There’s something deeply satisfying about the field of neuroscience taking a roundhouse to the face from a professor of geriatric medicine who hails from the same town as Morrissey.
The aforementioned Raymond Tallis has been on a rampage lately. Most recently he’s pointed out in an article in New Scientist the fallacious nature of applying something as calculating as science to explain something as subjective as human consciousness. Tallis sides with a small and much bullied group that don’t believe that consciousness is necessarily generated within the brain. As such, neuroscience isn’t equipped to investigate what it is that accounts for the human sense of self.
This is a fairly radical suggestion in an age where neurology is taken to be capable of explaining absolutely everything. You just slide some poor sap into the Wonder Machine, tell him to hold still and show him pictures of a) children being abused to explore what region of the brain controls disgust; b) alternating photos of women in bikinis and tools to show that men view women as objects; c) pictures of Coke and Pepsi to carry out the ultimate taste test. And so on.
An fMRI is ready-made to prove any theory that the brain controls one aspect of our lives, from everyday pain to esoteric concepts like morality. It’s the relic of the brain-age, where everything from our decision to share more found money than we have to with a stranger (or push an obese man in front of a runaway trolley) to the very existence of God (well, god now) can be explained by electrochemical impulses between neurons within our brains. A researcher posits that the brain is responsible for [insert your own hypothesis] and conducts the study within an fMRI. As the study plays out the brain lights up and — presto — proof the brain is responsible for whatever hypothesis you inserted is laid out before us and the international press to gobble up. Near-death experiences: explained. Romantic love: explained. Food cravings: explained.
But the boldness and the confidence that’s grown with each new finding that spins through the news cycle has taken the field of neuroscience further from a very basic scientific concept: correlation does not imply causation. The rise in oxygen levels that show up on an MRI scan as a field of colors has been taken as the brain at work busily creating our morality or our inclusion in society. But what if we’re seeing the brain reacting, rather than creating? What’s more, this is the same machine that showed activity in the brain of a dead salmon that was shown photos of humans and asked what emotions it perceived in each one.
Tallis points out that with this confidence and possibly fallacious approach neuroscience is tackling the ultimate mystery of the brain, the thing which controls all other aspects of ourselves: our consciousness. Our very minds. What is it that creates the awareness that we are unique individuals? Is it simply a function of a system of neural pathways that work in conjunction to give us conscious awareness of our surroundings and the idea that we are something more than a skin bag of organs and bones and ova and sperm? What point is there to such a trick of the mind, the very granddaddy of all tricks of the mind, the very trick that the mind itself exists?
A unique self-awareness makes no sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If we are vehicles meant to further the species, then why wouldn’t we have developed a sense of group rather than self? These questions, neurologists are growing increasingly confident to say, can be answered with enough trips through the Wonder Machine. We may not have a handle on it yet, but we have laid the foundation for explaining human consciousness. We are on the right track.
What Tallis points out (and what I find I agree with) is that science itself is a faulty tool for such an investigation. As he puts it, “There is nothing in physical science that can explain why a physical object such as a brain should ascribe appearances/qualia to material objects that do not intrinsically have them.” He uses the example of a table: You say it’s a small table, I say it’s large, science says it’s 0.66 metres square. Small, large, love, hate, red, orange, good, evil. These concepts and each of their nuances that constitute subjectivity don’t belong to the realm of science, but they are what constitute human consciousness.
The pro-neuroscience side’s position is pretty simple: Where else would consciousness exist but in the brain? And since we can now see inside the human brain as it functions and watch it react to stimulus, we will in due course determine what system of these functions is responsible for creating our consciousness.
Where else but the brain would consciousness exist, indeed. I think that’s an even more interesting question than whether neuroscience can capably investigate consciousness.