Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Tallis)

This is the 8th 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. The previous blog is Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Gazzaniga). I’m looking at the works of two scientists who are considering recent claims from neuroscience:  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.

Unlike Gazzaniga who attempts to work with the framework and paradigm of the mind offered by some neuroscientists, Tallis is much more on the offensive against those who fail to see the emergence of “consciousness” as a new and unique experience in the evolutionary process which clearly sets humans apart from all other animals.

“There is an analogy here with the logic of the neuroscientists who conclude that the ‘self’, the ‘I’ – like free will – is unreal on the grounds that you can’t find it if you look into the brain; there is nothing in patterns of neural activity corresponding to anything like a self.  We could, of course, draw quite a different conclusion: that the self does exist but it is not identical with patterns of neural activity.”  (Tallis, p  58)

The notion that the ‘self’ cannot be equated with neural activity, but is something which has actually arisen above or beyond mere materialistic biochemistry is a major theme of Tallis.  He is an atheist, so he opposes any religious notion of a soul, but he does see consciousness, the self, as an unexpected development in materialist evolution.  He is critical of what Gazzaniga attempts to accept: that the ‘self’, though not found in any one set of brain cells or neural activities, arises from the system of neural activities working together.  Tallis says the evidence about consciousness is not pointing to simply finding more parts of the brain working together, but is rather pointing to something which cannot be equated to brain activity alone.

“The allocation of human faculties and sentiments to different parts of the brain is also being increasingly undermined by evidence that even the simplest tasks – never mind negotiating a way through the world, deciding to go for a mortgage or resolving to behave sensibly —  require the brain to function as an integrated unit.  As David Dobbs has pointed out, fMRI scanning ‘overlooks the networked or distributed nature of the brain’s workings, emphasizing localized activity when it is communication among regions that is more critical to mental function.’” (Tallis, p 81)

Tallis says there is just too much evidence against equating brain activity with consciousness.  He concludes “that mental events are not physical events in the brain.” (p 133)  He is confident that the evidence shows mental events to be real and yet not coterminous with biochemical activities.

“Neuromania has to look for consciousness in material events (neural activity), located in a material object (the brain), while holding that the final truth of material events and material objects is captured in the laws of physics.  The trouble with physical science, however, is that it is committed to seeing the world in the absence of consciousness (at least prior to quantum mechanics)…” (p 138)

Tallis argument against the neuromaniac claim that the self is pure illusion is that the neuromaniacs are trapped in circular reasoning in which they assume everything in the world can be explained by physics and then have to deny the existence of consciousness or free will because it doesn’t fit their theory.

“…the failure to find a neuroscientific basis or correlative of the self is evidence not that the ‘I’ is an illusion, but that neuroscience is limited in what it has to say about us.”  (p 275)

Tallis, the atheist and scientist, acknowledges the existence of realities which are not equated with or limited to materialism.   Additionally, Tallis acknowledges not just the existence of the self and consciousness but that consciousness can be shared among individuals and entire societies.

“…another key element of evolving human consciousness: the extent to which our awareness is collectivized and is anchored in an acknowledged public space, a society that is joined together psychologically rather than merely through the dovetailing of pre-programmed behaviors.”  (Tallis, p 221)

Not only has consciousness emerged from the evolutionary process, but humans share a collective space in which the various selves can communicate with one another.  Humans are social and relational beings, something for which materialism alone cannot give full account.

Next:  Society: The Reality of Collective and Shared Consciousness