Interview: The mystery of mind
The neuroscientist and philosopher Raymond Tallis talks to Stephen Tomkins about the puzzle of consciousness and the marvel of humankind
What a fascinating conversation partner for religious believers Raymond Tallis is. A firm, even ardent, atheist, he also has profound criticisms of the prevailing worldview, according to which humans are animals, the mind is a machine and science is the answer to all mysteries. He is sceptical of claims made both for science and religion, but has a rich faith of his own in humanity and wonder. As well as 23 books of philosophy, he has published poetry and fiction; his latest book, The Black Mirror: Fragments of an obituary for life (Atlantic Books, £17.99) is out in July. Reform talked to him at the excellent Malvern Science and Faith Weekend in March (and again in London, when the photos were taken, in June).
How well do scientists understand the working of
They understand workings of parts of the brain very well indeed, and there have been some fantastic advances over the last 30 years – for example, how perception of colour, lines and edges works. What they haven’t made any progress on, and what I don’t think they will make progress on, is understanding the relationship between brain and consciousness. If you look at the neural discharges in the brain, and you think about our own experiences – say, the experience of yellow – there is a complete disconnect between those two things. Clearly the brain is a necessary condition to have those experiences – if you chop my head off, I have no more experiences – but it isn’t a sufficient condition. The standalone brain wouldn’t generate a human consciousness.
But we hear reports of breakthroughs in the mapping of the mind – the part of the brain responsible for fear, for love, for God.
We most certainly do, and I’ve described that as “neuromania” – the notion that every advance in science advances understanding in what it is to be a human being. A classic experiment was by Semir Zeki, who showed subjects pictures of people they were in love with and pictures of friends. He picked up which parts of the brain light up under both those circumstances. He subtracted one from the other and said: “The difference is the difference between love and mere acquaintance”. But love isn’t a response to a stimulus. It isn’t even a continuous sensation like being cold. It’s full of many complex things: Deep feeling for the other person, a whole unfolding relationship, anxiety about arrangements, the desire to impress, and so forth. Only a Martian could imagine that being in love is equivalent to responding to a stimulus.
Moreover, the correlations between the stimuli and the bits of the brain that light up are tenuous and not straightforward. Brain scans don’t show us directly activity in the brain, they show us blood flow, which may be indirectly related to activity in the brain. So you can see why I’m sceptical about the notion that by peering into someone’s skull you can learn more about what love is.
So the relationship between the mind and the brain is fundamentally beyond the reach of science to explain?
Yes. The brain is certainly the most important determinant of our mental experiences; in order to be able to perform adequately in every day I have to have a brain in working order, but that doesn’t mean to say that I am a brain…
This is an extract from the July/August 2015 edition of Reform.