Tallis – Aping Mankind
I have been reading Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and The Misrepresentation of Humanity. I have not quite finished it yet but I wanted to post this while it is still fresh.
His critique of contemporary models of consciousness so exactly aligned with my own that I am glad that I did not read the book until now because I would have thought that I had lifted my entire opinion from his. Tallis sees with the same crystal clarity how neurology and evolution fail completely to address the fact of conscious experience itself. He uses some of the same terms I do, pointing out as I often do that a “re-presentation” can only exist as a way of transferring or transmitting a presentation and cannot itself replace the presentation.
The first half of the book makes the same case that I do for consideration of human experience as a completely different phenomenon from either Darwinian evolution (which he and I both respect completely in its original sense as pertaining to natural selection for species development, and the extension into heredity by genetic probability), neuroscientific materialism, or information-theoretic idealism.
Yes – I agree that consciousness is neither information, function, nor matter.
Yes – I agree the human consciousness may be fundamentally different from other species.
Yes – I agree that the compulsive overconfidence in evolution and neuroscience to explain human consciousness is misguided and ultimately pathological if taken literally (as he says, ‘Darwinitis’ and ‘Neuromania’)
Yes – I strongly agree with his characterization of exactly how the resultant philosophy of this amounts to closing the door on the validity of experience. The similarity between his “disappearance of appearance” (p. 140-145) to my “De-presentation” convinces me that we both see the Emperor’s New Clothes aspect of all of this in the same glaringly-obvious way. We both understand that despite the dismissive assurances, there is an unbridgeable chasm between what neural activity actually is and what it is supposed to produce (qualia, intention).
With the author’s medical background, I appreciate his critique of neuroscientific epistemology. While I’m not qualified to give an opinion on that, I do see his point that the success of neurological mapping of consciousness may be closer to a modern descendant of phrenology than we are led to believe.
It does seem hard to justify the redundancy and ambiguity of neurotransmitter roles in the presumed functioning of consciousness. If I asked what neurotransmitter is most responsible for generating the feeling of reward, there doesn’t seem to be any that do not qualify. Arousal and reward applies equally to the Noradrenaline, Dopamine, and Cholinergic systems, with the Serotonin system’s correlation to “mood” easily applicable. If neuroscientific correlations with conscious experience were put up against pseudoscientific correlations I wonder how they would fare? How many scientists would submit to a reality show exhibition of medical vs astrological predictions like “Are You Smarter Than A Telephone Psychic?”
Not to diminish the medical application of neuroscience, but when it comes to stepping up to a theory of emotion and sensation, isn’t it a case of the pot calling the kettle unfalsifiable? Are we using fMRI’s and EEGs as a kind of occidental neuromancy – oracles of disorientation? Is the foundation of the neuron doctrine a placebo for scientists? I submit that any given group of ordinary people interpreting a canned astrological reading (or I Ching, numerology, etc), would have a similar level of consensus in a blind test against a group of neuroscientists trying to extrapolate character and destiny information from neurophysiological reports. Medical conditions, sure, but I would bet that when stacked up against Myers-Briggs or any kind of intuitive reading, the neuroscience is measurably more blind for predicting ordinary human personality characteristics.
When it comes to evolutionary genesis of consciousness, Tallis and I are also on the same page.
Think, after all, what unconscious mechanisms have actually achieved: the evolution of the material universe; the processes that are supposed to have created life and conscious organisms; the growth, development and most of the running of even highly conscious organisms such as ourselves. If you had to undertake something really difficult, for example growing in utero a brain with all its connections in place – consciousness is the last thing you would want to oversee the task. p. 176
In this light, we can see that consciousness is actually a disability that could only dilute the speed and efficiency of an automatic mental mechanism. In our weakness and prevarication, we waste precious time in making up our minds when a pure computation would simply yield the most probable success outcome and execute behavior accordingly.
He sees, as I do, that until there is awareness, what is the point of valuing ‘survival’? Without something to tell the difference between one species and another, what does it matter which invisible forms replace each other at any particular unexperienced time?
Tallis talks about the importance of seeing consciousness from the prospective view rather than the retrospective. Not taking consciousness for granted is the most critical aspect of approaching consciousness – to find consciousness from preconsciousness rather than taking the elements of consciousness for granted in justifying their own appearance. I have been calling this “The Elephant In Every Room” problem, and see it is the most significant hurdle that we face in building a 21st century understanding of consciousness.
I think that rigorously applying the prospect view of consciousness from preconsciousness is the only hope we have of not begging the question of the origin of awareness. Of course we can make a wireframe model of agents and actors operating in a world of interactive shadows (data), but why does this data need “us”? If you have actual information already, why invent some phenomenological layer of illusion and an illusory audience to imagine that it is not a simulation? (at least, until the illusory audience evolves to the point that it can teach itself to think that it is questioning the validity of the simulation…which somehow gives us the power to access another, unsimulated ‘reality’).
In his chapter “Bewitched by Language”, professor Tallis exposes the sentimental bias and wishful thinking behind computational models of intelligence. He gets the Symbol Grounding problem, as did Leibniz in his Windmill Argument and Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. (Personally I like my example of the polite trash can that waves ‘THANK YOU’ every time you use it). He sees that information is only real in the context of conscious entities using communication devices, and not a primitive substance of pseudo-substance that haunts the universe from the outside.
While Darwinitis requires its believers only to impute human characteristics to animals (and vice versa), Neuromania demands of its adepts that they should ascribe human characteristics to physical processes taking place in the brain. – p.183
…when you personify the brain and bits of brain, then it is easy to “brainify” the person. – p. 187
The author gives us the best and least understood arguments for the failure of contemporary science to grasp the explanatory gap and hard problem of consciousness. It is interesting then, that out of this perfect and wholehearted agreement, I come to diametrically opposite conclusions than he seems to be coming to – which I will get into in the next post.
As promised, here is part two of my discussion on Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind. In part one, I went over how impressed I was with the fact that his reasons for rejecting evolutionary and neuroscientific explanations of consciousness (without involving religious ideas) are the same as my own. I have never read another author who has so closely expressed my views in one place – the underlying weakness of “information” as an objectively real system and the unscientific assumptions that arise from the retrospective (reverse engineered) view of consciousness.
I can’t fault the author for leaving off where he does, sort of painted into a corner where all scientific and spiritual explanations are unworkable. I feel like he spent so much intellectual energy mounting a strong critique of the status quo that he has not had the time or wherewithal to develop a path forward – a path, which I think I have been on.
Midway through the book, Tallis’ views take a turn toward human exceptionalism which leaves little room for relating the human experience to the universe in general – something which to me is the most important part of understanding consciousness. He rightfully defends the humanities against the encroachment of the various neuro-prefixed replacements, pointing out the essential gulf between things like art, literature, religion, law, and what can possibly be modeled from neuroscience or evolutionary biology. He talks about how even if we started out with a world that could be generated by a brain, we have long since transcended that with a whole semiosphere of accumulated inter-brain constructs that can no longer be considered neurological or biological.
The book does a good job, at least for me, of pointing out the fallacy that all of these new sciences make in ‘sawing off the limb that they sit on’ – how science itself can only be a meaningless flood of neurotransmitters evolved into yet another ‘hard wired’ plumage of peacock feathers to attract mates. The author correctly says that talent is not always positively linked to show-off behaviors, and that often times genius goes unappreciated while lesser lights attain celebrity due to their extroversion and marketing efforts.
I agree. If we were to take the “Neuromaniac-Darwinitic” view of humanity seriously, then “truth” itself could only be certain neurotransmitters or truth-correlate signals in a particular area of the brain. In that case, we should no longer require that we do experiments with our flawed perception of a simulated universe, but instead simply dump a few thousand micrograms of some isomer here or there, tweak a bit of brain matter with the right combination of electromagnetic stimulation, and voila – truth must appear, just as the delusion of God appears when we stimulate the “God spot” of the brain.
However, I think that Professor Tallis misses the opportunity to get on the right side of history in recognizing the sentience of other organisms, though they are different and arguably less significant kinds of awareness in comparison to our own. We know about bacteria and plants communicating. We know about the strange properties of entanglement and uncertainty. These understandings I think are not compatible with an isolationist view of psyche. Human psyche, sure, but it’s still on the same continent as other animals. Dolphins understand zero, ants ranch aphids, etc. We also know that the brain isn’t the same thing as a foot. fMRIs don’t predict the existence of consciousness, but once we know what we are looking for, I don’t agree that they will continue to be the blunt instruments that they are now. We won’t be able to live in a hard drive, but we may live to see the day when we computers will help us blur the boundary between our inner and outer worlds – living other lives as other people, producing our own full sensory movies, etc. That’s not the same thing as making a computer that cares or leaving our brain behind to live in a computer program.
The door that I think Tallis has missed – or maybe he tried the doorknob too few times, is panpsychism (or panexperientialism). While he understands perfectly Searle’s Chinese Room and why a computer can never feel like a person feels, he doesn’t look carefully enough at our own blindness to different kinds of consciousness. I talk a lot about how poor the record is of human beings recognizing consciousness even within our own species through history, but even within our own families our prejudice against the consciousness of children is substantial. When we think of human exceptionalism, we really mean adult normative human exceptionalism.
As adults, we routinely dismiss the significance of childhood awareness, seeing it only as a functionally important but materially trivial developmental stage, valid only in relation to the development of productive skills as an adult. As we grow up, we often subject younger people, siblings, classmates, etc to derision – accusing them of immaturity, being a baby, etc. Like a dream or drug experience, we grow to see our childhood hopes and dreams as lacking realism, while our current hopes and dreams are elevated to a more worthwhile status. Of course, children see through adults more than we think. They, more than even adults do, sense just how tremendously boring, hypocritical, and full of crap grown ups really are. They have good memories and are more observant of us than we are of them.
My view is that this is more than a social custom. I think it reveals a structural feature of consciousness itself – not only human consciousness but the scientific nature of what awareness literally is. Awareness is how whole entities care more about the things that are important to them or define them and less about other things. This can’t happen just by giving us an electric shock until we ‘care’ about something. Instead it happens by qualitatively foregrounding channels of experiential content and backgrounding others. This isn’t a process of invention where clever ways of multiplexing data must be developed out of whole cloth in each species or individual. I think that it is a case of attaining larger ‘chips off the old block’; recovering more of the sense of the totality through the juxtaposition of multiple channels of sense. Our presentation of the world is presented to us as a unified experience worth caring about, propped up by tent poles of super-signifying semantic motives. These are not literal props, but narrative devices. Characters, scenes, plot elements.
I think this kind of panpsychism is not at all unlikely. Just as we cannot see microwaves with our eyes, we cannot participate in parts of the universe with which we share no common spatiotemporal scope. We can’t fit the human big-top circus into the flea circus. We can look at an anthill and reluctantly admit that they are doing something intelligent, but I do not think that we should insist, as Tallis does, that ants have nothing more than dovetailed automaticity to explain their behavior. That’s what it looks like to us, and they are likely to be objectively more automatic than we are, but they probably still participate in an ant universe as individual ants. I agree with Tallis that human civilization represents a quantum leap, maybe the final leap in animal evolution, but I don’t think that there is anything objectively improbable about that, given the improbability of life and awareness itself. Tallis makes a lot of presumptuous dismissals of the possibility of animal intelligence which I think are overstated and will not age well as more ecological science comes to pass.
The question for me is not whether human exceptionalism is justified or not but to what degree our feeling of exceptionalism is anthropic (the inevitable feeling that we would wind up having because we are humans and humans are so great) or…’soliopic’ (the experience that every participant in the universe must have as an inevitable consequence of subjectivity and therefore casts their own species-centric universe with inferior seeming characters).
The way human consciousness has proved to be biased in favor of the self and others who in some way seem likeable to us, and with the microcosmic universes opened to us through scientific instruments, I have no trouble understanding how we might be blind to some level of awareness in every piece of the material universe. Speed up a galaxy a million times and it’s like a whirlpool or sparkler in a cosmic fireworks show. Slow down a human voice and it sounds like a whale. It’s all related.
I don’t think that this contradicts human exceptionalism though, it just places it in a context of exponential sensorimotive development – we host a Cambrian Explosion of perceptual depths…condensed histories experienced from a single vantage point – an “I myself”. This exponential explosion is qualitative, not merely quantitative, so that it is like having more spectra of primary colors, not just more black and white pixels. In this sense, we are unique in the universe.
Each person exists on the same level of unrepeatable idiopathy that water or the color read exist on. Original, genuine, root level. More than the sum of our cells and experiences, not just in an emergent way like dry metal bearings would have, in a group, an slippery quality, but in a novel, unprecedented way like blue is to yellow. My conjecture is that these are not emergent properties, but recovered properties – like leveling up in a game.
This is why the internet isn’t going to suddenly become self aware like Skynet. It can’t level up for the same reason that silicon has never leveled up to a single celled organism. It’s either not possible or it hasn’t happened yet. Either way, in the mean time, our Cambrian Explosion of human interiority has subdivided time exponentially into intervals so brief that the evolution of Silicon has seemed to stop in its tracks by comparison (or maybe literally stopped it by being first…there’s that cosmic anthropic principle again). It’s the ‘by comparison’ part that is key. I don’t think we can tell exactly how biased we are as to what constitutes life or awareness but I suspect that the bias is very great and perhaps absolute – i.e. our view of silicon may ultimately be nothing more than that, a view, a character in our story.
Tallis view of panpsychism then, I think is a naive one. He hasn’t really committed to the premise for long enough to find what is behind the front door. He, like most people, are thinking that the idea of panpsychism has to mean that every atom would have to be like an independent living being, instead of a micropsychic experience that might be as foreign to us as a bolt of lightning is compared to our own body. Once we entertain the idea that the symmetry of mind and matter is significant, we can see how interior evolution is much different and more private than anything we could conceive of as a three dimensional material phenomenon. We have to really get down on the floor of existence here and see how the inside of our mind is truly and utterly unlike anything that is outside of the mind. Then we can imagine that our entire interior is but one ‘temporal apartment’ in a universe of interior-temporal solar systems and galaxies. Not talking about literal planets and apartments, but just how your self seems to you now, an ‘apart’-ment. This is what time and space are really made of.
The simple formula of matter-energy-space versus sense-motive-time should give us an idea of how the idea of panpsychism is just the beginning, just the tip of an infinity of icebergs with qualitative experiences more diverse than all of the forms of matter that we can imagine put together. Eternity exists for these subjects to multiply and discover their universe and each other through their experientially acumulated filters.
I think that this is the path forward the author is looking for. A way to honor the depth and realism of human consciousness without falling back on pre-scientific assumptions. We don’t need to go ‘back to the drawing board’ as he suggests – neuroscience and evolutionary biology are not as entirely malignant as he fears, but we do need to recontextualize them in a much, much larger physical universe built on symmetry and sense. Not on matter or information, but on that which is informed and matters. At the same time, we need a much smaller universe which is not built on anything in particular except everythingness and the fragmentation-reconnection-respiration thereof.