“Why the mind is not a computer: A pocket lexicon of neuromythology”
Raymond Tallis (2004, originally published 1994).
Neuromythology is the shibboleth of cognitive science that the mind is a machine, and that somehow our theories of information, complexity, patterns or representations are sufficient to explain consciousness. Tallis accuses cognitive scientists, and philosophers of cognitive science such as Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett, of the careless use of words which can apply both to thinking and to non-thinking systems (‘computing’, ‘goals’, ‘memory’, for example). This obfuscation “provides a framework within which the real problems can be by-passed and the illusion of progress maintained”. At his best Tallis is a useful reminder that many of the features of the brain which are evoked to ‘explain’ consciousness really only serve as expressions of faith, rather than true explanations. Does the mind arise from the brain because of the complexity of all those intertwined neurons? The processes inside a cell are equally complex, why aren’t cells conscious? Similarly for patterns, which depend on the subjective perspective (yes, the consciousness) of the observer rather than having an objective existence which is sufficient to generate consciousness; and for levels of description, which, with careless thinking are sometimes reified so that the mind can ‘act’ on the brain, when in fact, if you are physicalist, the mind and brain don’t have separate existences. Moments of the argument can appear willfully obstructive. Tallis maintains that there is no meaningful sense in which information can exist without someone being informed, any more, he says, than a watch can tell the time without someone looking at it. He’s right that we should be careful the word information, which has a very precise technical meaning and also colloquial meanings, but if you suppose that subjective consciousness is required to make information exist (and rule-following, representation and computation to pick a few other concepts about which he makes similar arguments) then you effectively disallow any attempts to use these concepts as part of your theory of consciousness. The disagreement between Tallis and many philosophers of cognitive science seems to me to be somewhat axiomatic — either you believe that our current models of reality can explain how matter can produce mind, or you don’t — but Tallis is right to remind us that the things we feel might eventually provide an answer don’t in themselves constitute an answer.
In essence what this book amounts to is a vigorous restatement of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness — the stubborn inadequacy of our physical theories when faced with explaining how phenomenal experience might arise out of ordinary matter, or even with beginning to comprehend what form such an explanation might take.
Disclaimer: I bought this book with my own money, because I needed something to read at the Hay Festival after finishing Ahdaf Soueif’s wonderful ‘Map of Love’ (200) and because Raymond Tallis’s essay here was so good. I was not paid or otherwise encouraged to review it.