This is the 5th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self expressed in two books: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY. The previous blog is Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?
While both Gazzaniga and Tallis embrace evolution, they are also very clear that humans are not merely chimps who have evolved slightly. They both agree that humans have evolved in unique ways which are far beyond all the other creatures on the planet and far beyond anything which the scientific evidence would predict.
“So the question still remains: how is it that certain configurations of matter should be aware, should suffer, fear, enjoy and so on? There is nothing in the properties of matter that would lead you to expect that eventually certain configurations of it (human bodies) would pool that experience and live in a public world. No wonder many materialistically inclined philosophers like to deny the real existence of consciousness.” (Tallis, p 175)
The appearance of consciousness according to Tallis is a real problem for the adherents of scientism and materialism, which they cannot adequately explain and so they simply dismiss. Tallis, himself an atheist, sees their response as scientifically insufficient.
“The truth is, no theory of matter will explain why material entities (e.g. human beings) are conscious and others are not. The phenomena described in physics are present equally in conscious and unconscious beings; indeed, they are universally distributed through the material world. So they provide no account of the difference between, say, a thought and a pebble, which is the kind of difference that any theory of consciousness worthy of the name must be able to capture.” (Tallis, p 119)
Tallis especially recognizes that there is some part of being human – the self or consciousness which are in fact “immaterial” and thus cannot be fully accounted for by the current assumption of materialists/scientism. He argues that this simply has to be recognized as fact if science is in fact going to deal with truth. Remember, he is an atheist and certainly has no interest in ideas such as the “soul” or spirit. (His very comments raise another obvious question for scientists who deny the existence of self or free will – who or what exactly is trying to deal with the truth about materialism a collection of cells which have no other purpose than to help ensure their own continuation? The existence of scientists studying humans is great evidence that humans have evolved beyond all other animals). Gazzaniga raises similar questions or issues to those of Tallis:
“The arrogance of the particle physicist and his intensive research may be behind us (the discoverer of the positron said ‘the rest is chemistry’), but we have yet to recover from that of some molecular biologists, who seem determined to try to reduce everything about the human organism to ‘only’ chemistry, from the common cold and all mental disease to the religious instinct. Surely there are more levels of organization between human ethology and DNA than there are between DNA and quantum electrodynamics, and each level can require a whole new conceptual structure.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2143-47)
Here Gazzaniga raises the issue that only if we practice a reductionism which ignores organic reality can deal with some basic cellular interaction while completely ignoring the many levels of organization of which the cells are but one part. In literary studies it is like studying only the written text while ignoring the entire literary and social context in which that text exists. We can try to break down human consciousness and study it only on the cellular level but then we have to ignore that cells exists as part of greater bodies which in turn exist as parts of society, etc.
“…humans enjoy mental states that arise from our underlying neuronal, cell-to-cell interactions. Mental states do not exist without those interactions. At the same time, they cannot be defined or understood by knowing only the cellular interactions. Mental states that emerge from our neural actions do constrain the very brain activity that gave rise to them. Mental states such as beliefs, thoughts, and desires all arise from brain activity and in turn can and do influence our decisions to act one way or another.” (Gazzaniga, kindle Loc. 1695-99)
An issue that becomes obvious is whether the brain is merely a materialistic object which reacts to stimuli, or whether it somehow becomes an actor in the process – as Tallis says not merely living but leading life. Something – self or consciousness or free will – something immaterial is present that begins to act upon the material world.
“So while the brain is sensitive to the impingements of the outside world, via the sense organs, it is also a filter regulating its own sensitivity, giving priority to essential and novel stimuli – relevant to survival – over irrelevant and unimportant events.” (Tallis, p 21)
Consciousness becomes a factor in what is happening in the empirical world.