the curious case of a skeptical bait and switch

If you ask Raymond Tallis, he will start off some very valid critiques about the use of functional MRI to map the brain, and end up regurgitating creationist talking points.
brain mri

Gerontologist and philosopher Raymond Tallis has a lengthy article browbeating neuroscience in the latest edition of New Humanist. Though he starts out by advocating caution in using neurology beyond the intended scope of the discipline and branching out into economics, technology and law, his piece quickly derails into a rather confusing homunculus of arguments against today’s research into brain function and structure. It’s not that Tallis is against scientific progress in neurology, it’s just that in his quest to take a shot across the bow of esoteric and obscure pseudoscientific notions, he discards much of what we know about the brain as virtually meaningless and grossly simplistic, muddling the matter with philosophical pontifications along the way.

Sure, every promising field of research is bound to inspire people who don’t realize the relevant limitations of the science involved to suggest unworkable ideas which sometimes get traction and become rather trendy in the popular science world. However, the ideas of incorporating neurology into every facet of our lives in Tallis’ crosshairs have either been around for a little while and failed to catch on, or exist in such narrow niches, they received a brief write-up or two and remain a topic between small communities of the faithful. And that makes it even stranger that neurologists are the ones who get the brunt of the author’s discontent…

The fundamental assumption is that we are our brains and this, I will argue presently, is not true. But this is not the only reason why neuroscience does not tell us what human beings really are: it does not even tell us how the brain works, or how bits of the brain work, or (even if you accept the dubious assumption that human living could be parcelled up into a number of discrete functions) which bit of the brain is responsible for which function. The rationale for thinking of the kind — “This bit of the brain houses that bit of us…” — is mind-numbingly simplistic.

This line of debate is simply puzzling. So presently, we’re not our brains? Will we be tomorrow? Or what about the day after? And if we’re not our brains, who are we? Why do we even have neuroscience if it’s so worthless than it can’t tell us absolutely anything about the brain according to Tallis? And what’s with the quasi-religious declaration that it’s impossible to describe humans as a set of discrete functions? How should we describe a human then? Finally, yes, it’s true that to say certain bits of the brain house certain bits of us is simplistic, but neuroscientists don’t make such claims in the first place. Instead, they try to identify which areas of our minds are active under certain circumstances and how they interact to shape our memory, instincts, cognition, and in due time, personality and consciousness.

What the author is doing can be best described as turning on the science to describe its limitations to those who don’t really understand them and in the process of doing so, he goes so far and ridicules so much about neurology, one is left thinking that studying brain function is a waste of time and effort which yielded nothing of value. It’s not just hyperbole. Tallis attacks everything from MRI based research to the very notion that we could even probe the brain to find out how it works. Resurrecting epistemological arguments you’d expect to see on a religious blog rather than in a humanist magazine and the charge that just because under certain stimuli in controlled conditions a certain part of the brain consistently lights up doesn’t mean that is has any role to play in processing that stimulus, he tears into neurology with unsettling zeal.

Really, it’s one thing to rebuke unrealistic and overzealous ideas about hyped-up studies. But just discarding the entire science from beginning to end to make that argument is just too much, especially when you start to attack perfectly sensible research and dive into arguments from complexity one would expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute arguing against a book on human evolution rather than a medical professional. Same goes for Tallis’ other column in the same magazine in which he argues that while the theory of evolution is all well and good, biology is being used for the heinous act of denying that humans are creatures that have pretty much transcended the rest of the animal kingdom with a similar rhetorical bait and switch. You see, Raymond Tallis is unique by virtue of being human and no scientist will tell him otherwise. His issues with creationism and overzealous pseudoscience? Just a veneer for indulging in his religious gripes…

# science // evolution / neurology / opinion / popular science


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