It is a common and dangerous mistake to think that our minds are no more than electrical pulses in our brainsby Raymond Tallis / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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. Brain scans supposedly revealing the secrets of the human mind are now common in newspapers. Its supporters assert, for example, that we can understand visual art better by scanning the brain to study its reaction, or that crime is best explained by an imbalance between the frontal lobes and the amygdaloid body.
I have spent over 30 years arguing against biologism, and have recently written Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen). It is a one-stop shop for those who feel that these claims are wrong, although they cannot put their finger on exactly why. The master assumption underpinning biologism is that humans are essentially organisms rather than people. To understand, educate, work with, and govern them, the theory goes, you need to acknowledge that they are not conscious agents but pieces of living matter subject to the laws of the biosphere. Yet the proposition is rarely stated as baldly as that. Indeed, infuriatingly for the opponents of biologism, its advocates often fail to see where their ideas are leading, or indeed, where they have come from.
Biologism has two strands, which I call Neuromania and Darwinitis. Neuromania rests on the belief that human consciousness is identical with activity in the brain. No one would deny that the brain is a necessary condition of every aspect of our awareness, from the slightest tingle of sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self. But it is not a sufficient condition, and the wrong assumption that it is sufficient is based on elementary confusions, notably between correlation, causation and identity.