Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
The sublime synapse
Not one but two different SCT readers pointed me in email to an NY Times article on the attempt by literary theorists to harness neurology and cognitive science. The Times has since followed up with a collection of essays ruminating on the never-ending search in Humanities departments for the so called Next Big Thing, of which this engagement with neurons is the latest chapter. (The trend is more than just a fad; dissertations are being written and careers founded. One website devoted to developments in the field is this one, with a useful page of further links).
It all brought to mind an article I read some time ago by philosopher Raymond Tallis. Tallis belongs to the venerable tradition of doctor-thinkers that stretches from Heraclitus to Karl Jaspers. When he opines on matters medical, he is remarking on something he knows a little bit about. It's somewhat refreshing, then, to read his curt dismissal of what he sees as the pretensions of scientific accounts of consciousness. I don't know whether he is right or not, but Tallis' emphasis on how little we know, and his argument that consciousness does not reduce in any simple sense to brain states, just smells better to me than the over-confident predictions I read of being able to model states of mind or to "explain" consciousness. (It's the over-confidence, not the explanation per se, that I don't trust). In the case of our aesthetic experiences, Tallis is quite impatient with claims to account for them, or even to shed much light on them, via neuroscience.
Likewise with spirituality; Tallis contends in this article that attempts either to defend or to attack spirituality by finding some basis for it in brain science, or in evolutionary psychology, are misguided. The believers are wrong to think that a neural or evolutionary hardwiring of the religious instinct would lend much weight to the case for belief--not unless you are prepared to buy into intelligent design, which already betrays the premises of the evolutionary psychology it relies on; but, Tallis says, the nonbelievers are wrong too, because the explanations just don't work for anything as complex as religion in any case. (Tallis has spelled out some of his own account of human nature and culture in a number of works, most notably his trilogy, The Hand, I Am, and The Knowing Animal.)
For the record, I think Tallis somewhat overstates his negative case (I am more enthusiastic about his positive formulations, insafar as I understand them). While he's clearly sensed that some of the motivation behind "neuro-(a)theology" is to "cut religion down to size," the value of science, even when spurred by unscientific motives, is not nil. The refusal to look through Galileo's telescope is not, and never was, tenable. But how to understand what any sort of -scope shows, is a different matter.
For myself, while I take pleasure in Tallis' acerbic prose, and I welcome the arguments of an atheist chiding his fellow atheists for over-reaching (to forestall the objection that any criticism of gung-ho scientism must be motivated by some irrational religious ideological commitment), I'm pretty content to let the whole thing go by; count me as already persuaded. Both literature and spirituality (whether you want to talk about the latter in terms of "beliefs," "states," "practices,' even "memes," or whatever) are certainly going to have a lot of physiological and neural substrata--it's almost laughable to even have to say it--as they are things that human beings do, and humans come with their nervous systems or not at all. To be interested in these substrata is not inherently to be a reductionist. But reductionism is a real (and mistaken) possible stance, and not always an avowed one. Tallis' warnings against it may be over the top (Sam Harris certainly thinks so), but his point is well taken.