Philosopher Raymond Tallis – Challenging Pop Neuroscience

Will Hall

November 29, 2012

There’s a widespread belief in psychiatric and mental health circles that human experience can be reduced to the biology of brain chemistry — the “medical model.” But this is just the tip of the iceberg: our whole society is in the grips of a faddish pseudo-science of “neuromarketing,” “neuropolitics” “neurotheology,” and ‘neuroeconomics.” Closely related is the eugenics-like reduction of human behavior to simple equations of ‘survival fitness’ supposedly derived from Darwin (who, it turns out, had a far more sophisticated view). It seems you can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper or turn on television these days without some otherwise intelligent person telling us, with great earnestness, that a magnetic resonance imaging machine has uncovered the truth of love, or that neurotransmitters explain shopping trends, that brain structure is responsible for red states and blue states, or that we like music because it gave hunter gatherers a survival advantage. Raymond Tallis — philosopher, Academy of Medical Sciences Fellow, and author of Why the Mind is Not a Computer and Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity – is an intellectual dissident against these pop trends of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and I had an opportunity recently to interview him for Madness Radio. 

Tallis is an impressive thinker who, as a medical doctor and neurologist as well as a philosopher, has the credentials to challenge today’s intellectual absurdities.The struggle against the medical model is also a struggle to restore basic humanistic values and common sense. We are trying to help suffering people, not repair faulty neurotransmitters. “Why do I suffer?” is a human dilemma that leads to moral, political, philosophical, and religious questions, and no neuroscientific slight of hand can enable psychiatry or any other medical science to avoid such questions.

A listener commented about Tallis’ view of animals in this interview, and I think it is worth addressing. Behaviorism and evolutionary science mistakenly reduce humans to simplistic equations of survival and stimulus-response that science also attributes to animals. In emphasizing that humans are not just animals, as Tallis does, I don’t think it necessarily follows that we then have to agree with the biological reductionism of animals themselves. Biology also has gotten animals wrong if it doesn’t appreciate the rich complexity — including elements of culture and language — found among animals (what research has learned about elephants confirms the depths of animal minds and the complexity of animal society). Yet there remains an enormous gulf between how we experience humans and how we experience animals in the realms of culture, technology, language, and emotion. We don’t have to deny animals their own rich consciousness to also affirm the unmistakeable uniqueness of what it is to be human.

Madness Radio: Beyond Biological Reductionism Raymond Tallis

Can people’s behavior really be explained by neuroscience and our evolutionary needs as hunter-gatherers — or is this just a popular fad? Does understanding the brain really solve the mysteries of being human? Neurologist Dr. Raymond Tallis, philosopher, Academy of Medical Sciences Fellow, and author of Why the Mind is Not a Computer and Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, exposes the bad science and faulty logic behind pop obsessions with the brain
and evolutionary psychology. www.raymondtallis.com http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article3712980.ece http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2012/09/your-brain-pseudoscience

Will Hall

Living With Mental Diversity:  A Process Work therapist, teacher, schizophrenia survivor and host of Madness Radio writes about discovering new ways to understand mental illness as a meaningful and purposeful part of what it is to be human.

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2 thoughts on “Philosopher Raymond Tallis – Challenging Pop Neuroscience

  1. Hi Will,

    Thanks for that interview.

    FunctionalRMI studies and the likes are – in the psychology and psychiatric front -hoping to replace the failed and rather simplistic monoaminergic theory of mental illnesses and of human behaviors from chocolate craving to crimes- you name it.

    As I already comment on neuroskeptic ‘s blog :
    http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.fr/2012/11/am-i-attacking-neuroscience.html

    Ivana Fulli MD said…

    Nitpicker,

    To oppose and ridicule “bastardization by glib” producing “neuresthetics” and “neurolaw” does not require good scientist qualities- in my opinion.

    -except when you have got a RMI (without the f ) showing a frontal brain tumor and the likes for neurolaw-

    Common sense and honesty will do.

    In neuroscientists but also in lawyers, judges, artcritics… and journalists

    24 November 2012 17:57

    I will listen carefuly and buy the books of your host-

    Thanks Will for letting me know about that thinker.

    NB: RMI use offer static pictures of brains (and other part of a human or animal body) allowing doctors to diagnose a frontal lobe brain tumor or a subacute temporal hematoma etc…who might express themselves -for a time- only with psychiatric clinical symptoms when functionnal RMI (fRMI) show “a brain in action”-unfortunatly it has been proved to produce a brain in action in a dead salmon client and many people use public money to run very poorly conceived but sexy and quickly done and quickly published studies.

  2. To my view, part of the problem are shallow thinking and greedy for fame or money journalists but also the very shallow and egocentric thinking of researchers believing that science doing should be fun and quickly done like the anonymous neuroskeptic who claim -with vraisemblance to be a young male British anonymous depression sufferer helped by a two antidepressant regiment he does not plan to stop for the years to come- psychologist FRMI researcher:

    26 November 2012 18:29
    Blogger Neuroskeptic said…

    ///DS: Good point. My view is, bad science is bad whether it’s from journalists or scientists. I tend to focus on science, though, just because it’s more interesting. Bad media neuroscience is rarely wrong in a new or fun way.///

    26 November 2012 19:33

    The trouble is -to my mind and I might be wrong- (I tried to comment to him on his blog but that comment was censured and deleted after a little enough time):

    In that comment, neuroskeptic doesn’t seem to graps the difference between intersting and fun when real scientists and thinkers are working very hard on very difficult and complicated problems they hope to contribute a little to solve for as long as it takes to produce good sound results.

    Those real scientists and thinkers have a very hard time explaining to the lay people the fun of it!

    Idem for getting research grant and academic positions.

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