Are we Neuromaniacs?
I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views. What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin
I don’t often feel nervous before an RSA event, especially one I am not taking part in, but the Neuromania debate between Ray Tallis and Matthew Taylor on July 5th is likely to pose important questions for the legitimacy of the Social Brain Project.
Tallis is the figurative ‘enemy’ that Berlin alludes to above. He is a trained doctor and neuroscientist, but also a respected philosopher and cultural critic. The message of his recently released book: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is that we have drastically overestimated the ability of science, particularly neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, to provide guidance on who we are, and how we should live. Tallis also directly attacks our Chief Executive Matthew Taylor, my predecessor Matt Grist, and the entire raison d’etre of the Social Brain Project(at least as he understands it) which I am currently responsible for.
Tallis’s book is nonetheless an extremely important contribution to the public understanding of science. I am definitely with him on the inadequacy of the cruder materialistic theories of consciousness, which I think is his real target and concern. I agree that we are not merely our brains, that humans do differ significantly from other animals, and that consciousness is (probably) more than an artefact of evolutionary biology. I also think he is right that neuroscience cannot and should not serve in a foundational or axoimatic role for social, ethical and political questions.
Like Tallis, I am deeply troubled by the legerdemain that leads froma mis-reading of an FMRI scan, to conceptual confusion on the relationship between mind and brain, to questionable insights into the causes of human behaviour, to a misdiagnosis of social challenges, to value-laden policy positions that existed independently of the brain science, but which find fresh justification through the preceding pseudoscientific process.
But the RSA Social Brain project wants no part of that. I really don’t think we are Tallis’s target at all. His bugbear is with the idea of science as authority, science as reductionism, and science as arbiter on issues beyond its provenance(talking of which, the book is rather funny- in one of his more withering attacks, Tallis refers to ‘colonic material of a taurine provenance’).
Tallis makes reference to Matthew Taylor wanting policy to be informed by findings from the “neuro-lab”, but this feels tendentious. What the RSA is interested in is learning more about ourselves and our capacties as agents of social change- in the language of 21st century enlightenment: our self aware autonomy.
Such awareness is not about deferring to men in white coats but about continually reflecting on the conditions of our action, including but by no means limited to our biological conditions. To say that we need to be more aware of our biology is enlightened, to say that it fully determines who we are, or that we should stop being interested in everything else, is not.
In other words, Tallis is overreacting. This feeling was confirmed by his sideswipe at Iain McGilchrist (fellow neuroscientist/philosopher/culture critic) and his book, The Master and His Emissary, which he believes is the epitome of neuromania, becuase I suspect McGilchrist is very much on Tallis’s side with regard to the widespread mis-use of neuroscience, and its tendency to (literally) misrepresent human beings.
Tallis seems to be conflating our interest in the educative value of neuroscience with an uncritical reverence for its supposed imperial warrant. The former is healthy, and should not be lost due to fear of the latter. Neuroscience is a new card in the explanatory deck for human behaviour, and a powerful one, but it is not a trump card, and should not be played as such.
It is right to recognise that natural sciences enjoy greater epistemic warrant than social sciences and humanities, and that this represents an intellectual and cultural hazard, but the warrant can be curtailed with the right critical engagement. The prefix ‘neuro’, properly understood, need not be a signal of reductionism, but should instead be about recognising the periodic relevance and occasional salience of the distinct features of our extended and relational nervous systems.
There is a course between neuromania and neurophobia, and we are trying to chart it. The challenge is not to ignore or undervalue neuroscience, but to critically engage with it. The task for the RSA, I think, is to move away from the idea of ‘science as authority’- justifying moral/political positions, to ‘science as provocation’- stimulating reflexive behaviour change. That is what we are now working on building into a unique offer, as will become clear from publications over the next few weeks.