The Observer has a discussion between Tallis and Eagleman, Eagleman representing neural reductionism and Tallis speaking for a more traditional view of mind and brain.

Although it’s worth reading, it turns out a slightly inconclusive encounter. Perhaps on this occasion you’d give Tallis a points victory because he does seem to be looking for a fight, whereas Eagleman is in rather cautious form. They circle each other but never quite identify a proposition which sums up their disagreement clearly enough to get things going.

What seems to emerge is a kind of agreement that mental activity needs to be addressed on more than one level of explanation, with the two antagonists merely giving a different balance of emphasis. This certainly understates the real disagreement between the two.

I think it probably is the case that nearly everyone grants the need for more than one level of explanation. There are those who would say the correct top level is the cosmos itself and that individual consciousness expresses a universal entity.  Not quite as high-level as that we surely need to address consciousness on the level of its explicit and social content; we could call this the ‘home’ level because it is sort of where we live, where we actually experience the world. Most would agree that there are levels of unconscious operation that are also a necessary part of the picture; not many people would say that the structure of the brain and its component neurons tell us nothing; and a majority nowadays would agree that there is ultimately a story at the classical molecular level which, though vastly complex, cannot  be ignored. Some say even this is not enough and that consciousness cannot be understood without giving quantum mechanics, or some as-yet-unknown lower level theory, a crucial role.

Only a very hard-line reductionist would say we only need one of these levels: it’s generally accepted that there are interesting things to be said on several of them which simply cannot be addressed at other levels. What mainly emerges here is Tallis’ defence of the ‘home’ level against Eagleman’s contention that we pay it too much attention and that for many purposes, including our treatment of crime and punishment, we should dethrone it. Intuitively, the motives for Tallis’ incredulity are pretty clear: wouldn’t it be weird if we had developed the apparatus of thought and consciousness and yet it had no important impact on our behaviour? Don’t we just know that discussion and conscious thought ultimately shape what we do, even if our behaviour is sometimes nudged in different directions by factors we’re not aware of?

Yet there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the whole idea of different levels of explanation, isn’t there? How can one reality require half-a-dozen different accounts? It seems a distressingly messy and arbitrary kind of way for the world to be set up, and certainly we greet any successful reduction of higher level entities to lower level ones as a valuable explanatory achievement. So it’s not hard to sympathise with Eagleman’s desire to emphasise the role of levels below consciousness either.

Generally speaking it seems that the lower the level of our explanation the better, as though ultimate reality resides at the lowest micro level we can get to. We always celebrate reductions, not elaborations. Yet there have been some rebellious attempts to push things the other way through ideas such as emergence and embodiment, which claim the whole can be more important than the parts. I notice myself that things seem to come most clearly into focus at or slightly below the home level: if we go far above or below that we start to get into regions where we have to deal in probabilities or slightly fuzzy concepts. Most notably there don’t seem to be identities at other levels in quite the sharp way there are on the home level. Even molecules are interchangeable: they tell us that it’s almost certain we’re breathing at least one atom from the oxygen previously breathed by Julius Caesar, but how could you possibly tell? You can’t label an atom. Another one of the same kind is distinguishable only by where it is. When we go further down even spatial positions start to get a bit smudged. Equally if we start going up the chain we can only draw slightly fuzzy conclusions about what my family, or the society I live in, thinks or does. This might be a reason to think that real reality is around the home level – or it might a reason to think that the whole business of levels simply flows from my restricted viewpoint and limited understanding.

Perhaps, if my brain were capable of holding it, there is a view on which all the levels could come together. After all, I go on thinking about temperature even though I know it is only molecular motion: perhaps in the end we’ll find a way of thinking about the different aspects of mental activity which brings them together without eliminating anything. Perhaps then it might become clear that Eagleman and Tallis don’t really disagree at all. I wouldn’t put any money on that, though.


  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “Perhaps, if my brain were capable of holding it, there is a view on which all the levels could come together.”

    Yes. Your phenomenal world can hold all of your levels, but not all at the same time. You must “view” them one at a time. But you can recall each level and display them all together as an artifact (a model of levels) for cognitive analysis.

  2. 2. Lloyd Rice says:

    I don’t think you would want to “view” all levels at the same time. It seems to me it would make little sense to have to think of family relations in the same frame with subroutine calls (most of the time, anyway).

    But all of this is merely explanatory convenience — it is not reality. So why not have it be maximally convenient?

    I’ve been reading Marburger’s book on “Constructing Reality”. If you want to discuss reality, …. whew. That’s REALLY not the same as what our senses tell us.

  3. 3. Ron Murphy says:

    Tallis has a bee in his bonnet. Well, a couple actually. Not only does he bang on about neuromania, he’s also hot under the collar about darwinitis. The trouble is, if you read his books, and also take in wat he has said in interviews, he seems to be driven by certain fears – oddly, fears that might be more likely associated with the religous. He’s a Humanist, perhaps in the sense that he longs to cling to our humanism, which he feels is threatened by the reductionism of neuroscience and the clarification of our animal nature from Darwinian evolution.

    But I think Tallis gets one very big principle all wrong. This principle is best expressed by Bertrand Russell:

    “When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bare out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you would wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.”

    It seems Tallis is basing his thoughts about what is the case on some unfounded fears about what he thinks might be the case, should neuromania and darwinitis persist.

    “We are part of community of minds, a human world, that is remote in many respects from what can be observed in brains.” – Well, yes. But so what? In what way does this nullify the reductionist methodology inherent in neuroscience. Just as fundamental physics informs out chemistry, and as chemistry informs our biaology, so neuroscience informs our psychology, and in a broader sense our human nature.

    “Of course brain activity is automated and, as you say, runs “under the hood of conscious awareness”, but this doesn’t mean that we are automatons or that we are largely unconscious of the reasons we do things.” – Well, it does. We are automatons. Automatons, by definition, have a degree of autonomy, and we have that. Some, like Tallis, like to stretch the point and claim we have free-will (that’s what he’s really trying to rescue here) while being suitably vague about this free-will. And, the majority of what we do is below the level of consciousness. I’m surprised any scientists thinks otherwise. I have only a vague understanding, consciously, of the points I’m making here, but the words appear automatically, flowing from my brain to my fingers, over which I have very little conscious control when I’m in full flow. If anything my conscious brain is in a sort of trance as I ‘decied’ what to write.

    “If, as you put it in Incognito, “the conscious you is the smallest bit-player in the brain” to the point that even our most important and personal decisions – such as choice of spouse, where to live, or occupation – are directed by brain mechanisms of which we are unaware, how would you have become sufficiently aware of this unawareness to write about it in your book Incognito (which incidentally shows little evidence of having been written by an automaton)?”

    Again, Tallis misses the very point. While Eagleman could no doubt give plenty of explanations of his conscious decision to write the book there is sufficient science available to show that what we think are conscious decisions are far more complex in their production. Tallis is making one of the very poor philosophical claims to the ‘obvious’ here. Just because something seems obvious doesn’t mean it is.

    “A burka or a cross isn’t just a stimulus triggering automated responses, even ones conditioned by culture. Think of the (very conscious) argument about the law governing wearing these items in public.” – Does Tallis really think that many of the discussions of these issues are *not* motivated by unconscious fears and prejudieces? They may play out in conscious sphere sometimes, in the public espression of ideas and in debate, but what is motivatiing the participants in the debate? What are their drives that are influencing their conscious behaviour?

    “Incognito presents us as more helpless, ignorant and zombie-like than is compatible with the kinds of lives we actually live and, what’s more, with doing brain science.” – This is what Tallis fears. He fears the loss of humanity that he sees in such a view. But that isn’t what neuroscience is telling us. It’s not as if water stops behaving like water just because we know something of the internal dynamics of the water molecule; and so it’s not as though humans will stop behaving as humans just because we we find out hoe the brain ticks.

    I’ll leave the last word to Eagleman, who seems to get the unecessary fears that Tallis suffers from:

    “Neuroscience is uncovering a bracing view of what’s happening below the radar of our conscious awareness, but that makes your life no more “helpless, ignorant, and zombie-like” than whatever your life is now. If you were to read a cardiology book to learn how your heart pumps, would you feel less alive and more despondently mechanical? I wouldn’t. Understanding the details of our own biological processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it. Like flowers, brains are more beautiful when you can glimpse the vast, intricate, exotic mechanisms behind them.”

  4. 4. micha says:


    I don’t know how to leave you a note, so I’m doing so here. (Email address entered in submission form.)



  5. 5. Richard J R Miles says:

    Dear micha do you still need religeon if so why.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Thanks, Micha!

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