I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views. What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin
I don’t often feel nervous before an RSA event, especially one I am not taking part in, but the Neuromania debate between Ray Tallis and Matthew Taylor on July 5th is likely to pose important questions for the legitimacy of the Social Brain Project.
Tallis is the figurative ‘enemy’ that Berlin alludes to above. He is a trained doctor and neuroscientist, but also a respected philosopher and cultural critic. The message of his recently released book: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is that we have drastically overestimated the ability of science, particularly neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, to provide guidance on who we are, and how we should live. Tallis also directly attacks our Chief Executive Matthew Taylor, my predecessor Matt Grist, and the entire raison d’etre of the Social Brain Project(at least as he understands it) which I am currently responsible for.
Tallis’s book is nonetheless an extremely important contribution to the public understanding of science. I am definiltey with him on the inadequacy of the cruder materialistic theories of consciousness, which I think is his real target and concern. I agree that we are not merely our brains, that humans do differ significantly from other animals, and that consciousness is (probably) more than an artefact of evolutionary biology. I also think he is right to that neuroscience cannot and should not serve in a foundational or axoimatic role for social, ethical and political questions.