12 November 2009

We are our brains

Raymond Tallis argues over at New Humanist that neuroscience is being oversold. He writes a lot of sensible things about overinterpreting research findings.

The fundamental assumption is that we are our brains and this, I will argue presently, is not true.

Then... what are we? Tallis appears to be a Cartesian dualist:

The brain, as understood by neuroscience, is a piece of matter tingling with electrochemical activity. There is nothing in this activity that would make the stand-alone brain capable of making the material objects around it have an appearance to it or able to have the sense of itself as the subject to whom these objects appear. ...

Some may argue that, mysterious or not, this is what the brain does. However, there are other aspects of human consciousness – the unity of the self, the formulation of intentions, the performance of voluntary actions – that are even further out of reach of neuroscientific explanation. This has led some neuroscientists and their philosophical followers to deny their existence: the self and free will belong to a pre-scientific “folk psychology”.

This gets even stronger later (emphasis added):

The human world is an entirely new realm created by all the means we have of joining attention and consciousness. It is unknown to nature, though it creates a mirror in which nature is reflected.

Tallis implies that there is a non-material, supernatural explanation for our sense of self: that humans have a soul. So chuck it all, scientists: There are things that are beyond the reach of science, that (cue lightning flash and ominous music) man was not meant to know!

Maybe organizers of the next Neuroscience meeting should add a new registration category after “Member,” “Postdoc member,” and “Student member”: “Angry villager.”

Tallis undermines his credibility on scientific issues by invoking “things not known to nature.” Soul is not a scientific concept.

Regardless of this, one does not have to be a dualist to agree with this claim:

(O)ne would like to know how it would be possible for people to formulate social policies based on neuroscience.

That’s a fair comment. One of the greatest issues of the day is how to turn scientific knowledge into public policy. Economic policies dedicated to climate change, teaching policies related to creationism, public health policies related to fear of vaccines are all examples of how difficult this is. I absolutely agree that we are not at a point where neuroscience should be strongly informing policy. But being rightfully skeptical of the relationship between science and policy does not mean that the underlying scientific premise – that our brains are responsible for our mental lives – is wrong.

: Mind Hacks also responds to Tallis’s article. Thanks to Julie Dirksen for spotting it.


@mafost said...

Tallis should read some D.Dennett.

Loved the lightning cue.

TheCellularScale said...

"Angry Villager" ... ha, I would love to see that on a conference badge.