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Neuroscience: New Statesman on “Darwinitis” of the brain

Raymond Tallis, nearly thirty years in clinical neuroscience, diagnoses the problem here (“A mind of one’s own”, 24 February 2011):

The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness – from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self – is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves. Nevertheless, the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan (described by the writer Matt Crawford as a “fast-acting solvent of critical faculties”). Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that “brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy”.

One thing about people like Tallis speaking up is that  it raises the bar from maybe .01 cm off the floor to something serious.

Apparently, Tallis’s New Statesman column will reappear in fuller form as a book this summer. Gotta have it.

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4 Responses to Neuroscience: New Statesman on “Darwinitis” of the brain

  1. From the article:

    Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour.

    This is not a new statement, but its tautological nature fairly jumps out of this formulation of it. If human consciousness is only a biological artifact, and evolution explains all biology, then Dobzhansksy said in effect that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of biology. Not only that, but there is nothing available to shed light upon biology except for biology, nor is there anything that can see that light except for biology. There is nothing but biology to explain biology or understand biology; but let not yourself be deceived by your own everyday experience: the biology that explains or understands biology is just biology and nothing more than biology.

    I acknowledge I am equivocating on “biology” here. Dobzhansky meant it in terms of the study of life, whereas in some instances I also use here it in terms of the activities of living organisms. But if mental activities are purely neurological, as some neurobiologists think they are, then it’s hard to see how what we call “study of biology” can be distinguished from organisms’ biological processes. The study of biological processes just is another action of biological processes, with no distinction and ultimately no equivocation.

    It takes a great leap of faith (or irrationality) to suppose that biological processes (which are themselves strictly biological processes and nothing but biological processes) could bootstrap themselves to accurately and fruitfully understand the actions of biological processes.

  2. semi, OT;

    Foster parent ban: ‘no place’ in the law for Christianity, High Court rules
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new.....rules.html

  3. William Lane Craig – Moral Relativism – Cruel Logic – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4347138/

  4. BA, re 2. My comment.

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