Tallis: What Neuroscience Cannot Tell us about Ourselves

#1
This thread stems from Sciborg's posts in several threads referencing Raymond Tallis' article What Neuroscience Cannot Tell us about Ourselves.

I'm going to go through the article, which I had not read prior to Sciborg posting it, laying out what I agree with and what I don't. I'll point out areas where I think Tallis' logic doesn't quite hold. I'll also raise the use of some rhetorical devices that I think serve to manipulate the reader to compel them to accept his arguments emotionally rather than logically.

These are my thoughts based on reading through the article twice. I am not presenting them as authoritative but with the hope that it will lead to discussion and constructive critique. I think it will be interesting to go through an article in depth.

Anyone should feel welcome to participate - not just me and Sci!

Intro:

In this article, Tallis seems to vary between arguing that neuroscience has not fully accounted for how behaviour and awareness work (a fairly sound claim, imo) and arguing that neuroscience will never be able to do so (a much more dubious claim.) I'll state off the bat that I'm rarely comfortable with "never-ever" type arguments. They are rarely well-founded (unless talking about logical impossibilities) and serve little productive purpose, imo. This article seems to me to be a good example of why.

Tallis starts by stating "What neuroscience does not do, however, is provide a satisfactory account of the conditions that are sufficient for behavior and awareness." I think this is a fair comment - I think most neuroscientists would agree that they've a ways to go in figuring out how the brain produces awareness.

He continues: "The pervasive yet mistaken idea that neuroscience does fully account for awareness and behavior is neuroscientism, an exercise in science-based faith. " This kind of comment isn't helpful. First, he doesn't provide any examples. I'm not sure neuroscientists do tend to make the claim that neuroscience has fully accounted for awareness out or that people have argued that it has. It doesn't reflect subtleties in people's positions.

But more important than that, what it does, I think, is take a legitimate point and turn it into a manipulative, rhetorical device. The legitimate point is the neuroscience hasn't quite figured out how the brain produces awareness and that we should be open to the idea that there is something beyond the brain involved. But when he labels it neuroscientism and science-based faith he triggers an emotional reaction in the reader. This can triggers defence mechanisms that can harden a reader against his arguments, or attempt to sway them in favour of his position by not wanting to be associated with "faith-based belief". Both distract from what the reader should be paying attention to: his arguments.

He next correctly states, imo, that "While to live a human life requires having a brain in some kind of working order, it does not follow from this fact that to live a human life is to be a brain in some kind of working order." I agree that the former does not imply the latter.

He describes what he sees as the importance of the issue:

"The failure to distinguish consciousness from neural activity corrodes our self-understanding in two significant ways. If we are just our brains, and our brains are just evolved organs designed to optimize our odds of survival — or, more precisely, to maximize the replicative potential of the genetic material for which we are the vehicle — then we are merely beasts like any other, equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives. Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch."

This seems to be a mixture of fuzzy logic, vague premises and category errors. There are many ways to catergorise people. Whether we are "just" or "merely" anything depends on the choices. His argument is this:

P1: We are just our brains.
P2: Our brains our just organs designed to maximize the replicative potential of genetic material
P3: Other animals are just their brains.
P4: Other animals' brains are just organs designed to maximize the replicative potential of genetic material
C1: We are merely beasts.
C2: We are equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives

We see this way how vague the premises are.

Tallis gets into the trouble here that many get into (even "materialists") when they refer to humans "just" being material. That is vague, and of limited descriptive value without added information. It is also misleading. "just" is being used, presumably, in a connotation to indicate "to the exclusion of anything else." But this depends on the categories we're looking at. If the categories are material/non-material then it might be accurate to say that we are just material - but that doesn't tell us much. When he posits the premise that our brains are "just" evolved organs designed to optimitze our odds of survival (putting aside the design issue) he is just (no-pun intended) looking at a single proposed characteristic of the brain. When he refers to us being "merely" beasts he's limiting it to one category "being equally beholden to biological drives."

Framing the premises in terms of "just" and "merely" are inaccurate without clarifying the caterogies and achieve little other than ascribing a negative connotation - it again triggers an emotional reaction, suggesting that this is somewhat undesirable. Whether that is the case or not, focusing on that increases our prejudices against that result, detracting from argument.

See how the argument changes character if we tighten it up:

P1: Our sense of self and awareness derive from our brains in conjunction with the rest of our bodies, interacting with the environment.
P2: Our brains are organs which evolved at least in part because they provided a selected advantage to human species.
P3: Other animals also have brains, with varying levels of senses and awareness.
P4: Other animals' brains also evolved at least in part because they provided a selected advantage to their respective species.
C1: Human and other animals have brains that derive senses and awareness in varying degrees.
C2: Human and other animals' senses and awareness vary due to their biology.


Ok, I'll stop here for now. Will continue with the introduction in another post, but this can get the discussion started.
 
#2
(Continuing analysis from post #1)

Tallis continues:

"Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch."

Much of the same criticism re: vague premises and categorical errors apply here. Even if we conclude that we are part of a casual chain stretching back from the Big Bang what does it mean to say that we are nothing other than that? His error becomes clear in the next paragraph, where he accuses John Gray of either not recognizing or not sincerely ascribing to those conclusions. He cites a line by Gray referring to human life having no more meaning than slime molds and suggests that Gray doesn't sincerely believe that.

I'm not going to buy the Gray book to check this and couldn't find a more complete quote online but my educated guess is that what Gray is referring to is "ultimate meaning" rather than any kind of meaning. The fact that our lives may not have meaning to anyone a billion billion billion years from now does not mean that our lives don't have quite a lot of meaning to various living beings right now. It does not follow that if our brains our material objects that we are nothing other than way stations in the great causal net that is the universe. Tallis is forgetting that when talking about meaning, implicitly or explicitly it requires a reference of "to whom".

Tallis warns that "Wrong ideas about what human beings are and how we work, especially if they are endlessly repeated, keep us from thinking about ourselves in ways that may genuinely advance our self-understanding." I would agree that wrong ideas about anything will likely keep us from a correct understanding - but I don't think that's what he's getting at here. Tallis seems to throw in a no-true scotsman fallacy here but it may just be another category error. When he says "genuine" he seems to be referring to a certain type of self-understanding.

This is made apparent when he writes of the Churchlands. I would agree with Tallis that I wouldn't want to live in a society where we spoke about our day in terms of serotonin levels (I suspect the Churchland's related that story somewhat tongue in cheekily but it doesn't really matter for our purposes here even if they were serious). I'd agree as well that it would be awkward and ignores the reasons for the reported neurochemical impairments such as failing to get one’s favored candidate appointed to a post. But Tallis either miswrote or was mistaken when he refers to the reasons as the "actual" reasons and implies that focussing on the neurochemical reactions is not genuine self-understanding. The category error becomes clear: they are both "actual" reasons. They both advance our self-understanding - although in different ways.

What Tallis misses is that the "actual" reason - as he puts is - will affect us the same whether or not we are "merely" material brains! My feelings of love for my child are what they are. If they are neurochemically based then they already are so - they don't become that way based on the results of neuroscience. If they are based in part on the brain, and in part on something that is non-material they already are that way - regardless of neuroscientific beliefs.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#4
Regarding humans being reduced to animals, I believe what concerns Tallis is eliminativism applied to intentionality. Peter Hankins raises a similar concern on his blog regarding the Blind Brain Hypothesis of Bakker (mentioned in Utopianism, but here it is again for convenience):

Intellectual Catastrophe

"Scott has a nice discussion of our post-intentional future (or really our non-intentional present, if you like) here on Scientia Salon. He quotes Fodor saying that the loss of ‘common-sense intentional psychology’ would be the greatest intellectual catastrophe ever: hard to disagree, yet that seems to be just what faces us if we fully embrace materialism about the brain and its consequences. Scott, of course, has been exploring this territory for some time, both with his Blind Brain Theory..."
http://www.consciousentities.com/?p=1788
"If it’s really that bad, what would a post-intentional world look like? Well, probably like nothing really, because without our intentional thought we’d presumably have an outlook like that of dogs, and dogs don’t have any view of the mind. Thinking like dogs, of course, has a long and respectable philosophical pedigree going back to the original Cynics, whose name implies a dog-level outlook. Diogenes himself did his best to lead a doggish, pre-intentional life, living rough, splendidly telling Alexander the Great to fuck off and less splendidly, masturbating in public (‘Hey, I wish I could cure hunger too just by rubbing my stomach’). Let’s hope that’s not where we’re heading."
 
#5
Regarding humans being reduced to animals, I believe what concerns Tallis is eliminativism applied to intentionality. Peter Hankins raises a similar concern on his blog regarding the Blind Brain Hypothesis of Bakker (mentioned in Utopianism, but here it is again for convenience):

Intellectual Catastrophe

"Scott has a nice discussion of our post-intentional future (or really our non-intentional present, if you like) here on Scientia Salon. He quotes Fodor saying that the loss of ‘common-sense intentional psychology’ would be the greatest intellectual catastrophe ever: hard to disagree, yet that seems to be just what faces us if we fully embrace materialism about the brain and its consequences. Scott, of course, has been exploring this territory for some time, both with his Blind Brain Theory..."
"If it’s really that bad, what would a post-intentional world look like? Well, probably like nothing really, because without our intentional thought we’d presumably have an outlook like that of dogs, and dogs don’t have any view of the mind. Thinking like dogs, of course, has a long and respectable philosophical pedigree going back to the original Cynics, whose name implies a dog-level outlook. Diogenes himself did his best to lead a doggish, pre-intentional life, living rough, splendidly telling Alexander the Great to fuck off and less splendidly, masturbating in public (‘Hey, I wish I could cure hunger too just by rubbing my stomach’). Let’s hope that’s not where we’re heading."
You are making the same mistake as Tallis. Reduced to animals in what sense? I'm not sure what properly constitutes common-sense intentional psychology or how useful it is considered or not. However I'm pretty sure that common-sense intentional psychology is of more use to humans than it is to chickens.

Humans are similar to other animals in some respects and different from other animals in other respects.

If common sense intentional psychology has been useful to humans, it has been that way whether self-awareness is materially based or not. Our mental states don't appear or disappear based on our beliefs about the nature of consciousness!
 
#8
Intentionality and Intention aren't the same thing.
I didn't think they were (more precisely, I'd never heard of the philosophical concept of intentionality prior to your raising it in some other threads and read some brief descriptions about it.)

I'm not sure what that has to my post? Let's not get off track onto a discussion about the difference between intentionality and intention though (you've got that going in the other thread) - unless you think something important turns on it vis-a-vis the Tallis article.

Is there anything you disagree with in my analysis so far? I'm pretty well at the end of the intro so we should nail that down before I continue with going through the paper.
 
#9
Not a problem, guys. Just be aware that the only thing that the the suffix "ality" ('al' + 'ity') does to the root word, is condition it to mean "the state of."

Thus "reality" is the state of being real. Equality is the state of being equal.
And of course, intentionality is simply the state of intending.
 
#10
Not a problem, guys. Just be aware that the only thing that the the suffix "ality" ('al' + 'ity') does to the root word, is condition it to mean "the state of."

Thus "reality" is the state of being real. Equality is the state of being equal.
And of course, intentionality is simply the state of intending.
You're referring to the common definitions. Sci is referring to the philosophical definition: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#11
I'm not sure what that has to my post?
I don't get understand how you're refuting the concern that eliminativism regarding intentionality leaves little to no reason to think of humans differently than animals. There's a reason why materialist-leaning folk like Hankins raise the issue. The discussion going on at Conscious Entities, as well as Scientia Salon, is worth a look.

Is there anything you disagree with in my analysis so far?
I'd have to give it another read through.
 
#12
You're referring to the common definitions. Sci is referring to the philosophical definition: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/
You are right, but attending closely to the philosophical definition and the language definition, it is clear that the former borrowed from the latter, as both are buoyed up by the notion of a "directing towards." (in other words, I don't think that the language definition can be so easily "bled out" of the philosophical definition...but it's probably not a discussion for this thread).
 
#13
I don't get understand how you're refuting the concern that eliminativism regarding intentionality leaves little to no reason to think of humans differently than animals.
I've tried to lay out my opinion above - maybe let me know which part you're not understanding? I'd be happy to try and clarify.

I'd have to give it another read through.
I look forward to your thoughts!
 
#14
I see a problem right in the first couple of paragraphs.

The failure to distinguish consciousness from neural activity corrodes our self-understanding in two significant ways. If we are just our brains, and our brains are just evolved organs designed to optimize our odds of survival — or, more precisely, to maximize the replicative potential of the genetic material for which we are the vehicle — then we are merely beasts like any other, equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives. Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.
I think he is right, but also, sloppy in his expression. We can be "just" our brains and yet this "just" can refer to something other than materialism. The same applies to a term such as "neural activity." Again, near the end of the paragraph "If we are just our brains and our brains are just material objects." This is the same confusion repeated, because these are two different questions. Our consciousness can be functionally and/or ontologically bound to brain, and yet that brain might (or might not) be "just a material object."
 
#15
“Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.” Such awkward chemical conversation is unlikely to replace “folk psychology” anytime soon, despite the Churchlands’ fervent wishes, if only because it misses the actual human reasons for the reported neurochemical impairments — such as, for example, failing to get one’s favored candidate appointed to a post.
I don't believe that's a literal anecdote for a second (unless it was a family joke) but taking the spirit of it as serious for the purposes of argument, clearly these things cannot be taken to "explain" colors of subjectivity (as they are not contained within the conceptual materials - (serotonin, glucocorticoids, etc) but can only be taken to "produce" them, much in the way that a kettle is a causal force in "producing" tea but does not explain tea.
 
#16
Moreover, there is strong reason to believe that the failure to provide a neuroscientific account of the sufficient conditions of consciousness and conscious behavior is not a temporary state of affairs. It is unlikely that the gap between neuroscientific stories of human behavior and the standard humanistic or common-sense narratives will be closed, even as neuroscience advances and as our tools for observing neural activity grow more sophisticated.
I do agree with this. It seems very likely that the underlying problem is of fundamental kind rather than degree. Matter as a concept just doesn't have the "skill set" to account for these things without a radical resetting of what the very concept of "matter" is. But then I for one have been saying this for years :)
 
#17
Tallis and apparently all current neuroscientists consider as fact that the brain is necessary for human consciousness exists, so the question is whether the brain and body in general are sufficient for consciousness, but this ignores all data of research psychic (apparitions, mediumship ...) that suggest that the brain is only necessary for consciousness can manifest openly in the physical realm, but it is not necessary for consciousness exists.
 
#18
Tallis and apparently all current neuroscientists consider as fact that the brain is necessary for human consciousness exists, so the question is whether the brain and body in general are sufficient for consciousness, but this ignores all data of research psychic (apparitions, mediumship ...) that suggest that the brain is only necessary for consciousness can manifest openly in the physical realm, but it is not necessary for consciousness exists.
Probably not the subject of the thread?
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#20
I don't believe that's a literal anecdote for a second (unless it was a family joke)
Actually it seems like it is a real quote.

Paul and Pat, realizing that the revolutionary neuroscience they dream of is still in its infancy, are nonetheless already preparing themselves for this future, making the appropriate adjustments in their everyday conversation. One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’ ” Paul and Pat have noticed that it is not just they who talk this way—their students now talk of psychopharmacology as comfortably as of food.
 
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