Berkeley’s merit to have realised that the Cartesian/Newtonian philosophers, seeking to account for a seeable world, succeeded only in substituting a world that could in no sense be seen. He realised that they had substituted a theory of optics for a theory of visual perception.” Stebbing ‘Furniture of the Earth,’ page 78

“Gray, for whom ‘the humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration’ so that ‘Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.’ One wonders why the World Wide Web was not spun until the 1990’s.” Page 152

“We are meme machines by and for the selfish replicators.” Susan Blackmore

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat to us inexorably.” Wittgenstein

“The linguistic habit that has kept so many in thrall to Neuromania is referring to the brain and bits of the brain in ways that would be appropriate only if we were referring to whole human beings.” Page 184

The neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran has stated that mirror neurons are the reason we are ‘the one and only species that veritably lives and breathes culture.’ The Tell-Tale Brain

“Let me begin with something that few people will contest: computers are not conscious.” Page 195

Consciousness is not computational. Page 197

“Darwinism, therefore, leaves something unaccounted for: the emergence of people like you and me who are indubitably sighted watchmakers.” Page 212

The Human world: A trillion cognitive handshakes. “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of the mind.” Anonymous, The Dhammapada, 35.

“Neuromania tries to pack what has grown out of, and beyond, so many brains over so many millennia back into the stand-alone brain examined in the laboratory.” Page 237

“The frail transcendence of the individual human being is woven into the dense fabric of togetherness, of human being: a world that is outside nature.” Page 238

“It will, I hope, be clear that I do not question the biological origin of the organism H. sapiens. The truth of the theory of evolution lies beyond reasonable doubt. What may be less clear – although it follows from my acceptance of Darwinism – is that I believe that, while human beings have transformed all the biological givens that they have inherited from their predecessors, they have not ceased to be biological. As a doctor treating patients for 35 years, I am hardly likely to believe that we have become free-floating spirits. Our illnesses – not to speak of our mode of birth, reproduction, sustenance and death – are brutal and engulfing reminders of the continuing presence of our biological inheritance.” Page 239.

“There are more complex examples of seemingly ‘social’ behaviour in animals that have a division of labour, such as, for example, wolves that hunt cooperatively while others babysit the cubs.” Page 240 “And this applies to apparently more individualistic behaviour, such as an elephant’s repeatedly visiting the bones of dead conspecifics.”

“Freedom is the first blessing of our nature.” Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, 51.

“Neuromania and Darwinitis leave little or no room for human freedom. If we are identical with our brains, and our brains are evolved organs, how can we do anything other than act out a preordained evolutionary script?” Page 243

“There is, in part, the glamour of science, which, since it is so spectacularly and usefully right over so many things, it is often given authority where it has none.” Lavazza & de Caro, ‘Not So Fast”

“If you cannot find free will in an EEG or the self in a brain scan, there is no free will or self, period.” page 244

“Freedom and the self, do seem especially vulnerable to the charge of being illusory.” Page 244

“My position, then, is that if neuroscience can’t see something that seems indubitably real, then it is not the whole story.” Page 247

“It is easy to overlook the hinterland of self, the massive, tangled back story behind behaviour, if we focus on individual actions lifted out of their context.” A Second Visit to Dr Libet’s Laboratory. Page 253

“Neuro-determinism, you might think, is true because determinism is true; all our actions have causes that, ultimately, we ourselves cannot cause. We are, after all, ‘made of many things that know nothing of us’ as Paul Valery said. Letter from a friend, Valery, 49.

“Our self is neither a thing (like a pebble) nor a mere succession or shower of material events. What I do makes sense with respect to a narrative that is my actively led life.” Page 258

“Anyone who doubts that we can individually deflect the course of events should consider what we have achieved in building up a human world so extensive as virtually at times to conceal the natural one. As was said of Christopher Wren, ‘Si monumentusm requris, circumspice’: if you seek his monument, look about you.” Page 261 This should be enough to satisfy everyone that we are capable of truly free actions.

To describe my childhood, as Philip Larkin does, as ‘a forgotten boredom’, would be a little harsh on my parents, but I remember little of  the nearly 131,500 hours of experiences of my first fifteen years of life. And yet that child Raymond Tallis and I are the same person.” Page 268 ‘Coming’ by Larkin

“For me who does not believe that Raymond Tallis dissolves into a succession of experiences. He doesn’t think he can be a teeny-weeny bit Raymond Tallis any more than anyone can be a teeny-weeny bit pregnant.” Page 269

“. . . the failure to find a neuroscientific basis or correlative of the self is evidence not that the ‘I’ is an illusion, but that neuroscience is limited in what it has to say about us.” Page 275.

“It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other social sciences, including the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis.” Wilson, Sociobiology. Page 4.

“Ideas have consequences. These new disciplines therefore warrant critical examination.” . . . “What they have in common is that they minimize the non-biological reality of persons, societies and institutions.” . . . . “The shots are called by our brains transmitting our evolutionary inheritance, and the arrows are manufactured in intracranial darkness, where only neuroscience can see.” Page 278

“The appropriation of common-sense by neuro-talk can sometimes reach ludicrous depths. One of the most ubiquitous neuro-groupies, and the past master of giving the obvious a lick of paint, is Matthew Taylor. A one-time Chief Advisor on Political Strategy to Tony Blair, he is now the Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts. In his annual lecture to the RSA, he listed some of the things ‘the brain tells us about politics.” Page 278

As Alexander Linklater pointed out, you could take out all mention of neuroscience in Taylor’s lecture, ‘and you would simply have a clearer statement of his views.’ Linklater, Bad Science.

Mathew Grist: ‘Neuroscience can help Tame the Elephant.’ At any rate, “the lesson that being a rational, creative, happy and well-behaved human being is a social achievement that takes time, dedication and a certain kind of environment or environments” is not something that neuroscience could tell us, even if it could, it is not something we would need neuroscience to tell us. But neuroscience has a unique authority and brain images are especially potent.” Skolnick Weisberg et al., “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations.”

“The men in white coats have shown that our brains light up when we have social contact.” Page 280

“The neuroscientific findings that are so proudly proffered reflect simple simulated experiments that in no way capture the intricacies of everyday social situations, let alone the complex interactions over time that make up human history.” Scull,: Mind, Brain, Law and Culture. Page 587

REPAIRING THE CANVAS: Art on the brain

“The artist in a sense is a neuroscientist, exploring the potential and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well within our reach.” Zeki, Inner Vision

“If our tastes were forged in the Pleistocene era, it is difficult to see how art could have evolved as it does: how we went from Giotto to Picasso in such a short period of time. Neuro-evolutionary aesthetics casts not a quantum of light on the specific nature of art.” Page 287.

“If art, like chocolate (which is more immediately relevant to survival), stimulates the reward centres, what is special about art? Or is this why chocolate-box art is so popular: it marries two sources of reward?” Page 288

Neuro-evolutionary literary criticism: “What we have in essence is a mode of literary criticism that addresses the most complex and rich of human discourses, not with an attention that aims to reflect, or at least respect, that complexity and richness, but with a simplifying discourse whose elements are blobs of the brain (and usually the same blobs), wheeled out time after time.” Page 295

“Donne the poet is reduced to Donne the brain, and the latter is ‘Anybrain’, formed, of course, in the prehistoric past.” Page 295

Joseph Carroll: “There is no work of literature written anywhere in the world, at any time, by any author, that is outside the scope of a Darwinian analysis.” Human Nature and Literary Meaning.

“The a priori expectation that evolutionary criticism, which looks at literature from as remote a distance as one could imagine, would be unlikely to advance the task of interpreting, evaluating and illuminating individual works. And serious works of literature are individual to the point of singularity.” Page 302

“Humans, as William James pointed out, can pass many hours behaving in a biologically useless way, as they have a considerable amount of free disposable energy. The assumption that these biologically useless activities are really disguised expressions of biological drives, as if we were driven by neurotic genes that cannot believe the organism’s luck, and cannot give up fretting about survival, is absurd.” Page 304..

The purpose of art is connected with two linked features that are unique to human consciousness: our awareness of our own mortality; and a dissatisfaction that runs through the very consciousness of “the explicit animal” – a sense of the incompleteness of meaning. Page 305

“Art is something that makes the hard wires in our hard-wired brains reverberate.” “How could we have been so mistaken?” Page 306

“Defence lawyers are looking for that one pixel in their client’s brain scan that shows an abnormality – some sort of malfunction that would allow them to argue: ‘Harry didn’t do it. His brain did it.” Page 308

“The beer went mad” “If you are going to blame something other than yourself, it seems reasonable to blame the alcohol that acted on the brain as the brain that is acted on. One could even accuse the sugar and the yeast that made the alcohol of being ‘jointly ad severally’ at fault.” Page 313

The queen of Neuromania: Patricia Churchland (Neurophilosophy, 1986)

“it is increasingly evident that moral standards, practices, and policies reside in our neurobiology.” Page 317

“Things must be pretty dire when even an atheist like me wants to rescue, if not God, at least the idea of Him (or Her or It). But it’s true. Neuromaniac and Darwinitic approaches to religion do such inadequate justice to the most profound, and possibly the most terrible, idea mankind has ever entertained, that I feel almost protective towards the Old One.” Page 327

“Unfortunately, some of these deicides – notably Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins – do indeed have their own fundamentalism, namely biologism. They provide the most direct and clear-cut illustration of rejecting supernatural accounts of human nature only to embrace the opposite error of concluding that humans must therefore be simply parts of the natural world.” Page 327

“Throughout this book, I have said very little about ‘genes for’ this, that and the other. Most thoughtful writers, even those inclined to biologism, know that the ‘gene for’ notion, when applied to human behaviour, has had its day.” See Ridley, Nature via Nurture, for a demolition of all those ‘gene-for’ claims. The idea, however, still enjoys quite a healthy posthumous existence.” Page 330

“That all of this is insanely reductive would cut little ice for some: reduction is their point. It is, however profoundly point-missing.” Page 331

“In defending the humanities, the arts, the law, ethics, economics, politics, and even religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause, and in reductive naturalism, a common adversary: scientism.” Page 336

Pragmatic self-refutation. The brain of U.T. Place.

Well, I hope you feel that you are now in position to answer the question on the brass plaque in the negative and to say why the brain did not contain the consciousness of U.T. Place. Page 338

“A science of consciousness does seem to be rather like the famous ouroboros: a serpent that was able to swallow its own tail. Indeed, it would be a super-ouroboros that swallowed its entire body and the world that it inhabited, re-describing it as a model made out of nerve impulses.” Page 341

“The capitulation to scientism – the view that the last word on what we are is to be spoken by natural science – is not new. It is a recrudescence of a long-standing trend in philosophy that came to prominence in Europe with the Enlightenment, and was elaborated in the nineteenth century.” Page 343.

“One figure stands out among those many who prepared the ground for the handing over of the philosophy of the mind to neuroscience: W. V. Quine

“It is time for philosophy to reassume its fundamental duty: to look critically at the conceptual framework and presuppositions within  which contemporary thought operates.” Page 347

“To accept science as the last word on the mind is to overlook that which made science possible: the mind itself.” Page 347

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a thinker steeped in neuroscience but able to resist capitulating to it. His vision is summarised by Eric Matthews:

“Being a conscious being is engaging in complex relations with objects, and these relations depend on the whole human being, not simply on the brain: a disembodied brain could not be said to have conscious experiences of objects, but only to provide some of the necessary, but not sufficient conditions for such conscious experiences.” Mathews: The philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, 57

Rethinking matter:

“The physicalist gaze, of which neuroscience is a part, squeezes consciousness, appearances, out of the world, and then Neuromania tries to get them back by appealing to certain arrangements of matter that generate awareness: “Just like that!”, as the comedian-conjurer Tommy Cooper used to say. A logical response might be therefore to suggest that we need to rethink the notion of matter. Perhaps a richer, reformed account of this basic concept or stuff than that delivered by physics will give us what is needed . . . . Some thinkers would agree with this. Unfortunately, they look to post-classical physics to deliver it. I think this is a mistake.” “The thing itself is neither a wave nor a particle until a measurement is performed on it, at which point it settles into one or the other. In short, the observer lies at the heart of matter.” Page 353


Perspectives – in the Lancet: July 5, 2008

The magnificent intellectual achievement of neuroscience has a growing shadow: neuroscientism. Its central thesis is that human consciousness is to be explained in terms of neural activity and that the path to a better understanding of our experiences, our motives, our motivations, and, indeed, our very selves, lies through ever more precise ways of observing the brain activity of conscious individuals.

An extreme expression of the faith of neuroscientism is the emergence of a so-called neuroaesthetics that looks to neuroscience to explain aesthetic experience.

Neuroaesthetics has attracted adherents from many disciplines. Certain literary critics, music ologists, and art critics are excited by the idea that examination of the brain of a person enjoying a work of art will throw light on what art does, is, and means. Artists, they believe, are unconscious manipulators of our nervous systems, awakening particular regions of the cortex, or particular types of neurons, singly or in combination.

I first became aware of neurological approaches to literature when I read a Commentary in the Times Literary Supplement by the novelist A S Byatt (TLS Sept 22, 2006). She argued, on the basis of theories advanced by the neuroscientist Pierre Changeux, that the particular pleasure associated with John Donne’s poems was due to syntactic structures which made them especially effective in stimulating certain kinds of neurons; especially those associated with “reinforced linkages of memory, concepts, andlearned formal structures like geometry, algebra, and language”. When I researched the background to her article, I realised that Byatt was speaking for a vast congregation of practitioners of “neuroliterary criticism”. There is an equally thriving academic industry using neuroscience to explain why certain paintings give us pleasure. Many art critics have been inspired by the eminent neuroscientist Semir Zeki who, in Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), attributed the distinctive effects of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and the Fauves to their acting on different kinds of neurons in the visual pathways. Mondrian, apparently, speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4, whereas the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions.

John Onians in Neuroarthistory takes neuroaesthetics further. He explains the propensity of art historians to espouse certain theories on the basis of the kinds of experiences they themselves may have had. These, he argues, will have shaped their “neural formations” during their period of development. John Ruskin’s skill as an art critic and his emphasis on the relation of art to its environment is connected with his being driven around England in a specially adapted cart by his father who was a wine merchant: as a result “his neural networks will have increasingly predisposed him to reflect on the relation between art and the environment”.

The self-observation that made Ernst Gombrich’s art criticism so thoughtful was triggered by “the amount of time he would have spent in London waiting for and travelling on buses and underground trains” during the Second World War “while the city was being destroyed around him”, which would have reinforced certain connections in his brain.

Onians grades art theorists of the past according to the extent to which they anticipate the theories that he and his fellow neuro aestheticians espouse. Aristotle, for example, is praised for seeing the importance of neural plasticity induced by repeated similar experiences. Appollonius of Tyana gets a pat on the back for “acknowledging the way in which the imagination, the emotions and the body are all linked” which is, apparently, a discovery of modern neuroscience. The 19th-century German professor of architecture Adolf Goller is admired because Onians can link Goller’s observations on the effect of new styles of architecture with more recent research on the reinforcement of behaviour in pigeons and rats. Rarely can the past have been condescended to so comprehensively.

It is disturbing that these often ludicrously tendentious ideas – the reductio ad absurdum of neuroscientism – are being advanced not by some mad autodidact on a park bench but by a serious academic.

Onians was until recently Director of the World Art Research Programme at the University of East Anglia in the UK. It should not be necessary to spell out the fundamental fault with his approach; namely, that it casts no light on the specific nature of the objects and experiences of art or the distinctive contribution of individual artists. Nor does it offer any basis for the evaluation of art as great, good, or bad. In short, neuroaesthetics bypasses everything that art criticism is about.

It is perfectly obvious why we might expect neuroaesthetics to remain a sterile as well as an almost comically simplistic exercise, even more misguided than trying to explain the limitations of a neurological approach to art.

THE LANCET: On modern gloom

Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism. Raymond Tallis 1997.

The ability to hope seems to be a universal feature of human beings and an important one, because when human beings become convinced that their future is wholly bleak they may lose their will to tolerate even the present. Conversely, pain and adversity can be tolerated in expectation of a future worth waiting for.

Philosophers and doctors have recognised the dignity, courage, and creativity with which hope seems to enable us to deal with negative experience.

Why then does Raymond Tallis, who is professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, UK, think it necessary to write a book about the enemies of hope, and why should there be contemporary pessimism?

The pessimism and the hope about which Tallis writes are at a philosophical rather than an individual level, but no doubt there is a connection, in that philosophical views tend to filter down and affect attitudes even when we are unaware of the source of the influence.

The source of the philosophical hope (or optimism) that Tallis sees as under attack is the 18th century Enlightenment. Tallis quotes Isaiah Berlin: “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind” (The Age of Enlightenment, 1956). The optimism of this age consisted in its belief in reason, science, universal moral ideas, and human progress, and perfectibility.

Hints of doubt began to appear in the 19th century, but it is in the 20th century that the full blast of pessimism has been felt. The ideal of a universal moral nature perfectible by reason and education has been shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, and the continuing self destruction of the human race as illustrated by ongoing conflicts in Bosnia or Rwanda.

Doubt has been cast on science as the main activity for progressively unfolding reality to us. Indeed, reason itself has been under attack from various quarters, such as certain post-modernist movements in philosophy and certain strands of feminism. Tallis discusses six critiques of the Enlightenment project based on such ideas, and rejects them all.

How successful is the book in countering the arguments of the “Counter-Enlightenment”? The key to the whole thing is perhaps in the phrase just used, a phrase which we cannot avoid using – the arguments of the Counter-Enlightenment. If we are to speak of “argument” at all we are necessarily committed to canons of reason; there is no alternative form of argument.

Tallis quotes some radical feminists as asserting that the argument form modus ponens (if p then q; p therefore q) is a male patriarchal invention oppressive of women. But, as he points out, it is a cornerstone of logic: remove it and the possibility of argument, whether by men or women, will disappear. This must be correct.

However poor our reason or our science, however much we disregard human rights, however inadequate and misleading language can be, we have no alternatives. This key idea is used in rebutting the many detailed attacks of the Counter-Enlightenment and exposing the intellectual self-indulgence of many of the post-modernists.

Indeed, some modern pessimists fit very well Arnold Bennett’s characterisation of them.

“Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism. Indeed, I think it must be more agreeable, must have a more real savour, than optimism – from the way in which pessimists  abandon themselves to it.”

Enemies of Hope is clearly written, but it is very long and might have made more impact had it been more concise. It is also, as he admits, highly derivative. The biggest influence is the writing of Isaiah Berlin, whose views are frequently quoted, as are many other writers. In what is meant to be a modest disclaimer Tallis says: “The only areas where I can lay claim to any kind of expertise are in twentieth century American and European philosophical thought, the writings of post-Sassurean theorists, [. . .] and modern biology and medicine.” It would be enough for most of us and it is certainly enough to steer us through some important ideas.

R S Downie, Department of Philosophy, University of Glasgow,


The Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism, Irrationalism, Anti-humanism and the Counter-enlightenment

An eccentric gem, 9 Mar 2009, By  Mr. A. Hibbert

Tallis begins this treatise writing what he intended to be a brief dismissal of a piece of psuedo-anthropological romantic nonsense. But once he hit his stride, there was no turning back.

This is philosophy as it used to be written, by the likes of Hume or Paine: passionate, erudite, bold, with both fine argumentation and daringly broad brushstrokes. Tallis charges against the massed cannon of the neo-Feudalists without taking care to cover his flanks, a sort of rationalist one-man Light Brigade. For those of us who notice and deplore a misanthropic streak at the heart of post-Cold War culture, it’s a magnificent spectacle (and for this reader, Tallis points out possibly the funniest intellectual pratfall of our period with his notion of “Falling into the Ha-Ha” – worth the read just for this).

For those on the other end of the cannon, the solitary nature of his attack makes him relatively easy to dismiss. Like many of his forerunners in philosophy, his ideas seem unable to gain purchase on the contemporary debate they are fired by, and ought to set alight. As a result, he comes across as a bit of an eccentric, in these times – which I’d argue is more an indictment of us than of him.

We are about defending the Enlightenment, its values, its ethos and its hopes. If I have any credentials, it is as the author of a 500 page blast called ‘Enemies of Hope’, published a few years ago, which was as, its subtitle stated, a critique of contemporary pessimism and an attack on the contemporary counter-enlightenment.


The Kingdom of Infinite Space

The title of this book might raise the suspicion that the subject could be tangential to our profession. Whilst certainly this book does not cover mental illness, it looks at our heads from a curious vantage; a vantage that interweaves marvellous facts that somehow, and rather freshly for that, remind us of so much that we take for granted within our vaults protected bony. Tallis does this with a style all his own; considered most certainly, but also beautifully revealed in rather touching anecdote.

It must be said that in this book, Tallis offers no new theory of mind, and indeed goes out of his way to avoid the brain-mind paradigm. As he states “there is no shortage of books on the brain.” Indeed, Tallis  would venture ”that there is a serious lack of such a shortage.” Yet his book is an amalgam pestled scientific yet is carried with dazzling flecks of humanity. The book, philosophical digressions apart, will appeal to all, and should it be feared, is neither airy-fairy nor mystical.

Above all, The Kingdom of Infinite Space is a jolly good read, and is revelatory for what we most headily take for granted. It will not answer your day to day ministering of mental suffering, however, it will, most certainly give you a fresh perspective of the space between your ears and, in a way so infinitely wonderful, for us all.


Tallis in Wonderland: Why I Am An Atheist

Raymond Tallis examines his happy disbelief.

I suppose I have been more or less an atheist since my teens, although, given my early exposure first to Catholicism and then to Anglicanism, it was probably some time later that I entirely shook off the feeling that a posthumous comeuppance might be awaiting me. Recently, I was invited to join a panel at the Glasgow Book Festival to debate atheism with the philosopher Julian Baggini and the crime writer and humanist Christopher Brookmyre. We were asked to begin by stating the reasons we were atheists. I would be deceiving myself if I thought I knew which reason had most contributed to my present happy state of unbelief, even less which was decisive.

There are bad as well as good reasons for deciding that one is, or that one should be, an atheist, and I suspect the bad reasons may be more influential. The worst reason for not believing in God (though the least obviously bad), is that there is no evidence for His existence. This is a bad reason for atheism because no-one can agree what would count as evidence. Miracles, scriptures, the testimony of priests and prophets etc, can all be contested on empirical grounds: but for some people the fact that we communicate intelligibly with one another, or that the world is ordered, or even that there is something rather than nothing, is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a Creator who not only made the world but also made it habitable by and intelligible to us. Therefore the appeal to evidence, or lack of it, will always be inconclusive.

Another bad reason for being an atheist is hostility to religious institutions because of the delinquent behaviour of believers, and more generally, on account of the evils that organised religion has inflicted on the world. I am sure this was important in my own case. The local Catholic priest’s walk past our house every morning on his way to St Austin’s Church would prompt a brief outburst from my father on the wickedness and, above all, the hypocrisy of clerics. I therefore entered maturity fully persuaded of the Lucretian doctrine Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (‘So potent was religion in persuading to evil deeds’).

Increasing knowledge of history made me even more aware of the abominations inflicted on human beings in the name of religion: sectarian cruelty, unspeakably bloody confessional wars, the oppression of women (and the destructive and cruel obsession that priests have with what goes into and comes out of the female pelvis), and a cynical and opportunistic alignment with temporal powers to maintain an unjust status quo that benefitted the few at the top of the heap and kept the many at the bottom. Even saints seemed largely unattractive. Their behaviour was often wrong-headed, ludicrous or repulsive. One of my most cherished examples is St Catherine of Sienna, who wanted to impress God by fasting and managed to overcome her residual desire for food by carefully gathering into a ladle the pus from the suppurating, cancerous breast of a lady she was attending, and drinking it – a dish not even Heston Blumenthal (a British chef famous for eccentric dishes) could have dreamed up.

So what? Even if the evils caused by religion were relevant to the question of the existence of God, we do not know whether religion is a net force for evil, despite the documented horrors. Apologists have pointed to the moral codes which have been inculcated by religions and which have distanced us from the dog-eat-dog ethos of most of the other representatives of the animal kingdom. Ivan said in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God did not exist, all things would be permitted” (or what amounts to the same thing, if He ceased to command belief). This is not true, of course, since humans have other powerful sources of altruistic concern for their fellows, although one can see why so many have been impressed by this assertion. However, the jury must still be out over the net benefit, because we cannot run the course of history twice, once with and once without religion, to determine whether religion has overall made us treat each other worse. Or, come to that, whether religion has blocked progress in understanding nature and making the world more comfortable to live in and life more bearable, or vice versa. Notwithstanding the obstacles religious institutions have sometimes placed in the way of scientific advance, it can be equally argued that it fostered scientific inquiry in other ways: monotheism may have inspired the search for unifying laws of nature; and many deeply pious scientists – Newton and Faraday being obvious examples – saw their inquiries as an expression of their love of God. It would be a travesty to reduce the relationship between religion and science to emblematic clashes such as over the heliocentric solar system or against the inanities of the creationists.

Another bad reason for being an atheist is that religious beliefs scare people witless, particularly children, with their doctrines of salvation and damnation. That argument won’t wash either. If God expects certain things of you – including belief in Him – and the punishment for disappointing Him is eternal damnation, then it’s a supreme kindness to frighten you into obedience to His Will, as interpreted by the experts.

Nearly all the bad reasons for being an atheist are rooted in a fundamental confusion between what one might call the ‘metaphysical’ as opposed to the ‘institutional’ or ‘societal’ aspects of religion – between that part of religion which makes claims about the origin, the nature, the shaping forces and the meaning of the universe and the lives of humans; and that part which prescribes how we ought to live, who is authorized to guide us in this respect, and what we should be guided to do – precepts, rituals, observances, codes of behaviour and so on. An intelligent defence of atheism should separate religious institutions, with their protean prescriptions and the powers for good or ill that result, from sets of propositions about the origin and nature of the universe and the bit of it we live in. Badly behaved priests and sickeningly venal and powerful churches do not demonstrate the untruth of religion. While they remind us of the corrupting influence of power, particular when it claims to have transcendental authority, this fact doesn’t support the Big Bang against the Six Days of Creation. Atheists might argue that religious believers themselves do not separate these aspects of religion: God’s Wisdom, for example, is often both a metaphysical concept and a non-negotiable set of instructions about how we should live with one another. True – but this doesn’t make the argument any better. However, it does bring me to the first good reason for being an atheist (not before time, you might think).

According to the religions in which I was brought up (though not, of course to all religions), God unites in His Person a risibly odd combination of properties. In order to uphold a world picture which links the great events that brought the universe about with the little events that fill our lives, it has to conflate metaphysics and morality, physics and politeness – something of the significance of the Big Bang with an Angry God who sulks because he is not adequately praised, and who intervenes at a personal or political level in an often random and sometimes quite repulsive way. It unites the origin of the universe with finger-wagging armies of priests speaking in His name. The notion is almost comical, and certainly infantile, and it betrays how this idea of God is clearly a mirror of local and historical human preoccupations rather than eternal feature of the universe. The God who merges the power that slew thousands to avenge the slights felt by other thousands, or to lift a righteous person up, with the power to bring the boundless totality of things into being, is an ontological monstrosity – like a chimera uniting the front end of a whale with the back end of a microbe.

But shouldn’t one humbly admit uncertainty, and be an agnostic rather than an atheist? No; and here’s the reason why. A quick glance at the metaphysical claims associated with the 100 or so religions on offer at the present time shows that they are in profound and often bitter conflict. But unless you have been indoctrinated from birth into a particular religion you are forced to make a seemingly random choice in the Shopping Mall of Theological Ideas. If in the spirit of humility you seek what they have in common, very little of substance remains: the highest common factor between Christianity, Paganism, Hinduism, Jainism and all the other theisms is pretty small, and what little remains is incoherent. To be a sincere agnostic you would have to be able to entertain the notion of a God who is infinite but has specific characteristics; unbounded, but distinct in some sense from His creation; who is a Being that has not been brought into being; who is omniscient, omnipotent and good and yet so constrained as to be unable or unwilling to create a world without evil; who is intelligent and yet has little in common with intelligent beings as we understand them; and so on. The ‘apophatic’ God, defined in terms of what God is not, of the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and some strands of Orthodox Christianity, is some acknowledgement of this unthinkability of the deity. But agnosticism requires one to keep in play the notion of a square circle. Not, I would think, worth the effort.

So, whatever my actual reasons for being an atheist, intellectually the case does not rest on the lack of evidence for God, or the bad behaviour of believers and religious institutions, but on the idea of God itself, which insofar as it is not entirely empty, is self-contradictory, and makes less sense than that which it purports to explain.

It doesn’t follow from this that I believe we have a complete or even a properly grounded understanding of what we are. For example, we do not understand consciousness – how it is that we are aware. Atomic materialism does not explain it, that’s for sure. And the very concept of matter has become unintelligible, as we know from the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. I also do not understand how it is that individually and collectively we make sense of the world – how knowledge is possible. But this sense of the limitation of our knowledge and understanding makes me more, not less, happy in my atheism: I am not obliged to imprison a thrilling intuition of transcendent possibility arising out of my sense of the unknown, in a ragbag of confused, contradictory and often (but not always) malign beliefs, culminating in logical impossibilities. This nothwithstanding, we should be grateful for the monuments of art, architecture, ritual and thought that we atheists owe to others’ belief in God.

The Disappearance of Appearance: Why Brain Science Cannot Explain Consciousness

11th August 2009 I have argued many times, in many ways, over many volumes and in numerous articles, that human consciousness, far from being the last or ultimate challenge of science, is not amenable  to a scientific explanation. While psychology is the science of consciousness, it is essentially descriptive: it does not explain consciousness; or how it is that a very small minority of items in the universe are consciousness and an ever smaller – ourselves – are self-conscious. Those branches of psychology which claim to be rooted in brain science also claim to be able to understand consciousness in terms of brain activity but this claim is unfounded.  My reward for arguing in this way, is to be classified along with other cognitive luddites who Owen Flanagan   dubbed ‘mysterians’. So let me have one more go.


Underrated Raymond Tallis


For most men, climbing to the top of the medical profession, occupying a university chair, editing and contributing to the most authoritative textbook in their field, writing more than 200 scientific papers, chairing committees at the Royal College of Physicians and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (among many other administrative tasks), running a specialised clinic for epilepsy in old age and undertaking the normal but onerous clinical duties of a consultant geriatrician would consume as much energy as they could reasonably muster. Certainly, it would be enough to receive a eulogy well above average in the obituary columns of the British Medical Journal.

But these are just the beginning of the accomplishments of Professor Raymond Tallis, who retired recently from the chair of geriatric medicine at Manchester University. He is also a philosopher whose work is treated with respect by professional philosophers. Among other things, he is the foremost critic of literary theory in the country, as well as a firm (and, what is not always the same thing, a well-informed) opponent of the view that the brain is but a computer. He is also an anti-Darwinian, not in the sense that he believes the world was created in six days and that the species are immutable, but in the sense that the neo-Darwinian account of Man is completely inadequate and does not in the slightest account for the phenomena of human existence.

If there is one characteristic that his writing always exemplifies, it is intellectual honesty. Pretension, either to profundity or to understanding, is his enemy, and he is always a devastating critic of it wherever he finds it. He is not a mystic, but he has a sense of mystery. He has no compunction in openly admitting our current state of scientific ignorance, but he does not think that we should therefore behave epistemologically like the geographers lampooned by Swift:

So geographers in Afric maps
With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

In other words, we should openly admit what we don’t know rather than pretend to knowledge that we don’t have. This is a less common attitude than it ought to be.

Tallis has found himself opposed to three of the important intellectual trends or fashions of the past two or three decades and his criticisms have been as little noticed as they have been worth noticing. He is like a boy who has seen the nakedness not of one emperor, but of three.

His first major intellectual assault was on post-modernism, the theory that has had the practical effect of turning literary scholarship in universities into third-rate philosophising and probably discouraging students from enjoying literature.

In his books, In Defence of Realism (Hodder Arnold, 1988), Not Saussure (Palgrave Macmillan, 1988) and Theorrhoea and After (St Martin’s Press, 1998), he exposed the philosophical incompetence and elementary misunderstandings of the post-modernists, who did not deign to notice or reply to his attacks.

The books, however, have been of immense value to those (including academics who wanted to swim against the tide) who sensed that there was something wrong, and not merely false but fraudulent, about post-modernism, but were not sufficiently up in philosophy to know exactly what it was.

While Tallis has been a fierce defender of rationality in general, and the rationality of science in particular, he has been an equally fierce opponent of the kind of scientism, or neurotheology  as he calls it, of the Daniel Dennett variety. Dennett claims not only that consciousness can be adequately explained neurophysically and neurochemically, but that consciousness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the first place. Dennett’s view is no better or more sophisticated, fundamentally, than that of the 19th-century German materialists, who claimed that the brain secreted thought like the liver secreted bile. He has no more serious and severe a philosophical critic than Tallis.

Tallis criticises facile Darwinism on the same kind of grounds. The development of consciousness introduced something quite new into the world, and it is no good trying to fit it into a procrustean bed of preconceptions. As if all this were not enough, Tallis has written novels, plays and poetry, which have been highly regarded. So prodigious has been his output — and the quality of his output — that would one would like to report that he has terrible defects of character. Unfortunately, this is not so. Moreover, he is possessed of a brilliant wit. I once telephoned him to ask a technical question about the possibility of the paternal transmission of congenital syphilis in Ibsen’s play, Ghosts.

Ibsen, in later years, read nothing but newspapers, but it so happened that the most eminent French syphilologist of the day, Alfred Fournier, had suggested the year before Ibsen wrote the play that fathers could pass on syphilis through the semen without infecting the mother.

The Times October 2005: You can be a beast, but I’m human by Raymond Tallis

ONE OF THE first intellectual tasks for the 21st century is to bury the false ideas about humanity fostered in the latter half of the 20th century. There is much at stake: the notion that human beings are conscious moral agents, able to influence, if not control, their collective future, is of supreme importance. Abandon it, and we may as well abandon hope for a better tomorrow.

There are three main secular currents of anti-humanism that need skewering: biological reductionism; the marginalisation of consciousness; and postmodernist fantasies based upon the fallacies of “informationism”.

Lost [remastered]:

Let’s start with biological reductionism, the belief that we are essentially animals — our apparently profound differences from other beasts are based on flattering self-deception. The increasing acceptance of these ideas stems from overestimation of what On The Origin of Species tells us about human nature. Scientific Darwinism has been transformed into an unscientific Darwinitis, according to which we are born hard-wired into the biosphere, and pretty well everything about us can be explained in terms of the survival of the genome — the reproduction of the means of reproduction. But we are quite different from other species, if only because, as the philosopher Schelling pointed out, it is in us that, “Nature opens its eyes . . . and notices that it exists.” We are the only species that quarrels over its own nature and has written about the origin of species.

The plausibility of biologism has been enhanced by a grotesque exaggeration of the extent to which we understand our nervous systems and the relationship between the nervous system and ordinary human consciousness. For the record, satisfactory neural explanations of human consciousness elude us. My research for the past 20 or more years has been in neuroscience, and it seems to me that, in terms of the metaphysical understanding of the relationship between neurology and selfhood, we are no farther on from Hippocrates, who noticed that when people banged their heads they behaved a bit oddly and that decapitation was associated with a fall in IQ (in most cases, anyway). May favourite Tallis quote. We know that a normally functioning brain is a necessary condition of consciousness but it is not a sufficient condition, and we have no idea what fills the gap between the necessary and sufficient.

Once we set aside a misreading of Darwin and the glamour of hyped-up neuroscience, biological reductionism loses its credibility and we can see what is in front of our eyes: that we who lead our lives are not at all like beasts who merely live them.

Ironically, the dominant strands of anti-humanism have been fostered within the humanities departments of universities. I agree. Many ideas have been embraced because they seem scientific. That they come with a complex jargon, are often opaque and frequently counter-intuitive, is very gratifying for academics. Over the past 40 or more years, souped-up Freudianism and souped-up Marxism, structuralism and post-structuralism — to mention some of the longer-lasting trends — have had a huge influence on what is taught, published and avowed in academic arguments.

One feature that these ideas have in common is a marginalisation of the conscious human agent, and a corresponding claim that we are in the grip of forces that, unless we go to university, will be hidden from us. Again, I do so agree. The psychological unconscious of Freud (and Lacan), the historical unconscious of Marx (and Althusser) and the semiotic unconscious of everyone else on the curriculum are upheld by assertion rather than fact. Generations of students have been persuaded by the confidence of their teachers that they are tossed around by intra-psychic forces arising out of the failure of their animal instincts to come to terms with the demands of civilisation. Or that the ideas that ruled in them were the ideas of the ruling class, and those ideas were in turn determined by the material conditions created by evolving technologies and the imperative to reproduce the means of production. Or that the self was merely a set of nodes in a system of linguistic and non-linguistic signs, so that far from speaking language, language spoke in them. They were soluble fish in a sea of discourse, whose dominant forms — and what passed for objective truth — were determined by power.

Two minutes’ intelligent discussion — not available in many humanities departments for several decades — would have been sufficient to dispose of these assertions. In the end, they have started to die of boredom and in-fighting. Their stupefying influence, however, has not yet gone away.

Finally, we have been subjected to much talk about a “post-human” future, in which life based upon flesh and carnal experience, and interactions between human beings, is replaced by life based upon bits of information that pass between machines and are under no one’s control. Much of this is founded on a misuse of that chameleon word “information”, and the belief that information can exist outside of human consciousness. It is also based upon hype. You may remember Marvin Minskey’s claim that computers would be so sophisticated, by 1990 that they would own us as household pets. Well, no such computers have been constructed. The hype, however, goes on.

It is obvious, then, that in thinking about humanity in the 21st century, there is still a lot of colonic material of a taurine provenance — otherwise known as bullshit — to be cleared out.

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