Human consciousness is much more than mere brain activity
by Mark Vernon
How does the animated meat inside our heads produce the rich life of the mind? Why is it that when we reflect or meditate we have all manner of sensations and thoughts but never feel neurons firing? It’s called the “hard problem”, and it’s a problem the physician, philosopher and author Raymond Tallis believes we have lost sight of – with potentially disastrous results.
In his new book, Aping Mankind – about which he was talking this week at the British Academy – he describes the cultural disease that afflicts us when we assume that we are nothing but a bunch of neurons.
Neuromania arises from the doctrine that consciousness is the same as brain activity or, to be slightly more sophisticated, that consciousness is just the way that we experience brain activity.
If you think the brain is a machine then you are committed to saying that composing a sublime poem is as involuntary an activity as having an epileptic fit. You will issue press releases announcing “the discovery of love” or “the seat of creativity”, stapled to images of the brain with blobs helpfully highlighted in red or blue, that journalists reproduce like medieval acolytes parroting the missives of popes. You will start to assume that the humanities are really branches of biology in an immature form.
What is astonishing about this rampant reductionism is that it is based on a conceptual muddle that is readily unpicked. Sure, you need a brain to be alive, but to be human is not to be a brain. Think of it this way: you need legs to walk, but you’d never say that your legs are walking.
The same conflation can be exposed in a more complex way by reflecting on the phenomenon of perception…
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