Raymond Tallis has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't like the recent trend towards research at the cross-roads of neuroscience and the humanities. In a series of sensational editorials, he has derided what he uncharitably refers to as "neuro-trash" and "neuro-mythology." I, for one, think that his arguments tend to shed far more heat than light. Minimally, Tallis' frequently commits what I have called the fallacy of composition when it comes to the field of neurolaw. As such, I plan to post a few responses in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I thought I would provide readers with links to some of the things he has written about the relationship between neuroscience and the humanities in the past few years."Neurotrash"
In summary, such are the limitations of our understanding of the brain, attempting to apply the findings of neuroscience to social policy would be premature, even if this were not wrong in principle. But it is wrong in principle. The fabric of the human world, of the public space that is the arena of our lives, is woven out of explicit shared attention that has been infinitely elaborated in a way that has little to do with what goes on in the darkness of the individual skull, though you require a brain in working order in order to be part of it. If you come across a new discipline with the prefix “neuro” and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.
Meanwhile, the neuromitigation of blame has to be treated with suspicion
except in those instances where there is unambiguous evidence of grossly
abnormal brain function or abnormal mental function due to clearcut illness
that may have its origin in brain disease. Our knowledge of the relationship
between brain and consciousness, brain and self, and brain and agency is so
weak and so conceptually confused that the appeal to neuroscience in the law
courts, the police station or anywhere else is premature and usually
inappropriate. And, I would suggest, it will remain both premature and
inappropriate. Neurolaw is just another branch of neuromythology.
Our failure to explain consciousness in terms of neural activity inside the brain inside the skull is not due to technical limitations which can be overcome. It is due to the self-contradictory nature of the task, of which the failure to explain "aboutness", the unity and multiplicity of our awareness, the explicit presence of the past, the initiation of actions, the construction of self are just symptoms. We cannot explain "appearings" using an objective approach that has set aside appearings as unreal and which seeks a reality in mass/energy that neither appears in itself nor has the means to make other items appear. The brain, seen as a physical object, no more has a world of things appearing to it than does any other physical object.
(*) This piece is not specifically about neurolaw, but it is based on assumptions that inform Tallis' so-called neuro-skepticism.
It appears both Tallis' strategy and his rhetoric are catching on, as evidenced by this recent piece by Denyse O'Leary over at Mertcator.net:
I'd like to propose a radical idea. Why don't the neuroscientists and progressive humanists stop hyperventilating and chill out for a while. Let them reflect on the fact that a hundred years ago phrenology, the "science" of analysing behaviour by putting a tape measure around a skull, was all the rage. Until they can account for the difference between the mind and the brain, their research might not be worth a hill of beans. In fact, it might just be, in the words of Raymond Tallis, neo-phrenology.