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It is a common and dangerous mistake to think that our minds are no more than electrical pulses in our brains

Not all wrong ideas are worth contesting. They are too numerous and will anyway soon disappear, displaced for the most part by other wrong ideas. There are some, however, that cannot be ignored. Those that misrepresent matters of supreme importance, or get in the way of our thinking about them clearly, or are widely accepted, or may have serious consequences, must be challenged.

One idea that ticks all these boxes is the notion that human beings are, in essence, animals; or, at the very least, much more beast-like than we have hitherto thought. It leads to claims, to name a couple, that we are just clever chimps, that our minds are no more than electrical signals in our brains.

There are myriad manifestations of this “biologism.” It is spelled out in thousands of books and articles on so-called neuro-aesthetics, meme theory, neurolaw, and in neuroevolutionary approaches to politics and economics.

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  1. June 13, 2011


    Sorry mister but you obviously lack a deep understanding of both fields you dubbed under ‘biologisms’
    your entire piece was quite predictable with all its fallacies after a quick glance at the first few lines
    maybe this is just your anthropo-ego or human dignity … yes a MEME!
    or maybe its a rather lame attempt to sell your book.

    I would rather flush my money down the toilet than buy lottery tickets than buy your book!

    And btw whats your great plan to decode brains and consciousness?

  2. June 13, 2011


    Dr Tallis seems to ignore the fact that the human body is a gigantic chemical and electrochemical enterprise. Neither physics nor biology get anywhere near explaining the composition and functioning of even the simple cell let alone any single organ or the whole body.
    Huxley’s experiments with LSD suggest that perception is strongly influenced by the chemical composition of our body’s control system, and the modern science of neuroendocrinology supports this. Mental disorders which do not arise from actual damage to the head may be due to chemical imbalances or chemical abnormalities. The mental diseases of old age are often explained using chemical agents such as prions.
    I think Dr tallis is as guilty as many of his medical colleagues in failing to recognise the true nature of life. By referring only to physics and biology he is the one who is guilty of narrowing our understanding of how we work, where the mind is and what consciousness is.

  3. June 20, 2011


    This man cannot write for cheese.

  4. June 25, 2011


    Well done Professor Tallis for so elegantly and effectively taking the wind out of the sails of this reductionist nonsense. I find the vitriol of his critics very interesting and disturbing.

  5. July 3, 2011


    Whatever Mr. Tallis thinks about consciousness and I have reservations about the reference to \we inhabit a community of minds, a human world that goes beyond nature\ our brains are essentially physical things. Upon death my brain ceases to function and I am no longer conscious. The true cause of consciousness is one of the great mysteries of our time but science is closing in on some kind of explanation, albeit slowly. A lump of stone and a brain are fundamentally made from the same stuff and yet I am conscious but the stone is not. As a physicist I believe that quantum mechanics will eventually provide some kind of answer.
    If consciousness is uniquely human someone should tell the appropriate agencies to stop wasting money searching for E.T.

  6. December 1, 2011


    I have long felt that Tallis’ take could be attacked with a standard argument. In essence he comes close to opining that ‘because I can’t fathom how consciousness could surface from neural interactions alone, therefore it can’t’. Whilst I’m sensitive to the dangers of an overstretched analogy, I do see similarities with the creationists’ arguments here. Since they can’t fathom how the complexities of organisms – including humans – could happen ‘by chance alone’ they conclude the evolutionary explanation (far more than just chance alone, of course) simply cannot be right.

    I have tried to see what it is about consciousness that Tallis is suggesting that has – a priori – no prospect of being understood as an emergent property of the brain. He claims not to be a Cartesian dualist or a religionist. But, as with his feeling that there simply must be more to consciousness than brain-function, I believe he is – unwittingly – just that. He is arguing that there is a ghost in the machine, even if he will not label it so (for rather obvious reasons). He is making a priori claims for consciousness that don’t stick (or don’t necessarily stick).

    Sharpen up your Razor of Occham Dr Tallis. There is no pressing, compelling need to multiply entities. You require a far better argument than ‘there’s obviously more to it than neurones, the environment and culture’ to justify a whole different viewpoint. Quite how we get along with the consequences of our ‘neurodeterminism’ is for humankind to resolve. That is indeed the human condition.

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Raymond Tallis

Raymond Tallis is a philosopher and retired professor of medicine at Manchester University, and the author of "The Enduring Significance of Parmenides" (Continuum). 

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