August 25, 2012

Brain, Self, World - Being Human Is More Than A Reduction To Physics And Chemistry

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

Is Reductionism Wrong? A Philosopher Weighs In by Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True blog, August 20, 2012
Reality Is Flat. (Or, Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 16, 2012
Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinionator, August 5, 2012
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis And The Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, 2011

Professor Jerry Coyne’s definition of “emergence” in the link above is the most narrow and incomplete I’ve come across. Emergent properties need not be consistent with (the same as) and therefore reducible to lower-level properties. Emergent entities and processes are dependent upon lower-level properties but they, in some important way, transcend them. See Stuart A. Kauffman, 2008, page 5 and "emergence."

Implying that Professor Polt is some kind of dualist is a diversionary accusation. Accusing Polt of denigrating science when he is in fact focusing his criticism on scientism, not science, is hyperbole. Calling Polt antiscientific, antimaterialist, and antinaturalistic is almost as shrill as the hue and cry of Christians when religion is criticized by agnostics and atheists. We are discussing science and its provisional knowledge, not religion and its dogma that the faithful consider to be unassailable.

It is true that the reductionistic analysis of volition, emotions, and other mental phenomena has begun to link these cognitive states to locations and circuitry in the brain. There is no question that these anatomical locations and their neural circuits produce these states, and that they cease to exist when the brain ceases functioning. However, the physio-chemical, developmental, and causal pathways between genes, brain matter, and cognitive states have not been mapped, even in rough form. Nor have neuroscientists produced an unequivocal, testable, and verifiable model of the mind and consciousness.  The likely reason neuroscientists have not is they deny intentionality and human agency, and see the mind entirely as a function of a material brain evolved from material processes.

More broadly, neuroscience has not definitvely linked genes and brain matter to ever more complex human thoughts such as ideologies and scientific theories, or complex activities such the social interactions between individuals and the interactions between variously defined groups, over time.

I do not share Professor Coyne’s optimism that the work of sociobiologists and neuroscientists will eventually lead to a detailed account of such causal pathways and maps for human individual cognition, or their vastly more complex ideas, or social interactions over time. Imagine, for example, charting or modeling the trillions of complex beliefs, values, and individual and collective interactions that preceded and resulted in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan in WWII, or those that led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 being reduced to genetic chemistry, neural matter, and brain circuitry. I find such an accomplishment inconceivable despite my love of and confidence in science, and my usually boundless imagination.

Genetics and neuroscience have many successes to their credit and there will assuredly be many more payoffs to come. But I strongly doubt that a conclusive, unambiguous reduction of all of Humankind’s ideas and interactions, past and present, to the chemistry of genes and the structure and physiology of brain circuitry alone, will be among them.

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Skepticism and criticism are among the most important hallmarks of science. Scientific knowledge accepted uncritically supports scientism. Strong scientism is dogma. Dogma goes hand in hand with religion and tyranny.

Briton Raymond Tallis is neither a Cartesian dualist nor a closet creationist. Neither am I.  Tallis is an avowed atheist. In his distinguished career he has worked as a medical doctor, clinical scientist, and neuroscientist. In his most recent book (2011) he offers a jarring, necessary, and convincing critique of “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis,” two of what he calls the most pernicious and odious strains of the current biologism paradigm. From the Introduction:

“I do not doubt that Darwinism gives an ever more impressively complete account of how the organism H. sapiens came into being. But that’s not the point: things with us did not stop there. Humans woke up from being organisms to being something quite different: embodied subjects, self-aware and other-aware in a manner and to a degree not approached by other animals. Out of this, a new kind of realm was gradually formed. This, the human world, is materially rooted in the natural world but is quite different from it. It is populated by individuals who are not just organisms, as is evident in that they inhabit an acknowledged, shared public sphere, structured and underpinned by an infinity of abstractions, generalizations, customs, practices, norms, laws, institutions, facts, and artefacts unknown to even the most ‘social’ of animals. It is in this common space that, as selves that actively and knowingly lead lives in conjunction with other selves, our human destinies are played out.

“Our consciousness, and the engines that shape it, cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies. It participates in, and is part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over hundreds of thousands of years. This cognitive community is an expression of the collectivization of our experiences through a trillion acts of joint and shared attention. Even those who believe that the human mind ‘began’ as the activity of the brain of H. sapiens, must, I shall argue, have to accept that we have gone far beyond brain activity a long time ago. To seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds.”

Here are his chapter titles: Introduction: The Strange Case of Professor Gray and Other Provocations; Science and Scientism; Consequences; Neuromania: A Castle Built on Sand; From Darwinism to Darwinitis; Bewitched by Language; The Sighted Watchmaker; Reaffirming our Humanity; Defending the Humanities; Back to the Drawing Board.

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Raymond Tallis is not claiming our thoughts, feelings, emotions, our minds and selves, have an active existence outside or independent of our brains. He is no Cartesian dualist. He claims that the emergence of language-based culture and human agency in hominid evolution represents a hugely important, unprecedented, and so far unmatched evolutionary leap in the history of animal life on Earth. That the trillions of ideas, beliefs, and social interactions that this new evolutionary adaptation produced and continues to produce were not and are not encoded in our genes and brain circuitry.

Genes and brain circuits are crucial bits of anatomical matter, networks, and physiological processes that make up the physical substrates necessary for producing and processing our ideas, beliefs, and social interactions.  Somehow, which no-one really knows exactly how, they also produce a coherent, conscious mind/self, an emergent cognitive condition characterized by agency and intentionality.

Tallis is simply saying, neuroscience is important, pursue it, of course. But he is also claiming, and I think rightly so, that you will not find the trillions of simple and highly nuanced ideas, beliefs, values, and social interactions that have occurred from 200,000BP to the present as bits of matter in our genes and brains. This cultural content is expressed actively in the conscious mind of every living human to one degree or another and, in a broader sense, is part of the collective cultural history and present of our species.

Of course, when a brain/body dies that individual's active participation in our cultural history and present ceases. His/her "time upon the stage", as Shakespeare would put it, only continues in any artifacts, including writings, s/he left behind, among the thoughts of the living who knew and remember anything about her/him, and in remembrances of her/him that they these family, friends, or acquaintances may record or pass on to other humans pictorially, in writing, or orally.

Who I am as a culture-bearing primate, in terms of my genes and brain circuitry, will not be passed to my children. They will inherit potentials for making bodies, including gametes and brains, but not my beliefs, thoughts, values, and morals as purportedly encoded in my genes and neurons. My children’s own minds and selves will emerge from their genes and brains and will have a unique meaning, agency, and purpose they create by actively, consciously engaging the world and "drawing upon" Humankind's, their, very rich cultural inheritance.


The following links to a sample list of critical reviews of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind by Raymond Tallis, 2011.  Note that none of the experts, whose ideas Tallis challenges in his book, are among the reviewers.  If readers find other reviews, especially by researchers and leaders in the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary biology, please send links to them to me.  Thank you.  JEL

Raymond Tallis Takes Out The "Neurotrash" by Marc Perry, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 9, 2011
Customer Reviews on, August 28, 2012
Paranormalia: Thoughts About Consciousness, Spirituality, Psychic Research by Robert McLuhan, July 6, 2011
Parisar: A Forum of Progressive Students by Lindsay Wright, August 3, 2012
Times Higher Education by Willem Drees, June 20, 2011
The Conversation: Peer Review by Neil Levy, October 6, 2011
The Guardian/The Observer by Jane O'Grady, August 7, 2011
The Guardian by Andrew Brown, September 16, 2011
Philosophy Now, A Magazine of Ideas, by Daryn Green, July/August 2012
Modern Psychologist by Brad Peters, April 22, 2012
James LeFanu - The Tablet by James Le Fanu, July 5, 2011
The Philosopher by Martin Cohen, undated

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