Old piece on Raymond Tallis and Mary Midgley

My friend and Christian Courier book review editor Brian Bork informs me that this piece was published a long time ago. Figures, because I wrote it almost a year ago. Man, I had fun compressing the experience of twelve or so philosophy books to a few pages. But “experience” is just a trick your brain plays on your nonexistent mind, or something. 

In college, I had a roommate who could spend whole evenings arguing that he, the first-person being we knew and (sometimes) loved, did not exist. What he called himself, what he experienced as a unified being with agency and will, was just the firing of neurons in a predictable response to random stimuli—a soulless program. Nature, of course, was the programmer, or, as we’d say now, the brogrammer: cheery, rapacious, and utterly amoral.

Once, he mocked me for having cleaned the kitchen without calling attention to the fact that I had done so. This, he informed me, was poor strategy from an evolutionary-psychology perspective (I forget why). I had gotten tired of the subject, and snapped back—with unpardonable self-righteousness—“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” He shook his head and muttered, “I just can’t quite trust that rule…” Even in my irritation, I was struck that he found a twenty-year-old pseudoscience more trustworthy than the words of a guy who, Son of God or not, was surely a successful organism, having bent billions at least partially to his will over a period of two thousand years. But that will was precisely the issue. By denying his own personality, agency, personhood—his own existence as a human being, properly so called—my friend, who had been raised in a strict and sometimes inhumane fundamentalist environment, was actually displaying considerable agency. He was willfully seizing on bad arguments in order to throw off a religion that, for very good reasons, he associated not with love—the thing that makes Jesus’ claims on our own wills something other than mere tyranny—but with masochism and repression.

My friend’s was a sad case, and fairly advanced. Nevertheless, you too may know someone suffering from reductionism. Help is at hand. Two recent books of philosophy, Are You an Illusion by Mary Midgley and Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis, have pointed out, quickly, wittily, and thoroughly, all the ways in which this line of thinking is not only self-destructive but unscientific. And because both authors are, at a minimum, agnostic about God—Tallis is a very firm atheist—they can’t be dismissed as religious special pleaders. It further helps that both Tallis and Midgley, unlike many philosophers, can write. Tallis is a true polymath: doctor, professor of geriatric medicine, clinical neuroscientist, poet, philosopher, novelist. (One example of his range: He wrote the great takedown of those overrated French sophists whose ideas dominated literary theory during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s called Not Saussure, and I hereby recommend it to any student or teacher of the humanities who groans when she or he hears the words “More theory!”) As for Midgley, she was a lecturer in philosophy for many years, and her many books have a directness, simplicity, depth, and dry humor that make one envy her students. If we wanted a truly educated populace, an army of Midgleys dispatched to all of the world’s community colleges would be a great start.

Tallis’s book is a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls “neuromania,” the idea that we are our brains. He knows the science. In fact, this book gave me the clearest explanation of what a neural impulse is, and how one works, that I’ve ever read. (A stimulus travels through the brain, in a wave. As it travels it sends positively charged sodium ions into the axon; to maintain its negative charge, the axon has to spit out positively charged potassium ions. I feel like I should win a contest for knowing that.) Tallis is very entertaining and informative on the history of brain science (did you know squids have giant axons, almost visible to the naked eye, which makes them helpful for lab work?), and that’s long before he’s even gotten to the kind of philosophical brawling of which he is a master. I can’t begin to do justice to the number and intricacy of his arguments. Here is one: we often hear from science journalists that neuroscience has “disproved” free will. Tallis gives a detailed response to Libet’s experiments of the 1980s that supposedly established this (and in doing so he somehow refrains, as I won’t, from pointing out how ironic it is that “libet” is the Latin word for “like, prefer, want,” i.e. will.) Libet told his subjects to decide, at a certain point in the experiment, either to flex or not flex their wrists, and to note the moment at which they were conscious of making a decision; he then found wrist-flex-related brain activity somewhat preceded that moment. Ergo, we are mere puppets of our brains! Tallis points out that the action of flexing the wrist, here, is just as easily read not as an action in itself but as part of a larger process, participating in the experiment, undertaken for all sorts of reasons; that a snapshot of brain activity taken at one moment in this process tells us essentially nothing about how intentionality would function over the course of a weeks-long action far more involved than flexing or not flexing a wrist. In fact, the picking-out of a single, isolated action—of one particular moment of flexing—is itself unavoidably a matter of perspective, i.e. of consciousness: there is no perspective without mind, no view from nowhere. The scientist’s findings, already laden throughout with such acts of mind, can’t possibly prove the absence of mind.

Many of Tallis’s arguments converge on this point, actually: that those who dismiss consciousness often do so by means of arguments that smuggle in the idea of a point of view from somewhere, and that this concept is unintelligible—literally just gibberish—unless we’ve already conceded that consciousness exists. Take the argument that consciousness evolved at some point in time because it conferred survival advantage upon single organisms (who were then more reproductively successful, etc.). Aside from the fact that this constitutes a massive, undeserved slam on unconscious processes—ants build cities, bees make maps, animals make new animals, with no help from consciousness—it overlooks the fact that, in a universe without mind, there is no distinction to be made between an organism and its environment. Till mind steps in and starts naming things, it’s all just chemicals interacting, all the way down.

I have barely scratched the surface of Aping Mankind, which, given the importance of its themes and the breadth of its treatment of them, becomes practically an intellectual history and critique of the last thirty years. (As this is a religious newspaper, I have to recommend his takedown of the “God gene” theory, and of efforts to dismiss God’s existence by waving at some putative God-sensing area in some peoples’ brains.)

Midgley’s book is much shorter. She’s a burrower, the sort of thinker who gnaws at the same problems for decades, throwing off a brief, intense book every few years. (I have read eight or nine; they’re all great.) Are You an Illusion offers compelling arguments that you are not, but where Midgley is especially helpful is in tracing the philosophical history of this kind of silliness. She points out, for example, that the habit of reducing the mind to the body is, in some ways, a twisted cousin of the fascinating-but-batty Enlightenment argument that, moving from the other side, tried to reduce the body to the soul. (Think of Bishop Berkeley.) And, though Midgley is not a Christian, her lifelong interest in the natural world makes her helpful to those of us who want to think more deeply about what it means to be an embodied soul.

Embodied soul: that blessed paradox. You finish both of these books with an increased respect for both of its sides, and with much-sharpened awe at the fact, and mystery, of their coinherence. Midgley and Tallis make you thankful to inhabit that complex state of being, so beautiful and fragile, and from which so much of contemporary thought seems to recoil.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s