December 27, 2012

Against some self-images of the age: Raymond Tallis

I’ve been reading Raymond Tallis’s book Aping Mankind: Neuromania,Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. The author’s background is in medicine, specifically clinical neuroscience. The book is a fierce criticism of two currently predominant modes of thinking about human behaviour, uncritically adopted by many scientists and cherished in popular culture: what Tallis calls neuromania (“the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science, to explain our behaviour”) and Darwinitis (the idea that “unsentimental honesty ... requires us to acknowledge that we are just like animals in all respects”).
                      I believe the author has undertaken some urgent tasks: for while brain research and evolutionary psychology may undoubtedly have something to contribute to an understanding of human affairs, all parties ought to welcome a sober look at the uncritical and reductive way in which conclusions tend to be drawn and results from these disciplines to be presented in contemporary public debate. This is what Tallis offers: thus, he brings incisive and detailed criticisms to bear on several experimental studies in neurology.
                      I do have some reservations, though. For one thing, his rhetoric seems too harsh and unrelenting; this will encourage his adversaries to become defensive (or, more likely, given the current intellectual climate, tempt them to ignore his arguments altogether), rather than invite them to a fruitful dialogue.
This, after all, is just a tactical consideration. However, as far as his argument goes, I was disappointed by the extent to which Tallis rests his case against reductionism on classical, “we-know-from-our-own-case” dualism, with all the problems attendant on that position. (After all, if I only know from my own case, what grounds do I have for claiming that it’s the same thing as you know from your own case?) Concerning intentionality, i.e. the fact that perceptions, beliefs, hopes, fears, wishes, intentions, etc, are “about” things in the world, he argues persuasively that it cannot be accounted for in physiological terms; but then he goes on to say: “How ... should we ascribe [intentionality] to anything else unless it was something we had experienced in the first place in our selves?” (p. 110.)
In trying to get clear about muddles about the mind, it is important to acknowledge the interplay between first person expressions and third person ascriptions. Reductive accounts tend to ignore the first person perspective altogether. Dualists, like Tallis, go to the other extreme and present third person utterances as derivative from first person expressions. To strike a balance, it is important to reflect on the fact that we learn to express what we perceive, feel, believe, etc in interacting with others: hence the fact that we have this kind of comprehensibility to others is indispensable to our acquiring this vocabulary. But on the one hand, we acquire the ability to use these words as spontaneous self-expression, and not, say, on the basis of observation of our own behaviour. So the first person perspective too is an inevitable ingredient in this use of words, and is not derivative from the third person.
(I shall comment on Tallis’s discussion of perception in a future blog.)