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Aping Mankind

Impassioned and intensely erudite. dominic lawson, Sunday Times

With erudition, wit and rigour, Tallis reveals that much of our current wisdom
is as silly as bumps-on-the-head phrenology. jane ogrady, The Observer

A trenchant, lucid and witty attack on the reductive materialism of many

scientic accounts of consciousness not from a religious point of view, but
that of an atheist humanist with a distinguished record in medicine and neuro-
science. david lodge, The Guardian

A really, enjoyably, angry rebuttal of the neurotrash of speculative brain

science. It does not detract from the work of serious neuroscience to have
some of its contemporary pretensions punctured by one of its own practi-
tioners. This is a necessary corrective. alexander linklater, The Observer

Neuroscience, we are implausibly informed, will help dispense with evil. Who
better to debunk its pretensions while instructing us in its uses than wise,
literate Raymond Tallis, a neuroscientist himself, in his entertaining Aping
Mankind. george walden, Evening Standard

This kind of personhood the capacity, in fact the compulsion, to bring things
together into some kind of coherent narrative, without which experience is not
just senseless, but almost impossible, is what Tallis believes science cannot
now explain. Anyone tempted to suppose that science has explained it even in
principle and that means almost all of us should read him, and realise were
wrong. andrew brown, The Guardian

An all-out assault on the exaggerated claims made on behalf of the biological

sciences an important work. Tallis is right to point out that a fundamental
shift in our self-perception is under way and frequently going too far.
stephen cave, Financial Times

Witty and lled with aphorisms, Aping Mankind is a powerful and angry
response to neurological and evolutionary reductionism as accounts of human
nature and human accomplishments. [Talliss] defence of human unique-
ness and his attack of the grotesquely simplied and degrading accounts of
humanity that are ingenuously or disingenuously oered in many scholarly
circles these days are welcome and worthy.
andrew scull, Times Literary Supplement
A pleasure to read Tallis is ghting for a good cause.
willem b. drees, Times Higher Education Supplement

A terric book, though readers must be prepared to read it at least twice,

not because it is in any sense obscure, but fully to appreciate the richness and
subtlety of Talliss novel insights, with all their implications for our under-
standing of humanitys precious attributes of freedom, intentionality and moral
responsibility. james le fanu, The Tablet

A provocative, fascinating, and deeply paradoxical book Tallis displays a wit

and a turn of phrase which often made me howl with laughter.
allan chapman, Church Times

A welcome corrective to what Tallis calls the bold rush of biologism. An

important and thought-provoking book. Philosophy Now

Brilliantly written renowned polymath Raymond Tallis puts the picture

back into much clearer perspective in his scathing expos of neuroscientic
narcissism. Human Givens

a relentless assertion of common sense against a delusive but entrenched

academic orthodoxy. Few books evince their authors complete mastery of his
subject like Aping Mankind. The New English Review

A major and erudite statement of a position that is intellectually, morally and

spiritually of the rst importance to us living now. roger scruton

A splendid book. Tallis is right to say that current attempts to explain major
elements of human life by brain-talk are fearfully misguided. He is exceptional
in having both the philosophical grasp to understand what is wrong here and
the scientic knowledge to expose it fully. He documents the gravity of this
menace with real re, venom and humour. mary midgley

A wonderful book and an important book, one that all neuroscientists should
read. Talliss fearless criticism of the work of some distinguished contemporary
academics and scientists and the rather ludicrous experimental paradigms of
fMRI work needs to be made. simon shorvon, UCL Institute of Neurology

There are few contemporary thinkers who possess either the breadth of Ray
Talliss knowledge or the depth of his scholarship. There are fewer still who can
write so cogently and insightfully about the human condition. kenan malik
Aping Mankind

Raymond Tallis

Raymond Tallis 2011

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.

The right of Raymond Tallis to be identied as the author of this Work has been
asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2011 by Acumen

First paperback edition 2012

Acumen Publishing Limited

4 Saddler Street

IDS, 70 Enterprise Drive

Bristol, CT 06010, USA

isbn: 978-1-84465-272-3 (hardcover)

978-1-84465-273-0 (paperback)

cover: Le singe peintre by Jean Baptiste Deshays (172965),

Muse des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. 2011 White Images/Scala, Florence.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Printed and bound in the UK by MPG Books Group.

For Ben, Laurence and Terry, with my love
Man need not be degraded to a machine by being denied to be a
ghost in a machine. He might, after all, be a sort of animal, namely
a higher mammal. There has yet to be ventured the hazardous
leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is man.
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind

Acknowledgements xi

Introduction: The Strange Case of Professor Gray and

Other Provocations 1

1 Science and Scientism 15

2 Consequences 51

3 Neuromania: A Castle Built on Sand 73

4 From Darwinism to Darwinitis 147

5 Bewitched by Language 183

6 The Sighted Watchmaker 209

7 Rearming our Humanity 243

8 Defending the Humanities 277

9 Back to the Drawing Board 337

References 363
Index 379


I am enormously grateful to Steven Gerrard at Acumen, whose enthusiasm

for this book and practical encouragement has been even more important
to me than he perhaps realizes. I am also deeply grateful to Kate Williams
for her excellent editorial work, which has saved me from many blunders
and removed numerous infelicities. I have incurred many intellectual debts
during the period I have been writing this book but I would single out
Roger Scruton for his generous support, as well as for his own trenchant
critiques of neuroculture, Sally Satel, who sent me a steady ow of price-
less examples of Neuromania, and Irving Massey, whose The Neural Imagi-
nation proved an invaluable resource. It is a pleasure also to acknowledge
the tremendous support from my agent Jonny Pegg.
Some of the text that follows draws on material already published in a
dierent form. The critique of the neuroscience of memory in Chapter 3
is based in part on A Smile at Waterloo Station in Philosophy Now. Did
Natural Selection Generate Consciousness? in Chapter 4 is a modied
version of The Unnatural Selection of Consciousness published in The
Philosophers Magazine. Chapter 5 draws in places on material in my Why
the Mind is Not a Computer. The critique of neuro-determinism is based
on How Can I Possibly be Free? published in The New Atlantis. Finding
the Self in Chapter 7 draws on my Darwin College lecture Identity and
the Mind, given in 2007 and published in 2010 in a series of lectures
edited by Giselle Walker and Elisabeth Leedham-Green. Neuro-lit-crit in
Chapter 8 incorporates material published in License my Roving Hands
in the Times Literary Supplement, and The God-Spot Spotters is a modi-
ed version of In Search of the G Spot in The New Humanist.


The Strange Case of Professor Gray

and Other Provocations

In 2002 a respected publisher issued a volume that made shocking accu-

sations about the then Professor of European Thought at the London
School of Economics. Not satised with calling him an animal, it described
him as exceptionally rapacious and predatory and destructive: even
(in an outrageous pun) as Homo rapiens. He was not obviously worth
preserving; his life had no more meaning than that of a slime mould.
The Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics,
the writer added, was entirely without insight into his degraded nature.
He imagined that he was dierent from, indeed superior to, all other living
creatures in virtue of having a distinctive consciousness, selfhood and free
will. In reality, the professors life was a fragmentary dream.
It is dicult to imagine a more thorough character assassination and
you might expect that the Professor of European Thought at the London
School of Economics would take the author to court, demanding retraction
and a six-gure settlement. The reason he didnt follow this course of action
is rather surprising; the book was Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and
Other Animals and the author was none other than John Gray, Professor
of European Thought at the London School of Economics.1 While the
libel laws in the United Kingdom have in recent years proved asinine, they
would not, I think, have countenanced a plainti suing himself. Anyway,
Grays legal position was weakened because he had generalized the nasty

1. The quotations in the opening paragraph are from Gray, Straw Dogs, 7, 33, 38, 151 and


things he said about himself to all humankind. A class action would not
have been to his advantage. Besides, it was not clear whether he actually
appreciated that what he said about man would apply to himself. He may
not have been in command of the relevant bit of Aristotelian logic: All
men are horrible. I am a man. Therefore I am horrible.2
There is nothing particularly original in hosing the image of humanity
with liquid manure. With Straw Dogs and subsequent emissions such as
Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004) and Grays Anatomy
(2009),3 Gray, far from blazing a trail, joined a long line of misanthropes.
Many of his predecessors had felt it necessary to emphasize the low
standing of humanity in order to curry favour with God. Although Gray
suers from a Prometheus complex the assumption that the hubristic
can-do of Homo faber must lead to Nemesis he is not castigating mankind
in order to please a putative maker. His harsh judgement is based on his
particular take on history and on science. Human history is a succession of
catastrophes with occasional lapses into peace and civilisation.4 Dreams
of moral and material progress have only brought about more cruelty
tyranny, mass murder and the like and deeper self-deception. We are
ultimately powerless to alter our individual or collective destiny.
As for science, has it not shown us, courtesy of Darwin, that we are
animals and our nature has been fashioned in the bloodbath that is the
natural world? What chance of moral progress for a creature raised on
a pyramid of slaughter? The technologically enhanced teeth and claws
of Homo sapiens are redder than anything else in nature. Anyone who
is starry-eyed about humanity and thinks that it is more typically repre-
sented by a stroking hand than by a clenched st, or by a dedicated primary
school teacher than by a concentration camp guard, and human possi-
bility by symphonies rather than by poison gas, should think again. Darwin
has taught us to expect otherwise and, Gray argues, the record of history
supports Darwinian expectations.
Aping Mankind owes its origin to many moments of exasperation
but reading Straw Dogs was probably decisive. Self-indulgent and lazily

2. Perhaps he did realize this and his book was an expression of a self-loathing that had spilled
over to encompass the entire human race. He would not be the rst writer to whom this has
3. For a denitive, brief demolition of Grays world-picture, do read Grayling, Through the
Looking Glass. You will have fun.
4. Quoted in Black, John Gray: The Poster Boy.


fragmentary, the book has little merit. The thinkers Gray cites are appar-
ently chosen at random. But his book is less important in itself than in
what it represents. It has spared me the need to invent a straw man; in its
comparatively small space it illustrates pretty well all the things the present
book is written against. One of the most important and representative
faults of Straw Dogs is that its anti-humanism is self-contradictory, for a
reason that is central to the concern of Aping Mankind.
Gray attacks what he calls modern humanism, and the humanist sense
of a gulf between ourselves and other animals.5 This is an aberration, as is
the delusion that we can free ourselves from the limits that frame the lives
of other animals,6 which is based on the faith that through science human-
kind can know the truth. This faith is groundless: if Darwins theory of
natural selection is true [t]he human mind serves evolutionary success,
not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that
humans are dierent from all other animals.7 No prizes for the twelve-
year-old who can spot the Professor of European Thought re-enacting
the ancient Paradox of the Liar and pulling the rug from beneath his own
This passage also exemplies a further contradiction, common in much
contemporary writing: a tendency to overestimate what natural science, in
particular biology, has to say about human nature while at the same time
exhibiting extreme scepticism about science as a source of truth and (of
course) as an engine of progress. In some writers although not Gray,
who despises all technological xes and any aspiration to improving the lot
of mankind the contradictions are even more profound: the sense that
there is nothing to be done because those who would remedy awfulness are
themselves irremediable animals with xed natures is mysteriously recon-
ciled with a crude, scientistic approach to the law, economics and politics.
The assumption, supposedly based on scientic evidence, that we have no
free will is combined with all manner of would-be progressive social poli-
cies claiming to be rooted in neuroscience. Of this, more presently.

5. Gray, Straw Dogs, 17.

6. Ibid., 4.
7. Ibid., 26.
8. This is not a momentary lapse from his pretence to disbelieve in objective truth. He makes
statements with vast scope that I presume he thinks are objectively true. For example: In
evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side eect of language (ibid., 171). And
many of the negative assertions he makes about humanity presuppose knowledge that those
of us who do believe in objective truths would hesitate to claim to possess.


There are other problems with Grays thesis that might cause a twelve-
year-old to shake her head. If, for example, we humans are no dierent
from all other animals, how did we dream up the idea that we are dierent?
Come to that, how did we ever arrive at an idea of ourselves at all? As far
as I know, centipedes do not have the concept centipede; nor do they
relate that concept to a higher-order concept such as insect; they do not
compare themselves to other centipedes or calibrate centipedes against
other insects. Not even our biological next door neighbours, the chim-
panzees, do this. And my illustrative twelve-year-old would, I am sure, be
unimpressed by the claim that The advance of knowledge deludes us into
thinking we are dierent from other animals, but our history shows that we
are not.9 She would point out that our collective, recorded, hotly contested
history is one of the many crucial respects in which we are profoundly
dierent from the beast, which (as Nietzsche pointed out) lives unhis-
torically; for it goes into the present, like a number, without leaving any
curious remainder.10
There is another reason for singling out Straw Dogs. Notwithstanding
its many faults, the book was rapturously received, and its successors have
fared just as well. It turned Gray into an international celebrity, the poster
boy for misanthropy,11 and it was endorsed by many other celebrity intel-
lectuals such as Will Self (who described Gray as the most important
living philosopher,12 a judgement that presupposes acquaintance with all
other contemporary thinkers) and A. S. Byatt. Bryan Appleyard asserted
that Straw Dogs was unquestionably one of the great works of our time.13
This reveals much about the current zeitgeist: in particular the extent to
which the notion that we are just animals has become an orthodoxy,
as the supposed implications of what Daniel Dennett called Darwins
dangerous idea sink in.14
Pessimistic biologism dovetails with other intellectual trends. Contempt
for the idea of progress has always been attractive to some because it justi-
es sparing yourself the eort of trying to leave the world a better place than
you found it. Reection on the century just past, in which proportionately

9. Ibid., 155.
10. Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, 219.
11. Black, John Gray: The Poster Boy.
12. Gray, Heresies, back cover.
13. Gray, Straw Dogs, back cover.
14. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea.


more people were killed by their fellows than at any other time in history,15
and concerns about the prospects for the next century, with the threat of
global warming, wars over resources and the irreversible despoliation of the
planet by technologically enhanced mankind, give an apparent warrant for
contempt for the idea of progress, a contempt described by Peter Medawar
as the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.16


Darwinian-inspired pessimism draws on another intellectual trend that has

gathered momentum in the past few decades. I am referring to the rise and
rise of brain science as a source of the apparent explanation of every aspect
of human life. The link between the Darwinization of our understanding
of humanity (which I have characterized as an inamed mode of Darwinian
thought or Darwinitis) and Neuromania (the appeal to the brain, as
revealed through the latest science, to explain our behaviour) is obvious.
If the brain is an evolved organ, as it most certainly is, its purpose must be
the same as that of all other organs; namely, to contribute to securing the
survival of the organism whose function in turn is to ensure the replica-
tion of the genetic material for which it is a vehicle. If we are our brains,
then ultimately all that we do, think and feel must be subordinated to this
imperative, whether we know it or not. The warm reception accorded Grays
misanthropic ravings and their relevance to the present book indicate
that they spoke to an audience already sympathetic to his degraded concep-
tion of human nature, to a biologism anchored in a synthesis of Darwinitis
and Neuromania.
My own quarrel with Neuromania goes back to my time as a medical
student in the 1960s, when I argued with my innitely patient tutor in
neurophysiology about the dierence between brain activity and our
consciousness. I didnt, however, publish anything until the 1990s, when
The Explicit Animal came out. There I endeavoured to make visible the
distinctive features of human, as opposed to animal, consciousness. I
also argued against neural explanations of consciousness and against the
assumption that consciousness in general, and human consciousness in
particular, could be explained in evolutionary terms, as an adaptation.

15. Ferguson, The War of the World, 64754.

16. Medawar, The Hope of Progress, 125.


Around that time, the notion that the evolved mindbrain was made up
of a series of modules, rather like those seen in a computer, designed to
help us deal with the challenges served up by the natural world and, subse-
quently, by our fellow humans, assumed a dominant position in academic
psychology. When evolutionary psychology joined forces with the compu-
tational theory of mind, many of the conceptual errors in identifying
conscious humans with their brain activity became clearer to me. I there-
fore wrote a short book attacking the ideas that the mind was a computer.17
The aim of Why the Mind is Not a Computer was to expose the systemic
confusion and terminological legerdemain in evolutionary-based cognitive
psychology by examining the language in which it was expressed.
Neither book made any dierence. Undaunted, I wrote Enemies of
Hope, which addressed the bigger picture. In that book I connected the
aim to deny human agency, linked to biological accounts of what it is to
be a human being, with broader anti-humanist trends, particularly in the
humanities as studied and taught in institutions of higher education. These
trends had in common a tendency to marginalize the role of consciousness,
and conscious intentions, in the conduct of human life. I identied some
of the potentially dire consequences that pessimism about mankind might
have. The most important was the abandonment of the hope of progress.
This might have been good news for the comfortable but not for the desti-
tute. Enemies of Hope drew no response from the enemies of hope. The
overwhelming success of Grays ecstatically pessimistic Straw Dogs a few
years later shows how ineective my polemic was.
My most determined contribution to characterizing our human being
was a trilogy on human consciousness.18 These three volumes endeavoured
to set out more comprehensively than The Explicit Animal the distinctive
nature of human consciousness, and key aspects of it such as selfhood,
agency and knowledge. It also oered an explanation of how we humans
came to be so dierent. Finally, I took the opportunity to address some
of my preoccupations more accessibly in The Kingdom of Innite Space,
where, in particular, I examined how we humans, through getting our
heads together, have transcended our biology and how, running with the
biological givens, we have transformed them into something profoundly

17. Tallis, Psycho-Electronics, reprinted as Why the Mind is Not a Computer.

18. Tallis, The Hand, I Am and The Knowing Animal.


The utter failure of my eorts to halt the inexorable advance of Neuro-
mania and Darwinitis may be judged by the fact that, since I published The
Explicit Animal twenty years ago, evolutionary psychology, various modes
of neuro-determinism (based on the notion that You are your brain) and
a dozen new disciplines basing themselves on those two oshoots of evolu-
tionary theory and neuroscience have achieved an extraordinary inuence
on discussions of human nature. It is now almost impossible to pick up a
magazine or a newspaper, or listen to the radio, without being reminded of
the grip that biologism has on contemporary thought, in every place where
our nature is discussed, from professional journals to learned colloquia to
pub chat next to a plasma television screen. In view of this you might think
that it was about time I learned to recognize a brick wall for what it is, give
up and hope that Neuromania and Darwinitis will prove to be fads and,
being fads, will pass. Even King Canute would have recognized that the tide
could not be turned once the ice cream vans were bobbing in the sea. And
I might well have been inclined to take this course and focused on other
projects, had it not been for endless provocations. I have mentioned Straw
Dogs, but it was but one of many thousands.
Another signicant prod came from an unexpected, and for me partic-
ularly dismaying, quarter: literary criticism. I read a piece in the Times
Literary Supplement that made my hackles rise. A. S. Byatt argued that
that we are now able to understand the impact of John Donnes poetry
because recent neurology has shown how certain linguistic tropes prefer-
entially stimulate particular neuronal pathways.19 I wont say much about
this here I shall demolish it in the appropriate place except to report
that I published a reply in which I criticized every single aspect of Byatts
argument. In the course of researching my response to her article, I discov-
ered to my astonishment that evolutionary and neurological approaches to
literary criticism were now the Coming Thing in academic circles. Further
research led me to a rapidly expanding, bullish, neuroaesthetic discourse
purporting to explain the impact of paintings, music and other arts by
examining the neural pathways they stimulated. Wherever I looked, I saw
the humanities being taken over by neuro-evolutionary pseudoscience:
musicology, the law, ethical theory and theology all sought a grounding
in biology. Yet another tide of CMTP (colonic material of a taurine

19. Byatt, Observe the Neurones.


provenance) seemed to be engulng the humanities just when postmod-

ernism and deconstruction were on the wane.
There comes a point when you suddenly nd yourself behaving like
Robert Browning as characterized by Gerard Manley Hopkins: a man
bouncing up from a table, his mouth full of bread and cheese, saying that
he meant to stand no more blasted nonsense.20 I reached that point a short
time ago, when I heard an item on the BBC radio programme Today that
reported some experiments that apparently showed that our brains are
in charge and that we are their helpless playthings. These experiments
had been devised by Benjamin Libet. I have questioned their signicance
in many lectures. (They are discussed at length in this book.) I rang one
of the Today journalists on his mobile phone. He was at home, having
breakfast with his family. Even so, he was polite and promised the possi-
bility of a reply. I am still waiting, but this was a signal that my frustration
was reaching dangerous levels.21 The time had come for more considered
action. This book is that considered action.


You might wonder whether it really matters that an image of humanity

based on the twin pillars of Darwinism and brain science is taking such a
hold within academe, in the wider Republic of Letters and in the popular
mind, or that neuro-evolutionary thought is creating new biology-based
disciplines encroaching on the intellectual territory of the humanities. I
believe it does, for this reason. The distinctive features of human beings
self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense
that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do are
being discarded as illusions by many, even by philosophers, who should
think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than
succumbing to it. While it is possible that many of those who profess full-on
biologism do not really believe it, this is hardly comforting. Insincerely

20. Hopkins, The Correspondence, 74.

21. My fear that pop neuro-evolutionary accounts of our behaviour are inescapable was inten-
sied when, in a debate at the Cheltenham Literary Festival about the curse of Western
celebrity culture, Evan Davies of the BBC radio programme Today assured me that we were
hard-wired to be fame junkies. A subsequent programme on celebrity, to which I was invited
to speak, included two items that explained the cult of celebrity by the fact that we were
wait for it hard-wired to worship celebrities because conditions of life in the Pleistocene era
dictated that we should keep close to the powerful.


held, or casually professed, beliefs block the passage to true thought. They
also leave the eld clear for those who are sincerely committed to devel-
oping and propagating the notion that there is no signicant gap between
man and beast. Such views may have consequences that are not merely
intellectually derelict but dangerous.
Dangerous. Am I being hysterical? Isnt Aping Mankind just another
round in yet another spat in academe dimly mirrored in the casual chatter
of journalists and the conversation of people more sincerely interested in
sport than in human nature? Arent we simply seeing an intellectual fashion
that will pass as quickly as the poststructuralism that I and others squan-
dered so many years combating? Well, if ideas make a dierence, biologism
is not only bad science and bad philosophy bad enough but also bad for
humanity. And even if we are not worried when various modes of biolo-
gistic pseudo-science are ubiquitous in our talk about ourselves, surely we
should worry when they are starting to be invoked by policy-makers. I shall
discuss neuro-evolutionary politics in its place, but, for the moment, let
me give you one telling example.
Matthew Taylor, once a key advisor to Tony Blairs Labour government,
and now Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, has launched a
social brain project, whose aim is to ensure that social policy is informed
by the latest ndings from the neuro-lab. Scientism and government have
always made unhappy bedfellows, as the history of the twentieth century
illustrated with horrible clarity. This is chilling, and yet all major political
parties in the United Kingdom are fascinated by the possibility of anchoring
policies in neuro-evolutionary thought; of moving on, as Taylor has urged,
from ideologies of the Right and the Left to the right hemisphere and the
left hemisphere.22
For this reason, along with a more general irritation at a boringly wrong
account of human life, at a low-ceilinged inanity getting in the way when
we try to stand up from the minutiae of daily life to think about our own
nature, I have felt moved to revisit Neuromania and Darwinitis but to do
so in a way that is more accessible and comprehensive than the sometimes
densely technical arguments of my earlier books, in which I set out the
case against these intellectual aberrations in the kind of detail that some
readers may think is best described as pitiless. What follows, the reader
may be glad to know, is not a treatise. Nor, however, is it a mere digest of

22. See Taylor, For Left and Right, for the rationales for this.


my previous work. And while I hope Aping Mankind is as accessible as

The Kingdom of Innite Space, it does not run over the same territory as
that book. It brings together and in a new way much that has not been
published in book form, although it has been tested out in talks given to
professional and lay audiences. This is the book I have been circling around
for the past quarter of a century. In some sense it is a book I have been
trying to write all my life; or at least since I was fteen, when I escaped the
intellectual, emotional and spiritual prison of religious belief.
I have three aims: to set out as clearly as possible the views that I chal-
lenge (Chapters 1 and 2); to demonstrate why they are wrong (Chapters
38); and, nally, to consider where we might go from here (Chapter 9). I
shall present enough of the real science that has been misused in Neuro-
mania and Darwinitis for the reader to make sense of the latter. Because
this is an area in which the sloppy thinkers have carried the day, there will
be no compromise on rigour. In places the general reader may nd the
going hard, as some of the key arguments are intrinsically dicult and the
intuitions behind them elusive, particularly when the domination of biolo-
gism has made them counter-intuitive. And Chapter 8, which subjects the
neuro-humanities to critical examination, may seem to some rather long.
But this is a huge and complex eld and deserves, I believe, a thorough
treatment. Which is not to say that my coverage will be entirely up to date.
I can say with some condence that in the six months between completing
the manuscript and publishing the book, many new manifestations of
Neuromania-inspired nonsense will have emerged. Keeping up is rather
like a variant on Hercules task: cleaning out the Augean stables while the
horses are still emptying their capacious colons. I hope the eort of under-
standing will be felt to be worthwhile, because, if any ideas are important,
then ideas about the kind of creatures we are must be of supreme impor-
tance. As an atheist and also a humanist I believe that we should develop
an image of humanity that is richer and truer to our distinctive nature than
that of an exceptionally gifted chimp. It does not seem to me a very great
advance to escape from the prison of false supernatural thought only to
land in the prison of a naturalistic understanding.
While there are other critiques of aspects of Neuromania and Darwin-
itis, and I shall refer to them in the pages that follow, the present book,
by giving equal weight to biology and philosophy, aims to dig deeper and
wider than the many estimable assaults on scientism. Aping Mankind is a
one-stop shop for anyone who wishes to question the wild and often ludi-
crous claims that are made on behalf of biologism. Although I rearm


our humanity against a beckoning naturalism that would see us as parts

of nature in the way that trees, centipedes and chimps are parts of nature,
I am not a closet creationist. Nor do I seek to promote a supernatural
account of humanity. I do not believe that the organism H. sapiens came
into existence by a separate process from that which gave rise to all other
living organisms. Nor is my hostility to a materialist account of conscious-
ness, as expressed in the identication of the mind with brain activity,
rooted in a belief in Cartesian dualism, or in the notion that we are imma-
terial ghosts in the material machine of the mind or the body. I thought I
ought to get that straight.
I do not doubt that Darwinism gives an ever more impressively complete
account of how the organism H. sapiens came into being. But thats not
the point: things with us did not stop there. Humans woke up from being
organisms to being something quite dierent: embodied subjects, self-
aware and other-aware in a manner and to a degree not approached by
other animals. Out of this, a new kind of realm was gradually formed. This,
the human world, is materially rooted in the natural world but is quite
dierent from it. It is populated by individuals who are not just organisms,
as is evident in that they inhabit an acknowledged, shared public sphere,
structured and underpinned by an innity of abstractions, generalizations,
customs, practices, norms, laws, institutions, facts, and artefacts unknown
to even the most social of animals. It is in this common space that, as
selves that actively and knowingly lead lives in conjunction with other
selves, our human destinies are played out.
Our consciousness, and the engines that shape it, cannot be found
solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even
in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies. It participates in, and is
part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over
hundreds of thousands of years. This cognitive community is an expres-
sion of the collectivization of our experiences through a trillion acts of
joint and shared attention. Even those who believe that the human mind
began as the activity of the brain of H. sapiens, must, I shall argue, have
to accept that we have gone far beyond brain activity a long time ago. To
seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as
to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood
by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds. Those who believe they can
nd our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial dark-
ness of the organism, overlook what it is that makes us human beings. We
may have set out on our unique journey equipped with better brains than


other primates with larger frontal lobes and so on but that was just the
launch pad. Our way of self-conscious being-together is utterly dierent
from the essentially solitary lives of even the most social animals. As the
primatologist Jane Goodall wrote, non-human primates are trapped
within themselves.23
It is a bitter irony that two of our greatest intellectual achievements
the theory of evolution and neuroscience should be used to prop up a
picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading. I feel the misuse
of bioscience all the more acutely since I have been a biologist of sorts all
my life a doctor and clinical scientist and my research has been in the
eld of neuroscience, where I have seen huge advances that have amazed
and inspired me. The biologistic image of humans eectively denies the
centrality, even the possibility, of precisely those unique capacities that have
made humans able to theorize about evolution or to develop neuroscience.
If On the Origin of Species really were the last word on humanity, it could
not have been written; and if our consciousness were totally explained by
brain science, we would have had no brain science to explainit.
This book is part of a larger project, pursued through many other
volumes, of trying to understand what we are in a way that dispenses with
supernatural (non-)explanations without succumbing to the kind of natu-
ralism that I espoused when I was fteen and had just shaken o my reli-
gious beliefs. In order to do this, it is necessary to remove a good deal of
rubbish on the path to truth before we can start the great task of getting
clear about the kinds of beings we are. Within the secular world picture,
Neuromania and Darwinitis are the biggest piles of rubbish. Anyone who
doubts the importance of this task should recall that, as is evident from
Grays calamitously muddled books, those who deny the rst pillar of
humanism, namely that we are fundamentally dierent from animals, will
also deny the other pillar: that we can work together to improve the condi-
tions of our existence and that it is our duty to strive, as far as we can, to
realize that possibility. Instead they will argue that Faith in progress is a
superstition.24 It is not a superstition. We have in many respects already
made extraordinary progress: life expectancy, health expectancy, comfort
expectancy and pleasure expectancy have been increased overall in the

23. Goodall, Through a Window, 208.

24. Gray, The Myth of Progress.


world.25 This may not matter to Gray, but it matters to most people. So
does the fact that many are still denied long life, good health, security, and
pleasure, living short lives of unbearable suering. To deny hope to such
people is to abandon them to tragedy and despair.
Let battle commence.

25. Global life expectancy at birth, for example, increased from 28.5 to 68 between 1800 and
2007 (see Riley, Rising Life Expectancy).


Science and Scientism


There are two reasons for starting with a brief sketch of some of the central
ideas of neuroscience. First, I want to make clear that what I am attacking
is not science but scientism: the mistaken belief that the natural sciences
(physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) can or will give a complete
description and even explanation of everything, including human life. The
body of knowledge and understanding, and the panoply of techniques,
that go under the name neuroscience are some of the greatest intellec-
tual achievements of mankind. Every element is a double triumph: over the
opacity of nature; and over the presuppositions with which we approach
our own bodies and those of the other living creatures whose bodies we use
to cast light on our own. Neuroscience is the queen of the natural sciences.
As someone who has contributed in a minor way to this discipline, adding
my ants load to the ant-heap, with some 200 or more scientic papers that
have lled in one or two lacunae, but have reported no spectacular break-
throughs, I have a very clear idea of the scale of this achievement.
Second, it will be dicult to follow the arguments against neurosci-
entism without an inkling of the fundamental concepts of neuroscience.
What follows, addressed primarily to readers who are not familiar with
neuroscience, is the barest outline of a few key notions, and certainly not
a history of the subject, which is immensely complex. For a start, there are
many neurosciences: neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, neuroendocrinology,
neurogenetics, neuroimaging, neuroimmunology, neuropathology, neuro-
pharmacology, neurophysics, neurophysiology, neuropsychiatry, neuro-


psychology, molecular neuroscience, various clinical neurosciences such as

neurology and neurosurgery, and so on. In addition, these sciences pitch
their investigations at many levels: examining the molecular architecture
of nervous tissue; recording activity in single nerve cells; tracing various
structures within the brain that are visible to the naked eye; examining the
activity of large populations of neurons; seeing how the brain interacts with
other systems in the body; and examining the behavioural neuroscience of
whole organisms. Whats more, many other sciences are mobilized in the
endeavour to cast light on the amazing organ that occupies the intracranial
darkness and is wired to our senses, our muscles, our viscera and our glands.
Neuroscientists draw on the expertise of physicists, chemists, biochemists,
pharmacologists, immunologists and molecular biologists, to name only a
few.1 So what follows does no justice to the queen of the natural sciences: it
simply provides enough to make the arguments comprehensible.

The nerve impulse

The obvious place to begin is with the atom of neural activity: the nerve
impulse.2 As we shall see below (Why there can never be a brain science
of consciousness in Chapter 3), nerve impulses are not as conceptually
straightforward as Neuromania would have us believe, but they are the key
processes in the brain. A nerve impulse is a wave of physical and chemical
excitation passing along a neuron, analogous to (although quite dierent
from) an electric current going along a wire. The neurons are the micro-
anatomical elements of the nervous system: their trunks (or axons) are
often as little as a few thousandths of a millimetre in diameter. At any given
point on the axon, the impulse, which usually occurs in response to an
external stimulus, consists of a transient alteration in the electrical poten-
tial across the membrane of the neuron. When neurons are inactive they
are negatively charged on the inside compared with the outside. When they
get excited there is a change in that potential dierence and that change

1. Zeman, Consciousness, is an ideal introduction to the neuroscience relevant to the discussion

of the relation between brain and consciousness. For a truly comprehensive account of the
state of the science, Kandel et al., The Principles of Neural Science, is sucient to satisfy the
hungriest mind.
2. Alan Hodgkins own account of his work with Andrew Huxley, The Conduction of the Nervous
Impulse, is a classic and still worth reading.


propagates along the axon. Excitation consists of an inux of positively

charged sodium ions across the membrane that constitutes the boundary of
the axon, separating the uid within it from the extracellular uid outside.
As a result, there is a reversal of the negative charge inside the neuron.
This change is called depolarization. It is followed by a restoration of the
resting state: repolarization. Repolarization is due to an eux of positively
charged potassium ions and resumption of active transport of sodium ions
out of the axon. The cycle of depolarization followed by repolarization is
called the action potential. In a typical neuron in the human brain, the
cycle lasts about one millisecond at any given point in the membrane, and
when it is displayed on an oscilloscope it looks like a spike. The passage of
this spike along the axon which we may think of as an electrical cable,
although unlike a cable it generates the changes that propagate along it is
the nerve impulse. Spikes are kept distinct by a period, called the refrac-
tory period, in which the nerve membrane is eectively inactivated.
Unpacking the action potential depended, among other things, on
nding species in which the individual neurons were large enough for
recordings of minute changes in electrical charge a few tens of milli-
volts to be made. The squid axon, which is a gigantic half millimetre
wide (compared with a few thousandths of a millimetre in most human
neurons), proved to be the perfect model. Even so, it was still necessary to
develop minute recording electrodes that would not kill the axons when
they were inserted into them. For this purpose, ne glass electrodes, like
microscopically thin pipettes, were manufactured. By this means it was
possible not only to record the changes in electrical charge, but also to
track the passage of sodium and other ions across the membrane.
Teasing out the ionic movements that caused the spike was only the rst
step. What was it that prompted the sodium ions to ood in at the begin-
ning of the impulse and potassium ions to ood out at the end? The clue to
that was found in the idea of voltage-dependent gates in the membrane.
The gates which are smart pores or minute holes in the membrane are
open or closed depending on the voltage dierence between the inside and
the outside. At rest, as I have already mentioned, there is usually a relative
negative potential inside the axon because there the concentration of posi-
tively charged sodium ions is lower than in the uid bathing it. The dier-
ence is maintained by the pumping out of sodium ions and the pumping
in of potassium ions, in a ratio of 3 to 2. This active transport against the
grain requires energy, which is provided by the transport of a phosphate
group from adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.


Depolarization at any given point in the axon causes a reduction in the

potential dierence across the neighbouring part of the membrane. This
opens the voltage-dependent sodium gates there: sodium oods into the
axon, reducing the potential dierence further so that the sodium gates are
opened even wider. This self-regenerative process, like a controlled explo-
sion, eventually causes the sodium gates to close, so that no more ions
enter. It also opens the potassium gates and these (positively charged) ions
leave the cell and the status quo is restored.
So there we have it: the nerve impulse is a wave or spike of electro-
chemical disturbance and recovery propagating along the axon. The beauty
of the mechanism and the ingenuity of the research that unravelled it is
breathtaking. In the 1970s, a couple of decades after Hodgkin and Huxleys
original brilliant work on the nerve impulse, the invention of the patch
clamp method,3 which allowed sodium and potassium channels in the axon
membrane to be examined individually, was made possible by the availa-
bility of ultrasensitive electronic ampliers. The technique, in which tiny
bits of the membrane were attached to ultra-thin pipettes, was used to
examine the eect of molecules such as neurotransmitters on the behav-
iour of the membranes and hence neurons, as well as to peer more closely
at the signalling inside the axon itself and to investigate the roles of second
messengers in conveying and amplifying ionic and other changes that take
place when neurotransmitters touch the surface of the axon.
This sketch leaves many unlled gaps. For example, there has been
work on the stereochemistry of the proteins involved in the transport of
ions across the axon membrane. There has also been intense investigation
of the properties of the insulating material around the axons, the myelin
sheath, which dips down at intervals at the so-called nodes of Ranvier.
This interrupted insulation allows nerve impulses to jump from point to
point called saltatory conduction thus speeding up their passage
along the axons. And there has been very detailed research into how nerve
impulses are initiated at the beginning of the axon: how light, or sound,
or touch, or pressure is translated into a generator potential that opens
the sodium channels in the axon and in turn triggers the action poten-
tial. The manner in which the intensity and size of the stimulus is trans-
lated into the frequency of the ring of individual axons and the number
of axons recruited has also been closely studied, as has the phenomenon

3. Patch clamping is beautifully summarized in the relevant Wikipedia article.


of adaptation, in accordance with which a constant stimulus will invoke a

diminishing response. What I have said, however, should be sucient to
make clear what neural activity is: and (to anticipate) enough to under-
stand how, close up, it does not look like the kind of stu that can explain
human consciousness. Nerve impulses as revealed by neuroscience are,
essentially, the passage of basic ions through smart membranes and that is
about as physical as you can get.

The circuitry

Most of the work in brain science relevant to our present interest has focused
on looking at how very large numbers of neurons work together and, centrally
for the theme of this book, how dierent parts of the nervous system support
dierent functions. Equally important is how the locations of these func-
tions may vary over time, during the course of development towards adult-
hood and in association with the learning of new facts, the acquisition of the
skills of movement, of perception and interpretation, and new ways of being.
We need, therefore, to move on from the events that occur in the individual
wires of the circuitry of the brain to the circuitry itself.
Beautifully detailed pictures, using electron microscopy, have been
obtained of individual neurons, their cellular powerhouses and the multi-
tudinous dendrites into which axons branch. One of the fundamental
achievements of neuroscience was the establishment of the neuron doctrine,
according to which neurons are discrete cells, not parts of a single fused
network. Before the work of pioneers such as Ramn y Cajal, using silver
staining techniques that picked out individual neurons, it was thought
that the nervous system was a reticulum, or connected network. Cajals
neuron doctrine has been modied in many ways, but it forms the basis of
our current understanding of brain activity as being located and shaped in
discrete circuits.4

4. There was a robust battle between Cajal and Camillo Golgi, who discovered the tech-
nique of silver staining that enabled Cajal to see the way neurons were discrete, functional
and anatomical units, although they were connected. They shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine and used their acceptance speeches to continue their argument,
with Golgi defending his view that there was cytoplasmic continuity. If any topic in neuro-
science is worth getting heated over this is the one, for it touches on questions about how the
nervous system works as a whole.


Equally important is our understanding of the way nerve impulses pass

from one neuron to another via joins that have been called synapses, from
the Greek word meaning a clasp. These are not just blobs of dumb solder
gluing neurons together, but complex way stations where activity may be
added up, subtracted or modulated before it passes on to the next neuron.
The heart of the synapse is typically a minute gap between neurons,
which is crossed chemically. The impulses in one axon arrives at the pre-
synaptic terminal and chemicals called neurotransmitters are released.
They spread across the gap and inuence the neuron on the far side. Some
neurotransmitters are excitatory, facilitating neural activity, and some are
inhibitory, damping down neural activity. This enables the synapse to add
or subtract inputs from two or more neural pathways that converge on
it. Summation and subtraction may be very complex indeed, with several
sources of excitation or inhibition acting on either side of the synapse and
coming from many dierent directions. The altered behaviour of synapses
in response to the activity passing through them is thought to be the basis
of the brain changes associated with learning and memory; and variable
levels of neurotransmitters over large parts of the brain in particular the
cerebral cortex have been linked with mood and behaviour. For those
who believe that we are our brains, synapses being the key to the endless
wiring and rewiring that takes place in response to experience determine
what we become in response to experience. That is why there has been so
much research into the distribution and eects of neurotransmitters.
The synapse, at any rate, is the means by which the discrete activity of
neurons is brought together. It is the physical basis of what Charles Sher-
rington (18571952), perhaps the greatest neurophysiologist of all time,
termed the integrative action of the nervous system,5 in virtue of which
inputs from dierent sources, such as sight and sound and touch, and
awareness of ones own body and feedback from muscles engaged in move-
ments, can all be taken account of in performing complex actions (and all
actions, even simple ones, are complex). It is also a means by which an
input can sensitize (up-regulate) or desensitize (down-regulate) the
response to a stimulus when another is also being received or in response
to the previous history of stimuli received by that particular part of the
brain. Regulation of responsiveness has been the subject of much ingen-

5. Sherringtons The Integrative Action of the Nervous System is an acknowledged classic that my
tutor in Oxford urged me to read in 1965. I am less sure than I was that I will get round to
reading it one day.


ious study, using recordings from individual pre-synaptic and post-synaptic

neurons, as well as from groups of neurons or nerve tracts.
The way the dierent parts of the nervous system respond to dierent
kinds of stimuli so-called localization has generated hundreds of
thousands of papers. It is obvious that, for example, nerves wired into the
ear are responsive to sound and those into the eyes to light, and so on. This
was the doctrine of specic energies rst advanced by Johannes Peter
Mller in the nineteenth century. We have, however, moved on since then.
Single-cell recordings over the past half century have shown that groups of
neurons are tuned in unexpected ways to particular kinds of stimuli that
are of importance to the organism. In the visual cortex, for example, there
are neurons that preferentially detect lines placed at a particular angle or
that respond to motion, depth and colour: in short to the building blocks of
the visual eld. This kind of tuning was demonstrated by David Hubel and
Torstein Wiesel as part of their Nobel Prize-winning work.6 They inspired
a worldwide programme of research into the way individual neurons, or
clusters of neurons, have a discriminative response to dierent kinds of
stimuli, enabling them to inuence behaviour in a preferential way. There
are also much more complex tunings. Responses may be up-regulated
or down-regulated according to the context and the salience of the stim-
ulus; and some higher-order cells respond only to a particular combination
of inputs from the rst-order cells. So while the brain is sensitive to the
impingements of the outside world, via the sense organs, it is also a lter
regulating its own sensitivity, giving priority to essential and novel stimuli
relevant to survival over irrelevant and unimportant events.
I hope I have conveyed the idea of the brain as an unimaginably complex
nexus of neural circuits responding individually or sometimes collec-
tively, or en masse, in highly specic ways to stimuli of various sorts, and
to complexes of stimuli. The circuitry can be observed at dierent levels.
Microscopic circuits, bringing together neural activity related to the
particular aspects of a stimulus, such as colour, shape and distance of an
object, are themselves integrated with other microscopic and higher-level
circuits relevant to the visual eld or the sensory eld as a whole and the
sense that is to be made of it. They link this making sense with motor
neurons mediating outputs such as visible movements and the components

6. The twenty-ve-year collaboration between Hubel and Wiesel was one of the great scientic
partnerships. It is described in their book Brain and Visual Perception.


of behaviour. The circuitry active in even relatively simple movements

involves millions of neurons connecting quite disparate parts of the brain;
for example, the cerebral cortex, where patterns of movement are stored
as motor programmes, is connected to subcortical structures deep in the
hemispheres, such as the basal ganglia where tone and posture (the neces-
sary background for controlled movement) are regulated, to the cere-
bellum, where balance and the control of movements is ensured, and to
the spinal cord, where the nal output to muscles is fed to the peripheral
nerves. Identifying even a single one of these components represents a
huge technical triumph and the success in teasing out brain circuits is a
tribute to use of imagination and intuition regulated by the discipline of
carefully controlled and checked, and rechecked, observation.

Localization of function

One of the themes dominating brain science is something we have already

touched on: the localization of function. It is going to be central to some
of the arguments of this book and we shall examine it in the next section,
where we shall nd that it has been a matter of intense controversy over
the centuries, and still is. Let us, however, take a preliminary glance at it
It had always been obvious that dierent parts of the brain had dierent
roles: for example, vision, hearing or movement. The actual location
of these functions turned out not always to be entirely as expected; for
example, the part of the cerebral cortex connected with vision is at the back
of the brain, not at the front next to the eyes. Working out which part of
the brain is associated with what function has required a range of strat-
egies. Humans are ideal subjects for investigating localization because they
can report what they are feeling, but it is hardly necessary to spell out the
ethical and methodological limitations of research on our fellow men. The
use of people as experimental subjects for invasive research has, thank-
fully, been unacceptable for most of the history of neuroscience. There are,
however, alternative ways of using human subjects. Careful observation of
people who have sustained brain damage has turned their personal catas-
trophes into natural experiments. These observations began in earnest in
the nineteenth century.
Two cases in particular stand out. The rst was a man who suddenly lost
his speech owing to a stroke but retained his other functions. The physician


and anatomist Paul Broca followed him with beady-eyed interest for thirty
years, making sure that he was present when his patient died, so that he
could examine his brain. In one of the most famous neuroscience papers
of all time, published in 1861,7 Broca reported that his patients brain was
intact apart from a small area in the inferior part of the left frontal gyrus,
subsequently named Brocas area. (How marvellous to plant ones name
on a part of the brain.)8 He concluded that this quite small area was neces-
sary for the gigantic task of producing language. He also drew the larger,
bolder conclusion, absolutely central to the cognitive neuroscience that lay
a century ahead, that the great regions of the mind correspond to the great
regions of the brain.9
Another equally famous nineteenth-century patient was Phineas P.
Gage, a railway worker who had an unfortunate encounter with a steel rod,
which passed through the frontal lobes of his cerebral cortex. Miraculously,
he survived and many of his basic functions perception, walking and so
on remained intact; but his personality, so his physician John Harlow
claimed, was utterly transformed. Gage, who had previously been an
entirely reliable, conscientious individual underwent a personality change.
After the accident, he:

was at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacil-

lating, devising many plans of future operations which are no
sooner arranged than they are abandoned a child in his intel-
lectual capacity and manifestations and yet with the animal
passions of a strong man.10

This observation11 was foundational for the notion subsequently rened

and elaborated on the basis of careful studies of people with strokes and

7. Broca, Loss of Speech.

8. Broca was very lucky to take the credit because he had been anticipated by Marc Dax, who
had made similar observations in 1836 that were not published until after Broca, and then
posthumously, by his son.
9. Broca, quoted in Zeman, Neurological Disorders, 24.2.
10. Harlow, Recovery From the Passage of an Iron Bar.
11. The dispute about what happened to Gages behaviour after his accident, and the suggestion
that it may not have altered as profoundly as Harlow claimed, is summarized in the Wiki-
pedia entry on Gage. The current argument over what the brain damage actually did to Gage
should have been a warning to those who have a rather simplistic take on localization of
functions: something we shall discuss.


other causes of brain damage that the frontal lobes were crucial for
judgement, executive function and emotional control. Ingenious tests were
developed to examine the eect of damage in other areas of the brain,
demonstrating the importance of the temporal lobes for memory (and
dierent parts of the temporal lobes for dierent aspects of memory);
of the parietal lobes for the integration of vision, memory and action;
of the back of the occipital lobes for the recognition of faces; and of the
bres going between two hemispheres (the corpus callosum) for bringing
together experiences dependent on the activity of those hemispheres.
Research into the specialization of functions in dierent parts of the
brain has spawned a mind-boggling body of information published in
papers whose numbers run into millions. We shall discuss some of the
history of this in the next section but it is relevant to note the observations
of the neurologist John Hughlings Jackson that led him to conclude that the
brain was crucial in the operation of the will. On the basis of this and other
ndings, he concluded (to simplify his ideas) that the nervous system was
organized hierarchically, with lower functions such as reex responses to
stimuli being at the bottom in the spinal cord and subcortical parts of the
brain and deliberate activity, carried out in the light of a consciousness
that integrated a multitude of perceptions across dierent senses, memory
and learned skills, at the top, in the cerebral cortex.12
Some top-level activities have been teased out in ne detail. Neurolin-
guistics one of many neurosciences I have not mentioned in my initial
list, as it was already long enough has shown how dierent parts of the
brain seem to be specically involved in dierent aspects of verbal recep-
tion (such as breaking up the sounds and translating them into speech
components, connecting them with meanings, parsing the grammar of
sentences, detecting the dierent tonal envelopes of questions and state-
ments); in equally numerous aspects of verbal expression (the selection
of words, stringing them together in a grammatical form, dealing with
dierent components of articulation); in linking sight and sound and
meaning in reading; in connecting sight, sound, action and meaning in
writing; and soon.

12. Hughlings Jacksons contribution to neuroscience, in particular through his observations of

the eects of localized damage and his hierarchical vision of the nervous system, is beauti-
fully summarized in John Waltons revision of the original article by James Taylor, Hughlings
Jackson, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


Other research has investigated the eects of deliberate brain damage

and brain stimulation on experimental animals. It has demonstrated analo-
gies between maps of brain function in humans and those in beasts. Experi-
ments in which one part of the brain is stimulated and the responses tracked
have been useful for tracing the connections between dierent parts of
the brain and the dierent pathways, the macroscopic circuits, relevant to
motor activity and its control, and perception and its interpretation. Inicting
discrete lesions on animals has also been used to tease out the contributions
of particular areas of the brain to dierent aspects of a particular function
such as visual perception or controlled movement. The recent development of
non-invasive techniques for stimulating the human brain (for example using
magnetic stimulation through the skull) and for examining the activity of the
brain at rest and in response to a variety of stimuli has enabled research on
humans to be as informative as some aspects of research on animals.

From brain localization to brain maps

One of the most impressive consequences of the new, non-invasive

methods has been the compilation of detailed brain maps. The rst tech-
niques to be used in this way were those of electroencephalography
(EEG).13 The spontaneous synchronized rhythmic electrical activity of
the brain (brain waves) had been described a long time before EEG was
developed. The physiologist Richard Caton reported this activity in animals
in a paper published in 1875 in The Lancet. It was pretty much forgotten for
half a century and then, in the 1930s, the psychiatrist Hans Berger detected
brain waves of dierent frequencies in human subjects, using electrodes
placed on the scalp. There was initially much scepticism about this seem-
ingly pointless activity of the brain. It was of very small amplitude and
could have been an artefact. Berger, however, was proved right.
One of the most exciting observations was the consistent correlation
between the kind of brain waves seen and the level of consciousness: alert-
ness, drowsiness, deep sleep and coma are all associated with distinctive
patterns of brain activity. Soon EEG was being used to diagnose epilepsy
(which is associated with distinctive abnormal patterns of electrical

13. The classic history of these developments is Brazier, A History of the Electrical Activity of the


activity), to test the integrity of dierent pathways in the brain by detecting

the responses to visual and other stimuli (so-called evoked potentials) and
to examine the eects of drugs, such as sedatives and psychiatric treat-
ments, on the brain. Electoencephalography became increasingly sophisti-
cated, so that it was possible to produce beautiful three-dimensional maps
of brain activity in dierent situations and in response to stimuli. Even so,
in recent decades the interest in EEG has been eclipsed by a much more
powerful technique for looking at the activity of the waking brain: func-
tional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), of which more presently.


What has become apparent over the past several decades, as a result of
mapping and other techniques, is the extent to which the organization
of the brain is very uid. The connections between dierent components
can be modulated so that certain pathways become facilitated (and nerve
impulses are more likely to pass from one part of a circuit to another) or,
conversely, inhibited. The brain, to use the commonest term, is not entirely
hard-wired: it is plastic.14
The immense literature on brain plasticity has examined changes at
both the microscopic and the macroscopic level occurring in response to
experience. Microscopic studies have shown that repeated activity in a
particular neural pathway that includes a synapse may result in increased
ease with which the synapse is crossed: less is lost in translation from the
pre-synaptic to the post-synaptic neuron. Also, where pathways are active
together, they are more likely to make contact and their activity is more
likely to be coherent: nerves that re together wire together, to use the
famous aphorism attributed to neuropsychologist Donald Hebb. At the
macroscopic level, it is possible to see changes in dierent parts of the brain
in the size of the areas dedicated to dierent parts of the body in response
to recurrent stimulation or their involvement in repetitive activities. The
quantity of brain active in tasks involving ne touch discrimination, for
example, expands and contracts in response to the amount and kind of
workload carried by dierent hands. When an individual learns to play the
violin, the representation of the hands in the cerebral cortex the part of

14. A key text is Hofman et al., Plasticity and the Adult Brain.


the brain that is most immediately implicated in learned, skilled volun-

tary movements is greatly extended.15 What is more, the representa-
tion of the hand (usually the left hand) involved in ngering is greater than
that involved in bowing. This makes intuitive sense because although both
ngering and bowing are immensely skilled and require precise adjustment
of pressure, ngering makes even greater demands than the whole-arm
and hand movements of bowing. An even more striking example is the
dramatic expansion of the cortical area devoted to the ngertips in blind
people reading Braille.16
The idea of plasticity is one that has increasingly dominated our under-
standing of the brain. While plasticity now seems obvious, for a long time
the structure of the mature brain was believed to be xed. After a critical
period early in life, so it was thought, there was no possibility of changing
the cerebral equipment with which you were endowed. This dogma was
based on the belief that new neurons do not grow in the adult brain. This is
not entirely true: in humans neurogenesis is seen in the olfactory bulb, in
the sense of smell, and in the hippocampus, which is involved in learning
and memory.17 But new growth is only modest and losses are not replaced.
This is less of a limitation than had been hitherto thought, however, for
what is now appreciated is that the way the neurons are wired together can
be dramatically changed as a result of experience, and otherwise underem-
ployed neurons can be recruited to take over the functions of neurons in
pathways that have been damaged. This reorganization at the microscopic
level of individual synapses, and at the macroscopic level of brain maps,
is central to our understanding of what is happening in the developing,
learning and healing brain.18

15. Schwenkreis et al., Assessment of Sensorimotor Cortical Representation Asymmetries.

16. Pacual-Leone & Torres, Plasticity of the Sensorimotor Cortex.
17. Rakic, Neurogenesis in the Adult Primate Neocortex.
18. Those involved in the rehabilitation of people with damage to the nervous system have been
excited by the increasing evidence of recovery based on reorganization of the brain circuitry,
with new connections being formed and dormant areas waking up. I myself have been inter-
ested since the early 1980s in the possibility of exploiting plasticity in rehabilitation as the
key not only to the acquisition of new skills but also to recovery of neural function (see my
Neurological Rehabilitation). The most eective driver to reconstruction of normal struc-
tures after damage is the neural activity associated with normal function. If you want your
brain to work normally, you need to act normally. This presents a real challenge in the case
of patients with paralysis due to strokes. They cannot move their arms in the normal way in
order to promote the return of normal connectedness. It is for this reason that mirror neurons


Concluding observations

This brief sketch of some aspects of neuroscience is scarcely more than an

invitation to put a toe in the waters of a great ocean of facts, concepts and
techniques. I have said nothing, for example, of the research into the exqui-
sitely controlled and controlling activity of sensory organs such as the eye
and ear; or of the means by which posture, involuntary movements and
voluntary activity are regulated; or of the interactions between the brain
and the endocrine system or between the brain and organs such as the
gut and heart. And I have skated past the many cul-de-sacs of discarded
theories and erroneous data that have littered the history of neuroscience,
as with any scientic discipline, and the huge amount that we do not know
about the brain.
My aim has been the narrow one of equipping the reader who has no
prior knowledge of neuroscience to understand the arguments that follow,
to which the nature of the nerve impulse, of the circuitry of the brain and
its tuning, of localization and plasticity are most directly relevant. When,
for example, we want to assess the claim that consciousness boils down to
neural activity, we need to have a clear idea about what that activity actu-
ally consists of. Likewise, if we are to resist the claim that it is the structure
and complexity of the brain that creates consciousness, it is a good idea to
know a little of that structure and the nature of its complexity.
My other aim, as already mentioned, has been to indicate my admira-
tion for the scope, scale and achievements of neuroscience something I
have felt since I rst studied neurophysiology in Oxford in the 1960s in
order to head o the mistaken impression that my attack on Neuromania
is intended to diminish the work of neuroscientists. The light we have cast
on the workings of our own brains represents one of our greatest achieve-
ments, not least because it has drawn on so many other scientic disci-
plines. We need, however, to distinguish between neuroscience and its
shadow, neuroscientism (or neuromythology), which has underpinned
Neuromania, and it is to this that we must now turn.

have become of particular interest (see Pomeroy et al., The Potential for Utilising the Mirror
Neurone System).




Locating the soul in the brain

You would have to be remarkably resistant to brainwashing to resist the

claim endlessly repeated that we are our brains. The notion that our
consciousness, the self to which the successive moments of consciousness
are attributed, our personality, our character, personhood itself, are iden-
tical with activity in our brains is so widely received that it seems down-
right eccentric to profess otherwise.
Part of the attraction of Neuromania comes from the belief that it is
brand new and that it has grown out of the latest discoveries in the labora-
tory. In fact, the assumption that there is, indeed there must be, an organ in
the body where the soul or mind or consciousness is to be found goes back
a very long way. It seems to have originated, like other enduring myths,
in ancient Greece. Indeed, I might have been tempted to call this section
Hippocrates howler, but this would have been unfair, not least because
the cerebral theory was well established before Hippocrates (who lived
from c.460 bce to c.377 bce); it was espoused by major Presocratic philoso-
phers such as Pythagoras and Empedocles. So when people tell you that
scientists have recently discovered that the mind is in the brain or that
mental activity boils down to neural activity, just remind them that this
theory was put forward several centuries before Jesus Christ was born.
It was Hippocrates, however, who gave the theory its most striking
expression. In his famous text On the Sacred Disease, a treatise on epilepsy,
he declared that:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain
only, arises our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our
sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we
think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the
bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant.19

This was a deeply humane claim, for it was asserted in opposition to the
idea that epilepsy was due to divine possession. And it lay at the origin of

19. Quoted in Spillane, The Doctrine of the Nerves, 8.


our present understanding of illness in naturalistic rather than supernat-

ural terms. But the phrase from the brain, and from the brain only is at
the root of the notion, to which this book is opposed, that the brain is not
only a necessary but also a sucient condition of conscious experiences:
that it is the whole story. And Hippocrates sounds very like Francis Crick,
talking 2,500 years later: You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and
your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no
more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associ-
ated molecules.20
The journey from Hippocrates to Pierre Jean Cabanis, who in the eight-
eenth century declared that the brain secreted thought as the liver secreted
bile, or to Susan Greenelds assertion that our identity is our brain,21 is,
from the philosophical point of view, but a step, and only a small one.
The brain theory was contested by champions of other organs. The most
famous was Aristotle, for whom the heart, not the brain, was the seat of
the intellect. The brain, he said, served only to cool the blood; and perhaps
in a sense it does. However, the cerebral theory survived, notwithstanding
Aristotles great prestige. A few centuries later, Pliny the Elder a physician
who was fried to death when Pompeii was inundated with lava in 79 ce
asserted that the brain is the citadel of sense-perception, the crowning
pinnacle, the seat of government of the mind.22 This expressed a view that
was dominant among philosophers and physicians in antiquity.
The cerebral theory is certainly supercially attractive. Everyday obser-
vations seem to give overwhelming support to Hippocrates daring conjec-
ture concerning the relation between the brain and conscious experience.
For example, the content of my experience is determined by the loca-
tion of my body: I am experiencing this room in Bramhall, rather than a
room in London, because Bramhall is where my body presently is. In other
words, my mind is where my body is, my consciousness is more or less of
where my body is at. The special role of the brain within the body becomes
evident when we add in one or two other observations. In order for me
to experience Bramhall, it is necessary for me to bring my brain there. In
contrast, my mind is not necessarily where my leg is: I could leave my leg in
London and, so long as I had not bled to death, my mind could still come to

20. Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, 3.

21. Greeneld, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century. Greeneld elaborates on this asser-
tion and its psychological and sociological consequences.
22. Plin. HN XI, 49.


Bramhall to experience the delights of that village. So there seems to be an

intimate relation between the physical location of my brain and the content
of my consciousness.
The key role of the brain is supported by other homely observations that
seem to suggest that the input of energy into my brain from the outside
world determines my experiences. For example, when I cover my ears or
close my eyes, that is, block the input into the organs that are connected
directly with the brain, I cut o certain experiences. This suggests that
experiences are in some intimate way connected with cerebral events.
Further support comes from the many ordinary observations, some of
which we have already alluded to, that indicate that the condition my brain
is in and the condition my mind is in are closely correlated. A bang on the
head, with damage to the brain, may remove vision, may impair memory
or, as in the case of the unfortunate Mr Gage, may alter personality. All of
this suggests that vision, memory, personality everything from the most
primitive buzz of sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of
self depend crucially on the functioning of the brain. For neuromaniacs,
this means that the mind or soul is housed in the brain. As we shall see, this
conclusion does not follow, but let us stick for a while longer with the thesis
that every aspect of my consciousness is in my brain and that that organ is
the seat of my consciousness.
If we accept the thesis, it seems reasonable to wonder whereabouts
in the brain my consciousness is to be found,23 a matter that has occu-
pied many philosophers and biologists over the centuries and is still hotly
contended. After Hippocrates there was a 2,000-year argument as to
whether the soul was in the solid parts of the brain (the parenchyma) or
the hollow uid-lled bits of it (the ventricles). Herophilus an Alexan-
drian physician observed that the fourth ventricle was close to the spinal
cord and motor nerves. From this he concluded that the soul resided in
the ventricles. This was opposed by his younger colleague Erasistratus, who
put forward a rather ingenious argument. He noticed that faster animals
such as deer had more numerous and intricate foldings of the solid part of
the brain than slower ones. Since Aristotle had connected movement with
soul, the latter must reside in the parenchyma. It was not, however, clear
whether Erasistratus believed the cerebral cortex or the meninges (the

23. This account of the arguments over localization has been drawn from many sources but is
most indebted to Bruyn, The Seat of the Soul.


membranes covering the brain) to be the privileged place. At any rate, there
was a bitter, indeed delicious, argument between these two great men.
Over the centuries, both ventricular and parenchymal theories under-
went considerable elaboration. The ventricular theory was developed
to quite a sophisticated degree. According to one very popular version,
dierent ventricles housed dierent faculties of the soul: the anterior
ventricle was the seat of phantasy or imagination, the middle ventricle
the seat of reason and the posterior ventricle that of memory. If this has
a slightly familiar ring to it, it is because it was the beginning of the long
history of localization theories that are, as we have already noted, currently
in the ascendant and the source of many claims that we shall presently have
reason to contest.
Eventually, the notion that the solid part of the brain, rather than the
liquid in the cerebral ventricles, was the seat of the soul gained the upper
hand but it took a long time. As recently as 1796, Samuel von Soemmering,
who discovered the substantia nigra, a part of the brain that is aected in
conditions such as Parkinsons disease, argued that the ventricular uid was
the repository of the soul.24 However, the parenchymal theory was by then
unassailable and the question for clinicians, scientists and philosophers had
moved on again: to consider, for example, exactly where within the paren-
chyma the soul might be located. There was no shortage of candidates and
no shortage of reasons for choosing them. A smorgasbord of possibilities
was served up, including: the corpus callosum (the structure linking the
two cerebral hemispheres); the corpora striata (deep in the cerebral hemi-
spheres); and the septum pellucidum (a membrane separating the lateral
ventricles of the brain). Ren Descartes famously hedged his bets; while
he did not think the mind was entirely in the brain, there was a point
the pineal gland where mind and brain made contact.25 Thomas Willis, a
seventeenth-century physician, was most closely aligned to contemporary
thinking: he thought that the cerebral cortex was the seat of the soul.26

24. Soemmering, ber das Organ der Seele.

25. Chris Frith and Geraint Rees have even suggested that his account is not that dierent
from recent proposals that, for example, neural activity in the fusiform region of the brain
somehow leads to conscious experience of the face (A Brief History of the Scientic
Approach, 9).
26. Willis, Cerebre anatomi.


Localizers versus integrators

As speculative neurophilosophy, which drew on sources as disparate as

religious doctrine, clinical observation and rampant rationalizing guess-
work, gave way to what we would recognize as something remotely related
to empirical neuroscience, the question of the location of the soul became
more complex, rather as had happened with ventricular theories. Perhaps
the soul was distributed between several places rather than being conned
to one; or perhaps, on the other hand, it was diused all over the brain or
all over part of the brain such as the cerebral cortex.
The decisive intervention in this debate was that of Franz Joseph Gall,
the father of phrenology and grandfather and unacknowledged patron saint
of one strand in contemporary Neuromania.27 In the rst two decades of
the nineteenth century, Gall promulgated the following principles:

the brain (especially the cortex) is the organ of the mind;

it is a composite of parts, each of which serves a distinctive task-
specic faculty; and
the size of the dierent parts of the brain, as assessed chiey through
the examination of the cranium, is an index of the relative strengths of
the dierent faculties being served.

The third principle has dominated and damaged the reputation of phre-
nology. We all laugh at phrenologists technique of feeling the bumps on
the head to determine the size of the underlying brain and inferring the
relative strength of dierent faculties, such as a sense of justice or amorous
propensity. However, the rst two principles the pre-eminence of the
cortex in mental function and the localization of dierent mental faculties
within the cortex have made an enduring contribution to the framework
of neuroscientic research. The second principle is particularly relevant
because it was put forward in answer to a serious philosophical problem,
one that has led to a second wave of phrenology in the past few decades,
which began with Jerry Fodors idea of mental modules (to be discussed
in Myth-information in Chapter 5). For this reason, it is worthy of our
attention here.

27. See Harrington, Medicine, Mind and the Double Brain.


The problem that the compartmentalization of mind in the brain, argued

for by the phrenologists, was intended to solve arose from the seventeenth-
century philosopher John Lockes theory of knowledge.28 Lockes enor-
mously inuential Essay Concerning Human Understanding had attacked
the notion of innate ideas. All knowledge, he said, came from the senses.
The mind at birth was a tabula rasa a clean slate or blank sheet and
it was eectively constructed out of experiences organized only according
to their associations. But if the mind starts o as a blank sheet, and is built
up out of experiences, how does it manage to avoid ending up as just a
heap of impressions: a slop of accumulated experiences and their echoes
in memory, not too dierent from delirium? (This was a point rst made
by the philosopher Thomas Reid, who proposed the idea of inner faculties.)
There must surely be some innate basis for the organization of the material
of which the mind was composed. This was what was provided by Galls
association of twenty-seven separate mental faculties (the sense of language,
vanity, the capacity for metaphysics, etc.) with discrete organs in the brain.
While a version of phrenology is now ourishing as a key component
of contemporary Neuromania, it has always had its opponents, and their
objections, as we shall see, remain relevant. Among the anti-phrenologists
was Jean Pierre Flourens, one of the great nineteenth-century physiologists,
and a pioneer of experimental brain science. He peeled o layers of the
cortex in various experimental animals and failed to observe any relation
between the particular area of cortex removed and specic loss of higher
functions such as memory and cognition. He therefore committed himself
to the idea that these amounted to a single faculty and were not localized.
This also obviated the need for what was called a sensus communis
within the brain: a faculty where everything that is dealt with by separate
parts of the brain comes together. Such a faculty had already been broached
in response to the earlier ventricular phrenology in ancient times; and the
physiologist Albrecht von Haller (170877), usually regarded as the father
of experimental physiology, had postulated that there was a place where
this happened, a principal part in the brain in which resides the origin of
all motion, the end of all sensations, and where the soul has its seat.29 He
had opted for the medulla at the point where the brain joins the spinal
cord as the seat of the mind, where sensations had their nal destina-

28. Peacock, The Relationship Between the Soul and the Brain.
29. Haller, Primae linea physiologiae, ch. 11.


tion and motions were initiated. The need for such a place was beautifully
expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Albert Lange in 1881; without it, he
said, the mind or soul would be a parliament of little men together, each
one of whom, as happens also in a real parliament, possesses but a single
idea which he ceaselessly strives to make prevail Instead of one soul,
phrenology gives us forty.30
Lange, however, was swimming against the tide; for Flourens victory over
phrenology in the 1840s was short-lived. With the advent of more sophis-
ticated physiological experimentation, the localization doctrine, in which
the mind is seen to be composed of discrete faculties to which are assigned
distinct areas of the brain, apparently became irresistible. Observations by
scientists such as David Ferrier of the discrete eects of stimulating some
neural pathways and removing others in apes, complemented precise docu-
mentation of both clinical and pathological aspects of neurological damage
in humans. These were crucial steps in the rise of the doctrine of localiza-
tion: in particular the localization of functions within the cortex.
The notion that dierent parts of the brain were responsible for dierent
functions applied not just to obvious functions such as sight, hearing
and voluntary movement but also to more elusive things such as aspects
of language, mood and personality. This was prompted by some famous
observations that I referred to in the previous section: Brocas paper linking
the loss of language with damage to a particular part of the frontal lobes;
Hughlings Jacksons correlations between clinical syndromes and post-
mortem ndings that led him to conclude that the cortex was the site
of higher mental functions such as volition; and, most spectacularly, the
gruesome meeting of Phineas Gages brain and an iron rod, of which the
reader may not wish to be reminded, except to recall that he seemed to
undergo a profound change in personality as a result. Clinical-pathological

30. Lange, History of Materialism and Criticism of its Present Importance, quoted in James, The
Principles of Psychology, 29. The need for such a place where everything that is dealt with by
separate parts of the brain comes together is still felt strongly by neuroscientists. Crick who,
having made the fundamental discovery with James Watson of the structure of DNA, along
with many other contributions to molecular biology, turned to thinking about the neurology
of consciousness. In his last, posthumously published, paper, he and Christian Koch argued
that integrated consciousness was located in the claustrum, where so many neural pathways
come together (Crick & Koch, What is the Function of the Claustrum?). Other places have
been suggested, such as the subthalamic nucleus, between the cerebral hemispheres and the
brain stem. As we shall see in Brain science and human consciousness, III in Chapter 3,
attempts to nd some kind of brain basis for the unity of consciousness are doomed.


correlations were supplemented by careful microscopic studies of indi-

vidual cell types in the cortex, which seemed to provide a detailed struc-
tural underpinning for localization of functions. The eects of brain
stimulation, beginning with the famous experiments of Wilder Peneld, a
Canadian neurosurgeon, in waking human subjects undergoing epilepsy
surgery were particularly impressive.31 Peneld observed quite complex
memories being switched on by electrical stimulation of the appropriate
parts of the cerebral cortex. (I shall return to these experiments.)
Some neurophysiologists had reservations about the doctrine of locali-
zation. One was Sherrington, who, as we have seen, emphasized the inte-
grative, as opposed to the dierentiated, action of the nervous system
underlying higher, especially higher mental, function, focusing on how
things came together rather than how they were spatially separated.
Another was Karl Lashley, whose experiments led him to revive Flourens
notion of the equipotentiality of all cortical tissue: the parts of the cere-
bral cortex all participated in all functions. But the trend was irresistible.
Early in the twenty-rst century, with the advent of modern methods of
stimulating and recording from the central nervous system, of delineating
its multifarious internal anatomical and physiological connections and of
imaging the living brain using a variety of techniques, we are now truly in
a neo-phrenological era in which it seems as if every discernible mental
function has its own dedicated piece of circuitry.
Todays neo-phrenology is, of course, dierent from the old phrenology
of Gall and his collaborator Johann Spurzheim. There is now increasing
emphasis on the plasticity of the brain and soft-wired modules (as we have
discussed). And also (or at least until recently, and thereby hangs much
of our tale) the functions into which the soul is fractionated tended to be
items such as object localization, edge detection, dierential attention,
various modes of memory and executive function rather than the sense
of justice or amatory propensity. The fundamental conceptual framework
established by Gall and his later nineteenth-century successors, however,
is essentially the same, and in the past few years neo-phrenology has
taken o, with areas of the brain being assigned to unconditional love and
wisdom and much else besides, as we shall explore.
The original conjecture by the Greeks Hippocrates pre-eminent
among them that the brain is the seat of the soul has, it seems, been

31. See Milner, Wilder Peneld.


triumphantly vindicated by modern science; the multiple functions of the

secular mind are located in the cerebral cortex and its connections. All that
remains is to work within this secure framework to tease out the details of
what happens in dierent locations and how those locations relate to one
another. And this, we are led to believe, is what has been happening at an
ever-increasing pace over the past 100 years or so.

Seeing the mind

In recent decades, there have been major technical advances enabling ever
more precise observation of activity in the living brain, in particular the
waking human brain. EEG has been outshone by even more impressive
ways of capturing brain function. In a few decades, various modes of func-
tional neuroimaging have been developed that enable scientists to see the
brain lighting up in various places when its owner is exposed to certain
stimuli, engages in certain activities or even thinks about performing them.
The most powerful and versatile of these techniques is functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It is fMRI, more than anything else,
that has taken the analysis of brain function beyond the laboratory into
the wider world of popular science, to the point where it is now almost
impossible to pick up a newspaper without encountering an image of the
brain, showing the location of love, or hatred, or wisdom. The novelty of
fMRI explains why the historically incorrect notion that the identity of
mind and brain is a recent discovery rooted in neuroscience, rather than a
2,500-year-old assumption about the brain, is so prevalent.
For three-quarters of a century after Wilhelm Rntgens original work,
radiology was based on X-rays, and could reveal only tissues that are radio-
opaque such as bones or hollow structures, such as the stomach, when
they are lled with radio-opaque material, usually barium. Computerized
tomography was the rst technique to be able to demonstrate soft tissues
in detail, notably the brain, and to dierentiate between normal tissues and
structural abnormalities such as a brain tumour or blood clot. To those of
us working in clinical neurology in the 1970s its advent was revolutionary.
Patients could be diagnosed as having tumours that required neurosur-
gical treatment or reassured that they did not have such problems without
the kind of invasive, and sometime quite ghastly, investigations hitherto
in use. MRI, however, has proved to be much more versatile and able to
show the structure of the brain in stunning detail. As its name indicates,


the technology exploits a phenomenon called magnetic resonance.

The physics is immensely complex but the underlying principles can be
described quite briey.
The key to MRI is that bodily tissues including neural tissue are
mainly water, which, having the chemical composition H2O, contains two
hydrogen nuclei or protons. When tissues are placed in a powerful magnetic
eld the hydrogen nuclei are aligned along the lines of force in the eld.
If a radiofrequency electromagnetic eld is then switched on and o the
protons release energy, which can be detected by the scanner. Protons in
dierent tissues resonate at dierent frequencies. As a result, brain grey
matter such as the cerebral cortex, white matter such as the nerve tracts that
connect the cortex with other structures, and the cerebrospinal uid, appear
in distinctive shades. The contrast between structures can be enhanced by
administering agents that inuence the resonance of the protons in various
tissues or damaged versus undamaged tissues in dierent ways.
There are many modes of MRI scanning. One of particular value is
diusion MRI, which exploits the fact that water molecules are in a
constant state of motion. If unconstrained they diuse in all directions; but
inside a neuron they will be constrained to move roughly in accordance
with the long axis of the neuron. This makes it possible to map the connec-
tions between bre tracts (tractography), giving additional information
of how the brain is internally wired up. Another application of diusion
MRI is monitoring the distribution and time course of changes following
a stroke, when, owing to a clot, the blood supply to part of the brain is
cut o. If this is prolonged the cells aected swell, the diusion of water is
restricted and the signal on the scan increases.
The application of MRI scanning in increasing our understanding of the
anatomy of the intact and the damaged brain is self-evident. As a clinical
neuroscientist I was awestruck by the images that became available towards
the end of my career. The brain can be visually sliced and examined from
dierent angles, and changes in its structure can be tracked over time. For
example, the correlation between shrinkage of a part of the temporal lobes
called the hippocampus in patients with dementing illnesses such as Alzhe-
imers disease and their degree of memory loss can be investigated.
But there has been another important development critical to the rise
of Neuromania. Neural activity in a particular region is accompanied by
changes in blood ow in that region. These changes are associated with
alterations in blood oxygen level. Blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD)
MRI is an indirect way of tracking brain activity over time, with an


impressive spatial resolution that enables us to get a general idea of what is

going on, and where, in a brain when someone is responding to stimuli or
engaging in an activity. By this means we can look not just at brain struc-
ture, but also at brain function (hence functional MRI). If the brain and
the mind were one and the same this would mean that we can see not just
the brain but the mind at work. We can read thoughts, intentions, appe-
tites, unconscious responses, the inuence of the balance of dierent kinds
of brain activity on character and much else besides. Duncans assertion in
Macbeth that Theres no art / To nd the minds construction in the face32
remains true but we can now, or so it is claimed, read the minds construc-
tion by looking behind the face.
A recent (sceptical) review in Scientic American summarizes the story:

Thousands of fMRI studies have explored a wide range of dier-

ences in brain activation: adolescents versus adults, schizo-
phrenic and normal minds, the empathetic and the impassive.
Researchers have used fMRI to draw bold conclusions about
face and word recognition, working memory and false memo-
ries, people anticipating pain, mothers recognizing their chil-
dren, citizens pondering ethical dilemmas not to mention
why many consumers buy Coke even though they really prefer
the taste of Pepsi. Psychologists have praised fMRI for nally
making their science more quantiable. And cognitive neuro-
scientists have cited the scans heavily in the recent, vast expan-
sion in understanding of the brain.33

The attempt over the centuries to prove Hippocrates conjecture that

from the brain, and from the brain only, arises our pleasures, joys, laughter
and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears seemed to have
reached its triumphant conclusion in a BOLD rush.

Support from without

Before concluding this sketch of the development of the Hippocratic

notion that the brain and the mind are identical, I want to look briey at

32. Macbeth, I.iv.

33. Dobbs, Fact or Phrenology?


two trends outside neuroscience that, over the past half century or so, have
helped to make it seem unassailable.
The rst is the computational theory of the mind.34 This is the theory
that what the mindbrain does is information-processing; or, to put this
another way, that the mind is a set of programs or software implemented in
the hardware of the brain. The computational theory is particularly associ-
ated with cognitive psychology, which arose initially as a reaction against
behaviourism. Behaviourism had tried to eliminate the mind, in a bid for
psychology to be taken seriously as fully edged science. Psychology, the
behaviourists argued, should conne itself to the objective and the measur-
able; to quantiable inputs or stimuli and quantiable outputs, responses
or behaviour. Anything between inputs and outputs was inaccessible to
proper scientic study. This methodological decision gradually drifted
into the assumption that there was nothing important between inputs and
outputs. Cognitive psychology, which reacted against behaviourism, argued
that there was something between outputs and inputs. It called them by
various names but a favourite was central processes. These were best
modelled as information-handling, of the kind performed by computers,
and they were represented by diagrams in which boxes were linked by
arrows, supposedly teasing out the representation, transformation and ow
of information within the components of the mindbrain.
The seemingly unlimited power of computers to do things detect
events, calculate, control outputs made it supercially attractive to
think of the mindbrain as a computer, and an enormously powerful one,
which is as one would expect given that its circuitry had an estimated
9,000,000,000 components, each of which made many hundreds, even
thousands, of synaptic connections with other neurons. The brain, in short,
was the mother of all motherboards. And the mind, the software of the
brain, was a respectable object of scientic study because information-
processing seemed a long way away from the aky stu that the mind had
hitherto seemed to be.
The second development came from within philosophy. For a long time,
analytic philosophy, the predominant strand in the English-speaking world,
treated the notion of locating the mind in an object such as the brain with
great suspicion. Looking for thoughts and their like in a particular place

34. The best account of this key trend in psychology remains Johnson-Laird, The Computer and
the Mind.


was a category error like ascribing nutritional value to prime numbers

that arose from thinking of the mind and its components, such as percep-
tions, memories, thoughts and beliefs, as if they were objects. Following a
landmark paper in the 1950s by the psychologist U. T. Place (whose brain
we shall visit at the end of this book),35 which argued that there was no
logical reason why nerve impulses (which certainly did have locations)
should not be identical with thoughts, perceptions and beliefs, this objec-
tion seemed to lose its force.36 The philosophers joined with the psycholo-
gists and neuroscientists and, eventually, neurophilosophy (which came of
age with Patricia Churchlands famous book of that name) was born.
The neurophilosophical wing of English-speaking philosophy has our-
ished ever since, in part because of the glamour of neuroscience, in part
because it is consistent with what leading neurophilosopher (and promoter
of the computational theory of mind) Daniel Dennett called the contem-
porary orthodoxy, namely that:

There is only one sort of stu, namely matter the physical

stu of physics, chemistry, and physiology and the mind is
somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the
mind is the brain we can (in principle!) account for every
mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws,
and raw materials that suce to explain radioactivity, contin-
ental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and

Many arguments have been put forward in support of the contem-

porary orthodoxy, but the most direct and widely accepted one goes as
follows.38 Our mental states have physical eects. If they did not then our
thoughts and our intentions, and even our perceptions, would not be able
to bring anything about. We would have no free will, no capacity to alter
the course of events; our intentions would not change the disposition of
the world around us. In other words, if you really believe that you your

35. Place, Is Consciousness a Brain Process?

36. A key collection of essays is Borst (ed.), The MindBrain Identity Theory. My own copy has
nearly fallen to pieces under the pressure of readings and re-readings, the margins are lled
with annotations and scarcely a line is left without underlining.
37. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 33.
38. It is most clearly expressed in Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism, esp. ch. 1.


mental states can change things in the physical world, you must believe
that these mental states are physical states. The most plausible candi-
dates for these physical causes are events in the brain; that is to say, nerve
impulses. Hence mental phenomena must be composed of nerve impulses
and the mind must be the activity of the brain.
Unfortunately, if you believe that these mental states are physical states
then, some neurophilosophers have argued, they too must be the product
of other physical states. They have a causal ancestry that reaches beyond
anything that you would regard yourself as being. You your brain, your
mind, your consciousness are wired into the universe. And the wiring
does not simply connect you to your body, or even to your immediate envi-
ronment; it goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe. In
short, you are stitched into a seamless ow of material events subject to the
laws of nature. Your actions cannot be in any way exempt from these laws.
You are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material
There are many powerful counter-arguments and I shall come to these in
due course. For the moment, it looks as if not only everyday experience and
sophisticated neuroscience, but also philosophical argument, are in favour
of the notion that our minds, our consciousness, our self-consciousness, our
very selves, are identical with activity in the brain. Anyone who denies this
must be ying in the face of fact and argument. And he or she probably has a
hidden agenda. I have lost count of the number of times that I, proudly athe-
istic, have been accused of promoting religion by the back door.


[T]he idea of evolution by natural selection unies the realm of

life, meaning, and purpose with the realms of space and time,
cause and eect, mechanism and physical law.39

The next step, and the one that takes us to Darwinitis, is based on the
indisputable fact that the human brain is an evolved organ. If the mind
is identical with brain activity then the mind, too, must be an evolved

39. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 21.


organ of sorts. And this is how Steven Pinker, a prominent evolutionary

psychologist of mind, put it: The mind is a system of organs of compu-
tation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our
evolutionary ancestors.40
Because the mind is an evolved organ or system of organs (let us forget
about computation for the moment) designed by natural selection it will
serve precisely those purposes that other evolved organs serve; namely, to
increase the probability of the survival of the genetic material expressed
in the organisms that carry it through its part in bringing about adaptive
behaviour. As Richard Dawkins put it, An animals behaviour tends to
maximise the gene for that behaviour whether or not the genes happen to
be in the body of the particular animal performing it.41
If the ultimate aim of your actions, irrespective of whether you are aware
of this, is to promote organic survival, this may have disturbing conse-
quences. First, it undermines claims to objective knowledge. You will recall
Grays condent assertion (presumably exempting himself at least for a
moment) that mind the output of a form of human behaviour serves
evolutionary success, not truth. Second, in those cases where you seem
to be serving the interests of others (as when you lay down your life for a
friend), you are really serving the interest of your genetic group. It makes
evolutionary sense to lay down your life (and so stop your own genetic
material replicating) if you save half a dozen other carriers of the same,
or very similar, genetic material. Altruism, and all the norms that govern
our behaviour, are not about transcendental ethics but about the inclusive
tness of the group: about group, rather than individual, selection. And
nally, and most upsettingly, we are not aware unless we are instructed in
biology of the forces that are motivating and shaping our behaviour. The
reasons we give for the things we do are mere rationalizations that conceal
from us the real reason, which is not a reason at all but a biologically deter-
mined propensity. (As we shall see, the observations of neuroscience high-
light the extent of our ignorance; according to eminent neuroscientist
Chris Frith,42 our brains are cleverer than we are and frequently deceive us
as to what they, and hence we, their dupes, are up to.)
You would have to be pretty resistant to the overwhelming body of
evidence to deny that the human brain is an evolved organ, fashioned by

40. Pinker, How the Mind Works, x.

41. Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 265.
42. Frith, Making up the Mind; this is a book we shall revisit.


the processes of natural selection acting on spontaneous variation. It does

not follow from this that the mind is, unless you believe that the mind is
identical with brain activity. Those who do believe that often subscribe
to the hugely popular science of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary
psychology (or EP as it is known to its acionados) is one of the most ubiq-
uitous (and, as we shall see, pernicious) expressions of Darwinized Neuro-
mania. Before we talk about Darwin, contemporary evolutionary theory
and evolutionary psychology it is worth putting contemporary ideas in
historical perspective; for, like the notion that the mind, the self and the
brain are all one, which goes all the way back to Hippocrates, so the notion
that we are animal-like has a venerable ancestry.
This has been beautifully discussed by Martin Kemp in his recent book
The Human Animal in Western Art and Science. We have a strong propen-
sity to humanize animals and to animalize humans: two-way trac is ubiq-
uitous. Fables, from Aesop to La Fontaine and Orwell, bestiaries, proverbs,
metaphors, insults, terms of praise, and our everyday talk about strangers
and familiars, household pets and the creatures of the wild, draw on and
reinforce habits of anthropomorphization and animalization. In short, as
Kemp demonstrates, the human animal and the animal human have been,
since time immemorial, deeply embedded in our automatic reactions to
characters in the world around us and to images of our characters.43 It is
woven into the Hippocratic notion, elaborated by the second-century ce
Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen, of the balance between
the four humours blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm as the key to
health and illness. We enjoy perfect health when these elements are duly
proportioned to one another.44 This balance was reected in the dierent
temperaments that were also associated with dierent species of animals:
the sanguine temperament was exemplied by the horse, the peacock and
the monkey; the choleric by the lion, the eagle and the bear; the phlegmatic
by the owl, ass, and pig; and the melancholic by the elk and the sheep.
Particular animals became ideal representatives of human natures.
The mutual mirroring of man and beast was itself mirrored and hence
reinforced in the visual arts, as represented by Albrecht Drer, Leon-
ardo da Vinci and many of the greatest gures of subsequent centuries.
The science of physiognomics ultimately traceable to Theophrastus,

43. Kemp, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science, quoted in my A Foxed Mirror, 3103.
44. Hippocrates, On the Nature of Man, 11.


Aristotles successor in the Peripatetic school, but revived in Renaissance

Italy by Giambattista della Porta which provided detailed accounts of
facial features for dierent types of characters in terms of animal analogies,
was an important intermediary. The profound reciprocity of the soul and
body in Aristotelian terms, the soul was the form of the body meant
that the soul could be deducible by a suitably qualied individual from a
persons or an animals physical appearance. We can read the lions char-
acter from his majestic face as generous, liberal, magnanimous with a will
to win, and as gentle, just and aectionate towards his associates. The soul
of a person we dislike or distrust is equally legible in his piggy eyes and
foxy face.
There was, therefore, a deep hinterland of preconceptions about the rela-
tion between man and animals in the 2,500 years between Hippocrates and
Darwins decisive intervention in 1859, with On the Origin of Species. His
compelling account of how we humans could have been produced by the
processes that had given rise to spiders, codsh and chimpanzees estab-
lished a seemingly inescapable framework within which mankind could be
seen only as a form of animalkind. Our claim to being exceptional, hitherto
rooted in the assumption that we had uniquely been created by a separate
process, and in the image of the creator of the universe, was in question.
We are all products of natural processes. The blind watchmaker (to use
Dawkinss famous phrase45) that made us was simply the laws of physics
that had generated animals and humans alike.
In his The Descent of Man, Darwin approvingly wrote that Thomas
Huxley had shown that in every single visible character man diers less
from the higher apes, than these do from the lower members of the same
order of Primates.46 Darwin was intensely interested in one particular
example of this facial expressions, surely the most distinctively human
motor phenomena and made his own contribution to physiognomy.
Inspired by Duchenne de Boulognes photographs of the activation of facial
muscles with electrodes, he published The Expression of the Emotions in
Man and Animals (1872), arguing that:

With mankind some expressions, such as the bristling of the

hair under the inuence of extreme terror, or the uncovering of

45. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.

46. Darwin, The Descent of Man, 18.


the teeth under that of furious rage, can hardly be understood

except on the belief that man once existed in a much lower and
animal-like condition.47

Darwinism prompted a search for the missing link, and a succession

of nds of increasingly ancient fossils seemed to ll in the gap between
humans and other higher primates: or at least indicated a path upstream
to a common ancestor between man and monkeys. This was perfectly
acceptable as science, leaving aside the occasional hoax and a tendency
sometimes to speculation rather beyond the data, and ethically unexcep-
tionable. Unfortunately, evolutionary theory seemed in addition to provide
a scientic basis for notions antedating Darwin that now strike us as not
only wrong but also ethically repulsive: for example, that of grading human
beings according to their proximity to animals, the master idea behind
many forms of racism, as we shall discuss in To hell in a hand cart? in
Chapter 2.
The present ubiquitous notion that we are more animal than we gener-
ally like to think we are, therefore, has had a long history before Darwin.
We have sought our image in this mirror for many centuries. Neverthe-
less, it is only recently that the argument that we are animals through and
through has been so dominant and that Darwins dangerous idea (to
use Dennetts term) has started on its path to becoming a universal acid
(Dennett again) that eats through just about every traditional concept, and
leave in its wake a revolutionized world-view,48 in which our most cher-
ished beliefs about God, value, meaning, purpose, culture and morality are
shown to be without foundation.
One important step towards promoting Darwinism to the status of
universal acid has been the development of evolutionary psychology.
Hardly a day now passes in which we are not oered explanations of
marital indelity, choice of mate, economic decision-making, altru-
istic behaviour or the nature and purpose of art in terms of the inuence
of selsh genes acting on us, either directly or indirectly, through their
cultural proxies memes (units of cultural transmission). The central tenet
of evolutionary psychology is that our behaviour is shaped, indeed deter-
mined, by processes of natural selection. Those modes of behaviour that

47. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions, 13.

48. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 63.


favour the replication of the genome will preferentially survive. Whether

we know it or not (and usually we dont know it, unless we are evolutionary
psychologists) our behaviour is driven by this force. Men who sleep with
many women and traders who aim to maximize their returns on their
investments are simply responding to the fundamental biological impera-
tive to make the world safe for their genes, and a place where they can opti-
mize their replicative capacity.
There are many factions within the eld of evolutionary psychology.
One of the earliest and the most prominent versions, although by no means
uncontroversial in the evolutionary psychology community, is particularly
associated with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby,49 and has several funda-
mental tenets:

The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract infor-

mation from the environment.
Individual brain behaviour is generated by this evolved computer in
response to information it extracts from the environment.
The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist
because they produce behaviours in our ancestors that enabled them
to survive and reproduce.
The cognitive programs of the human brain, which were adaptive in
ancestral environments, may not be adaptive now.
Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains allows a
systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena. This archi-
tecture consists of a myriad of modules, such as cheat-detection modules,
snake-fear-detection modules, and waist-to-hip-ratio-detection modules.

As Brendan Wallace has summed it up, Evolutionary Psychology is an

attempt to reinterpret the basic precepts of [cognitive psychology] within a
Darwinian framework.50 These precepts include the computational theory
of mind, to which we shall return in Chapter 5.
The important point for the present is that evolutionary psychologists
see us as the unwitting playthings of an immensely complex organ (the
brain) that stops us even from seeing what time it is, so that we operate
in ways that may have been adaptive in ancestral environments where

49. The canonical text is Barkow et al., The Adapted Mind.

50. Wallace, Getting Darwin Wrong, 6.


ancestral environments may be as remote as the pre-agricultural habitats of

hunting and gathering human beings or of hominids scarcely evolved from
chimps but are often at odds with modern life. We are evolved for the
Stone Age savannah in Africa, which is where our species has spent most
of its lifetime as a species. We are suited not for our besuited lives, but for
life in the wild (although I am not sure how many of us would ourish any
better if we were dumped in the savannah supported only by Stone Age
technology). At any rate, we are out of place in the places we have created:
cities, oces, drawing rooms.
This is true of us even, or especially, when we are making what we think
are deeply personal, existentially crucial decisions, such as choosing a
lifelong partner which brings me to waist-to-hip ratios. One of the all-
time hits of evolutionary psychology was a paper by Devendra Singh, who
asked men to rank women according to their sexual attractiveness.51 When
shown a series of pictures, men prefer women with waist-to-hip ratios
closest to 0.7. This is a good call, because that ratio, as it happens, is asso-
ciated with optimal fertility, and this is consistent with the fact that the
selsh gene, which wants only one thing (more of itself ), will get its way if
it programmes the unwitting male to make this choice. If you think this is
somewhat tendentious, there is much worse out there.
Consider the recent claim that evolutionary psychology can explain why
pink is associated with femininity and blue with masculinity.52 Women in
prehistory were the principal gatherers of fruit and would have been sensi-
tized to the colours of ripeness: deepening shades of pink. Men, on the other
hand, would have looked for good hunting weather and sources of water,
both of which are connected with blue. In fact, in Victorian Britain blue
was regarded as the appropriate colour for girls (being associated with the
Virgin Mary) and pink for boys (being a watered down version of the erce
colour red). Colour preferences are therefore scarcely rooted in the prop-
erties of a brain shaped in the Pleistocene epoch. They are historically, not
biologically, determined; but dont expect an evolutionary psychologist to
spot that.
To return to Singhs ndings, do they support the claims of evolutionary
psychology to explain our everyday choices? Only if you believe that it
is valid to extrapolate from a preference for one picture over another to

51. Singh, Female Mate Value at a Glance.

52. Hurlbert & Ling, Biological Components of Sex Dierences.


choosing one life companion rather than another. The study ignores innu-
merable factors other than immediate appearance. The three Fs fancying,
fertility and sexual behaviour are not the whole story. Conversation,
common interests, shared tastes, deep sympathy for the other person,
parental pressure, the expectation of others and a multitude of other things
play a part in the choice of long-term partner. Hooking up is not just about
mating and it is not a response to a stimulus. The central role of language
conversation, identication of overlapping needs, interests in common,
and a future-orientated sense of a life together rooted in remembered past
experience is overlooked by Singh. There is no straight line from waist-
to-hip ratios (or, come to that, pheromones another favourite) to the
complex ceremonies and commitments and rituals of human partnerships.
Our lives are narrated, to ourselves and to each other, never more so than
when we are making choices such as whom to share your life with, what
job to take on, whether to have children, and so on.
The reduction of human life to a chain of programmed responses of
modules to stimuli overlooks the complexity of everyday experience and
the singularity of the situations we nd ourselves in, to say nothing of the
role of conscious deliberation. This is something to which we shall return
when we look at actual human life in Chapters 6 and 7 and, in Chapter
8, at the neuro-prexed disciplines that are presuming to displace tradi-
tional humanities. The use of seemingly sophisticated notions such as a
mental module does not alter, but only disguises, this fact. On the other
hand, the initial attractiveness of the notion that it is our genes, and not our
thoughts, or our conscious agency, that guide our lives is understandable.
Hasnt Darwin demonstrated that human beings were manufactured by the
same processes as gave rise to chimpanzees, sea slugs and centipedes? And
are we not living now because we have bodies and behaviours that have
maximized our individual or collective tness? What makes us think that
human beings engaged in the manifestly biological act of choosing a mate
are any dierent from other creatures engaged in the same activity? These
are questions we shall address when we critically examine the case against
Darwinitis in particular, and against biologizing humanity in general on the
basis of Darwinism.
First, however, it is necessary to look at why it is worth pointing this out.
In the next chapter, I shall examine the potentially grave consequences of
succumbing to Neuromania and Darwinitis.




Let us suppose we accept biologism in full: our minds are our brains; and
our brains are evolved organs designed, as are all organs, by natural selec-
tion to maximize the replicative ability of the genes whose tool the brain
is. What follows from this? For many, this means that we are acting out
a biological script quite dierent from the story we tell ourselves about
ourselves. We may have to jettison the notion of freedom and, conse-
quently, of personal responsibility. Worse still, to be identied with our
brains is to be identied with a piece of matter, and this, like all other pieces
of matter, is subject to, and cannot escape from, the laws of material nature.
Everything that happens in our brains is the product of material events that
impinge on them and the events that result from brain activity notably
our actions are wired into the endless causal net, extending from the Big
Bang to the Big Crunch, that is the history of the material universe. Minds
and persons are embedded in the physical world. Our destiny, like that of
pebbles and waterfalls, is to be predestined.
The general argument that free will is an illusion long antedates the rise
of neuroscience: it has haunted philosophers since classical times. There
are various ways of arguing for determinism: the notion that we do not
determine anything but are ourselves determined by things outside of us.
The proofs are all pretty straightforward.1 The most obvious is that every

1. The arguments are set out in Kane, The Signicance of Free Will.


one of our actions is a physical event. Every physical event has a cause and
that cause will in turn have causes. Eventually we shall arrive at causes that
have nothing to do with us: for example, events that happened before we
were born. So the actual basis for our actions lies outside us.
Well return to these arguments, and the false idea that an action is just
a physical event like any other, in Chapter 7. What is of particular interest
to us now is the claim that neuroscience and Darwinism have added weight
to traditional determinism; that they have demonstrated that we are either
not as free as we thought or that we are not free at all; that, thanks to brain
scientists, we now know to be true what philosophers and others only
feared might be true. There is something dodgy, of course, about the claim
that an empirical science can address essentially metaphysical questions
such as whether or not human freedom is real. At any rate, if the argu-
ments sketched above were sound (which they are not), then we would
require no data to support them. Be that as it may, some biologists think
that what they have discovered about brain activity further undermines the
case for our believing in free will.
The eminent neurophysiologist Colin Blakemore expressed this view
with admirable lucidity in his Reith Lectures The Mechanics of the Mind:

The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our
actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs All our actions
are products of the activity of our brains. It makes no sense (in
scientic terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that
result from conscious attention and those that result from our
reexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brain.2

If we are identical with our brains, or certain neural discharges in them, we

must be just as unfree when we are writing a textbook about the manage-
ment of seizures as when we ourselves are in the grip of a seizure: it makes
no sense in neuroscientic terms to distinguish between these things.
Other writers are not so radical, or so consistent, as Blakemore. They
want only to tone down what they feel to be our exaggerated sense of
our own autonomy. Many psychologists have taken especial pleasure in
demonstrating how our decisions are often inuenced by stimuli of which
we are unaware, and that we act for reasons other than those that we

2. Blakemore, The Mind Machine, 270.


believe drive our actions.3 You might think that you gave money to a beggar
because you acknowledged the obligation to assist those less fortunate than
yourself. You will be less certain of this when you realize that, according to
some studies, you are much more likely to be generous when you are near a
bakery sending out the delicious smell of freshly baked bread rather than a
neutral-smelling dry goods store.4 In general, it seems as if our conscious
feelings are less important than we thought they were. As Rita Carter has
expressed it, The conscious appreciation of emotion is looking more and
more like one quite small, and sometimes inessential, element of a system
of survival mechanisms that mainly operate even in adults at an uncon-
scious level.5
Neuroscientists, of course, are not the only ones who assume a knowing
smile in the face of our belief that we are free. Marxists, psychoanalysts,
semiologists and behavioural psychologists have questioned the contribu-
tion of conscious agency to our actions and argued that our reasons for
carrying out certain actions have little to do with why those actions occur.6
But the incursion of neuroscience into our sense of ourselves as conscious
agents is more up close and personal: so up close that the personal gives
way before the impersonal. What is more, neuroscientists have made the
most systematic observations, which appear to them to demonstrate that
we do not fully will our actions; indeed, the only connection between
willing and acting is that both come from the same unconscious source.7
These observations have been given further apparent authority by
experiments using fMRI scanning and other methods of directly observing
brain activity when people are carrying out supposedly voluntary actions.
The pattern of activity seen on the scan often, so it is argued, reveals that
more is going on than the actor realizes and that the (unconsciously)
emotional brain is frequently more engaged than the rational brain. We
shall return to the status of such statements in BOLD claims in Chapter

3. See Frith & Rees, A Brief History of the Scientic Approach, for an excellent sketch of the
literature demonstrating unconscious processes in every aspect of consciousness, inuencing
perception, memory and social behaviour. Friths own Making Up the Mind is another excel-
lent source.
4. This is one of many examples discussed in Appiah, Experiments in Ethics. For an excellent
critical account, see Turner, Ethics Made Easy.
5. Carter, Mapping the Mind, 22.
6. See my Enemies of Hope.
7. The most carefully argued and documented case for this is Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious


3. For the present, I want to focus on two connected studies, carried out a
quarter of a century apart, which have been very widely cited and discussed
within neuroscience and philosophy and have attracted the attention of the
popular press and the wider public, and seem to challenge the notion that
we are in charge of our actions.
The rst is a famous set of experiments, carried out by the neuro-
physiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s and repeated and rened many
times since then, which seem to show that our brain makes decisions to
act before our conscious mind is aware of them, so they are not really our
decisions at all. The neuroscientist Patrick Haggard described the paper in
which they were rst described as one of the most philosophically chal-
lenging in modern scientic psychology.8 So what did Libet do and what
did he nd?
In a typical experiment, Libets subjects are instructed to make a simple
movement to bend their right wrist or the ngers of their right hand in
their own time.9 Using EEG, the experimenter records a particular activity
in the brain that indicates a readiness to move. This so-called readiness
potential is seen in the part of the cerebral cortex most closely associ-
ated with voluntary movement. The readiness potential occurs about
half a second before activity in the relevant muscles of the arm or hand,
as recorded by an electromyogram, because it takes time for the neural
activity in the cortex to translate into events in the relevant muscles.
Nothing worrying there. But Libet made another observation that seemed
to raise serious questions. He asked his subjects to recall the position of a
spot revolving on a clock face in order to determine the time when they
were rst aware of their urge or intention to make a movement. To his
surprise, he found that the readiness potential occurred a consistent third
of a second before the time at which the subjects reported being aware of a
decision to move. Libet concluded from this that the brain (not the subject
or the person) decided to initiate or at least to prepare to initiate the act
before there was any reportable subjective awareness of a decision having
been made. Put more simply, the cerebral causes of our actions seem to
occur before our conscious awareness of deciding to perform them.

8. Haggard et al., On the Perceived Time of Voluntary Actions, 291.

9. Libet has published widely on a large series of experiments over many years but the early key
reference is Libet, Unconscious Cerebral Initiative.


These ndings are open to a range of interpretations, as we shall see, but

they cannot be dismissed as mere artefacts of the method of recording.10
Nor can the gap between the electrical signal of the initiation of action,
the readiness potential, and the awareness of the intention to perform the
action be explained away as the interval between forming an intention
and being suciently reectively aware of the intention to allocate it to a
particular time. This has been demonstrated rather dramatically by more
recent work, this time using fMRI.
Chung Siong Soon and colleagues carried out studies in which letters
were displayed on a screen in succession.11 Subjects were asked to press a
left or right button at a moment of their own choosing and to note the letter
that was being displayed at the time they felt they were making a decision
to press the button. The letter was a time marker. Two regions that lit up
in the brain predicted the subjects choice of left or right button. Remark-
ably, the regions in question (in the part of the cerebral cortex associated
with voluntary movement) lit up a full ve seconds before the individual
was aware of having made a choice. Moreover, there were other areas in
the frontal cortex, traditionally ascribed executive powers, that were active
no less than seven seconds before awareness of the decision. If the delay
in the response of the scanner detecting the activity was accounted for,
the interval increased to ten seconds. Such a delay could not be due to the
subject mistiming the intention to move: a possible explanation for Libets
original ndings, as it is somewhat tricky to time ones own decisions. The
authors concluded that there is a network of high-level control areas that
begins to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.
It looks as if we dont know what we are doing until we have found that we
have done it.
This has certainly brought many philosophers up short. Among them
is Alfred Mele, who in 2010 was awarded a $4.4 million grant by the
Templeton Foundation to look into the whole issue of human free will.
Libets original interpretation of his own experiments was that they demon-
strated that we do not have free will: the brain decides to move; the brain
initiates movement. As Libet put it in a more recent paper, If the act
now process is initiated unconsciously, then the conscious free will is not

10. A recent study, however, has suggested that our timing of our own intentions is aected by
external factors, notably the sense that you have actually performed the act yourself, that is,
voluntarily. See Banks & Isham, We Infer Rather than Perceive the Moment.
11. Soon et al., Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions.


doing it.12 We do, however, have free wont: we can inhibit movements
that are initiated by the brain. We dont quite initiate voluntary processes;
rather, we select and control them, either by permitting the movement
that arises out of an unconsciously initiated process or by vetoing the
progression to actual motor activation.13 This has been expressed as our
ability to rubber-stamp decisions that have already been made by neural
networks. It is, however, not very clear why the decisions should require
rubber-stamping. In the person-less world of neuroscience, it makes no
more sense for us to rubber-stamp the decisions of our brains than for a
falling pebble to endorse the gravitational eld.
In fact, the conclusion that we do not have any kind of free will (or
wont), or that we have only free wont, is not supported by either Libets
or Soons experiments. A few moments thought will make that clear, and
we shall have those few moments in Chapter 7, but the reader may want
to spot the (involuntary) mistake before then. For the present, we note that
because the justication of the large conclusion drawn from the experi-
ments is so weak there must be a prior intuition that predisposes commen-
tators towards that conclusion. This intuition is one we have referred to
already: a presumption in favour of determinism the notion that our
actions, like every other event in the universe, are determined by preceding
events in accordance with the laws of nature, as revealed by physical
science. Neuro-determinism, in other words, is simply a local manifesta-
tion of universal physical determinism; and the former is given an easy ride
because of the prejudice in favour of the latter.
Certainly, if you believe that you are identical with certain physical
events in your brain you will nd it dicult to see where your freedom
could be located: where there could be such a thing as the initiation of
an action. Think about it: there is a sensory input, triggering peripheral
nerve impulses, which in turn trigger central nerve impulses that trigger
motor activity or other outputs. Yes, there are many intermediate layers of
activity between the input and the output, but they consist only of other
nerve impulses and these are not qualitatively dierent from those more
immediately related to inputs and outputs. The hierarchical vision of
the nervous system suggested by Hughlings Jackson, and orthodox ever
since, does not help. Consider nerve impulses ascending through various

12. Libet, Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain, 62, quoted in Mele, Free Will, 5.
13. Libet, Unconscious Cerebral Initiative, 529.


tracts to the sensory cortex, being processed at higher and higher levels,
and then, via various intermediate stations, activating the motor cortex,
prompting outgoing impulses that descend to those bres whose output
causes muscles to contract. This sequence does not have a beginning, a
point of origin, a point of departure, that would correspond to the initia-
tion of an action. We have a loop of activity passing through the nervous
system, without an obvious point where anything could be started. After
all, the circuitry of the brain is causally connected with its immediate
surroundings, and these are in turn simply part of a boundless causal nexus
extending backwards in time to the beginning of the universe. The ines-
capable consequence of seeing ourselves identied with a material object
the brain must be to conclude that we are wired into the material world:
subject to the same laws that hold sway over it.
So, for a variety of reasons, many neuroscientists argue that, while the
experience of free will is very real, the reality is that it is an illusion. This is
not the only illusion to which we are prone, apparently. We also mistakenly
believe that we are, or have, selves: a coherent, enduring, unied I. This is
an illusion for which we are hardwired.14 Since, as I shall argue, freedom
and being an enduring I are inseparably linked, it is hardly surprising that
those who say farewell to freedom also say bye bye, I. Gray, who, as it
will be recalled, argued that our lives are more like fragmentary dreams
than the enactments of conscious selves,15 also stated that The upshot
of neuroscientic research is that we cannot be authors of our act.16 The
conscious mind, the self, is only a spin doctor,17 and not only puts the
best or most comprehensible gloss on things but is also capable of spinning
itself with such plausibility as to persuade itself that it exists.
As with the denial of free will, there is nothing new about the denial
of the self. It is one of the fundamental pillars of many ancient religions,
notably Buddhism. And in secular thought it has been a long-standing
preoccupation since, in one of the most famous passages in Western phil-
osophy, David Hume argued that the self was a kind of ction:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call

myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other,

14. Carter, Mapping the Mind, 76.

15. Gray, Straw Dogs, 38.
16. Ibid., 67.
17. Ibid.


of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.

I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and
can never observe anything but the perception.18

He concluded that humans are nothing but a bundle of dierent percep-

tions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a
perpetual ux and movement. The identity, which we ascribe to the mind
of man, is only a ctitious one, he nally says.19 So thats that. Those of you
who think of your selves as real are plain wrong.
For Dennett, like Hume, the self is a ctional entity: a narrative centre of
gravity; the implied heart of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of
the world. There is a Head of Mind which may rotate between dierent
clusters of consciousness but this no more exists in reality than does
the centre of gravity of a hoop.20 Frith also argues that the I is an illu-
sion and believes that it is created by the brain. Friths brain washes itself
into believing in a person called Chris Frith, who somehow despite being
unreal coheres in various important ways across his biography.21
Notice that it was because he could not nd the self by introspection,
that Hume concluded that it was not real. An alternative conclusion (as
we shall discuss in Chapter 7), is that introspection might not be the right
instrument to show us the self. There is an analogy here with the logic of
the neuroscientists who conclude that the self , the I like free will
is unreal on the grounds that you cant nd it if you look into the brain;
there is nothing in patterns of neural activity corresponding to anything
like a self. We could, of course, draw quite a dierent conclusion: that the
self does exist but it is not identical with patterns of neural activity. Only
the prior assumption that neuroscience speaks the last word on what we
are could force us to deny the existence of the self on the grounds that it
cannot be detected by electrodes or scanners.
We shall return to, and rescue, free will and the human agent in Chapter
7. For the present, I note simply that the idea of both that is attacked is
often a straw man: or a straw homunculus. It is the idea of a little fellow, a
spirit, at the heart of ones consciousness, ones life, ones body, ones brain,
that is calling the shots, manipulating the world as if by magic, using the

18. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, pt IV, 6.

19. Ibid.
20. Dennett, The Origins of Selves.
21. This is argued in detail in Frith, Making up the Mind.


causal nexus but exempted from its exigencies itself. And this, of course,
is not an idea that a non-dualist atheist like myself would wish to defend.
Nor would I wish to defend those who think that they can nd the self, or a
somehow unied consciousness, in the convergent neural activity of large
parts of the brain. This, as we shall see in Chapter 3, runs into contradic-
tions. At any rate, we shall discover that those who deny free will and the
self, the conscious agent, are either attacking only a straw man or running
into contradictions or both.


The humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral

reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts,
will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.22

If we are our brains, and if human societies are the summed activity of
brains interacting with one another and with the material world, it follows
that everything we do individually and collectively can be understood in
terms of neural activity. The ndings of neuroscientists, supplemented
since the brain is an evolved organ designed to help us face the exigencies
of life in the jungle or the savannah by evolutionary thinking, will reveal
the true nature of our behaviour and the institutions that regulate it, our
customs and practices, norms and laws, arts and sciences. If you want to
understand people, look at their brains. The writing is on the wall and the
script is pixels on a brain scan. Roll over, social sciences and humanities,
allow yourselves to be incorporated into a vastly extended neuroscience
and discover your true nature as animalities.
That the queen of the natural sciences should also have dominion over
territory that once belonged to the human sciences is an assumption that
has, as we have seen, spread from academe to the popular press. And so
hardly a day passes without yet another breathless account of new light
cast on everyday life by ndings from the neuro-lab. Newspaper articles
and television programmes are usually accompanied by pictures of brain
scans in pixel-busting high denition. There are repeated references to new

22. Wilson, Consilience, 12.


disciplines with the prex neuro- or evolutionary: neuro-jurisprudence,

evolutionary economics, evolutionary aesthetics, neuro-theology, neuro-
architecture, neuro-archeology and so on. Even philosophers who should
know better, being trained, one hopes, in scepticism have entered the
eld with the discipline of X-phi, or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed
sages, for example, have invented neuro-ethics, in which ethical principles
are examined by using brain scans to determine peoples intuitions when
they are asked to deliberate on the classical dilemmas.
Far from being resisted, this takeover has been passionately welcomed
by many humanist scholars and social scientists. It is easy to be cynical
(although cynicism is not always blind malice, as Settembrini said in
Thomas Manns The Magic Mountain, is reasons keenest dart). From the
point of view of a career academic, there are good reasons for seizing the
interdisciplinary opportunities oered by, say, neuro-prexed humani-
ties. You can, as John Bayley once said, rise between two stools. Most of
the time you will be selling your product to an audience that is not in a
position to judge the correctness, the validity or even the probability of the
claims you are making about the guest discipline you exploit. A new para-
digm also means lots of lovely conferences and papers, and other income
from the regular review of research that determines government grants,
that will line the path to professional advancement. It may also help you
to overcome a crisis of condence in the value or validity of what you are
doing. Let us, however, give the practitioners of the new disciplines the
benet of assuming their sincerity and glance at some prominent examples.
(We shall look at them in more detail in Chapter 8, when we shall be in a
better position to see why they are fundamentally misconceived.)
Art, that most distinctive of human activities, the most remote, one
would have thought, from our organic being, has been a particular focus
of attention. The acionados of neuroaesthetics explain the impact of
dierent kinds of art by referring to what is seen on fMRI scans, which
show the dierent areas of the brain that light up when we engage with
artworks.23 The creation of art itself is a neurally mediated activity by which
the artist, unknown to himself, behaves in such a way as to promote the
replication of his genetic material.24 The artist is a show-o. Neuroarthis-
tory explains the emergence of dierent theories of art by the inuence

23. The locus classicus is Zeki, Inner Vision.

24. Dutton, The Art Instinct.


of the environment on the plastic brain of the critic.25 Sponsorship of the

arts is a manifestation of the reputation reex, by which, like the peacock
whose useless tail advertises the health of his genes, the sponsor advertises
the health of his rm. In short, every aspect of the aesthetic business can be
explained by the function of the evolved brain.26 According to philosopher
and founding editor of Arts and Letters Daily Denis Dutton, our aesthetic
preferences were forged in the 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene era,
rather than the mere 500 generations since the rst societies.27 Duttons
work, Pinker tells us, marks out the future of the humanities connecting
aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature drawn from
the cognitive and biological sciences.28
While neuroaesthetics seems to be best developed in the case of the
traditional visual arts, music has also attracted some attention. According
to cognitive psychologist and record producer Daniel Levitin, all tunes fall
into six categories (friendship, joy, religion, knowledge, comfort, and love)
each of which serves a basic evolutionary function.29 This hypothesis is
particularly bold in that it combines biologizing art with a broader reduc-
tion of the human characteristics that lie behind it.
The most bullish discipline in the neuro-evolutionary humanities is
literary criticism. It has attracted some eminent names as well as much
media attention. Literary Critics Scan the Brain to Find Out Why We Love
to Read, says a recent, typical headline in the Observer newspaper. Neuro-
lit-crit, we learn, is the study of how great writing aects the hard wiring
inside our heads.30 Next to the claim that Lighting up the right neurones
is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context, there
is a quote from Blakey Vermeule, English Professor at Stanford University,
to the eect that neuro-lit-crit is one of the most exciting developments
in intellectual life. The excitement that had prompted the Observer article
had been provoked by a study of brain scans in student volunteers looking

25. Onians, Neuroarthistory. I am afraid that I subjected this book which is dedicated to the
art historians of the future who also have the courage to be neuroarthistorians to a rather
cruel review in The Lancet: The Limitations of a Neurological Approach to Art. The author
responded with exemplary courtesy and generosity.
26. Wight, The Peacocks Tail and the Reputation Reex. Science can at last now support what
instinct could only proclaim, he tells us.
27. Dutton, The Art Instinct.
28. Ibid., back cover; quoted in Warburton, Can Evolution Explain Aesthetics?
29. Levitin, The World in Six Songs.
30. Harris & Flood, Literary Critics Scan the Brain.


at writing that has varying levels of complexity. This study will apparently
help us to understand why we have a dierent reaction to a newspaper
article as opposed to the novels of Proust and Henry James. It has not yet
been done, but such is the anticipation that no negative ndings would now
dare spoil the excitement.
There is a bitter irony for me in this swing to biologism. It is now hard to
remember that, in the later decades of the twentieth century, academics in
the humanities questioned the very truth of science. Under the inuence of
writers such as the French matre penser Michel Foucault and the Amer-
ican philosopher Richard Rorty, humanist intellectuals were prone to assert
that knowledge was inseparable from power. Objective truths, including
those turned up by scientists, were simply those interpretations with su-
ciently powerful sponsors to back them up. For some critics, the conver-
sion from the idea that scientic accounts of nature are no more objectively
true than are politically motivated accounts of history to the opposite
notion that natural science (in particular neuroscience) reveals the ulti-
mate truth about us has been Damascene. Norman Bryson, an art critic,
was until recently committed to the notion that art, science and the world
itself were simply collections of signs. One day he discovered neuroscience
and saw an entirely fresh paradigm for thinking through cultural history
and the philosophy of the human subject.31 The scales fell from his eyes:
experiences, worlds, objects were not made of signs at all, but of neural
activity. What makes the apple is not the signied apple but rather the
simultaneous ring of axons and neurons within cellular and organic life.32
Bryson, who once would not have been seen dead near a laboratory, is not
the only social constructivist to have realized that art criticism is a branch
of neuroscience. The very title of the latest book by Alan Richardson (one
of the leading gures in neuro-lit-crit), The Neural Sublime: Cognitive
Theories and Romantic Texts, sounds like a parody. Alas, it is not.
Even serious, truly illuminating critics are not immune from the strong
contagion of the lab coat. This has a particular poignancy for me. Two
excellent practitioners, Brian Boyd and Philip Davis, who supported me
when I was one of a handful of voices pointing out the invalidity of post-
structuralist, postmodern, deconstructive criticism in the 1990s, and
whom I count as personal friends, have embraced the new paradigm. Boyd,

31. Bryson, Foreword, 11.

32. Ibid.


the worlds leading authority on Vladimir Nabokov, has recently published

a book that aims not only to give an evolutionary account of storytelling,
arguing that it is a form of play assisting survival, but also to show how an
evolutionary lens can oer new understanding and appreciation of specic
works.33 Among these are the Odyssey and Hamlet. His take on evolu-
tionary criticism is far from simple and does take into account something
that I shall emphasize when I assemble a few reminders about the nature
of the human world in The human world in Chapter 6, but still aims to
anchor itself in animal biology.34 And Davis, Professor of English Literature
at Liverpool University, one of the most sensitive and imaginative of Shake-
spearean critics, and another opponent of poststructuralism, has taken
things further, collaborating with neuroscientists to use fMRI to investigate
the basis of the special impact of the Bards language.35
In his early oracular masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
Ludwig Wittgenstein pronounced that ethics and aesthetics are one.36
And this is certainly true for the neuro-evolutionary humanists. Brain
scans, which can X-ray aesthetic experiences, also cast light on moral
judgements. This is to be expected, they argue, since our sense of right and
wrong is implanted by evolution to ensure that we live together in a non-
dysfunctional way. In The Science of Morality,37 we learn that the social
brain resides essentially in the orbito-frontal cortex,38 and that (according
to Robin Dunbar, one of the contributors) only humans achieve moral
behaviour (the right observation) because of the unique computing
power of the social brain (the wrong kind of reason).39 Even so, apes and
orang-utans (as Walker summarizes Dunbar) have details of acceptable
behaviour, who to please and who it is safe to bully, who owes or is owed
a favour: a basic moral code in fact.40 Altruism, by which we subordinate
our own interests to those of others, may seem inexplicable in terms of a

33. Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, back cover.

34. See, for example, Boyd, Literature and Evolution, which does at least acknowledge the exist-
ence of a world created out of shared attention, although it still seems to believe that it can be
35. See Davis, The Shakespeared Brain. Or, for the full Monty, Thierry et al., Event-related
Potential Characterisation of the Shakespearean Functional Shift.
36. Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.421.
37. Walker, The Science of Morality.
38. Ibid., xvii.
39. Dunbar, Morality and the Social Brain, 81.
40. Walker, The Science of Morality, xvi.


simplied eat-or-be-eaten Darwinism, but it makes evolutionary sense

when we introduce the notion of inclusive tness: genetic material maxi-
mizes its chances of surviving by making the group, not the individual,
care for itself. It is mediated by empathy. This is supposedly wired into the
brains of higher primates courtesy of mirror neurons, rst described in
monkeys, which are activated when we watch someone doing something
we intend to do ourselves. We can consequently understand the nature
of human morality by looking at chimps or even further aeld. It is ethics
made easy.
It is hardly surprising that economists (and marketing experts) should
also have sought their share of the neuro-prexed action. The credit
crunch dealt a severe blow to the notion that, if we were each allowed to
pursue our own rational interests, the overall result would be the greatest
benet for all. However, it also seemed to undermine the assumption
that consumers really do make rational choices. What about those disas-
trous sub-prime mortgages, for example? Thanks to neuroscience, neuro-
economists understand the wishful thinking behind them: scans show that
purchasing and other nancial decisions are driven by parts of the brain
that are stronger on emotion (located in rather dubious places such as
the amygdala) than on reason (located in the frontal lobes);41 our choices,
in other words, are not rational and those toxic debts are in fact neuro-
toxic. This is precisely what evolutionary theorists might expect: what was
a sensible course of action in the prehistoric environments in which the
brain evolved live now because there will be no later would not be a
good thing to do in contemporary life. And ruinous conspicuous consump-
tion is designed, like the peacocks tail, to exhibit the health of our genes,
which matters to a hominid on the pull.42
If ethics and economic behaviour surrender to the advances of neuro-
evolutionary psychology, it is hardly surprising that the law should be
next in line. Neuro-law is big business in the US and is starting to make
waves on this side of the Atlantic. Both defence and prosecution lawyers
have found recent advances in neuroscience relevant to their respective
causes. fMRI scans and what they apparently tell us about the working
of our brains have been appealed to as the basis for greatly extending the
scope of diminished responsibility. They can be used to show an imbalance

41. McClure et al., Valuing Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards.

42. This thesis is set out at length in Miller, Spent.


between the activity in the wild amygdaloid body and that in the prudent
frontal lobes. My brain made me do it; the brain takes the rap: these are
phrases that are increasingly heard in legal circles.
The ultimate challenge for thinkers who wish to give a purely biological
account of humanity is mankinds beliefs about the supernatural. These,
too, have attracted much neuro-evolutionary attention: neuro-theology
has even made it to the front cover of Time magazine.43 Biology is the key
to religion because belief in God and sharing religious customs appar-
ently has survival value. Certain parts of the brain have been identied as
being attuned to the deity; these are the so-called God spots. An evolved
God gene ensures that we are hard-wired for religious belief, so that the
triumphs of rationalist disbelief will always be only temporary. Atheists are
going against the genetic grain.


Life is horrible, [Hitler] once mused over dinner. Humanity,

he declared on another occasion, was a ridiculous cosmic

Does it matter if people are persuaded that they are animals and that their
evolved brains are calling the shots? Would it be of any great moment if
the humanities became animalities? Might this really result in spiritual
impoverishment and change everyday life for the worse? If the answers to
these questions are no, then this book is a waste of your time. After all,
there are plenty of other ideas that are not only erroneous but also clearly
dangerous and eort might be better directed at them. I want in this
section, therefore, to discuss why the errors of Neuromania and Darwin-
itis are important before I try to say what those errors are: to discuss what
consequences might follow if sucient numbers of people academics,
commentators, policy-makers were seduced by the glamour of biolo-
gized humanities.

43. The book that made the splash was Hamer, The God Gene.
44. Ferguson, The War of the World, 5556.


One reason for concern will already be evident from Grays Straw Dogs:
it would justify human self-hatred. If we are animals then we dont measure
up very well against other animals: we are not as pretty as tigers or as inno-
cent as spiders. We are ubiquitous, enormously powerful and rapacious,
murderers of each other and despoilers of the planet. We are apes with
nuclear weapons. Indeed, we are so awful that climate change may be no
bad thing as it may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its
human burden an outcome to be desired: It is not of becoming the plan-
ets wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans
have ceased to matter.45
Such malignant ill will towards humanity encourages despair and inac-
tivity. Since we are such nasty creatures and utterly deluded, the less we do
to try to change things, even if we make the attempt for the benet of our
fellows, the better. Our behaviour is prescribed by our brains and the bit of
the brain that does most of the prescribing is the bit that was developed in
the distant past when our main concern was with self-preservation in the
bloodbath of the biosphere. Any endeavour to harness and extend human
power to change things will increase our abuse of other living creatures,
most notably our fellow humans, and will end in a sea of tears and an ocean
of blood.
A less hysterical and perhaps more typical example of where biolo-
gistic thinking may take us is to be found in Niall Fergusons The War of the
World: Historys Age of Hatred, his sobering account of the rst half of the
twentieth century, in which human beings killed more of their fellows
even when corrected for the increased population than at any other time
in recorded history, and one of its many wars the Second World War
was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time. Ferguson draws this

No matter how complex the administrative structure we study,

we should not lose sight of the basic instincts buried within even
the most civilized men. These instincts were to be unleashed
time and again after 1900. They were a large part of what made
the Second World War so ferocious. 46

45. Gray, Straw Dogs, 17.

46. Ferguson, The War of the World, xlvii.


And why did we behave so badly? Man, so some neo-Darwinians argue,

is programmed by his genes to protect his kind and ght the Other.47
Although the formalization of the Other in the idea of race has little basis
for race in biological reality, it is a meme, and powerful one.48 Racism, in
the sense of a strongly articulated sense of racial dierentiation is a meme
that has been able to reproduce itself and retain its integrity far more
successfully than the races it claims to identify.49 The fact that it took so
much organization to break down civilization and that it was mediated and
shaped by highly abstract ideas about the Other is irrelevant: the unparal-
leled savagery of the twentieth century was simply a regression to biology.
There are some writers who draw an opposite, although perhaps even
more frightening, conclusion from our animal nature. They believe that the
(biologistic) truth will set us free and enable us to develop, for example, a
more mature, just and eective approach to crime and punishment. It will
guide us to social policies that go with, rather than against, the grain of
human nature. Semir Zeki and Oliver Goodenough anticipate a millennial
future, perhaps only decades away when a good knowledge of the brains
system of justice and of how the brain reacts to conicts may provide crit-
ical tools in resolving international political and economic conicts.50 The
untidy, ill-informed decision-making processes in the law courts will be
replaced by a biological justice that can connect actions with the neural
activity that drove them and the biological bases of that neural activity. This
scientistic utopianism actually frightens me more than Grays pessimism; at
least Gray wont try to act on his errors.
Gray and Ferguson, by the way, are not by any means unusual in their
pessimism. As you will recall, in Darwins Dangerous Idea Dennett argued
that evolutionary theory would act as a universal acid that would eat into
our traditional ways of thinking.51 In the revolutionized worldview left in
its wake, most of our cherished beliefs about God, value, meaning, purpose,
culture and morality would have been exposed as being without founda-
tion. While Dennett felt that this might have desirable consequences, others
are convinced that the revolutionized worldview will not be terribly good

47. Ibid., xliv.

48. Ferguson quotes Richard Lewontins calculation that about 85 per cent of the total amount of
genetic variation in humans occurs among individuals in an average population; only 6 per
cent occurs among races (ibid.: xiii).
49. Ibid., li.
50. Zeki & Goodenough, Law and the Brain, xiv.
51. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 63.


for our collective health. Alex Rosenbergs nihilistic Darwinism52 argues that
Dennett correctly saw the corrosive eect of Darwins theory but then failed
to acknowledge that this would lead to metaphysical nihilism (the world,
nature and human life are empty of meaning) and ethical nihilism (morality
is not about values but about the needs of our genes). Ultimately, everything
we do is an expression of the blind laws of physics. Mele, the recipient of
the $4.4 million Templeton bounty, has anticipated possible serious social
consequences of the discovery that we do not have free will.53 He is worried
that disbelief in free will may result in more cheating and aggressive behav-
iour because people will not feel responsible for their actions. Although this
is somewhat naive, there is some evidence from a study by Kathleen Vohs
and Jonathan Schooler that exposure to deterministic messages increases
the likelihood of unethical actions.54
Many who do not go this far may nonetheless fear the consequences
of a Darwinized understanding of humanity. The supposedly Darwinian
defence of unfettered market forces, of the notion that might is right, of
a dog-eat-dog, greed-is-good, capitalism is too well known to need spelling
out here, although a passage from David Brookss New York Times column
neatly rounds up some of our concerns about the pernicious nonsense
Darwinitis may endorse: From the content of our genes, the nature of our
neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it is clear that nature is
lled with competition and conicts of interest.55 As medical historian
Andrew Scull has put it: biological interpretations of everyday human life
lead to a naturalistic justication for particular social arrangements.56
The successful, and for the rest of us destructive, greed of the Wall Street
masters of the universe, annexing billions of dollars to themselves by
dubious means, is good not just because it is inescapable: it is inescapable

52. His thesis is accessibly summarized in his essay The Disenchanted Naturalists Guide to
53. Mele expressed this concern in an interview published by the press oce of his university,
Florida State University (Elish, Do We Have Free Will?) after the $4.4 million grant was
54. Vohs & Schooler, The Value in Believing in Free Will. In all fairness, it should be pointed
out that others have drawn dierent conclusions.
55. Brooks, Human Nature Redux, quoted in de Waal, How Bad Biology Killed the Economy.
Unfortunately de Waal, a leading primatologist, believes that we ought to appeal to good
biology in order to see the ethical essence of human beings and draws our attention to the
nice behaviour of primate ancestors. For a critique, see my Biological Reasons for Being
56. Scull, Mind, Brain, Law and Culture, 587.


written into the genetic script we enact because it is good (for the genes
of the greedy organism). Some writers, such as the primatologist Frans de
Waal have suggested that biology brings a more reassuring message; there
is evidence that, for example, empathy is an ancient trait present in many
other primates and civilized behaviour is not therefore as fragile as we
might fear. He is, however, in the minority.
The idea that less separates us from animals than we think leads natur-
ally to the sinister notion that there is more of the animal in some people
than others. Darwinitic contempt for mankind is often (unnaturally)
selective, as Kemp has described so well.57 The theory that badly behaved
humans are closer to animals formed the basis of nineteenth-century
criminologist Cesare Lombrosos massively inuential Criminal Man,58
which identied the morphological stigmata of people with criminal
tendencies. Degeneration was a regression to those earlier states of exist-
ence that were still embedded within humans, and criminals could be iden-
tied by means of morphological signs that aligned them with animals. The
criminal was an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious
instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals,59 distinguished by
an enlarged median occipital fossa required to house an enlarged vermis
that almost formed a small, intermediate cerebellum like that found in the
lower types of apes, rodents and birds.60 (Here is an interesting anticipa-
tion of contemporary neuro-lawyers, who argue that criminals are not ethi-
cally accountable for their crimes because they have an imbalance between
the higher frontal cortex and the lower amygdala.) Prostitutes whom
Lombroso fantasized were sexually voracious were also studied for signs
of their unevolved animality, since to surrender to excessive sexual desire
was to give way to animal tendencies. He was thrilled when he observed
that the morphology of prostitutes was yet more abnormal than that of
criminals: they even had prehensile feet like apes.
The ghastly consequences of this kind of thinking hardly need spelling
out: degenerate human beings, with the unltered appetites of beasts,
should be treated like beasts and if they are kept in dreadful conditions this
is entirely appropriate, since they do not have the sensibilities of their fellow
non-degenerate humans. In his essay on Zeki and Goodenoughs Law and

57. Kemp, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science.

58. See Lombroso-Ferrera, Criminal Man.
59. Ibid., xiv.
60. Ibid., 6.


the Brain, Scull links the biologizing of humanity with nineteenth-century

views about the physiological basis for the intellectual inferiority of women
and the reasons why they should not be educated, join the professions or
assume a greater role in public aairs, and about the case for sterilizing
moral degenerates such as people with epilepsy.61 There is a contem-
porary reference here. Singer has argued that a human life is worth only a
little more than an animals existence because we have only a slightly higher
level of sentience. We should therefore treat sentient animals as we would
a mentally handicapped human being. From this it would follow that we
should treat a mentally handicapped human being as we would an animal.62
Recent, and not-so-recent, history, therefore, has aorded us many
reasons for not being at all condent that biological science will encourage
us to care for each other better, and that shaping the programmes in the
brain rather than deploying reason or reasonableness as the point at which
policies should be applied will result in kinder or more eective policies.
The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should
strike a chill in the heart. The twentieth century demonstrated how quickly
social policies based in pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as
an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity
as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe.
Unfortunately, historical examples may not be successful in dissuading the
bioengineers of the human soul because it will be argued that this time the
intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous.
Many reject the expectation that the very process of seeing human life
in Darwinian terms may make us behave worse to each other. Dawkins
dismissed the argument that if you [t]each children that they are animals
theyll behave like animals as an example of shooting the messenger.63
You may not like the truth about humanity but this is how things are: we
must not confuse what is true with what is palatable. Yes, the picture of
ourselves that comes from the assumption that we are our brains, and our
brains are evolved organs, may not be a very pretty one. It may give little
grounds for hope, leading us to think that what civilization we have is an
unexplained miracle created and sustained in the teeth of our own nature.
The idea of progress is laughable and the prospects for the future are bleak.
The war of all against all is a more accurate reection of the nature of

61. Scull, Mind, Brain, Law and Culture.

62. See Appleton, Speciesism.
63. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, 402.


Homo rapiens than is a democracy informed by justice, a concern for the

welfare of others and joy in the arts. But thats life: anyone who is inter-
ested in understanding human beings must be prepared to face some nasty
truths. So get over it.
This principle at least is sound, and I am in agreement with Wallace:

As an old philosophy lecturer once told us as fresh-eyed under-

graduates in our rst years at University: if something has been
proven to be true, you just have to accept it, whether you like its
implications or not. It makes me feel bad, therefore its false is
not an argument.64

Notwithstanding that the Darwinitic vision of ourselves is deeply unwel-

come, as is the underlying notion that we are merely lumps of the material
world, this does not count as evidence against it. After all, nothing could be
more unpalatable or more certainly true than that we die and many of us
do not see this as proof that we are really immortal in some other guise.
Fortunately, we dont have to be either dishonest or muddled or self-
deceived to challenge the biologistic picture of humanity. Our questioning
must begin with a critical look at the assumption that consciousness is
identical with brain activity so that the observations made by neuroscien-
tists are casting light on the very nature of the human mind. This is the rst
step in demonstrating that neuro-evolutionary thought is a castle built on
sand. I shall begin with a brief examination of empirical claims about what
has been achieved so far in the neuroscience of consciousness, and what
is likely to be achieved in future. This will be followed by a more detailed
critique of the essentially metaphysical assumption that, in looking at
neural activity, we are looking at human consciousness. In the rst part of
my enquiry, I shall focus on fMRI, as this is the technique that has attracted
the greatest interest and prompted the most extravagant claims.

64. Wallace, Getting Darwin Wrong, 4.


Neuromania: A Castle Built on Sand


[Neuro-talk] is often accompanied by a picture of a brain scan,

that fast-acting solvent of critical faculties.1

It is surprising that the world has not wearied of stories of ndings by

neuroscientists that are supposed to cast light on our true nature. Popular
articles which are often heavily dependent on press releases provided by
the public relations departments of grant-hungry laboratories are usually
accompanied, as we have noted, by a brain scan. These are seen as visible
proof that those clever bons have discovered the neural basis of love
(maternal, romantic, unconditional), altruism, a propensity to incur toxic
debts and so on. And thats just for starters. The sociologist Scott Vrecko
has listed neurobiological accounts of (take a deep breath) in alphabet-
ical order: altruism, borderline personality disorder, criminal behaviour,
decision-making, empathy, fear, gut feelings, hope, impulsivity, judge-
ment, love (see above for varieties of ), motivation, neuroticism, problem
gambling, racial bias, suicide, trust, violence, wisdom and zeal (religious).2
The extent of neuromanic imperialism is astounding. Before we examine
the shaky general foundations of these claims, I cannot resist sharing some
of my favourite examples with you, which you may wish to examine in

1. Crawford, The Limits of Neuro-Talk, 65.

2. Vrecko, Neuroscience, Power and Culture.


more detail by looking at the original papers. They concern love, beauty
and wisdom.
According to the neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, the truest form of
love truer than the interested love of those who hope to gain from their
object, truer than maternal love, or truer even than romantic love is the
love that low-paid care assistants looking after people with learning disa-
bility feel for their charges. In a study entitled The Neural Basis of Uncon-
ditional Love,3 care assistants were invited to look at pictures of people
with intellectual disabilities rst neutrally and then with a feeling of uncon-
ditional love. By subtracting the brain activity seen in the rst situation
from that seen in the second, the authors pinned down the neural network
housing unconditional love. It was distinct from that which had previ-
ously been identied for romantic love and maternal love although there
was some overlap and it included parts of the brains reward system.
This, Beauregard has argued, may be the link between reward and strong
emotional links which (guess what?) may contribute to the survival of the
human species.4 Thus love (unconditional).5
Next, beauty (aesthetic). You and I may feel that the impact on us of a
work of art is deeply mysterious. Zeki and Hideaki Kawabata do not agree.
A few years ago they reported that they had found the locus of our experi-
ence of the beauty of art.6 Their experimental design was marginally more
sophisticated than the one that Beauregard used to peer into the souls of
low-paid care workers. Subjects were scanned as they looked at pictures
they had previously classied as beautiful, neutral or ugly. Their
orbito-frontal cortex was more active when they were looking at beautiful
pictures. Voil! The beauty spot.
Neuroscientists have also identied neural correlates of trust and of
admiration but the big one, surely, must be the neural basis of wisdom and
this, too, has revealed itself to the neuroscientic gaze. Scientists use brain
scans to nd the secret of what makes us wise, Jonathan Leake reported
in the Sunday Times newspaper. They did this by pinpointing parts of the

3. Beauregard et al., The Neural Basis of Unconditional Love.

4. Ibid., 96.
5. Whether unconditional love is what low-paid care workers feel is not at all clear. Because
they do it for less money may not mean that they do it for more love. They may be able to
nd no better-paid employment. At any rate, I would be surprised if the ideal of uncondi-
tional love would survive the removal of the salary as a condition of caring.
6. Zeki & Kawabata, Neural Correlates of Beauty.


brain that guide us when we face dicult moral dilemmas.7 This was the
journalists take on an article published by Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks.8
The authors seemed a little more circumspect, noting that:

the prefrontal cortex figures prominently in several wisdom

subcomponents (e.g. emotional regulation, decision making,
value relativism) primarily via top-down regulation of the limbic
and striatal regions. The lateral prefrontal cortex facilitates
calculated, reason-based decision making, whereas the medial
prefrontal cortex is implicated in emotional valence and prosocial
attitudes/behaviours. Reward neurocircuitry (ventral striatum,
nucleus accumbens) also appears important for promoting proso-
cial attitudes/behaviours.9

This observation enabled them to construct a speculative model of the

neurobiology of wisdom. It involves a large number of brain pathways but
the key is an optimal balance between functions of phylogenetically more
primitive brain regions (limbic system) and newer ones (prefrontal cortex).10
Following a familiar pattern, the speculative model was translated by
journalists, with the help of a press release from the laboratory and rather
optimistic interviews with the scientists, to an article headlined: Found:
The Brains Centre of Wisdom. The tentative complex model in the original
article was simplied to a matter of balance between anterior cingulate
cortex, linked with emotions and the prefrontal cortex, which governs
conscious thought. But we should not blame the journalists: they are not
the only source of hype and journalism. Knowledge of the underlying
mechanisms in the brain, Jeste said in an interview could potentially lead
to developing interventions for enhancing wisdom.11
It is easy to mock such BOLD aims. They seem like brochures from
the Grand Academy of Lagado in Gullivers Travels. But we need also to
specify what is wrong with them and why we should dismiss them as mani-
festations of what the professor of psychiatry William Uttal has termed
neo-phrenology: a recurrence of the claims of the eighteenth-century

7. Leake, Found: The Brains Centre of Wisdom.

8. Jeste & Meeks, Neurobiology of Wisdom.
9. Ibid., 355.
10. Ibid.
11. Leake, Found: The Brains Centre of Wisdom.


phrenologists we described in Chapter 1. They have two kinds of aws. The

rst are technical: the limitations of fMRI, the design of the studies that use
it and the way data are analysed. I shall discuss them in this section. Much
more important, however, are aws arising from conceptual errors, and I
shall address these in the next section.
The rst thing to remember when you come across headlines such
as Found: The Brains Centre of Wisdom is that fMRI scanning doesnt
directly tap into brain activity. As you may recall from You are your brain
in Chapter 1, fMRI registers it only indirectly by detecting the increases
in blood ow needed to deliver additional oxygen to busy neurons. Given
that neuronal activity lasts milliseconds, while detected changes in blood
ow lag by 210 seconds, it is possible that the blood ow changes may
be providing oxygen to more than one set of neuronal discharges. What is
more, many millions of neurons have to be activated for a change in blood
ow to be detected. Small groups of neurons whose activity elicits little
change in blood ow, or a modest network of neurons linking large regions,
or neurons acting more eciently than others, may be of great importance
but would be under-represented in the scan or not represented at all. In
short, pretty well everything relevant to a given response at a given time
might be invisible on an fMRI scan.
And then there is the almost laughable crudity of the design of the exper-
iments that are used to support the conclusion that This bit of the brain
houses that bit of us. They are mind-numbingly simplistic. We have already
seen this in the case of studies looking for the unconditional love spot or
the beauty spot or the wisdom circuits. In a typical experiment, subjects
are exposed to dierent stimuli, or asked to imagine certain scenarios, and
the change in brain activity is recorded. Let me illustrate this with another
example: the work of Andreas Bartels and Zeki on love (romantic).12
In these studies, they asked their subjects to look at a photograph of the
face of someone with whom they were deeply in love and then at photo-
graphs of three friends. By subtracting the activity of the brain recorded
when the subjects looked at their friends from that which was seen when
they looked at their lovers, they claimed to be able to demonstrate the
distinctive brain activity associated with love (romantic). On the basis of
these experiments, Bartels and Zeki concluded that love (romantic) was
due to activity in a highly restricted area of the brain: in the medial insula

12. Bartels & Zeki, The Neural Basis of Romantic Love.


and the anterior cingulate cortex and, subcortically, in the caudate nucleus
and the putamen, all bilaterally. This caused them to wonder that the face
that launched a thousand ships should have done so through a limited
expanse of the cortex.13 I too feel wonder but for dierent reasons. How
could anyone fail to see the fallacies in the experimental design?
What fallacies, you might ask. First, when it is stated that a particular
part of the brain lights up in response to a particular stimulus, this is not
the whole story. Much more of the brain is already active or lit up; all
that can be observed is the additional activity associated with the stim-
ulus. Minor changes noted diusely are overlooked. Second, the addi-
tional activity can be identied only by a process of averaging the results
of subtractions after the stimulus has been given repeatedly; variations in
the response to successive stimuli are ironed out. The raw data tell a very
dierent story from the cooked. If, to take a much simpler example, you
oer a series of subjects the same spatial memory task, you will see enor-
mous dierences in the many areas that light up. Even simple actions are
associated with highly variable responses. Jian Kong and colleagues found
that when subjects were engaged in six sessions of a nger-tapping test,
the testretest correlation ranged between 0.76 and zero for the areas that
showed signicant activity in all sessions.14 For most of us, nger-tapping is
less, rather than more, complex that being in love.
Which brings me to the third problem. The experiments looked at the
response to very simple stimuli: for example, a picture of the face of a loved
one compared with that of the face of one who is not loved. But as anyone
knows who has been in love indeed anyone who is not a Martian love
is not like a response to a simple stimulus such as a picture. It is not even a
single enduring state, like being cold. It encompasses many things, including:
not feeling in love at that moment; hunger; indierence; delight; wanting to
be kind; wanting to impress; worrying over the logistics of meetings; lust;
awe; surprise; joy; guilt; anger; jealousy; imagining conversations or events;
speculating what the loved one is doing when one is not there; and so on.
Likewise to refer back to Beauregards study on what he calls uncondi-
tional love no one who has cared for someone with learning disability
could see that reduced to a surge of emotion. That would hardly be su-
cient even to support a surge of sentimentality at the idea of looking after

13. Ibid., 3833.

14. Kong et al., TestRetest Study of fMRI Signal Change.


someone who has special needs, never mind the 24/7 grind of actual hands-
on care. (It is reassuring, perhaps, that only three out of the seven areas
that Beauregard has reported as lighting up when carers looked at pictures
of their potential charges coincided with those seen when romantic lovers
looked at a picture of their beloved. If all seven had lit up, one might see
recommendations for even more arduous Criminal Record Bureau checks.)
The same Martian tendency is evident in studies of the neurology
of economic behaviour and, in particular, highly topical studies of the
tendency to make unwise nancial decisions. As we shall discuss in Chapter
8, neuro-economic researchers have determined that the reason sub-prime
mortgages are so seductive, although the nancial terms are so disadvan-
tageous, is that they take advantage of our muddled brains. According to
Samuel McClure and colleagues15 there are separate value systems in the
brain. How did they come to this conclusion? By looking at brain activity in
individuals who were asked to choose between lesser but more immediate
rewards and rewards that were greater but delayed. They demonstrated to
their own satisfaction that the limbic system placed special weight on imme-
diate rewards (even if they were smaller than delayed rewards), while the
frontal lobes placed more weight on delayed rewards, if they were greater
than immediate ones: choosing two jars of jam tomorrow over one today.
Sub-prime mortgages typically start with a very low interest rate, xed for
a couple of years, followed by a much higher (above the usual market) rate
for the next quarter of a century or so. The rst stage of the mortgage in
particular its immediate availability appeals to the limbic cortex, while the
second, much longer, stage should put o the frontal lobes. Unfortunately, in
this competition within the brain the limbic circuit wins, because it houses
automatic reward-seeking behaviour, which reects evolutionary adap-
tations to those remote environments in which the human brain evolved
as opposed to the more recently evolved, uniquely human capacity for
abstract reasoning and future planning.16 As neuro-economist George
Loewenstein (a collaborator on the McClure paper) has argued:

Our emotions are like programs that evolved to make important

and recurring decisions in our distant past. They are not
always well suited to the decisions we make in modern life. Its

15. McClure et al. Separate Neural Systems.

16. Ibid., 506.


important to know how our emotions lead us astray so that we

can design incentives and programs to help compensate for our
irrational biases.17

The purchaser of Chez Nous is little dierent from Pleistocene man

chasing a mammoth or, perhaps, requisitioning a cave with an en-suite
As we shall see in Neural political economics in Chapter 8, this is but
one of a whole raft of similar studies in neuro-economics. For the present,
we note that only a behavioural economist would look to the xed struc-
tures of the brain to explain a relatively new phenomenon such as the ready
availability of mortgages to people who cant aord to pay them back. Its
actual origins lie in a change of social attitudes towards debt, alterations
in the nancial regulatory system and political initiatives that began in the
post-Pleistocene Jimmy Carter era. Only a behavioural economist would
regard responses to a simple imaginary choice (between two relatively
small sums of money $5 and $40 oered immediately or in six weeks) as
an adequate model for the complex business of securing a mortgage. Even
the most foolish and impulsive mortgage decision requires an enormous
amount of future planning, persistence, clerical activity, to-ing and fro-ing,
and a clear determination to sustain you through the million little steps it
involves. I would love to meet the limbic circuit that could drive all that.
The risible simplication of human behaviour seen in the studies of
love, beauty, wisdom and (in the case of sub-prime mortgages) stupidity,
reected in their crude experimental design (which treats individuals as
passive respondents to stimuli and then discovers that they are passive
respondents to stimuli), is not the only empirical reason for treating fMRI
with suspicion. A paper published a few years ago reported an extensive
overlap between the neural circuits registering physical pain and those
implicated in social pain; both pains seemed to light up the same areas.18
The authors (as have many others) have taken this as evidence that that
the two are essentially the same, and have treated it as a great neuro-
evolutionary discovery. For social animals like humans, so the story goes,
the need for solidarity is served by making social exclusion painful and this
requirement is met by employing circuitry that has already developed to

17. Quoted in Lehrer, The Psychology of Subprime Mortgages.

18. Eisenberger et al. Does Rejection Hurt?


register ordinary, physical pain. A more plausible interpretation, however,

is that the failure to demonstrate fundamental dierences between what
you feel when you stub your toe and your feelings when you are blackballed
by a club from which you are seeking membership is a measure of the limi-
tations of fMRI scanning and, indeed, other modes of brain scanning.
I am not alone in questioning the validity of an approach that identi-
es activity in certain parts of the brain with aspects of the human psyche.
In a controversial, but to me compelling, paper published in 2009 (origi-
nally provocatively entitled Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience),
the authors found serious problems with the localisations observed in such
studies.19 The authors concluded that in most of the studies that linked
brain regions to feelings including social rejection, neuroticism and jeal-
ousy, researchers used a method that inates the strength of the link
between a brain region and the emotion or behaviour.20
One of the authors, Harold Pashler, is an experimental psychologist of
the utmost distinction. He is the editor-in-chief of the major textbook of
experimental psychology. The papers examined in the review had been
published in top-rank journals, including Science, which is regarded as
one of the two leading scientic publications in the world, the other being
Nature. The authors observed that a disturbingly large and quite prom-
inent segment of fMRI scan research on emotion, personality and social
cognition is using seriously defective research methods and producing a
profusion of numbers that should not be believed.21
So what problem had Pashler and his colleagues identied? They looked
at the statistical methods used to derive correlations between activity in the
brain and emotional states and found that the instruments used pretty well
guaranteed high correlations between the variables observed. That such an
elementary error should be allowed to pass on the nod is a measure of how
the glamour of high science can disarm the most acute minds. Pashler and
colleagues suggest that the questionable analysis methods are also used
in other elds where fMRI is used to study individual dierences, such as
cognitive neuroscience, clinical neuroscience and neurogenetics.22
I rst got wind of this article when New Scientist published a mea culpa
editorial in 2009 about its own coverage of breakthroughs in understanding

19. Vul et al., Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies.

20. Ibid., 285.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.


human beings arising from fMRI studies: Some of the resulting headlines
appeared in New Scientist, so we have to eat a little humble pie and resolve
that the next time a sexy-sounding brain scan result appears we will strive to
apply a little more scepticism to our coverage.23 And a more recent, admi-
rably painstaking, review concludes that the reliability of fMRI scanning
is not high compared to other scientic measures;24 moreover, there is no
agreement as to what would count as a measure of reliability; and, nally,
reliability is even worse in studies of higher cognitive tasks (experiencing
beauty, deploying wisdom, being stupid) than in the case of simple motor
or sensory tasks in short, in the case of those papers that have made the
popular press go pop-eyed with excitement.
The allocation of human faculties and sentiments to dierent parts of
the brain is also being increasingly undermined by evidence that even
the simplest of tasks never mind negotiating a way through the world,
deciding to go for a mortgage or resolving to behave sensibly require
the brain to function as an integrated unit. As David Dobbs has pointed
out, fMRI scanning overlooks the networked or distributed nature of the
brains workings, emphasising localized activity when it is communication
among regions that is most critical to mental function.25 I shall return to
this in a moment.
Although the spatial resolution of scanners is improving all the time,
increasing the resolution does not solve the problems we have discussed.
Normally fMRI scanning looks at cubes of tissue three-dimensional
pixels (called voxels) each of which comprises hundreds of thousands
of neurons. It is now possible to examine ne-grained patterns within
voxels. Rees has used this technique to examine aspects of visual percep-
tion. You might recall from Chapter 1 that Hubel and Wiesel found certain
cells in the visual cortex responding preferentially to lines presented at a
certain orientation. By studying the ne grain of the fMRI in this area when
subjects are looking at lines with dierent orientations, Rees and colleagues
were able to infer the orientation of the presented line with 85 per cent
accuracy: in other words, they were able to work out what the subject was
looking at.26 This, however, is a far cry from examining the experience of
an entire object, of an entire scene, of a changing scene, or of the changing

23. New Scientist, What Were the Neuroscientists Thinking?

24. Bennett & Miller, How Reliable are the Results?.
25. Dobbs, Fact or Phrenology?, 24.
26. Haynes & Rees, Predicting the Orientation of Invisible Stimuli.


meaning of a scene, never mind complex segments of peoples lives as

when, for example, they decide to take on a mortgage or fall in love. The
claim that it is possible to look at a single fMRI image and see what the
person is seeing, never mind what they are feeling, and how it ts into
their day, or their life, is grossly overstating what can be achieved. Ordinary
consciousness and ordinary life lie beyond the reach of imaging technolo-
gies, except in the imagination of neuromaniacs.
The technical limitations of fMRI are compounded by conceptual
limitations. Some of these are so fundamental that they are properly the
object of philosophical treatment and I shall address them in the next
section. Others, however, relate to the neuroscientic framework. The
reader will recall the centuries-long debate, discussed in You are your
brain in Chapter 1, about the modularity of the brain, triggered by the
phrenologists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The
same debate is hotting up again. You have only to read a few papers on
the correlation between this function (e.g. mortgage-buying) and that
structure in the brain (e.g. the frontal lobes) to start to notice that certain
parts of the cortex appear again and again, serving quite disparate func-
tions. You could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by
a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously
to dierent clients. What is more, not only do certain brain regions serve
multiple cognitive functions, but the same cognitive functions may acti-
vate the dierent regions of the brain. Not that this is surprising, given that
the brain, ultimately, must work as a whole. Love (romantic), for example,
involves a multitude of things: emotions, intentions, the motor activity
necessary to buy owers or to make a pass, and the long narrative with
ones self and real and imaginary conversations with the object of ones
aection. The point is this: the more you think about the idea that human
life can be parcelled out into discrete functions that are allocated to their
own bits of the brain, the more absurd it seems.
And it seems even more absurd in the light of what is accepted about
something as seemingly simple as individual memories. According to Antonio

The brain forms memories in a highly distributed manner.

Take, for instance, the memory of a hammer. There is no single
place in our brain where you can hold the record for a hammer
there are several records in our brain that correspond to
dierent aspects of our past interaction with hammers and


all based on separate neural sites located in separate neural


Even more telling is the observation made by Marcus Raichle and collabo-
rators. They used another form of imaging called positron emission tomog-
raphy (PET) scanning and found that learning something as elementary
as the association of a word such as chair with sits involved not only
the language centre in the left hemisphere but extensive stretches of the
so-called silent areas of the frontal lobes and the parietal cortex.28 What
hope is there, then, of locating something as global and untidy as my love
for someone in a neatly demarcated area of the brain? None, I am pleased
to conclude.
Observations of this kind have led some scientists, such as Karl Friston
(who played a key role in developing neuroimaging techniques), to suggest
that the brain acts more as if the arrival of inputs provokes a wide-
spread disturbance in some already existing state, rather as happens when
a pebble is dropped in a pond.29 So we need to take the reports about
beauty spots and centres for unconditional love from leading scien-
tists with more than a pinch of salt. Neuroscientists who think they have
found the circuits in the brain corresponding to wisdom seem to lack that
very quality, as a result of which they are oblivious even to what the more
critical minds in their own discipline are saying.
The current technical limitations of neuroimaging do not, however,
support a principled objection to the idea that we can directly observe
human consciousness our experiences, motivations, intentions, emotions
and propensities in the brain. After all, some will argue, most imaging
techniques are only a few decades old and they are improving rapidly. Soon
we shall be able to track what is happening in the brain of waking, living
subjects like ourselves, with a spatial and temporal resolution that will
enable us to see precisely which neurons are ring, when and in response
to what. Zeki and Goodenough anticipate the coming of extremely high
resolution scanners that can simultaneously track the neural activity and
connectivity of every neuron in the human brain, along with computers

27. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, excerpted in Harvey Wood & Byatt, Memory: An
Anthology, 282.
28. Raichle et al., Practice Related Changes in Human Brain Function Anatomy.
29. Quoted in Le Fanus profound Why Us?, 195.


and software that can analyse and organise these data.30 Leaving aside
the question of how the computers could be programmed to oversee
the innite number of combinations of the activity of a brain with a tril-
lion neurons and more potential connections than there are atoms in the
universe, might it not be possible, although it may be dicult to imagine,
to pick out the subsets of activity relevant to individual thoughts, or sharply
dene the boundaries of neural excitement implicated in particular feel-
ings, or identify the particular weighting of dierent locations in the brain
in determining character traits?
Let us suppose there were no limit to the precision of imaging. Let us
suppose also that the kinds of localizations seen on fMRI scans, which
have caused so much excitement, were robust. And let us suppose that
the separate psychological states or functions to which the brain activity
is supposed to correspond are real entities rather than ad hoc construc-
tions. And let us, nally, suppose that we have explained how that which
has been teased apart comes together in the conscious moment: something
to which we shall return below, in Brain science and human conscious-
ness, II. What, then, would fMRI tell us? If we could obtain a complete
record of all neural activity, and we were able to see the ring state of every
individual neuron, would this advance our understanding in the slightest?
Would the record of neural activity be as useless at telling us what it is like
to be conscious as a complete print out of his genome at telling you what
it is like to be with your friend? Would (human) consciousness be to
use Dennetts boastful term explained? Would we be able directly to
observe human consciousness and nd out what is really going on when
we experience the world, judge it and act upon it?
For this to be the case, one thing at least would be necessary: we would
have to be sure that the neural activity we observed was in some strict
sense identical with consciousness. Does the new neuroscience allow us
to make that assumption and accept Hippocrates conjecture as proved
beyond reasonable doubt? To answer this question we need to move on
from the technical limits and methodological muddles of scan-based
cognitive neuroscience to the conceptual, indeed philosophical, problems
that Neuromania ignores.

30. Zeki & Goodenough, Law and the Brain, 218.



I am now going to argue that neuroscience does not address, even less
answer, the fundamental question of the relation(s) between matter and
mind, body and mind, or brain and mind. If it seems to do so this is only
the result of a confusion between, indeed a conation of, three quite
dierent relations: correlation, causation and identity.
Consider the research we have been discussing, based on fMRI. Typi-
cally, brain scanning reveals (rather wobbly and denitely loose, as we
have seen) correlations between (say) the experience of seeing some item
such as a loved ones face and activity in some part or other of the nervous
system. Does this mean that what we see on the brain scan is either the
cause of the experience or even identical with it? No, because a correlation
is not a cause: even less is it an identity. Seeing correlations between event
A (neural activity) and event B (say, reported experience) is not the same
as seeing event B when you are seeing event A. Neuromaniacs, however,
argue, or rather assume, that the close correlation between events A and B
means that they are essentially the same thing.
The most obvious trouble with the view that neural activity on the one
hand, and experiences on the other, are the same thing is that they should
appear like one another. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The colour yellow, or more precisely the experience of the colour yellow,
and neural activity in the relevant part of the visual cortex, however it
is presented, look not in the slightest bit similar. There is nothing yellow
about the nerve impulses and nothing nerve-impulse-like about yellow.
If, however, they were the same thing, the least one might expect is that
they would appear as if they were the same thing. Surely, it is not too much
to expect that something should look like itself. As it is, nerve impulses
seem required to have two sets of appearances at the same time that are
profoundly dierent from one another: an appearance as electrochemical
activity (of which more below in Why there can never be a brain science
of consciousness) and an appearance as an experience of something
other than themselves, such as the colour yellow belonging to an object.
The more philosophically astute neuromaniacs are not, of course,
unaware of this diculty and have found dierent ways of getting round
it. The most popular tactic, and prima facie the most plausible, is to assert
that experiences (such as the colour yellow) and the neural activity seen in
the visual cortex in association with that experience are two aspects of the
same item. This is the so-called double-aspect theory. While there is only


one set of events what we see in the brain these events have two sides:
a neural side and an experiential side. There are many objections to this
The rst becomes apparent when we ask what is meant by aspects
or sides. We know what it is like for an object, such as a house, to have
one aspect when it is looked at from behind and another aspect when it
is looked at from the front. But we cannot imagine any kind of entity that
has an experiential (or mental) front end and a neural (or material) back
end. The same objection applies if, instead of front and back, we speak
of top and bottom or inside and outside.
We could summarize the failure of the double-aspect theory by saying
that the dierence between dierent aspects of a house between the
front and the back is nothing like the dierence between a material
event such as a discharge of nerve impulses and a conscious event such as
having the experience of yellow. What is more, the notion of two aspects
of a house presupposes observers who see the house from dierent angles.
The house does not, in or of itself, have two aspects or indeed any aspects.
This touches on the most profound problem with the assumption of iden-
tity between neural activity and consciousness, and we shall return to this
below in Why there can never be a brain science of consciousness. For
the present, it is necessary only to note that we cannot invoke (implicitly
conscious) observers to generate the two aspects of the events detected by
neuroimaging the neural activity and the experience in order to explain
how (material) neural activity is also (conscious) experience. To invoke
doubled aspects is to cheat: it smuggles consciousness in to explain how it
is that neural activity, which does not look like experience, actually is such
This is a point that is overlooked even by the most thoughtful and sens-
ible philosophers, for example John Searle, the scourge of much sloppy
thinking in this area. Searle has his own version of the dual-aspect theory.31
Water, he says, is identical with H2O molecules and yet they appear quite
dierent. H2O molecules are not shiny and slippery like water. And this is
how it is, he says, with neural activity and consciousness: consciousness
is made up of experiences, such as that of yellow, which are nothing like
nerve impulses but are nonetheless the same as nerve impulses. Stripped to
its bare bones, Searle oers us an analogy:

31. Searle, Intentionality.


Water is to H2O molecules as conscious experience is to neural

Or Water : H2O :: conscious experience : neural activity
In both cases, he argues, the large-scale phenomena (consciousness, drops
of water) are identical with the small-scale phenomena (nerve impulses,
molecules of H2O.)
This analogy is false. The reason it does not hold up is the reason we gave
just now for the failure of all double-aspect theories: both shiny water and
H2O molecules require observation in order to be revealed as one or the other.
They correspond to two dierent modes of observation: one by our ordinary
unenhanced senses (introspecting experience, sensing water); the other by
means of complex equipment and representations and interpretations that
render H2O molecules visible and brain activity recordable. The two aspects
of water are two appearances, two modes of experiencing it, and this hardly
applies to neural activity as electrochemical activity and as experience.
Searles error is interesting, not just because it is perpetrated by a phil-
osopher who thinks hard, writes lucidly and does not lose sight of common
sense (something, by the way, for which he has been criticized), but because
he compounds it in a particularly revealing way. He argues that molecules
of H2O, as revealed through science, and water as we directly experience it
are not only the same thing but that they stand in a causal relation to one
another, and this is how it is with nerve impulses, which have the same kind
of causal relation to conscious experiences. The molecules of H2O, he says,
cause the appearances that we associate with water as we encounter it in our
everyday lives; and, likewise, nerve impulses cause conscious experiences.
This is, of course, incompatible with the notion that they are the same thing.
We cannot say that A is the same as B and that A causes B, because cause and
eect are, by denition, dierent items; and so, too, are the molecular and
macroscopic appearances of water, respectively. (The only item I can think of
as being the cause of itself is the God of monotheistic religions.) Nor can we
see one aspect of an object causing another aspect: they are present, simul-
taneously, side by side, so one cannot be the product of another. The inside
of a house cannot be caused by the outside any more than the latter can be
caused by the former. Both, of course, require another cause: observers who
see the house from dierent angles.
When a philosopher as gifted as Searle makes such an elementary mistake,
it must be because he is in the grip of an intuition that is hidden from him,
although it is directing his thought. The intuition is worth exploring because


doing so should help to pre-empt its casting its spell on us. Searle thinks that
H2O molecules cause the experience of dampness and shininess because he
thinks of the dampness and so on as the macroscopic appearance of large
aggregations of molecules. This is wrong for the reason we have already
pointed out; namely that H2O molecules as an array of triplets of atoms
are already themselves a kind of appearance, although one that is medi-
ated by scientic instruments and measurements and theories in the way
that the shininess of a pool of water is not. If we deny that the individual
molecules have an appearance at all arguing that they are simply inferred
from measurements, for example then we arrive at an interesting result.
Water, as we see it in everyday life outside the laboratory, is the appearance
of large quantities of something molecules of H2O that do not have an
appearance in everyday life. Their representations in physics are a borrowed
appearance. If this is accepted then we have to ask this question: what it is
that gives the molecules an appearance at all? The answer to this will be the
same as the answer to the question as to what it is that brings microscopic
molecules together into a macroscopic patch or stretch of water of the kind
that we see is shiny or feel as damp. And it is, of course, a conscious observer,
or conscious experiencer. The water looks as it does indeed has a look
because someone is conscious of it.
What Searle has done is to move the relation between the water and a
creature such as a human being aware of it into a causal relation between
(a) what water is reduced to in the eyes of physical science molecules of
H2O and (b) an appearance that it supposedly has in itself. This enables
him, without being fully aware of it, to smuggle in the consciousness he
needs in order to get from nerve impulses to experiences and hence to
make nerve impulses plausible as the basis for experience. While mole-
cules of H2O are of course necessary for the experience of the shiny stu
that is water, they do not of themselves create that experience. They are
necessary but not sucient. The shiny appearance, the damp or liquid feel,
requires in addition a conscious observer. And so, also, does the appear-
ance of water as an array of H2O molecules. What we are referring to when
we talk about macroscopic pools of water that are shiny, and molecules
that are not, are dierent ways of experiencing water: the direct, everyday
experience and the molecular experience mediated through instruments.
The relation between these two ways of appearing cannot be a model of the
relation between nerve impulses and appearances, and even less an expla-
nation of how nerve impulses can be both propagated waves of electro-
chemical activity and, say, the experience of yellow.


Searle, therefore, is not dierent from many other thinkers of a neurophil-

osophical persuasion, in taking the correlation between neural activity
and reported experience to mean that there is an intimate causal relation
between them: nerve impulses cause consciousness. And, like many others,
he also believes that nerve impulses (or some of them at any rate) are (iden-
tical with) consciousness. What makes his position particularly illuminating
is that he holds both of these incorrect, and also incompatible, views at once.
It is, however, possible to be a little more choosy and many writers opt for
the idea that nerve impulses cause consciousness, period: experiences are
distinct from nerve impulses but are the eects of them. Although this view
runs at once into insuperable diculties, to which I shall return, it is worth
reminding ourselves why it seems so attractive.
I ash a light into your eye while I record activity in the visual cortex using
my latest scanner. Following the ash I see a burst of impulses passing up
the optic nerve and into the cortex. At some point, as this burst is spreading
across your cortex, you report an experience of a ash of light. I note also a
close association between the intensity of the light to which you are exposed,
the amount of activity in the relevant neurons and the reported intensity of
your experience. This seems to demonstrate beyond doubt that the light
causes the nerve impulses and the nerve impulses cause the experience of
light; in short that the nerve impulses are the means by which light energy is
changed into experience of light energy. Two other kinds of observation, to
which I have already referred, seem to place this conclusion beyond doubt.
First, it is possible to prevent the experience by various means. If I inter-
pose a screen between your eyes and the source of the light, blindfold your
eyes or damage the pathways taken by the nerve impulses into the brain and
within it then you do not experience the light. This is indirect evidence of
the causal chain; if the putative causal chain is broken, then the experience is
not had. And for some, this is conclusive proof that mind and brain are one.
The neuropsychologist Bruce Hood is speaking for most cognitive neuro-
scientists when he says: We know that damage to certain parts of the brain
produces characteristic changes in the mind. Its one of the reasons most
psychologists are not dualists: they are very familiar with the idea that the
mind is a product of the brain.32 The slither in the logic is plain. We shall
return in the last chapter to the (incorrect) notion that the only alternative
to accepting that the mind is identical with, or caused by, brain activity is

32. Hood, Supersense, 231.


dualism. But let us look a bit more closely at the claim that brain-damage
studies should oblige us to conclude that the mind is a product of the brain.
The correct conclusion from the evidence provided by brain damage,
or indeed from less dramatic events such as closing your eyes, or covering
your ears, or turning your head away, or indeed moving to another place, is
that the brain is a necessary condition of experience and a brain in the right
place is a necessary condition of experiencing that place. For example, it
seems that provoking neural activity in the right place is a necessary condi-
tion of experiencing the light. A necessary condition is not, however, a
sucient condition. Now the dierence between necessary and sucient
conditions and, indeed, between conditions and causes is very dicult to
capture precisely, although it has stimulated a large philosophical litera-
ture.33 Let me, however, illustrate the dierence with a simple example. In
order for me to be knocked down by a bus in London, it is necessary for
me to be in London. It is, however, not sucient; otherwise I would avoid
the place more than I do. If, however, nerve impulses in a particular part
of the brain were identical with certain experiences then they would not
only be a necessary condition but also a sucient condition. You could not
have the experience without the nerve impulses and, more importantly,
you could not have the nerve impulses without having the experience. It
should not matter how those nerve impulses arise. Now some observations
do indeed seem to support the notion that the nerve impulses are a su-
cient condition for the experience, and this would be consistent with the
impulses being identical with the experiences. Here is an example from my
own work as a clinician.
For many years, I was responsible for running an electromyography
clinic. One of my tasks was to diagnose patients with damage to the periph-
eral nerves: the ones that go down the limbs to the toes and ngertips. The
method consisted of electrically stimulating the nerves near the end of the
limb and recording the response higher up, to see how big it was and how
fast it travelled. When the nerves were stimulated the patient felt a tingling.
This might suggest that nerve activity alone could produce conscious
experience. Even more impressive were the testimonies of some of my
patients with epilepsy. Epilepsy, you may recall from Chapter 1, is a condi-
tion in which there are, from time to time, bursts of highly synchronized

33. This is accessibly summarized in the admirable and admirably generous internet Stanford
Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Brennan, Necessary and Sucient Conditions.


abnormal electrical activity occurring spontaneously in the brain. These cut

right across the activity associated with normal function, and their usual
eect is to disrupt consciousness (which may be lost or in some other way
impaired) or replace voluntary activity with involuntary activity (so that the
person falls to the ground, sometimes twitching, or engages in automatic
behaviour). Some of my patients, however, had forms of epilepsy aecting
the temporal and parietal association areas of the cerebral cortex. These
resulted in very complex, formed images or indeed entire scenarios. Some-
times they are prolonged so-called status epilepticus and they may be
mistaken for dreams. Removing the particular part of the brain aected by
the abnormal neural activity gets rid of the hallucinations. Does this not
suggest that the stand-alone brain has the wherewithal to generate at least
fragments of consciousness on its own: that, in other words, its activity is a
sucient, as well as a necessary, condition of perceptual experiences; that
experiences are neural activity?
Even more challenging are some observations made by the Cana-
dian neurosurgeon Peneld that I mentioned in You are your brain in
Chapter 1. Peneld, it will be recalled, pioneered neurosurgical techniques
for treating intractable epilepsy by removing foci of irritable tissue in the
parts of the brain where the seizures originate. Since it was vital not to cut
out structures essential for speech and for other key functions, the opera-
tions were carried out in waking patients (the brain itself does not experi-
ence pain). Prior to the excision, Peneld mapped the location of dierent
functions in the brain using stimulating electrodes. When he stimulated
the temporal lobe and the hippocampus some patients re-experienced
fragments of their past. A patient might feel himself eavesdropping on a
familiar scene, for example, the voice of someone calling her child, or the
arrival of a travelling circus in town.34 This, again, might seem to support
the belief that the stand-alone brain could be the basis for complex
Such observations and others, for example the hallucinations experi-
enced when the brain is aected by psychoactive drugs underpin a famous
thought experiment, which in turn inspired an even more famous lm. The
thought experiment was that of The Brain in the Vat, proposed by Hilary
Putnam and the lm was The Matrix, of which I have heard enough to know

34. His ndings and the excitement of being present in the operating theatre when he was doing
his work are beautifully described in a commemorative article by his very distinguished
protg Brenda Milner: Wilder Peneld.


that I do not want to see it. Putnams thought experiment which was
designed in part to refute the idea that meanings are in the head (or brain),
something that need not concern us here went as follows. Since neural
activity seems to be sucient for experience, and it does not seem to matter
how the neural activity is triggered, is it not possible that we are deceived as
to our true nature? If we were brains suspended in a vat of nutrient liquid,
so that they could function adequately, and these brains were stimulated
electrically under the guidance of supercomputers, would it not be possible
to have the entire range of experiences that we have now? How could we
tell that these experiences were not of a real world? Might not a computer
regulate the activity of the brain such that I, the brain-owner, might have the
impression of being surrounded by a world very like the one in which you
and I are currently located? If this were possible, then all sorts of sceptical
concerns about the world we are currently experiencing would be justied.
Is this world, after all, a mere construct out of nerve impulses?35
This thought experiment is valuable not just for the reason that Putnam
introduced it. He wanted to argue that one could not have the thought I
might be a brain in a vat unless there were external objects such as brains,
vats, laboratories and scientists, and so, in short, a real world rather than
one that was hallucinated by the brain. Well, I dont think many of us
needed persuading that words would not have meaning if no real referent
corresponded to them and there was no world in which we were together
with others. In other words, a brain in a vat would require a commu-
nity of minds in a real outside world for the experiment to be imagined,
never mind to be set up. No, it is valuable because it demonstrates the
absurdity of moving from the observation that neural activity is corre-
lated with experiences to the conclusion that neural activity is not only a
necessary condition of experiences but that it is a sucient condition of
them and may indeed be identical with them. This way lies the madness
of concluding that a stand-alone brain could sustain a sense of a world.36
(The tendency to think of the brain as something stand-alone is reinforced
by cognitive science, which imagines that what goes on in the brain are
representations that are uncoupled from the world and are manipulated
by the model-making brain.)

35. See Putnam, Reason, Truth and History.

36. Again the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is an excellent guide. See Brueckner, Brains
in a Vat.


Be that as it may, neither the experiences of people with epilepsy nor

Penelds observations justify entertaining the possibility that we might be
a brain in a vat or, more to the point, that the stand-alone brain can create
a world and that neural activity would be not only a necessary but actually
a sucient condition of consciousness. Take the memories reported by
Penelds patients when they are stimulated (seen, by the way, in only 5 per
cent of his subjects and not readily replicated by contemporary surgeons):
they are essentially second-hand or recycled memories. No one who had
not already had any experiences by the usual route, and had remembered
them in the conventional way, would interpret what was happening as a
memory, even less as a memory with a particular signicance, meaning or
reference to something other than themselves. The Peneld phenomena,
like the pseudo-experiences of epilepsy, are simply re-activations of real
memories of experiences had in the real world: had, by the way, not by an
isolated brain but by a person. The electrical activity in the isolated brain
appears to have the aboutness or intentionality of normal experiences
(of which more presently) only because under all other circumstances
(when the patient is not having a seizure or undergoing electrical stimula-
tion) the experiences are genuinely of something that is really out there,
really happening, to a real person. As Sven Pfeier has pointed out to me,
Penelds patients are awake, conscious and living before and while they
are being stimulated.37 This existential and cognitive background is taken
for granted but it undermines the claim that the neural activity in a stand-
alone brain is, or could be, sucient for consciousness: that brain stimula-
tion is producing genuine stand-alone experience.
To look ahead somewhat, it is necessary to appreciate that our ordi-
nary memories, and our ordinary current experiences, make sense because
they are part of a world. Yes, we are located in this world in virtue of being
embodied and we access it through our brains; but it makes sense to us, as
a world, not solely on account of its physical properties but as a network
of signicances upheld by the community of minds of which we individu-
ally are only a part. The brain in the vat thought experiment helps itself
free of charge to this world: a world, incidentally, in which, in addition to
electrode-induced experiences, there really are material brains, electrodes,
vats, scientists and the institutions, practices and know-how that support
them. The hallucinations induced in the stand-alone brain by electrical

37. Pfeier, pers. comm.


stimulation or epilepsy also seem to make brain electricity a sucient

condition, or cause, of experience only because they, too, parasitize a real
world experienced in the usual way.38
The fact that neural activity is only a necessary and not a sucient
condition of consciousness is consistent with the observation that a
persons behaviour becomes more completely explicable in neurological
terms the more damaged they are. A seizure sits more comfortably within
the neural model of mind than does living with epilepsy, which requires
something to bring it all together. And of the necessity for cerebral activity
I have no doubt. My entire career as a doctor with a special interest in
neurological diseases such as stroke and epilepsy has been a reminder of
the extent to which our functioning as persons is vulnerable to the failures
of our body. The distinction between necessary and sucient conditions is
a way of highlighting the fact that, even if the neuroscientic picture were
complete, along the lines I have indicated just now, we would not have
achieved an explanation of consciousness. Nor should we expect to do so,
since neuroscience is itself a late manifestation of consciousness. What is
more, as we shall see below in Why there can never be a brain science
of consciousness, physical science, to which neural impulses ultimately
belong, does not have any place for consciously experienced appearances.
A neural account of consciousness is a contradiction in terms.
We have some way to travel before we arrive at this conclusion. I want
rst of all to focus on dierent aspects or layers of human conscious-
ness. I shall begin with sentience the ground oor of consciousness, and
something we may share with beasts and then I shall examine higher-
level or more organized aspects of consciousness, many of which we most
certainly do not share with beasts. The sharpest division between the
levels is signalled by the emergence of what I characterize as full-blown
intentionality, or the aboutness of consciousness: something that is at
once so simple and yet of such profound importance that it underpins the
unique complexity of human life and our distance from all other living

38. It is a healthy sign that the doctrine of disjunctivism, originally proposed by my friend
Howard Robinson, is now catching on. According to this doctrine, hallucinations have
nothing in common with genuine perceptions apart from the fact that they seem the same to
the person experiencing them. Too right.




The errors of muddling correlation with causation, necessary condition

with sucient causation, and sucient causation with identity lie at the
heart of the neuromaniacs basic assumption that consciousness and nerve
impulses are one and the same, and that (to echo a commonly used formu-
lation) the mind is a creation of the brain. There are, however, many other
reasons for rejecting this belief and they apply to several distinct problems
relating to physical explanations of consciousness: how matter became or
relates to basic sentience; and how it is that certain material objects (such
as you and I) are self-aware, how they are a subject of concern for ourselves.
I shall begin, as I said, with the ground oor of consciousness: with qualia.
Qualia are the very fabric of consciousness: the material of experience,
of the what-it-is-like feel of mental states. Although experience is gath-
ered up into various kinds of wholes objects, elds, situations, worlds
it is possible to pick out individual qualia to exemplify the notion. And
so, somewhat at random, I pluck out from my rich sensory eld the sound
of a violin playing, the blackness of the letters growing across the screen,
the feeling of pressure on my buttocks, the redness of a hat next to my
computer, the sensations associated with a present anxiety. If these compo-
nents cannot be identied with nerve impulses then no aspect of human
consciousness can. So let me set out some of the problems that arise when
one tries to identify qualia with nerve impulses.
The most fundamental and obvious problem is one that we have touched
on already; namely, that nerve impulses are not at all like qualia. Those
impulses in the visual cortex do not look like, say, the colour or shape or
size of my red hat. We have seen how some philosophers have tried to deal
with this by suggesting that what we see on a brain scan or an EEG is only
one aspect of the neural activity and that consciousness is another aspect.
This does not make the identity between neural activity and conscious
experiences any more plausible because the very notion of aspects
presupposes consciousness: an observer looking at something from a
particular angle or in a particular way (as when it is examined through the
lens of instruments, concepts and theories). But let us imagine it makes
sense to think of a nerve impulse having an appearance in the absence of
someone to whom it can appear. How would the intrinsic appearance of
the nerve impulse relate to the experiences that it is supposed to embody?
Not very well, it would seem. If we think of the nerve impulse as it appears


to the observing neuroscientist, then we are really stumped. You will recall
from Chapter 1 that it consists of sodium and other ions uxing in and
out of semi-permeable membranes. These do not seem like anything that is
revealed in our ordinary experience of the world. And yet, if Neuromania
is correct, they have to be the intermediary through which the world for
example my red hat is revealed to me. More generally, those sodium and
other ionic uxes have to be the appearance of the world to me.
This brings me to another problem. The trigger for the nerve impulses
in virtue of which I am supposed to be aware of my red hat is not the hat
itself: or not directly anyway. It is light, whose spectral frequency and
patterns of distribution have been altered by running into my red hat.
The neural activity is a response to this interfered-with light, and from
this neural activity I can infer what it was that was interfered with by the
light. This reaching back from the light to an object that interfered with it is
something I shall come to in the next section when I talk about intention-
ality. For the present, however, let me focus on the light itself.
Physics tells us that light is electromagnetic radiation and this does not
in itself have a colour or, necessarily, visibility. Yellow-in-itself is not actu-
ally yellow; and electromagnetic radiation outside a very narrow band-
width is actually invisible. Only an appropriately tuned perceiver can confer
brightness, colour and beauty on light. Neurophilosophers have to believe
that it is in nerve impulses, which have no appearance in themselves, that
light energy acquires an appearance. Let us consider something else very
elementary: heat. An increase in the rate of jigging of atoms (heat as seen
by physicists) is not itself a hotting up: the transformation of jigging into
an experience of heat requires something else again, a conscious subject.
A dispassionate examination of nerve impulses would not lead one to
the conclusion that they could carry out this miraculous transformation:
that they are capable of conferring the appearance of warmth on faster
jigging; that electrochemical waves in nerve bres, despite being items in
the material world, are nonetheless able to confer appearance on the envi-
roning material world.
One way of getting a handle on the dierence between nerve impulses
and experiences is to try out the following well-known thought experi-
ment. Imagine there was a device called an autocerebroscope that enabled
us to see our own neural activity online as it occurs. Supposing I were able
to look at the part of the brain where the neural activity corresponding to
my seeing my neural activity through the autocerebroscope was happening.
I would be seeing the neural activity and at the same time having the


experience of seeing the neural activity. My experience would be that of

someone seeing the activity from the outside and yet the activity would
simply be itself, not itself seen from the outside. Or the activity would
have to be both the experience and the experience of seeing itself from the
outside: it would have to be at once subjective experience and an objective
experience of the basis of the subjective experience. This would of course
be impossible: it has to be one or the other but not both. Whats more, the
activity I can see through the autocerebroscope could be seen by someone
else, whereas my experiences could be experienced only by me. Clearly an
item cannot at the same time be something that can be visible to others as
well as myself and something that cannot be experienced by others.
At the risk of making you dizzy, let me pursue this a bit further. Someone
might object by saying that the nerve impulses I am looking at are not the
same as the nerve impulses associated with my seeing the nerve impulses,
which is something else that someone might share. Perhaps not: other
nerve impulses are involved in my experience of seeing the nerve impulses.
This, however, only moves the problem on, because those other impulses
are also in principle visible to other people, while the experience they are
supposed to be identical with is not. What this illustrates is that there is a
gap, which cannot be closed, between experience and that which neuro-
science observes; between experiences and nerve impulses. Touch.
All right, someone might say, mysterious and even paradoxical though
the idea of the neural theory of consciousness might be, this is how things
are. Get over it, accept it, believe it. Well, there are other problems that
make me disinclined to just get over it, most strikingly this one: there is a
monotonous similarity about neural activity throughout the cerebral cortex
and yet it is supposed to underpin the innite richness of phenomenal
consciousness. How is this possible? There have been two kinds of expla-
nation of how the nervous system creates or reconstructs the variety of the
experienced world in the monotonous language of nerve impulses. The rst
appeals to dierences of location in the brain; and the second to patterns of
activity. Lets deal with location rst.
Neural activity associated with the experience of dierent colours,
or sounds versus colours, or with sense experiences versus memories, is
located in dierent places in the nervous system. Although nerve impulses
look the same, they are not the same when they are located in dierent
places. Now, I dont know how it strikes you, but dierent locations dont
seem to me to deliver what is needed. Why should the fact that a shower
of nerve impulses is located two centimetres from another shower be


sucient to explain how one is the basis of a sense of disgust when faced
with a bad smell and the other the feeling of pleasure given by contem-
plating that ones child has got into university. Why does this look even
remotely plausible? Is it because we already know that there are certain
functions partitioned in the brain: there are sense organs, nerve pathways,
and sections of the brain devoted to particular aspects of the experienced
world say sight as opposed to hearing? This makes us inclined to say that
the reason that neurons in the ventral visual pathways (interacting with the
pre-frontal and parietal cortex) give rise to visual awareness (as opposed
to sounds or smells) is because these bres are ultimately connected to
the eyes. This is Mllers doctrine of specic energies that we referred to
in Neuroscience in Chapter 1. Any stimulus to the eyes results in visual
experiences; so I have sensations of light even when I stimulate my retina
mechanically by pressing my eyeball, a stimulus unrelated to light.
This seemingly common-sense response is actually circular. Or it
restates, rather than explains, the problem. The nerve impulses origi-
nating from the eyes give rise to visual consciousness because they are
linked to central structures associated with visual consciousness and
these centres experience visual consciousness because they are linked to
the eyes. The fact that neither the light, nor the nerve impulses that are
triggered by it, has an intrinsic appearance (of any sort, including that of
visible light) shows how empty this circular explanation is. The eyes may
respond primarily to light energy but this does not explain how it is that
electromagnetic energy is translated into experienced light, into colour and
brightness and so on. Dierent wirings to the eyes or the ears or the nose
do not explain dierent experiences, particularly since, whatever energies
land on sense endings, they are all translated into the same kind of energy:
the electrochemical energy of nerve impulses. While each sense organ may
be tuned to a dierent kind of energy the eye to electromagnetic radia-
tion and the ear to vibrations in the air each translates those specic
energies into the same language of propagated electrochemical distur-
bances. So much for the appeal to location.
Others have suggested that the dierences that underpin the dierence
in experiences are to be found not in individual nerve impulses simply
added up but in the hugely varied patterns of neural activity. There is
potentially an innite variety of patterns of nerve impulses: their numbers
are not restricted, like the numbers of locations in the nervous system. It is
in dierent patterns that we must nd the dierence between the experi-
ence of the red of a red hat, the experience of the hat as an object, the sense


that to wear it would be a good idea, the emotional investment in the hat,
and so on. But this explanation fails for the same reason as the supposed
explanation by location: why should particular patterns correspond to
experiences of material events such as the interaction of electromagnetic
radiation with material objects that do not themselves have anything in
them corresponding to those experiences? And there is another problem
with explaining the variety of subjective experiences on the basis of the
variety of patterns; this is the assumption that patterns somehow pick out
themselves, add themselves up, know themselves. However, patterns of
material objects or events, like aspects, have to be picked out by something
else: by a conscious observer.
Let me illustrate this point with a simple example. Take a square
consisting of nine letters:




This could be seen as three vertical rows each of three letters, three hori-
zontal rows each of three letters, a group of six letters plus a group of three
letters or a single group of nine letters. There are many other possibili-
ties. What this variety tells us is not that the array left to itself contains
all of these patterns inherently but that it contains only the possibility of
these patterns, and not, for example, other possibilities such as a pattern
consisting of two groups of six letters. The possibilities will be actual-
ized, however, only by a conscious observer. In the case of patterns in the
brain, such a conscious observer is not available, unless you imagine a little
Cartesian ghost observing the activity in the brain and picking out the
There is another problem encountered at the most basic level of
consciousness: awareness itself. Just as we cannot nd any kind of basis in
the uniform electrochemical gray (and actually gray is a bit attering) of
neural activity for the multicoloured world of sense experience, we cannot
nd any basis for the fact that we are aware of our sense experiences.
We cannot, to use the jargon, nd the neural correlates of conscious-
ness (NCC): more precisely, identify an adequate basis for the dierence
between neural activity that is, and neural activity that isnt, associated


with consciousness.39 Anyone who believes in the identity of consciousness

and brain activity has to deal with the fact that most brain activity is not
associated with consciousness and the small amount that is associated does
not look all that much dierent from the large amount that is not. There is
not sucient, or the right kind of, dierence.
The NCCs have been sought most carefully in the visual system. The
NCC-seekers agree that the primary visual area (V1), where the neural
activity in the visual pathways rst reaches the cerebral cortex, is not itself
the seat of consciousness of sight, although it is necessary for there to be
visual awareness. Visual consciousness, it is claimed, requires supplemen-
tary activity in the extra-striate visual cortex and the frontal and parietal
cortex. The question then arises how all these disparate areas, in play at
once, come together: how, that is to say, they sum their scattered activity
to something that amounts to awareness, to a whole that is unied in itself.
It is easy to see how an external observer could bring them together as a
whole, just as I, looking at the brain, can see it as a whole as well as a collec-
tion of connected parts. But we dont have an observer within the brain to
bind the dierent parts into the kind of whole that seems to be required for
consciousness: such an observer has to be constructed in the brain out of
nerve impulses according to the neural theory and so the problem returns.
(We shall come back to the binding problem in due course.)
At this point, it is important to keep asking questions that tend to get
overlooked or discarded because they seem naive or even childish. One
such question is this: if consciousness is identical with neural activity,
which consists of travelling waves, is this activity to be considered as
consisting in the travelling or the arrival? Only in certain areas of the brain,
distant from where most nerve impulses originate, is neural activity associ-
ated with consciousness. This suggests that travelling is necessary, but only
to ensure arrival. But what does arrival consist of? Well, as we know, when
nerve impulses reach the end of a neuron, they may trigger activity in a
connected neuron via synapses. So arrival seems to correspond to more
activity in certain central areas, presumably. But this, in turn, consists of
travelling: nothing stands still; propagated impulses trigger other propa-
gated impulses. If travelling remains essential and there is no real arrival in
the sense of standing still, then the dierence between what is happening in

39. For an excellent discussion of this concept and the scientic hunt for such correlates, see
Rees & Frith, Methodologies for Identifying Neural Correlates.


those places where consciousness is located and what is happening where

consciousness is not located isnt at all clear. Nor is it clear what localiza-
tion actually consists of, given that nothing keeps to a particular place.
Perhaps consciousness resides not in a place of putative arrival of
impulses and in the moment of arrival but in the history of the journey they
have undergone. Unfortunately, this would require the nervous system to
step out of its present moment in order to reach into an (admittedly recent)
past and an (admittedly short-term) future and integrate over time. This
reaching out of the present tense, which means reaching out of the present
(that is to say actual) state, is not possible for a material object; the physical
world does not have tensed time, in which present, past and future exist
side by side. It is, as we shall discuss below in Brain science and human
consciousness, III, unique to conscious creatures for whom time is explicit
and whose lives have temporal depth.
We therefore have great diculty with making sense of the notion of
NCCs: that is to say, of neural activity, in a certain place, or a set of places,
that is extraordinarily privileged, being (supposedly) the basis of conscious-
ness in a brain that is overwhelmingly the site of unconscious processes.
There is not enough dierence between the kind of activity that is asso-
ciated, and the kind of activity that is not associated, with consciousness
plausibly to account for this absolutely fundamental dierence. Whats
more, it seems very odd that nerve impulses should have to travel in
order to qualify to become consciousness or that a particular journey to a
particular place would deliver the metaphysical transformation from elec-
trochemical activity to subjective experience. For a start, the place they
are coming from and the place they are going to does not seem dierent
enough to carry the dierence between events that are and events that are
not associated with consciousness; or between events that are and events
that are not consciousness itself. Given that nerve impulses never stand
still, and have no clear point of arrival, the very notion of travelling to a
location is problematic. And the idea that summed activity at several places
is required for consciousness raises the question of how, or in what, it is
summed. It does not exist in itself as its sum: to do so would require that
it should somehow demarcate itself and then add up everything inside the
boundary of demarcation.
Of course, no neuroscientist would suggest that location alone is su-
cient to ensure that neural activity should be conscious. The other require-
ment is that the activity should be intense enough to break a notional
threshold of awareness. The assumption that the more quantitatively


impressive the activity, the more likely it is to do this that more neural
activity means more consciousness of something other than the neural
activity is not at all self-evident. The fact that it seems indisputable is
due to transference of observations within the eld of consciousness to the
relation between consciousness and neural events. The fact that I am more
likely to see a bright light than a dim one is translated into the assumption
that I am more likely to have an experience when there is a lot of neural
activity than when there is a small amount of neural activity; or that a lot
of neural activity is more likely to amount to an experience than a smaller
quantity. This is based on a false analogy illegitimately identifying the
contrast between dim and bright lights with the contrast between less and
more activity in the visual pathways. The dierence between a bright and
a dim light, what is more, is not the same as the dierence between a light
of which one is conscious and a light of which one is not conscious.40 Only
the assumption that the dierence is the same or analogous could make the
assumption that more electrochemical activity means consciousness, or
more intense consciousness, seem self-evident. Otherwise it would seem
very odd that more nerve impulses would not only add up to the greater
total but also, having done so, be more likely to make objects other than
themselves have appearance. In summary, the pursuit of plausible NCCs
simply highlights the distance between neural activity and consciousness.
These are the problems that we encounter trying to make sense of a
neural account of seemingly simple components of consciousness such
as qualia. I say seemingly simple because qualia are never isolated atoms
of consciousness; they are always experienced as parts of an object, of a
eld of items surrounding the individual; as being of a certain kind and
carrying a certain meaning; and so on. The notion of raw atomic experi-
ences uprooted from any other experiences, from systems of classication
and from the nexus of meaning that is the world is not one that is upheld
by psychological fact; and, indeed, if consciousness were made of qualia
that exist separately, it would be dicult to see how they all came together
in the unfolding world in which we live. As the poet-philosopher Samuel
Taylor Coleridge remarked: Who ever felt a single sensation? Is not every
one at the same moment conscious that there co-exist a thousand others in

40. Under certain circumstances, a very large amount of neural activity can be associated with
loss of consciousness, as seen in an epileptic t, where giant waves of synchronized activity
across the cortex blot out awareness.


a darker shade, or less light ?41 In fact, every element of consciousness

is impregnated not only with the present world to which it relates but also
with an explicit or implicit future and past.
Even so, if we cant make sense of simple qualia in neural terms there is
not much hope of making sense of the rest. This is why dedicated neuro-
maniacs, most notably Dennett, have taken the desperate measure of
denying the existence of qualia altogether, suggesting that they are spurious
items left over from a folk psychology still haunted by Cartesian dualism.
He argues this most thoroughly in Consciousness Explained:42 a book title
that should have landed him in court, charged with breach of the Trade
Descriptions Act, for what this, his most famous, book oers is not
Consciousness Explained, but Consciousness Evaded.



Nothing I have said so far will cause neuromaniacs to change their minds.
They will simply reiterate that this is how things are: the brain is myste-
rious but then so is matter. If you dismiss the neural theory of conscious-
ness because it is baing then, to be consistent, you ought to reject
quantum mechanics, which demands that you set aside many more of your
common-sense intuitions, even such fundamental ones as that things have
a denite location.
In response, it is necessary only to point out that if you believe that the
brain, or some small part of it, is the seat of consciousness then you are
going to have to grant this bit of matter properties that no other material
object including most of the human nervous system, and perhaps all of
the nervous system of some lower animals possesses. You cannot be a
materialist and ascribe to the brain the capability of making the material
world present to itself. More specically, you cannot deal with two features
of consciousness that are connected, although I shall address them sepa-
rately: intentionality (which I shall discuss in this section); and the ability

41. Coleridge, Notebook 21, Coleridge Notebooks ii, 2370.

42. For those who are tempted to entertain the idea that qualia are not real, Searles savage review
of Dennetts book (reprinted in The Mystery of Consciousness) will convince them that they
are real, and give them a lot of pleasure en route.


to make other items appear (which I shall leave to the nal section of this
chapter because it is the most fundamental objection to the neural theory
of consciousness).
So what is intentionality? This is a philosophical term that has a long
history (a sordid history, according to Searle43), but its use in modern
philosophy is traceable to Franz Brentano and a landmark book that he
published in 1874, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. In this book
he reminded his readers what it was that distinguished mental items from
physical items. Mental items had the property of aboutness: they were
directed on, or about, other things. This was most obvious in the case of
what Bertrand Russell later called propositional attitudes: items such
as hopes, desires, fears and, more broadly, beliefs, which are directed on
objects or parts of the world or real or virtual entities or clusters of possi-
bilities that are felt to be other than the subject. But they are also present
in all knowledge and, indeed, all perception. It is perception that I want to
focus on here because it illustrates most clearly what Brentano meant.
Consider a very simple example: my perception of the red hat next to my
computer. The standard story is that I see the red hat because the hat inter-
feres with the light in a certain way and some of the light bouncing o the
hat enters my eyes. Changes in the retina result and these changes trigger
impulses in the optic nerve and, eventually, in those parts of the visual
cortex that have been identied by neuroscientists as the seat of visual
awareness. This chain of events is very similar to causal sequences seen
elsewhere in the material world. Physicists, physical chemists, biophysi-
cists and so on would be entirely at home with the processes I have just
described. But that, of course, is not the end of the story. I am aware of the
red hat; and I am aware of it as being separate from me, at some distance
from me, as having properties and a reality all of its own, some of which I
cannot currently see. My awareness, that is to say, is of or about an entity
that is located causally upstream from those events in virtue of which I am
aware of the hat. The causal chain points in one direction, from the hat
to my cerebral cortex, with the light being translated into electrochem-
ical events as the key step; but the aboutness of my experience points in
another direction, from my cerebral cortex back to the hat.
Actually, its much more complicated than that. For, although I see a hat,
I see it in virtue of events that involve it: the interaction between the hat

43. Searle, Biological Naturalism, 327.


and the light incident on it. That is primarily what I see, although I inter-
pret it as the-hat-in-a-certain-light. For it is events, not objects, that count
as causes of events. Nevertheless, it is an object that I see and (an added
twist) I see it in a certain light, or that it is in a certain light, part of which is
the light in virtue of which it is seen. The key point, however, is that inten-
tionality my awareness of the hat points in the opposite direction to
the arrow of causation. It points from eects (nerve impulses in the higher
levels of the visual pathways) backwards to their causes (the interference
between the object and the light). And then it points further backwards to
the partners producing the eects: the red hat and the light it is bathed in.
How the object and the light are unpacked, or inferred, from the events
has been the subject of a huge research eort in the philosophy, psych-
ology and physiology of perception. Some of this has focused on what is
called object constancy: that in virtue of which an object looks the same
size and shape irrespective of the distance and angle we see it from. Object
constancy is puzzling because the image cast on the retina will diminish as
the object recedes. Other research has investigated depth perception: my
ability to infer, from a two-dimensional image on the retina, that the object
has three dimensions. There are other and even more intractable problems
but our main concern here is with this fundamental property of perception:
intentionality namely, that perception is about something other than
itself. The irony is that it is the neural accounts of consciousness that high-
light just how mysterious this aboutness is. Giving perceptions a denite
location in the brain (say neural activity in the visual cortex), makes the
separation between the perception and that which it is about a literal, that
is to say spatial, distance. The relevant neural activity is, say, a yard away
from the hat that it reveals or is about. This is shown in Figure 1.
There is nothing elsewhere in nature comparable to intentionality.
It will prove, as we shall see, to be the key to our human dierences: our
subjectivity; our sustained self-consciousness; our sense of others as
selves like us; rst- and second-person being; our ability to form inten-
tions; our freedom; and our collective creation of a human world oset
from nature. For the present, I want to focus on the phenomenon itself.
In Figure 1, the two arrows correspond, respectively, to the light getting
into the brain (upper arrow) and the gaze looking out (the lower arrow).
Physicalist neuroscience has no problem with the light getting into the
brain through the eyes and triggering nerve impulses. The gaze looking
out is another matter entirely. It is dierent from causation and it is in the
opposite direction.


Identity theory: the mystery of intentionality

Neural activity
Red Hat
Direction of causal relation


Direction of intentionality
Red Hat Perception

Figure 1 Causation and intentionality in perception.

Nothing in physical science can even seem to provide an adequate expla-

nation of why, or how, some (although not most) neural activity would
reach causally upstream to events that led up to themselves; why or how
a burst of impulses in my visual cortex should refer itself back to the inter-
action of the light with the hat and, out of this, construct a hat-in-the-light
out there. It is not merely a case of registering those events, as a photo-
electric cell might register light from any source. For we not only register
events, but also register them as belonging to something other than our
self: we are aware of them and aware of them as over there. It is a revela-
tion: of an object to a subject in which object and subject are kept separate
and distinct, with the subject (me) being here and the object (the hat I am
looking at) being over there.
This dierence between physical registration (if one can truly speak of
something being registered by an entity, such as a photometer, that is not
conscious of that which is registered) and perception is absolutely funda-
mental but quite elusive. It is easy to lose sight of it, particularly if one is
a neuromaniac and has a vested interest in concealing it. It is even easier
to conceal it if one treats the brain both as material object and as a quasi-
person. Normally one would be inclined to say that the light impacts on the
brain while it is the person who looks out and this would highlight the inad-
equacy of accounting for the gaze in neural terms. The habit of describing
brains in terms that properly apply only to people (something we shall
examine in detail in Chapter 5) makes it easy to think of the brain doing the
looking and (more importantly) to imagine that the looking consists only
of brain activity. Most importantly and this is the pillar of unwisdom on
which Neuromania rests this makes it possible to conceal the outward


arrow of intentionality or (more usually) to bury it in the inward arrow of

This act of assimilation is most clearly expressed in the causal theory of
perception.44 According to this seemingly common-sense theory, percep-
tions are caused by the things or events that we perceive; indeed, if they
are not so caused, they are not true perceptions but hallucinations. We can
now see how causation does not on its own deliver perception: that percep-
tions are more than eects of that in virtue of which perception is possible.
Something has to be done with the eects for them to reach upstream to their
causes and become perceptions of the objects or states of aairs that are
implicated in their causation. This is overlooked, so much so that the causal
theory has been extended to encompass more complex modes of aware-
ness: propositional attitudes such as beliefs, expectations and so on; and
verbal and non-verbal meanings and linguistic reference. My beliefs are, so
the story goes, eects of the material world on my brain. The meaning of a
word or a sentence is the eect it has on me. A word has reference in virtue
of its creating an eect in my brain that stands proxy for the object that
would have a similar eect in my brain. And so on.
You can see where this might lead: the brain (and hence the mind)
becomes a mere causal way station, linking inputs into and outputs from
the body. Perceptions, beliefs, meanings and reference are simply the inter-
mediate neural steps between experiential inputs and behavioural (in the
broadest sense) outputs.
The assimilation of consciousness to the causal net in which the
organism is located has been the central pillar of materialist theories
of mind, in particular of a highly popular theory called functionalism.
Functionalists argue that mind is not importantly about the phenomenal
aspects of consciousness: actual awareness. No, its job and conscious-
ness, according to them simply is its job is to rene the connection
between inputs and outputs in such a way as to optimize the survival of
the organism or the group to which the organism belongs. Any particular
element of consciousness is constituted entirely by its functional role: its
causal relations to sensory inputs, to other mental states, and to behav-
ioural outputs.

44. For a detailed account and critique of this theory, see my The Causal Theory of Perception,
in The Explicit Animal.


This is as close to missing the point that one can get. At the most basic
level, it ignores the lower arrow in Figure 1: that in virtue of which experi-
ences, memories, beliefs and other propositional attitudes are about some-
thing other than themselves. And so it is easy to understand why those
who wish to defend a materialistic account of consciousness have either
dismissed or marginalized intentionality. The lengths to which they are
prepared to go to achieve this are illustrated by the writings of Dennett.
Dennett argues that intentionality is not an intrinsic property of mental
phenomena; rather, it is a product of the intentional stance, an attitude
that ascribes intentionality from without. Intentionality is not something in
itself but a level of abstraction at which we view or describe the behaviour
of a thing in terms of mental properties. This, Dennett says, gives us greater
computational power when we are concerned to anticipate or understand
their behaviour and hence is of adaptive value.45 Trying to make sense of
my behaviour by seeing me as a collection of atoms the physical stance
and predicting the future behaviour of that collection of atoms would
place an impossible burden on my cognitive capacity. Even adopting a
design stance, which would see me as an artefact or organism designed to
achieve certain goals, would make working out what I might do next very
dicult; I am, after all, more complex than an artefact such as a thermo-
stat. The intentional stance alone has sucient power. This stance assumes
that you are a self who acts according to beliefs, thoughts and intentions
and on the basis of that I can make a pretty good guess at what you are, or
are likely to be, up to. It does not, however, mean that you truly are such
an item or that beliefs and other propositional attitudes are anything other
than artefacts postulated by folk psychology. The inner life we ascribe to
others is merely an interpretative device and nothing in reality corresponds
to it. And the assumption that we are related to the world by perceptions,
beliefs, reasons is just such an interpretative device.
It is dicult to know why this argument has been taken seriously. While
we might need to use a very sophisticated intentional stance to make sense
of, and predict, the behaviour of a robot primed to behave just like me
under all circumstances, there is an irreducible dierence between myself
and such a zombie. And, what is more, the intentionality ascribed to the
zombie is real but mislocated; it lies within the team that designed it and

45. Dennett has expressed this view over many years but his most comprehensive statement of it
is in The Intentional Stance.


had its functions in mind and within anyone, such as myself, who tries
to anticipate the zombies behaviour. But it is not out of mere interpre-
tative convenience that we ascribe all sorts of intentional phenomena
perceptions, feelings, thoughts to people; it is because these intentional
phenomena are real, as we know from our own case.
Overlooking the aboutness of perception and other conscious experi-
ences means that we shall overlook many other things which is very
convenient for neuromaniacs but disastrous for anyone who is serious
about capturing human consciousness. The intentional relation lies at the
root of the distinction between the subject and the object, as a result of
which human beings are not simply organisms but rather are embodied
subjects. (We shall discuss this in Chapter 6.) While the material light gets
into the brain by physical means, the gaze that looks out is not a contin-
uation of that chain of physical events. It is a person that looks out, not
a brain. The person is aware of herself as other than, as confronting, the
object. While perception connects us with the material world it also asserts
our distance from it and, more broadly, our dierence. This uncoupling is
most evident in vision among the modalities of perception but it is elabo-
rated in the innitely complex mediations of experience that are aorded
by the signs signals, gestures, codes, languages, words that ll our lives.
For humans, perception is not simply a means by which, as organ-
isms, we are wired into the world; it is also the basis of the distance that
is opened up between ourselves as conscious agents and the world we
can operate on as if from an outside: a virtual outside that is built up, as
we shall see in Chapter 6, into a real, but non-physical outside that is the
human world. Our perception yields objects that transcend our awareness;
we are explicitly aware that the object is more than our perceptions it is
not exhausted by our perceptions and that it is other than our self. This
transcendent object, which is seen as something only partly revealed, is
related to a transcendent self that is other than it. There is no room for this
kind of thing in a causally hard-wired universe of material objects, which
would include material organisms and material organs in those organ-
isms, such as the brain. That is why Dennett, in common with many other
mindbrain identity theorists are intentionality-deniers (or intentionality
reducers); it enables them to see the mind entirely in terms of the function
of a material brain evolved through material processes. Hence his claim
that intentionality is just the product of an intentional stance that enables
us to make a quicker assessment of the likely behaviour of a predator than,
say, using an atomic or design-based approach. To ascribe intentionality to


others is simply to deploy a conceptual tool to promote survival. Against

Dennett, we would argue that intentionality is not simply something that is
ascribed; it is a fundamental feature of human consciousness and it begins
with perception. How, anyway, should we ascribe it to anything else unless
it was something we had experienced in the rst place in our selves?
By a nice irony, those who try to be hard line about consciousness and
see it as simply an eect of the material world on a material brain end up in
a position that is far from hard line. The claim that my experience of the red
hat is a set of nerve impulses in parts of my cerebral cortex raises awkward
questions. The rst is, given that those impulses really are about the hat,
why does their aboutness stop at the hat? Once there is a reaching causally
upstream, then there is no reason why it should not continue right back to
the Big Bang. This may seem to be a silly suggestion but let us stick with it
for a moment and examine the actual things that are thought to trigger the
nerve impulses that are in turn supposed to reveal the object. It is not the
object that causes the perception of itself but its interaction with the light
that results in my seeing it. This is a bit messy: the interaction is a zz of
events, not just a few neat straight lines of light connecting the object with
the eye. The object has to be constructed from the interference with the
light: a challenging task, to put it mildly. Indeed, it is so challenging that
many neuropsychologists argue that the object that we experience is not
really an object that is out there at all: it is a construct put together by the
brain. This leads to the idea that the world we inhabit is a mental model
that has only a tangential relation to what is out there, an idea that has
dominated cognitive psychology for many decades. Frith has gone further
and argued that the contents of the mind are not real.46
If the objects we experience are actually constructed out of data that
may mislead us, although they may be corrected by subsequent experience
(otherwise we would not survive to be further deceived), then we have an
interesting case of the pulled rug. The brain, which is supposed to be the
passive recipient of energy from an outside world, now suddenly becomes
something that actually constructs that outside world rather actively. Such
activity seems to be at odds with the notion of the brain as a material
object helplessly wired into the material world that surrounds it via causal
interactions guided by the laws of physical nature. One would like to know

46. Frith, Making up the Mind. The reader might be interested in my critique: Not All in the


where, out of the electrochemical activity of the cortex and other bits of the
nervous system, the ability to construct an illusory or approximate world
arises. The brain, it seems, has the power to ght back and shape the world
by which it is shaped. This, of course, relies on counter-causally directed
Those of us who are not brainwashed into thinking that they are brains
washed by the laws of physics might be tempted to hazard a daring sugges-
tion: that it is a person, or something like a person, that looks out at, peers
into, interprets and shapes the world. And that person is pregured in
the counter-causal direction of intentionality: the very bounce back that
some neural theorists of consciousness nd so awkward they wish to deny
it. Indeed, neuro-talk often dismisses reference to persons and their beliefs
and conjectures and volitions as belonging to a pre-scientic folk psych-
ology that it has itself grown out of. But we shall nd, again and again, that
we cannot make sense of what the brain is supposed to do in particular
postulating an intelligible world in which it is located without appealing
to talk about people who are not identical with their brains or with material
processes in those brains.
The neurophysiology of the visual system falls short of explaining the
mystery of the gaze for many reasons but, most fundamentally, because
it cannot deal with intentionality. Intentionality highlights the mystery of
what brains are, ultimately, supposed to do; namely, to make other items,
indeed worlds, appear to someone. This presents an insuperable, ground-
oor problem for neural accounts of consciousness, and we shall return to
it in the nal section of this chapter. In the meantime, let us look at other
aspects of consciousness that elude neural explanation.47

47. Even those who are sympathetic to the argument I have presented here may be uncomfort-
able with my dealing with perception as if it were independent of action, and argue that this
separation is articial. It is of course true that, biologically, perception is the servant of action
and that even when we have loosened the bonds of biology what we perceive is a world that
requires us to act or gives us an opportunity to act or shapes our ongoing actions. Neverthe-
less, the fact that we can perceive without acting, that we have the capacity to postpone and
plan action, that we are able to contemplate the world without any intention of acting, is what
ultimately leads to knowledge, to the know-that that uniquely informs human know-how,
that sets us o from the world and enables us to act on it so eectively. That perception is not
an irresistible trigger to action is in part the basis of the sense that our actions are ours and
that it is we who are acting. This in turn underlines the sense of self and our sense of leading
our lives rather than merely living or suering them.




The problem with neural theories of consciousness becomes clearly

evident when we consider full-blown perceptions; but it is already there,
if less prominent, in the case of smaller fry, such as isolated sensations.
Consider an itch or a tingle. The neural theory would have to explain why,
if the tingle or itch is actually in the brain, it seems to be located, it is felt,
in the arm: where the cause of the neural activity arises rather than where
the neural activity is located. There seems to be no way of explaining, if the
experience and the nerve impulses are the same, how something can be in
two places at once: in the brain and in the arm. The fact is that the brain is
not aware of itself; even less are collections of nerve impulses in parts of
the brain aware of themselves. They always refer any awareness elsewhere.
When I cut myself I feel the pain in my nger, although the neural activity
that is supposed to be the pain is in my brain. Identifying brain activity and
experiences, far from explaining the latter, seems to make them more di-
cult to understand.
One way of trying to get round this is to argue that the brain repre-
sents what is in the arm, so that the itch is, at it were, the object, and
the neural activity is the representation of it. Unfortunately, this way of
recasting the relation between the itch in the brain and the itch in the arm
is not acceptable for a very simple reason: representation presupposes
prior presentation. For example, my face in a mirror counts as a repre-
sentation of the visual appearance of my face only because my face, cour-
tesy of consciousness, already has an appearance. In short, as with Searles
example of water and molecules of H2O, we require consciousness to be
already in place in order to make the concept of sensation as representa-
tion or re-presentation work or seem to.
So even lowly sensations cause problems for the neural theory of
consciousness, but you aint seen nothing yet. Other aspects of human
consciousness are much further out of reach. Spoiled for choice, I am
going to focus on features that are relevant to my larger aim of high-
lighting those ways in which humans are distant from the natural world.
The features in question are all connected with rst-person being: (a) the
sense of (being an) I at a given time; (b) the unity of the self at a time and
over time that also accommodates a sense of multiplicity; and (c) the sense
of explicit time of a timetabled future and an explicit past revealed in


The sense of being an I

It is tempting to say that the material world is third-person, while human

consciousness is rst-person. This does grasp half the truth. But the world
in which we live is also in some respects rst-person: it is set out, in the
rst instance at least, in what Russell called egocentric space, where near
and far, here and there, are dened with respect to ones own location, as
dened by ones body, and, in a more complex sense, by ones interests.48
There are no inherent centres or nears and fars in physical space. The
material world is without viewpoints that arrange items along a gradient
of proximity and distance. This viewpoint-less world is strictly no-person,
rather than third-person. What is third-person is the objective, scientic
view arrived at by suppressing individual viewpoints and favouring an
imaginary viewpoint that gathers up all possible points of view. It remains
a view, however, and is not inherent in matter that is no-person rather than
third-person. The no-person view, a view from nowhere (to use the phil-
osopher Thomas Nagels poignant phrase) in which all appearances are
summarized in the abstract, quantitative account of possible experiences,
had by no one in particular and consequently by no one at all, is the ulti-
mate goal, or at least the regulative idea of natural science. In order for
this view from nowhere to be achieved, the third-person view must give
way to a paradoxical viewless no-person view, which is the material world
seeing itself but from no particular point of view. (It would not be a world,
however, since that is a gathering together of many items in a centred
whole infused with signicance.)
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a viewpoint, and the basis
of rst-person being, is bundled into the starter pack of any organism, and,
since the organism is a material entity, to imagine that viewpoint could
be present in the material world.49 After all, all organisms have inputs and
outputs, an organic being and an environment around them: they seem
objectively to lie at the centre of a world. However, in the case of organisms
that are not conscious or self-conscious, these contrasts are borrowed,
imputed, honorary. Yes, there is a sense in which it is correct to invoke the
opposition between the organism and the environment in the case of an
insentient creature such as a bacterium. The organism does not, however,

48. Egocentric space is discussed in my The Kingdom of Innite Space.

49. For a profound exploration of the implications of conceiving of a world without viewpoints,
see Shand, Limits, Perspectives and Thought.


itself lie at the centre of its environment, creating an organism-centred

space. The centresurround distinction belongs only to the observer, just
as that which counts as the surroundings of a pebble belong to the observer
rather than to the pebble. It is the observer who posits the organism as
being related to an environment centred on it. Surroundedness does not
come free along with, say, a membrane marking the boundary between
the organism and the rest of the material world any more than it comes
free with an entity such as a pebble that has a continuous surface marking
its limits. The boundaries visible to us do not transform the organisms
objective location into a point of view that stipulates that which is physi-
cally around it as its surroundings.
The brain, seen through the eyes of neuroscience, is a material organ
within a material organism. It will be evident from what we have just said
that there is nothing in the material transactions it has with the material
world that would form the basis of the sense of a centred world, of me, or
of the ownership that makes a brain my brain, a body my body, a portion
of matter my world. There is nothing, in short, to underpin the sense of
self: the feeling that I am and that certain things are addressed to me. Many
neuromaniacs, as we have seen, would happily accept this and argue that
the absence of a neural basis for the self is evidence that this is an illusion.
I shall return to this in due course, but for the present I would argue that
there are some fundamental elements of selfhood that cannot be denied
without self-contradiction. It is not possible to deny viewpoint, the sense
that one is (the feeling of am), and the feeling that one is in a setting that
is centred on ones self.
There are two other more prominent aspects of selfhood that cannot be
denied: the feeling of being a unity at a given time; and the feeling of having
some kind of unity or coherence over time. Lets take a look at these.50

The unity of consciousness: here and now

Consider, rst, unity at a given time: the unity of my conscious moment.

As I sit here I am aware of many things: my action of typing and all the
movements, sights and sounds associated with this; the pressure of the seat

50. Materialist neuroscience is equally impotent when it comes to dealing with second-person


that is supporting me, and other sensations arising from my body; several
conversations in the background; thoughts coming into my head; memo-
ries; and so on. These are all distinct otherwise I could not specify what
they were and yet they are also together. They belong to the present
moment of my life. This capacity to keep things separate and at the same
time experience them as together is evident at every level of our experi-
ence. To see the problem it is not necessary to look to complex experi-
ences, such as entire visual elds, or scenes impregnated with meaning
and memory, or a sense of rejection, or a hope for the future, which must
involve many layers of integration without loss of the separate identity of
the components. Unity, and the problems it poses for Neuromania, begin
at a very basic level, as when we see a material object as the unitary bearer
of many distinctive properties: as a subject with many predicates. Think of
an experience as simple as my seeing my red hat.
According to standard visual physiology, this involves the stimulation
of neurons that are responsible for detecting edges and synthesizing them
into a perceived shape; for sensing colour; for determining location in
space (the where of my hat); and for seeing the kind of thing something is
(the what of my hat). I experience all this at once; my awareness of colour,
shape, location and meaning of the hat are not presented separately. I see a
recognizable red hat at a particular place, which, in addition, I might note,
is likely to be damaged by someone who has just entered the room and
wants to borrow it. There must be some place, according to the neurophys-
iological story, where the inputs into the various specialized groups of cells
converge, the basis of that sensus communis which has haunted the project
of developing a neurophysiology of mind discussed in You are your brain
in Chapter 1. For the organism to be successful in its million-sided envi-
ronment, it must in its reactions be many-sided. There will therefore have
to be a mechanism that summates the signals from the senses, and from
other sources, in a pathway to a common destination.
The usual putative mechanism, as we have seen, involves joining up
neurons at synapses into networks and connecting those networks into
other networks that ultimately summate the entire activity of the nervous
system. At the microscopic level, this was described (in the wake of
research using single-cell recording) as being carried out by higher-order
cells. But this solution creates more problems than it solves.
If the inputs do converge, one would expect them to lose their indi-
vidual identity, just as the mixing of colours results in a composite in which
individual colours are lost. The higher-order cell would be a point where,


instead of a red-hat-at-a-particular-place, one would have some unholy

mixture of redness, hat-shapeness, location and meaning. It is as if the
higher-order cell or the region of convergence has to deliver the hat
simultaneously as its constituent features and as an integrated whole. This
is, of course, impossible if one thinks of what happens at synapses: a kind of
adding up and subtraction, so that what comes out of the higher-order cell
is the sum of its inputs. It is as if in the equation 2 + 2 = 4 the right-hand
side had somehow to hang on to, or be, the left-hand side; that the 4 had to
keep the two 2s separate within itself while being 4.
The neurophysiological explanation of the unity of things that are also
experienced separately is so evidently awed that there must be some
undeclared intuition that is making it seem right. The undeclared intuition
is that the lower-order cells and the higher-order cells add up themselves
to a dierent kind of whole that has two parts: the lower part where the
component features of the hat are kept apart and the upper part where they
are together. This is cheating, of course, because the higher-order cells are
required to integrate the features of the hat as a whole and there cannot be
implicit a prior integration of what the higher-order and the lower-order
cells report, unless one imagines there is yet another viewpoint higher
still from which both ways of experiencing the hat, as separate features
and as a whole, can be seen.
The undeclared intuition, although invalid, gains apparent support from
the anatomical fact that the lower cells and the higher cells coexist physi-
cally, side by side in the nervous system, so that what goes on in the latter
does not obliterate what goes on in the former. This coexistence would not,
of course, translate into the explicit co-presence of the activity in both, or
the side-by-side presence that the summed activity is supposed to stand
for: or not, at least, without a third viewpoint to gather up the lower and
higher cells together. And, given that unication takes places at many, many
levels single object, single visual eld, single sensory eld, the unfolding of
events in a sensory eld, the unfolding of events in life one would require
an endless multiplication of higher viewpoints to retain the unity and sepa-
rateness of the viewpoints sustained by cells lower down the hierarchy.
This rather tortuous argument can be summarized very simply; there
is no model of merging of activity in the nervous system that would not
lead to mushing of the merged components and a loss of their individual
identity. The fact that the neural pathways supposedly dealing with the
dierent aspects of an object, of a scene, of a life, are anatomically distinct
does not solve the problem because it is the anatomical distinctness that


creates the need for integration in the rst place. Consequently, there is no
neural explanation of how I see a visual eld as an integrated whole and yet
can still appreciate its component objects, and the relations between the
component objects, and the constituent features of the component objects.
And this insuperable problem is replicated at many levels all the way up to
my feeling of being in a world that makes sense to me on the basis of past
Our experience of being located in a sensory eld that is at once unied
it hangs together as a eld, so that the things in it are all related to one
another and at the same time populated with a myriad of distinct items
has another feature that resists explanation in terms of neural integra-
tion. Just consider for a moment your awareness of the visual eld that
is surrounding you now. The light arising from that eld has two funda-
mentally distinct components: one is what we may call the background
lighting; and the other is the array of illuminated objects we see in the
light. We see the objects, so the story goes, because of the way they inter-
fere with the light. Their presence, that is to say, is derived from an analysis
of this interfered-with light. Now consider this. All that interference of
objects with the light enters together through the narrow portal of the
pupil; even so, you are able to fasten back on to the individual objects their
own share of interfered-with light. In other words, the arrow of intention-
ality is very precise. At the same time, however, it can also be global, seeing
the light in itself as a background illumination that is making the objects
visible.51 The theories of integration that are on oer which appeal simul-
taneously to anatomical separation (localization of function within the
nervous system) and functional convergence would have even greater
diculty explaining how this is possible. And we have already seen how
the models of integration that are on oer would, if taken literally, generate
objects, sensory elds, indeed lives, that would be an unholy pure of
colours, feels, distances, meanings, memories and so on.
This, then, is the heart of the problem: consciousness at any given time is
manifestly unied but also explicitly multiple. Models of integration, even

51. This problem of perceiving the light that is the condition of our seeing, that is, of seeing
background illumination separate from that which is illuminated, is analogous to another
profound problem, to which neuroscience oers no solution: the dierence between the level
and content of consciousness; between that which we are conscious of and the state of wake-
fulness that allows us to be conscious of it. The various solutions on oer mass activity in
certain pathways (the thalamo-cortical pathways) do not address the problems of the unity
of consciousness.


if they did explain how it is that my experience of a million leaves amounts

to an experience of a tree, or my experience of a red and round and distant
object becomes the experience of a rubber ball over there, could not at the
same time explain how it is that I am still, nonetheless, aware of the tree as
being composed of millions of leaves or of the ball as being red and round
and distant. Our sensory/perceptual/cognitive elds are simultaneously
unied and divided. This mystery greater to me than that of the Trinity,
of the three-in-one, that exercises theologians is insuciently appreci-
ated, even by those aware of the so-called hard problem of consciousness.
The appeals by Kantians to the notion of synthesis52 and by neuroscien-
tists to integration do not explain how we get merging without mushing.
We have the same unanswered questions that dominated the debate in
the nineteenth century which we discussed in You are your brain in
Chapter 1 between the uniers and the localizers over the parliament of
little men.
Just how desperate things are is illustrated by the mechanisms that have
been invoked to explain the physical basis for the unity of consciousness.
One favourite ploy is to appeal to quantum physics.53 Sometimes this is
mere hand-waving but some serious work has been done. Steven Hamero
and Roger Penrose54 have suggested that the unity of consciousness may
be underpinned by a phenomenon called quantum coherence, which
they believe could be generated by the special properties of the folded
membranes in axons. This doesnt persuade me for many reasons. The most
obvious objection is this: the kind of structures that are supposed to house
quantum coherence are widely distributed throughout the nervous system,
and are not conned to those areas that are associated with consciousness.
It might be argued (somewhat tendentiously) that quantum coherence
does not make you conscious but unies your consciousness if you have
it already. We should, however, be suspicious of thinking of consciousness
as a kind of stu that is potentially dissipated but can be called to order
by what, after all, are microscopic physical forces. Besides, there is no
reason why the unication that quantum coherence supposedly imposes
should translate into subjective or experienced unity, even less into a unity

52. Alhough (very) hard going, Kants Critique of Pure Reason is worth struggling with because it
addresses the problem at the right depth.
53. I discussed and criticized this in my rst foray into the eld (The Explicit Animal), but to no
54. Hamero & Penrose, Orchestrated Reduction of Quantum Coherence.


in which multiplicity is retained. The brain itself, after all, is at one level a
single, unied material item, and so should provide all the coherence that is
needed if the physics of the system were going to provide it and, what is
more, has the added advantage of being the right kind of size.
The appeal to quantum physics is deeply awed for another reason;
according to the Copenhagen interpretation, the ultimate constituents
of the material world have denite properties (as waves or particles and
possessing a denite location or velocity) only in the presence of measure-
ment that is to say an observer. In other words, quantum phenomena
require consciousness and so cannot generate it.
Those who look to classical, as opposed to quantum, physics for an
explanation are even more obviously on a hiding to nothing. It has been
suggested that electromagnetic phenomena may bind neural activity
into a coherent whole.55 This falls foul of all the objections we made to
using quantum theory. The truth is, no theory of matter will explain why
material entities (e.g. human beings) are conscious and others are not.
The phenomena described in physics are present equally in conscious and
unconscious beings; indeed, they are universally distributed through the
material world. So they provide no account of the dierence between, say,
a thought and a pebble, which is the kind of dierence that any theory of
consciousness worthy of the name must be able to capture.
Crick and Christof Koch thought they had solved the problem of the
unity of consciousness by invoking the synchronous rhythmic activity of
large number of neurons which act as a reference that binds all the activity
together.56 One reason this is wrong touches on something that is central

55. This is a view put forward by McFadden, The Conscious Electromagnetic Field (Cemi) Field
56. The key paper is Crick & Koch, Towards a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness. This
notion comes back again and again. In a recent paper that purported to explain memories
by brain entanglement, the authors note that the voltage of the electrical signal in groups
of neurons separated by up to 10 mm sometimes rose and fell with exactly the same rhythm
and adopted the same amplitude: a phenomenon variously called coherence potentials
or phase-locking (Tharagarjan et al., Coherence Potentials). The precision with which
these new sites pick up the activity of the initiating group is extraordinary; they were perfect
clones. Since the coherence potentials seemed unique, they argue that each could repre-
sent a dierent memory, as if that distributed signature could be gathered up into a unied
memory. Even if this claim were not riddled with conceptual problems, an empirical obser-
vation reported in the same paper does it in completely. The coherence potentials were not
unique to those cells associated with memory as we understand the term: they were also seen
in dish-grown neural cultures hardly the site for nostalgia.


to consciousness: that it (unlike the material world) has tensed time, so

we shall look at it in more detail later. However, it is also daft for another
more obvious reason: it assumes that the rhythmic activity will bind itself
in a unity; or that an objectively observed synchrony will automatically
translate into subjective unity. It also fails to explain the property we have
just been talking about: how that which binds the contents of conscious-
ness together also keeps them apart. Anyway, a few years later they ditched
this theory, which (for reasons that must have had more to do with Cricks
justiable reputation as a molecular biologist than with its merits) had
attracted a huge amount of largely sympathetic attention. They looked
instead to structures in the brain where things come together. As we have
already noted, they focused on a little entity called the claustrum as the
leaders oce where the parliament of little men would be called to order.
In a paper that Crick was correcting on the last day of his life, they
wrote of:

The notion of the dynamical core a shifting assembly of

active neurons throughout the forebrain that is stabilized using
massive re-entrant feedback connections. Its representational
content, highly dierentiated and yet integrated, corresponds to
the unitary and yet amazingly particular content of phenomenal

This structure, whose representational contents are both highly dier-

entiated and yet integrated, apparently would answer to the need to
rapidly integrate and bind information in neurons that are situated across
distinct cortical and thalamic regions.58 The claustrum, in virtue of its
enormous reciprocal connectedness, is in an ideal position to integrate
the most diverse kinds of information that underlie conscious percep-
tion, cognition and action.59 The discussion in the past few pages should
be sucient to expose phrases such as integration of information as a
smokescreen hiding the real nature of the problem. The idea that uni-
cation could occur at some point of physical convergence in the nervous
system is empty because, to repeat, it gives no model of merging without

57. Crick & Koch, What is the Function of the Claustrum?

58. Ibid., 1272.
59. Ibid.


The unity of consciousness: being one over time

So much for the unities of our consciousness at a particular time.

However, we are also unied over time. In order to pre-empt the objec-
tion, of which we have heard much, that we are not unied over time, or
at least that our sense of being enduring selves is an illusion that neuro-
science should disabuse us of, let us just think of any everyday activity
and see how it is dependent on our being intricately internally connected
from one day to the next, or indeed one week, month or year to the next.
Consider an ordinary commitment: say a plan to meet for an important
dinner in a couple of weeks time. The commitment knits together a
multidimensional lace of moments. These include: those in which we
discussed the dinner, the where, when and why; the time we spent
clearing a space for it, making sure that we got there punctually; and those
moments in which we deployed all sorts of implicit knowledge in order
to nd our way via car and foot to the right restaurant at the right time,
while in the grip of a thousand other preoccupations, and oating in a sea
of sense data. This is just for starters. There are also those moments in
which we remind ourselves of the dinner, in which we check our other
commitments, in which we think about its purpose or purposes or lack
of explicit purpose, in which we consider what we are going to say, itself
rooted in a complex sense of who we are, and so on. The fact that this
ordinary arrangement comes o at all is a striking manifestation of the
inexpressibly complex inner organization of our lives and its extendedness
across time. And it also shows how the favoured solution to the problem
of the complexity of our lives the appeal to localization in the brain
would just make things worse. For keeping things tidily apart would
obstruct the process of bringing them together in a way that is innitely
more complicated than is required to bring together the aspects of an
object such as my red hat.
The troubles that the dinner date presents to the neural theory of
consciousness go deeper than this. If you think of all the things that would
have to be going on in my brain in order to ensure that I turned up at the
right place at the right time, you could be forgiven for entertaining the
image based on conventional neuroscience of a vast number of over-
lapping electronic microcircuits supporting a huge ensemble of dierent
functions, and it is dicult to see how they could be kept apart so as not
to interfere with one another. You will recall the suggestion by Friston
that the brain acts more as if the arrival of inputs provokes a wide-


spread disturbance in some already existing state,60 rather as happens

when a pebble is dropped in a pond. Well, lets build on that notion and
think of everyday consciousness as a million set of ripples in a pond
created by the impact of a dense shower of hail, compounded by all sorts
of internal sources of ripples. How are we to explain how each ripple or
set of ripples such as those supposedly corresponding to my complex
plan to have dinner with you could retain its separate identity? It hardly
seems possible. It seems even less possible if we remember that, ultimately,
the nervous system has to allow everything to merge in the moment of
present consciousness, steeped in meaning, but retaining its relation to a
highly structured near and distant past and reaching into an equally struc-
tured future of expectation, responsibility, time table, ambition and life
plan. This moment (unlike the present moment of a computer, even a
Cray supercomputer with 1012 operations per second) has to bring every-
thing together, so that I know where (in the widest sense) and who (in the
deepest sense) I am. So again we have the nineteenth-century problem
highlighted by Flourens, who lost the battle against modularity and Langes
parliament of little men in the late nineteenth century.
What makes the problem insoluble in neural terms is that if there were
a neural mechanism for bringing everything relevant together, it would
simply exacerbate the problem of keeping everything apart. For, while the
events in the brain are required to be bound into some kind of unity, some-
thing must at the very same time keep distinct vast numbers of projects,
actions, micro-projects, micro-actions. Moreover, to make things even
more dicult, those distinct projects must connect with a thousand others
as each provides the others frameworks of possibility. My keeping this
important engagement explains my refusing other invitations; rearranging
the day so that I arrive on time; being more than usually concerned to keep
my distance from someone who had a cold a couple of days ago because I
know that you cant aord to catch a cold as you have a crucial lecture to
give the following week. The distinctiveness of the patterns of ripples has
to be retained, although the patterns have to be open to one another. And
worse, moment-to-moment consciousness has to retain a global openness
in order that I can full the multitude of activities adding up to attending
the dinner date in a sea of unplanned events, so that, for example, I avoided
the cyclist who might have killed me as I crossed the road to the venue, or

60. Quoted in Le Fanus profound Why Us?, 195.


took account of the fourth step outside the restaurant on my way to accom-
plishing this timetabled complex task.
The unifying organization necessary to complete even the simplest task
such as keeping an appointment reaches down to the smallest details. I
look at my watch and am shocked to see what time it is. If I do not hurry I
will be late for the dinner. I therefore lock the door rather hastily and speed
up the conversation I have with a neighbour who has hailed me from across
the road, thinking of courteous ways of escape. The pressure of time, which
requires the modication of both these actions and many others, means
that I have to re-set the motor programmes of which they are composed,
without the harmony between the subroutines being disturbed.
The amazing feat of unication that is exemplied in every voluntary
activity is all the more amazing for being accomplished while all the compo-
nents of the unied action retain their distinctness and are accessible to
observation and individual modication: and even more because they are
deeply interrelated in the hours, days, weeks and years of a connected self.
And this connectedness is a personal, long-term, inner connectedness that
cannot be downloaded to the impersonal connectedness of synapses.
When we see the unity of consciousness for what it is, we should be able
to resist the temptation to reach for easy analogies, as for example with a
computer: a model we shall dissect in The computational theory of mind
in Chapter 5. Yes, a computer has numerous modules in which various
inputs are kept separate and, yes, it has a central processor where they all
in some sense come together so that an output can be fashioned that has
been inuenced by them all. There is, however, no place or time at which
that which is separate is also unied; whereas, by contrast, every moment
of our consciousness has precisely this characteristic of being unied and
Now you will note that I havent talked about my sense of continuing
personal identity, which some neuroscientists dismiss as an illusion. No, I
have made my case for such a unity over time on the basis of aspects of
behaviour that even neuromaniacs cannot deny.

Memory in a dish?

The kind of integration over time that I have just talked about often,
although not always, makes time explicit. There is one mode of integration
over time where the dimension itself its passage, its length, the distance


of things from the present most denitely is clearly made explicit. I am

referring to memory. Contrary to the claims of many neuroscientists, full-
blown memories, such as you and I experience all the time, and more
broadly the explicit temporal depth of our lives, cannot be captured by a
neural account of the mind. To appreciate this and, more generally, to grasp
how memory cannot be found in matter, however congured it is, we need
to remind ourselves what memory is and, after this, what matter is.
When I remember something I have experienced, the memory is not
merely a recurrence of the experience. Nor is it, as the philosopher David
Hume suggested, a pale or less vivid copy of the experience.61 No, when
I recall something that is past I am aware that it is past; remembered red
is not just like a present experience of faded red. I have a sense of a place
in time, outside the present, in which what was experienced, what the
memory is about, took place. Supposing I remember that yesterday you
asked me to do something. Although my memory is necessarily a present
event it is aware that it is about something that is not present. The memory
is not only the presence of something that is absent but also the presence
of something that is explicitly absent. When I remember your request,
however clear my memory, however precise the mental image I might
have of you making the request, I am not deceived into thinking that you
are now making the request. Your request is rmly located in the past. As
for the past, it is an extraordinarily elaborated and structured realm. It is
layered; it is both personal (memory) and collective (history); it is randomly
visited and timetabled; it is accessed through facts, through vague impres-
sions, through images steeped in nostalgia. This realm has no place in the
physical world.
The physical world is what it is. It is not haunted by what it has been
(or, indeed, by what it might become): by what was and will be. There are,
in short, no tenses in the material world. This is beautifully expressed by
Albert Einstein in a letter, written in the last year of his life, to the widow
of his oldest friend Michael Besso: People like me, he said who believe
in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future, is
only a stubbornly persistent illusion.62 Tenses are not, of course, illusions,
unless the only reality that is accepted is the world as revealed to physics.
But they have no place in the physical world. And they therefore have no

61. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, pt I, 1.

62. Quoted in Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, 540.


place in a piece of the physical world: a material object such as the brain.
The only presence that the past has in the material present is in virtue of
the contents of the present being the eects of the past. As we shall see,
being an eect of past events does not of itself amount to being the pres-
ence of the past.
Just how completely memories elude translation into neural activity is
illustrated by comparing them with perceptions, which, as we have seen,
are not, in virtue of their intentionality, explicable in terms of the causal
relations seen in the material world. Memories, too, have intentionality or
aboutness, but they have a double dose of this. They reach through time to
the experience on which they are based. That is the rst dose of intention-
ality. But those experiences were in turn about the events that they were
experiences of. This is the second dose of intentionality. This double dose
reects how memories are both in the present (they are presently experi-
enced) and in the past (they are of something that was once experienced).
They are the presence of the past.
Needless to say, neuromaniacs imagine they can deal with this. Indeed,
there have been recent claims that the neural mechanisms of memory are
close to being cracked. One researcher Eric Kandel received the Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for research that led him to claim
that he could capture memory in a dish.63 It is worth looking at his studies
in some detail because they demonstrate very clearly how it is possible
to deceive oneself into thinking that memory can be explained in neural
Kandels studies were carried out using the giant (almost 30 cm long) sea
snail Aplysia. Aplysia has two features that make it attractive to neurosci-
entists. First, it has relatively few neurons (a mere 20,000 compared with
the hundred billion in your cerebral cortex alone and its hundred trillion
synaptic connections); second, the neurons are strapping cables of a milli-
metre or more in diameter, and uniquely identiable, so it is easy to see
what is happening inside them and, more importantly, what is happening
inside their connections, the synapses. The snail has the additional advan-
tages of being (a) ugly and (b) dim and so it is unlikely (a) to attract the
protection of the Animal Liberation Front or (b) to seek legal advice. This is
relevant because of the unkind nature of the experiment that Kandel used

63. Quoted in Rose, Memories are Made of This, 61.

64. Kandels work and his philosophy are accessibly summarized in his Nobel Laureate lecture,
The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage.


for his investigations, which involved a defensive withdrawal reex. When

the animal received an electric shock to its tail, it demonstrated a gill with-
drawal reex. They had been weakened by habituation to repeated stimuli.
After the shock, it would withdraw even after an innocuous stimulus. This
was a form of learned behaviour, which lasted longer the more shocks it
received. Kandel saw this as a model for memory.
Because of those giant neurons, he was able to identify the changes that
occurred in the electrical and biochemical properties of their synapses as
the snail learned to be jittery. It was this that he described as memory in a
dish. His own, and subsequent research by others, on a variety of species,
such as young chicks, showed that when an organism is trained on a novel
task there are increases in the size and strength of certain synaptic connec-
tions in particular regions of the brain. The synapses enlarge and the eec-
tiveness of the neurotransmitters within them is increased. But why should
we think this has anything to do with memory as we humans know and
value it? Kandel thinks it has because, he argues, there are no fundamental
functional or biochemical dierences between the nerve cells and synapses
of humans and those of a snail, a worm or a y. From this he concludes that
similar changes not only underpin your memories and mine but are what
memories amount to. Human memory, like that of Aplysia, is stored in, is
identical with, the modications of the connections between nerve cells.
Experience leaves a biochemical imprint on the neurons and this alters
their excitability. This altered excitability is the trace of experienced events:
the presence of the past.
Memory is, of course, a little more complicated with you and me than
with Aplysia but, many neuroscientists would argue, the principles are the
same. My memory of the smile on your face when we last met at London
Waterloo railway station is more sophisticated than the learned inch
of the unlucky sea snail. Even so, my memory is stored in the form of
the altered connectivity of the neurons associated with the smile. Those
neurons are primed to re o in response to present cues, prompting me
to recall the smile. The experiments on Aplysia and other animals suppos-
edly show how this rewiring takes place and hence how memory works.
Memory, so we are told, is encoded in changes in the minute structure,
and consequently the responsiveness, of neurons. Irrespective of whether it
is a matter of learning to behave in a certain way or acquiring factual know-
ledge, there is the same underlying mechanism: facilitation of the transmis-
sion of nerve impulses across synapses due to long-term enhancement of
their reactivity.


You might be resistant, as I am, to this idea. Aplysia, for all its altru-
istic commitment to advancing the science of memory, does not, as far
as I know, have any of the following: memory of facts, such as that there
is a London Waterloo station (this is what psychologists call semantic
memory); explicit memories of events, such as the meeting at the station,
that it locates in the past (so-called episodic memory); or autobiograph-
ical memories it ascribes to its own past (corresponding to my sense that
it was I who saw your smile an I that lay at the centre of the circum-
stances, of the self-world, in which the experience was had). Nor does it
have an explicit sense of time, of the past, even less of a collective past
where a history shared with one other person two, ten, a thousand, a
million, a billion other people is located. Nor can one imagine it actively
trying to remember past events, racking its meagre allocation of 20,000
neurons to recall the shocks that now make it twitchy, any more than one
can think of it feeling nostalgic for the time when it had condence in a
benign world free of electric shocks. In short, the altered behaviour of
Aplysia has little, perhaps nothing, in common with memory as I under-
stand it.
Neuromaniacs will not be impressed by my objection. The dierence
between the shock-chastened sea slug and my feeling sad over a meeting
that passed over so quickly is simply the dierence between 20,000 and
100 billion neurons or, more importantly, between the modest number
of connections within the sea snails nervous system and the unimagi-
nably large number of connections (said to be of the order of a 100 tril-
lion) in your brain. Should we accept that the dierence between Kandels
memory in a dish and actual memory is just a matter of the size of the
relevant nervous system or the number and/or complexity of the connec-
tions in it? I dont think so. What we noted earlier about tensed time
should be enough to show that numbers of neurons and the mind-boggling
complexity of their connections will not deliver the dierence between
Kandels memory in a dish and the kind of thing we think of when we talk
about our memories.65
Let us return to that smile. It is supposed to be stored or encoded
in the form of a changed state of excitability in part of my neural circuitry
resulting from my being exposed to the smile. A present experience

65. We may recall that memory has been found in another dish by Tharagarjan et al., Coherence


reminding me of the smile is one that stimulates the part of my nervous

system whose activity corresponds to the experience of the smile. The
present event are cues or triggers. The memory, that is to say, is a present
state of a part of my nervous system: a physical state of a physical entity,
namely my brain. Somehow, this has to be about, or refer to, the smile by
referring to an experience that was itself about or of the smile.
This is the double intentionality that we noted above. One arrow of
this double intentionality explicitly refers backwards in time to something
that is no longer present: indeed, no longer exists.66 A remembered smile is
located in the past: indeed in a past world, which is, as John McCrone has
put it, a living network of understanding rather than a dormant warehouse
of facts.67 Thus we see intentionality elaborated: it opens us up to a present
world that exceeds our experience; and it opens up the present world to the
absent, the actual to the possible. As a result, as we shall discuss in Chapter
6, we have our being in a world that is an innitely extended space of possi-
bilities; we are not simply wired in to what is. And this, as we shall see
in Chapter 7, is the basis of our freedom. And the failure to see this is the
reason why Kandels claim of seeing memory in a dish is not only wrong
but importantly so.
Scientically, Kandels work has been hugely inuential, as recent work
bears witness to. For example, the observation of the emergence of new
proteins in the synapses of Aplysia in response to stimuli has been described
as watching memories being made.68 A paper by Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv and
colleagues, published in Science in 2008, claiming to solve the problem of
memory, inadvertently underlines why this claim is without foundation.69
The authors found that the same neurons were activated, and in the same
way, when individuals remembered a scene (from The Simpsons) as when
they actually saw it. But seeing and remembering seeing are (as you dont

66. The intentionality of autobiographical memories is arguably more than double: perhaps
ve-way! After all, the relevant brain activity would have to be about a current memory; the
latter about a past event. It would also be about the time elapsed from the remembered
event to the present; about a past world that the memory belongs to; and about the I to
whose world it was. And there are, of course, memories belonging to more than one indi-
vidual and each may support the other in recalling what happened. The French philosopher
Maurice Halbwachs, writing in the rst half of the twentieth century, referred to the social
frameworks of memory (On Collective Memory, pt 1).
67. McCrone, Not So Total Recall.
68. Wang et al., Synapse- and Stimulus-Specic Local Translation.
69. Gelbard-Sagiv et al., Internally Generated Reactivation of Single Neurons.


need me to point out) dierent. The neuroscience that cant capture this
absolutely fundamental dierence, in which lies the very essence of memory,
cannot claim to have an account of memory. And this dierence eludes it
because it is unable to separate that which is activated now from that which
happened then, as both are present as consequences of past events. And
this is why it is not possible to get even a conceptually clear account of the
dierence between the memory and the act of remembering: that which is
presently stored as the memory and the processes by which memories are
actively remembered or spontaneously recalled.
We have already seen that making present something that is past as some-
thing past, that is to say absent, hardly looks like a job that a piece of matter,
even a complex electrochemical process in a piece of matter such as a brain,
could perform. There are, to repeat, no tenses in the physical world; no
realms of what was (or what will be) outside what is. Material objects
are what they are, not what they have been, any more than they are what they
will be. A changed synaptic connection is its present state; this changed state
does not hold on to the causes of its present state. Nor is it about those
causes or its increased propensity to re o in response to cues. Even less is it
about those causes explicitly located at a temporal distance from its present
state. For a real memory not only reaches back to its cause, but also main-
tains the temporal distance between itself, the eect and its cause. If it didnt,
it would be confused with a perception. Reference to the experience-based
behavioural changes that are not associated with any sense of the past, such
as those seen in Aplysia, as implicit memory is simply a fudge.
So how did anyone ever come to believe that memory could be a cere-
bral deposit (to use Henri Bergsons sardonic phrase in his classic Matter
and Memory)?70 In a sense, Kandels account of memory is the latest version
of Socrates suggestion (as reported in Platos Theaetetus) that memories
are analogous to the marks left in a wax tablet by the impress of events.
This is the intuition that leads us to imagine that an altered state of some-
thing is, or even could be, about that which caused its altered state. How do
we allow that obviously dodgy idea to pass? I think it is because we smuggle
consciousness into our thoughts about the relation between the altered
synapse and that which caused it to be altered, so that we imagine that the
one can be about the other: that the altered synapse or the alteration in
the synapse can be about that which caused the alteration. It is easier to see

70. Bergson, Matter and Memory, 176.


what is wrong with this if we look at a more homely example of alteration:

a broken cup.
A broken cup can signify to me the unfortunate event that resulted in
its unhappy state. But this requires my consciousness. If you allow that the
present state of the cup can signify its past state, or the events that took it
from its past to its present state, without importing consciousness, then you
should be prepared to accept that the present state of anything can be a sign
of all the past events that brought about its present state and that the sum
total of the past can be present at every moment. From this it would follow
that all matter could claim to be blessed with memory in virtue of having
being changed; and the present state of the universe would be a delirium
of all its previous states, present side by side. Fortunately, such a claim is
without foundation. Yes, a pebble is in a sense a record of its past, just as
a battered suitcase is a record of all the vicissitudes it has undergone and,
indirectly, of the journeys in which it has accompanied me. But the pasts are
not housed in the pebble or the suitcase. It is I who make the present state
of the pebble or the suitcase a sign of its past states and of elapsed time. The
footprint is not the memory of a foot, except to an observer.
This point was made indirectly by William James when he remarked
that a succession of feelings is not a feeling of succession. And since to our
succession of feelings, a feeling of their own succession is added, that must
be treated as an additional fact requiring its own special elucidation.71 This
remark applies with even greater force to the succession of the states of a
synapse or a pebble. None of those states carries the sense of succession,
or of the one being past and the other present: not unless, of course, we
smuggle in consciousness by thinking of an observer who sees both states
of the synapse or the pebble.
Smuggling in consciousness like this is, of course, inadmissible because
the synapses are supposed to supply the very consciousness that reaches
back in time to the causes of their present states. But, as we have seen, they
dont. So they cannot be memories or the basis of them. This is connected
with the fact that in the physical world no event is intrinsically past, present
or future. It becomes so only with reference to a conscious, indeed self-
conscious, being who provides the reference point, the now, that makes
some events past, others future and yet others present. The temporal depth
created by memories, which hold open the distance between that which

71. James The Principles of Psychology, 6289.


is here and now and that which is no longer, is not to be found in the
We must assume that neurophysiologists and others who think of
memory as a material state of a material object as a cerebral deposit
also believe what physicists have to say about matter. In this case, they
ought not to believe that tensed time could be manufactured in a material
object such as the brain or, more specically, in a particular state of
synapses, irrespective of whether they are located in the spinal cord (which
has little to do with memory) or the hippocampus, which is supposed to be
a key memory structure. Only homeopaths believe that material substances
remember their past states. A synapse no more contains its previous state
than does a broken cup. Nor does it retain, as something explicitly present,
its previous state, the event(s) that caused it to be changed, the fact that it
has changed or the time elapsed between its present and one or more of
its past states, so that the latter would be present in all its pastness. All
this would be necessary, however, if synaptic alteration were truly to be the
stu of memory.
Another reason we might be persuaded into thinking that the present
state of a piece of matter such as a synapse could be a memory of the
past events that have impinged on it is linguistic. The word memory is
used very loosely and covers a multitude of phenomena, ranging from an
acquired habit (which may not even be conscious) to an explicit recall of
a unique event. Neurophysiologists of memory trade on this profound
ambiguity. They slither from memory as you and I understand it (as when
I recall your smile last week at London Waterloo) to learning (as when I
get to acquire expertise or knowledge); from learning to altered behav-
iour (as when a sea slug acquires a conditioned reex); from altered behav-
iour to altered properties of the organism (as happens in the synapses of
a sea slug conditioned to withdraw into its shell when water is disturbed);
and (Bingo!, there we have it) the materialization of memory. But with
Einsteins help we can see that sincere materialists those who believe in
neural accounts of consciousness must acknowledge that they have no
explanation of memory. Instead of thinking that it can be located in the
brain, even less captured in a dish, they ought to hold, along with Bergson,
that memory [cannot] settle within matter even though (alas) materi-
ality begets oblivion.72 (This is an illustration of the dierence between

72. Bergson Matter and Memory, 177.


necessary and sucient conditions.) In short, they should take o their dull
materialist blinkers and acknowledge the mystery of memory: the presence
of the past, and the temporal depth this implies, which does not exist in the
material world.
The inadequacy of the neurophysiological account of memory should be
obvious from the fact that it can be applied equally well to a Aplysia, whose
behaviour is changed by an electric shock, as to a human being remi-
niscing about past days. The lowest common denominator between us and
sea slugs is low indeed. And yet the changes in the properties of synapses
have been invoked not only as the basis of memory but also (where the self
is reduced to neuronal states rather than denied to exist outright) as the
basis of the self: that feeling that I am, that I am such-and-such, and that I
am the same such-and-such over time, so that I am responsible for actions
that I carried out many years ago. Indeed, renowned neuroscientist Joseph
LeDoux has even published a book that argues that the synaptic connec-
tions between our neurons, modied by our past experience, are what
make us who we are.73

Tensed time, change, endurance and the nervous system

Our discussion of memory has led us to think about the nature of time:
more particularly about physics of time. It is important to appreciate that,
in the absence of an observer, time has no tenses; not only does the physical
world not have past and future in which events are located but (and this
may seem less obvious) it doesnt have the present. For an event to count as
being present, there has to be someone for whom it is present, for whom it
is now as opposed to then or not yet. The mere fact that something is
does not generate a present tense: matter does not turn back on itself and
become That it is (now). The complex consciousness of self-aware human
beings brings tenses into the world and makes the happenings of the
material world the contents of the present tense. Only by overlooking this
human basis of tensed time can memory as we experience it be assimilated
to learning, learning assimilated to behavioural changes and behavioural
changes reduced to altered properties of a piece of matter such as a brain.
We could put this another way by saying that matter cannot entertain

73. LeDoux, Synaptic Self.


possibility: that which may exist or turns out not to exist; the contents of
the remembered past or anticipated future.74 We may take an even more
radical stance. The great philosopher of time Adolf Grnbaum does. He
has argued that there is no such thing as becoming in the physical world:
in the absence of an observer. Unfortunately he concluded from this that
becoming was unreal. This is clearly the kind of absurd position you get
into when you assert that the sum total of reality is physical reality. But the
challenge he presents to those who would reduce consciousness to physical
events is valid: How can temporal becoming be intrinsic to mental events
but not to physical events (such as events in the brain) with which these
mental events are correlated and upon which they are, for a naturalist,
causally dependent?75 There is one way to deal with this: to conclude that
mental events are not physical events in the brain.
At any rate, it is arguable that both explicit change and endurance
(persistence) require more than matter as conceived by the physicist.
Change requires someone who will connect state A of an item with state B
of the same item by making them both present at the same time. Endurance
requires linking an earlier phase of state A with a later phase of state A. In
neither case can the things that are related in the perception of change or
of endurance physically exist at the same time; even less can they exist at
the same time as separate and be connected.
The lack of tensed time in the material world is relevant not only to
memory but also, less obviously, to the issue we dealt with above: the
unity of consciousness at a particular time. We found that it was dicult
to account for even a small component of this unity; namely, my experi-
ence of the dierent features of an object as the features of a single object.
How do I get the redness, the shape, the location and the meaning of my
red hat together and yet still keep them apart, so they can be noted sepa-
rately? The appeal to dierent locations of the brain, such that the compo-
nent characteristics of the hat were experienced in one place and its unity
as an object in another, was found to be unhelpful. It required the same
collection of nerve impulses to work twice: as part of a smaller crowd say
neural events taking place in a particular area and also as part of a larger
crowd, of neural events taking place in several locations that are linked.

74. A similar view was rst suggested by Parmenides, who argued that being could not change
and time was unreal (see my The Enduring Signicance of Parmenides).
75. As summarized by Richard Gale, Introduction to Section IV: Human Time, in The Phil-
osophy of Time, 300.


We are now in a better position to see how the explanation oered to deal
with this binding problem as it applies to the visual eld as a whole,
the sensory eld as a whole, and indeed the unity of the self by Crick and
Koch doesntwork.76
It will be recalled that they proposed a background rhythm of about
thirty-ve cycles per second a common neural oscillation which
engages large quantities of the brain, and that it is this synchronous activity
that binds together all that is happening in the present moment into a
unity. Although Crick and Koch no longer subscribe to this,77 it remains
relevant to us, however, for overlooking the oversight that gives it what
little plausibility it has. Namely, it assumes that synchrony is something
inherent in physical events. But the material world does not bind separate
events together and label them as parts of now. Whats more, according
to physics more specically the special theory of relativity synchrony
depends on the perception of events. Two events are synchronous if and
only if they are observed to be synchronous. This requires picking them
out and seeing the temporal relation between them, something that is not
possible without an observer. So the unifying eect of the synchronous
activity Crick and Koch talk about depends on an observer to synthesize
them into a unity. But if an I or something like it is needed to confer unity
on the very elements that are supposed to bind the moment and the I
together, we may as well cut out those elements.
So, the present tense which gathers together all those things that
are now does not exist in an observer-free material world, and hence
must be absent from the brain understood as a material object. Nor does
the past or, indeed, the future. The future, after all, does not yet exist. It
is the notional location of possibilities, which we humans have mapped
in a multitude of complex ways into boxes populated with events antici-
pated or planned. Matter can house only actualities. While there are indeed
sequences of events in the material world, the relation in virtue of which
one event is past compared to another, or future compared to another,
has to be established by an observer.78

76. Crick & Koch, Towards a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness.

77. Crick & Koch, A Neurobiological Framework for Consciousness.
78. Consider a succession of events E1 to E100,000. Event E3, although it occurs early on, is not
in itself intrinsically in the past nor is E85,000 intrinsically in the future, although it occurs
late on. We require a viewpoint to locate an event in the present, the past or the future. The
viewpoint establishes the relation between present events and past events. From a view-
point simultaneous with event E3, E3 is in the present, E1 is in the past and E85,000 is in the


It will be obvious that if neuroscience cannot capture the unity of the

present moment, nor the sense of the past or future, it will not be able
to deal with the unity of an enduring self. The closest science can come
to an enduring self is a succession of events that are bound together only
in virtue of the objective facts (not available to it as facts) that they are
housed in the same brain and have cumulative eects on the structure or
functioning of that brain. The neurophysiological self is at best the locus
of one damn thing after another, which hardly comes near to the self of a
human being who leads her life, who is a person reaching into a structured
future with anticipations, aims and ambitions, that are themselves rooted
in an almost innitely complex accessible past that makes sense of them.
While tensed time does not correspond to anything in the physical
world, it is indubitably real and a ubiquitous presence in human life. This
is why biologists, who are determined (as we shall discuss in the next
chapter) to nd human characteristics in non-human animals, try to nd
a sense of tensed time in beasts. We need, therefore, to be on our guard
when animal models are used to explain the basis of human memory. We
should likewise treat talk about animals having a sense of the future with
similar scepticism. One example is particularly relevant here: a study by
Nicola Clayton and her colleagues published in the prestigious journal
Clayton and colleagues claim that western scrub-jays, a member of
the crow family, have an explicit sense of the future as evidenced by their
apparent ability to plan for it. Like many other animals, these jays store

future. From a viewpoint simultaneous with E1, E3 is in the future, as is E85,000. From a view-
point simultaneous with E100,000, E1, E3 and E85,000 are in the past and E100,000 is in the
present. The relationship of the many hundreds of thousands of discrete events in the nervous
system as past, present or future therefore requires a viewpoint that experiences or observes
them as occurring simultaneously or in succession. According to Crick and Koch, Towards
a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness, however, that viewpoint is precisely what the
synchronous activity is supposed to construct. It will now be obvious that supposed binding
activity will not bind multi-itemed consciousness into the moments of a unied conscious
self unless it has itself already been bound into a unity by a unied conscious self. The factual
simultaneity of the neural activity does not translate into a unity, in part because it would still
have to be observed for the translation to be made and in part because they are not, for reasons
already given, intrinsically simultaneous. What is more, because the elements are spatially
separate, even though the separation is a matter of centimetres, the limits of the synchro-
nous activity would have to be observed at dierent times by an observer. The belief that they
are intrinsically simultaneous is the result of inserting into a material world the idea of an
79. Raby et al., Planning for the Future.


and recover food caches. There is nothing unusual about that. But what
has excited attention are Claytons studies of caching of food under
dierent experimental conditions. Jays (apparently) make provision for
a future need, both by preferentially hiding food in places in which they
have learned they will be hungry the following morning and by dieren-
tially storing a particular type of food in a place in which that type of food
will not be available the following morning. Clayton and colleagues believe
this pattern of caching cannot be attributed to conditioning or cue-driven
In fact, there is no need to ascribe a sense of the future to an animal
whose present behaviour optimizes the servicing of future needs. Even
if the jays did have a sense of the future, would this be evidence that this
sense of the future, or even of explicit time, was similar to that which rules
our lives? Not at all. Our human sense of the future is that of a densely
populated open space of possibility that is structured according to antici-
pated seasons or (in recent history) numbered days. This is hardly mirrored
in the behaviour of crows choosing between caching more of one type
of food rather than another, even if this does seem to indicate a sense of
future need. We could imagine the jays behaviour, which would ensure the
optimal allocation of food between serving present hunger and meeting
future needs, being hard-wired. We cannot imagine this of an explicit,
fully developed sense of future such as we humans have. Behaviour
addressed to singular future possibilities that we anticipate is not some-
thing that seems to correspond to xed neural wiring, for, being material
substances, neural wires do not deal in explicitly entertained possibilities.
At best, they can be tuned to objective probabilities.
If scrub-jays truly had a fully developed sense of the future, this sense
would be addressed to a eld of possibility and it would not refer only to
food caches. While our human sense of the future is not entirely gathered
up in timetables, or some kind of formatting of the not-yet, timetabling
is the only sure evidence of a extended, spacious sense of future. What is
more, it would be astonishing if the scrub-jays future were personalized:
in other words, permeated by a sense that it is its own future, a future that
it can inuence, for which it will be in part responsible. If, as seems likely,
it were no such thing, it would not count as a true future in the sense that
we humans have a future to which we orientate ourselves both individually
and collectively.




It is [Bishop] Berkeleys merit to have realised that the Carte-

sian/Newtonian philosophers, seeking to account for a seeable
world, succeeded only in substituting a world that could in no
sense be seen. He realised that they had substituted a theory of
optics for a theory of visual perception.80

There are many other aspects of consciousness that elude any kind of
conceptually coherent explanation. For example, it is not clear how, within
the population of nerve impulses, we could nd the basis for the absolutely
fundamental dierence between the level of consciousness (alert, drowsy,
comatose) and its content: between background lighting and that which is
lit. And what about the active directing of attention or racking ones brains
to remember something? But I wont pursue these problems because I
think I have already given enough reasons for maintaining that not only are
current neural explanations of consciousness inadequate but also neurally
based stories are wrong in principle and their inadequacy wont be amended
by technological advances enabling ever more complete accounts of what is
going on in the brain. For even quite profound inadequacies are themselves
only symptoms of a yet more fundamental problem: a contradiction at the
heart of neural theories of consciousness that I want to discuss now. This
contradiction rules out the very idea that certain material events in the brain
could make a world around the person appear to that person. The materi-
alist account of mind requires us to confer on brain events properties that
actually run contrary to the physicists notion of the matter of which they
are formed. I want to dwell on this because it addresses the following objec-
tion to my critique of the neural theory of consciousness: that neural theory
does not aspire to be an explanation; it simply reects empirical truth, and
the fact that it is mysterious does not make it untrue. It is this seemingly
perfectly reasonable response that requires us to dig a bit deeper and to
ask some more fundamental questions about the kind of activity that is
supposed to be identical with consciousness.
Let us go back to what Dennett (accurately, I believe) calls the contem-
porary orthodoxy in a passage quoted in You are your brain in Chapter1:

80. Stebbing, Furniture of the Earth, 78.


There is only one sort of stu, namely matter the physical stu
of physics, chemistry, and physiology and the mind is somehow
nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the
brain we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenom-
enon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials
that suce to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosyn-
thesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.81

It is when we examine this, the clearest possible statement of the meta-

physical framework of Neuromania, that we shall see why it is a castle built
on sand. Neuromania has to look for consciousness in material events (neural
activity), located in a material object (the brain), while holding that the
nal truth of material events and material objects is captured in the laws of
physics. The trouble with physical science, however, is that it is committed to
seeing the world in the absence of consciousness (at least prior to quantum
mechanics); indeed, at its heart is the disappearance of appearance. This
presents not one but three insuperable problems for Neuromania. They are
inextricably connected but it is helpful to address them separately: the rst
concerns the nature of nerve impulses; the second is about the things nerve
impulses are supposed to make appear; and the third relates to the supposed
capability of nerve impulses to make those things appear.

Nerve impulses dont have an intrinsic nature

Let us get back to basics. If I claimed that consciousness was identical

with neural activity then you might reasonably assume that I had a clear
idea what I meant by neural activity. We have already seen that there are
serious ambiguities in this concept, which leaves it unclear how we should
think of what goes on in those parts of the brain that are supposedly asso-
ciated with subjective experience. Is neural activity something that is
delivered to a certain place in the brain? Or is it the sum total of what is
happening in several places of the brain? If so, where is the summing and
the totalling taking place? Does consciousness reside in the travelling of
nerve impulses along neurons or its arrival at a synapse? These questions
invite us to look more closely at what we think a nerve impulse is in itself.

81. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 33.


You may think this had been spelled out in (fairly pitiless) detail in
Chapter 1. It will be noticed, however, that the nerve impulse could be
described in dierent ways. Here are some:

a cycle of events taking place at a particular point on the membrane

that occurs over a time (of the order of milliseconds) represented by a
wave or a spike traced on an oscilloscope screen; in other words, the
sum total of the changes in the potential dierence across a particular
point in the membrane;
the overall journey of the wave along the length of the nerve axon; a
propagated displacement of the alterations in the potential dierence
along the length of the axon; a displacement of a displacement;
part of a summed total of many millions of nerve impulses as seen on
an EEG or inferred from an fMRI scan.

Since the nerve impulse may be represented with equal validity as being
any of these things, it is intrinsically none of them. Which properties are
ascribed to it are observer-dependent.
To put it slightly dierently, there are dierent takes on a nerve impulse.
It could be seen as an inux of sodium ions at a particular point in the neuron
followed by an eux of positive ions; or as a change of the potential dier-
ence between the inside and the outside of the membrane at a particular
place; or as a succession of events, lasting about a millisecond, at a particular
point in the neuron; or as a wave of activity at that point; or as a wave moving
along the neuron; or as a wave arriving rather than travelling; or as one of a
crowd of waves, several thousand, several million or several billion strong,
occurring in a particular place in the brain. There are many other candidates,
for example patches of coloured pixels in brain scans or brain maps. But I
hope the point will have been made: the nerve impulse is not in itself a local
passage of sodium ions or in itself part of a billion-strong crowd of waves;
otherwise it would have to be both of these at the same time.
And it is not just a matter of how the impulse appears. What a nerve
impulse is depends on how it is viewed. A micro-pipette recording from a
single neuron will deliver a dierent account of a nerve impulse compared
with an EEG recording large-scale activity through the skull. Or, to draw
the conclusion that should be obvious to anyone who is not ideologically
wedded to Neuromania, the nerve impulse does not have any intrinsic
determinate character. It depends how it is looked at, on how it is teased
apart or put together. We are deceived if we think that scientic instruments


reveal what it is in itself . It is easy to overlook this when we confuse the

representation(s) of the nerve impulse with the thing in itself. We are less
likely to do so if we remind ourselves that there are many competing ways
of representing a nerve impulse. The nerve impulse requires a viewpoint
(provided by a highly mediated consciousness involving sophisticated
scientic instrumentation) to be either an instantaneous displacement
in potential dierence at a particular point in space and time; or a spike
extended over a short time at a particular place; or a spike moving over
space and time; or a member of a crowd of spikes moving over space and
time and spreading over space and building up over time.
Anyone who still thinks that neural activity has an intrinsic appearance
that is independent of observers might want to reect on the following
nal twist. Some of the ways we may represent nerve impulses to ourselves
can be analysed into two or more takes that correspond to incompatible
viewpoints. For example, seeing the impulse as a travelling spike requires
an observation over time at a particular place (this generates the image of
the spike) and observation at successive places. But temporal depth, as
we discussed in the previous section, is not to be found in matter or in
material events such as nerve impulses.

Material objects do not have (phenomenal) appearances

when viewed through the eyes of physics

Nerve impulses are not uniquely impoverished in having no intrinsic appear-

ances. This lack characterizes the entire material world as seen through
the eyes of physical science. This was noted early in the history of modern
science. Galileo and subsequently philosophers such as Descartes and
Locke marginalized most of the things that make up the appearance of
material objects as being (mere) secondary qualities. Colours, tastes, smells,
sounds and so on exist only where there are observers and they do not corre-
spond to what, according to physical science, is objectively there. As Galileo
said, If the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped
away and annihilated.82 The material world has only primary qualities such
as solidity, extension, motion, number and shape. These by themselves would
not, however, amount to a full-blown appearance. You couldnt imagine an

82. Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, 274.


object without a colour (and colour here includes black and white). Primary
qualities by themselves dont really amount to much. An object such as a cup
reduced to its primary qualities would not only lack colour, but also features
such as being near or far, looking small or large, and being related to this
object rather than that. Indeed, it would boil down to naked numbers that
capture (abstracted) shape, motion, size and so on. This is what lies behind
Galileos famous assertion that the book of nature is written in mathematical
language. One manifestation of this view is connected with the centrality
of measurement in all sciences, the reduction in physical sciences of the
phenomenal world to numerical quantities and the unfolding of events to the
relations between quantities, ultimately expressed in equations. The output
of measurement is a number: of abstract units, or patterns of numbers of
abstract units or general laws connecting numbers of abstract units.
Lets illustrate with a simple example of what happens when we progress
from immediate (subjective) experience to (objective) measurement. Imagine
you and I are looking at a table. Because we are looking at it from dierent
angles it seems square to you and oblong to me. Whats more, I think it is
bigger than another table and you think it is smaller. We decide to settle our
disagreement by taking a measurement, and discover that it measures 100 cm
75 cm. End of argument; but also end of the appearance of the table. It is no
longer square-looking or oblong-looking, nor bigger or smaller. It loses
these qualities and, in addition, it lacks position and relation to us. We have
replaced its appearance by two numbers. You might want to argue that there
is a residue of appearance: the appearances that are necessary to make the
measurement; for example the appearance of the ruler next to the table. But
of course, these appearances are set aside once we have the result: 100 cm
75 cm gives no hint of the appearance of the devices (the tape measure or
ruler) by which the measurement was made or of the processes that led up
to the measurement. They are as irrelevant as a quarrel over which side of
the tape measure to use. And the actual appearance of the measurement as
written down 100 cm 75 cm is equally irrelevant. It would not matter
whether the result was recorded in blue ink or black, was written as 1 m
0.75 m or 1000 mm 750 mm or one hundred centimetres by seventy-ve
centimetres, or whether it was spoken or presented on a screen.83

83. The idea that we get closer to the essence of something as we progressively abstract from
it towards mathematics most certainly does not apply to consciousness. This does not stop
neuromaniacs such as Paul Churchland suggesting that sensations really boil down to spiking
frequencies in dierent vector spaces of the brain. See Churchland, Matter and Consciousness.


We seem, therefore, to have a disappearance of appearance as we move

from subjective experience towards the scientic, quantitative and ulti-
mately mathematical account of the world as matter. This loss of appear-
ance is strikingly illustrated by those great equations that encompass the
sum total of appearances, such as e = mc2. But it is also present at a more
homely level when we try to envisage material objects as they are in them-
selves. Think of a rock. I can look at the rock from the front or from the
back, from above or below, from near or far, in bright light or dim. In each
of an (innumerable) range of possible circumstances, it will have a slightly
or radically dierent appearance. In itself, it has no denite appearance;
it simply oers the possibility of an appearance to a potential observer
(although those possibilities are constrained the rock cannot look
like a sonnet). So we can see that, as we get closer to the material world
in-itself , as a piece of matter, so we lose appearances: colour, nearness
or farness, perspective. (The history of science, which is that of progress
towards greater generalization is a gradual shedding of perspective a
journey towards Nagels view from nowhere.84)
You might want to say that it still has primary qualities. Weight, size and
shape may exist independently of any consciousness, as is evident from the
fact that the rock may have an impact irrespective of any perceiver. It may
provide shelter to grass, stop the dampness in the soil underneath it from
drying out so quickly, arrest the path of another rock rolling down the hill,
cast shadows and so on. Primary qualities, however, do not add up to an
appearance. A rock does not have the wherewithal to generate the way it
would appear in consciousness, even less from a long way o or from
close to. It is, of course, potentially, all these things, but the potential will
not be realized unless it is observed. If those appearances were intrinsic
rather than merely potential, if they were in the rock itself, then the item
would be in conict with itself: trying, for example, to look as it does from
far o and from nearby at the same time. Like the nerve impulse, the rock
or indeed any other material object considered, in the absence of an
observer, as matter does not have an appearance.
To summarize, such appearances as material objects do have are the
takes that external observers or an entire community of scientic
observers coming to a conclusion about the appropriate way(s) to represent
them have on them. While the object provides certain constraints on

84. Nagel, The View from Nowhere.


takes, it does not of itself deliver takes; takes require consciousness; indeed,
consciousness is made up of takes. Matter has to have an angle, a view-
point, a perspective, to support awareness of a world. It has none of these
things intrinsically. Material objects as viewed by physics in themselves,
as matter, have no appearances. The very notion of a complete account of
the world in physical terms is of a world without appearance and hence a
world without consciousness.

Nothing in appearance-less nerve impulses suggests that

they have the ability to make appearance-less material things
acquire (phenomenal) appearances

So far we have arrived at two conclusions: rst, nerve impulses do not

have denite appearances or phenomenal character in themselves; and,
second, they share this lack with all material items when the latter are
considered independently of an observer, most obviously when they are
seen through the eyeless mathematical eyes of physics. We are now in a
position to see the inherent contradiction of trying to nd consciousness in
nerve impulses or, more broadly, to see consciousness as a property arising
out of certain events in the material world, where matter is as dened by
physics. Consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to,
but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances. So
there is absolutely no basis for the assumption, central to Neuromania, that
the intrinsically appearance-less material world will ower into appearance
to a bit of that world (the brain) as a result of the particular material prop-
erties of that bit of the world: for example, its ability to control the passage
of sodium ions through semi-permeable membranes. We cannot expect
to nd anything in a material object, however fashioned, that can explain
the dierence between a thought and a pebble, or between a supposedly
thoughtful brain and a denitely thoughtless kidney. And there is even
more obviously nothing in the dierence between a spinal cord and a cere-
bral cortex to explain why the former should be unaware and thoughtless
and the latter (in parts) aware and thoughtful. This makes more obvi-
ously barmy the idea that nerve impulses can journey towards a place
where they become consciousness: that, by moving from one material
place to another they are mysteriously able to be the appearance of things
other than themselves. If this is physics, it is not the physics to be found in


The diculty of seeing how nerve impulses could confer appearance on

the material world has led some to suggest that we do not experience the
material world as such, only nerve impulses. Iain McGilchrist, whose extra-
ordinary The Master and His Emissary represents Neuromania at its most
extreme, asserts that one could call the mind the brains experience of
itself ,85 and many others have suggested that consciousness is our percep-
tion of some physical processes in the brain: in short, that consciousness
and appearance are made of the appearance of nerve impulses to them-
selves! Leaving aside what we have already established, that nerve impulses
do not have a denite appearance apart from a viewpoint that has a certain
take on them, there is no reason why they should be riddled with a self-
awareness that is, mysteriously, awareness of the material world that is
their immediate or remote cause: that their unique self-awareness should
be awareness of a world that is other than them.
It is no help moving away from matter and appealing to the energy of
mass-energy. Just as matter itself, by denition, ex ocio, as it were, does
not have an appearance corresponding to the kind of things we experience
in consciousness, no more does energy. There is nothing in either corres-
ponding to my seeing a rock. The light-mediated rubbing together of an
appearance-less object (my brain) with appearance-less light arising from
an appearance-less object (the rock) is hardly going to explain the appear-
ance of the rock to me, the owner of the brain, even less my sense that the
rock is independent of me (a foundational intuition of physics and the folk
metaphysics of everyday life) or that it has the potential to yield an innity
of other dierent appearances to ourselves and other people (the founda-
tional intuition of the public world we humans live in).
So, the neural theory of consciousness is at odds with the very notion
of matter that lies at the heart of the orthodoxy to use Dennetts word
that underpins it. The objects that surround us analysed as elementary
particles are remote from the phenomenal world experienced and lived in
by conscious beings. As the scientic gaze goes beyond ordinary objects,

85. McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 19. Indeed, this solution makes things worse
for the neural theory of consciousness. Consider my consciousness of this rock in front of
me. There is no such thing (within the rock) as what it is like to be that rock. And there
is no such thing as what it is like to be my body qua organism. And there is no such thing
as what it is like to be my brain understood as a material object. The McGilchrist version of
the neural theory requires all three things, if I am to be aware of a rock. Most mysteriously,
it requires that what it is like to be a brain should be the revelation of what it is like to be a
body and what a rock is like.


perceived in the ordinary way, to their underlying material reality, so it

progresses from things that have qualities to things that are character-
ized by numbers. It is not by accident that atoms are colourless, odourless
and so on, and are dened by numbers that capture their size, speed and
quantities; that experiences and experienced phenomena are replaced by
numbers, patterns, and laws; that the progress of physical science is char-
acterized by a progressive disappearance of appearance.
Further empirical research, therefore, within the current way of under-
standing the problem will not take us any closer to a neural explanation
of consciousness. What is needed is a revolution in the way in which we
approach the problem. This may require us to see that it is more than a
problem, or even to see that it is more than a hard problem. It is a mystery.


From Darwinism to Darwinitis


One of the most cherished assumptions of contemporary

psychology [is] that ape minds and human minds are in fact
basically of the same type and shape, that there is no great qual-
itative gulf between human ways of construing the world and
apes ways, that apes are in eect just like us, only less so.1

People say that we are our brains; our brains are evolved organs designed
like other organs in all other living creatures to promote survival; the
theory of evolution should therefore have the last word on human nature.
And if you want to understand human beings, look to biology: thus the
grand synthesis of Neuromania and Darwinitis. We have seen that Neuro-
mania is without foundation, but Darwinitis is equally vulnerable. This
time, you will be glad to know, knotty philosophical arguments are not
required to expose this. We have only to do what Darwinitics failed to
do. If they only looked at what was in front if their noses they would not
have to be told that there are dierences between organisms and people:
that a great gulf separates us from even our nearest animal kin. There are,
however, many thinkers who do see these dierences but insist that they
are not real or, if real, not fundamental. Under the surface dierences, they
tell us, there is a deep similarity or even identity. The life of a person in

1. Humphrey, Foreword.


the oce is essentially shaped by, and driven by, the programmes, instincts,
tropism, motivations, imperatives and so on that guide the life of an ape in
the jungle. The chief executive and the alpha-male gorilla are in thrall to
the same imperative: to replicate their genetic material through individual
survival or through their contribution to group survival. It is this that has
shaped their brains, the consciousness supported by their brains and the
behaviour that ows from that consciousness.
It is not always clear how sincerely this belief is held. What is clear is
that many people feel that they ought to hold it. In part, this may be an
over-correction to the discredited view that man was dierent from all
the other animals in virtue of having a special relationship to the author
of the universe: that a separate day was set aside by God for the creation of
man and that he, uniquely, was made in the image of God and was Gods
particular concern. Over-correction may explain the fallacious assump-
tion that the only alternative to a supernatural account of human beings
is a naturalistic one. (This is not to deny that naturalism can, under certain
circumstances, be liberating. We saw in Chapter 1 how Hippocrates
naturalistic critique of supernatural explanations of epilepsy was deeply
humane.) Biologism may also be a response to the uneasy feeling that man
is still rather too prone to see himself as morally superior to other living
creatures, notwithstanding the (seemingly) negative impact humans have
had on the planet. Hence the Gray view of ourselves as Homo rapiens, a
creature that exceeds all others not in virtue but in the power to wreak
havoc. If we still cling to the assumption that the earth is there primarily
for our benet, and that we can suborn everything on it to our purposes,
we may end up by destroying the very conditions of our own existence.
At any rate, so the argument goes, if we give up the idea that we are supe-
rior to beasts then we might treat them better. We might be less speciesist.
Josie Appleton has described speciesism as a beastly concept:2 upgrading
beasts may lead to downgrading humans and even the importance of their
suering. There is evidence in support of her concern. For example, Thomas
White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
suggested that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is roughly
the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade.3
This is, of course, disgusting as well as nonsense. As for how we treat

2. Appleton, Speciesism.
3. Quoted in Leake & Warren, Smarter Than You Think.


animals, we have only to acknowledge that they can experience suering to

feel morally obliged to minimize the suering we inict on them.
More defensible is a feeling for which, as a doctor for thirty-ve years
dealing with the way our esh surrounds us with its own decisions4
and seeing how illness narrows the gap between our being as people and
our being as organisms I have some sympathy. It is this: since we are like
animals in so many respects, unsentimental honesty perhaps requires us to
acknowledge that we are just like animals in all respects. Like animals we are
ejected from our mothers bodies at birth and like animals we die of physi-
ological failure; like animals, we eat, defecate, copulate, ght, fall over and so
on. Every time I open my bowels I am reminded that I am an organism as well
as a professor; and when I fall down the stairs I am informed that I am a piece
of matter subject to the laws of gravity, as well as a living creature.
It does not, however, follow from this that I am just an animal any
more than I am just a piece of matter. Our lives are lled with many
activities that are remote from eating, defecating, copulating, ghting and
falling over, and, what is more, even these activities are utterly transformed
in us. We dont even defecate like animals, or not by choice anyway. Not
only do we insist on a certain amount of privacy and in recent times in
rooms with light switches that are connected to fans based in the mighty
science of electromagnetism to take away the pong but we are the only
beasts who manufacture toilet paper and argue over the respective merits
of dierent brands of it. (These may have been recent developments but
they are symptoms of our fundamental dierence as a species from all
others.) Human dying is profoundly dierent from animal dying, except at
the very end, when we become more like other stricken beasts. To say that
we have a dierent attitude to death would miss the real dierence: we are
the sole creatures who have any attitude towards death and it pervades our
life. And when it comes to mating we are the only beasts who make love,
the only ones for whom sexual intercourse is the meeting of two selves.
Every seemingly animal need or appetite for food, water, warmth is
profoundly changed in humans. We appropriate the biological givens and
subordinate them to distinctively, uniquely human ends.5
Take something as simple as dealing with our saliva. We use our capacity
to spit it out as well as to swallow it as the basis for a nexus of profoundly

4. Larkin, Ignorance.
5. See my The Kingdom of Innite Space.


symbolic acts. These acts may be very complex indeed. We usually nd

others saliva rather repulsive. Hence saliva is ripe to be used in fabricating
potent symbols of contempt and spitting at someone is a profound viola-
tion of their person. The asymmetry of the one who spits and the one who
is spat on is profound; it cuts through the power relations between humans
to its existential bedrock. This makes the line in Handels Messiah He hid
not His face from shame and spitting arresting as well as poignant. What
is more, as I pointed out in The Kingdom of Innite Space,6 the act of spit-
ting at Jesus was, according to the Bible, foretold in the book of the prophet
Isaiah seven hundred or more years before Christ is supposed to have been
born. There could be no more arresting a transformation of a biological
given than that of spitting prepared seven hundred years greater than the
interval between the battle of Agincourt and the Somme before the head
went back and hurled the prophesied saliva at its target, Jesus Christ, an
individual who is supposed to be the earthly representative of the sum total
of everything.
Consider something as commonplace and seemingly simple as buying
a can of beans in a supermarket. Getting to the shelves involves a journey
that requires a sustained intention to see me from my home through many
twists and turns, many gear changes, many constituent actions, to get to
the shop. While the can of beans may sometimes be an impulse purchase
prompted by the wiles of the advertising industry (itself another marker of
the complexity of human beings), in most cases, contrary to the theorists of
neuromarketing (of whom more in Chapter 8), beans will be what I set out
to buy. And even the impulse buy has an extensive back story. It requires
my getting into position to make any kind of purchase. It would take an
entire book to unpack the act of buying: the exchange of (earned or stolen)
money; the nature of the thing bought (its being picked, processed, canned,
labelled, the label itself drawing on a mass of knowledge and shaped by a
myriad of regulations); the idea of the meal that it will contribute to. The
implicit frames of reference that make sense of this seemingly simple act
are endless and none have any counterpart in the life of any beasts.
I have focused on homely things such as defecating and buying beans7
because I think its a mistake to pick out more elevated or spiritual modes

6. I have devoted a section of The Kingdom of Innite Space to sputum (pp. 2432), where those
with strong stomachs may contemplate the human transformation of this biological given in
a little more detail.
7. In Michelangelos Finger I have focused on the gesture of referential pointing.


of behaviour, such as writing sonnets or composing symphonies or investi-

gating the laws of nature or believing in God. This is to play into the hands
of the Darwinitics because it suggests that our dierences are only marginal:
evident in the top 2 per cent of our behaviours. After all, few of us spend
much time writing sonnets and most none at all. If my dierence from
beasts depended on my ability to write symphonies or to worship a god
then I would not make the grade. Besides, the appeal to premier cru human
activities would not impress the determined animalizers: as we saw in The
humanities become animalities in Chapter 2, and will discuss in Chapter
8, even these can be neuralized and Darwinized and assimilated to animal
behaviour. The point is that our dierence from beasts is wall to wall, perme-
ating every moment of our day. We are as remote from animals when we
queue for tickets for a pop concert as when we write a sublime symphony. It
is, of course, salutary to point out that some of our dierences from beasts
are rather elevated. Many of our strongest appetites for example, for
abstract knowledge and understanding are unique to us. Only humans read
and write books on the distinctive features of being the particular species
they are; or, more generally, seek a collective and individual self-image and
meaning, trying to make sense of who and what theyare.
At the heart of our exceptional nature, the dierence that makes us
dierent from all animals in a way that is itself quite dierent from all the
respects other animals are dierent from each other is that we are explicit
creatures who do things deliberately (something to which I shall return,
especially in The human world in Chapter 6). This transforms every
aspect of our lives. It lies at the root of so many things: that we guide,
justify, and excuse our behaviour according to general and abstract prin-
ciples; create cities, laws, institutions; frame our individual lives within a
shared history; and systematically enquire into the order of things and the
patterns of causation and physical laws that seem to underpin that order.
It is this that lies behind the uses to which we put re, our invention of
the wheel, the manipulation of the world through a multitude of dierent
kinds of levers, our unique sense of hidden forces and causes,8 and all the
artefacts that have resulted from our ingenuity. In the several million years
since we separated from the pongids, we have created a material world that

8. Even those who disagree with the primatologist Daniel Povinelli about certain dierences
between humans and non-human primates agree that we are unique in having a sense of
causation that goes beyond mere association: we have an intuition of causes as handles on
the world. See e.g. Reboul, Similarities and Dierences.


is an artefactscape, invented countless tools from the pebble chopper via

the needle to the power station and the supercomputer, and established
a multitude of ways of regulating how we live together. Chimpanzees are
living roughly as they lived when we and they took dierent paths from
our joint ancestors ve million years ago. The acme of their (apparent) tool
use remains the ability to crack a nut with a stone or highly programmed
termite shing. I dont want to sound chimpist, but I cannot resist
observing that chimps arechumps.
The desire to minimize human uniqueness has prompted exaggerated
claims about animal tool use, about their range and mode of communica-
tion and their sense of each other, about their putative beliefs and other
modes of thought. However, the monuments of collective endeavour seen
in the animal kingdom for example the heaps created by termites are
the result not of conscious deliberation but of dovetailing automaticities.
Beavers and humans make dams but the beavers dam is a standardized
species-wide imperative; human dams are the product of argument, eort,
imagination, domination, evolving technology, ingenuity and so on. The
Hoover Dam was legislated into place; beaver dams require no such instru-
ments to bring them about. Not that this would impress Gray, for whom
the humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an
aberration so that Cities are no more articial than the hives of bees. The
Internet is as natural as a spiders web.9 One wonders why the World Wide
Web was not spun until the 1990s.
For some, an overwhelming case for feeling obliged to see through
our dierences from higher primates to an underlying identity comes from
the fact that we share more than 98 per cent of our genes with the chim-
panzee. This is not as relevant to predicting the expected distance between
ourselves and our nearest primate kin as is often claimed. First, genetic
determinism is looking very ropy. Ironically, it was the completion of the
Human Genome Project a decade ago that showed how little the genetic
code told us about living organisms (and even less about complex ones
such as us). The increasing emphasis on post-genomics, epigenetics, inte-
grative biology and the inuence of the environment is an indirect criticism
of the hype surrounding the decoding of DNA. The expression of genes is
hugely inuenced by the environment in which the organism nds itself. In
the case of the genes relevant to behaviour, the overwhelmingly inuential

9. Gray, Straw Dogs, 116.


human environment woven out of artefacts, institutions, mores, laws,

norms, expectations, narratives, education, training, self-education and
self-training is utterly dierent from any conceivable animal environ-
ment. Second, the gure of more than a 98 per cent overlap needs to be
examined carefully. One common riposte is to point out that we share
50 per cent of our genes with a banana. More importantly, we need to
ask what the sharing means, and here an unlikely ally comes to our aid.
Dawkins points out that an estimate like 98 per cent in common doesnt
mean anything unless we specify the size of the unit we are comparing If
you are comparing whole chromosomes, the percentage shared is zero.10 I
could go on, but anyone who still believes that our supposed close genetic
overlap with chimps means that chimps are humanoids and humans are
chimpish should read Jeremy Taylors book on this theme.11
It sometimes takes more than one set of opaque lenses, of precon-
ceived ideas, to prevent us from seeing what is in front of our noses. And
there is no shortage of such ideas to make some people believe that a
chimp reaching for a banana and a shopper reaching for a can of beans
are doing the same kinds of things. Robinson has identied a fallacy that
he has called persistence of original motivation.12 Heres how it goes. If
the behaviour of a later species S2 (say H. sapiens) has evolved from the
behaviour of the earlier species S1 (say a common primate ancestor), then
the explanation of the behaviour of S2 remains essentially the same as
the behaviour of S1. Behind this is another assumption that if two sets of
behaviour say eating have a common ultimate origin, then they are the
same now. This, nally, expresses the bedrock (fallacious) assumption that
if two evolving processes have a common origin they cannot end up any
dierent from one another, from which it follows that the shopper reaching
for a can of beans is doing the same thing and is moved by the same forces
as the chimp reaching out for a banana.
Denying the reality of change so that biological roots are regarded as
the complete explanation of cultural leaves underpins the mistaken belief
that Darwinism (which explains how the organism H. sapiens came into
being) requires us also to accept Darwinitis (which purports to explain
everything about people in terms of biological evolution). The change
is easier to deny because it was gradual: there was no point at which the

10. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, 318.

11. Taylor, Not a Chimp.
12. Robinson, pers. comm.


human organism suddenly turned into an embodied subject, into a person;

no leap from one essence (a primate essence) to human being. Instead,
there was (as we shall discuss in Chapter 6) a gradual widening of the gap
between human subjects and animal organisms over many hundreds of
thousands of years, resulting from a multitude of processes contributing
to a collective self-fashioning reinforced by a collective sense of who we
are, itself in turn reinforced by an innitely complex human environment
built out of artefacts that are signs and mirrors of our dierence from the
natural world out of which we originated. Those who want to say that we
are essentially animals, and that the distance between our cultural leaves
and our biological roots is irrelevant, have to forget, or at least minimize,
all that has happened in the millions of years since we and chimps jour-
neyed in dierent directions: the slow-moving journey of gene-based
evolution in the chimps case; and a much faster-moving hominid journey,
in which initial biological promoters of dierence the upright position,
hands, a special kind of gaze were increasingly overshadowed by cultural
promoters such as tools, language and the creation of public spaces and
a shared consciousness. Those who overlook this journey are xing their
gaze on the launch pad in the expectation of seeing the rocket that has long
since gone into space.
Darwin himself reached the edge of Darwinitis. In The Descent of Man,
he approvingly cited Thomas Huxleys assertion that in every visible
character man diers less from the higher apes, than these do from the
lower members of the same order of Primates.13 And he added that in
his bodily frame, man bears the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.14 So
much for visible features; no one is going to deny that humans are anatomi-
cally closer to chimps than the latter are to, say, a dwarf lemur or a centi-
pede. This does not diminish the potential importance of the anatomical
dierences between the great apes and humans. Nor, on the other hand,
should we doubt the shared origins of some of our modes of expression, as
readers will recall from his discussion of facial expressions (see p. 43). He
concluded from them that man once existed in a much lower and animal-
like condition.15
Note that Darwin writes once existed. Emotionally and intellectually
modern man is a relative newcomer. What is most important is that we

13. Darwin, The Descent of Man, 18.

14. Ibid., 691.
15. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions, 13.


have now come to be utterly dierent. As Darwin himself said in his discus-
sion of the expression of human emotions, while every true or inherited
movement of expression seems to have had some natural and independent
origin, once acquired such movements may be voluntarily and consciously
employed as a means of communication.16 We take the biological givens
and subordinate them to distinctively human ends. It is this that under-
lies the dierence between the biological opinion and the cultural destina-
tion; between the organism H. sapiens and the human person. We can be
good Darwinians and acknowledge this dierence: in short, allow ourselves
to see what is in front of our noses and admit that life in the oce and life
in the jungle share little or nothing, beyond the kind of surface analogies
captured in jokes. So how could anyone be persuaded otherwise?


If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has
ever had, Id give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein
and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by
natural selection unies the realm of life, meaning and purpose
with the realm of space and time, cause and eect, mechanism
and physical law.17

I have suggested why some thinkers feel that we ought to think of ourselves
as animals; they imagine Darwinism requires this of them. But we still need
to explain how they manage actually to mislead themselves. The explana-
tion lies in our propensity to think by analogy. One example of this is to
see in other creatures a mirror of ourselves. This tendency to see ourselves
in a foxed mirror has a venerable ancestry, as we noted earlier. We see
foxy faces, piggy eyes in those we meet; we describe their behaviour as
being like a shark or a viper; and even talk of the streets of inner cities as
being like a jungle. Recent biologistic arguments are drawing not only
on science but also on ancient intuitions, which have a rich and complex
history. Darwinism and subsequent genetic science and molecular

16. Ibid., 356.

17. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 21.


biology has simply given an apparent systematic, scientic warrant for an

existing propensity to believe that we are not fundamentally dierent from
The Darwinitic case, however, has been reinforced by a language-based
pincer movement closing on the gap between the way we describe, and
hence think of, animals and the way we describe, and hence think of,
ourselves. It involves characterizing humans in beastly terms and beasts in
human terms. Darwinitics have become so used to re-describing what goes
on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make it sound like what goes
on in ordinary animal life that they no longer notice themselves doing it.
And this way of talking has invaded, indeed pervaded, our everyday way of
speaking and thinking about ourselves and the activities that ll our lives.

Animalizing humans

Here are a couple of examples: feeding and learning: rst, feeding.

Supposing you invite me out for a meal. Having learnt that you have
just taken on a big loan for a house, which has unexpectedly turned into
a mound of negative equity, I choose the cheapest items on the menu
and, patting my stomach and blowing out my cheeks, demonstrating the
standard signs of satiety, falsely declare that I am full after the main course
so as to spare you the expense of a pudding. A chimpanzee reaches out
for or begs for a banana and consumes it. Darwinitics would like to say
that both the chimp and I are doing similar things: exhibiting feeding
behaviour. This identity of description, however, obscures huge dier-
ences between the chimps behaviour and mine. Lets stick with food for a
moment. Anyone who is acquainted with the most ordinary dinner table
the products of a vast number of deliberate actions on the part of those
sitting round it will be on their guard when they hear the phrase feeding
behaviour applied to both humans and beasts. An ordinary meal is the
endpoint of a long journey away from biology.
Cooking, eating regulated by the clock and the calendar, the complex
structure of meals and the grammar of what goes with what, the ritualistic
and celebratory aspects of eating, the multitude of items of tableware that
have come from near and far, the journeys taken by the food to the table,
the journeys undertaken by those who gather round the table, and the use
of money as the all-purpose commodity to purchase food these are but
a few of the ways in which human dining is distanced from animal eating.


These are all increasingly sophisticated aspects of man the animal who
does things explicitly and whose natural medium is a community of minds
extending geographically across the globe and historically into the accu-
mulated consciousness of the human race. The laid and laden table draws
on four quarters of the earth and great tracts of past and present human
Heres another example. I decide to improve my career prospects by
signing up for a degree course that begins next year. I have a small child.
I therefore do more babysitting this year in order to stockpile some tokens
that I can cash when I will need them to attend my classes. Daisy the cow
bumps into an electric wire and henceforth avoids the location of the wire.
It could be said that both Daisy and I have been exhibiting learning behav-
iour. This manages to cover up huge dierences that hardly need spelling
out, although it is worth drawing attention to something that is distinctive
about human learning: it is deliberate, explicit, mediated through innumer-
able intermediate steps that require us to know what we are doing and why.
What is more, our learning often depends on others to teach us. We are the
only animals who deliberately instruct each other. Chimps dont even teach
their young such elementary skills as breaking a nut with a stone.19

Humanizing animals

The second arm of the pincer narrowing the gap between humans and
beasts describes animal behaviour anthropomorphically, making it seem
to be human-like; talking down humans is complemented by talking up
animals. This is even more productive of distortions. We are all familiar
with Disney-like descriptions of animals that impute to them all manner of
abstract or factual knowledge and institutional sentiments for which there
is evidence only in human beings. This exemplies a wider error that I have
christened the fallacy of misplaced explicitness, which enables us to speak
of foxes formulating cunning plans to outwit their predators. Such everyday
anthropomorphism the obverse of the fallacy of non-explicitness, which

18. The argument that our true animal nature is revealed in our need for food, and that feeding is
just feeding behaviour, is dealt with in my book Hunger.
19. After decades of observation, the leading primatologists David Premack and Ann Premack
concluded that chimpanzee mothers do not teach their children to crack nuts (see Premack
& Premack, Original Intelligence).


tries to automate human behaviour and deny that agents are aware of the
nature, the purpose and the drivers of their actions should have no place
in science. but it does and it is very much alive and kicking in the most
sophisticated zoological circles. Recall Kandels claim that sea slugs have
memory and Claytons attempt to demonstrate that Western scrub-jays
have a sense of future. But once the standards are lowered for granting
faculties to animals, all creatures great and small are able to qualify when
seen through the sympathetic eyes of a champion. A recent paper has
suggested that insects can recognize human faces, categorize the contents
of the world and even count!20
The counting claim is particularly arresting because, if anything sepa-
rates humans from the animal kingdom, it is the quantitative approach to
conceptualizing the world around us. Measurement began our might, as
the poet W. B. Yeats said.21 So its worth examining this claim a bit more
closely.22 In the vast majority of cases, the evidence for animal numeracy
has been based on the observation that the beast under study behaves
dierently towards something that is (say) composed of four items rather
than three. This is then interpreted to mean that it can tell the dier-
ence between three and four, and hence can count. The conclusion is,
however, unwarranted. All that the beast detects is a dierence in quali-
tative magnitude bigger rather than smaller and this has little to
do with counting. What counts as counting? For a start, it requires a grip
on numbers, on quantities separate from objects, on abstract quantities:
or, as philosophers would say, the idea (if only implicit) of a number as
a class of equinumerous classes. And it requires a sense of the limitless-
ness of numbers. An animal that can count only up to 2, or 7, or 15, is not
counting, just as it is not calculating if it is not able to manipulate those
abstract quantities. It is the human observer who turns the insects sense
of dierent magnitudes into counting. In reality, they no more count than
they read.
Other over-interpreted examples relate to so-called tool use. A recent
instance is a report of a newly observed behaviour in the veined octopus.
This enterprising creature collects half coconut shells and, using its arms
as rigid stilts, transports the shells and assembles them as shelters when

20. Chittka & Niven, Are Bigger Brains Better?

21. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben.
22. For a more detailed critique of claims about animal numeracy see my The Hand, ch. 8,
Abstract Digits.


they are needed. Is this tool use in the way that is seen in humans? If octo-
puses really had the concepts of shelter and of tool, they would not be
one-trick ponies that had only this single tool system.23 Their failure to
build on this does not make the new variation in behaviour quantitatively
dierent from other pre-programmed activity such as nest building, which
is anyway much more complex. By their (lack of ) subsequent fruit, ye shall
know what these technologically infertile variations truly are.
Another recent, to some even more compelling, example of human-
like tool use was observed in chimps by the biologist Paco Bertolani in
the hot, dry savannah of Fongoli in Senegal.24 They use sharpened sticks
as spears to poke into holes in trees and stab bushbabies to death prior to
eating them. What is wrong with this as an example of human-like tool use,
leaving aside the view of the bushbaby? It is the one-trick pony problem
again. The chimp does not use the tool for any other purpose for example
to throw at a prey at a distance and it does not make other tools on the
basis of the principles seemingly expressed in this one. The animal does
not grasp any underlying principles. The sharpened stick is not a case of
primitive technology, for the latter is rooted in explicitness. What is more,
the technological breakthrough does not seem to have been appreciated by
the males: females and the young are overwhelmingly the main users. The
missing element is what lies at the heart of genuine technology or tool use:
a true sense of causality, connected with that of bodily agency, as we shall
discuss in Chapter 6. This is illustrated in the absence of self-training or
indeed training others in the use of tools. Animals do not practise or teach
skills. In no case is the use of the tool a local expression of a global sense of
personal possibility.
I have already referred to the fallacy of misplaced explicitness. One
consequence of the power of this fallacy is that there is no point at which
we can say that some abstract, higher-level faculty is not present. It can lead
to assertions such as that animals, which can be trained to exhibit dierent
responses to types of stimuli, are engaging in classicatory behaviour. Why
should we not then conclude that a spider weaves a web in the belief/expec-
tation/hope that it will catch a y, satisfy its needs or guarantee the replica-
tion of the genetic material for which it is the vehicle? Even talk of selsh
genes, although it is not meant literally Dawkins does not believe that

23. Finn et al., Defensive Tool Use in a Coconut-Carrying Octopus.

24. Pruetz, Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus.


molecules can be selsh, any more than they can be seless, because they
have no self to which these ethical categories can be attached contrib-
utes nonetheless to blurring the boundaries between material events that
simply happen, animal behaviour, and human activity that is driven, shaped
and guided by explicit intentions and conscious motivation. The reality of
that blurring process is shown by the claim by some that artefacts such as
thermostats judge that the temperature is too high or too low, and send
out signals or instructions accordingly.25
One of the key steps in Disneycation of animal consciousness is the
ascription of beliefs to animals. Why is this wrong? Consider a dog chasing
a cat. The cat scampers up a lime tree. The dog misses this clever dodge but
carries on to the next tree, an elm, and, seeing that the cat has disappeared,
barks up it. We are inclined to say that the reason the dog is barking at
nothing is that it believes (in this case erroneously) that the cat is up the
elm tree. As has often been pointed out, we are not justied in describing
the dog as having the belief that the cat is up the elm tree because he does
not have the concepts cat, elm tree and so on. This is not a narrow point
about the dog lacking language but a broader point about the fact that any
particular belief is part of a network of beliefs, which have logical entail-
ments. As Donald Davidson wrote, To have a single propositional attitude
[such as a belief ] is to have a largely correct logic, in the sense of having
a pattern of beliefs that largely cohere.26 The cause of a belief is another
belief: a dierent kind of connectedness than that which is seen in the
causal sequences of the material world. It might be counter-argued that this
is a requirement only for explicit beliefs. If, however, one cannot ascribe
explicit beliefs to animals then one is left with ascribing only implicit beliefs
to them. But the criteria for determining that an animal has an implicit
belief are then so lax that it would allow us to say of a spider that it believed
that its web would catch ies, that this would satisfy its needs and that this
would ensure the replication of its genome.
Primatologists whose favourite species are given the benet of the doubt
by the deployment of the fallacy of misplaced explicitness may be a little
mied to nd that an anthropomorphizing gaze can be cast with equal
fondness on creepy-crawlies. And there is no reason why one should stop

25. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind; see esp. What is it like to be a thermostat? (p. 293) and
Whither panpsychism? (p. 297).
26. Davidson, Rational Animals, 321.


there.27 Consider the claim by Dennett that a thermostat not only judges
situations (as David Chalmers suggested) but that it is one of the simplest
systems that should be included in the class of believers.28 There could
be no clearer demonstration that, once modes of consciousness such as
beliefs are separated from explicit awareness, we can nd them everywhere
(even, as we shall nd in Myth-information in Chapter 5, information
processing in an electron on Mars).
Much Disneycation in zoology comes from what Povinelli has called
the argument from analogy: the logical weakness in assuming that the
similarity in the natural behaviour of humans and chimpanzees implies a
comparable similarity in the mental states that attend and generate that
behaviour.29 This humanizes the way chimpanzees understand their world:
how it is put together, what it is made of and why it works the way it does.
Povinelli dismantles the seductive assumption that similarity of behaviour
implies similarity of mental processes by means of a series of ingenious
studies that demonstrate just how remote the chimpanzee mind is from the
human mind. For example, while one chimp may follow another chimps
gaze, thereby seeing what his fellow is seeing, this hard-wired response,
supercially similar to gaze-following in humans, does not require the rst
chimp to have the idea that the other chimp has a mental state of seeing.
How does Povinelli back up his scepticism about chimpanzees having the
notion of others having mental states? Through experiments that demon-
strate that chimpanzees do not have the notion of another individual say
a human observer being unable to see something because their eyes are
covered. By contrast human infants are able to appreciate pointing and
the notion of seeing as a state in another person before they achieve their
rst birthday. Primatologists have failed to see this deciency in chimps,
Povinelli argues, because man has a unique mental system that cannot
help distorting the chimpanzees mind, obligatorily recreating it in his own
image.30 We shall return to Povinelli in Chapter 6, when we consider the
fundamental dierences between human and animal consciousness.

27. Dennett, Do Animals Have Beliefs?, 114.

28. Ibid.
29. This is engagingly described in Povinelli, Folk Physics for Apes, 9. Some of the key points are
covered in Povinelli & Vonk, Chimpanzee Minds.
30. For a critique of Povinellis views see Tomasello et al., Chimpanzees Understand Psycho-
logical States. I was not persuaded by this, but the reader might be.


The lexical shuttle

In my attempt to explain how so many people have demonstrated to

their own and others satisfaction that we are not fundamentally dierent
from animals, I have separated the two strategies (not always consciously
deployed): (a) animalizing human behaviour and (b) humanizing animal
behaviour. In fact, they are not truly separate and, indeed, are successive
phases in a cyclical process, in which each reinforces the other. Those who
ascribe beliefs to animals, and even to artefacts such as thermostats, are
also highly sceptical of the way we think of beliefs in humans as distinct
mental contents, arguing, as Dennett does, that they belong to folk
psychology. And the semantic obliteration of the gap between human
and animal behaviour has been the result of a shuttling back and forth of
descriptive terms between the former and the latter. Anthropomorphism
and animalomorphism are like two sides of an arch, supporting one
This is particularly striking in the case of sexual bonding and child
rearing. A word such as courtship, for example, is transferred from the
complex setting of the interactions between self-conscious human beings
in a community of minds to the hard-wired behaviour of animals: the
standardized pre-mating feeding rituals of herring gulls, for example. This
act of lexical anthropomorphism is then complemented by a reverse move-
ment in which the notion of courtship, reduced to hard-wired rituals,
is reapplied to the human behaviour from which the term was origi-
nally derived. The anthropomorphization of sexual behaviour can extend
to some unlikely species. I promise you I did not invent a paper entitled
Homosexual Rape and Sexual Selection in Acanthocephalan Worms. It
was published in Science.31 Other terms, such as pair bonding used to
refer both to human marriage and the long-term cohabitation of ravens
or nest-building to encompass the programmed behaviour of birds and
the decisions to engage in DIY before a baby is born, likewise belong to a
lexical shuttle. This is how we reinforce the habit of locating the idea of the
human in the same conceptual space as the idea of the animal.
One example that particularly amuses me is the use of the word
grooming to encompass what I do when I brush my teeth and what the

31. Abele & Gilchrist, Homosexual Rape and Sexual Selection. The authors do not consider
whether the rape in question might have been date rape or due to a ghastly misunderstanding.


cat does when it licks its bottom with its tongue. The fact that my grooming
involves toothpaste, which I have remembered to buy and pack, and which
has been sold to me on the basis of its superior ability to prevent tooth
decay itself validated by knowledge about dental biology, puts it at some
distance from the cats stomach-turning auto-attentions. That toothpaste is
a commodity, bought for money, should remind us of a ubiquitous feature
of human life: the transformation of the objects of needs into commodities
that are obtained through complex systems of exchange.
In summary, those who are committed to closing the gap between
humans and animals have many instruments at their disposal, and a long
history of conceptual border-crossing. They also play on our fear of seeming
sentimental about humans since Darwin demonstrated that the organism
H. sapiens came into being by the same processes as generated monkeys,
squids and bacteria. No wonder it is possible for some people to ignore what
is in front of their noses, particularly since they may feel obliged to doubt
their own senses. Nevertheless, even Darwinitics cant help noticing that
there is a gap between themselves and chimps and a greater gap between
themselves and dwarf lemurs and rats and centipedes. Something is needed
to ll that gap: or to elide it. Enter the meme: to save appearances; to recon-
cile the facts with a theory that cannot accommodate them.


The land-ll devised to obliterate the great ditch between animals who
merely live and humans who lead their lives actively and self-consciously
and whose entire way of being is subject to unlimited elaboration and
transformation, was invented by Dawkins in 1976 in The Selsh Gene, the
book that justly propelled him to international fame.32 Many readers found
Dawkinss conception of the meme persuasive as a bridge between evolu-
tionary theory which gives an account of the agonisingly slow emergence
of organisms including H. sapiens and the rapidly changing nature of
human life that is clearly independent of any genetic changes. Meme theory
is central to one school of ideas at the heart of evolutionary psychology.

32. Dawkins, The Selsh Gene, ch. 11, Memes: The New Replicators. There have been two
further editions since its rst publication.


We have already discussed another version of evolutionary psychology that

emphasizes the extent to which our thoughts and motives and actions are
constrained by universals that evolved during our time as hunter-gatherers,
mediated by modules of our mindbrain computer that evolved in the
distant past. We shall return to this as it also assumes that we are igno-
rant of the source, motive and indeed the very nature of actions. However,
meme theory is more concerned with change than with constancy: it
aims to explain not only the speed of cultural development but also the
diversity and the unique richness of human life. It has imported into the
understanding of history, society, social psychology and the customs and
practices of everyday life the concepts on which Darwinian theory was
In the decades since Dawkins published The Selsh Gene, the theory
of the meme has grown increasingly popular, not least because it has
had some very distinguished champions, notably Susan Blackmore33
and Dennett, for whom the meme was central to his biologistic account
of consciousness in Consciousness Explained.34 There was a time when
Dawkins himself seemed a little uneasy about his brainchild but this is no
longer the case. His critique of religion The God Delusion, for example,
draws heavily on the notion of religion as a meme or meme complex.
Indeed, the meme as a term, a concept, an explain-all, has itself behaved
precisely as memes are supposed to behave; it has spread like a highly
infectious virus through the brains of many who think about our nature
and the population at large, who are invited to think in a certain way about
their own nature.
Let us step back in time and remind ourselves of the change of the
perspective that Dawkins building on the work of theorists such as J.
B. S. Haldane, R. S. Fisher and Bill Hamilton eected in his extraordi-
narily brilliant The Selsh Gene. He placed genetic material, the DNA that
is replicated each time an organism reproduces, at the heart of evolu-
tionary theory, rather than the organism itself. He called this the replicator
and downgraded the organism to a mere vehicle to carry the replicator.
According to this gene-eyed view, everything in the organism is subordi-
nated to ensuring the replication of the replicator. A buttery, for example,
is merely a ying device for ensuring the spread of the buttery genome.

33. Blackmore, The Meme Machine.

34. Dennett devotes a full ten pages to memes in Consciousness Explained and, as we shall see,
develops a theory in which memes are the very fabric of our minds.


This seemingly topsy-turvy view of evolution was a way of cutting to the

heart of the notion of natural selection: of the way life evolves by dieren-
tial selection of replicators. It is not the individual organism that is at issue
when we are talking about selective survival but the population of organ-
isms sharing the same genetic material. The organism is merely the means
to securing the continuation of the genetic material. This is what survives
when the ttestsurvive.
The population-based approach and the idea of inclusive, as opposed
to individual, tness deals among other things with an apparent paradox;
namely, that the lives of some organisms seem to be subordinated to the
needs of their conspecics. Inclusive tness is the sum of an organisms
classical tness (how many of its own ospring it produces and supports)
and the number of equivalents of its own ospring it can add to the popu-
lation by supporting others. Worker ants and altruistic chimps, while they
are apparently acting against their own best interest, are in tune with the
central evolutionary drive: they are slaves to the replicative demands of
their genetic material. You will recall Dawkinss pithy observation quoted
in Chapter 1 that An animals behaviour tends to maximise the gene for
that behaviour whether or not the genes happen to be in the body of the
particular animal performing it.35 The genome, therefore, carries instruc-
tions not only for making the structure of the organism but also for shaping
its behaviour. The phenotype expressing the gene extends, beyond func-
tion physiologically construed, to individual and collective behaviour. And
this is where memes enter the picture.
It is obvious that human life evolves independently of genes and, indeed,
the pace of change leaves genes panting far behind. Darwinitis demands
that we invoke something analogous to genes to account for this faster rate
of evolution. That is why the biosphere has to be complemented with the
memosphere: to take account of cultural evolution. Memes, like genes, are
transmissible units: fertile elements that replicate themselves with relia-
bility. Gene products, such as a brain adapted to react in a certain way to
natural stimuli, are supplemented by mental phenomena that are shared
between brains. As Blackmore has put it, our minds are fashioned by
memes, just as our bodies are fashioned by genes: We are meme machines
by and for the selsh replicators.36

35. Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 265.

36. Blackmore, The Evolution of Meme Machines.


When Dawkins introduced the concept he gave as examples of memes

items such as tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of
making pots or of building arches. The memophilic Dennett lists return-
able bottles, Moby Dick, the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] agree-
ment, faith and tolerance for free speech.37 The important point is that
memes are just as selsh as genes. If they are advantageous to those who
carry them, all well and good. They are, however, of advantage primarily
to themselves: they exist in order to replicate; and they persist because
they replicate. And how do they replicate? By occupying human minds.
Minds, according to Dawkins, are friendly environments to parasitic,
self-replicating ideas or information, and [they] are typically massively
infected; if an idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading
from brain to brain.38 As Dennett writes, The haven all memes depend
on reaching is the human mind;39 indeed (for Dennett), human minds are
not merely massively infected with memes they are themselves to a very
great degree the creation of memes. Human consciousness is itself a huge
complex of memes (or more exactly meme-eects in brains).40
We will give the idea reminiscent of the wilder shores of scholasti-
cism (how many memes can dance on the head of an evolutionary psychol-
ogist?) the courtesy of critique. Lets rst address the notion that a meme
is supposed to be a unit, analogous to a gene, transmitted whole or not at
all. In what sense is faith or tolerance of free speech or even the SALT
agreement a unit? These quasi-entities are gathered up in nouns (faith) or
noun-phrases (tolerance of free speech) but it is the grossest literalism to
imagine that for every noun not excluding abstract nouns there corre-
sponds a bounded object, or an entity that comes with its own boundaries,
which can jump, whole cloth, from mind to mind. The claim that memes
are units because they replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity41
manages to be circular, empty and daft all at once: quite an achievement.
The extremity of daftness is achieved when Dennett identies memes for
normative concepts for ought and good and truth and beauty.42 I will

37. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 203.

38. Dawkins, A Devils Chaplain, 162.
39. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 207.
40. Ibid., 210.
41. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 344.
42. Dennett, Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, 134.


not insult the readers intelligence by spelling out why these cannot be
described as units.
The supposed unitary nature of memes raises the question of how
many there are (after all, we can count genes), or how many are in play at
a particular time. How many memes were acting through me on a train
journey I recently took to London? If I were to construct a complete tran-
script of my train journey which I shall spare you the gospel according
to the memophiles would require me to invoke not merely many thousands
of these items but actually an indenite number. The process of boarding
the train, the decisions that got me on to the train, the way I comported
myself to my fellow passengers, the work that I did while travelling and all
that it meant, and so on and so forth, cannot be boiled down to the expres-
sion of a denite number of memes. Undertaking such a journey expresses,
as we noted when we discussed the unity of consciousness, a long-range
internal connectedness, knitting together a multidimensional network
of world-moments infused by my explicit consciousness. And all these
moments are held together in the face of those hundreds of other preoccu-
pations that engage any busy person, all maintained in the teeth of a contin-
uous rain of interruptions, distractions and sense data. None of this would
be possible without a sustained sense of purpose or indeed of the multi-
plicity of purposes, relating to our tasks, duties and immediate and distant
goals trans-illuminating the whole journey. Units of cultural transmis-
sion, of which our minds are passive recipients, hardly reect the densely
interwoven fabric of everyday understanding. Indeed, it is dicult to see
how meme-possession could oer anything other than the image of the
mind as a lumber room or junkyard full of cognitive or cultural bric-a-brac.
This would hardly correspond either to the reality of experience or, more
importantly, to the reality of the way we navigate through, and interact
with, the world of daily life, never mind how we project ourselves into a
complex, timetabled future, on the basis of a complex past composed of
singularities. Memes, passively acquired and stitching themselves together
in clusters or meme-plexes, hardly answer to this.
There are other objections to the notion of the human mind and our
shared cultures as being woven out of memes and evolving as the result of
an essentially unconscious process leading to dierential survival of these
imaginary items. First, meme theory puts a question mark against its own
claims to truth. If it is true it must, like other memes, simply be a mind
infestation that has only its own welfare at heart. This objection has been
anticipated by Dawkins:


Scientic ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural

selection and this might look supercially virus-like, but the
selective forces that scrutinize scientic ideas are not arbitrary
or capricious. They are exacting, well-honed rules, and they do
not favour pointless self-serving behaviour.43

And he goes on to set out the methodological virtues that the memes
he approves of have. Merging the notion of scientic methodology and
natural selection is barmy. I would suggest that the clinical trial that leads
to the choice of one drug against another typically taking ve to ten
years to set up, implement and analyse, doesnt look anything like natural
selection. And this is linked with a second objection. Ideas and idea-
complexes do not invade our passive minds; we have to think, comprehend
them and acquire them, often with a great deal of conscious work. And
the ideas themselves are, as in the case of those in science, developed as
the result of huge mental eort by individuals thinking in concert with, in
opposition to, other individuals. We may assent to, or dissent from, ideas;
we may even resist a tune in our head. Try doing that with one of your
genes or a virus infesting your brain! An encounter with a putative meme
does not guarantee the consent necessary to its becoming incorporated in
my mind.
Indeed, meme theory betrays how the very term cultural evolution
can be a fudge, importing into cultural change the passivity of a process
driven by the operation of natural selection on spontaneous variation. It
pushes to one side the huge eorts, and ingenuity, that go into driving the
various revolutions technological, agricultural, scientic, industrial, judi-
cial that mark the history of humanity. By glossing over this, the ambi-
guity of the concept of evolution, which refers both to any gradual change
over time and to a process of change driven by natural selection, can be
exploited to keep the Darwinian ame alive in places where it should not
be able to nd any oxygen. So Darwinitics talk about social evolution or
institutional evolution as if they were the same as organic evolution; in
other words as if they were unconscious processes, requiring no eort on
anyones part or sense of direction even at a micro-scale. In reality, evolu-
tion as it applies to technologies or social institutions, while it is indeed a

43. Dawkins, A Devils Chaplain, 171.


gradual process that has no nal goal in view, involves much deliberation
and has many explicit intermediate goals.44
Finally, the analogy with genes is awed; it does not have anything
corresponding to the distinction between the genotype and the phenotype,
or between gene and gene product. Indeed, Dawkins describes memes as
part of an extended phenotype.
The idea, then, is daft, so it must have other attractions than plausibil-
ity.45 And the attraction is, of course, the dream of an all-encompassing
theory, based on Darwinism, that would, to use Dennetts already quoted
claim, unify the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space
and time, cause and eect, mechanism and physical law.46 The extension of
evolution from genes to memes props up this exaggerated assessment of
the scope of Darwins great theory. Memes ll the gap between man the
organism and human beings who are persons, conscious agents, genuine
individuals, actively leading their own lives with something that has the
passivity and automaticity of Darwinian natural selection, marginalizing
individuality, the self and agency. From the point of view of those who wish
to deny or conceal or underplay our special nature, memes, which have the
character of being replicators that use us as mere vehicles to ensure their
own transmission, are an extension of the biological story of ourselves as
essentially automata, passively and indeed helplessly acting out a predeter-
mined script. Culture is replayed as second nature. My belief in such and
such a religion or economic theory, my love of a particular kind of music
or literature, my propensity to give money to beggars in the street, the
anger I feel about the way Robert Mugabe has destroyed his country: these
have nothing to do with me as an individual and everything to do with the
survival of the group to which I belong. Human mindbrains in a certain
culture will be hospitable to those memes or, more precisely, susceptible
to invasion by those memes (or memeplexes) that will favour the survival
of that group and hence the survival of the memes themselves.
Meme theory is an example of the kind of prestidigitation needed
to present an image of us as biologically programmed in the face of the

44. E. O. Wilson fudges in a dierent way. In Consilience he speaks of gene-culture coevolu-

tion in human beings. Since he believes that there is a genetic basis for cultural evolution,
this is really (as Kenan Malik has pointed out), genegene-cultural evolution and he admits
as much himself when he describes gene-culture coevolution as a special extension of the
more general processes of evolution (Consilience, 128).
45. Even Gray draws the line at memes in Science as a Vehicle for Myth.
46. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea, 21.


overwhelming evidence that everyday human life is utterly dierent from

the reex-, tropism-, instinct-driven life of animals (although of course we
rely on reexes to perform our voluntary actions, may be in part guided
by tropisms and have a general direction inuenced remotely by instincts).
An ordinary shopping expedition, a day at the factory, a night sitting with a
feverish child, a year building up a stamp collection, several years planning
a change in the service one provides for ones patients: these are not the
kinds of things that can be automated, pre-programmed. They need to be
led by an informing awareness or self awareness that has its goal explicitly
in view.47


It is hardly surprising that Darwinitics, and others who approach the human
person from a biological standpoint, have diculty with the more complex
aspects of human consciousness.48 In this section, however, I shall argue
that evolutionary theory, although largely unaware of it, has a problem with
consciousness of any sort. First, it has to begin with matter and somehow
end up with mind. Second, it has to demonstrate that having a conscious
mind would be something a replicator would be glad of, as a means of
assisting its own senseless task of replication. As we shall see, Darwinism
cannot give a satisfactory answer to either of these two questions: how did
consciousness emerge; and what is consciousness for, anyway?
The second question is particularly pressing. Biology does not tolerate
anything biologically useless and, given that my brain consumes a whopping
20 per cent of my energy supply, and quite a lot of this seems to be used by
neurons that are supposed to be responsible for maintaining my conscious-
ness, consciousness must have a use, must earn its keep. The argument that

47. Meme theory and its host discipline evolutionary psychology is particularly well
defended because its propagators deny that they ever said the daft things that they said. This
is how certain critics dealt with Rose & Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin. I myself had the experience
in a blog exchange (see my Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour) of nding Blackmore
denying views that I had found in her writings; I expressed alarm that there was another
Blackmore speaking on her behalf. But this is the reason why I have used direct quotes so
48. This section is based on a paper that rst appeared in The Philosophers Magazine: The
Unnatural Selection of Consciousness.


it is high maintenance and so must be actively benecial rather than merely

an aberration, an accident we are stuck with, is complemented by the argu-
ment that the very complexity of the machinery supposedly underpinning
phenomenal consciousness demonstrates that it is an adaptation rather than
an accident.49 And it follows from this that all the things that conscious-
ness enables us to get up to not only eeing predators more successfully
because we are aware of them but also creating art or writing books like On
the Origin of Species must also be directly or indirectly related to survival,
now, or at some time in the past. Whether or not this is true, the ubiquity
of neuro-evolutionary accounts of everyday human life is a testimony to
belief in the power of evolution to explain consciousness.
But how well founded is this belief? In what non-aberrant way could this
seeming aberration in material evolution have arisen? Was it really natural
selection that eventually brought into being creatures that could see that
they were naturally selected? Was it the blind laws of physics that so organ-
ized matter that it came up with creatures like us, that could see the laws of
physics and that they were blind? If we are going to address them properly
we must start far enough back to see these questions clearly. We need to
ask (a) by what means consciousness could have come into being, if it was
not there in the beginning, and (b) what advantages it confers.

The origin of consciousness

The zero point of evolution is a primitive (self )-replicator, perhaps a proto-

biont an organic molecule enclosed in something like a membrane
hardly dierentiated, although beautifully structured, like a crystal. A
succession of steps over huge stretches of time, unconsciously guided by
the non-random operation of natural selection on random variation, led to
single-cell organisms with their nuclei, organelles, membranes and, eventu-
ally, one or two bits of kit such as a agellum to aid swimming. That was the
story of life for 2.5 billion years until the Cambrian explosion 500 million
years ago, when multi-cellular forms arrived. After this came more complex
organisms, with distinctive organs and systems, to deal with the business of
keeping the organism stable, enabling it to access nutrients, to evade pred-
ators and when sexual reproduction came on the scene to nd mates.

49. See Grantham & Nichols, Evolutionary Psychology.


The belief that these developments can be explained in Darwinian terms

seems increasingly well founded, so let us set aside the Creationist appeal
to irreducible complexity, as evidence that higher organisms could not
have evolved step by step, and the related claim that intelligent design has
to be invoked to explain the emergence of structures such as the eye. But
what of the other great story: the emergence of sentience, subsequently
of more complex consciousness and ultimately of self-consciousness and
intelligence? How well does this t into the Darwinian picture?
Very badly, notwithstanding Dawkinss claim that Cumulative selec-
tion, once it has begun, seems powerful enough to make the evolu-
tion of intelligence probable, if not inevitable.50 Consider one of the most
visited examples: vision. Let us begin with the notional ur-eye: the light-
sensitive spot on the skin of some ancestral creature. This might confer a
tiny survival advantage, perhaps making it easier to avoid shadow-casting
predators. And one could see how an ever more complex sensitive surface,
tuning the organism to produce ever more precisely discriminated and
versatile behaviour, might be explained by natural selection. There are
now very good accounts of gradual changes, each conferring an advantage,
leading to the emergence of the orbit, the retina, the lens and so on, without
appealing to intelligent design. And there are plenty of intermediate forms,
demonstrating the benets of having photosensitive structures marking the
staging posts to the kind of complex eye seen in higher organisms, with
competitive advantage being sustained throughout the journey. But this
story doesnt address the problems that a satisfactory evolutionary account
of consciousness would need to deal with. Consider the emergence of
(conscious) sight from (chemical) photosensitivity.
We need rst of all to remind ourselves that chemical or electrochem-
ical sensitivity to light is not the same as awareness of light. To under-
line this point: a chemical eect of light is not awareness of the light that
has caused this chemical eect. We must not confuse causality (or, more
precisely, eectality) with intentionality and imagine that the processes
by which the light gets in are the same as those by which the gaze (eventu-
ally) comes to look out. Second, as we discussed in Chapter 3, the charac-
teristics of the content of visual awareness are not to be found in the light
itself. Electromagnetic radiation is not intrinsically bright or coloured; even
less is it beautiful or meaningful. These secondary and tertiary qualities are

50. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 146.


not properties of the physical world and the energy in question. Third, it
is not clear how certain organizations of matter manage to be aware of
impingements of energy, and later of objects, and (in the case of humans)
of themselves when very similar organizations of matter do not have
this property. This problem, as we have already discussed, is most clearly
apparent much further down the evolutionary path, when we compare
neurons that are associated with consciousness in the human brain with
those that are not. We have seen how little distinguishes them.
The biological story of the passage from single cells to full-blown eyes,
therefore, tells us nothing about the quite dierent journey from light inci-
dent on photosensitive cells producing a programmed response, to the gaze
that looks out and sees, and peers at, and enquires into, a visible world.
And this is accepted by some physicists; for example Brian Pippard, who
expresses this as follows: What is surely impossible is that a theoretical
physicist, given unlimited computing power, should deduce from the laws
of physics that a certain complex structure is aware of its own existence.51
There is simply no reason to expect that photosensitivity would bring
awareness of light, however cunningly the photosensitive structure is wired
into discriminative behaviour that will promote survival. An analogy may
be helpful here. Computers do not get any nearer to becoming conscious
as their inputs are more complexly related to their outputs and however
many stages and layers of processing intervene between the two. A Cray
supercomputer with terabytes of RAM is no more aware or self-aware than
a pocket calculator. There is nothing, in short, that will explain why matter
should go mental once it assumes a certain form, unless we anticipate and
borrow, on account as it were, the very notion of an organism that is aware
of its environment.
And this is where we have to be on our guard against anticipatory
borrowing, which may be implicit even in the conceptual distinction
between organism and environment. This distinction slips the notion of
viewpoint with the organism at the centre of a view into a starter pack
that should contain only the properties of matter, which, as we have seen
does not have an appearance in itself nor the means to make anything else
appear, least of all as part of a world of appearing with something, such
as a subject, as its centre. It is easy to overlook this because the division
into environment and organism already contains a glimmer of the

51. Pippard, The Invincible Ignorance of Science, 393.


dierentiation between a subject and its objects, and this remains true
(although concealed) even when organisms are treated as physical systems.
Without this fudge, energy exchanges between parts of a physical system
that includes the organism would not count as inputs to and outputs
from. Physical systems do not, of themselves, have inputs and outputs,
except in so far as they have been ring-fenced by an observer who sets
them o from the rest of the world that is stipulated as their surroundings.
A membrane as a physical entity does not provide that ring-fencing.
This has been very well expressed by Stephen Clark:

Until there are conscious beings there is no reason for iden-

tifying singular individuals within a distinct environment. Till
then there is only biochemical process, without any privileged
viewpoints: why think of an acorn as an entity, rather than part
of a genes environment? Why think of the gene as an entity
within an environment?52

All viewpoints are privileged. To be a viewpoint is a metaphysical privilege

not granted to a piece of matter in a material world just because it assumes
a particular conguration.
The anticipatory borrowing implicit in the dierentiation between
organism and environment conceptually smoothes out the steps towards
consciousness. As a consequence, the dubious claim that, when matter
assumes certain congurations, it is automatically awarded mentality, so
that it is aware of other pieces of matter, is made to seem less dubious.
The claim, however, loses its plausibility as soon as we remind ourselves
what the intentionality of consciousness would require if we really believed
it to be explained by the properties of matter as understood by physicists;
namely, that certain pieces of matter should reach causally upstream and
become aware of the causes of the eects of events on themselves. What is
more, these eects (such as neural activity) would have to confer on their
causes a phenomenal appearance quite dierent from what, according to
science, they have in themselves.
So even if consciousness really did bring survival advantage, it is not clear
how it could become available to genes via the material organisms that are
the vehicles ensuring their replication. This question arises irrespective of

52. Clark, Aware if Alive.


whether we are considering the putative consciousness of a single photosen-

sitive cell, or that of a human eye, or of a human being aware of her fellows
in a shared world built up out of pooled experience. The explanatory gap
the jump from (material) energy exchanges to (proto-mental) awareness
just happens to be more clearly evident in the case of single energy-sensitive
cells, which lie at the putative beginning of consciousness. It doesnt help
to imagine that the single cell has only a teeny-weeny bit of conscious-
ness that can somehow be smuggled into the material world without the
latters laws being bent or broken. So the question still remains: how is it that
certain congurations of matter should be aware, should suer, fear, enjoy
and so on? There is nothing in the properties of matter that would lead you
to expect that eventually certain congurations of it (human bodies) would
pool that experience and live in a public world. No wonder many material-
istically inclined philosophers like to deny the real existence of conscious-
ness. And no wonder Dennett, for example who claims to have explained
consciousness wants to wave away the basic elements of subjective experi-
ence, qualia, and to deconstruct intentionality.

The biological value of consciousness

Lets turn now to our second problem with the Darwinizing of conscious-
ness. Supposing we were able to nd an explanation of how, during the
course of evolution, matter in organisms managed to go mental. Could
we be sure that consciousness would be of any use to those organisms?53
Why should consciousness of the material world around their vehicles (the
organisms) make certain (material) replicators better able to replicate? After
all, qualia, being secondary qualities, aspects and appearances, do not corre-
spond to anything in the physical world. There may be ways around this
awkward fact but someone will have to nd them. There is, anyway, an even
more awkward fact. Long before self-awareness, memory, foresight, powers
of conscious deliberation and so on emerged to give a supposed advantage,
there is a more promising alternative to consciousness at every step of the
way: more ecient unconscious mechanisms, which, what is more, seem
equally or more likely to be thrown up by spontaneous variation.

53. For a careful teasing out of the dierent strands of this deceptively simple question, see
Polger, Rethinking the Evolution of Consciousness.


Think, after all, what unconscious mechanisms have actually achieved:

the evolution of the material universe; the processes that are supposed to
have created life and conscious organisms; the growth, development and
most of the running of even highly conscious organisms such as ourselves.
If you had to undertake something really dicult for example growing
in utero a brain with all its connections in place consciousness is the last
thing you would want to oversee the task. Successful intra-uterine devel-
opment relies, in the case of higher organisms, on a conscious mother
choosing the right mate, getting hold of the right food and so on; but that
is to put the cart before the horse. And, yes, once you have a species that
depends on consciousness then it is essential for its members to remain
conscious. But if we assume the materialist viewpoint and, unlike many
evolutionary biologists, adhere to it consistently, if we escape from an
anthropocentric viewpoint that sees the entire evolutionary process as
something that was always leading up to us or creatures like us, it seems
highly implausible that, in an unconscious biosphere, consciousness, even
if it were on oer, would seem like a good option.
It is far from self-evident that (for example) making light energy some-
thing that is experienced would improve an organisms response to it in
the sense of making it more likely for the relevant chemicals within it its
genetic material to replicate. In other words, there is nothing obviously
benecial in basic sentience. What about higher forms of consciousness?
Those who think consciousness must confer advantage tend also to believe
that it confers even more advantage as it gets more complex. They argue
that complex consciousness has no end of things to oer the organism: it
makes available working memory; it permits planning, deliberation, ex-
ible behaviour; it allows the rehearsal of possible courses of action before
commitment to one particular course (putting scenarios rather than ones
esh on the line); it equips the entity to deal with novel situations; and
enables organisms to engage with wholes, with singular combinations that
cannot be captured by general laws.54 One of the most common strategies
for nding a use for consciousness is to suggest that it simplies the stimuli
received by the organism, putting them together in a convenient format,
allowing (in the words of Bjrn Merker) a simulated real world arena for
the control of goal-orientated activities.55

54. Hodgson, The Mind Matters.

55. Merker, The Liabilities of Mobility. I am grateful to Irving Massey for drawing my attention
to this source.


Leaving aside the fact that parts and wholes and convenience count
as such only in the context of a consciousness that puts them together or
pulls them apart, or that situations are novel only to a conscious crea-
ture with conscious expectations that allocate probabilities to them, this
illustrates a deeper problem, common to many evolutionary explanations
of consciousness: that of approaching its origin from the wrong direc-
tion through the lens of existing life, indeed existing conscious life. If we
truly wish to address the question of the value or purpose or function of
consciousness, we should adopt a prospective view that looks forwards from
a preconscious beginning, rather than a retrospective one that looks back
from a situation in which consciousness is already in place and there are
worlds with the kinds of properties experienced by conscious beings. When
we adopt the correct, prospective, view we might see that an organism that
has to plan, to deliberate, to remember, to rehearse possible courses of
action and to see wholes so as to deal with singulars, in order to survive,
is in a mess: at any rate, disadvantaged compared with the unerring uncon-
scious biological machines generated by the laws of material nature. Of
course, once in that mess, and dependent on consciousness, the organism
is better o staying conscious, and this applies irrespective of whether we
are considering threats and opportunities from the material environment,
other species, or competition from conspecics. Yes, my genes would have
a better chance of replicating than yours if I had better memory or more
foresight than you. But when we start at the right place, at the beginning
in other words, and ask by what disastrous processes did conscious, espe-
cially complex conscious, species emerge so that there are forms of living
matter that can make errors or where there are errors to be avoided or
corrected and memory and foresight are needed, we can only wonder,
unavailingly, at how evolution took this unfortunate turn. After all, at the
fundamental level mechanisms do not make mistakes; they are simply
the expression of the unbreakable laws of physics. And at a higher level,
they do not make mistakes with the same frequency as conscious inten-
tions aimed at a goal.56 A deliberating creature that has increased capacity
to get things right does so only because it has a propensity to get things
wrong. A fully adapted organism would not have to deliberate at all. In the

56. Biologists may choke on this. Isnt evolution itself driven by mistakes: those mutations that
result from imperfect copying of DNA? True, but think of the precision with which DNA
is copied compared with the inaccuracy of copying it deliberately without very recent tech-
nology or even with this technology in its natural place inside the whole organism.


split seconds that determine the dierence between life and death, he who
deliberates islost.
And what is deliberation, planning, anyway? Do organisms really
operate on the laws of physics as if from the outside? And if they do not,
as the materialist view of life requires us to believe, then there is no way
that planning and deliberation or the illusion of planning or delibera-
tion could serve a function. No wonder many evolutionary biologists and
neuroscientists often deny that free will is possible and marginalize the role
of conscious deliberation in human life, even though it seems to the rest
of us to play the most prominent part in shaping behaviour. We have seen
how the marginalizers of consciousness seize on any evidence that suggests
we are not as conscious as we think we are, or that our brain is cleverer
than we are, and that we can respond appropriately to what is around us,
without being aware of it; that there are automatic psychological processes
in perception, memory and action; that we are in the grip of the so-called
cognitive unconscious.57
This explains the huge interest generated by Larry Weiskrantzs demon-
stration of blindsight, in virtue of which people with restricted vision
may still respond appropriately to cues they are not aware of seeing.58 All
this suggests that many neuroscientists would wish we were automatons;
seeingsight doesnt t very comfortably into their world picture. At any
rate, there is no means, within the materialist world picture, by which
consciousness could inect the laws of physics in order to make the world
a more hospitable place for the organism that is conscious, acting either
solely or as a member of a group. From the standpoint of a consistent
materialism, no organism that was going to make the cut would have
had deliberately to work with the laws of physics, never mind work against
them or trick them into doing its will. The will has no way in a universe of
wall-to-wall matter, of which living matter is only a variant.
And there is also a serious diculty with the notion of better and
better consciousness that will somehow compensate for the disability of
having being dependent on consciousness in the rst place. Consciousness,
after all, with its secondary qualities, is profoundly dissociated from the

57. Christened thus by Kihlstrom, The Cognitive Unconscious.

58. Needless to say, Gray has fastened on these data in order to diminish human conscious-
ness: Your mind is an illusion. We are assemblages of perceptions and behaviours in which
consciousness gures only intermittently (I Think, But Who Am I?, 47). Speak for your
(nonexistent) self, is all I can say.


material world in which organisms are generated and their fate decided.
So it is dicult to see how the content of consciousness could get closer to
the relevant truths of that material world, which for materialists is all there
is.59 For some writers, such as Paul Churchland,60 the criterion for intelli-
gence that catch-all term for premier cru deliberative consciousness is
that the organism is more closely coupled to its environment. If that were
true, then a silicate crystal, so tightly wired into its environment that no
wires are required, would be a role model for us all. In practice, as we shall
discuss in Chapter 7, intelligence makes us loosely rather than tightly wired
into the material world; hence the possibility of stepping back, of delibera-
tion between possible courses of action.
In short, if it is dicult (although not in principle impossible) to see
how living creatures emerged out of the operation of the laws of physics
on lifeless matter, it is even less clear how consciousness emerged or why
it should be of benet to those creatures that have it. Or, more precisely,
why evolution should have thrown up species with a disabling requirement
to do things deliberately and make judgements. Why would life evolve
towards such losers who have to get things right in order to do the right
thing by themselves?
We humans have of course beneted enormously from being conscious;
we dominate the planet. But it is only very recently that our consciousness,
and its pooling in a boundless, innitely elaborated shared human world,
have signicantly increased our traction on the very laws that are supposed
to have brought us into being, and made up for the disabling burden of
consciousness and the requirement to be more conscious to get ahead of
the game, including in that most intimate competition between replica-
tors: between members of the same species. It is only very recently in the
history of life that he who deliberates, or hesitates, is not lost; that we can
take complex precautions through collective action; that we can together
manipulate the environment to tilt the balance of risks and benets in our
collective favour. In the end, deliberative consciousness, and the pooling of
our conscious aims and intentions, has come good, but the evolutionary
process did not begin here, did not start anywhere near this end. It began
several billion years ago, during which life did without consciousness;

59. And there is no reason why the increasing complexity of the eye should necessarily lead to
increased complexity of the scene that is seen.
60. Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, see esp. The Distribution of Intelligence in the


and for much of the relatively brief time it has been conscious, this seems
to have been a burden rather than boon. At any rate, it is not clear that
consciousness is essential for any capacity that we have, as Thomas Polger
has pointed out.61
Consciousness makes evolutionary sense only if you do not start far
enough back: if, that is to say, you fail to assume a consistent and sincere
materialist position. The latter demands that you should begin (as evolu-
tionary theorists should begin) with a world without consciousness,
and then consider whether there could be putative biological drivers for
organisms to become conscious. To proceed otherwise is to succumb
to a variation of what Dawkins has dubbed the conceit of hindsight,62 a
jibe appropriately directed at those who see all of evolution as inevitably
progressing towards the human, but equally applicable to Dawkinss own
view (quoted at the beginning of this section) that Cumulative selection,
once it has begun, seems powerful enough to make the evolution of
intelligence probable, if not inevitable.63 Once the viewpoint of consistent
materialism is assumed it is no longer self-evident that it is a good thing
to experience what is there, that it will make an organism better able so
to position itself in the causal net as to increase the probability of replica-
tion of its genetic material. On the contrary, even setting aside the confu-
sional states a conscious organism is prone to, and the sleep it requires,
consciousness seems like the worst possible evolutionary move.
It may be argued that, when we are trying to make (retrospective) sense
of the path taken by evolution, driven by natural selection, we ought to
separate dierent drivers and, in particular, dierent determinants of dier-
ential survival rates. And, yes, there is more than one dimension to repli-
cative advantage. There are at least four: (a) being better able to withstand
the vicissitudes of the material environment heat, cold, dryness, wetness,
injury and so on; (b) being better protected against other living things
such as poisonous plants and predators; (c) being better able to compete
with members of the same species for resources including mates; (d) and,
nally, being better able to cooperate with conspecics to maximize overall
survival of the group. Teasing out these dimensions of competitive advan-
tage, however, does not help to explain the emergence of consciousness.
The rst three would most obviously be best dealt with by slicker and

61. Polger, Rethinking the Evolution of Consciousness.

62. Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale, The Conceit of Hindsight.
63. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 146.


more tuned mechanisms. We are, after all, starting out from the replica-
tion of complex molecules and their vehicles; all that is needed are rela-
tive probabilities as played out through the laws of (physical) nature. The
fourth would look to be the most promising place to seek the benets of
consciousness were it not for the existing of spectacularly complex animal
societies, such as those of ants, that work through dovetailing automatici-
ties rather than the mutual awareness and deliberative activity apparent in
animals such as ourselves with high levels of consciousness. (Leaf-cutter
ants divide twenty-nine distinct tasks between seven castes64 and recent
studies have shown that they even enjoy a kind of retirement in which,
as their teeth become less sharp, they progress from cutting to carrying
duties!65) Recognizing the complexity of the drivers to evolution does not,
in other words, give any support to the notion that matter will inevitably
be forced to go mental if enough pieces of living matter slaughter other
pieces of living matter: that unconscious natural selection will generate
consciousness; that the bloodbath of evolution will beat matter into wake-
fulness to the world and its own existence in it.
If there isnt an evolutionary explanation of consciousness then the
world is more interesting than biologism would allow. And it gets even
more interesting if we unbundle dierent modes of consciousness. There
are clearly separate problems in trying to explain on the one hand the
transition to sentience and on the other the transition from sentience to
the propositional awareness of human beings that underpins the public
sphere in which they live and have their being, the realm where they:
consciously utilize the laws of nature; transform their environment into
an artefactscape; appeal to norms in a collective that is sustained by delib-
erate intentions rather than being a lattice of dovetailing automaticities;
and write books such as On the Origin of Species. At any rate, those who
are currently advocating evolutionary or neuro-evolutionary explana-
tions of the most complex manifestations of consciousness in human life
preaching neuro-evolutionary aesthetics, law, ethics, economics, history,
theology and so on should consider the failure to explain any form of
consciousness, never mind human consciousness, in evolutionary terms.
Might this not pull the rug from under their fashionable feet?

64. Wilson, Caste and Division of Labor in Leaf-Cutter Ants.

65. Schoeld et al., Leaf-Cutter Ants with Worn Mandibles Cut Half as Fast.


Unfortunately, it will not be easy to wake them up to this great gap in

their world-picture because neuro-evolutionary ideas are now woven into
the very language in which we are invited to think about ourselves. And it
is to this language we must now turn before moving on from denying what
we are not to arming what we are.


Bewitched by Language


A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for
it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us

If you are persuaded that the neuro-evolutionary approach to human

consciousness and human life is wrong, and obviously so, you may be
baed as to how it has managed to be so widely accepted. Much of the
strength of the case for a Darwinian account of the human person and
human society lies, as we saw, in the way language is used to anthropo-
morphize animal behaviour and animalize human behaviour. The case for
the neuralization of consciousness and, in particular, human consciousness
has also depended on the misuse of language, but with Neuromania the
lexical trickery goes much deeper. While Darwinitis requires its believers
only to impute human characteristics to animals (and vice versa), Neuro-
mania demands of its adepts that they should ascribe human character-
istics to physical processes taking place in the brain. This depends on a
cavalier way with words that is now so universal as to have become almost
invisible, making it quite dicult to see the unbridgeable gap between what
happens in the brain and what people do. It illustrates the force of Wittgen-
steins observation in the passage that forms the epigraph to this section:

1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 115.


we are held captive by a picture of ourselves from which we cannot escape

because it is written into the very language in which we think about our
nature. The linguistic habit that has kept so many in thrall to Neuromania
is referring to the brain and bits of the brain in ways that would be appro-
priate only if we were referring to whole human beings. Treating the part as
if it were the whole is the nub of the critique of neurophilosophy by M.R.
Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker in their Philosophical Foundations of Neuro-
science. This mereological fallacy, however, is only part of a wider trend
that I have called thinking by transferred epithet.2
You may remember being introduced to the concept of the transferred
epithet at school and may even recall some well-worn examples of this
gure of speech: the prisoner is in a condemned cell, but it is the prisoner,
not the cell that is condemned; the door to the disabled toilet is locked,
but it is the person for whom the toilet is intended who is disabled, not the
toilet; and so on. The interest in transferred epithets is in part stylistic, in
part grammatical, and in part due to its reecting a tendency we have to
animate the material world around us with our own feelings: the so-called
pathetic fallacy. The joyful land smiling in the sunshine is neither joyful
nor smiling: it makes us feel joyful and (perhaps) inclined to smile. The
sad autumnal trees droop with our sadness, not their own. The stubborn
rock that does not move has no intention of frustrating us; it is merely
the correlative of our frustration. We can sometimes be so moved by the
pathetic fallacy that we take action against the harmless insentient world.
Who has not cursed material objects for their cussedness? It is dicult
not to sympathize with Basil Fawlty (proprietor of the hotel in the sitcom
Fawlty Towers) subjecting his car to corporal punishment for breaking
down yet again at a crucial time. We infuse the natural world, and the arte-
facts that populate the human world, with our emotions and sometimes
ascribe to them an agency that strictly belongs to their users.
Traditional transferred epithets do not invite us to take them seriously.
We dont rush to the defence of the innocent condemned cell and return
condemnation to the prisoner that occupies it. Nor do we really feel that
Basil Fawltys mulish car deserved the punishment that it received or imagine
that it would cooperate better in future on account of those vicious whacks.
Nevertheless, they open the door to a way of thinking in which the transfer
of the epithet is no longer noticed: gurative speech is taken literally.

2. See my Why the Mind is Not a Computer, 346.


This begins with the way we talk about machines: hardly surprising
because machines are (in Heideggers characterization of Hegel) autono-
mous tools.3 They often get on with tasks in our absence and, in the case of
electronic devices, they are so baingly complex as to seem mind-like. So
we dont smile with disbelief when we are told that a camera sees a scene;
radar searches for the enemy; a smart bomb hunts down its target;
a photoelectric cell detects the background luminance and instructs
the camera shutter to open up or close; an electronic probe reports the
presence of something or other. We are all perfectly aware that none of
these devices would do these things seeing, searching, hunting down,
detecting, instructing, reporting in the absence of (conscious) human
beings. A ruler lying next to an object would not measure the latters length
unless it was being used by someone to do that. Counters do not count
except when they have been employed for that purpose and their output
is recognized as numbers that make sense to an observer aware of, and
But this kind of talk a helpful shorthand has insidious eects.
Linguistic permissiveness make us less likely to notice linguistic corruption
and the conceptual muddles that may follow from it. We start imagining
that machines that help us to carry out certain functions actually have
those functions. This is particularly likely to happen when the machines in
question are computers. When I speak of a clock telling the time I do not
for a moment imagine that it is doing so of itself. What I mean is that the
clock enables me to tell the time. When, however, I speak of a computer
doing calculations I might be inclined to take this literally: to think of the
calculations going on in the computer itself, rather than simply assisting me
in getting from the beginning to the end of a series of sums. In other words,
I make the mistake of thinking that a prosthetic aid to an activity actually
does that activity. We forget that in the absence of any human beings using
the tool its function would not be performed. It is I, not the computer, who
make the calculation, just as it is I, not the walking stick, who walk and I,
not the umbrella, who shelter my head from the rain.
The obvious point that what goes on in a computer would not count as,
or be, a calculation, recollection or measurement in the absence of humans
who use them to calculate, recollect or measure, was highlighted by Searle
in a brilliant thought experiment. It was the basis of one of the most

3. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 298.


famous most cited and most argued over papers in philosophy over
the past several decades.4 In Minds, Brains, and Programs, Searle imag-
ined someone sitting in a room, receiving an input of Chinese symbols. He
was totally ignorant of Chinese and understood nothing of the symbols.
However, he was in possession of rules for processing these symbols, so
he could produce an appropriate output. Let us suppose the input symbols
amounted to questions and the output symbols amounted to answers. It
would appear that the person in the room was answering the questions.
The individual did not, however, understand anything that was passing
through his hands. Searle used this as a compelling analogy of what goes
on in a computer that links inputs with appropriate outputs. The events
in computers do not amount to genuine understanding. Indeed, given
that symbols are symbols only to someone who understands that they
are symbols, events in computers considered in isolation from conscious
human beings do not even amount to the processing of symbols. There is
merely the passage of minute electric currents along circuits which may or
may not cause other physical events to happen, such as the lighting up of
a screen in a certain pattern. This becomes symbol processing, conscious
understanding, only when the computer is serving a conscious user; for
example, the events in the computer amount to calculations only when the
computer is being used by an individual making calculations. It is there-
fore wrong to imagine the mind as being analogous to a computer. In the
absence of minds, computers do not do what minds do.
I shall return to computers in the next section, when I discuss the
computational theory of mind. Here I want to consider the consequences
of the rampant transference of epithets that these ubiquitous devices have
licensed. Because computers are essentially extremely complex electrical
circuits, and brains can also be described as if they were concatenations of
extremely complex electrical circuits, the anthropomorphic discourse elab-
orated in relation to computers is allowed to spread to our descriptions of
the brain. If computers calculate, detect, signal and so on, and brains
are collections of computers, then brains, brain regions or even individual
neurons calculate, detect, signal and so on.
You might be surprised that thinking by transferred epithet should
ensnare even the brightest of minds. It is irresistible, however, because it
enhances the apparent explanatory power of descriptive accounts of the

4. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Programs.


brain and, indeed, enables the mindbrain barrier to be overcome without

any work being done. By smuggling consciousness into the matter of the
brain, via the computer analogy, we make a materialist account of conscious-
ness seem plausible. The ordinary activity of the brain suddenly looks like
the ordinary activity of computers, which looks like the ordinary activity of
human beings. There is no apparent need for a ghost in the machine, an
homunculus, to stand for the presence of the conscious self in the brain.
In fact, this isnt really how it works out. Anthropomorphic talk applied
to the brain, right down to individual neurons, simply disperses the
homunculus into a billion billion billion messengers carrying messages from
one part of the brain to the other. Let us see this at work in a recent book by
someone whom we have already met: Chris Frith of the Functional Imaging
Laboratory at the world-leading Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroim-
aging in London. In his excellent Making up the Mind, he has the brain
doing things that, normally, we would ascribe to full-blown human beings.
Person-talk runs through his brain-talk like Brighton Rock through the
stick of confectionary. There is naked anthropomorphism even at the unicel-
lular level: Nerve cells are essentially signalling devices, he says.5 Activity
in dopamine nerve cells, he claims, signals an error in our prediction;6
and (most strikingly) we can see predictive activity if we look directly at
the activity in the nerve cells.7 Readers will not need to be reminded that
prediction requires a sense of the future while material objects, particularly
tiddly little ones such as nerve bres, do not have explicit tensed time. Single
neurons look very unlikely to be forward-looking but it is easy to see how
computer-talk, which has machines predicting (for example) the course of a
missile, could lead one to this kind of neuron-talk. And once we accept that
individual cells are so smart, we are softened up to accept Friths claim that
the brain as a whole is an ideal observer, that notices, predicts, produces
appropriate models of the world, tricks you into thinking something. To
put this more succinctly, when you personify the brain and bits of brain then
it is easy to brainify the person.
Frith, by the way, is not alone in asserting that the brain actively creates
pictures of the world.8 Thousands of neuroscientists and their fellow trav-
ellers in the humanities draw on the same anthropomorphic lexicon. It is

5. Frith, Making up the Mind, 82.

6. Ibid., 95.
7. Ibid., 82.
8. Ibid., 17.


pandemic in neuro-talk. The related idea that we inhabit not the real world
but a mental model of the world created by the brain has dominated
thinking in neuropsychology since it was rst proposed in 1943 by Kenneth
Craik, a genius who died at the age of thirty-one in a cycling accident.
The ubiquitous presence of the computer, which is likewise credited with
creating representations of things and modelling the world or a domain
within it, makes it easier to grow mental models out of material neurons.
This mental model is elaborated at many levels. The brain, Frith tells us,
works hard at creating the illusion that I am an independent being, and
at sustaining the feeling of agency and the sense of self .9 The brain, it
seems, is rather paternalistic. According to Frith it not only keeps much
of its activity hidden but also refrains from bothering our little heads with
many of the things it knows. Most of what it knows, like much of what
an anthropomorphized computer knows, never reaches our conscious-
ness. You could be forgiven for concluding that brains are just like people
only, well, brainier. The brain, it seems, has (unconscious) reasons that
(conscious) reason knows not.
If you are thinking what I am thinking you are probably wondering how
we, who are supposed to be the brains that hide our reasons from us, can
spot these reasons and, indeed, how we know our brains are cleverer than
we are: from what standpoint we see this. Could it be that there, in fact, is
more to us than our brains? At any rate, if the world were a mental model
created by the brain it would be dicult to see how we could discover this.
And besides, a model is usually a model of something that has an original:
an original known to those who model it. If the entire world were a mental
model, there would be nothing it was a model of. These questions are rarely
raised and almost never taken seriously.
Although it is hotly denied by neuromaniacs, their anthropomorphic
approach to the brain is no dierent from the homuncular one that plants a
little man in the brain who sees and does all that we humans are required
to see and do, and who feels and wants what humans feel and want.
The only dierence is that the neuromaniacs homunculus is broken up into
a colloidal suspension of even smaller homunculi who, despite their small
size tiny bits of brain, particular circuits or even individual neurons
are still able to be like humans. Many thinkers are uneasily aware of these
objections and have tried to rehabilitate the homunculus, most notably

9. Frith, Making up the Mind, 82.


Pinker and Dennett. Pinker quotes Dennett, who argues that Homunculi
are bogeymen only if they duplicate entire the talents they are rung in to
explain. Instead, he says, the jobs are parcelled out to smaller and smaller
parts of the brain and eventually you arrive at: homunculi so stupid (all they
have to do is to remember whether to say yes or no when asked) that they
can be, as one says, replaced by a machine. One discharges fancy homun-
culi from ones scheme by organizing armies of idiots to do the work.10
Dennetts reassurances arent in the slightest bit persuasive. He requires:
(a) that activity in minute circuits amounts to answering yes and no to
questions (which presupposes they are in tune with an entire world of
possibility that they then boil down to a matrix of alternatives);11 and (b)
that billions of neurons yes-ing and no-ing somehow add themselves up
to a whole person. The second requirement is yet another instance of the
fallacy of assuming that a collection of items that we see as a whole can
pull itself together and amount to a whole of its own accord in this case a
whole viewpoint without our assistance. While a newsprint picture may
be assembled out of a crowd of dots, it does not do so without the assist-
ance of the person reading the paper.
The anthropomorphizations of brain-cell activity we have so far
discussed by no means represent the limits to which thinking by trans-
ferred epithet can be taken. Just how much further it can go is illustrated
by the kind of excited chatter that has been provoked by the discovery
of so-called mirror neurons in the early 1990s. A team of Italian scien-
tists carrying out single-cell recordings in the cerebral cortex of macaque
monkeys found a group of neurons that red not only when the monkey
prepared to act but when it watched another monkey acting.12 They called
these neurons mirror neurons and it wasnt long before they caught the
imagination not only of the wider scientic community but also of the
popular press. Scientists, science journalists and feature writers now talk
of them as the physiological basis for human language, learned culture, art,
language, empathy and morality. The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran
has stated that mirror neurons are the reason we are the one and only
species that veritably lives and breathes culture.13

10. Dennett, Articial Intelligence as Philosophy and as Psychology, 124, quoted in Pinker, How
the Mind Works, 79.
11. Just how wrong this is will be clearer after the discussion in the next section.
12. Pelligrino et al., Understanding Motor Events.
13. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, 117.


As the distinguished developmental neuropsychologist Alison Gopnik

has pointed out, there are many problems with the claims that have been
made for these neurons.14 For a start, they have not been demonstrated
unequivocally in humans.15 Second, macaques who do have them dont
seem to major in anything corresponding to human language, learned
culture, art, empathy and morality. Even less do swamp sparrows, who rely
on them to learn how to sing in tune.16 Third, mirror neurons could just be
neurons that have been trained to associate the movement of the monkeys
own hand with the sight of the movement of any hand: in the rst instance
its own. Whats more, in humans many parts of the brain not just a puta-
tive mirror system light up when we see someone else perform an action
and they overlap only in part with those that light up when we actually
perform the action. The greatest problem, of course, relates to what we
have just been talking about: the notion that something very complex can
be housed, or represented, in single cells or clusters of single types of cells.
As Gopnik points out, something as simple as seeing an edge is associ-
ated with a complex pattern of interactions between hundreds of dierent
types of neurons. One might imagine that empathy would require a bit
more than seeing an edge. And yet mirror neurons have been leapt on
because neuromaniacs are bewitched by language. The very name mirror
neurons invites confusion. A mirror, after all, replicates something that
could be consciously experienced but it is not itself conscious of the images
it hosts. Indeed, images dont count as images in the absence of someone
looking in the mirror. Mirror neurons are treated as if their activity was
both the mirror image and the basis of that someone.
The attractiveness of the notion of neurons mirroring the world is an
expression of a more general idea that we have just spoken of: that the brain
models the world. And this, in turn, is a manifestation of a more general
idea still: that the world is represented in the brain and that represen-
tation is encoded in neural activity. This idea needs challenging. Repre-
sentation re-presentation means presentation again. There can be no
representation without prior presentation. A representation is a replication

14. Gopnik, Cells That Read Minds? Cells That Read Minds is the title of the article by Sandra
Blakeslee that Gopnik criticizes.
15. The jury is still out. Actually, I have a vested interest in believing that they do exist in humans.
In 2006, my colleagues and I published a paper reviewing the possibilities of a new approach
to rehabilitation of people with strokes, exploiting their putative mirror neuron systems. See
Pomeroy et al., The Potential for Using the Mirror Neurone System.
16. Prather et al., Precise Auditory-Vocal Mirroring.


of a presentation. For example, my face in a mirror counts as a representa-

tion of the visual appearance of my face because my face, courtesy of my
consciousness, already has a visual appearance. An experience of such a
representation has a double intentionality: of the image in the mirror and,
via this, of that which the image is an image of. To put this another way,
representation is something that happens within the world of phenomena;
it cannot be that in virtue of which there are phenomena (appearings).17
So we should dismiss talk of nerve impulses being representations of
things, creating models of the world. But if you were to deny neuromaniacs
the use of the word representation, they would be more than a little tongue-
tied. They would, however, be rendered almost speechless if we denied them
the careless use of the word information. Neuromania feeds on a diet of
information. It warrants special treatment in a section to itself. Here goes.


The second half of the last century saw the rise and rise of a discipline that
straddled authentic neuroscience and neuroscientism: cognitive psych-
ology. To be fair, cognitive psychology was a welcome corrective to the
lunacy of behaviourism. Behaviourism denied that there was anything
of much interest to scientic psychology in human beings between their
perceptual input and their behavioural output, between stimulus and
response. Reports of subjective experiences on the basis of introspec-
tion did not seem to produce consistent ndings. Psychologists therefore
decided that if the study of the mind were to acquire the status of a full-
blown science, then it should focus on that which was objectively visible,
evident to all and open to observation, preferably with instruments, and
expensive ones if possible, that would yield reliable and repeatable meas-
urements. This meant focusing on visible behaviour and sidelining
subjective experience; or, indeed, paying little heed to anything between
measurable stimuli and measurable responses. Thus a methodological deci-
sion about how psychologists should proceed became a decision as to the

17. We have already seen that nerve impulses do not have an intrinsic appearance: they do not
have a looking like. That nerve impulses seem to have an appearance is due to the fact that
they are always encountered through being represented. We overlook what this requires:
human consciousness assisted by instruments.


very nature of its proper object of study. This was a classic example of the
way methodological constraints often dictate what practitioners of a disci-
pline are prepared to acknowledge as real. When E. L. Thorndike famously
wrote that Whatever exists at all exists in some amount. To know it thor-
oughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality.18 he was also
saying that whatever cannot be measured and measured reliably does
not fully exist. And it illustrates a profound observation by E. A. Burtt:

[I]f he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have

a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temp-
tation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to
suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method
must be appropriate and successful.19

The cognitive turn in psychology away from behaviourism was a redis-

covery of the mind as something other than an empty way station between
inputs and outputs. It argued that the mind had a structure and compo-
nents of its own and was responsible for processing what came in to ensure
that what went out was more precisely tuned to the needs of the organism.
According to one dominant school, processing was the manipulation of
symbols by rules or algorithms. Early cognitive psychologists spent much
time drawing diagrams and connecting up boxes marking intermediate
steps between inputs and outputs. A crucial moment in the evolution of
cognitive psychology was the shift from the boxes in diagrams towards
mental modules. These were thought to have real, as opposed to paper,
existence, although they tended to be introduced ad hoc.
In a famous text published in 1983, Fodor argued that the functioning of
mind or at least certain aspects of it could be described, or explained,
in terms of a cognitive architecture.20 It was composed of information-
processing modules, or domain-specic computational mechanisms.
He gave as examples modules for detecting human faces, animal faces or
generalized threats. Soon higher-level mental functions, such as reason and
emotion, attention and memory, conscience and judgement, were assigned
rooms of their own. There were also mental modules corresponding to

18. Thorndike, The Nature, Purposes, and General Methods of Measurements, 16.
19. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, 226. Quoted in Crawford,
The Limits of Neuro-Talk, 65.
20. Fodor, The Modularity of Mind.


specic brain functions that did not have their own single-occupier accom-
modation within the brain but were distributed over the cortex.
The theory of the mental module was the means by which neuro-
science became installed at the heart of psychology. Michael Gazzaniga
coined the term cognitive neuroscience to designate the nuova scienza
that concerned itself with identifying what mental modules there were and
investigating what they did and how they related to the central processes
in the mindbrain. The facts that the roll call of modules was somewhat
arbitrary, was added to as required, and that the division of the mind into
modules was led sometimes by intuition and sometimes by observation in
a decisively pre-scientic way did not seem to worry many cognitive neuro-
scientists. After all, Fodors ideas enabled them to join the BOLD rush. The
advent of functional brain scanning particular fMRI not long after the
modular turn could not have been better timed. The anatomy, the struc-
ture and function, of the mindbrain was now laid bare and psychology
could now truly be a science without having to deny its traditional object
of study: the psyche. The problem to which behaviourism had been such a
disastrous solution had been solved.
We have already seen that the claims for correlations between psycho-
social functions and brain activity based on neuroimaging techniques are
very dodgy indeed. But one of the greatest problems for the claim of cogni-
tive neuroscience to be a science (as opposed to a creed) is the lack of
empirical evidence for the existence of any modules. Even the most widely
accepted, Noam Chomskys famous language acquisition device, the
inspiration for modular thinking, remains a mere construct. This is readily
forgiven, however, since modularity ts very nicely with a theory central
to the emergence of cognitive neuroscience: the computational theory of
mind. Are not computers also complexes of processing modules?
The idea that the mindbrain is a kind of computer has been around
for a long time, as has the complementary belief, reected in the phrase
articial intelligence, that computers will one day acquire mental proper-
ties, and quite high-grade ones too. That this metaphor installed itself in
the heart of psychology in the second half of the twentieth century was in
part the result of the huge advances in computer technology and the devel-
opment of microprocessors. These practical developments were in turn
driven by conceptual advances in thinking about computational machines.
We have already seen the renement of the notion of processing: the
manipulation of symbols by rules or algorithms. By using the same termi-
nology to apply both to brains and computers, brains could be conceived


as incredibly powerful/sophisticated/fast/versatile collections of micro-

processors. The brain was the mother of all motherboards. The computa-
tional theory of mind is the most impressive illustration of the power of
thinking by transferred epithet: how, by shuttling between machines (in
this case computers), brains and minds, the same terms can straddle the
mindbrain barrier and make the idea that mind or consciousness is made
of nerve impulses almost impossible to question. A picture holds us captive
and we cant get out of it because it lies in our language.
So what is the computational theory of mind? At its heart is the assump-
tion that the mind is to the brain as software is to hardware. To put it
slightly dierently, the mind is a set of computer programs implemented in
the wetware of the brain. Allied to this is the key idea, already mentioned,
that the essential business of mind is to process information and that
processing information is (also) what the brain does. The simple theory has
been elaborated in various ways, notably in a Darwinitic direction, which
connects it with one wing of evolutionary psychology. Pinker, speaking for
many, has stated that the modules of which the mind is composed have
been generated by the evolutionary process: The mind is a system of
organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems
faced by our evolutionary ancestors.21
By virtue of the suggestion that it is a cluster of naturally evolved
computers, the mind is both naturalized and computerized. Dennett takes
the connection between minds and computers to the extreme. As we have
seen he argued that the mind is a huge complex of memes (or more exactly
meme-eects in brains),22 but he also believes that minds can:

best be understood as the operation of a von Neumannesque

virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a
brain that was not designed for any such activities. The powers
of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of
the organic hardware on which it runs.23

You dont need to be able to understand this (I dont), but you can see
where he is coming from.

21. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 21.

22. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 210.
23. Ibid..


Before I deal with the linguistic legerdemain on which the computa-

tional theory of mind depends, it is worthwhile considering why the theory
is unlikely to advance our understanding of consciousness. Let me begin
with something that few people will contest: computers are not conscious.
Not even proponents of the computational theory of mind believe that
present-day computers are conscious, in the sense of being aware of them-
selves and of a world around them, or of being capable of happiness or
despair. Cray supercomputers with terabytes of RAM are as zombie-like
as pocket calculators. This does not stop people claiming that, while we
dont have conscious computers yet, we shall soon or eventually develop
ones that are conscious. However, those who make this claim are not able
to specify what additional features the conscious computers of the future
must have. There is much hand waving: conscious computers will be more
complex or have a dierent kind of architecture, for example a parallel
architecture based on so-called neural networks. I have yet to see a deni-
tion of complexity that would make consciousness seem inevitable or even
more likely in the artefact possessing it: something to which I shall return.
It is interesting to note that the appeal to complexity as an explana-
tion of the dierence between conscious and non-conscious processes is
not new. According to Frith and Rees, the eighteenth-century philosopher
Julien Oray de la Mettrie argued in LHomme machine that conscious and
voluntary processes result simply from more complex mechanisms than
involuntary and instinctive processes. Frith and Rees then point out that
this is in essence the belief held by many of us who are searching for the
neural correlates of consciousness in the twenty-rst century.24
At any rate, there is no evidence that currently available, massively
parallel computers are more self-aware, prone to suering or joy, or able to
experience the sound of music or the smell of grass than their serial coun-
terparts. In view of what we discussed in Chapter 3, this is totally unsur-
prising. The intuitions guiding those who specify the characteristics of the
conscious computers of the future are often laughably naive; for example,
they imagine that feedback loops, or re-entry connections, will awaken
circuits to self-awareness. This is nonsense, of course: the smartest arte-
facts with the most subtle feedback mechanisms and self-monitoring
are unaware of their smartness, of being a self, or of monitoring it.

24. Frith & Rees, A Brief History of the Scientic Approach, 10.


The most striking evidence that very few people really believe that
computers will one day be conscious is the way the goalposts recede as
computing power advances. Computers many million times more powerful
than those available to Alan Turing one of the fathers of the modern
computer when he put forward his famous test for thinking machines are
still not credited with the ability truly to think. Turing argued in a paper
in Mind in 1950 that the question whether a machine could think should
be replaced by the question Are there imaginable digital computers which
would do well in the imitation game?25 In this game, a computer behind a
screen responds to questions posed to it by a human subject. If the computer
can fool someone into believing that it is a human being, that is good enough;
it truly is a thinking machine. This outmoded behaviourist denition of
thinking is still invoked by some as a test for thinking computers, although
many computer games could pass the Turing test with ying colours, without
anyone, not even computational theorists of the mind, being prepared to
grant them the power of conscious thought. I, for one, would be hard put
(without additional information) to determine whether the mind-numbingly
tedious football commentary available on various computer football games,
seemingly describing, evaluating, applauding what was depicted on the
screen, originated from a real person or was the output of a computer
program. And I doubt whether anyone could determine without prior know-
ledge that the output from Deep Blue the chess program that beat Garry
Kasparov came from a human player or a machine.
This tells us that we can be fooled by a machine (or one that is hidden
from view and operating in a highly restricted domain) into thinking that
it is human. But that does not mean it is thinking or human. Primarily, it
reminds us that simulating the behaviour of a thinking, conscious being
is not the same as being a conscious, thinking being, particularly since
the circumstances under which the simulation would deceive are highly
restricted. (Deep Blue was not expected to make its own way to the compe-
tition venue, for example, or to see the point of chess or plan its future
schedule of games.) What is more, simulation would count as simulation
only to a conscious human being who may (or may not) be deceived. The
notion of simulation, in other words, presupposes judges whose conscious-
ness is not simulated. (That is why the concept of a zombie could not
arise in a world populated only by zombies.)

25. Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, 434.


Let me now come to the second strand of my argument against the

computational theory of mind: consciousness is not computational. This
has been argued by several opponents of the computational theory of
mind, often at great and unconscionable length,26 but the arguments are
very simple. We just need to do something that those who promote the
theory do so rarely: think about what actually happens in a computer. All
that goes on at the heart of the machine is the passage of vast numbers of
small currents through vast numbers of microscopic circuits. As we have
already noted in the previous section, these events count as information
processing, symbol handling, behavioural control or whatever only when
the computer is being used prosthetically to support and extend the capa-
bilities of conscious human beings. The latter have to provide the conscious-
ness. Computers are no more information handlers in their own right than
a clock is something that tells the time. Digital computers, primarily, enable
us to compute digital or digitized inputs. For example, they add up 2 and 2
and make 4. If consciousness were made up of a huge mass of such calcu-
lations, which aspect of the calculation would be consciousness: the input,
the output, the process, the addition sign? You may be uncomfortable with
my example: a single, short calculation. But there is no reason why a long
calculation should be more conscious than a shorter one; or a multitude of
calculations be more conscious than one on its own.
The same objections may be directed at those who assert that conscious-
ness is not so much number-crunching as logic-crunching or mathematical
operations such as the vector-to-vector transformation. The philosopher
Patricia Churchland has criticized this characterization of mind as a kind
of logic machine operating on sentences.27 At any rate, it begs many ques-
tions, leaving aside the diculty of imputing rules of logic and sentence-
like representations to electrical impulses in isolated computers (or, come
to that, in brains). Only magical thinking could enable one to believe that
logic (a normative term) and sentences (a fragment of human discourse
expressing a completed thought) could exist without being realized in, and
by, a conscious human being. What is more, sentences and logic are highly
abstract and hardly correspond to contents of consciousness, such as a
feeling of warmth. It is much the same with calculations.

26. See e.g. Penrose, The Emperors New Mind.

27. Churchland, Neurophilosophy, 350.


This dierence between higher-level abstractions and ordinary experi-

ence does not seem to have worried many advocates of the computational
theory of mind. In one of the classic expositions of the theory published a
quarter of a century ago when computational theories were almost unchal-
lenged within cognitive science, Philip Johnson-Laird actually argued that
sense experience actually amounted to doing sums. Vision, he wrote, is
rather like nding the value of x in the equation: 5 = x + y.28 This is wrong
but at least has the virtue of being clearly enough expressed to make its
error easy to see. The notion that something as basic as vision (enjoyed
by beasts even less sophisticated than us when we are merely gawping) is
made up of something that looks rather sophisticated (calculation) exem-
plies one of the most consistent (and odd) features of the computational
theory of mind: that of inverting the normal cognitive hierarchy. Normally,
we place qualia and dim, uncategorized sensations at the bottom, and
clever operations, such as calculating, at the top. The theory turns this
upside down. In part, this is because computers are better at helping us
with operations such as calculations than they are at nding their way
around the world in which we locate them. This topsy-turvy vision is
perhaps also a reection of the fact that, in trying to understand conscious-
ness, science a late product of consciousness is trying to get hold of
the more basic states of consciousness on which it is ultimately founded,
such as perceptual experience. The more basic the experiences, the more
remote they are from the operations of science. I am reminded of the situ-
ation depicted by M. C. Escher in those famous pictures of illusions where,
for example, the top step on a staircase turns out to be supporting, as well
as being supported by, all the others.
The computational theory of mind is unsatisfactory in many other ways.
It cannot deal with the global nature of ordinary awareness: our every-
moment openness to an unrestricted domain of events. Nor can it model
those aspects of consciousness that we have already discussed, for example
the unity of the moment-to-moment eld of consciousness, permeated by
an extended past and future, whose myriad components nonetheless retain
their distinctness. As we have seen, every attempt to explain integration
merging without mushing has so far failed. Computerizing that problem
doesnt help one bit. You cant make millions of instances of 2 + 2 = 4 add
up to a unied totality while, at some level, keeping them separate, just as

28. Johnson-Laird, The Computer and the Mind, 60.


you cant have your rain shower as macroscopic precipitation and at the
same time as separate drops and as the pools that result. This, however, is
what we in fact do in every moment of our awareness of the complex world
we inhabit and the complex life we lead.
Some philosophers are not impressed by the fact that computers are
not conscious and consciousness is not computational, arguing that the
computational theory of mind would still hold up because the mind is
not conscious, or not importantly so, as most mental functions are uncon-
scious. I dont think we need to waste much time on this defence (although
Merlin Donald has felt the necessity to argue that In my world conscious-
ness is king. It denes human nature29). Instead, I want to pick up where
we left o in the last section and focus on the language that is used to give
the computational theory of mind its apparent plausibility. This language
depends, as we have seen, on the misuse of many terms rule, grammar,
goal, instruction and has computers and bits of computers, brains
and bits of minds and bits of brains (even individual neurons) all doing the
same mind-like things such as having memories, executing instructions,
mobilizing logic, doing calculations, detecting signals, weighing uncer-
tainties, making decisions and so on.
The most important term in this context, the lexical colossus that bestrides
the world of the electronics, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, is infor-
mation, and I want now to examine what I think has gone wrong under the
smokescreen built up out of the multiple meanings, technical and everyday,
of this term. For it is the assumption that what brains, conscious and uncon-
scious minds and computers do, above all, is acquire, process, store and
transmit information that seems to provide the most powerful justication
for describing the mind in terms of the computational activity of the brain.


Let us begin at the beginning.30 The Oxford English Dictionary lists

numerous senses of the word information. The most important is: Know-
ledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject or event; that

29. Donald, A Mind So Rare, 8.

30. The discussion that follows is a modied version of my Why the Mind is Not a Computer,
Information (Knowledge).


of which one is apprised or told; intelligence, news. This ordinary sense is

very dierent from the specialized sense used widely in cognitive and other
sciences. At rst the specialized, technical sense of information was kept
distinct from the ordinary sense, and this was emphasized by the commu-
nication engineers who rst introduced it. The specialized sense was occa-
sioned by the need to quantify information: more accurately, in order to
evaluate the work done by, and the eciency of, communication channels
charged with transmitting messages.
Since to be informed is to learn something you didnt know before,
information can be understood in part as resolving an uncertainty about
how things are or how they are going to be. In engineering terms, the infor-
mation content of a message is proportional to the amount of prior uncer-
tainty it resolves. The quantity of information carried by any message will
be determined by the number of possible alternative messages that it has
been selected from, and the relative prior probabilities of the dierent
messages. The more unexpected, or unexpectable a message is, the greater
its information content. A totally expected message, one that resolves no
prior uncertainties, is redundant and, in engineering terms, has no infor-
mation content; it is not worth paying for. Redundancy is both good and
bad. It is good, inasmuch as it allows for a degradation of the message
without loss of information transmission. The redundancy in written
messages permits accurate decipherment of the most appalling hand-
writing, despite our inability to read certain individual letters. (As a doctor,
I am grateful for it.) Redundancy is bad in so far as it may be uneconomical.
It will be clear from this that the engineers sense of information and, in
particular, information content has little to do with information in the ordi-
nary sense. Warren Weaver, one of the rst to think of information in the
way just described, underlined this:

information in this theory is used in a special sense that must

not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, informa-
tion must not be confused with meaning.
In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with
meaning and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly
equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information.31

31. This passage from Weaver, Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communi-
cation is quoted in Hacker, Languages, Minds, and Brains.


A meaningful message may actually have less information content in the

technical sense than the meaningless one. Supposing A asks B if she loves
him. Bs answer yes is one of only two possible alternatives (the other one
being no) and, assuming A has no prior idea of the answer, will have an
information content of just one binary digit or bit. Consider, by contrast,
a meaningless message composed of randomly generated letters of the
alphabet. If all letters are equally probable, then the occurrence of any one
letter will have a likelihood of 1 in 26. This will give the letter or message
an information content of between 4 and 5 bits: several times higher than
that of the answer to the question Do you love me? It is all a matter of the
range of alternatives from which the message has been selected and their
prior probabilities. As Claude Shannon, another pioneer of the mathemat-
ical theory of communication, wrote, the semantic aspects of communi-
cation are irrelevant to the engineering aspects.32 Lovers and engineers
weigh information dierently.
In the specialized technical sense, then, information is measured by
the reduction of uncertainty; the number of possibilities and their prior
probabilities becomes a way of quantifying the information conveyed by a
message. Before long, this objective way of measuring information (which
is quite separate from how informative never mind how interesting,
important, exciting the message seems to the recipient of the informa-
tion) becomes a denition of information itself: information is uncertainty
reduction. And this uncertainty may not even have to be experienced as
such by the individual but only inhere in the quantity of objective possibili-
ties presented to him.
These caveats did not inhibit psychologists from seizing on the engi-
neering notion of information as a handle on the mind. Shannon and
Weaver were invoked by the sciences of the mind via the psychology
of perception. In the 1940s, W. S. McCulloch and W. H. Pitts had modi-
ed the neuron doctrine of Cajal that we talked about in Chapter 1. The
neuron, they said, was not just the basic anatomical unit of the nervous
system but the basic information-processing unit.33 From the early 1950s
onwards, sensory perception was interpreted as the acquisition of infor-
mation and sensory pathways were seen as channels transmitting informa-
tion from the outside world to the centre. These channels, like electronic

32. Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication.

33. McCulloch & Pitts, A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.


pathways, had limited information handling capacity: they could cope

with only so much at a time. Using the notion of information in the engi-
neering sense, it was possible to make certain predictions that proved to be
true. In his classic paper, the psychologist William Hick found that human
subjects reaction time to a stimulus depended not on its actual content
but on the number of alternatives that had to be selected from.34 This, in
turn, determined how much information had to be processed before the
subject could react. (The stimuli in question, it is not irrelevant to point
out, were extremely simple: letters, numbers and simple pictures.) Hicks
paper was seized on as a great advance for the psychology of perception
towards becoming a proper quantitative science.
In fact, it was also the rst tottering step towards the slippery slope. The
initial move was to re-describe perception as information processing and
to regard the function of the nervous system as that of transmitting infor-
mation from one place to another. Although it is hard to see this now, it is
a strange and contradictory move because it both dehumanizes perception
and anthropomorphizes the organs of perception. The perceiver is placed on
a level with a telephone receiver, while the sense organs are treated as if
they were devices that had certain goals and aims and functions. Never-
theless, since the 1950s the rhetoric of information processing has increas-
ingly dominated thought about mental, cerebral and neuronal function. Its
apparent success depends on an almost continuous, but unacknowledged,
vacillation between the engineering and the ordinary senses of informa-
tion. By narrowing the conception of consciousness or awareness to that
of information, and widening that of information way beyond the engi-
neering sense that gives it scientic respectability, and not acknowledging
(or noticing) either of these moves, it seems possible to give a scientic,
information-based account of both the nervous system and conscious-
ness that brings the two together. Cognitive psychologists learned to speak
without embarrassment of consciousness as the outcome of the lower-
level information-processing activity of the nervous system or as identical
with higher-level information-processing in the nervous system.
Let us pause for a moment to consider whats wrong with reducing
consciousness to information or expanding information to encompass the
whole of awareness. Under this interpretation, an ordinary conscious being
is literally steeped in information; the perceptual eld is a multi-modal

34. Hick, On the Rate of Gain of Information.


sphere of information. Sunbathing, for example, is information-bathing.

You, the reader, might nd it slightly odd, to say the least, to think of your-
self as being located in a sphere of information coterminous with your
sensory eld, and equally odd to think of all-encompassing being-here as
reducible to streams of data, to a pot of message. You might want to say
(correctly in my view) that being situated does not quite amount to being
informed, otherwise simply to be conscious would be to be well informed
to the point of saturation. Even less does being-here-in-the-world for
all that it might include resolving uncertainties between a nite number
of possibilities amount to resolution of uncertainty, which is what the
technical sense of information boils down to. Whats more the notion of
consciousness-as-uncertainty-resolution overlooks the background, the
framing, within which the uncertainties to be resolved are generated and
reduced to a nite number.35
Cognitive psychologists somehow cant see that the engineers use of
the term information does not apply outside its legitimate provenance:
that of unconscious devices designed by conscious human beings to help
them communicate with other conscious human beings. If we remove
this element of human intention, essential to ordinary communication,
then information states or information-bearing states can be made to
encompass pretty well everything that happens or exists. We are now at the
top of a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies the lunacy of those who
claim that the entire universe is a process of transmitting and receiving
information. Let us now take a sleigh ride down that slope.
The rst step nds information outside the body, in the energy that
impinges on the esh. This is more momentous than it might at rst seem:
it solves, by bypassing it, a big problem. If you really believe that conscious-
ness arises out of the interaction between the nervous system and material
objects outside it, so that the transfer of energy from external objects to
sense endings accounts for perception, then you have a bit of explaining
to do, as we saw in Why there can never be a brain science of conscious-
ness in Chapter 3. How does the energy impinging on the nervous system
become transformed into consciousness? Although the nervous system
seems quite good at turning various forms of energy into its own in-house
dialect (the propagated electrochemical changes we described in Chapter

35. The impossibility of solving the frame problem has brought the dream of articial intelligence
and autonomous robots that would replace humans to a rather sad awakening. See Dennett,
Cognitive Wheels.


1), this doesnt seem to amount to the transformation of energy into infor-
mation. If, as Patricia Churchland argues, along with most cognitive
psychologists, nervous systems are information-processing machines,36
someone is going to ask where the information comes from. Clearly you
cant process something you dont have: a stomach isnt a dinner-processing
machine unless it gets a dinner from somewhere.
But now thats easily solved if the information is actually present in the
energy that impinges on the nervous system! The job of the nervous system
is no longer the metaphysical task of turning energy into consciousness or
material events into information: it simply has to extract and process it.
Thus Johnson-Laird argues that light reected from surfaces and focused
on the retina contains a large amount of information37 (gossipy stu, light).
This must surely be the easiest solution to the puzzle of how energy is
transformed into information: the information is in the energy, although
there is still some work to be done: No matter how much information is
in the light falling on the retinae, there must be mental mechanisms for
recovering the identities of things in a scene and those of their properties
that vision makes explicit to consciousness.38
Quite so. This may be why, for some writers, concerned to spare
the brain an insuperable task, the information that is inherent in energy
in particular and the material world in general does not even have to be
extracted by the nervous system; it is there for the taking. Or, rather, it
is there whether it is taken or not. For example, there is the widely held
belief that not only are unconscious organisms information-processing
devices, but the individual parts of them are as well. Indeed, information is
embodied in all organisms, most notably in the genetic material. Dawkins
(whose views on this matter are by no means heterodox) takes it for
granted that DNA is itself information, and carries instructions for trans-
mitting and preserving information: If you want to understand life, dont
think about vibrant throbbing gels and oozes, think about information
technology.39 The dierence between DNA and a memory stick is merely a
question of the storage medium used chemical as opposed to electronic
but the essentials are the same.

36. Churchland, Neurophilosophy, 36.

37. Johnson-Laird, The Computer and the Mind, 61.
38. Ibid..
39. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 112, emphasis added.


Each individual organism should be seen as a temporary vehicle

in which DNA messages spend a tiny fraction of their geological

The information technology of the genes is digital We receive

our inheritance in discrete particles.41

Dawkins has consistently held to this view. In 2008 he spoke as follows:

What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of informa-
tion technology. It is pure information. Its precisely the kind of informa-
tion that can be translated digit for digit, byte for byte, into any other kind
of information.42 And what an enormous number of messages there are!
DNA is ROM (Read Only Memory) and it is comparable to a laser disk in
terms of the amount of information it packs into a small space.43 [A]t the
molecular genetic level, every one of more than a trillion cells in the body
contains about a thousand times as much precisely-coded digital informa-
tion as my computer.44
The idea that the structure or internal physical order of an organism
amounts to information (as if ones material assets can be capitalized as
information ow) is, leaving aside the dubious thermodynamics on which
the metaphor is based,45 unfounded. The structure of an organism is not
available to it in the way that information is available to a conscious crea-
ture. It is certainly not part of consciousness. If a structure were equal to
information (about that structure, presumably), then being a crystal would
be a sucient condition of being a crystallographer, although one that
specialized rather narrowly on a single case.
I hope the point that I am making is now suciently clear. Once infor-
mation is uprooted from consciousness and from an informant or from
the experience of being informed and of wanting (or, come to that, refusing)
to be informed then any kind of nonsense is possible. According to the
information theorists we have discussed so far, the (unconscious) structure
of organisms contains or embodies information and the physical energy

40. Ibid., 1267, emphasis added.

41. Ibid., 11213, emphasis added.
42. Venter & Dawkins, Lfe: A Gene-Centric View.
43. Ibid., 1523.
44. Ibid., xiii.
45. For Colin Cherrys critique of the misuse of thermodynamics in this context, see my Why the
Mind is Not a Computer, Information (Knowledge).


impinging on the nervous system also contains information. It is possible

to go further than this: for the fully paid-up information theorist, informa-
tion is simply and literally everywhere. (I did say the slope was slippery.)
The informationalization of the universe has been taken to its logical
conclusion by theoreticians such as Edward Fredkin, Tommaso Tooli,
Stephen Wolfram and John Wheeler, for whom the fundamental particles
that make up the world atoms, quarks, and so on boil down to bits (binary
digits) of information.46 The universe is combinations of such binary digits.
Even atoms are information-processing systems. The universe, it seems,
is not only incredibly well informed about itself a huge polymath set out
in boundless space, an innity of omniscience but also it is information.
Fredkins digital physics has a further twist: it is based on the hypothesis
that the universe no longer processes information like a computer but that
it is a computer, still processing a program that was installed at the begin-
ning of time, possibly by a Great Programmer. Whether or not this comp-
utiverse is carried on the back of an elephant has not yet been determined.
The rationale behind this kind of thinking is clearly set out by the physi-
cist Paul Davies:

Compare the activity of the computer with a natural physical

system for example, a planet going round the sun. The state of
the system at any instant can be specied by giving the position
and velocity of the planet. These are the input data. The relevant
numbers can be given in binary arithmetic, as bit string of ones
and zeros. At some time later the planet will have a new position
and velocity, which can be described by another bit string: these
are the output data. The planet has succeeded in converting one
bit string into another, and is therefore in a sense a computer.
The program it has used in this conversion is a set of physical
laws (Newtons laws of motion and gravitation).47

Physical systems are thus computational systems, processing information

just as computers do; and scientic laws may be considered as algorithms.
This view is apparently supported by the observation that in post-
classical (quantum) physics many physical quantities normally regarded as

46. The clearest (to me at any rate) expression of this barmy idea is in Tooli, Physics and
47. Davies, The Mind of God, 118.


continuous are in fact discrete: nature is thus more readily amenable to digi-
tization. In other words, the universe is not merely a huge computer: it is a
huge digital computer. Digital physicists do not go so far as to say that it has
an IBM operating system or that the Pearly Gates are logic gates designed by
Bill Gates, but they do not fall far short of such claims.
Digital physics and the notion that the entire universe is composed of
information or is a giant information-processing system that, according
to Wheeler, It = Bit is what lies at the end of a long chain of unchecked
metaphors. Little by little, we arrive at lunacy. As is so often the case, the
rst steps on the path to lunacy appear quite sensible, reminding one of
G. K. Chestertons observation that The madman is not the man who has
lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except
his reason.48 The road from informationalist accounts of the mindbrain to
panpsychism is short, straight and metalled with iron logic.
The most important and the seemingly most innocuous step is that of
accepting the idea that information can be stored outside the human
body, outside conscious organisms in books or on disks. In the loose
sense of inform, I may regard a book as informative. Likewise, a book I
am writing may be informative; so (again, in a very loose sense) I am lling
my book with information. The books I read inform me and the books I
write are informed by me. Once this is taken literally, as opposed to being a
bit of shorthand, then information, informing and being informed start to
be liberated from a consciousness being informed or wanting to inform. If
it sounds odd to talk of one book informing another, consider what is often
said about information stored on disks: information may be copied from
one disk to another; information may be transmitted from disk to disk.
This is perfectly normal computer talk. The trouble is, it seems to
suggest that information can be given and received without the involve-
ment of consciousness. This is, of course, misleading: the information in
a book, or on a disk, is only potential information. And, speaking more
generally, it is not information but only potential information that can be
inscribed outside a conscious individual. It remains merely potential until it
is encountered by an individual requiring and able to receive information,
able to be informed. In the absence of such a (conscious) organism, it is
sloppy and inaccurate to refer to the states of objects as information; but
such loose talk is the beginning of a very long journey.

48. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 13.


At the end of that long journey, we nd not only mad physicists but
otherwise sane biologists and even respectable philosophers of mind such
as Chalmers:

[W]herever there is a causal interaction, there is information,

and wherever there is information, there is experience. One
can nd information states in a rock when it expands and
contracts, for example or even in the dierent states of an
electron. So there will be [conscious] experience associated
with a rock or an electron.49

To conclude, the illegitimately, and at times insanely, extended misuse

of the term information is absolutely pivotal to establishing the concep-
tual confusions necessary to the seeming fruitfulness and apparent explan-
atory power of much modern thought about the mind and the brain and
ourselves. This converges in the computational theory of mind. By playing
on dierent meanings of information, and transferring epithets like a
volleyball, it is possible to argue that minds, brains, organisms, various arte-
facts such as computers and even non-living thermodynamic systems are
all information-processing devices. Because they are deemed to be essen-
tially the same in this vitally important respect, they can be used to model
each other; homology and analogy can run riot. Once the concept of infor-
mation is liberated from the idea of a conscious someone being informed
and from that of a conscious someone doing the informing, anything is
possible. Language bewitches us and we imagine that the problem of
consciousness has been solved when in fact is has simply been concealed
by verbal legerdemain.

49. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, 297.


The Sighted Watchmaker


I cannot emphasize too strongly that I have no quarrel with Darwinism;

and if I did, I would be wasting my time and yours. Nor does Charles
Darwin require any endorsement from me. It is hardly necessary, so soon
after the world-wide celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth and
the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, to extol
his greatness. He is the Newton and Einstein of biology rolled into one: one
of those rare thinkers of whom what George Santayana wrote of Spinoza
that like a mountain he rises as he recedes1 is incontestably true. We
have lived so long with his fundamental ideas that it is still dicult, despite
the admirable eorts of writers such as Dawkins, to see how great they are.
What is perhaps most astonishing about Darwins achievement is that he
arrived at his theory on the basis of comparatively little evidence. Although
he scrupulously gathered and synthesized data from many sources, they
were still inadequate. The fossil record was very patchy and the science of
genetics, which is central to our contemporary understanding of the mech-
anisms of evolution, did not exist. The theory therefore had a huge surface
of exposure to potential falsication and yet every advance in biological
knowledge since Darwin has conrmed it: it is supported by, or consistent
with, facts he could not have imagined. This is extraordinary since, as

1. Santayana, Introduction.


Dawkins has pointed out,2 discovery of only a few fossils in the wrong
geological stratum would have dealt it a mortal blow. Carbon dating, the
demonstration of continental drift, the discovery of chromosomes and the
analysis of DNA have enabled the chronology of the emergence of organ-
isms and their familial relations to be determined with a precision that
Darwin could not have dreamed of. The mass of information that has
been gathered since 1859 justies Dawkinss assertion that Darwins theory
should now be upgraded to a theorum.3
My attack on Darwinitis, therefore, has nothing to do with a Bible-belt
questioning of the truth of Darwins central notion that species, including
H. sapiens, came into being through the operation of natural selection on
random variation. Nor do I presume to question the judgement that the
theory of evolution is one of the greatest ideas humanity has ever enter-
tained. Whats more I have very little quarrel with the more recent gene-
centred way of thinking about biological evolution, popularized by
Dawkins, and summarized as follows in his recent publication:

Natural selection is the dierential survival of successful genes

rather than alternative, less successful genes in gene pools.
Natural selection doesnt choose genes directly. Instead, it
chooses their proxies, individual bodies; and those individuals
are chosen obviously and automatically and without delibera-
tive intervention by whether they survive to reproduce copies
of the very same genes. A genes survival is intimately bound
up with the survival of the bodies that it helps to build, because
it rides inside those bodies, and dies with them Statistically,
therefore, a gene that tends, on average, to have a good eect on
the survival prospects of the bodies in which it nds itself will
tend to increase in frequency in the gene pool. So, on average,
the genes that we encounter in a gene pool will tend to be those
genes that are good at building bodies.4

Natural selection does away with the need to appeal to a designer.

Nothing in the organism is designed, intelligently, super-intelligently or
even stupidly. There is no need to appeal to a conscious shaping hand to

2. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, esp. ch. 1, Only a Theory?, 318.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 2489.


explain the emergence of complex creatures. The idea that they are as likely
to come into being through the operation of natural selection as a Jumbo
jet is to be constructed by a hurricane blowing through a junk yard one
of the favourite analogies of the (un)intelligent designers (and repeated to
me by the journalist Melanie Phillips on the BBC radio programme The
Moral Maze) is based on a failure to grasp two things: the rst is the
sheer quantity of time (several billion years) natural selection has had to
operate; and the second is that it is a non-random process. Natural selec-
tion is not random pruning but unconscious selection for increased tness
to survive to replicate. It is the non-random nature of selection that enables
the ascent of what Dawkins has called Mount Improbable from the most
primitive replicators to H. sapiens.
As an atheist humanist I reject the idea that evolution has a goal. More
particularly, I do not for a moment think it had us in mind as its destina-
tion and crowning glory. Living organisms are merely the means by which
genetic replicators ensure their replication. I am in entire agreement with
the orthodoxy, as expressed by Dawkins, that: Natural selection is all
futile. It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-
replication.5 In short, it is a mindless, pointless process. This is captured in
the striking metaphor that gives Dawkinss most brilliant book its title: The
Blind Watchmaker. In that book, he confronts the argument from design
head on.
The eighteenth-century theologian William Paley had argued that the
organized complexity of living creatures was proof of the existence of a
designer. After all, if we had come across a watch, we would immediately
infer the existence of a watchmaker: the watch must have had a maker:
there must have existed an articer or articers, who formed it for
the purpose which we nd it actually to answer; who comprehended its
instruction, and designed its use.6 Since living creatures are many times
more complex and intricately matched to their functions than any watch
or other human artefact we must conclude that they, too, had been formed
by a maker. Darwin had argued and every observation since then has
conrmed it that there was an alternative watchmaker to a conscious,
super-intelligent designer: the operation of unconscious, although non-
random, natural selection over hundreds of millions of years. Crucially,

5. Ibid., 392.
6. Paley, Natural Theology, 34, quoted in Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 4.


given that living matter had arisen out of non-living matter but still
remained matter, this biological process was ultimately a convergence of
physical processes:

All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature

is the blind forces of physics A true watchmaker has fore-
sight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their inter-
connections, with a future purpose in his minds eye. Natural
selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which
Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation
for the existence and the apparently purposeful form of all life,
has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no minds eye. It
does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no
sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in
nature, it is the blind watchmaker.7

This is a vision of evolution that seems to justify Samuel Butlers charac-

terization of Darwin pitchforking mind out of the universe.8 However,
mind is not banished from the universe, for there are still human minds
operating in, and shaping, parts of the universe. We cover the surface of
the earth with our artefacts, among them watches. Darwinism, therefore,
leaves something unaccounted for: the emergence of people like you and
me who are indubitably sighted watchmakers.
If there are no sighted watchmakers in nature and yet humans are
sighted watchmakers, in the narrower sense of making artefacts whose
purpose they envisage in advance, and in the wider sense of consciously
aiming at stated goals, then humans are not part of nature: or not entirely
so. To put this another way, isnt there a problem in explaining how the
blind forces of physics brought about (cognitively) sighted humans who are
able to see, and identify, and comment on, the blind forces of physics,
even to notice that they are blind and deliberately utilize them to engage
with nature as if from the outside, and on much more favourable terms
than those that govern the lives of other animals? On the Origin of Species
leaves us with the task of explaining the origin of the one species that is
indeed a designer. How did we humans get to be so dierent?

7. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 5.

8. Butler, Luck, or Cunning, 4.


While Darwin may have banished mind from the natural world, it is
dicult to overlook its operation in human life. Most of our actions are
deliberate and, however concrete, typically make sense only with respect
to frameworks, which incorporate many layers of abstraction that require
conscious minds to engage with. So something rather important about us
is left unexplained by evolutionary theory. We are not mindless and yet
seem to do things according to purposes that we entertain in a universe
that brought us into being by mindless processes that are entirely without
purpose. To deny this is not to subscribe to Darwinism but to embrace
I believe that we can reconcile Darwinism with the notion that we
humans do not t into the natural order, and that biological mechanisms
are far from the last word on what we are. To do this, we need to nd some
biological explanation of how we came to be so dierent: so dierent that,
uniquely in us, the laws of physics have become known and, made explicit,
are manipulated increasingly to our advantage. I shall point in the direc-
tion of an answer to this question although neither I nor anyone else
can give anything other than a tentative explanation in the next section.
In the nal section of this chapter, I shall examine a little more carefully
the way we are cognitively dierent from other living things, in particular
our nearest animal kin. This will set the scene for the task of developing a
picture of our humanity that restores what has been lost in the naturalism
of the neuromaniacs and Darwinitics.
My aim in the two sections that follow is less ambitious than it sounds; I
simply want to say enough to persuade you that Darwinism does not oblige
us to embrace biologism or, more specically, Darwinitis, and then to make
clear what is at the bottom of the great gulf that separates us from beasts.


In the next section, we shall dig deeper into dierences between us and
beasts but, for the present, I shall just list some of the key things that set us
o from the rest of the natural world, to give an idea of what it is that we
have to explain.
Above all, we have an enormously complex and sustained self-
consciousness unmatched by any other creatures. This self-awareness is
gathered up into a sense of an enduring self, related to a world of almost


innite explicit complexity. That world is populated by (material) objects,

which we intuit as having intrinsic properties and real connections that
may be hidden from us. It is also inhabited by other (aware) subjects and
groups of subjects located in a shared public realm. The public realm is
stocked with artefacts, and regulated by norms, rules and institutions. It has
temporal depths in which personal memories and shared histories connect
and disconnect. This is the theatre in which we behave as conscious agents
who lead our lives rather than merely organically live them.
Thus, for the present, our dierences. So how did we get to be so
dierent? I have discussed this at length in a trilogy I published between
2003 and 2005 and I will spare you an even denser synopsis of these dense
books, although I would be delighted if you were prompted to read them
by what follows.9 What follows is, of course, only one of many competing
accounts of the gap between us and apes. Some writers, as we have seen,
try to bridge the gap between us and apes by arguing that it is not as big as
it looks and that it is ultimately not real. Others, however, are aware that
the gap is a yawning gulf and seek an explanation that is proportionate
to the scale of what has to be explained. Among these writers two stand
out for me: Donald,10 whom it will be recalled armed the centrality of
consciousness in human life and Steven Mithen.11 They do not subscribe to
what, it will be recalled, the psychologist Nick Humphrey has described as
one of the most cherished assumptions of contemporary psychology: that
there is no fundamental dierence between ape minds and human minds.12
However, in order to be sure that that assumption is truly kept at bay
and does not, as it were, creep back into our thinking through the force
of others habits, it is necessary to emphasize the profundity of the dier-
ence between us and beasts, and it is this that I shall focus on: Schellings
wonderful idea that nature opens its eyes and notices that it exists.13 The
challenge is to imagine how, ultimately out of the blind forces of physics,
there arose the sighted watchmakers that we are; or, less ambitiously, how
we came to be fundamentally dierent from other creatures and not merely
exceptionally gifted chimps.

9. See my The Hand, I Am and The Knowing Animal.

10. Donald, A Mind So Rare.
11. Mithen The Prehistory of the Mind. While I do not subscribe to Mithens modular approach
to mind, I am grateful for his acknowledgement of the huge distance between human and
animal consciousness and of the need for a complex explanation of this distance.
12. Humphrey, Foreword.
13. Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, 369.


Most explanations of our dierences tend to hinge on the fact that we

have bigger brains: more specically that we have a larger frontal cortex
than is seen in the great apes. My starting-point, by contrast, is some-
thing that directly aects the whole body and its relation to the external
world and, even more importantly, to itself: the upright position that liber-
ated the hand so that it could turn our animal primate consciousness
upon itself. The hand, I shall argue, made the human animal, our hominid
ancestor, uniquely aware of its own actively engaged body. This awoke the
dim intuition That I am this body. (I have called this the existential intu-
ition.) From this, over time, there came an endlessly elaborated sense of
self and an ever more potent agency. The central plank of my arguments
is that this primordial version of the rst-person mode of existence I
am this and the selfhood and agency that owed from it emerged in the
no-person world of material events in part as a result of the special prop-
erties of the thumb, which, taken in conjunction with the upright position,
transformed the primate hand into a proto-tool. It was this that lay at
the start of the development that ultimately enabled humankind increas-
ingly to utilize the laws of nature rather than merely being a substrate on
or through which they operate. To express it a little frivolously, the thumb
enabled us to hitch a ride on the laws of nature to destinations that nature
had not pregured.
Put baldly like this, the claim that something so small as the hand even
worse, the thumb should have had such momentous, indeed massive,
consequences, may seem ludicrous. So let me deal with the size issue at
once. Size may be important but it is not everything. After all, human
beings are pretty small in the scheme of things smaller than most trees
and a good deal smaller than mountains and no one will deny that their
impact on the planet is vastly greater than that of any other creature.
And we are familiar with non-linear processes, for example the buttery
eect, whereby small initial dierences may lead over a long period of
time to massive dierences. Whats more, the period of time in question
is several million years; this is the interval that separates the rst intuition
of sustained self-consciousness and agency delivered, I believe, in part
by the hand of the upright animal from the massive complex cultures
and civilizations that we now partake in. The distance between man and
non-human animals has been opened up by the work of millions of pairs
of hands over millions of years. We are talking about a slow-burning fuse
that was lit when primates rst stood upright. And that was where much of
importance to this story began.


It is widely accepted that the migration several million years ago of

Australopithecine hominids out of the safety of the trees to the dangerous
savannah, perhaps triggered by climatic changes that devastated the
forests, made the upright position of adaptive value; for example, it
increased the range of vision, allowing the eyes to assume their full poten-
tial as early warning devices, something else that had an important role in
our becoming embodied subjects and to which I shall briey return. Inci-
dentally and most importantly, however, bipedalism walking on two legs
liberated the forelimbs from the demands of locomotion. Although other
animals assume the upright position from time to time, only man is over-
whelmingly bipedal. The forelimb, as Sherrington so beautifully expressed
it, was thereby transformed from a simple locomotor prop to a delicate
explorer of space.14 The hands were freed to take advantage of anatom-
ical developments that would increase their manipulative skills and conse-
quently develop from an organ into a proto-tool.
Foremost among these anatomical developments were those that
enabled full pad-to-pad contact between the thumb and the other ngers:
so-called opposability. Some other primates show a degree of oppos-
ability but, because their thumbs have limited powers of rotation and
are relatively short, opposability is incomplete. Only in humans is there
a large surface of very intimate contact between the pulps of opposing
ngers. Opposability, combined with the ability (shared with some other
primates) to move the ngers independently of one another (fractionated
nger movement), made it possible for the hand to become a stunningly
versatile organ for interacting with the world. The hand is richly supplied
with sensory endings, so that the multitude of grips it can draw on may
be perfectly adapted to the objects it is exploring and manipulating and be
precisely regulated during manipulation by very subtle feedback processes.
What is more, in the touching tips of the ngers the body communicates
with itself, as well as with the external world with unprecedented intensity.
It is hardly necessary to emphasize the biological importance of the
wholly opposable thumb; many others have done so already. Its adaptive
value has been fully appreciated. Its contribution to the transformation
of self-awareness and self-understanding, however, has been less widely
understood. Opposability, through its impact on the range of possibili-
ties of the hand, alters our relation to our own bodies and through this to

14. Sherrington, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, 352.


each other and the material world. This transformed relation is a key to the
transition from primate consciousness, which for all its complexity is not
turned back on itself in any sustained way, to human self-consciousness, in
which objects and subjects are explicitly dierentiated.15 The hand, I want
to suggest, took humans over the threshold (perhaps quite low chimps
were so near) dividing consciousness from self-consciousness and unreec-
tive instinctive behaviour from true agency. You may feel this is a rather
large claim. What is the basis for it?
Opposability rst and most obviously makes available a very large
number of grips that the hand may deploy during the course of its manipu-
lative activity. Crucially, at any given moment there is a range of possible
grips and strategies, an almost unlimited opportunity for inventiveness and
creativity, so we have a choice. At the same time, the range is restricted by
the shape and properties of the object we are manipulating and our inten-
tion in manipulating it. We have what I have called constrained manip-
ulative indeterminacy: the indeterminacy is not mere randomness and
this, and the intimate choice it implies the opposite of stereotyped,
programmed movements is, ultimately, the basis for the intuition of the
agency of our own bodies and the intuition of our bodies as our own and,
indeed, as ourselves, and hence of ourselves as agents.
To see the connection between this choice and the intuition of self-
conscious agency one must appreciate that we have a very special rela-
tion to our hand when it is engaged in manipulative activity. Manual
choosing takes place in the context of the especially intimate interaction
with the manipulated object, underscored by constant direct sensory feed-
back about the position of our hands, their relation to the object of interest
and the progress of whatever operation is being performed, through skin
sensation, the hands awareness of itself so-called proprioception and
(very importantly) vision. The special relation is highlighted because the
opposed ngers not only manipulate objects but also do this by means of
a kind of interaction a self-ngering, a meta-ngering in which the
hand addresses itself. It is within this context that the hand emerges as a
proto-tool. Our relation to the hand as a tool is of the utmost signicance.
It transforms the relation with our own bodies into something that is not
seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom: the tool-like status of the hand

15. Self-consciousness in chimpanzees (and in elephants and dolphins, to whom it is also attrib-
uted) is episodic: it does not add up to sustained sense of self, even less to a biography.


spreads back into the body that is using it, which latter then becomes more
widely instrumentalized; and gradually humans emerge as creatures who
explicitly utilize as well as suer or live their bodies, or respond to an envi-
ronment that is a source of stimuli and cues; who truly act as well as react.
Humans, then, were unique among the primates in awakening to a sense
of agency, of being one who does, at least in part because the hand is
experienced as a tool; this instrumentalizes the hominid body as a whole,
which in turn reinforces the status of the hand as an explicit agent and
fosters an emerging sense of being a self that wills things to happen. It is on
this basis that deliberate action begins to replace, or to expropriate, instinc-
tive behaviour, tropisms and automatic cue-driven responses to stimuli in
short biological mechanisms even though agency must still be fashioned
out of, or built on, biological mechanisms. This opens a slowly widening
gap between the biological mechanisms that make human actions possible
and the non-stereotyped nature of those actions: stereotyped mechanisms
are increasingly deployed to non-stereotyped ends.
The argument that manipulative indeterminacy underpins the sense of
agency is open to this objection. We have considerable discretion over how
we deploy other parts of our body such as our feet. Why not argue that the
human foot lies at the root of the intuition of agency? We may, of course,
use our feet as instruments, as the incredible but utterly futile skills of foot-
ballers testify. This, however, is consequential on an existing instrumental
relation we already have to the entirety of our body, awoken by our hands.
To understand why knuckle-walking chimps or primates swinging though
the trees did not acquire the intuition of agency, and why humans alone of
the beasts broke into sustained self-consciousness, we need to be mindful
not only of the hands unique versatility (scarcely matched by the foot) and
of its close relation to the eyes, but also of its status as the chief organ of the
fth sense touch. Manual touch is rather special, not only because it is
so precise and sensitive. As we have already discussed, the hand addresses
itself meta-ngers as no other organ does; toes, at best, enjoy sidelong
glimpses at each other. What is more, touch is not overshadowed by smell
as it is in animals whose faces are typically close to the ground. (We shall
return to other consequences of the upright position shortly.)
Just how special manual touch is may be illustrated by an experiment
that requires no equipment except a human body and a quiet room where
one can be undisturbed. Slip o your shirt and let your bared shoulder
cool. Touch it with your warm hand. You will nd that you are divisible into
at least two subjects and two objects. Your hand (subject) is aware of the


coolness of your shoulder (object); your shoulder (subject) is aware of the

warmth of your hand (object). There is therefore a double distance within
you as an embodied subject. However, this relation is not symmetrical. The
hand has, well, the upper hand: it is manifestly the exploratory agent and
the shoulder manifestly the explored surface. Although touch is recipro-
cated the toucher in each case is also that which is touched there is
this hierarchy of roles because the hand has come to the shoulder and not
vice versa. Whats more, the hand has the established track record of being
an explorer, unlike the shoulder. The dierentiation of roles, so that one
part of your body is, as it were, superior to another maintains the inner
distances: the subjectobject distance awoken within your body is not
cancelled by an equal and opposite objectsubject distance. Opposite, yes:
equal, no. (And where it is a dialogue of bodily equals as when I rub my
hands together we have ourselves as subjects to maintain the hierarchy. I
oversee, or chair, the interactions between my two hands.)
The role of the hand as an exploratory organ conrms its status as a tool
and reinforces its power to awaken in the human organism the sense of
being a subject within its body. It does so, however, only once the intuition
of agency has been already ignited. That is why the exploratory function
of the hand in other primates is not sucient to awaken in them the sense
of self and agency. The subjectobject, agentpatient, relation within the
body is many-layered. It is elaborated even within the hand itself, where
every manipulation has a built-in hierarchy, such that part of the hand (for
example the palm and unmoving ngers) is stabilizing background and
the rest is active foreground. While in much non-human animal activity
too, one part of the body acts as a stabilizing background for foreground
activity, this is developed to an unparalleled extent in humans. As a conse-
quence, humans are subjects within, agents acting through, their own
bodies to a degree that other animals are not.
While we may conjecture that other beasts, particularly other primates,
come very close to the threshold that separates consciousness from self-
consciousness and explicit agency, they do not cross it: or not sustainedly
at any rate. Nevertheless, human consciousness is built on a foundation
already provided by the complex consciousness of the primate ancestors
we have in common with everyday higher apes. That is why, say, the octo-
puss tentacles or the elephants trunk (two examples frequently raised with
me when I have presented this argument) do not deliver the animals body
to itself as an instrument or transform it into an embodied subject. These
other creatures, while they use their prehensile organs in a variety of ways


that look as if they are chosen by an agent, are starting too far back from
self-consciousness. The non-human primates, by contrast, are close to the
threshold that humans overcome. (And this is another reason why the rela-
tively small anatomical dierences I have focused on have had such huge
eect: why something as seemingly insignicant has had such signicant
eects.) As Gordon Gallup and many others have demonstrated, there is
at least transient self-consciousness in some primates.16 When a gorilla
with a lipstick mark on its forehead is placed in front of a mirror it will
attempt to rub it o, indicating that it recognizes the image in the mirror
as an image of its own body, of itself. But this sense of self is momentary
and present only under very special circumstances, as when the image of
its body is played back to itself. It is something to build on, but a far cry
from the innitely elaborated, sustained sense of self reected in our self-
conscious behaviour, mediated through dierent kinds of self-image, and
the narrated, actively led lives that we humans have.
The hand as full-blown tool, that transforms the body into a self-conscious
agent, widens the gap within the human body through which the human
person enters into the primate organism. Passing over the threshold from
consciousness to self-consciousness was not a sudden, complete change. It
was the start of a long journey and we are still en route. The emergence
of the human self-agent was gradual. Successive generations of hominids
began further from the beginning, inheriting the cumulative progress of the
previous generations. It now takes a newborn infant perhaps ten years to
acquire (o the shelf , as it were) the fruits of several million years of human
development. Most of it is acquired in the rst two years oflife.
The millions of years over which the lighting up of human self-
consciousness took place are, if my account is correct, precisely the extent
by which those versions of evolutionary psychology that claim that human
behaviour can be understood in terms that are applicable to animal behav-
iour selected for by evolutionary processes are out of date. Evolutionary
psychology stops at the condition achieved by primates just before the rst
intuition I am this: before the blind forces of biology, and indeed physics,
started the long slow unblinding that resulted in sighted watchmakers such
as ourselves uncovering and utilizing the blind forces of physics.
I have mentioned that our cognitive journey was a collective process.
This brings us to another key element of evolving human consciousness:

16. Gallup, Self-Recognition in Primates.


the extent to which our awareness is collectivized and is anchored in an

acknowledged public space, a society that is joined together psychologically
rather than merely through the dovetailing of pre-programmed behaviours.
Ill come back to this complex notion in the next section but I want to say
something now because it relates to the inuence of another biological
dierence: the upright position. The upright position not only liberates our
hands in the way we have spoken of, but also raises us above the world that
we see, places us at a distance from it. This in itself would not count for
much after all, girae vision is more elevated than our own, not to speak
of that of a bird in a tree or in the air were it not for the special nature
of our gaze: namely the gaze of an embodied subject.17 This combines with
the liberated hand in a special way to create an important gesture that
strengthens shared attention: pointing.
The human hand can take advantage not only of its fully opposable
thumb but also of the unique freedom of movement of the index nger
that enables it to point.18 The sense that I am a subject has as its correla-
tive the sense that I am surrounded by objects that are other than me and
that belong to a world shared with other subjects. Through pointing the
index nger can be used to make the common world in part public, in
part private to me more explicit by soliciting joint attention. This is not
the only one, but it is the most important (and the most universal), of the
pre-verbal signs by which humans exchange information about a world
that is in part visible and in part hidden. We shall return to it in the next
section. For the moment, we note the increasing importance of the gaze in
the upright animal: joint attention is most readily secured by joint visual
attention. In the gaze of the upright animal, the objectivity of the object,
the sense that it is other than me, the subject, is heightened. This underpins
the intuition of a world had in common, that is the arena of both ones own
life and the lives of others with whom one is connected and from whom
one is separated.
I have described the hand as a proto-tool. We may imagine a feed-
forward mechanism involving secondary drivers. The most important of
these are tools ultimately inspired by the toolhand. Our collective genius
as toolmaking animals is an extension of the special, instrumental relation

17. There are, incidentally, unique features of the cerebral structures supporting vision in humans:
another biological dierence to drive the escape from biology. See Preuss & Coleman,
Human-Specic Organization of Primary Visual Cortex.
18. See my Michelangelos Finger.


we have to our hands, and consequently to our bodies and, through our
bodies, to the world.
This is more contentious than it should be. Many biologists, as we have
seen, have denied that there is anything special about human tool use,
arguing that sophisticated technologies are seen in many other organisms,
including apes, octopuses and crows. We are now in a position to grasp what
it is that is unique about our tool use and to see that employing the same
phrase for how humans use artefacts and how animals use sticks and stones
is actively misleading. Granted, other animals seem to use tools, and even
modify sticks and stones snatched at random. However, only humans are
tool users in the true sense. The fact that humans alone routinely use tools
to make tools so-called secondary tool use itself suggests that we alone
have the concept of a tool. The unimpressive range of animal tool use and
its failure to develop betrays the profound dierence between genuine tool
use and what animals do with sticks and stones and thorns. The poverty of
apparent tool use in animals is striking: the small number of the stereotyped
tricks clearly indicates that the underlying principles are not appreciated by
the animals. There is nothing in the history of chimps, say, corresponding to
eras marked by the discovery of dierent types of tools. The lack of variety
and the virtual absence of innovation (as result of which animals do not have
to teach their young how to use tools) is striking. The absolute pinnacle of
chimp tool use is the employment of a stone to break a nut and this takes
the beast about ve years to learn! And, as far as we know, chimps tool
use is little dierent from what it was when H. sapiens rst came on the
scene. Where there are new developments very few and none that open
up an entire eld of technology their signicance is grossly exaggerated.
For example, when macaques started washing nuts by the seashore, and
octopuses started collecting coconut shells, this was described as cultural
variation and hence evidence of a distinctive local culture!
We can now understand this dismal performance, this ludicrously
low ceiling of technological achievement, seen even in primates. What is
described as tool use by animals is not rooted in a fully developed instru-
mental relation to their own bodies. They are still organisms rather than
embodied subjects. Human tool use, by contrast, is anchored in a full-
blown sense of the body-as-instrument. That is why it has no limits. The
journey from the eolith and pebble chopper to the Cray supercomputers
and the nuclear power station, which has been so rapid, is just the rst step
in a story that has no conceivable end. Even at the dawn of human tool-
making there was complexity beyond the ken of animals. Flint-knapping


to make a stone axe (which began about 400,000 years ago) involves many
hundreds of steps. No animal gets anywhere near this.
Moreover, human tools are implicitly composite, even where they are
not explicitly so. The rst most obvious tool, the pebble chopper, was a
composite, with a rounded end designed to t into the palm of the hand
and a jagged sharp end designed to do the business. It is a forerunner of
handled tools in which the end that is adapted to the hand that holds it
and the end adapted to the tasks that it has to do the business are explicitly
dierentiated. The handle is unequivocal evidence of an instrument that is
not assimilated into the body schema; it signies an interaction between the
body and its environment that is explicitly agentive and from a distance;
and is a startling demonstration of the fact that humans grasp the tool as
an agent of their agency that exists in its own right, rather than, as seems
to be the case in animals, being assimilated into the body, dissolved into
a bodytool complex, somewhat as the ground is when we are walking.
Seen in their true light, composite tools are a miracle of explicit under-
standing: an emphatic expression of an awareness of the self, or the body as
agent, separating the connection between the body and its agent the tool
and the tool and its substrate. The handled tool is an expression of this
fundamental ability of humans to uncouple themselves from the material
environment in order to engage with it on more favourable terms: reculer
pour mieux sauter. This is taken further even in prehistoric times. Think
of the separately manufactured elements, such as thread and glue, used to
hold composite tools together. Think of technologies, such as the needle,
designed to take threads to the places where the thread is required.
How perceptive Aristotle was, therefore, in characterizing the hand as an
instrument that represents many instruments.19 (Signicantly, the Greek
term organon means both organ and tool.) He saw that the human
hand is the ur-tool, the tool of tools, the inspiration of the implement. Tools
directly and indirectly mark the distance between the nature in which other
animals are immersed and the culture that distances humans from nature.
The reference to Aristotle, by the way, is an admission that there is nothing
brand new in the idea that the hand has a central role in enabling us progres-
sively to distance our self from nature. And he was anticipated by the Preso-
cratic philosopher Anaxagoras. Many other thinkers have felt that the clue to
the origin of a distinctively human nature lies in the hand. Erasmus Darwin,

19. Arist. Part. an. IV.x.687a.


the grandfather of Charles, even expressed this view in verse (although he

would have been advised not to give up the day job):

Nerved with ne touch above the bestial throngs,

The hand, rst gift of Heaven! to man belongs;
Untipt with claws the circling ngers close,
With rival points the bending thumbs oppose,
Trace the nice lines of form with sense rened
And clear ideas charm the thinking mind.
Whence the rst organs of touch impart
Ideal gure, source of every art 20

And the great anatomist F. Wood Jones wrote that: Mans place in nature
is largely writ upon the hand.21
A story that gives such a central role, at least initially, to the hand is also
consistent, at least in its emphasis on motor activity, with Donalds account
of the three major cognitive transformations by which the modern human
mind emerged over several million years, starting with a complex of skills
presumably resembling those of a chimpanzee.22 Donald nds in motor
evolution the rst step in the passage from the non-symbolic cognitions
of animals to the fully symbolic representations that are wall-to-wall in
everyday human life. The key element was the ability of hominids to use
the body as a representational device, which he calls mimetic skills and
auto-cueing. This, he suggests, is based on an abstract model of models
that allows any action of the body to be stopped, replayed and edited, under
conscious control.23 The connection between this kind of motor activity
and rst-person being, the sense of self and the sense of ones self as an
explicit agent, will be clear, especially in the light of the foregoing discussion.
Donald links this with self-teaching and the renement of action by purpo-
sive repetition: something not seen in animals. We shall return to practice
when we consider free will (Welcome back, freedom in Chapter 7) but it is
manifestly germane to what Donald calls our unique human ability to tran-
scend the immediate environment.24 And we shall relate lexical cueing to

20. E. Darwin, The Temple of Nature, Canto III, Progress of the Mind.
21. Wood Jones, The Principles of Anatomy as Seen in the Hand, 5.
22. Donald, Prcis of Origins of the Modern Mind, 737.
23. Donald, The Denition of Human Nature, 46.
24. Ibid., 44.


the discussion of the human realm in the next section. But I want rst to
focus on something else that Donald emphasizes: that the brain is only one
out of many drivers of human evolution, and not the sole, or indeed central,
source of the ever-widening gap between us and beasts.
Given what I have said at many places in this book you will not be
surprised that I have placed less emphasis than is customary on brain size
as the explanation of our uniqueness. But is it not odd to ignore the brain
altogether? It would be, if I did; after all, the relative brain size of Homo
erectus (about 1.5 million years ago) was much larger than that of previous
hominids. This cannot be accounted for by increase in his body size to
maintain the brain to body weight ratio. The brain of H. Erectus eventu-
ally ended up at about 70 per cent of the modern human brain; and the
size of the brain continued to increase until Homo sapiens appeared about
200,000 years ago.25 Over the millennia since then, the changes in brain size
have not matched the changes in human life. And it is pertinent to note
that Neanderthals, who lost out against modern H. sapiens 40,000 years
ago, had larger brains than their successful rivals.26 These recent changes
cannot be traced to biological changes in the brain. And this is consistent
with the fact that they take place in, and belong to, the human collec-
tive. To put this bluntly, we shall not nd the evolution of the community
of minds in the growth or restructuring evident in individual brains. Of
course, increased brain size and connectivity may have been a necessary
condition that had to be in place before we opened up and came to dwell
in a dierent realm the public sphere that is the theatre of human lives
and which I will discuss in the next section but it is not a sucient one.
Likewise, it was necessary that we should at least have the cognitive equip-
ment of a chimpanzee from which we could take o into our own world.
But we have to look beyond the brain to get a complete picture of the
biological basis of the emergence of those dierences that make Darwinian
accounts of what we are inadequate. It was only after the hand combined
with the upright position and the altered status of the gaze directed
humans along a track of increasing self-consciousness and ever more eec-
tive agency that increased brain size could be exploited to deliver modes of
understanding and behaviour that had never before been seen in the living
world. That is why, to echo Humphrey, our bigger brains did not merely give

25. Lieberman, Uniquely Human.

26. Holloway, Toward a Synthetic Theory of Human Brain Evolution.


us more of the same but helped to facilitate something qualitatively dierent:

why we are not just very bright chimps. The interaction between the visible
hand and the outside world and the interaction of the hand with itself, rather
than the mere increased volume and increased internal connectivity of a
self-numb brain, is the immediate condition of the awakening of the sentient
organism to itself as the subject of its body. The development of humans
away from the mode of consciousness enjoyed by other primates was not
a private, organic event in the intracranial darkness; it took place in public,
where the visible hand was operating. Granted, for most of human history
after the hand awoke am or rst-person sense of existence it has not worked
alone; but the hand was a key element in the process.
Neuromaniacs, obsessed with what lights up in the darkness of the skull,
seem unable to appreciate that brains by themselves are pointless. As we
have seen, some of them even think that a human being may as well be a
brain in a vat. But brains have point only if they are attached to organs
that deliver behaviour. Brain expansion, therefore, will be driven by adap-
tive interaction with the peripheral organs and events that go beyond the
periphery of the body. Only when opposability gave the hand the poten-
tial for its unique dexterity was there any point in increasing complexity
of its neural control. After this, it is possible to envisage a dialectic or a
ratcheting up between brain and hand such that increasing dexterity would
drive increasing brain size and shape cerebral organization and the latter
would promote increasing dexterity. This novel dialectic that made possible
the necessary conditions of cognitively modern humanity was, however, in
the rst instance, driven by the hand: opposability, which brought with it
manipulative indeterminacy and consequently the intuition of selfhood and
agency, started the process. This took place in the shared, visible, public
world. It is relevant to this argument that the real leap in brain size began
a mere 2,000,000 years ago, nearly a million years after the pebble chopper
was invented (about 2.8 million years BPE) by creatures who must have
had at least a dim sense of themselves as agents. Moreover, this expansion
tailed o, as we have noted, when the community of minds and the arena
of human life were, as far as we can tell, still in their infancy.27

27. The discovery of Lucy in 1974, an australopithecine about 3.2 million years old, demon-
strated beyond doubt that the upright posture which freed the hands and turned our heads
into watchtowers evolved long before our big brains. This should have put paid to the idea
of human evolution and our deviation from the other primates as exclusively brain-driven or
even brain-led.


Language has, of course, had a crucial inuence in the dissemination of

know-how and the onward transmission of accumulated factual knowledge.
But it is a latecomer compared with the hand tool; the earliest unequiv-
ocal evidence of language is about 40,000100,000 years ago, whereas the
rst manufactured tools date from about 2.8 million years ago. (This is not
to deny that the rapid development of toolmaking over the past 40,000 or
more years owes much to the interaction between hand-based technical
skill and linguistic communication.) What is more, tools and so the hand
were arguably crucial precursors to the development of language, to the
cognitive sharing and the sense of ourselves and others that are presup-
posed in language. I have time only to gesture towards the powerful argu-
ments in favour of this claim, but it is important, as it emphasizes a key
stage in the passage from nature to civilization.28
To understand the relation between tools and language it is important
to bear in mind something that has already been discussed: the profound
dierence between human tool use and the apparently analogous use of
tools by animals, even higher primates. The most important dierence is
that when humans use tools the latter are not completely assimilated into
the body image or schema, as they are in animals. This is because the body
schema in humans is already dierentiated into a hierarchy of agents and
patients, subjects and instruments, as a result of the toolness of the hand.
Hominid tools are therefore explicitly extra-corporeal, and hence expli-
citly what they are. They are manifestly signs of themselves. Consequently
they are ripe to be used as signs. Hence their aptness to be precursors of
language. Tools, as abstract, general and visible signs of invisible states such
as needs, are proto-linguistic. Shared tools and artefacts in the widest sense
thus become a means by which consciousness which is not opened up to
their conspecics in non-human animals is partially collectivized. Being
shared, tools underpin pooled agency and awareness, and thus contribute
to developing the sense of a truly social world, shared in a way that the
biosphere is not. The social world is the forum for genuine collective
action, which is quite dierent from the pre-programmed dovetailing of
activity, based on stereotyped and automatic responses, that characterizes
the quasi-social behaviour of animals, notwithstanding that the latter, as in
the case of insects, may be very highly developed, generating spectacular

28. For a less perfunctory account of the role of the hand in allowing humans to go down a path
dierent from all other animals, see my The Hand.


monuments of collective endeavour. There is, as Susanne Langer pointed

out, a world of dierence between a hive and a city.29
Locating one of the key drivers to human development outside the brain
in a part of the body that is visible to other people makes it easier to see
how gene-based human evolution, enacted through individual organisms,
could be replaced by the progressive development of a collective sphere
belonging to all: a world of facts, customs, laws, roles and so on, rather
than merely of material objects; a world in which Thatter (see below) is at
least as important as matter. By placing language now the overwhelm-
ingly predominant substrate of Thatter where it should be, on the far
side of an already existing cognitive gulf from beasts, we shall immunize
ourselves from the temptation to biologize the structure and function of
human language, and more broadly symbolic systems, and assimilate them
to animal cries.
I have merely glanced at something that is very complex, simply to
emphasize that it is possible to oer a biological explanation of how it is
that we have taken a unique path, opening up ever greater non-biological
distances between ourselves and other animals, and to do so without giving
the brain sole or even major credit for what has happened, which might
license a drift towards Neuromania. By locating a major driver towards our
uniqueness outside the brain, in a part of the body that (unlike the brain)
is visible to the bodys owner, we nd the basis for the inkling of agency
and the sense of self. The hand is the ur-tool, the precursor agent deliv-
ering human agency and human culture into the natural world. It remains
the master tool until the much later development of autonomous tools or
machines, which reduces the hand in some instances to a mere presser of
The kind of speculative reconstruction of How we came to be so
dierent that you have just read has often been dismissed as a just-so story,
in mocking echo of Rudyard Kiplings famous tales. Although it may not be
apparent from the contents of the preceding pages, I am somewhat allergic
to such stories (including Kiplings originals, although they were meant
humorously), if only because they attempt to account for a unique process
and do so post hoc. So I am prepared to be persuaded that other factors
may have propelled us along the unique path out of nature that we took
when we forked o from our common primate ancestors. I will change my

29. Langer, Man and Animal.


mind, if emerging evidence requires it, about the central role of the hand.30
My main purpose, however, has been to demonstrate the possibility of a
biological account of how it was that we (partially) escaped from biology,
and thereby to support my contention that being a good Darwinian does
not require succumbing to Darwinitis or denying that we are profoundly
I want to end my critique of Darwinitis by digging a little deeper into
our dierences, focusing on those things that are overlooked, as a result
of which evolutionary psychology and, more broadly, neuro-evolutionary
reductionism can command such acceptance.


What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and

our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the
creation of the mind.31

On the great Darwinian stage we call Earth there has not

been an upheaval as big as us since the origin of life.32

This section is perhaps the most important in the book but inescapably
the most dicult. The intuitions behind it are elusive and yet it is essen-
tial to hold on to them if we are to avoid either lapsing back into biologism
or drifting towards a dualism that holds not only that we are ghosts in a
machine but that there is mind free-oating in the world between bodies.
I want to avoid both errors and to do so by drawing attention to a new kind
of space, an arena we humans have collectively created, which is the theatre
of our freedom, to which our selves relate: the place in which we live our
lives as persons rather than as organisms.

30. Other accounts of how we came to be so dierent may be traced back to the transforma-
tion of our bodies into tool-using, toolmaking agents but they do not dig deep enough. For
example, Richard Wranghams intriguing Catching Fire, which attributes our dierence to
cooking, does not go to the very source of our dierences for this reason: the capacity of H.
erectus to cook clearly presupposes an advanced sense of what can be sustained through a
many-stepped process.
31. Anonymous, The Dhammapada, 35.
32. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, 4.


As we saw in Chapter 4, many thinkers feel obliged to ignore what is in

front of their noses. Even those who can see how profoundly dierent we
are still argue that this is a mere surface appearance concealing a funda-
mental similarity or that it is a matter of degree rather than kind. To
counter this we need not only to argue that the generous interpretation of
animal behaviour as almost human is underdetermined by the facts of
that behaviour but also to look more closely at the way we humans behave.
The dierence between animal tool use and human tool use is not simply
evident in the contrast between the ad hoc exploitation of a coconut shell
by an octopus that leads to nothing else and the human journey from spear-
throwing to nuclear power stations and satellite communication systems.
The dierence is present even in spear-throwing. A chimpanzee using a
stick as a weapon is not doing the same thing as a human using a stick as
a weapon. That which supercially appears the same or can be described
in similar terms is in fact profoundly dierent: precisely the opposite of the
Darwinitis that would have us believe that behaviours that appear dierent
on the surface are in fact identical underneath.
You may recall Povinellis criticism of the logical weakness of the argu-
ment from analogy: the assumption that the similarity in the natural
behaviour of humans and chimpanzees implies a comparable similarity in
the mental states which attend and generate that behaviour.33 Once we free
ourselves from the spell cast by the argument by analogy, we can see that
the local or particular dierences we observe between humans and beasts
are simply the most striking manifestations of what is a universal, wall-to-
wall dierence. What is this wall-to-wall dierence?
In The Explicit Animal, I identied making things explicit as the crucial,
global dierence between us and other beasts. This propensity to live by
explicit rules and make explicit sense of the world we live in its material
properties and their laws that govern them, its norms and rules is
manifested in many dierent ways. We are uniquely self-conscious (and
conscious of a uniquely enduring self ) and uniquely other-conscious (both
of the otherness of material objects and processes in the material world and
the otherness of our fellow men and women). We have objective, factual
knowledge as well as experience and, linked with this, have fully developed
categories of truth and falsehood. These are dierences in kind, not just of

33. Povinelli, Folk Physics for Apes, 9.


degree. They are expressed in the extent to which we lead our lives rather
than simply pinballing from event to event as other living organisms do.
Language is the most literal expression of our nature as explicit animals.
But it is only a symptom of our fundamental dierence, and, whats more,
a relative parvenu, appearing at most 100,000 years ago, long after we had
parted cognitive company with the rest of the animal kingdom. Never-
theless, it is worth having a quick look at it. Reminding ourselves how
verbal exchanges dier from animal communication helps us to see what
is exceptional about us, which is why the advocates of biologism have
expended so much eort in trying to persuade us that speech is simply
our particular brand of animal communication and that animal cries are
proto-linguistic. The most obvious reason why this is wrong is that our
language has an incomparable lexical variety: a vast quantity of terms that
mean dierent things and, what is more, have dierent functions (nouns,
verbs, articles, conjunctions). Through combining words in dierent ways
we can generate an innity of sentences from these impressive, but still
nite, lexical resources. It has syntax regulating the way in which words
with dierent functions may or may not be combined. From this arises our
ability to refer both to singular situations and also, explicitly, to generalities,
to classes of situations, to possibilities as well as actualities, and to rule in
that which is the case and rule out that which is not, or even could not be,
the case. Verbs have tenses that enable past and future events to be referred
to. These referential capabilities are expressed in a variety of distinct
speech acts that are not matched in the animal kingdom: assertions, ques-
tions, commands, speculations and so on. Human speakers deliberately
use language in a way that takes cognizance of how what is said may be
received; it is the instrument of meant meaning. This self-consciousness
is elaborated in a multitude of modes of meta-language: quoting what has
been said; imitating others speech; calculated greetings and snubs; jokes
that play on linguistic register, on the sounds of language, on the possibili-
ties of misunderstanding; and so on.
A crucial consequence of this complexity is the fundamental capacity of
human language truly to refer: to referents that may or may not be present,
that may be particular or general, concrete or abstract, and may or may
not exist, now or in the future or in the past. Out of this is created a world
of possibilities, of facts, of that such and such is (or is not) the case.
This world of Thatter is something humans have explicitly in common.
Facts, unlike experiences, belong to everyone: the world of knowledge is
communal in the way that organic experience is not. It is immeasurably


larger than the material environment to which early hominids and all
animals relate. Bodily experience is so massively supplemented by a propo-
sitional awareness (with the general form That such and such is the case)
that it is at least as true to say that we live in a common space of facts (that
are not connected with a particular individual) as that we live in phys-
ical space revealed to us directly through our own sense experience. The
space built out of knowledge extended, modied and handed down from
generation to generation is not just compressed or summed sense experi-
ence which would remain conned to individuals. And it underpins beliefs
that are not simply implicit in a set of responses to material events, but
explicit and shared and woven into a network of beliefs.34
If we remember this, then we wont be tempted to succumb to the kind
of anthropomorphism that assimilates human speech to, say, the sixty
cries of the much-admired vervet monkeys,35 or to whale music or dolphin
discourse. We operate with symbols that are produced and consumed
as (explicit) symbols. Utterances are fashioned, and symbol systems use,
signs that are combined in unique ways. What is more, unlike animal cries,
they are not stereotyped biological eects triggered by particular events or
occasions, explained by their function of bringing out biological eects in
other creatures. They are not, that is to say, stitched into the causal chain of
stimulus followed by a response that brings about another stimulus. Cat
refers to a (possible, actual, general, particular) cat and it does not do so by
being a mere eect of an encounter with a cat. If the utterance of cat were
always and only the result of encountering a cat, it would not be possible to
use it to entertain explicitly general possibility, or to perform the variety of
speech acts assertions, questions, commands we have referred to.
The fact that the utterance is not the direct eect of a material, prox-
imate cause, nor itself a mere such cause in turn, so that we genuinely
initiate speech, is connected with something that we have already identi-
ed as being central to human consciousness: intentionality. Our utter-
ances are explicitly about, or directed on, referents that are distinct from
those utterances. Darwinitics who want to close the gap between animal
cries and human discourse like to rush past this intentionality, just as the
neuromaniacs who want to identify human consciousness with material
events in the brain do the same with the intentionality of perception. There

34. Davidson, Rational Animals.

35. Cheney & Seyfarth, How Monkeys See the World.


is even a school of thought that has the biological reduction of intention-

ality as its central doctrine: teleosemantics.36
There is another aspect of human language or symbol use. In virtue of
reaching into a realm of possibility and generality, it underlines, or reects,
and elaborates the world we have in common. Possibility belongs to us
all: it is a marker of a collectivization of experience that has consequences
for our relations to the material world and to each other. We are, to reit-
erate what Goodall said, unlike the non-human primates that are trapped
within themselves.37 To explore this a bit further, let us go back to basics
and think again about the gaze of the upright animal H. sapiens.
When I, an embodied subject, look at an object I am aware that it is
separate from me. By this I mean that I intuit that it exceeds the experi-
ences that I am presently having of it. More precisely, my sense of being
this (person, body), of being a self, underlines the otherness of the object.
This may manifest itself in many ways but here are two salient ones. First, I
am explicitly aware that I am seeing the object from a particular angle and
that there are other angles from which it may be seen. Second, I am expli-
citly aware that the object has (currently) hidden properties that might be
disclosed if it is seen from another viewpoint. The unique development of
the sense of self in humans has a further correlative: the sense of others
as selves. These others will have a dierent viewpoint on the object. My
view is consciously perspectival, as it objectively is in all animals with well-
developed vision. What is special about humans is that we are aware of
this; we see ourselves seeing and see that we see from a particular view-
point. We are conscious that others may not be conscious of what we are
conscious of. Seeing what the other can and cannot see (again unique to
humans, as Povinellis experiments have demonstrated) prompts us to
draw each others attention to things. This is primordially mediated by
gestures, the most important of which is pointing. I can see what you can
or cant see, I point to it and you see my pointing nger and respond to
it, so that we now have joint visual attention to what was hitherto hidden
from, or at least not noticed by, you. The object is thus explicitly located in
a public domain that is not that of mere physical space but of a world had
in common. In vision, and shared visual attention, and through pointing
and other pre-verbal signs, we have the means by which a human world,

36. See e.g. Papineau & McDonald, Teleosemantics.

37. Goodall, Through a Window, 208.


distinct from the natural world, is built up, prior to language. It is woven out
of a trillion cognitive handshakes.38 This is a key step in constructing a new
kind of public, human space, rooted in acknowledgement of each others
consciousness. It provides the necessary background to true linguistic
communication, which in turn hugely elaborates that space. This is how we
are able to have our human being in a non-biological domain as well as in
a biological one; this is the arena of our lives as persons rather than as mere
The collectivization of experience through sign-mediated shared atten-
tion lies at the basis of human groupings that are the only true societies,
notwithstanding talk of social animals. Jesper Homeyer has spoken of
the biosphere being supplemented in man by a global semiosphere.39 The
semiosphere is the very fabric of the human world, mediating our access
not only to each other but also except in extreme circumstances (illness,
injury), when we may be in part or whole returned to our organic state to
the biosphere. At any rate, this shared realm is one in which our experience
is not only collectively acknowledged but, as it were, collectivized, so that
we are not conned to the organism and its sensations.
It is against the background of a shared that, our cohabitation in
Thatter, that we develop a feeling about how things ought to be as well as
how they are: of rules that are to be respected that go beyond mere regu-
larities; a normative sense that lies at the root of ethics40 and of rational
enquiry the sense of the proper, the logical and the true. While animals
may be deceived into inappropriate behaviour this is not on the basis of
wrong explicit general assumptions: they do not have a category of truth
(or falsehood) that arises in the (public) realm of that in which possibili-
ties are entertained and found to be realized or not realized. There is no
possibility in matter matter just is and the jungle is a network of living
and non-living material entities not of facts. The world we humans advance
through is a sphere of possibility, a dense wickerwork of facts. As Donald
says, the individual mind is essentially a node in a larger networked struc-
ture supported by external memory. We have escaped, he says, from the

38. See my Michelangelos Finger.

39. Homeyer, Biosemiotics.
40. Susan Stuart speaks of an ethiosphere, additional to the biosphere and the semiosphere, in
which the deep roots of morality are to be found. See e.g. Stuart, Enkinaesthesia, Biosemi-
otics, and the Ethiosphere. She rst mentioned the idea in The Mindsized Mashup Mind
Isnt Supersized After All, a critical review of Clark, Supersizing the Mind.


constraints of individual working memory to exographic storage, which

is held in common and has an innite capacity; he adds, The externaliza-
tion of what is internal deepens the internal and this in turn deepens and
extends the external.41
The world woven out of joint attention, explicitly shared awareness,
is the key to understanding our human behaviour and to seeing how it is
fundamentally dierent from the behaviour of our nearest DNA kin. This
deep-rooted collectivization has many surface manifestations. The obvious
ones are the public spaces marked out by artefacts, gathered into cities
(although cities are a relatively recent symptom of our dierences). While
the distinctively human realm is most obviously an all-encompassing envi-
ronment of physical artefacts, this is underpinned by a cognitive landscape,
implicit in and beyond this: the world of facts, of social facts.
Our emotions, too, are transformed by that: they are propositional
attitudes riddled with words. When we experience fear, we fear that [such
and such may be the case] and that which we fear may be an object in
front of us or an examination we are going to take next week. Unlike the
physiological emotions of animals, our feelings are forever articulating
themselves, making sense of themselves, narrating themselves, appealing to
moral and other expectations, and rights and wrongs, and possibilities and
impossibilities, to uphold or question themselves. They are often norma-
tive, as in the case of the anger felt at an injustice. They interact with that
innite nexus of interactions called the world and they transform that
world. While they are modes of attunement to the world, as Heidegger
called them,42 they are also world-makers, world-organizers, casting a light
that picks up one version of what-is, as opposed to another. They are a far
cry from the rapid heart rate and increased respiratory rate of a beast being
prepared for ghting, eeing, feeding or copulating. In defence of his claim
that magpies hold funerals for their fallen colleagues, saying a farewell for
a fallen friend, Marc Beko asserts that Its bad biology to argue against
the existence of animal emotions.43 I would suggest that it is even worse
biology to assimilate animal emotions to human feelings. Our emotion-
swept consciousness can be seen as a supersaturated solution of proposi-

41. Donald, Prcis of Origins of the Modern Mind, 737.

42. See Heidegger, Being and Time, 30, Fear as a mode of attunement, 1314.
43. Beko, The Emotional Lives of Animals, xviii.


tional awareness that crystallizes out into propositional attitudes and, from
time to time, propositions.44
At any rate, we inhabit a shared world of acknowledged actuality aoat
in a shared ocean of explicit possibility: a world of facts not just one of
bumped-into objects and forces. One manifestation of this world beyond
the biosphere is that, alone of all the creatures, we teach our young facts,
norms, skills, practices, customs. Another is the way our shared sense of
the hidden prompts individual and collaborative enquiry and the pursuit of
general principles. A late manifestation of this is science and its precursor,
the everyday technology of prehistoric life, which is rooted in a sense of
causation unique to humans.45 What is more, just as we collectivize our
present so we collectivize our past and future, in shared memories, in
local, national and international history and in timetabled time where our
projects are coordinated. This enhances our biographical sense of our
being, our feeling of a personal past, and our experiencing our lives as
something actively led rather than merely lived, an experience that not only
gives us a sense of direction but enhances our ability to direct ourselves
and shapes our interactions with others. Human societies, in short, are
utterly dierent from the primarily spatial aggregations of animals that
are supported by dovetailing pre-programmed behaviours rather than the
individual psychology of the members of the group. Human groups from
tribes to armies to guilds are not explained by spatial aggregation; they
rely on a shared history, customs, agreements and so on. They are networks
of networks of interacting embodied subjects, who buy into, or opt out of,
various things, and they support the numerous identities, ascriptive and
elective, that we all have.
Notwithstanding the claims of ethologists such as Frans de Waal,46 there
is nothing corresponding to the apparatus of government in the very
broadest sense in animals. Man, as Aristotle said, is the political animal,
and this is because he is the symbol-using animal; and this in turn is rooted
in the fact that he is the explicit animal who negotiates his relations to
others, often using complex symbols that rest on a multitude of unspoken
but understood assumptions. That is how it is possible for us to engage in

44. This is linked to the dierence between animal appetites and human desires: the latter
have no denitive object (although they may settle on a particular intentional object) and
(connected with this) they narrate themselves. See my Hunger, ch. 3.
45. Wolpert, Causal Belief and the Origins of Technology.
46. De Waal, Chimpanzee Politics.


actions such as buying a can of beans whose meanings and enabling

frameworks are sourced from many directions and whose frameworks are
largely invisible. All of this is bypassed by those who would biologize us
and see our behaviour and our entire lives as the activity of ourselves as
evolved organisms.
Ironically, it is the very fact that human consciousness, the human
person and human society are dierent across the board that makes that
dierence dicult to see. This, at any rate, is the most charitable explana-
tion of why neuromaniacs and Darwinitics seem unable to notice or accept
that, for many hundreds of thousands of years, we have been drifting away
from our biological origins and from our solitary bodies and solitary brains
and have been weaving a collective space on which we each have our own
individual take. Neuro-evolutionary interpretations of our behaviour
supported by an anthropomorphic interpretation of animal societies
collapse this space. Neuromania tries to pack what has grown out of, and
beyond, so many brains over so many millennia back into the stand-alone
brain examined in the laboratory. But even those who locate the roots
of consciousness in the brain should still recognize that brains together
create a space that cannot be stued back into the brain. The events in the
community of minds are not electrical discharges in the isolated brain; to
maintain that they are is to collapse all the separateness-from-the-brain
that begins with the intentionality of perception that reveals or yields
an object that is other than the perceiving individual. Trying to discover
the contents of our ordinary Wednesdays in the tropisms of the evolved
organism as reected in brain activity is like applying ones ear to a seed
and expecting to hear the rustling of the woods in a breeze. The collective
rustle cannot be heard in the solitary seed.
Even neuromaniacs should appreciate this, for at least two reasons. First,
their basic claim that consciousness is located in the brain still requires
the brain to transcend, to get outside, itself, beginning with the full-blown
intentionality of human perception. Those who believe that mental func-
tion is rooted in the brain must at least acknowledge that the collective of
brains has left individual brains behind a long time ago. So to try to nd
our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial darkness
of the organism illuminated by fMRI scans and other technology is to look
right past what it is that makes us human beings, and makes us what we,
and our lives, are. Even if the primary engines of our unique journey were
(just) better brains, with larger frontal lobes and so on, the destination of
the journey is not dened, even less prescribed, by the possibilities of the


brain. Second, neuromaniacs do not deny the existence of knowledge which

transcends experience, most obviously the knowledge that neuroscience
itself comprises. When we are told that the brain knows more than we do,
or that the brain works in such and such a way of which we are unaware,
then we are being informed about what the brain (supposedly) keeps
from us. If we truly were identical with our individual brains, such know-
ledge would not be possible: we would not be able to look at our brains
and observe the relation between what we are aware of and what the brain
takes account of. There must, that is to say, be a viewpoint that transcends
the transcendence of our brains.
This viewpoint is located in the community of minds, which has left
the biosphere behind. It has grown over many hundreds of thousands of
years and has involved many millions of people and their brains. As Jos
Ortega y Gasset said, man is never original man, the rst to arrive on the
scene, but always a successor, an inheritor, a son of the human past.47 Our
individual brains are a condition of our very limited capacity to transcend
themselves but when this is shared, accumulated, we become something
totally dierent. The frail transcendence of the individual human being is
woven into a dense fabric of togetherness, of human being: a world that is
outside nature.


Before I continue my defence of humanity against biologism by examining

the two most fundamental distinctive features of human beings the ability
to act freely and full-blown rst-person being I want to confront head-on
some misunderstandings that I fear the past few chapters, in particular the
present chapter, may have implanted in the minds of even the least preju-
diced reader.48 I have referred to them already but I wish to reiterate them
briey, so that my position will not be misread.

47. Gasset, Man and Crisis, 161.

48. I owe much of the discussion in this section to Mary Midgleys response to the manuscript
of this book. Her incomparably lucid thought about our conception of animals and about
science and scientism has established her as one of a handful of leading philosophers in the
English-speaking world.


It will, I hope, be clear that I do not question the biological origin of

the organism H. sapiens. The truth of the theory of evolution lies beyond
reasonable doubt. What may be less clear although it follows from my
acceptance of Darwinism is that I believe that, while human beings have
transformed all the biological givens that they have inherited from their
predecessors, they have not ceased to be biological in important respects.
As a doctor treating patients for thirty-ve or more years, I am hardly likely
to believe that we have become free-oating spirits. Our illnesses not
to speak of our mode of birth, reproduction, sustenance and death are
brutal and engulng reminders of the continuing presence of our biological
What may be less clear is that I do not deny the consciousness, or even
the complexity of the consciousness, of animals. I am not of Descartes
view that animals are insensate machines. The precise nature of the experi-
ences of beasts will always be contested but there is, as we have seen, a
regrettable tendency to see their behaviour as being prompted and shaped
by experiences, emotions and thoughts like our own. It is this that I have
been criticizing. But I have no doubt that animals are aware and that they
are capable of suering and that this imposes a moral obligation on us to
treat them with as much kindness as is compatible with their playing their
necessary role in human life.
Nor do I doubt the complexity, the subtle organization, the multi-
layered structuring, of much animal behaviour. One has only to think
of the singing, migrating and nest-building of birds to appreciate this.
The steps that go into the construction and adorning of a bowerbirds
dwelling are countless. Nevertheless, this does not require us to believe
that the construction of what is not, after all, an artefact comparable to the
tools manufactured by humans is guided by deliberate reection rather
than programmed and cue-driven sequences of events. The migration
is a general instance of a type, unlike my journey to London to attend a
meeting at the Royal College of Physicians, which is a singular instance and
has to be motivated by my personal take on things. And while there are
remarkable examples of collective behaviour, such as the construction of
anthills and the manufacture of honeycombs, that do not require anything
other than programming, the uniformity of the behaviour seen in higher
animals, as in the interaction between animals and their young by etholo-
gists such as Konrad Lorenz in geese (imprinting) or Nikolaas Tinbergen in
herring gulls (supernormal stimuli as releasers for programmed behaviour)
underline this dierence between humans and beasts. The xed action


patterns and innate releasing mechanisms that unfold, once triggered,

without any further input of stimuli, let alone conscious intention, illus-
trate how much can be achieved in the absence of anything corresponding
to deliberation. There are more complex examples of seemingly social
behaviour in animals that have a division of labour, such as, for example,
wolves that hunt cooperatively while others babysit the cubs (to use an
example suggested to me by Mary Midgley), but these are not the result of
personal choices, a personal commitment to a particular role, connected
to a biographical sense of a who that one is. The fundamental point is
that animal behaviour even that of higher animals is not social in the
sense of being mediated by an individual assuming a particular take on an
explicitly acknowledged public sphere. And this applies to apparently more
individualistic behaviour, such as (to take another example from Midgley)
an elephants repeatedly visiting the bones of dead conspecics.
You may object to what seems like a dogmatic assertion of truths that
are not directly testable, given that we cannot enter the viewpoint or
consciousness of an animal. How do I know that animals do not grieve in
the way that we grieve, that they do not have ambitions as we have ambi-
tions, that they do not consciously accept their place in a particular hier-
archy within their troop or hive as we might accept the roles of leader or
follower? Of course I do not know this directly but can infer it indirectly.
Consider, again, one of the examples I mentioned earlier. We concluded
from the fact that bees did not count beyond a certain number, did not
develop a system of numerical symbols as we do, and do not show other
evidence of a quantitative approach to their Umwelt, that what some ento-
mologists describe as counting behaviour in them is not the real thing.
Or, to take another example from the insect world, consider the semi-
retirement of leaf-cutter ants when they get old and their teeth give out.
I do not have direct evidence that they look forward to being assigned
lighter duties and relish a portfolio career but it seems to me that we do
not have evidence from other aspects of the ants life that they have a devel-
oped sense of a future tense or a personal future.
More generally, we may conclude from the failure of non-human species
to build on behaviours that some have assumed are informed by explicit
intentions related to formulated goals, that these behaviours do not express
the same inner contents (beliefs, etc.) that prompt analogous behaviour
in humans. In the absence of independent evidence of the mental states
behind the behaviour, it is wise to assume that such mental states are not


The reader may also worry that, in my endeavour to reconcile accept-

ance of Darwinism (which gives a true account of our biological origins as
organisms) with rejection of Darwinitis (which gives a false account of our
current status as people) I am in danger of self-contradiction. Surely, it may
be argued, a biological account of how we partly escaped biology is an
attempt to found a metaphysical dierence on a physical one: precisely the
error I have identied as lying at the heart of Neuromania, which appeals
to neural complexity as the basis of consciousness and, in particular, the
distinctive features of human consciousness. My reference to such small
biological dierences the fully opposable thumb, the independently
moving index nger, the upright position and the gaze of the upright
primate simply underlines the problem.
To meet this objection it is necessary to reiterate several points. First, we
may assume that other higher primates are close to the threshold at which
episodic self-consciousness passes over into sustained self-consciousness.
In short, they have almost everything in place and the small dierences
that we have identied are sucient to start a trend at which larger dier-
ences open up. Second, the initial dierences are such as to lead to a collec-
tivization of human consciousness so that it can then evolve in ways that
are unknown to biology. These small dierences make possible the explicit
joint attention that enables humans to build, enter and live in a new realm
in which they can evolve in ways that are unknown to biology. This brings
us to a third point: we are not talking about an overnight transforma-
tion. The journey from solitary creatures immersed in their Umwelt to a
genuine society of individuals addressing a world of objects explicitly oset
from themselves as self-conscious subjects, sustained selves, was a long
one: perhaps some ve million years. During this time there has been a
dialectical process involving bodies that are informed by their own agency,
enhanced by tools and other artefacts, and the emergence of a shared
public space, whereby the sense of self and of the material and human
other is gradually elaborated and deepened. As a consequence it is possible
to see how our nearest ape kin should have become so remote from us
that it is absurd to look to the animal kingdom for mirrors in which to see
ourselves more clearly. As Ramachandran says (somewhat surprisingly for
a neuralizer of humanity), humans transcend apehood to the same degree
by which life transcends mundane chemistry and physics.49 (Unfortunately,

49. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, xv.


he does not remember this when he develops an evolutionary theory of art,

as we shall discuss in Chapter 7.)
There is, however, an area in which my position needs further clari-
cation and here there are serious unresolved issues. In the early sections
of Chapter 3, I emphasized the diculties that beset a neural account of
any aspect of consciousness, even those basic elements such as sensa-
tions, which we clearly share with many animals. In Did natural selection
generate consciousness? in Chapter 4, I questioned whether evolution
could have generated consciousness of any sort, never mind distinctively
human consciousness. This is a more radical questioning of the explana-
tory power of biology and cuts deeper than the main thesis of this book;
namely, that biology does not explain many of the unique aspects of
human consciousness, notably propositional awareness, and that human
consciousness has increasingly come to develop independently of biology. I
do not know how to relate the two questions about the origin and nature
of consciousness and about the origin and nature of human consciousness
but I am aware that I have at times slipped from one to the other without
clearly signalling that I have done so. At any rate, it is impossible, ulti-
mately, to move on from the negative positions I have set out to a positive
account of the place of consciousness in nature and the origin of specif-
ically human consciousness from the biosphere, without embarking on a
metaphysical enquiry. I shall set out the parameters of such an enquiry in
the nal chapter, although I am sorry to say that I shall not arrive at any
rm conclusions.
In the meantime, I shall build on the story so far. Of our animal origins
there is no doubt, but this does not dene what we are now or the desti-
nations that we are able to dene together and apart. Increasingly man is
what he has made of himself. We help create others and are in turn helped
to create ourselves. We are moulded so that we can mould. We have put
together worlds the work of an innity of individuals and created a
common space outside nature that enables us to act on nature as if from
without: it is the theatre of our freedom; where we actively lead our lives
rather than merely live them. Unlike those of animals, our lives are not
simply one damn thing after another. We are not mere Humean beings: a
ow of perceptions. And so we arrive at our next themes: human freedom
and the human self.


Reaffirming our Humanity


Freedom is the rst blessing of our nature.1

Neuromania and Darwinitis leave little or no room for human freedom. If

we are identical with our brains, and our brains are evolved organs, how
can we do anything other than act out a preordained evolutionary script?
How can we do at all? Arent our actions just happenings? The philosoph-
ical doctrine of determinism, that our actions are determined by forces
outside ourselves and so are not initiated by us at all, starts to look like a
scientically respectable theory. After all, hasnt it been shown that we are
subject to all sorts of inuences of which we are unaware: that the reasons
we give for doing things sometimes have little relation to the reasons why
they happen? And even if we accept the dierence between ourselves and
our brains, is it not the brain that is calling the shots?
The obvious objection that if we travel like a pinball through the world,
shaped by stray inuences, and if the reasons we gave for our actions were
always incorrect, and our brains were always calling the shots, then ordi-
nary, shared, communal life would be impossible does not cut any ice with
many biologizers. But if The upshot of scientic inquiry is that humans
cannot be other than irrational, as Gray claims,2 and if the self and free

1. Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, 51.

2. Gray, Straw Dogs, 28.


will are illusory and the world is a brain-built illusion that simply facilitates
organic existence, then leaving aside the question of how the science, on
which these statements are founded, would be possible it is dicult to
see how the world as we know it, ooded with wall-to-wall explicitness,
as I have described it in the previous chapter, could have arisen or seemed
to have arisen. The illusion of a shared objective reality, of deliberation, of
agency, of complex joint projects, of appeals to norms and so on would be
dicult to sustain or to explain.
Why should the implausible scenario in which the world, and our
everyday lives in it, are merely a consensual hallucination3 be taken seri-
ously? There is, in part, the glamour of science, which, since it is so spectac-
ularly and usefully right over so many things, is often given authority where
it has none.4 This is reected in the assumption that what neuroscience
cannot nd in the brain isnt really real, since the sum total of what we are
is the sum total of what is in our brains. If you cannot nd free will in an
EEG or the self in a brain scan, there is no free will or self, period. The argu-
ments in Chapter 3 showed that this is an invalid (and indeed unscientic)
assumption. We demonstrated that there are more (undeniable) things in
consciousness than neuroscience can accommodate. Even neuromaniacs
cannot deny intentionality, the unity of consciousness, our sense of the past
and so on; and yet they cannot be reduced to visible neural activity. So we
have examples of mental phenomena that neuroscience cannot see but has
to admit exist. Freedom and the self, however, do seem especially vulner-
able to the charge of being illusory and these are the themes of this chapter.
I want rst to look at the question of freedom. Remember that if we
think of the brain as the only possible locus of our freedom it is dicult to
see how we could be free. There are inputs of experience beginning with
the sense organs and outputs of behaviour from the muscles and other
eector organs. Between them there appear to be unbroken causal chains,
linking inputs and output. There does not seem to be a point within the
brain at which the (behavioural) output or any part of it can be initiated.
Multiplying the number of intermediate steps between input and output
hardly alters this; the causal chain gets longer and more complicated, thats
all. Our seeming actions are merely the inection neural tissue gives to the
ow of energy through a certain locality in the material world.

3. Gray, Straw Dogs, 147.

4. Lavazza & de Caro, Not So Fast.


Of course, the case for neuro-determinism could ride on the back of

the general case for determinism, as we saw in Chapter 2. The brain is a
material object in a material world and what happens in it is simply a multi-
tude of strands in the massive causal nexus that is the connectivity of the
material world unfolding according to the laws of nature. This step is taken
by E. O. Wilson when he states that total consilience holds that nature
is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws
and principles can eventually be reduced.5 However, neuroscientists think
they have brought something additional to the determinist case; namely,
that they have shown that certain actions that we imagined were under our
control proved to be prompted by inuences of which we were unaware.
You may, like me, think there is something suspect about the idea that
empirical observations could help us to decide whether or not we are free.
And you would be vindicated by the fact that those who want to prove our
universal helplessness do so by selecting unusual situations in which we are
less in control than we think we are. Now if we really were mere nodes in
a causal net, there would not be any point in selecting some actions rather
than others to demonstrate our passivity. All actions, being equally unfree,
would illustrate our lack of free will. The discovery that some actions are
not as freely chosen as we may have thought does not take us to the conclu-
sion that no action is freely chosen. Degrees of freedom imply freedom.
Take a much picked over example, which I referred to earlier. When I
am stopped by a beggar in the street, I sometimes do, and sometimes do
not, respond to the request for spare change. When I hold on to my spare
change, I usually give reasons for my lack of generosity: I have already
given to the last beggar; I have listened to a piece on the radio telling me
that the money I give will end up in the pockets of drug barons or that
supporting beggars on the street keeps them on the street; or I am in an
irritated hurry and temporarily out of love with the world and my fellow
men. These, I am told, are only rationalizations of a choice that is inu-
enced by other things. We have seen that a study, for example, showed that
if people are approached outside a bakers shop, where there is a delicious
aroma of freshly baked bread, they are more likely to be generous, so the
reasons for giving or not giving are irrelevant.6 The decision was made by

5. E. O. Wilson, Consilience, 55.

6. Appiah, Experiments in Ethics.


forces of which the individual was unaware and truly free actions depend,
at the very least, on knowing why you are doing them.
The example has certain features that should make us doubt its general
philosophical signicance. First, there is a simple yes or no response to
the beggars request. And second, the action is not integrated into part of
the complex day I am putting together as I hurry down the road, so there
is room for capriciousness. By contrast, the presence or absence of nice
smiles in the car park would not determine whether I entered the hospital
where I was due to carry out a clinic. Being solicited by a beggar is, eec-
tively, an isolated event and not one that digs particularly deeply into our
biography, a point that I shall explore presently. Third, the fact that we can
expose how we are sometimes deceived illustrates the very thing that is
denied: that we transcend our individual moments in order to arrive at a
position from which we can judge the truth of what seems to be revealed to
us in that moment. Anyway and this must be the decider I am perfectly
aware of the kinds of things that presuppose me to give or withhold charity.
I know my behaviour is inuenced by my moods and do my best to limit
this, so that I am not unreliable, capricious and so on. But those who
extrapolate from the observation of our being less aware of the reasons for
our actions than we think we are to the notion that all our actions have
unconscious (and ultimately physical) causes that make reasons irrelevant,
seem to be, whether they know it or not, committed to denying the distinc-
tion between, say, having an epileptic t and giving to a beggar.
Blakemore, whom we quoted in Chapter 2, embraces this consequence
of neuro-determinism: It makes no sense (in scientic terms) to try to
distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious attention and
those that result from our reexes or are caused by disease or damage to
the brain.7 There is thus no fundamental dierence visible to neuroscience
between having an epileptic t and dealing with its consequences, from
which we are invited to conclude that there is no fundamental dier-
ence between these two things. In fact, while we can readily correlate the
impairment of consciousness in an epileptic t with abnormal cerebral
discharges, it is a mere assumption that we can correlate such discharges
with the patients decision to go to see the doctor, his organizing a friend
to babysit while he does so, and his willingness or otherwise to trust the
doctor, accept her advice and be willing to embark on a lifetimes course

7. Blakemore, The Mind Machine, 270.


of medication. All these things, which involve deliberation, planning and

a sense of who one is and what one ought to do, seem far removed from
having a t. They seem more obviously free. There is a distinction, in short,
between the epileptic t, and the person who has the t, and the actions by
which he tries to cope with it. So the appropriate response to Blakemore
would be to say that, if science cannot accommodate that (indubitable)
distinction, so much the worse for neuroscience. Instead, neuromaniacs say
that neuroscience has the last word on the matter and deny the distinction.
My position, then, is that if neuroscience cant see something that seems
indubitably real, then it is not the whole story. In order to defend this, it is
necessary to look at bit more carefully at real human actions. We shall see
that our freedom is a feature of selves operating in worlds, not just of organ-
isms in environments. Those who deny our freedom do so on the basis of
experiments that remove selves from their worlds and focus on elements of
behaviour that are uprooted from the contexts that make sense of actions:
or, more precisely, reduce actions to movements. This is our cue to return
to Dr Libets laboratory, where we shall see this process at work.8


You will recall the experiment we described in A farewell to freedom in

Chapter 2. Libet asked individuals to ex their wrists at will, and also to note
the time when they felt the intention to perform the action by observing
the position of the ngers on the face of a large clock recording the time in
milliseconds.9 He found that subjects timed their intention to act as occur-
ring at least a third of a second after the onset of the physiological activities
associated with the initiation of movement, the so-called readiness poten-
tial. Subsequent experiments, using fMRI scanning, suggested an even
longer interval between the onset of physiological activity and the inten-

8. The following observation is highly pertinent: Historical analysis shows that the decline and
fall of [the concept of ] the will was due not to any major piece of empirical work demon-
strating that the concept was unsound but to general changes in philosophical fashion,
and the inuence of the anti-mentalistic tenets of behaviourism and the anti-volitional
assumptions of psychoanalysis (Berrios & Gill, Will and its Disorders, 87).
9. Libet, Unconscious Cerebral Initiative.


tion to move.10 This, so it was argued, was proof positive that our intentions
have little to do with our actions. Our brains act or decide to act rst and
we follow with the intention to act, hastily rubber-stamping a fait accompli.
To see just how shaky this conclusion is, we need not only to look at the
action Libets subjects were asked to perform but also to ll in some of the
context in which they performed it. The action was the simplest imaginable:
a exing of the wrist; a mere movement. That movement was itself only a
minute part of a long sequence of movements amounting to a large-scale
action that could be described as taking part in Dr Libets experiment. This
large-scale action began at least as far back as getting up in the morning to
visit Libets laboratory (after, perhaps, setting the alarm to make sure one was
not late); involved consenting to take part in an experiment whose nature
and purpose and safety was fully understood; and required (among many
other things) listening to and understanding and agreeing to the instruc-
tions that were received and then deciding to ex the wrist. In other words,
the immediate prior intention, the psychological event timed by Libet, was
not the whole story of the action but only a tiny part of it. It was preceded
by many others that were minutes, hours, perhaps days before the action.
The real story is not just the exing of the wrist, but one of a sustained and
complex resolve being maintained over a very long time. This includes many
large items of behaviour getting on and o buses, looking for the labora-
tory, cancelling or declining to accept other commitments so as to be free to
attend the lab, and so on that have many thousands of motor components.
Once this is appreciated, the temporal relation between the last step, the
wrist exing, and the readiness potential seen in the lab becomes unimpor-
tant. The decision to participate in the experiment, which alone gave the
wrist exion its meaning, began not milliseconds, seconds, or minutes, but
hours before the wrist was exed: perhaps weeks before, when the person
decided to become a subject in the experiment. The exing of the wrist
is just the last component of this action called taking part in Dr Libets
experiment, which would itself be part of a greater intentional whole, such
as wanting to please Dr Libet or wanting to help those clever scientists
understand the brain as it might one day help doctors to treat my childs
brain injury more eectively.
It now seems less disturbing (or exciting, according to your taste) that
the readiness potential preceded the intention to make a movement by a

10. Soon et al., Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions.


mere 300 to 450 milliseconds, or the brain activity seen on the scan was up
to ten seconds in advance of the intention. The specic intention to ex the
wrist belongs to a much wider eld of intention, which has temporal depth
and existential extensity, and is connected with great swathes of the acting
individuals self-world (including her know-how, know-that, motives, prin-
ciples, etc.). As the philosopher Tim Crane expressed it,11 our actions are
interconnected, as are intentions, decisions and plans. The fact that the
decisions in the Libet experiment seem to follow the actions is also irrele-
vant, Crane argues, because our actions unfold without there being explicit
decisions except broadbrush ones at every node. When I am walking to
the pub to meet you, there isnt a separate decision corresponding to every
one of the hundreds of steps I take to get there.
Libets experiment illustrates how the (neuro-)determinist case against
freedom is based on a very distorted conception of what constitutes an
action in everyday life. If you want to make voluntary actions seem invol-
untary, the rst thing to do is to strip away their context the relevant
portions of the self-world that make sense of, and motivate, them and
then eectively break them down into their physical elements. This gets
you well on the way to eliminating the dierence between a twitch and
a deliberate action; or between, say, my involuntarily taking part in the
experiment (having been carried to the lab in a coma and woken up simply
to move my wrist) and my participating in it because I want to help those
clever scientists. It is possible to take this denaturing of actions even
further. I can, for example, break up the process of writing this book into
physiological events, such as the formation and rupture of cross-bridges in
the bres of my hand muscles. Now it is perfectly obvious that I cannot
do this. I would not know how to make or break a muscle cross-bridge if I
tried. But it does not follow that I am not writing this book freely or that I
am not really intending to write it. All that follows is that frameless atoms
of actions cannot be specically intended.
The intention of the person who is asked to ex her wrist in life, as
in Libets lab is aimed not at the movement itself but at the goal of the
movement: to do as Dr Libet requested; to cooperate with the experi-
ment; to help to advance science.. My participation in the experiment
originates in a huge space of possibility, the human world, to which my
self is addressed, the theatre of its activity, which has been fashioned

11. Crane, Ready or Not.


out of the pooling of our transcendence in the way described in The

human world in Chapter 6. That world on which I have an individual
take and through which I make individual tracks includes the institu-
tion of science, my understanding of it and my attitude towards scientic
research, which is interested and sympathetic enough for me to be willing
to give up my time to participate in experiments that make sense to me
and look as if they may advance our knowledge. It is my self-world that
provides the framework and theatre and rationale of the action of exing
my wrist: a boundless hinterland of meanings that has many layers before
it reaches something as simple as a biological or material cause. So it is no
surprise that we cannot nd free will in this isolated movement in a labo-
ratory, if we treat it as an isolated movement. The locus of free will is a eld
of intention, rooted in the self and its world, that extends beyond the labo-
ratory. No wonder, in this setting, actions look like events that happen to
the actor.
Indeed, because our actions are so irreducibly complex, the simple
notion of a cause cerebral or otherwise loses its application, and even
the more sophisticated notion of motive, understood as a force external
to the agent, and certainly that of instinct, cannot easily be applied. What
is the cause of your reading this book? What material cause would you
invoke? You may say: swathes of my entire past. But such a swathe is hardly
a cause; and, if it were, it would be interesting to know who or what gath-
ered it up so that it was able to act as a single cause. If it was I, then we are
a long way from the notion of causation of my actions being something
somehow outside me. The idea of myself as a cause of my actions, or of my
actions as an expression of myself, is close to the idea of freedom.
Let us dwell on this a bit more. While we concede that our past and
the sense of the future it informs is deeply implicated in our actions, it is
equally a mistake to think of the past or a subset of past states of me as a
mere cause of which we are passive eects. For a start, the past, or parts of
it, is there as an explicit presence. Just think of the million components of
know-that and know-how necessary for me to learn about Libets experi-
ments, decide to participate in them and succeed in doing so. The temp-
tation to see all this as a deposit of eects in my brain that then become
causes can be resisted when we realize that they have to somehow be
brought together to act on me. The only way of synthesizing the disparate
elements, so that they operate as occasions for ordinary actions, is through
a sustained, forward-looking, explicit intention; in short, not through
causes pushing from behind but through reasons pulling from in front.


Reasons do not grow out of some putative biological substrate but are a
forward-looking armation of, assertion of, expression of, myself.
The countless events that are subsumed in reasons cannot be generated
requisitioned, orchestrated by ordinary causation or by processes of the
kind that are described in neuroscience. We have already seen how even
the unity of the conscious moment eludes neural, that is to say material,
explanation. And it is wrong, for the same reason, to imagine that the
orchestration of a multitude of movements and thoughts, rooted in know-
ledge and emotion, could be achieved by biological drives or motives that
are themselves seen as quasi-material causes. Wishes, intentions and other
propositional attitudes are not simply caused, nor simply causes. Like the
actions that can be explained to some extent with reference to them, they
are portions of a self-world that is more or less of a piece with other parts
of the self and its world.
It is easy to see why committed determinists, including neuro-
determinists, want to think of actions as caused; it prepares them to be rein-
serted into a causal chain extending backwards from a present material event
to the Big Bang. But this is wrong. Yes, a journey to London to attend a
meeting is a succession of movements; but it is more than that, which is why
there is a dierence between moving and travelling. Actions are not and
could not be caused in the narrow, atomic, linear sense implied in the term
cause. To see actions aright, we have to invoke the notion of an explicit
purpose, which pulls us towards goals we have ourselves envisaged and artic-
ulated, and shapes the succession of action-components we undertake. This
is the hidden nerve of association gluing together the myriad subroutines
that make up components of actions, the countless elements that make up
ordinary-sized actions (such as taking a train to London) and the innumer-
able actions that make up our lives, which we consciously and often eortfully
lead rather than merely organically or material live or experience. To reduce
reasons to, or to absorb them into, mere surface expressions of material
or biological motors such as motives, instincts or drives (never mind
unconscious motors) is not only to misrepresent them but also to remove
their explanatory force and to deprive complex but utterly ordinary actions
of any kind of explanation. While drives may activate quite elaborate types
of behaviour, these forms of behaviour are stereotyped and general. Flying
south in winter may be driven by instinct; the action of going to the Royal
College of Physicians to make a case for improving epilepsy services could
not be driven in this way because its goal and content are utterly singular and
are rooted in my private, understood, recollected, past.


You might want to object that building a nest likewise requires many
thousands of moves that are not stereotyped. There is no particular muscular
signature, for example, corresponding to nding a wisp of straw to weave
into the wall of the nest. Even so, there is a fundamental dierence between
this kind of complex instinctive behaviour and our everyday actions. First,
the overall action of nest-building is stereotyped at a very clear and simple
level. The creation of a dwelling of a highly standardized form that has a
clear function does not have to be articulated by the organism; nature takes
care of that. Second, each of the elements is cued in by the previous element
and the non-stereotyped components are clear instances of denite types.
They do not require sustained intention informed by an explicit goal. This
is the fundamental dierence between plan-driven holiday-making and
instinctive migration. The many components of the former, unlike those
of the latter, are justied by, make sense with respect to, each other. The
components are subordinated to explicit overarching goals.
Any voluntary action is a part of a nexus of behaviour that extends over
swathes of what we might call am-soil or I-territory: in this respect
quite unlike the events that an epileptic t or an animals programmed
courtship ritual comprise. That is what I mean when I say that my actions
are free in the sense of being expressive of myself. They belong to a eld of
action that is unique to myself; make sense only with respect to a frame
of reference, a present past, a present future; are rooted in am-soil,
I-territory, related in turn to we-soil, we-territory. In short, they truly
are manifestations of self-assertion or self-expression. Shoving our actions
back into the chains of causes and eects that make up the material world
by breaking them up into small components not only reduces them to mere
movements but also imprisons them in the present tense. It denies their
temporal depth, which has at least two dimensions.
The most obvious is the forward and backward connectedness of the
components necessary to make sense of them and hence to make sense
of the fact that they have occurred. For example, the complex movements
involved in locking and bolting my front door are intelligible only in rela-
tion to my having come out of my house and my intention to leave the
house empty (so that it is vulnerable and needs protecting) while I am in
London. And there is the additional dimension, which comes from the past
self and the envisaged future self, from which the trip to London draws its
meaning and motivation. These two temporal dimensions are a particularly
sophisticated elaboration of the intentionality or aboutness that charac-
terizes my consciousness; indeed, it is the orchestration by this aboutness


that links the components of my action in (to borrow a phrase from Roger
Scruton talking about music) a virtual causality,12 a connectedness that is
in another sphere from that of the material interactions of (say) my body
and the pavement necessary for me to be able to propel myself to the
railway station.
It is easy to overlook the hinterland of self, the massive, tangled back
story behind behaviour, if we focus on individual actions lifted out of
their context. And we dont have to go into Libets laboratory in order to
be misled. Consider catching a ball.13 The more brilliant the catch, the
less it seems voluntary. We seem to have done it without thinking about
it, without deciding to do it. Indeed, when you consider what catching a
ball involves, it seems impossible to perform it as a voluntary act. You have
to ing yourself across empty space in such a way that your outstretched
hand intercepts the ball. The hand has to be suciently open at the time of
contact as to admit the entry of the ball but not so wide open that the ball
escapes. The ngers then have to close rapidly around the ball. You also
have to allow a certain amount of compliance so that the ball does not at
once bounce out of the hand before you have managed to trap it between
your ngers. There are many other variables that have to be xed, none of
which you could deliberately control. So surely you did not catch the ball;
your body did, and you were just a fortunate bystander who took the credit.
No one really thinks this, and for good reasons. First, in order to catch
the ball, you had to participate in a game of cricket. This requires that you
should have (voluntarily) turned up to a particular place on a particular
day, that you understood and assented to the rules of cricket and that you
understood the role of the elder, in particular that of the slip elder. More
importantly, in order to make the catch, you would have had to practise.
This means hours spent in the nets, preparing yourself for this moment,

12. Scrutons description of music as having a virtual causality linking its successive compo-
nents seems to me to capture the nature of action and of the freedom it expresses. There is a
direct causal relation between the actions on the instruments and the sounds they produce,
and then a dierent kind of connectedness in what we hear. This, he writes, is not a succes-
sion of sounds, but a movement between tones, governed by a virtual causality that resides
in the musical line. Only a rational being one with self-consciousness, intention, and the
ability to represent the world can experience sounds in this way (Scruton, Understanding
Music, 5). In the case of music, it seems as if meaning is lifted more completely from matter
and it then has an inner dynamic quite dierent from that dictated by the laws of physics.
This must surely be the key to the link between art and freedom.
13. The discussion that follows is based on my article Who Caught that Ball?


which would bring such glory upon you. You would have to order your
aairs so that you would be able to go to the nets at the booked time: nego-
tiating the trac; making sure your day was clear so you could take up your
booked slot; and so on. You would listen hard to your coaches advice and
do your best to translate it into action.
In other words, behind this quasi-involuntary action there would be a
huge and complex hinterland of actions that could not have taken place
without your deliberate intent. Over the months, you have carried out a
vast number of voluntary actions so that you might be able when required
to perform an action that you could not carry out entirely voluntarily.
Many of these preparatory actions have taken the form of positioning
yourself to have experience and acquire knowledge, deploying many inter-
mediate steps in doing so. And this is how it is with much of our life, which
consists of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves: from going to
a pub to have a drink to cheer ourself up to paying good money to improve
our chances of cutting a gure in Paris by polishing up our French.
You may think this is so obvious that it hardly needs to be spelled out
but it is important not to underestimate the extent to which neuroma-
niacs overlook the obvious. Consider a recent study by Jan Scholz and his
colleagues.14 The researchers found that people who learned to juggle over
a period of six weeks had clear changes in the white matter of a part of
the cerebral cortex (the intraparietal sulcus) that is associated with visuo-
motor skills. One of the authors, Heidi Johansen-Berg concluded from
this that its possible for the brain to condition its own wiring system to
operate more eciently.15 In fact, it is not the brain that is doing this but
the participants who enrolled in the experiment, and committed them-
selves to training to juggle. They would have to remember to go upstairs
to practise every day, to look after the juggling balls and set time aside for
this purpose: in short, to engage in a set of actions of immense complexity
that would not have been sewn together except by an individual who had a
sustained and conscious intention to conform to the protocol of the exper-
iment. The experiment, in short, provides clear evidence that it is true
that we train our brains; our brains do not train themselves. The trainer, in
short, is not the brain but the person. The whole enterprise involved a large
number of individuals, including the person who set up the experiment,

14. Scholz et al., Training Induces Changes in White Matter Architecture.

15. Ibid., 1371, emphasis added.


an understanding spouse, children who kept quiet and played nicely while
mummy was practising her juggling, and so on. The experiment demon-
strates how persons (not brains) increase their own agency by deliberate
training: something, as we have already noted, that no animal does. The
acquisition of the skill was not a brain-directed plasticity of the brain but
a person-directed plasticity of a person, interacting with the society that is
the arena of the self.16
While it is not entirely misleading to describe the acquisition of a skill
(or the bodily basis of a skill) in neurological terms or to talk about neuro-
plasticity, we need to be reminded that neuroplasticity is often person-
driven and that the person who does the driving cannot be understood
without invoking the collective and individual transcendence that is the
world and the self. We should not be so impressed by neuroplasticity that
we forget bodily plasticity, plasticity of consciousness (including increased
condence in our abilities, which can be self-fullling), plasticity of the
self, and, yes, plasticity of the world, as when I decide that others should
work with me in a dierent way to ensure that one or other of us holds that
so-important catch. It is a mistake to try to stu all that back into the brain
and see it in terms of changes in synaptic connections at the microscopic
level or alterations in cortical maps at the comparatively macroscopic level.
Stung it all back into the brain, of course, is the rst step to handing
action back to the no-person material world and sneaking back to deter-
minism. It is an attempt to eliminate the fundamental change that takes
place when an I emerges in the world. The I is a new centre in the world,
a new point of departure and a new destination, and this is the key to our
freedom. We are not talking about an anomalous or magical kind of causa-
tion but about the appropriation of the material world and its causal rela-
tions, as handles to help realize possibilities possibilities-for-me that we
project. This begins with the appropriation of the body as ones self the
existential intuition and, through this, of the material world surrounding
it as ones arena, and, far beyond ones material surroundings, through the
community of minds and its boundless body of knowledge and know-how
and technologies.

16. A particularly stubborn neuromaniac might argue that one part of the brain is rewiring
another part of the brain, so that it is still correct to talk of the brain conditioning its own
wiring system. I am not persuaded. It does not seem likely that a particular part of the brain
corresponds to six weeks juggling, with all the commitment and organization this involves.


This ability to act on the material world, as opposed to being merely a

site through which the material world passes, is, ultimately, anchored in
intentionality that points in a counter-causal direction. It is intentionality
that tears the seamless fabric of the causally closed material world. It trans-
forms what-is into appearances, and appearances-for-me, and opens up the
world of possibility and the explicit future in which it can be realized. I still
remain a material object in the material world; I can fall down the stairs,
I have to push and shove objects (including my body) around the place,
and the same material processes that brought me into being also guarantee
my death. The world is not a construct of my thoughts or perceptions. But
intentionality opens up a widening margin of freedom between the interac-
tive human organism and the active person. We stand up, gaze, grasp our
world with the hands by which we grasp ourselves; we stand back and from
that position we move forwards. Again: reculer pour mieux sauter.17


Even readers untouched by Neuromania may still have a sneaky suspicion

that there are powerful arguments for determinism and that, while neuro-
science may not provide additional proof that we are unfree, its failure to
nd anything corresponding to a basis for our freedom should not be held
against it. Neuro-determinism, you might think, is true because deter-
minism is true; all our actions have causes that, ultimately, we ourselves
cannot cause. We are, after all, made of many things that know nothing
of us, as Paul Valry said.18 I have shown how we can distinguish volun-
tary actions, deliberate behaviour and so on from mere material events by
looking beyond the movements that constitute actions to the self-world
that gives them their sense, their meaning, and hence their raison dtre,
without which they would not happen. But does this really prove that it
is possible for events that are actions to have a place of origin the self

17. The last paragraph of Robert Kanes The Signicance of Free Will movingly captures this: We
might say that free willers are always trying to be better than they are by their own lights. The
questing or striving for worthy ends is the goal of free will and indeed the goal of life itself
Without this questing, life would become, in the words of Herman Melville in Moby Dick,
an ice palace of frozen sighs (ibid., 215).
18. Valry, Letter from a Friend, 49.


without their being either mere eects of a material cause or mysteri-

ously uncaused causes? What, anyway, is the standing of the self to which I
refer? Isnt this also stitched into the world? Isnt it merely a set of eects of
events that have impinged on it or its body?
One of the clearest and most succinct recent statements of this case against
the belief that we are free comes from the philosopher Galen Strawson. His
father, Strawson pre, also a distinguished philosopher, had argued that those
who do not believe in freedom cannot pass moral judgement on others.
Resentment of others transgressions would be inappropriate if they were
mere physical events caused by other physical events. It would be as absurd
to feel angry with someone who had physically attacked us as it would be to
feel angry with an avalanche. Since we have a profound intuition of moral
responsibility, we must truly be free. Strawson ls has accepted some of this
argument but concluded that, as we are not self-caused, freedom is impos-
sible and moral responsibility is consequently groundless.
Galen Strawsons argument is very simple:19

Nothing can be the cause of itself.

In order to be truly morally responsible for ones actions, one
would have to be the cause of ones self.
Therefore nothing (and hence no one) can be truly morally

In order to be able to perform an act for which we are truly morally respon-
sible, we would have to be self-determining, and this is impossible because
the notion of true self-determination runs into an innite regress. Supposing
I choose my actions on the basis of certain principles. Where did those
principles come from? If they were foisted on me, then I am not free. But
suppose these principles were not foisted on me but I had a second set of
principles to justify my choosing the rst set. Then I would require a third
set of principles to justify choosing that second set. And soon.
Strawsons argument is useful because it makes clear the assumptions
behind determinism and, incidentally, reduces them to absurdity. In order to
escape being determined, it seems, I have to have brought myself into being:
a trick that, of course, only God can pull o. In order to be responsible for
anything I do, I have to be responsible for everything that I am, including my

19. Strawson, The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.


very existence. Given that I cannot pre-exist my own existence, in order to

be able to bring it about, this is a requirement that cannot be met.
It is clear that I cannot be a cause of myself, if cause is understood
as something like a material event. But I hope it will be clear from the
previous section that the self is quite dierent from a material eect that
subsequently becomes a material cause in the way that a pebble is the eect
of geological events and itself is the source of other events, as when it rolls
down the hill. Our actions, however, although they operate on the material
world, do not originate in it; they arise from the soil of the self-world.
This is ultimately grounded in the existential intuition: the sense That I
am this, where this in the rst instance is our own body. We appropriate
our own bodies and by this means we are inserted in the world that exists
for us. Our human world of pooled transcendence creates a theatre for our
actions. Given that my actions have grown out of all those items, events
and processes that I have appropriated beginning with my body in the
service of my evolving and increasingly self-conscious, other-conscious and
world-conscious ends, they have emerged from a soil that I more or less am:
less, or hardly at all, as an infant; much more as an adult. This is sucient
causa sui for me to be justly held responsible for my actions. To put this
slightly dierently, the rst person is self-appropriating and its actions are
ultimately rooted in the unfolding of the primary act of self-appropriation:
the existential intuition that makes is into am and sets the I o from
the world, which is the theatre and substrate of its led life. No one, at any
rate, can gainsay my intuition that my body is me and its actions mine.
This is the version of causa sui that should answer anything meaningful
in Strawsons demand. If we were to interpret this demand that, in order
to be free, there should be nothing given about ourselves, then freedom
would be reserved for entities that were nothing and had nothing to be free
about. This is a rather empty account of freedom, one would have thought.
Freedom does not require that we should be free of the given that, for
example, I shouldnt have a particular body that began at a particular time
but that we should take the given and run with it.
Our self is neither a thing (like a pebble which, to an observer, has causal
inputs and eects as outputs) nor a mere succession or shower of material
events. What I do makes sense with respect to a narrative that is my actively
led life. Now it may be argued that we merely narrate what was going to
happen anyway: we are deluded in the belief that we are free; as neuro-
determinists might express it, the brain calls the shots and we retrospec-
tively claim them as our own. That argument is in part dealt with by looking,


as we have done already, at the nature of actions. But a lingering suspicion

may remain that we cant be free unless we can somehow break the laws of
nature. Only in this way could we deect the course that events were going
to take anyway. We need to address this seemingly insuperable objection to
the claim that we are free, the materialist bedrock on which biological deter-
minism ultimately rests. And to do so, I want to borrow an idea from John
Stuart Mill, one that he put forward in a paper published posthumously.


Mill was exercised for much of his life with trying to reconcile his materi-
alism with his passion for liberty. How can there be free agents when we
are material parts of a material world and subject to the laws of nature?
He agreed that, yes, we have to obey the laws of nature; indeed, there is no
choice. But we should appreciate that, at any given juncture, there is more
than one law of nature operating. By aligning ourselves with one law, we
can use nature to achieve ends not envisaged in nature:

Though we cannot emancipate ourselves from the laws of nature

as a whole, we can escape from any particular law of nature, if
we are able to withdraw ourselves from the circumstances in
which it acts. Though we can do nothing except through laws of
nature, we can use one law to counteract another.20

We utilize the laws of nature by aligning ourselves with the one that
leads to our goal and we do so from a virtual outside-of-nature that is the
world opened up by intentionality. This virtual outside-of-nature is the
realm we described in The human world in Chapter 6: the human world
created out of a trillion cognitive handshakes. This public sphere, which
is not just a semiosphere but also a technosphere, in which we live and
have our being beyond the material of our body, is where we elucidate the
laws of nature and get them to work on our behalf. It is where we use our
outside, constructed and maintained in common, and our pooled strength
to operate on the material world. This outside gives us a place in which to

20. Mill, Nature, 17, quoted in Aiken, The Age of Ideology, 152.


step back. The stepping back is a huge collective and individual stepping
back into a space collectively and individually created.
Let me illustrate Mills idea with a trivial example: going to a park in
order to enjoy slithering down a slide. The descent is courtesy of the laws of
gravity, but positioning ourselves to enjoy the descent is something else. The
trip to the park has to be organized, other things have to be tted around
it, there is a journey to the park, to the playground, and thence to the slide,
guided by know-how and know-that, and there is an ascent to the top of the
slide. The slide itself has been erected in order explicitly to utilize the laws
of motion; it is a standing possibility of the joy of safely succumbing to the
gravitational eld. This example illustrates how our ways of acting involve
knowledge, as well as artefacts (which, of course, operate within the laws of
nature), so that we can subordinate them to our own ends and can, as Mill
said, quoting Francis Bacon, obey nature in such as manner as to command
it.21 Our actions are not uncaused miracles; they go with the grain of causa-
tion. But we are able to step back into the great extra-natural space that
is the human world, of thatter as opposed to matter, and from there use
material causes as handles on the material world.
The ultimate expression of this is our exploitation of the laws of nature
in science-based technology, a supreme expression of accumulated know-
ledge that is the property of the great community of minds. Technology is
possible because we approach nature from an outside whose seed is inten-
tionality. It is built up as an expanding space of possibility, a rst-person
plural reality, constructed through the joined endeavours of the human
race, and expanded since the rst hominids rst awoke to their own exist-
ence. Such conscious exploitation of the laws of nature lies beyond descrip-
tion in terms of material causes and material eects: it cannot be described
in terms of biological tropisms or instincts or drives as proxy for inter-
mediate material causes.22
Let us look more closely at the claim that we really are able to act freely.
When we think about the characteristics of a free act, three things seem
to me to be paramount. First, the action should be expressive of what

21. Mill, Nature, 17.

22. Selective attention is one of the keys to free action. This is most obviously expressed in the
gaze of an embodied subject choosing to focus on one object or another. This, of course, is
just the beginning. Just how far ordinary human actions are from that beginning is illustrated
by the ways in which we regulate our gaze; as when, for example, we go on holiday to see a
particular view or enter a laboratory to look through a microscope.


I am. This requirement is met by the fact that my actions are rooted in
great swathes of myself: the am-soil of which I spoke earlier. Second, I
should seem to be the initiator or source of my action. This is evident in
the example of the slide, or of catching the ball. I carry out all the prepara-
tory action to make a certain event happen, even one that ends up in help-
lessness (going down the slide) or automaticity (catching the ball). The
counter-causal nature of intentionality lays the seed for our distance from
the world, for our sense of self and our freedom, which, shared or joined,
is the basis for the human world oset from nature. It is this that makes
us a point of origin, so that we are individually the centre of a centreless
universe, a place where the buck can start. Finally, my actions should
deect the course of events rather than merely conform to what was
anyway going to happen. What evidence is there for such deection?
Anyone who doubts that we can individually deect the course of events
should consider what we have achieved in building up a human world so
extensive as virtually at times to conceal the natural one. As was said of
Christopher Wren, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: if you seek
his monument, look about you. The artefactscapes of cities that cover the
surface of the earth with man-made objects, the human institutions to
which we relate for so much of our lives, and the extra-natural social facts
and preoccupations that ll our waking hours, to which there is nothing
corresponding in nature: these are eloquent testimony to how, collectively
at least, we deect the course of events and operate within a space outside
the material world construed according to the laws of physics. From
pointing, through artefacts and spoken, and ultimately written, language,
we get ever greater purchase on the natural world from an ever greater
outside built up by thousands of generations, each comprising, at rst,
thousands, then millions and ultimately billions, of people.
This should be enough to satisfy everyone that we are capable of truly
free actions. There will still be some who are dogmatically opposed to the
idea of our being free because it doesnt t with what they believe to be the
scientic world picture. To them, we oer this question: if freedom really is
an illusion, where on earth did the illusion come from? And it is a tenacious
illusion. As Samuel Johnson observed, All theory is against the freedom of
the will; all experience for it.23 Perhaps not all theory just some theories
of some philosophers: and clearly not all experience just most of our

23. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 681.


everyday experience. Even so, like Johnson, you might be inclined to agree
with his tetchy assertion that we know our will is free and theres an end
ont.24 Why, after all, if freedom is an illusion, and such a stubborn one, and
material causation reigns unchecked and undeviated, should one section
of the innite causal nexus of the universe decide, apparently without any
foundation, that it is itself a point of origin of certain events actions
that are not simply part of an endless chain of causes whose ancestry ulti-
mately lies in the Big Bang? It seems an odd idea for a causal net, or a bit of
it, to entertain.
There is (inevitably) a Darwinitic response. Anything is possible (even,
as we have seen, consciousness itself ) if it is of adaptive value. The reason
Johnson cant get rid of the idea that he and his fellow humans are free is
because this will be good for his, and our, morale. The sense that I am the
source of my actions gives me an enhanced potency, and also, by making
me feel responsible for certain events that I deem to be my actions, makes
me ethically more biddable. I can, for example, feel shame. As Carter says:

The illusion of free will is deeply ingrained precisely because it

prevents us from falling into a suicidally fatalistic state of mind
it is one of the brains most powerful aids to survival. Like
many of our survival mechanisms, however, it no longer works
entirely to our benet. By creating the illusion that there is a
self-determining I in each of us, it causes us to punish those
who appear to behave badly, even when punishment clearly has
no practical benet.25

This is an interesting claim because it suggests that our belief that we are
free can (after all) alter what happens in the world: initially, as far as we are
concerned, for the better because it helps us to survive. In short, the illu-
sion of free will does deect the course of events, and hence is self-fullling.
It is not an illusion. For if we really cannot deect the course of predeter-
mined events, then the idea that we are free cannot change anything, any
more than the idea that we are not free can change it.26

24. Ibid., 303.

25. Carter, Mapping the Mind, 201. Note also that the same argument has been used to explain
our propensity towards dualism: see Humphrey, Seeing Red, 12434.
26. I have located the source of our freedom in rst-person being, and I have not been at all
impressed by attempts to nd it in the no-person world of post-classical physics, in particular



All human actions, whether conscious or not, come from

complex interactions between memes, genes and all their prod-
ucts. The self is not an initiator of actions, it does not have
consciousness, it does not do the deliberating. There is no
truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls
the body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my
conscious self having free will.27

It is entirely to be expected that those who deny the reality of human

freedom are also sceptical of the common-sense notion of the self. The
principle that, if neuroscience cant see it, then it doesnt exist eliminates
both free will and selfhood because neither is translatable into patterns of
neural activity. But this is not the only reason why freedom and the self
are put to the same sword. It is also because they are tightly connected
aspects of personhood: freedom, as we have seen, cannot be understood
without appealing to the notion of the self. There is no freedom in the
third-person or no-person realm of the material world revealed to the
gaze of science. Free actions require the rst-person world, elaborated in
a self with sustained intentions rooted in the self-world. And it will also be
recalled that the self and agency developed together as aspects of the exist-
ential intuition that separates hominids from other primates; the embodied
subject that arose out of the organism was an agentive self an agent and
a self. It is time to dig a little bit deeper into the notion of the self.
The self has caused problems even for philosophers who have not
been inuenced by the glamour of neuroscience. They have felt obliged
to question the reality of the self, the enduring I, and personal identity.
Many have done so because they mistakenly think that to believe in the
self is to believe in a little man, a ghost inside the machine, that somehow

in the wiggle room that some believe is opened up by quantum mechanics. The fact that the
quantum future is indeterminate does not liberate us from the causally closed material world
in a way that could translate into freedom. Subatomic indeterminacy does not scale up into
something that could be used at the macroscopic level of action. To put this another way, the
quantum indeterminacy of the future does not make it more manipulable. And while obser-
vation may confer determinacy on an indeterminate micro-system, this does not correspond
in any way to the kinds of things we endeavour to determine, shape or deect in the exercise
of our will.
27. Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 264.


operates on the world although it is not part of it. Homunculi, apparently,

are permitted if you are a neuromaniac but not if you are not. It is, possible,
however, as we shall see, to develop an account of the self that is both
robust and homunculus-free.
Pretty well everything that matters in the notion of personal identity
and the self is gathered up in the idea of the I as something enduring,
singular, unied, and tightly interconnected. For this notion of being inter-
nally stitched biographically coherent beyond mere succession of events
seems to lie at the heart of any claim we have to dignity as moral agents.
It is, as Thomas Reid said, the foundation of all rights and obligations, and
of all accountableness.28 This connection is evident in the passage from
Carter quoted in the previous section where, speaking for many of those
who dissolve the self into successive states of bits of the brain, she points
out that By creating the illusion that there is a self-determining I in each
of us, it causes us to punish those who appear to behave badly, even when
punishment clearly has no practical benet.29 We cannot hold a no one
A key notion is that of integrity: the sense that I am one, enduring
entity; that there is a unity across the dierent aspects of my life and behav-
iour; that I am a whole and at a certain level undivided, like an integer. This
justies our expectation that we shall be respected for something that we
are. Other people feel that they know what to expect of us. In return, we
shall feel entitled to expect that others, too, will be consistent; that they
will have stable dispositions. And it is not enough that people should be
programmed to replicate the same patterns of behaviour; that same pattern
has to have a coherent inside. The most famous challenge to this idea of the
self as coherent and enduring was lodged by Hume in what may be one of
the most quoted passages in all philosophy (which we have already quoted
in Chapter 2!). Hume, it will be recalled, sought his self through introspec-
tion and this is what he found:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call

myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other,
of heat, cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I

28. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, essay 3, ch. 4, Of Identity.
29. Carter Mapping the Mind, 206.


can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and

can never observe anything but the perception.30

He concluded that humans are nothing but a bundle of dierent percep-

tions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a
perpetual ux and movement. The identity we ascribe to the mind of man
is only a ctional one, he nally says.
Unfortunately, Hume was looking in the wrong place. He assumed that
the self should be a perception among perceptions, and that, if it existed,
it could be grasped by turning his attention inwards. At the same time,
in contrast with the fugitive impressions that cross our minds, it should
endure over time the entirety of our life and hence be unlike any ordi-
nary perception. These are two irreconcilable demands. As Kant recog-
nized, it is a mistake to think of the self as an object of perception, or even
as a kind of super-percept, not the least because the self is presupposed in
perceptions, in the implicit sense that they are mine, that it is I who am
perceiving them, that I am their subject.
Kant suggested, in response to Hume, that there was something above
and beyond experiences that tied them together: It must be possible for
the I think to accompany all my representations.31 This is not a very satis-
factory solution and much puzzled over. A constant iteration of I think
seems implausibly donnish. What is more, the I of the I think, which
he specically denied had a place in the empirical world of experiences,
seemed to have no home at all. It was not easy to see how it engaged with,
attached itself to, the actual experiences of actual beings. One consequence
was that it was always at risk of being crash dieted to a skinny, size zero,
purely logical subject. But at least Kants intuitions were sound.
It is easy to see why some thinkers have rejected the challenge to nd an
enduring basis of personal identity that surmounts all the changes suered
by the experiencing self. Indeed, some have embraced the Humean vision,
out of suspicion that any notion of personal identity that ignores Humes
critique will inevitably appeal to a Cartesian, Kantian or quasi-theological
transcendental ego: some updating of a superannuated notion, like a
soul.32 And this has made it easier for neuromaniacs to dismiss the self, as

30. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, pt IV, 6.

31. Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason, B131.
32. This seems to have motivated many twentieth-century interpretations of the self, notably
those of certain existentialist philosophers who, emphasizing its non-material nature and its


well they might, given that its every characteristic lies beyond the reach
of neuroscience. First-person being the sense that I am this, This is
happening to me, I am doing this, I am having this experience can
hardly be found in no-person neural activity.
Most neuroscientists are not persuaded by the hopeful claim, made
by people such as Gerald Edelman,33 that neural circuits bending back on
themselves, having branches or re-entry loops, are somehow reecting on
themselves and hence are self-aware. And quite right, too. After all, many
computers have a multitude of feedback and re-entry loops and we do not
expect them to feel that they are themselves, or to refer their activity to
themselves. They remain obdurately apersonal, lacking a sense of am. And
Ramachandrans appeal to mirror neurons as the basis by which your brain
also turns its view back on itself to generate your sense of self-awareness34
doesnt take us much beyond a tautology, given apparent explanatory force
by a misleading metaphor. Second, as we have seen, the self is unied at a
particular time, although it is also aware of the multiplicity of its experi-
ences and its aspects. Third, the self has temporal depth: it has the sense of
having existed in a past of its own or reaching towards a future that is its
own future. And, nally, it acknowledges the multiplicity of its present and
its past while also arming their unication within itself. The self is tran-
scendent in the obvious sense of not being reducible to a succession of
experiences and existing in and over tensed time in the way that neural
impulses could not be.

role as the source of freedom, wanted to liberate it not only from thing-hood but from being
any kind of substantive entity. Analytical philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle argued that the
I was not only elusive but systematically so; it could never become its own object, any more
than I could stand on my own shadow. In the second half of the twentieth century, structur-
alist, poststructuralist and postmodernist thinkers, mainly located in Paris, dissolved the self:
it is a mere node in a system of signs; it is in the grip of various modes of the unconsciousness
political, sociopolitical, historical, psycho-analytical, linguistic and so on through which
it misrecognizes and is alienated from itself; it is a bourgeois or tropological construct; or
(in Jacques Lacans echo of Hume) a ction. (The full story is available in my In Defence
of Realism.) Finally, there have been many philosophers inuenced by the eminent contem-
porary neo-Humean Derek Part, for whom the self is merely the sum total of a series of
psychological states, mainly memory. Its continuity lies in the overlap of such psychological
states, rather as the continuity of a rope lies in the overlap of strands that do not go all the
way from one end to another. So the neuroscientists are not alone in nding the idea of an
enduring self and personal identity unacceptable.
33. See my review of Edelmans Wider than the Sky, in Trying to Find Consciousness in the
34. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, 248.


So wherein does the self reside? To answer this, it is important to sepa-

rate two things: the sense of self at a particular time; and the sense of
being the same self over time. Although the endurance of identity over
time makes sense, as I shall argue, only on the basis of identity at a given
time, the former provides a helpful entry into the primary question of what
personal identity is and why it matters. What is the basis for my continuity
over time in the face of change? What is there about me that is continuously
and unchangeably present? Pre-modern philosophers would have invoked
an enduring immaterial substance: the soul. Descartes partly modernized
this as thinking substance. (And I myself have been accused of being a
closet Cartesian dualist who believes in the human ghost in the animal
machine.) The truly modern engagement with the notion of personal iden-
tity over time, however, began with Locke, who also chose an immaterial
basis, although not a substance but the connectedness of the psyche.35
For Locke, identity lay in our consciousness. What was continuously
present was not some individual mental item, such as an impossible Humean
super-percept, but continuity over time located in the internal connected-
ness of consciousness. This connectedness was secured most obviously
through memory: the memory of our own experiences. Lockes account has
powerful intuitive attractions. Continuity of memory seems to underpin so
many other continuities: my enduring sense of what, where, who; the famil-
iarity that makes the world my world and guides me through my life; my
commitment to my commitments; my responsibility for delivering on my
promises; and, most directly, my sense of having temporal depth. Psycho-
logical continuity seems like the inner truth within the external facts of
my constancy, reliability, predictability: the private, essential take on the
framework that gives stable sense to my life, and enables me to make sense
of myself and others to make sense of, and to recognize,me.
But there are problems with Lockes theory. First, the temporal extent of
our self would seem to depend on the reach of my memory, but memory
doesnt seem to go back far enough. My memory gets patchier and patchier,
and more and more re-processed and hence unreliable, the further I go
back. To describe my childhood, as Philip Larkin does, as a forgotten
boredom,36 would be a little harsh on my parents, but I remember little of

35. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, ch. 27.

36. Larkin, Coming.


the nearly 131,500 hours of experiences of my rst fteen years of life. And
yet that child Raymond Tallis and I are the same person.
We can mitigate the implications of this blankness a little by imagining
a kind of relay, as did Reid (who was opposed to Lockes theory).37 He gives
an example of an aged general who does not remember the boy he once
was who, so he has been told, got whipped for stealing apples. However,
he can remember being a brave young subaltern, and the subaltern in turn
recalls the lad who was whipped for stealing apples. This, however, does
not really solve the problem; for we do not by this means regain possession
of our past through our memories. We may infer that there is a chain of
rememberers, going right back to the two-day-old infant who presumably
has some kind of recall of the previous days nappy changes. This, however,
contributes nothing to our sense of personal identity and enduring self-
hood. We have a merely theoretical rather than living connection to our
remote past, not in our own keeping. Derek Part advances the notion of
overlapping chains of strong connectedness tying together successive
phases of our psyche; these would include not only memories but other
psychological components.38 Memory, however, it seems to me, remains
central to the intuitive attraction of the theory; it is psychological connect-
edness made explicit.
If memory is so important to enduring personal identity, it is reasonable
to ask whether memories have to be in a state of being remembered to bind
the person together. It is obvious that we are not at any given time engaged
in remembering more than a minute fraction of even those memories we
have. If we had to keep a large number of our memories in play in order
to count as being adequately connected with our past, so that ourselves at
t1 could count as the same person as ourselves at t2, the price of having an
enduring personal identity would be to live like Borges mnestic monster
Funes the Memorious, who could forget nothing.39 We live by leaving
things behind and we need amnesia if an over-replete present conscious-
ness is not going to become a kind of delirium of reminiscence.
Most importantly, Lockes account, which has a rather vague view on
what would amount to sucient psychological connectedness to consti-
tute continuity of self, seems to be at odds with our intuition that personal
identity to use Reids phrase has no ambiguity, and admits not of

37. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, essay 3, ch. 4, Of Identity.
38. Part, Reasons and Persons.
39. Borges, Funes the Memorious.


degrees, or of more and less.40 To translate this, I does not pass through
a penumbra of I-ish as it fades to Not-I. As the line of connectedness
becomes less dense, the sense of I does not attenuate. For Part, who
does not believe that personal identity is determinate, yesno, and believes
that what matters is not the continuation of something called personal
identity, but the future of the Humean series of experiences we have, this is
not a problem. For me, who does not believe that Raymond Tallis dissolves
into a succession of experiences, it is a problem. Either Raymond Tallis is
or Raymond Tallis is not; at least, that is what Raymond Tallis thinks. He
doesnt think he can be a teeny-weeny bit Raymond Tallis any more than
anyone can be a teeny-weeny bit pregnant.
There is another problem for those who would locate continuing
personal identity in psychological connectedness through memory. How
can I be sure that a memory I am having now is a true memory of an actual
experience of an experience that I had? Vividness of recall is no sure
guide to authenticity of apparent memories. The great psychologist Jean
Piaget reported that his earliest memory was a very precise and terrifying
image. He remembered very clearly being in the Jardin de Luxembourg
with his nurse when she was attacked by a man wanting to steal him from
his pram. It was only many years later that his nurse confessed that she had
fabricated the entire incident to earn herself praise.
This question of validation what makes these memories authentic
memories of experiences I have had connects with the profound insight
expressed by Bishop Butler, when he rejected Lockes rooting personal
identity in sameness of consciousness. This, he said, was a wonderful
mistake, for it is self-evident that consciousness of personal identity
presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity.41 In other
words, personal identity is not an objective given, which we then discover,
say on the basis of memories that we feel condent are ours. And this
seems sound: to found ones sense of identity on anything else, even memo-
ries that are felt to be valid because one had the experiences corresponding
to them, and one has evidence that there is the right kind of causal relation
between the memories and the experiences remembered, is to put the cart
before the horse. Just as, while quizzing me on little known facts about the
life of Raymond Tallis seems a good way for others to check my claim to be

40. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, essay 3, ch. 4, Of Identity.
41. Butler, Of Personal Identity, emphasis added.


Raymond Tallis, a high score on such a quiz could not underpin, or even
strengthen, my own sense of being myself. Imagining that it could do so is
connected with a failure to recognize that personal identity goes deeper, or
is presupposed in, identication and re-identication. The feeling that these
memories are mine, and are authentic because they are of experiences that
I have had, must be itself rooted in a pre-existing sense of personal identity:
that I am this, a this that is currently having these memories and previ-
ously had the experiences preserved in the memories.
It certainly seems odd to think of personal identity as something you
arrive at as a kind of conclusion. We are led down this peculiar path, as
Bishop Butler pointed out, because we are using the term identity loosely,
as we do when we (illegitimately) apply it to objects such as trees, ships
and gentlemens clubs, when we do indeed have to invoke external criteria
for justifying the use of the term and for arriving at what is an identi-
cation. The iteration that I am is a presupposition that precedes any
determination of what I am. Psychological connectedness does not, there-
fore, deliver the sense of personal identity; it is presupposed in it. So is the
notion of the self doomed? Are those neuromaniacs who deny that it corre-
sponds to anything real on to something, even if their reasoning is faulty?
There is another possible basis for my continuing identity over time,
and which could also underwrite my identity at any given time; namely, my
body. I am my body, it is argued, and my enduring self is rooted in my rela-
tively stable body. Certainly, the body that I, and only I, have had all my
life seems a plausible repository for my personal identity, at least when we
focus on its continuity over time. This needs clarication, however; I am
not just the physical material of my body which, after all, is still there,
stretched out on the mortuary slab, after I have died even though it does
not outlive me. My corpse, which, for a while at any rate, is not materi-
ally much dierent from my body at the time of death, and certainly less
dierent from my body immediately prior to my death than it is from my
body as a child, is not a continuation of my personal identity.
Eric Olson argued in The Human Animal that identity resides not in the
material of the body but in the biological processes in the living organism
that is H. sapiens. This leads him to the conclusion that even people in a
permanent coma or a persistent vegetative state retain their identity. He
enthusiastically welcomes these, to me unwelcome, consequences of his
position, because he wants to separate personal identity from conscious-
ness: the subtitle of his book is personal identity without psychology.
Persons are human animals and no sort of psychological continuity


is either necessary or sucient for a human animal to persist through

time.42 This is a view, of course, that would t nicely with Neuromania
and Darwinitis, that would prefer to see people as organisms, but it would
suggest that we could do without the notion of people distinct from their
bodies altogether.
Admittedly Olsons identication of personal identity with the living
animal body does dispose of some diculties. It deals with my undeni-
able, but seemingly puzzling, connection with an object in the remote past
that does not have personal identity: for example the foetus I once was.
How can Raymond Tallis be the same self or person as a foetus or neonate
that seems to lack an I? The answer is straightforward if I believe that
my identity resides in my animal body. I am this animal body, which just
happens to have an ego-less phase preceding a phase with an ego.
Locating personal identity in the body is helpful in another regard. The
body stands outside the vicious circle that caused so much trouble when we
attempted to nd continuing personal identity in psychological connected-
ness through memory. The body, unlike our experiences, endures through
space and time, and has a public observable, as well as a privately experi-
enced, face. It can therefore act as a check on the relation between past
experiences and the present moment. For example, there is, as it were,
an audit trail connecting the successive moments of the body. It has the
handy property of being in a denite location at a particular time and of
having to occupy all intermediate locations in between times. If I authen-
tically remember being in Paris at a particular time, I know that I cannot
also authentically remember being in Cambridge at that time. Nor could
I have been in London ten seconds later: nor even one day later, without a
remembered form of transport. My publicly observable body also provides
a means by which others may either vouch for or contest my memories. By
means of the body, our memories and other psychological states are tied
into a nexus of objective fact and checkable reality. Experiences, and the
memories that make them part of my enduring identity over time, are teth-
ered to real places and real times. (It is particularly unfortunate, then, that
Olson is happy to do without these psychological items!)
There is something else in Olsons favour. My body, the public face of my
identity, also connects identity with identication: with that reinforcement
or conrmation of my sense of the self I am that comes from others whose

42. Olson, The Human Animal, 124.


lives intersect or intertwine with mine. The body links the private space
of recollection with the public realm, with micro- and macro-society: the
subjective sense of being me with the objective data recorded in identity
cards. But there are many problems with this. Not the least is that quite a
lot of my body (my spleen or my bone marrow, for example) doesnt have
much to do with my identity either, as it is experienced either by others
or by myself. But Olsons theory has another aw. It seems to bypass the
very essence of what lies at the heart of personal identity: the sense, the
intuition, the feeling, the assertion that I am what I am. While it gives
a plausible marker of continuity of the self over time, it doesnt seem to
oer continuity of the self as such. As Locke says, Person stands for a
thinking intelligent Being that can consider itself as its self .43 Most
damningly, without this subjective dimension it is dicult to see how iden-
tity could arise in the body, for a person-less body does not have the status
of being a single, coherent thing. It can be taken as one body, many organs,
millions of cells, trillions of atoms and so on. Unity does not come free, as
we saw when we looked at the failure of neural activity to provide the basis
for the unity of consciousness. The body, like the brain, is not self-unifying.
Olson, you will recall, wanted to incorporate the foetus that my body
was in 1946 into my personal identity. While there is, of course, a conti-
nuity between the foetus and the body that is the ground oor of my iden-
tity at present, it is perfectly obvious that a foetus does not have a personal
identity; in short that, being I-less, it is not only not what I am but it is not
an earlier phase of the I that I am. It may be what the I emerges from,
but it is not the I that I have become.
We may, therefore, draw several conclusions from our discussion. First,
personal identity is not a matter of the psyche solely: stand-alone memo-
ries cannot provide the basis for the moment-to-moment sense of self,
nor for the condence that we have in being the same person over time,
that we are temporally extended. They are rootless or untethered. We need
the body as well. But, second, a stand-alone body (or part of it, such as
the brain) cannot provide personal identity, either. It is person-less and as
such does not have an identity. We need both psyche and soma, with the
psychological continuity providing the inner aspect of the enduring self
and the corporeal continuity that outer aspect, but not just one added to
the other or merely conjoined like an engine and a chassis, or a ghost and a

43. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, ch. 27, 9.


machine. A satisfactory account of the self based on the mindbody must

begin not with continuity of identity over time however important that is
but with identity at any given time.
The reader may sense what is coming next: an appeal to the notion of
the existential intuition, which I introduced in How we came to be so
dierent in Chapter 6, and that lay at the root of the freedom I have been
arguing for in the previous section. Personal identity is something that
begins with the awakening of the conscious human body to itself: the intu-
ition that it is and that it is itself. This, it seems to me, is the sine qua non,
the beating heart, of personal identity. Asserting this, however, makes me
aware of how elusive it is. The existential intuition is immediately experi-
enced, but I have tended in this book and elsewhere to cast it in this form:
[That] I am [this] where this, in the rst instance, is ones own body,
although it grows beyond the body in ways that are too obvious to need
spelling out. The existential intuition looks, perhaps, too much like an
assertion or a proposition or a thought; and to present it in this way would
seem to replicate in part the error of Kants notion that It must be possible
for the I think to accompany all my representations. Even the word intu-
ition is too narrow, suggesting as it does an inchoate thought. We may,
perhaps, think of the sense that one is (or am) this item in infancy this
body initially as a slowly spreading blush, engaging more and more of
the body, with key landmarks such as the discovery of ones hands and,
later, of ones toes. The human body, we might say, is itself by virtue of the
fact that it ams itself.
At the point of origin of personal identity in a newborn wakening
towards itself psyche and soma are one: the inchoate I identies with
the sentient body. We may envisage a gradual awakening to the body as
ones own, as ones self, and through the body to the world, so that bodily
self-awareness becomes the elaborate correlative of a personal world. This
is the context in which the I emerges in the body and personal identity
is established in and of a body that will precede and outlast it. The mature
I is forged in the community of minds, in the human world, the public
sphere that lies beyond the organism.
There is, of course, a gradual evolution of the self over time, and in
the early days there is no self to speak of at all. But for the greater part of
adult life we are internally connected autobiographically, not merely factu-
ally, but through rst-person recall, from a viewpoint that is uniquely our
own. We have privileged information not only about what happened in our
past, but also about what it felt like at a multitude of levels. And there is a


huge amount of implicit knowledge in the fact that we make moment-to-

moment sense of ourselves, and of our world, of what is happening and
what we are doing. Just how much knowledge is required becomes evident
when writers attempt to achieve an eect of immediacy by plunging the
reader into the moment-to-moment existence of a rst-person narrator.44
Without the existential intuition, which lies at the heart of rst-person
being, without this sense that I am this, at any particular time, there is no
basis for the sense that I am the same thing over time. The intuition that I
am this must precede any question as to whether I am or am not the same
this. Without self-appropriation, self-stipulation, the question cannot
arise as to whether or not something is the same thing over time. Or it can
be resolved only by an external at that says that the acorn is or is not the
same as the oak tree, that the club is or is not the same club as the club that
went under the same name but had dierent premises, rules and member-
ship, as it did a hundred years ago.45
In invoking the existential intuition, I have not provided a fully
worked-out theory of personal identity; indeed, you may feel that, had you
blinked, you would have missed my positive ideas. (Most notably, I have
not made enough of, even less attempted to give an account of, the sense
of temporal depth that informs the moment-by-moment self, which draws
on a past and reaches into a future.)46 What I have tried to do is show that
it is possible to have a robust sense of self rooted in objective reality and an
account of enduring personal identity that doesnt require us to imagine
a homunculus, or a Cartesian ghost in the cerebral machine. This is what
underpins the aspects of the self that matter to us.
The aspects of the self that I am referring to are: that I have enduring
traits; that it is correct to relate my actions, and feelings and curriculum
vitae to an individual who endures over years and is the source of his
actions, so that today in 2011 I am responsible for the actions committed
by the person answering to my name in 1973; that I am bound by prom-
ises because the self who made them is the same self as the one who has

44. See my Getting Consciousness to Speak Itself .

45. Carters suggestion that people with multiple personalities show what the self really is that
they are just like us only more so is analogous to suggesting that having a seizure is a model
of walking. I would say that they are just like us only less so. And even those who seem to
have multiple personalities require a dense internal interconnectedness simply to function as
one of their personalities.
46. For more on the endurance of the self over time, see my I Am, Personal Identity: What I


to deliver on them; and that I am the originator of my actions. This self

all the self that is worth having is possible because I am a continuing
body animated by a relatively stable, densely internally stitched together,
psyche (memory, roots of behaviour, frameworks, etc.) supported and
conrmed by the scaold of continuing oce, and more broadly by a
sense of who I am, a sense reinforced by others. This identity itself is not
to be reduced to the objective basis of, or the criteria for, its own continuity
over time, although the latter are important. I have to own my continuity
and this means that I have to am myself at any given time. Promises and
regrets are felt in the rst person; they are not reducible to consequences
of objective contracts. I did that action or I made that promise: these
are felt and cannot be reduced to objective events. While enjoying, or
suering, this sense of self will depend on a brain in some sort of working
order, the self is not translatable into neural activity. The personally appre-
hended connectedness cannot be reduced to some impersonal connected-
ness of synapses, not least because it is upheld in part by the community of
minds to which we belong and is lived out in the realm that community of
minds has created.
No wonder it cannot be found in a part of the organism, the brain, or in
a part of the brain, such as the claustrum, which Crick and Koch appealed
to. Once that is clear, we are in a position to argue that the failure to nd a
neuroscientic basis or correlative of the self is evidence not that the I is
an illusion, but that neuroscience is limited in what it has to say about us.
And when we encounter an assertion such as the following, by Blackmore,
We are meme machines by and for the selsh replicators. The only true
freedom comes not when we rebel against the tyranny of the selsh repli-
cators but when we realise that there is no-one to rebel,47 we can shrug our
shoulders, say Speak for your non-self and reject the charge that we are
subscribing to an outdated folk psychology.

47. Blackmore, The Evolution of Meme Machines.


Defending the Humanities


It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other
social sciences, including the humanities, are the last branches
of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis.1

If the imperialist ambitions of Neuromania and Darwinitis were fully real-

ized, they would swallow the image of humanity in the science of biology.
Our distinctive nature, our freedom, our selfhood and even human society
would be reduced to the properties of living matter, and this in turn would
be ripe to be reduced, via molecular biology, to matter period. So it is
particularly sickening that the humanities, traditionally a bulwark against
the encroaching tides of scientism, have proved so willing to collaborate
with the invaders. Neuro-evolutionary thought has been welcomed with
garlands of owers. Unforced marriages with the occupying forces have
produced a multitude of interdisciplinary children bearing names that
testify to the happiness of the partnership, although not to the equality
of the partners. Worse still, neuro-evolutionary thought is breaking out
of the academy (where it can probably do little direct harm except inter-
fere with the endeavour to make post-religious sense of ourselves) to more
dangerous areas such as education, social policy and politics, where it
may do much harm in the medium term. And there is a potential for even

1. Wilson, Sociobiology, 4.


greater damage in the long term, as I discussed in To hell in a hand cart?

in Chapter 2. Ideas have consequences. These new disciplines therefore
warrant critical examination.
Before I examine individual examples of the new sciences, some
general observations about the humanities-turned-animalities are in order.
What they have in common is that they minimize the non-biological reality
of persons, societies and institutions. They either do not acknowledge, or
pass over, or try to eliminate, the public sphere, the very world from which
the humanities and their proper objects of concern have grown. The shots
are called by our brains transmitting our evolutionary inheritance, and the
bullets are manufactured in intracranial darkness, where only neuroscience
can see. The humanities must acknowledge that, hitherto, they have only
been immature biosciences.
It is consistent with this ideology that things which belong to common
sense are presented as truths uncovered by the biological sciences. You and
I know, for example, that if a child is treated badly, it may grow up to lead
a catastrophically unsatisfactory adult life. The worse the child is treated,
and the earlier the ill treatment begins, the greater the likelihood of such an
outcome. This, of course, is what we might expect: our picture of the world,
and consequently how we engage with it, will be more profoundly aected
by early events when none of the basic elements of that world picture is
yet in place. Early experiences have less preceding experience to put them
into any kind of context. This common-sense observation is not enough
for those who want to wear the mantle of science: neurosociologists are
increasingly speaking of delinquent behaviour as being hard-wired by
early experience. This is not only pseudo-science, but wrong in another
respect: it turns a probability into a certainty.
The appropriation of common sense by neuro-talk can sometimes reach
ludicrous depths. One of the most ubiquitous neuro-groupies, and a past
master of giving the obvious a lick of neuroscientic paint, is Matthew
Taylor, whom we met in the Introduction. A one-time Chief Advisor on
Political Strategy to Tony Blair, he is now the Chief Executive of the Royal
Society of Arts. In his annual lecture to the RSA, he listed some of the
things that the brain tells us about politics. You wont be astonished to
learn the following, although you may be astonished that he feels he has to
tell us them:

we are all susceptible to social inuence because it is hard-wired

(that term again!) in everyone;


we are optimistic and take more risks when things go well;

a child who cant delay gratication is likely to underachieve or behave
inequality leads to anxiety;
commitment through family, church or civic groups protects us against
psychological frailty;
damaged emotional systems lead to inability to make decisions;
schoolchildren work better if the school feels part of a community;
we are less rational than we think.2

As Alexander Linklater pointed out, you could take out all mention of
neuroscience in Taylors lecture, and you would simply have a shorter and
clearer statement of his views.3
Sometimes common-sense observations do need to be checked against
the ndings of properly controlled studies. Many of the most important
scientic advances have overturned what common sense tells us. But the
studies need to be of the right kind, and it is not clear why neuroscience
(with all the methodological and conceptual problems we discussed in
Chapter 3) should be equipped to make us feel more condent that school-
children work better if the school feels part of a community. There is a hint
as to why people like Taylor believe this, from a reply I received from one
of his collaborators, Matthew Grist, when I criticised Neuro-Trash.4 Grist
drew my attention to Camila Batmanghelidjhs work in educating and reha-
bilitating desperately abused children, teaching them to see the world from
others points of view. Although by the usual measures her work seems
to have been highly successful, she has now embarked on research with
neuroscientic partners so that she can present evidence of her success in
terms of brains scans.5 I was reminded of the old joke: It works in practice.
Well and good. But does it work in theory? And Grist admits as much in
his defence of the RSA Social Brain project; it has not discovered anything
that could not have been observed by behavioural research, adding only
the seductive allure of neuroscientic explanations. At any rate, the
lesson that being a rational, creative, happy and well-behaved human being
is a social achievement that takes time, dedication and a certain kind of

2. Taylor, For Left and Right.

3. Linklater, Bad Science.
4. See my Neuro-Trash.
5. Grist, Neuroscience can Help Tame the Elephant.


environment or environments is not something that neuroscience could

tell us or, even if it could, is not something we would need neuroscience to
tell us. But neuroscience has a unique authority and brain images are espe-
cially potent.6
The psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel found that brain
scans had a particularly powerful persuasive inuence on the perceived
credibility of claims about the human mind.7 Undergraduates were given
the results of ctitious studies that made claims not fully supported by the
data, such as that Watching television improves maths ability or Playing
video games benets attention. Where the results were presented in the
form of brain scans, rather than as bar charts or words, the work was more
likely to be judged to be of high scientic merit and the reasoning in it
deemed sound. This is a striking validation of Matthew Crawfords charac-
terization of a brain scan as a fast-acting solvent of critical faculties.8
Daniel Golemans Social Intelligence oers some striking examples of the
new science of neuro-truistics, which looks to the latest ndings in neuro-
science to tell us what we know already. In order to ourish in life, he tells
us, we need neural exchanges:

Vitality arises from sheer human contact, especially from loving

connections. The people we care about most are an elixir of
sorts, an ever-renewing source of energy. The neural exchange
between a parent and child, a grandparent and a toddler,
between lovers or a satised couple, or among good friends, has
palpable virtues.9

If you dont believe that, you had better believe it now, because the
men in white coats have shown that our brains light up when we have
social contact. And David Sloan Wilson, who is, according to Grist, at
the vanguard of a new breed of evolutionary psychologists who talk
unabashedly about how genes function in a social context10 has made
an even more unsurprising observation: people become stressed when

6. Skolnick Weisberg et al., The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations, is highly rele-
vant here.
7. McCabe & Castel, Seeing is Believing.
8. Crawford, The Limits of Neuro-Talk.
9. Goleman, Social Intelligence, 318.
10. Grist, Evolution and the Social Brain.


they arent touched,11 and we know that from work with monkeys and
we are monkeys. Grist, commenting on this article, asserts that evolu-
tionary psychology will also show us that, because we are not well served
by our monkey brains, exercising self-control and planning for the long
term requires practice, social support, and the right environment and
incentives.12 So now its ocial: a good upbringing and encouragement
will increase your chance of turning out well. Soon those clever bons will
demonstrate that eating three square meals a day might fend o starvation.
I cannot resist one more example. Martin Lindstrom (a brand
futurist and one of the worlds most inuential people according to Time
magazine),13 reports, in his guide to the neuroscience of shopping, that
scientists have found that shopping oods the brain with the hormone
involved in motivation and reward.14 Who could have guessed that shop-
ping was associated with motivation and reward? Soon someone is going to
tell us that we engage in sex because orgasms are pleasurable. What makes
this seem to be a discovery that goes beyond the bleeding obvious is refer-
ence to hormones or, more generally, to brain chemicals. This particular
ourish, however, actually adds nothing because the concept of reward
chemicals, such as dopamine, is not at all clear. As Stuart Derbyshire and
Anand Raja have emphasized, dopamine has been implicated in the causa-
tion of schizophrenia, depression, and addiction: far cries from ordinary
shopping and its empty joys.15
The neuro-evolutionary pseudo-sciences tend to base their truistic or
counter-intuitive conclusions on experiments that grotesquely simplify
human life. Zeki, you may recall, thinks he can shine a light through the
mystery of love by showing subjects pictures of loved ones and ones to
whom they are indierent, and subtracting the response to the latter from
the response to the former. He also thinks he can advance understanding
of aesthetic responses by treating works of art as if they were merely
visual stimuli. A similar approach characterizes Jonah Lehrers neuro-
investigation of consumer behaviour. He presents subjects with simple

11. Wilson, Policymaking the Darwinist Way.

12. Grist, Evolution and the Social Brain.
13. Gregory, How Shoppers Make Decisions in a Recession.
14. Lindstrom, Buy.Ology. Gluttons for punishment might enjoy a treasury of neuro-truistics in
an article called Brain Lessons in Slate. Leading neuroscientists and popularizers such as
Pinker and Oliver Sacks say how learning about the brain changed the way they lived. You
will be astounded at the banality of their replies. I wont spoil the surprise.
15. Derbyshire & Raja, Shopping and the Stone Age Brain.


choices between having less now and getting more later. The title of
his book, The Decisive Moment, betrays his assumption that decisions are
essentially a matter of the moment. In fact, most of our decisions are not
snap. Even when they are, they have a non-snap hinterland.
Similar simplications lie behind some widely reported work, that
Lehrer makes much of, on the impact of cognitive load how busy your
mind is on willpower. These are experiments by Roy Baumeister, a
Florida neuroscientist.16 Baumeister invited his subjects to choose between
two kinds of food: healthy but less tasty (fruit salad) and unhealthy but
tasty food (chocolate cake). The choices were made in two dierent condi-
tions: while the subjects are busy remembering random numbers; and
while they are not thus occupied. It appears that when they are engaged in
the memory task, people are more likely to be weak-willed and choose the
cake instead of the fruit. Needless to say, the results of the crude study have
not been supported by other work with a slightly more subtle experimental
design closer to real life decision-making.17 The neuromaniac bandwagon
has not, however, been slowed; and in this case, as so often, the negative
ndings received little or no coverage in the press.
As Andrew Scull expresses it, the neuroscientic ndings that are so
proudly proered reect simple simulated experiments that in no way
capture the intricacies of everyday social situations, let alone the complex
interactions over time that make up human history.18 The reduction of
human behaviour to responses to stimuli or to making trivial, often dichot-
omous, choices is the same as we saw in the Libet experiments: the isola-
tion of an action from an entire eld of action, from the ux of life. The
simplication is not accidental. It makes the experiments easy to perform
and the analysis of the response more tractable. Reducing the appreciation
of art, the experience of love, the decision to get into debt or to look after
your health to simple responses to stimuli brings them closer to something
that can be seen in terms of brain activity, just as it is easier to examine the
exing of a wrist to activity recorded using electromyography than to inter-
pret a performance of Giselle in this way.
This simplication squeezes out personal and collective history.
Reward, pleasure, emotion linked to regions of the brain supposedly
specializing in these very general items are the kind of broad categories

16. See Lehrer, Blame it on the Brain.

17. See e.g. Converse & Deshon, A Tale of Two Tasks.
18. Scull, Mind, Brain, Law and Culture, 587.


neuro-evolutionary disciplines feel able to handle. Martians may believe

that there is something called reward that encompasses the pleasure of
food, of drugs, of orgasm and the satisfaction that comes from success or
from a life well spent, but for non-Martians they are not the same. The
satisfaction that comes from improving the patient care system in ones
hospital is not the same as the pleasure that comes when you take a drug or
masturbate. The apparent fact that the same brain areas are activated when
we listen to pleasurable music19 and during sex conrms how uninforma-
tive imaging is. Techniques that cannot distinguish between hearing an
organ played and having ones organs played with tell us little about them.
Moral rewards and pharmacological ones are not the same. Denuded
abstractions such as reward as in brain reward mechanisms are
dehumanized and dehistoricized. Indeed, the notion that the brain is ahis-
torical is a key assumption espoused by those most notably the evolu-
tionary psychologists who believe we are held to ransom by an organ
that, since it evolved to serve certain primitive purposes, is often at odds
with what is required of us in contemporary, or indeed civilized, life. The
brain, apparently, does not know what time of the epoch it is and, for some,
its responses are those of a creature adapted to live in the savannah, or the
jungle, or to hunt and gather for its livelihood. The neuro-evolutionary
stories that I shall examine, steadfastly look straight past all that makes us
distinctively human; and they are proud of doing so.
The methodological aws in neuromaniac studies deliver what biologism
needs. If you reduce human life to responses to stimuli, then you will seem
to be justied in seeing us as biological devices programmed to respond
to stimuli. And this links with one of the master-assumptions behind the
neuro-evolutionary pseudo-disciplines: that we are so devised that every-
thing we do directly or indirectly serves the project of gene replication.
That this fails to capture so much that is central to our nature should not
need spelling out. No one has done it more clearly than the father of scien-
tic psychology, William James: Mans chief dierence from the brutes
lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities Had his whole
life not been a quest for the superuous, he would never have established
himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.20

19. Mannes, The Power of Music, 35. See also Blood & Zatorre, Intensely Pleasurable Responses
to Music.
20. James, The Works of William James, 104.


It is extraordinary that so many humanist scholars should be committed

to concealing (rather than celebrating or exploring) this wonderful,
distinctive fact about human beings. And yet the turkeys have been voting
in excited gaggles for Christmas. In his discussion of the use of evolutionary
theory to explain the novel, literary critic Jonathan Gottschall argues
that this represents a new moment of hope in an era when everyone is
talking about the death of the humanities.21 I think the reports of both the
death and the resurrection are exaggerated, although attempted suicide, it
appears, is not ruled out.


Art on the brain

Evolutionary explanations of why people create and enjoy art, neurocogni-

tive frameworks for aesthetics, and neural-network-based explanations for
the perception of beauty converge in the idea that our experiences of art are
processes in a brain developed to support survival. Neuroaesthetics is most
advanced in the eld of the visual arts, which already boasts an institute
and a chair dedicated to this pursuit (at University College London), occu-
pied by Semir Zeki, who was a neurophysiologist in an earlier incarnation.
Zeki believes that brain mechanisms explain the dierent eects that paint-
ings executed in dierent styles have on us. To understand these eects, he
believes, we need to determine the areas of the brain, in particular in the
visual pathways, that light up when we are confronted with paintings.
For Zeki, artists are instinctive bons, aware, although unconsciously,
of how to stimulate dierent pathways in the brain:

The artist in a sense is a neuroscientist, exploring the potential

and capacities of the brain, though with dierent tools. How
such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be
fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now
well within our reach.22

21. Cohen, The Next Big Thing in English.

22. Zeki, Inner Vision. He is not alone in this belief. Ramachandran and William Hirstein argue
that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules or principles to titil-
late the visual areas of the brain (The Science of Art, 17).


As we have seen from his work on the beauty spot located in the
orbito-frontal cortex Zeki means what he says to be taken literally.23
Mondrian, he tells us, speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4
while the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions. His
views are by no means those of an eccentric loner. Margaret Livingstone
argues that cubism may aect us because there are neurons that will
respond exclusively to a particular object, at various viewing angles. This
means that some memory templates in our brain are view invariant; that is
that you can recognize an object or person seen from any angle.24 Conse-
quently cubism is pleasing because it resonates with a view-invariant part
of our memory system. As Massey points out in his excellent review of
neuroaesthetics, this does not bring us closer to understanding why we
prefer some cubist works to others, or why some viewers do not take any
particular pleasure in cubist techniques to begin with,25 a point to which I
shall return.
John Onians, in Neuroarthistory, takes neuroaesthetics to its logical
conclusion, and he is to be commended for the remorseless consistency of
his ideas. Given that the creation of art and its appreciation are a reec-
tion of the genetically programmed properties of the brain, plus plastic
changes induced by the material environment, even the propensity of
art historians to espouse certain theories can be explained by the kind of
experiences to which their brains have been exposed, which will have rein-
forced certain neural pathways during their period of development. For
example, the dierence between the aesthetic theories of the Baron de
Montesquieu and of Johann Joachim Winckelmann are to be accounted for
by the dierences between the experiences of the son of a wealthy wine-
grower (Montesquieu) and those of the son of a poor cobbler (Winckel-
mann). Their dierent experiences, Onians says, would have had a major
inuence on their respective neural formations. Hence Montesquieus
emphasis on the importance of climate on artists. In Winckelmanns case,
repeated looking made him particularly apt to study ancient sculpture
because it developed neural networks that were better adapted to the task
in hand. John Ruskins skill as an art critic and his emphasis on the relation
of art to its environment is connected with his being driven round large
parts of England in a specially adapted cart, by his father, who was a wine

23. Zeki & Kawabata, Neural Correlates of Beauty.

24. Livingstone, Vision and Art, 77.
25. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 137.


merchant: as a result, his neural networks will have increasingly predis-

posed him to reect on the relation between art and the environment.26
The twentieth-century art critic E. H. Gombrich, who would have spent
much time waiting for buses and tubes in wartime London, acquired by
this means a distinctive neurobiology that accounted for aspects of his
approach to art. (If these inuences were sucient for the individuals in
question to be outstanding art critics then, of course, their ranks would
run into very high numbers.) The appeal to material inuences of this kind
bypasses the conscious reections, the reading, the dialogues with others
living and dead that I would submit are crucial to the formation of the
outlook of a wordsmith such as an art critic.
Onians also grades art critics according to how closely they antici-
pate the theories that he and his fellow neuroaestheticians espouse. Aris-
totle, for example, is praised for understanding the biological basis of
artistic activity and for seeing the importance of neural plasticity induced
by repeated similar experiences. Apollonius of Tyana gets a pat on the
back for acknowledging the way in which the imagination, the emotions
and the body are all linked,27 which is apparently a discovery of modern
neuroscience. In short, he is to be congratulated for so nearly being Semir
Zeki. E. P. Thompson famously spoke of the enormous condescension of
posterity,28 according to which historians praise those gures in the past
who came closest to being as clever as we are. Rarely can the past have
been condescended to so comprehensively.
While neurology is supposed to explain how art works, evolutionary
theory explains what it is for: why the brain, which should concentrate,
with singleness of mind or doubleness of hemisphere, on the serious busi-
ness of survival should be tuned to enjoy such a time-wasting activity as
looking at pretty pictures, and why it should be disposed to nd them
pretty. According to Onians, art is a universal activity because it produces
a pleasure analogous to that which is associated with the activities most
essential for our survival.29 Many others concur with this view. Duttons
lavishly praised The Art Instinct has this as its central thesis: our appre-
ciation of landscape painting is rooted in our prehistoric sensitivity to
landscapes themselves, necessary to survival, which was forged in the

26. Onians, Neuroarthistory, 93.

27. Ibid., 36.
28. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 12.
29. Onians, Neuroarthistory, 72.


Pleistocene era, between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago. We like pictures
of landscapes that would have been favourable to hunting and gathering. If
this causes you to smile, then you will enjoy what E. O. Wilson had to say
about Mondrian, who seems to have been singled out for especially thor-
ough biologizing. We like his paintings, apparently, because his patterns of
lines and colours create an eect not unlike that of a mottled sky viewed
upward through a woodland canopy.30 We can, of course, retrospec-
tively read visual analogies into any abstract work of art. In fact, a typical
Mondrian is closer to a crossword I once saw tattooed on a barmaids
arm than a mottled sky viewed through a jungle canopy. This example of
evolutionary visual aesthetics at work is by no means the most tenden-
tious. In his recent book, Ramachandran suggests that the impact of Picas-
sos painting can be explained by their amounting to supernormal stimuli
of the kind that Niko Tinbergen described in herring gulls. A herring gull
chick responds to the red spot on its mothers beak by begging for food. It
will apparently respond even more vigorously to a stick with a bigger spot
or a stripe. Picasso likewise provides us with supernormal stimuli.31
And what about the creation of art? Why does anyone bother with this
useless activity? The answer is easy peasy: great art, like the peacocks tail,
is a marker of the health of the genes of the creator and therefore has a
key role in sexual selection. Artists produce art in order to maximize their
chances of mating with desirable members of the opposite sex. Even the
sponsorship of the arts is regarded as a manifestation of the reputation
reex, by which, like the peacock whose useless tail advertises the health of
his genes, the sponsor advertises the health of his business.32
The case against neuro-evolutionary aesthetics is clear and straight-
forward. If our tastes were forged in the Pleistocene era, it is dicult to
see how art could have evolved as it does: how we went from Giotto to
Picasso in such a short period of time. Neuro-evolutionary aesthetics casts
not a quantum of light on the specic nature of art, the distinctive contri-
bution of individual artists or the basis for the evaluation of art as great,
good, mediocre or bad. In short, it bypasses everything that art criticism
is about. It doesnt even distinguish aesthetic from other forms of pleasure,
or indeed many forms of visual experience. The so-called beauty spot
behaves rather similarly to other parts of the brain and has many other jobs

30. Wilson, Consilience, 221, quoted in Malik, Why Were Dierent from the Animals.
31. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, 212.
32. Wight, The Peacocks Tail and the Reputation Reex.


to do. If art, like chocolate (which is much more immediately relevant to

survival), stimulates the reward centres, what is special about art? Or is this
why chocolate-box art is so popular: it marries two sources of reward? And
there are other forms of showing o that seem to be likely to pull more
chicks more reliably. Building up ones muscles in a gym, making a load of
money and driving an expensive car beat the pants o Beethovens creation
of his late quartets as responses to the evolutionary imperative. The eight
years James Joyce spent on Ulysses would seem to be a biological scandal of
the rst water. And, by the way, the lady who eventually became Mrs Joyce
didnt like it.
What is striking about truly great artists is how much they are
concerned with their art, how much they love the medium and the oppor-
tunities and challenges it provides, and, relatively speaking, how little they
are concerned with the material benets it brings. Shakespeares plays are
just too good ridiculously, unnecessarily good at every level, in ways
I hardly need to spell out, to be explained by his desire for the material
advancement that would attract mates. The lines that he wrote to be just
about heard or overheard by a noisy, pongy crowd, who may have come
to the theatre for quite other purposes (although he was immensely
popular), somehow manage to repay a lifetime of attention, and can be
mined forever for meanings without the rift running out of ore. The gulf
between what Shakespeare would have had to have achieved in order to
deliver on contract and what he actually achieved is poignant testimony to
an artistic ambition that demands to be understood in terms of something
that goes beyond the requisites of the commission. Examples numerous
even in the era of the patron, the prince and the jobbing artist of creative
activity that delivers crazily beyond contract suggests another aim than
material advancement and pulling chicks. Artists have suered starva-
tion, contempt, neglect for their art. Hardly the biologically correct thing
to do. Great artists are more often biological losers than they are alpha
semen spreaders.
At any rate, as Massey (who has acquainted himself fully with the litera-
ture of neuroaesthetics, having been initially impressed by its claims) says,
neuroscience has little to say about the unique qualities of any single
work.33 To show the neurological processes by which we respond to
colours, luminance, surface and depth, edges and angles, and straight lines

33. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 18.


will not take us very far into understanding art, particularly as there are no
neurons that respond specically to curves whereas they are hardly absent
from the history of what is to be found painted on canvases or shaped in
marble. If we really were Zeki-zombies, it is dicult to see how we could
derive so much pleasure from those curvaceous items that have been such
constant presences in the art of the past (i.e. clouds).
Just how crude neuroaesthetics can be is illustrated by Onianss claim
that artists make portraits of others look like themselves because mirror
neurons (those explain-alls again!) inuence the movements of their hands.
He illustrates this with Oskar Kokoschkas portrait of Thomas Masaryk,
which, he claims, looks like the artist.34 To me it looks like the sitter. And
if mirror neurons were so inuential in this way, it is dicult to imagine
how a male artist could portray a woman, a young artist an old one, or any
human artist portray an animal, a plant or a rock.
When the hype settles, we shall see neuroaesthetics for the sterile exer-
cise it is. If a work of art is treated as an isolated stimulus or set of stimuli
so that Mondrians paintings, for example (which seem to lend themselves
most readily to a neurological analysis) are merely devices for the preferen-
tial excitation of V4 pathways using an emphasis on lines then they, and
those who enjoy them, will be divorced from their cultural context, and
from their individual and shared history. This scorched-earth approach is
not only reductive but also mechanistic: if Mondrians paintings work in
a certain way, it is dicult, as Massey pointed out, to see how they took
so long to be accepted, how dierent people evaluate them dierently, and
how we react to them dierently on dierent occasions. They leave me
pretty cold (although I like the idea of them); is this because I suer from
Mondrian Receptor Deciency Syndrome?
Only neuroaestheticians need to be told that works of art are not merely
sources of stimuli that can be understood as acting on bits of the brain.
More than anything else, they engage us as whole human beings. Their
impact will reach deep into our personal depths, which in turn will have
been shaped, although not entirely determined, by the post-Pleistocene,
neurally irreducible culture in which we have grown up. Works of art,
what is more, are in dialogue with the world in which they are produced,
with other works in the same and dierent genres and with the earlier and
later works of the same artist. They invite us not only to have experiences

34. Onians, Neuroarthistory, 172.


but to examine those experiences: not merely to have visual tingles but to
think about what is before us. In the case of representational works, we are
encouraged to reect on what is shown, to accept or refuse the symbols, to
rejoice in the beauty of the world or deplore its horror. Rembrandts series
of self-portraits is not merely a parade of coloured surfaces but a profound
meditation on the tragedy and beauty of the course of life. An array of
pixels or voxels lit up, or not, hardly captures that. Onianss art lover, Zekis
art appreciator, is an ahistoric brain, whose activity is not qualitatively
dierent from that of a chimpanzee.
Even if, as Massey points out, neurology were of great value in
exploring the how of aesthetic processes it would not be of much use
in exploring the why or the what for, or in helping to decide whether
one work of art is of greater value than another.35 As even Zeki admits,
according to Onians, who identies Zeki as the hero of his Neuroarthistory,
our knowledge of the brain is certainly not enough to account in neuro-
logical terms for aesthetic experience, although Zekis approach enables
him to set aside the emotional content of art, its ability to disturb, arouse
and inspire.36 No comment is needed; except perhaps to add that this still
gives neuroaesthetics too much credit. By virtue of the fact that it aims to
explain the power of visual art in terms of the basic functions of the visual
system, it cannot clearly dierentiate art from ordinary perception; which
is why, perhaps, as Massey says, even the most sophisticated book on art
and neurology starts to look like Keith Kays Little Giant Book of Optical
Illusions and the illustrative works of art begin to look like illustrations
for an ophthalmology textbook.37
The case for not reducing the production of art to brain tingles is
even more decisive than that for the appreciation of art. A work of art
is produced over days and weeks and months or even years, and may be
visited and revisited, envisioned and revised. The mature work is the result
of endless attention to the craft at the highest level of self-consciousness
and involves the assimilation and overcoming of the inuences of other
artists, and responding to, or resisting, the advice of others. The artist is
aware of one or more additional parties: the patron, the buyer, the public,
to whom the result is in some sense addressed (howsoever fashionably
and/or hypocritically an artist may deny this). This is not something to

35. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 18.

36. Onians, Neuroarthistory, 192, emphasis added.
37. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 41.


which mirror neurons which are just as busy whether one is learning the
art of gurning or the skill of wiping ones bottom could make a distinctive


There is an equally thriving industry in the eld of neuro-evolutionary

literary criticism. This, as I have mentioned already, has caused me consid-
erable sorrow, as two of its leading advocates are critics I have counted
as personal friends, as comrades in the 1990s in the struggle against the
massive pyramid of bullshit called literary theory, and as excellent critics
in their own right.
As I mentioned in the Introduction, I rst became fully aware of the
neurological approach to literary criticism through an article by the novelist
and critic A. S. Byatt,38 in which she purported to explain why, since she
discovered John Donnes poetry as a schoolgirl in the 1950s, she had found
him so very exciting. Byatt discussed some of Donnes most compelling
love poems, and in places showed the kind of sensitive attention to the
writers language and intention that we look for in a good, that is to say
helpful, critic. This made it puzzling, indeed exasperating, that the primary
concern of her piece was to explain the poems and their eect on her by
appealing to contemporary neurophysiology. And it is for this reason that
I would like to examine her engagement with neuroscience in more detail.
If neuro-lit-crit has anything to commend it, it would be found here. For,
in fairness to Byatt, it has to be said that, unlike that of some of her fellow
practitioners, her engagement with neuroscience is no mere hand-waving
to a discipline that sounds impressive. She has read the theories of a very
distinguished French neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, with care and
Changeux made his professional reputation with studies of the stereo-
chemistry of nicotinic receptors in the brain. He became famous among
the wider public in the 1980s, however, with the publication of Neuronal
Man, an early manifestation of Neuromania. In this volume, he argued that
there was no justication for dividing mental from neuronal activity and

38. Byatt, Observe the Neurones.


that even the spiritual and transcendental aspects of humanity could be

understood in terms of the biology of the central nervous system.
In Changeux, Byatt found an explanation of the Donne who excited
her as a schoolgirl. Yes, Donne is a pattern-maker with language;39 but
his verse has its eects by virtue of provoking a certain kind of neuronal
activity that Changeux has described. Reading Donnes poetry leads to the
formation of mental objects, and the excitement induced by the poetry
is due to the specic nature of the mental objects created in the reader.
To explain this, Byatt summarizes Changeuxs account of the construc-
tion of mental objects from the activation of a large number of neurons
in dierent layers of the brain that all come together: an idea we disman-
tled in Chapter 3. Changeuxs account is hierarchical. He distinguishes:
the primary percept a mental object constructed by direct contact
with the outside world; the image (an object of memory); the concept
(memory with diminished sensory content, an algebra derived from the
isomorphs of perceptual acts); and linked or associated concepts. These
correspond to increasingly complex contents of consciousness physically
realized in ever more complex linkages in the brain. While Byatt admits
that we are not yet within reach of a neuroscientic approach to poetic
intricacy, she reports that she was convinced on reading Changeux that
the neurones Donne excites are largely those of the reinforced linkages of
memory, concepts, and learned formal structures like geometry, algebra
and language.40 The poems knock on the right cerebral doors and are given
a lavish welcome.
She illustrates her theory with accounts of some of Donnes most
wonderful poems, Air and Angels, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
and The Cross. Much of what she says about them could stand up as
enraptured readings without reference to brain physiology. And the
connection between the neurophysiology and her exposition of the poems
is highly tendentious. For example, she claims that Donne, in playing
with the idea of crossing the heart (in The Cross) is making an elabo-
rate graph, in Changeuxs terms, of images and connections with which to
construct a world of ideas derived oddly and distantly from percepts.41
Graph theory, in fact, is a highly generalized mathematical model in
neurobiology that links functional with anatomical development in the

39. Ibid.
40. Byatt, Observe the Neurones.
41. Ibid.


brain in response to experience, and involves the deployment of matrix

algebra. The very abstract and general nature of the graphs indicates
at once that they could hardly account for something as specic as the
eect of Donnes verse. Even more tendentious is her explanation of why
Donnes poems are so easy to learn by heart, why they convey the feeling
of thought: their syntactical quirks such as delaying the verb to the end
of a line gives them a hotline to the deepest and strongest neuronal rein-
forced links, where the ring of cells is surest, most frequent, steadiest.42
This is neuro-speculation rather than neuroscience. What is more, as with
the neuroaesthetic approach to painting, it is evident that there is some-
thing deeply wrong about invoking rather general neural mechanisms to
explain something as specic as the particular excitement produced in a
clever and bookish schoolgirl by Donnes poems.
And this is the key point. The range of mental objects that Changeuxs
theory encompasses is hardly conned to up-market experiences such as
those associated with reading poetry. The processes leading up to mental
objects if they really do correspond to distinctive realities and are
anything other than artefactual dissections of consciousness are ubiqui-
tous. Working oneself up into a rage when one discovers that there is no
milk in the fridge because some selsh person has drunk the last pint and
failed to replace it would involve the same very processes Byatt invokes in
explaining the particular impact of the poems of a genius, if such processes
do occur. For the mental objects constructed under such irritating circum-
stances also involve percepts, memory images, abstract concepts and a
confection-by-association of them, as one justies ones rage and allo-
cates blame, and deploys sophisticated neural algebras that simultaneously
locate oneself next to an unsatisfactory fridge and an uncaring world popu-
lated with thoughtless people.
By adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large
number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by Donne
and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between
reading Donne and another metaphysical poet; between reading the meta-
physical poets and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great
literature and trash; between reading and many other activities such
as getting very cross over missing milk. That is an impressive number of
distinctions for a literary critic to lose.

42. Ibid.


I have focused on Byatt because she is one of the better practitioners

of neuro-lit-crit. One doesnt have to look far to nd much worse exam-
ples. My favourite, quoted by Massey, is one in which a neuroscientist and
a literary critic (Paul Matthews and Jerey McQuain) examine the famous
moment when Macbeth attempts to clutch the imaginary dagger. This is
glossed as an illustration of what each of us does scores of times each day:
reaching and grasping. The authors go on to explain that when moving
his right hand, an actor playing Macbeth would activate the right cerebellar
hemisphere and the left primary cortex, as shown in gure 14 (indeed, as
we do when we scratch our noses).43 This, as Massey points out, helps us
neither to understand Shakespeare nor to advance our understanding of
neurology. There opens up a grim prospect of critics developing an entire
lexicon of movements performed by Shakespearean characters (kissing
Bottom, doing the Five Mens Morris, exhorting the troops before the battle
of Agincourt, and so on) being translated by the neuro-lit-critic into under-
graduate neurophysiology.
This is not entirely fanciful. Massey also quotes Mary Thomas Cranes
analysis of Hamlets famous soliloquy. She describes the structures acti-
vated during the formation of its component sentences:

[This] probably involved activity rst in the occipital, poste-

rior superior parietal, and posterior inferior temporal lobes,
central to the generation of mental images, and then in the
perisylvian cortex (those regions of the brain located near the
sylvian ssure, also called the lateral sulcus), where the images
(slings and arrows, arms, sea) and concepts would be associ-
ated with appropriate words and formed into a grammatically
acceptable sentence.44

I would take much persuading not to believe that precisely the same struc-
tures are implicated when I am forming the sentences expressing my rage
that the milk has run out and I am denied my evening cup of coee, or
when I am reading out a laundry list.
Byatt might wish to distance herself from such nonsense but it is
there, embedded in her neurological approach. What we have in essence

43. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 84, quoting Matthews & McQuain, The Bard on the Brain.
44. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 85, quoting Crane, Shakespeares Brain, 15.


is a mode of literary criticism that addresses the most complex and rich
of human discourses, not with an attention that aims to reect, or at least
respect, that complexity and richness, but with a simplifying discourse
whose elements are blobs of the brain (and usually the same blobs),
wheeled out time after time.
But there is something more important (and more worrying) in
Byatts neuroaesthetics than its failure to deliver on its mission to explain
the distinctive eect of certain poems or of literature at all. By locating
aesthetic pleasure in the stand-alone brain, and indeed in small parts of
such brains, and invoking data obtained in part from animal experimen-
tation, she and her fellow neuro-lit-critics are performing a reduction
that even the most hard-line Marxist literary critics might shrink from.
In her discussion of The Cross, Byatt argues that the comparison Donne
makes between dierent crosses, including the crossed sutures in the skull
containing the brain, is nonsense at any level of logic except the brains
pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.45 Note that she writes about
the brains pleasure not the poets pleasure. Donne the poet is reduced
to Donne the brain, and the latter is Anybrain, formed, of course, in the
prehistoric past.
Just how reductionist Byatts neuroaesthetic approach is in common
with many others is illustrated by her attribution of the force of those
wonderfully randy lines from On His Mistress Going to Bed to (who
would guess it?) the operation of mirror neurons. Byatt thinks they
account for the particular erotic charge of the famous lines: License my
roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below.
The fact that mirror neurons were rst seen in monkeys watching other
monkeys reaching for peanuts should warn us that their activity can hardly
contribute much to explaining why Donnes stanzas should have the partic-
ularly intense eect they (sometimes) do. The identication with the poet
(or his mistress) and transplanting lustful caresses from the poem to ones
present experience involves much more than mirror neurons operating in
a way seen in monkeys. Our enjoyment of those lines owes much to the
thrilling transgression of the poets demand, its delicious directness in a
context (poetry) that is traditionally indirect, complex and subordinated
to custom. There is also the scandal (to use Roland Barthes term)46 of

45. Byatt, Observe the Neurones.

46. Barthes, Elements of Semiology, 87.


rhyming, which forges links at the level of sound between words that have
quite dierent meanings, so stitching the lines together. There is the driving
rhythm of the second line after the relatively circumspect opening request
to license the poets licentiousness. There is the (verbal not visual)
image of the frantic hand of the poet wanting to possess all of his mistress
body at once, and itemizing the places he wants to visit. Beyond this, there
is the issue of literary taste, of consenting, for all sorts of reasons, to enjoy a
work of art, or to be prepared to give it a chance a second reading, even.
We are a long way from mirror neurons, ring when an action is observed
with an intention to imitate it, rather than when an imaginary or generic
act is read about in the context of a poem that at once respects and thrill-
ingly transgresses the conventions of its genre.
If literary criticism is to have any use, it is to be concerned not with
putative mechanisms of reader responses but with helping the reader to
make sense of, and put into larger context, a work that repays careful atten-
tion. And it is to be concerned with evaluation, answering the questions
Coleridge says we ought to ask when thinking about a work of literature:
what was the author intending to do? How well was it done? Was it worth
doing? Neural pathways are not interested in the background and the nice-
ties of hermeneutics. Even less are they concerned with aesthetic judge-
ment. As Nicholas Carr writes, Whether a person is interested in a bodice
ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic eects are the same.47

Literature in the lab

In the course of my response to Byatts piece,48 I somewhat ironically

remarked that I would be interested, given that she had embraced a new
discipline that made empirical claims, to know what experiments she might
devise to support them. Did she envisage a generation of white-coated
critics, dissecting rat brains with one hand and texts with the other, and
congresses on experimental neuroaesthetics? I did not realize that moves
were afoot in that direction until my friend Philip Davis drew my dismayed
attention to work he was doing in that area.

47. Carr, The Shallows, 72.

48. Tallis, License my Roving Hands. The discussion Byatts piece here is based on my response
published in the Times Literary Supplement.


Towards the end of his otherwise excellent Sudden Shakespeare, Davis

argues that the impact of Shakespeares verse depends on the specic
eects certain syntactic constructions have on the nervous system. When,
as often happens, Shakespeare uses a noun as a verb or an adverb as a noun
(a technique known in the business as functional shift), as in the phrase
he godded me from Coriolanus (a verb my spell-checker chokes on), or
the dark backward of time in The Tempest, we are pleasurably surprised.
Davis suggests that this is due to heightened brain activity, and this may
be one of the reasons why Shakespeares plays have such a dramatic eect
on their readers.49 Davis has gone beyond mere speculation and (with
apologies to Dr Johnson) the strong contagion of the white coat. He has
collaborated with neuroscientists in his own university to do studies to
examine brain electricity with EEG, and is planning further studies with
magneto-encephalography and (inevitably) fMRI. He has reported on his
rst results.50
Using a group of sentences, one of which contained a functionally
shifted word, a grammatical anomaly that did not impair the sense of the
sentence, he found an increase in the amplitude of p600 a particular
wave on the evoked response to stimuli-registering syntactic violations
but no change in the N400, which is associated with semantic processing.
The brain, he argued, was allowed to know what the word meant before
it understood its function in a sentence and this forced the brain to work
backwards before fully grasping what Shakespeare is trying to say. He
concluded from this that Shakespeares language is so powerful because
his grammatical transgressions pressure the brain into working at a higher
adaptive level of conscious evolution. This would be equally true, of course,
if we were straining to understand speech that was marked by grammatical
transgressions due to idleness or incompetence.
The claim that this gives us insight into the unique potency of Shake-
speares writing is unfounded. Let us leave aside the facts that we do not
know how to interpret changes in p600 even in neurological terms and
that there are many other surprising experiences that might inuence the
height of p600. Instead, let us ask ourselves whether examining a particular
linguistic trick or tool in isolation will allow us to see more deeply into

49. Davis, Sudden Shakespeare. See

brain.htm (accessed April 2011).
50. Most accessibly in The Shakespeared Brain. The primary data are reported in Thierry et al.,
Event-Related Potential Characterisation of the Shakespearean Functional Shift.


Shakespeares genius. First, the grammatical anomaly would be of interest

only in the service of an observation or an utterance that carried especial
potent meaning. Godded adds only a little to the impact of the line in
Coriolanus. Second, the line itself makes sense only as part of its revelation
of character, its contribution to the unfolding of the plot, to the dramatic
interactions on the stage, and to the eect of the play as an illustration
of human life. Third, the vast majority of the lines of Shakespeare do not
rely on such grammatical transgressions. They are few and far between
and they are often absent from some of the great passages. The syntactic
tricks may add to the energy of the language but they do so only as auxiliars
to the greater unfolding sense. Shakespeares genius has little to do with
brain-teasing. Only where language is disconnected from the purposes
it serves in the degenerate prose of, say, John Lylys Euphues (1578)
does it make sense to examine it in isolation, when it takes on the char-
acter of a trick or an ornament to hide what might be rhetorical emptiness.
Whats more, functional shift is widespread in language, instantiated in the
distinctly non-poetic observation that someone ballsed something up.
The eighteenth-century satirist William Combe dispatched an impover-
ished Dr Syntax in 1809 to the Lake District on his grey mare Grizzle. The
good doctor vowed: Ill prose it here, Ill verse it there, / And picturesque
it everywhere.51 And the surprise or double-take is evident in many utter-
ances, including, for example: Rapidly righting with his uninjured hand, he
managed to prevent the canoe from hitting the rocks.
As Massey points out, no matter how many neurobiological univer-
sals we identify as contributing to our general response to art, they never
determine our particular response to any particular work.52 (Such is the
attraction of neuroscience, however, that even this eminently sensible and
perceptive critic cannot resist speculating that oxytocin may have some
role in the pleasure associated with the experience of metaphor!53 What a
versatile molecule; it not only has a hand in the pleasure of breastfeeding, in
causing uterine contraction, and in the female orgasm and in promoting
trust and cementing long-term relationships but also in helping us to
enjoy innovative uses of language!) To Shakespeare we bring not just a brain
attuned to tricks but ourselves, our experience, our knowledge of the world
and of ourselves, our lives. And we are rewarded by seeing those things

51. Quoted in Campbell-Johnston, Wild Thing, You Make Our Hearts Sing.
52. Massey, The Neural Imagination, 143.
53. Ibid.


illuminated by a stronger light than is aorded by our own reections or

unaided consciousness. This is remote from the energization of a brain
by syntactic anomalies causing extra tingles. Whats more, the reduction
of the impact of Shakespearean language to such tingles leaves two things
unexplained. First, why do all those who encounter Shakespeares language
not tingle in the same way? This was the question occasioned by neural-
izing explanations of Mondrian and other visual artists. If we respond to
Shakespeares language with neurological universals, why is the response
not universal?54 Second, in what respect is the experience of great language,
with or without syntactic anomalies, dierent from that of other stimuli
such as drugs, alcohol, sex, nasty surprises or loud music, and regarded as
worth teaching to young people in Departments of English Literature?55

Evolutionary criticism

To neuralize the experience of art, to reduce it to a succession of separate

sensations, of bonbons for bonobos, overlooks its deeper purpose: to bring
together things from the four quarters of our consciousness, and to link
the small facts that detain us with the great facts that enclose us.56 More
importantly, art speaks to needs such as for example, to make a larger and
more complete sense of our world, of our lives, of our destiny that are
remote from those that are experienced by apes and centipedes, which are
not even aware of their mortality. That is why we sometimes argue bitterly
about the merits of dierent works and why we often try to justify our
tastes by linking them with some notion of a fundamental good. Indeed,
aesthetics proper may be seen as the (probably doomed) endeavour to root
our preferences in an understanding of our nature and its true needs.

54. This applies even more obviously to Byatts neural story, in which she claims that Donnes
poetic techniques such as delaying the verb to the end of a line give his verses a hotline
to the deepest and strongest neuronal reinforced links, where the ring of cells is surest,
most frequent, steadiest (Byatt, Observe the Neurones). How is it that most people can
escape their potent charm?
55. Pinker doyen of evolutionary psychology has argued that the arts are equivalent to
masturbation and the taking of recreational drugs: clever ways of tickling up the brains
pleasure centres; pleasure technologies (How the Mind Works, The Meaning of Life (!),
56. See my Hunger, The Fourth Hunger, 99126.


These objections are particularly relevant to critics who appeal to

evolutionary theory to uncover the true (but hitherto hidden) meaning
or purpose of literature. Evolutionary criticism takes as its starting-point
the truism that storytelling may have been of benet to mankind. As Boyd

Art is a specically human adaptation It oers tangible

advantages for human survival and reproduction, and it derives
from play, itself an adaptation widespread among animals with
exible behaviours 57

[O]ur fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition,

encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity.58

This may be so. But it hardly identies what is special about great works of
literature and what is dierently special about dierent works of literature.
Perhaps that is not the intention of evolutionary criticism, in which case,
it hardly amounts to literary criticism. There is, however, another problem
with any approach that sees literature as a tool for survival. If writing is any
good, it should rise above the o-the-shelf automated perceptions, unre-
ective judgements and narrow consciousness of ordinary gossip. Magnan-
imous, ironical, questioning, wide awake in every respect, it is profoundly
dierent from ordinary storytelling, which, by the way, as often blunts our
social sensibilities by simplifying other people and their worlds, encour-
aging competition and envy and conict, and fostering imitation, as it
awakens deep humanity. At any rate, a broadbrush theory of literature,
which narrows the gap between pub prattle and War and Peace, will hardly
sharpen literary criticism. Ultimately, it seems doubtful that sophisticated,
more challenging works of art contribute to social solidarity of the kind
that would optimize the chances of the genome replicating. Worse still,
an organism that devotes many hours to the solitary pastime of reading,
and reading-inspired daydreaming, would surely be less tted for the hurly-
burly of everyday life than one satised by the one-sentence paragraphs of
the tabloid newspapers. In short, it would be another evolutionary loser.
The use of the word adaptation to close the gap between storytelling

57. Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, 1.

58. Ibid., back cover.


as a means of social solidarity among hominids and truly great works of

literature, should, of course, put us on red alert.
Joseph Carroll, a leading evolutionary critic and author of many papers
and several hefty volumes,59 has argued that knowledge is a biological
phenomenon, that literature is a form of knowledge, and that literature
itself is thus a biological phenomenon.60 This is his rationale for examining
the classics through the lenses of Darwinism and evolutionary psychology.
It is wrong. Knowledge is not a biological phenomenon: only humans
hold That x is the case and only in the human world are states of aairs
translated into facts held in common.61 Even if knowledge were merely a
biological phenomenon, that which is distinctive about literature would
not be captured by describing it as a form of knowledge. Is poetry usefully
described as a form of knowledge? If it is, it is not knowledge in the way
that a maintenance manual or a telephone directory or a scientic paper is
a knowledge. There is a world of dierence between Shakespeares sonnets
and a book of shing tips or an exhaustive list of the causes of chronic
cough. So Carrolls conclusion is based on two false premises. The rst
overlooks the dierence between (uniquely human) propositional aware-
ness and animal sentience. The second illustrates the tendency to homog-
enize or to eradicate the dierences between things that are profoundly
dierent: not merely between individual works of literature but between
works of literature and all other written discourses.
Such an approach is hardly going to help us to see a particular work
more clearly, just as Duttons view that sees art from the standpoint of
200,000 years ago is unlikely to help us to discriminate between a poor
and a great work of art, or even to think interestingly about the dier-
ences between landscapes by Giotto, Gainsborough and Anselm Keifer.
Undaunted, Carroll states, There is no work of literature written anywhere
in the world, at any time, by any author, that is outside the scope of a
Darwinian analysis.62 I suppose that makes sense: blunt instruments are
not troubled by ne distinctions such as those between the works of Jane
Austen and Jerey Archer, or between great writing and mediocre imita-
tions of the same, or even between good writing and garbage that have
detained unenlightened earlier generations of critics. It seems unlikely

59. E.g. Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory.

60. Ibid., 1.
61. See my The Knowing Animal.
62. Carroll, Human Nature and Literary Meaning, 79.


that we should nd a biological basis for the production and consump-

tion of complex discourses in the dierent activities of bits of the brain that
were laid down even before discourse began, and which (size apart) were
evident in our shared pongid kin 5,000,000 years ago. (Biologism, by the
way, represents an astonishing volte-face for the literary critical brigade,
who for many years did not countenance any suggestion that human life
had biological roots and argued that even sexual dimorphism man versus
woman was entirely socially constructed.)
The a priori expectation that evolutionary criticism, which looks at liter-
ature from as remote a distance as one could imagine, would be unlikely
to advance the task of interpreting, evaluating and illuminating individual
works (and serious works of literature are individual to the point of singu-
larity) or, more broadly, of mediating between the reader and the writer,
is conrmed when we see evolutionary critics on the case. Carroll exam-
ines Wuthering Heights not for its style or descriptive power, for its literary
virtues, but for its plot, after he has subjected it to a Readers Digest-style
digestion.63 He concludes that the motor of the relationship between Cath-
erine and Heathcli is the fact that they were raised as siblings and so were
genetically programmed to nd sexual relations distasteful. With respect,
I dont think that tells us much about the particular genius of Emily Bronts
masterpiece. And I dont think that we needed Bronts genius to point that
out to us. (And besides, it is not always true: cousinage est un dangereux
voisinage, as the old aphorism had it; and the transition from childhood
friendship to adult sexual relations is often negotiated without the kind
of agonizing storm and stress that characterizes the evolving relation-
ship between the two protagonists.) In Mimesis and the Human Animal,
Robert Storey focuses on the roots of tragedy and comedy. He examines
laughter and smiling universal reactions of human beings to speciable
classes of stimuli as evolved responses of an apparently adaptive kind.64
His imaginary reader is linked with the crab-eating monkey, in whom
any sudden, intense, or discrepant stimulus may lead to laughter and
smiling.65 A gaze that assimilates monkey behaviour to the appreciation of
Shakespearean comedy would, it seems to me, to be more than somewhat

63. Carroll, The Cuckoos History.

64. Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal, 158.
65. Ibid., 162, on Mary Rothbarts model for laughter.


These two examples illustrate something well expressed by William

Deresiewicz: that Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specic,
only to end up telling us something general.66 He discusses an essay by
Boyd that tries to explain Shakespeares pre-eminence as a playwright
by pointing out that he portrays the sociobiological dynamics of small
groups. So too, of course, do nearly all novels and plays, including the great
majority that are mediocre: The Valley of the Dolls as well as Middlemarch.
Increasingly, novelists have become obsessed by neuroscience. As Marco
Roth has noted, the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confes-
sional novel the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind has
transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes
the brain.67 Whether or not this is true, there are many critics who wish
it were so or think it should be. And they praise novelists of the past for
being neuro-novelists avant la lettre. In Proust was a Neuroscientist,68 the
novelist, an incomparable observer and analyst of himself and of the world,
is patted on the back for doing intuitively and patchily what is now being
done objectively and systematically by neuroscientists: understanding the
mind. As Roth said, if Proust were a neuroscientist (an assumption that
requires us to broaden the notion of neuroscience and narrow our under-
standing of Prousts observations of his own and others minds), this would
not be in virtue of cribbing from contemporary case studies, but by
observing himself and others outside of any consulting room. Surely the
way for a novelist to be a neuroscientist today is still to anticipate rather
than follow the discoveries of brain science:69 and to visit places that lie,
and will always lie, outside the scope of brain or any other science.
None of the arts is safe from the attention of the neuro-evolutionary
critics. Music, we are told, emerged through the process of sexual selec-
tion. Georey Miller, for example, argues that some of our most human
mental abilities art, music, language, kindness, intelligence and creativity
evolved not just for survival but for reproduction, and that animal bodies
and behaviour evolve largely as advertisements for their genes.70 By singing
(and possibly, although not in my case, dancing) a man demonstrates his
tness to a woman. (How badly the greatest artists Bach, Beethoven,

66. Deresiewicz, Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism.

67. Roth, The Rise of the Neuronovel.
68. Lehrer, Proust was a Neuroscientist.
69. Roth, The Rise of the Neuronovel, emphasis added.
70. Miller, The Mating Mind.


Bartk fared in this respect! They must have been too busy doing their art
to remember its purpose.) While it is almost certainly the case that artistic
ambitions in males are often fuelled by a desire to impress the female of
the species, this peacocks tail explanation fails at four levels. The most
obvious is that it does not explain the role of women as producers of art: as
singers, and instrumentalists and (more recently recognized) as composers,
writers and painters. Or does the human peahen also have a tail? Second,
there is little or no connection between the propensity to show o and
actual talent. Mediocrities may be as successful in advertising their wares as
the truly talented; indeed, it is not unusual for the genius to suer neglect
and poverty, as we have noted. The untalented are more likely to spend
time promoting their worthless wares. Third, the truly committed artist
will often be led along evolutionarily unsuccessful paths by his determina-
tion to realize his vision. These points are connected with the failure of the
peacocks tail theory to take account of the intrinsic value of the work of
art or the values that are expressed in it. And, nally, while peacocks tails
evolve in a particular narrow direction, art has intrinsic structures, cultural
inuences and generic constraints that are in no way comparable to the
inuences that direct biological evolution.
Another manifestation of the evolutionary approach to music is to
suggest that it promotes social bonding; but this, again, would not predict
the actual content of music and its internal evolution towards ever more
varying forms. Much music is actually socially disruptive. In rebellion
against earlier manifestations, it may also raise two ngers to other parts of
humanity. No one, surely, will suggest that Beethovens late quartets had a
net eect in promoting social cohesion and hence the replicative capacity
of the genome either when they were written or even subsequently. For
every individual who is bound tighter to his fellow men by such music, as
many, or more, are alienated. Music may divide elders from youngsters,
man from woman, and may create as many divisions as it fosters bonds.
The lives of those in cultures in which art is important are distinguished
from those of creatures, including our fellow men, struggling to survive
on the margin of subsistence. They spend a lot of time doing things that
are not relevant to survival. And humans, as William James pointed out,
can pass many hours behaving in a biologically useless way, as they have a
considerable amount of free disposable energy. The assumption that these
biologically useless activities are really disguised expressions of biological
drives, as if we are driven by neurotic genes that cannot believe the organ-
isms luck, and cannot give up fretting about survival, is absurd. Just how


absurd is clear when we think of things that we tend to give up, or which
lose their attraction, when we are exposed to direct biological threat. Art
becomes of less compelling importance when we are hungry or in pain.
This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the purpose of art; I
have done this in several places.71 For the present, suce it to note that it
is connected with two linked features that are unique to human conscious-
ness: our awareness of our own mortality; and a dissatisfaction that runs
through the very consciousness of the explicit animal a sense of the
incompleteness of meaning. The former accounts for the tragic sense
that haunts the greatest art. The latter is perhaps more dicult to express
succinctly. Here goes. We are in the curious condition of being crea-
tures that have woken to a greater or lesser extent out of the state of an
organism. Half-awakened, we are constantly engaged in making explicit
sense of our fellow humans and of the overpoweringly huge world in which
we nd ourselves. This sense remains tantalizingly incomplete and stub-
bornly local. With it comes the feeling that we have not fully appreciated
our own existence, not fully realized that we are, or the scale and scope of
what we are and of the world we live in. Everything in us falls short of what
we know of our condition. To feel this is to experience a kind of existen-
tial numbness. This numbness may present in dierent ways but it is most
evident when we seek out experience for its own sake; then the numbness
is felt as a mismatch between experience and the idea we had of it when
we sought it out. Our experiences seem insuciently connected: they do
not add up as, with increasing haste, we move from one thing to another.
We are condemned to be deployed in a world made up of small spaces and
tiny moments, in which we pass on from one thing to another, without
ever being entirely in any of them. It seems almost as if we are fated to die
without ever having been fully there or ever having fully grasped our being
there. We cannot close the gap between our experiences and the life and
world of which they are a part, between what we are at any given instant
and what we know. It is this that leads us to seek, not entirely consciously,
a kind of consummation of consciousness, most completely developed in
the mystic idea of supreme mindfulness, or a hunger for nality, for some
kind of ultimate cognitive arrival. It is this hunger that art may address. It
is a profound expression of our freedom to make meaning; indeed, Jean-
Paul Sartre once described the goal of art as being to recover this world by

71. See e.g. my Newtons Sleep, The Diculty of Arrival, and Hunger, The Fourth Hunger.


giving it to be seen as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom,72

something at the greatest possible distance from a biological prescrip-
tion, answering needs beyond biological necessity. Now, apparently, evolu-
tionary theorists and neural critics think they know better: art is something
that makes the hard wires in our hard-wired brains reverberate.
How could we have been so mistaken?


All of this may seem pretty harmless stu. After all, art can survive the
craziest and most reductionist critical theories. Marxist aesthetics in the
West did not crush the creativity of great artists, although, when aesthetic
theory was backed up by the threat and reality of starvation, imprisonment
and murder in the Eastern bloc, it did constrain them somewhat. And the
nonsense that was structuralist and poststructuralist literary theory was
ignored by most writers and the vast majority of readers in the decades
in which it dominated the academic study of literature. So we can smile at
neuroaesthetic nonsense and move on. There are, however, other areas in
which the pseudo-neurosciences may actually cause real damage to human
institutions and actual human beings. These include the courts of law and
those seeking justice within them.
At rst sight, neuro-law may seem liberal and friendly. The idea that we
are biological sleepwalkers, acting out an agenda dictated by our evolved
brains, may seem to oer salvation. Imagine you have left someone for
dead or you are confronted with a person whose life you have ruined
through raping them, and the likely outcome of the trial, if you are proved
responsible, is a long time in the slammer. Wouldnt it be wonderful to be
able to lay the blame for your wicked action at the door of your brain, an
organ programmed thousands of years before you were born, for whose
activity you are not responsible. Supposing you could say, It was my brain
made me do it, your honour? Your terrible deed would then simply be one
material event among others in a material world and you would be free and
your conscience clear.

72. Sartre, What is Literature?, 41.


The philosophy behind this plea is, of course, applied patchily. My brain
made me do it is usually invoked to excuse actions that will attract moral
disapproval or legal sanction. People dont normally deny responsibility for
good actions or for neutral actions such as pouring out a cup of tea at a tea
party or just getting a breath of fresh air after a long time at the computer.
I am more likely to say My brain made me do it when I drink fourteen
pints of beer in a pub and then reduce the establishment to rubble because
I have been denied a fteenth than when I have one pint of beer and talk
to my friends about epistemology. In other words, there tends to be a bit
of pick and mix: strong grounds, I would say, for treating this particular
plea of mitigation with some suspicion suspicion we need to keep in play
when we consider recent developments in neuro-law.
Academics (in both neuroscience and the law), practising lawyers and
members of the judiciary are taking an increasing interest in what brain
science is supposed to be able to tell us about criminal liability and (as we
shall see) in new neuroscience-based technologies to determine whether or
not a defendant is telling the truth. As Carter Snead has observed, cogni-
tive neuroscience, with those brain scans that impress the impressionable,
has captured the imagination of those who make, enforce, interpret, and
study the law.73 This is particularly true in the US, where neuro-law is big
business and growing bigger.
The defence my brain made me do it is not, of course, entirely new.
It is a variant of the plea of diminished responsibility due to impairment
of mental function. What is new is the use of neuroscience, in particular
functional imaging, to extend the application of this defence beyond the
kinds of gross and obvious cases that began with the MNaughton Rules.
It is perfectly obvious that, if someone is hearing voices that tell them
that unless they kill a particular individual God will punish them forever
for disobedience, or a massacre will not be averted, they cannot be held
responsible for the murder they have committed. The perpetrator is the
victim of a brain illness and is more appropriately treated as a patient
requiring medical care rather than as a criminal deserving of punish-
ment. Similar considerations apply to people with the automatisms associ-
ated (rarely) with epilepsy, to individuals who have sustained frontal lobe
damage due to head injury or tumours, as a result of which they may be
disinhibited, and to people with serious mental illnesses.

73. Snead, Neuroimaging and Capital Punishment.


In Chapter 1 we discussed the case of Phineas Gage, who, so the story

goes, changed, as a result of injury to the frontal cortex of his brain, from
a prudent, reliable, individual of impeccable manners into an extremely
dubious character impulsive, unreliable and disinhibited. This, and
much subsequent research, has led to the conclusion that the frontal
lobes are responsible for, among other things, self-control, conscience and
restraining the impulse to act on ones appetites in the light of possible
bad consequences for ones self or others. Indeed, it has been suggested
that acceptable behaviour is the result of the correct balance between
the amygdaloid body, where our appetites and aggression are supposedly
housed, and the frontal lobes, where they are constrained or channelled
into pro-social rather than antisocial behaviour. Studies using various kinds
of brain scan, including fMRI and PET, have demonstrated, so it is claimed,
that the balance between those two parts of the brain is altered in crimi-
nals: the amygdala is too active and/or the frontal lobe is underactive. For
example, Adrian Raine found that the brains of a group of individuals with
antisocial personality disorder had a reduced amount of gray matter and
neural activity in the prefrontal area.74 Other studies have shown that such
people, who have increased impulsiveness, have less activation of inhibi-
tory areas in the cingulate gyrus of the frontal lobes. Most importantly,
fMRI scanning can demonstrate putative abnormalities of brain function
that had previously gone undetected.
It is no surprise, then, that there are neuro-lawyers seeking to extend
the scope of diminished responsibility due to brain abnormality, even in
the absence of clinical evidence of insanity, on the basis of brain-scan
ndings. If my brain scan shows that the balance between the potential
for impulsiveness and aggression originating from the amygdala and the
control of this drive by the orbito-frontal region is disturbed or not up to
the mark, then I can claim that my bad behaviour, which had disastrous
consequences, was not my fault at all. I am the unlucky owner of a brain
in which the mechanisms for inhibiting violence or impulsiveness behav-
iour are impaired. As the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and
Megan S. Steven have observed: Defence lawyers are looking for that one
pixel in their clients brain scan that shows an abnormality some sort of
malfunction that would allow them to argue: Harry didnt do it. His brain

74. See e.g. Raine et al., Selective Reduction in Prefrontal Glucose in Murderers.


did it. Harry is not responsible for his actions. 75 A smart criminal retains
not only the smartest attorney but also the most powerful neuroimaging
There are several problems with this. It is not merely a matter of how
accurate the scans are, although this is not a trivial issue, as we have seen
when we discussed the falsely high correlations between the arousal of
various emotions and the quantity and distribution of brain activity as
measured by fMRI. There is also the question as to whether correlation can
be translated into causation. But there are more practical grounds for ques-
tioning reliance on brain scans.
If I claim that, say, balance between the activity in the frontal lobes and
in the amygdala is abnormal, this must be judged against a normal popu-
lation, as must always be the case when we determine the normal range
for a particular measure. There has been a pitifully small amount of work
done to establish norms and the numbers of subjects studied would not
be sucient to validate a clinical test. Consider a study that claimed to
suggest that psychopaths had dierently wired brains: the uncinate fascic-
ulus, which connects the amygdala and the frontal cortex, was thinner.76
It attracted huge coverage in the media, even being discussed on the BBC
radio programme Today. If you look at the article, however, you will nd
that only nine subjects were studied. What is more, there was no attempt
to control for other life events that might have had an impact on the unci-
nate fasciculus such as being treated dierently for bad behaviour or
sustaining injuries in ghts or substance abuse things that might gure
in a psychopaths CV. There are no grounds for assuming that scans can
trump evidence derived from traditional sources, such as the individuals
behavioural track record and upbringing and all the other sorts of things
a psychological or psychiatric report would investigate. After all, scanning
techniques, as far as they have been assessed at all, rely on assigning indi-
viduals to dierent populations (normal or impaired) by the conventional
means. If brain scans are a new gold standard, they depend on the plat-
inum standards established by ordinary judgements.
Just how unhelpful scans are as forensic tools, except in well-recognized
cases of serious cerebral damage or disease, is demonstrated by a report from
the American Psychological Association of the anatomical immaturity of

75. Gazzaniga & Steven, Neuroscience and the Law.

76. Craig et al., Altered Connexions on the Road to Psychopathy.


the adolescent brain.77 The areas of the brain supposedly responsible for risk
assessment, impulse control and high-level cognition are not fully devel-
oped, whereas the areas from which impulsivity and violence are supposed
to originate are more active in teenagers than adults. Could this be used to
inuence assessments of culpability and criminal liability, or to override the
judgements and intuitions based on experience and arguments derived from
traditional sources? No, because only a minority of adolescents commit
serious crimes. As Stephen Morse has expressed it, whether adolescents
are suciently less rational on average than adults, to treat them dier-
ently is a normative legal question and not a scientic or psychological
question.78 Scanning may increase the detection rates of putative cerebral
impairment but the fact that it is possible to extend the diagnosis of brain-
based mental disturbance beyond those who have undeniable pathologies
to entire populations, such as adolescents, shows how little the technique
can contribute to identifying those in whom it is appropriate to le a plea of
mitigation on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
There are, as we have seen, clear-cut examples of the brain calling
the shots, as when someone has an epileptic t. But these unusual cases
underline the dierences between those situations where brain activity
is the primary cause and others where it is not, as when we carry out
actions in full consciousness and with a clear end in view, an end neces-
sary to put together the components of the action: the dierence between
my having ts and, say, arranging for the children to be cared for while
I go to the doctor at the appointed time several weeks hence to ask her
advice about my ts. But the boundary between brain-caused events and
person-originated deliberate actions is not sharp, or even continuous, and
scans will only rarely help to allocate behaviour to one or other of these
categories. People may have brain illnesses that cause them to behave oddly,
and perhaps violently, but in ways that are as elaborate as going to see the
doctor. (Think of the behaviour of a person acting violently owing to para-
noia.) There is not always a clear distinction between aggressive behaviour
when it is due to mental illness, on the one hand, and, on the other, when it
is due to what we might called ethical disability following appalling child-
hood abuse and privation that has conditioned the individual to expect the
worst of other people and to believe he can survive only by behaving badly.

77. Cited in Snead, Neuroimaging and Capital Punishment.

78. Morse, Psychopathy and Criminal Responsibility.


Even so, we can still maintain the distinction between a purely brain-
caused event that results in behaviours that are inconsistent with my char-
acter, intentions, aims, traits and so on (such as an epileptic t), and an
action that is part of a pattern of behaviour over time (such as is seen in
psychopaths). And when we have made this distinction, we may also apply
moral judgements as to whether or not the actor should be held respon-
sible. No one is going to hold me responsible for having an epileptic t; but
I most certainly will be held responsible for driving illegally, and against
medical advice, after omitting to take my medication and causing a fatal
crash. In other words, even in the case of clear-cut brain causes of abnormal
behaviour, there is sometimes the possibility of controlling that behaviour
or its consequences. This is equally true in cases of addiction. By the time
you have reached the fteenth pint, your sozzled brain may be calling the
shots. But it was you who handed yourself over to your brain, either on that
occasion, or on the many occasions before you became an alcoholic, when
you chose to drink unwisely. Equally there is plenty of opportunity, between
episodes of the famous red mist, to learn how to control the red mist and
avoid those situations where it rises up and you beat up your wife, children
or the chap who seems to be looking at you in a funny way.
We can, in short, regulate our character, and modify those propensities
that we might like to blame on the structure and function of our brains (or
our hormones, or our genes), by cultivating good habits in non-emergency
situations. We can train ourselves ethically. It may seem paradoxical that
we can act on ourselves in this way, but anyone who sets out to learn some-
thing, or to acquire a new skill, does precisely that, as we observed in the
case of the person training himself to catch a ball. We have this capacity
because, as we have emphasized throughout, we are not isolated brains. We
can get a purchase on ourselves in part through the collective vision we train
on ourselves; we assume an external view, the view of anyone, whether we
are following instructions as to how to get to the pub, or seeking assist-
ance in controlling a drink habit, and from this standpoint we can act on
ourselves. The levers we pull are multiplied and strengthened by our being
part of a community of minds who will support us in dierent ways in
endeavours to behave pro-socially. It isnt a matter of being brainwashed but
rather of assenting to a desirable course of action, and subscribing to a prin-
ciple. This is possible because of all those things we discussed particularly
in The human world in Chapter 6; we are complex, temporally deep selves
in complex, temporally deep worlds, not chains of reexes, or of instinc-
tive reactions, in a permanent present tense. The margin of freedom within


which we operate will vary; it will be far less in someone who has severe
brain damage or a severe mental illness, or has had an abominable child-
hood, than in someone who is not so extensively deprived.
The moral and legal assessment of our behaviour is, therefore, best
conducted by the less glamorous process of history-taking than by brain
scans that simply give snapshots of a small part of brain activity in response
to very simple stimuli. In any case, scans will never automate moral judge-
ment, or the decision as to whether it should be applied. Supposing a scan
showed that my amygdala was overactive or my frontal lobe was underac-
tive: could this not be because of a habit of self-indulgence or my taking no
eort to control myself?
The only way to be sure that we are entirely and unequivocally justied
in shifting the blame from the sweating individual in the ill-tting suit to
the contents of his cranium would be to adopt a whole-hog determinism.
My brain made me do it would then apply not only when the defendant
was trying to kill his spouse (because a red mist had spurted up, like oil
from an uncapped deep water well, out of his amygdala) but also when he
was taking a bunch of owers to his elderly aunt or talking to the lawyer
acting on his behalf. If we extend the range of those circumstances under
which we pass responsibility on to our brains, we are in danger of seeing
everyones actions as being the product of this impersonal force appropri-
ating a bit of our biography.79 And there would be no reason why we should
stop at our brains. If my actions are unchosen eects, why conne their
causal ancestry to a piece of matter in my skull? The brain itself, being a
material object, is merely a conduit for eects of causes: it is causally wired
into nature at large. My brain made me do it therefore means that (ulti-
mately) The Big Bang made me do it.
Neuro-determinism, as we have seen, is not fundamentally dierent
from determinism tout court. We arrive at the position expressed by
Einstein in a statement to the Spinoza Society in 1932: human beings, in
their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free but are just as causally bound
as the stars in their motion.80 This is a sentiment that would have been
echoed by the patient whom the writer and psychiatrist Anthony Daniels

79. The philosopher Zeno was once ogging a slave who had stolen some goods. But I was
fated to steal, the slave protested. Yes and to be beaten too, Zeno responded. He might have
added, And I to beat you (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII:23).
80. Einstein Archives, 33-291. Einstein didnt deliver the invited lecture, preferring to make a
statement instead.


reports as telling him (with respect to fracas in which much damage was
done to persons and property): The beer went mad.81 If you are going to
blame something other than yourself, it seems as reasonable to blame the
alcohol that acted on the brain as the brain that is acted on. One could
even accuse the sugar and the yeast that made the alcohol of being jointly
and severally at fault.
But the rot does not stop there. If we are remorselessly consistent,
we should give up at least four of the words in the short statement: My
brain made me do it. Made and do disappear, because neither I nor my
brain is an agent. A brain, after all, seems less likely to be an agent than
a person. At any rate, in attempting to excuse myself of agency, I cannot
displace it to another location in a causal net. The very distinction between
events that are mere happenings and those that are actions is lost. This is
obvious. Less obvious is the fact that rst-person possessives (my) and
rst-person pronouns (me) also go. Bits of matter (brains, bodies) in a
boundless causal continuum of more bits of matter are ownerless. In the
world of physical determinism, there is no toehold for the rst-person (or
indeed any-person) viewpoint. The viewpoint that calls the brain mine,
the self that appropriates it as mine, vanishes into a boundless, person-less
net of causes and processes unfolding undeectedly from the Big Bang to
the Big Crunch. Without the viewpoint that is me, the brain is not set o
from the material world as a source or centre. Why should a brain make
me do anything? Why should this impersonal bit of matter single out me?
The plea my brain made me do it works only if I have a particular brain as
both rst person my brain and third person: a material cause with all
the innocence of material causes.
Another unlooked-for consequence of this dissolution of personal
responsibility is that there would no longer be any point at which individual
rights could be applied. There is poetic, if not legal, justice in this: accepting
responsibilities and claiming rights are two sides of the same coin. It is no
use imagining that rights can be taken care of by society as a whole because
the community has a vested (group-selective, perhaps) interest in justice,
since the idea of justice would be unable to nd a home in the brains of indi-
viduals as helplessly wired into the material world as the defendant. What
is more, the notion that society might somehow transcend the individual
brain and be the guardian of norms that ensure that we have actions that

81. Daniels, pers. comm.


are more than the mere eects of causes is not one that hard-line, or indeed
consistent, biologism can subscribe to. Or at least it is a massive conces-
sion towards the common-sense view. As we saw in Chapter 6, the human
world, created out of pooled transcendence, is precisely what Neuromania
and Darwinitis overlook, and feel obliged to do so. Biologism takes away
rights with responsibilities. To restore them, we have to discard biolo-
gism and recognize that persons are not just brains, or their playthings. To
suggest that we are possessed by our amygdaloid bodies is simply a materi-
alist updating of appealing to possession by the Devil.
There may be other unattractive consequences for the defendant. If the
brain is to be blamed, and we rule out the possibility that those who have
committed crimes may actively reform their own behaviour, we should
perhaps dish out harsher sentences, as Snead has pointed out.82 If my
brain made me do it, then I am going to do it again, unless I have a brain
transplant. In the absence of available donor organs and the right tech-
nology, preventative detention would seem to be in order. In other words,
shifting the emphasis from retribution against a blameworthy individual
to a forward-looking policy that reduces future harm may argue for longer
custodial sentences and even the ultimate custodial sentence of death.
An ethically empty brain may require that its owner should be kept away
from places where he may cause harm: he should spend more time in the
slammer. What a bitterly ironical outcome for those cognitive scientists
active in the law who seek to use the premises and tools of neuroscience
and neuroimaging in particular to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately
overthrow retributive justice as a principle of punishment!83
The excuse My brain made me do it will therefore undermine itself,
once it is used as an explain-all. Just in case you think this is the end of its
troubles, think again. If it really was my brain that made me do it, my
brain is presumably not me, or the plea would lose its force. For if I were
my brain, then My brain made me do it would boil down to I made me
do it, and that would not be much of an excuse. And yet, if I am not iden-
tical with my brain, there would not be the kind of irresistible compulsion
the ich kann nicht anders that neuro-determinism seems to envisage,
and which gives the excuse its compelling power. Its no good saying a bit
of my brain made me do it and I am the rest of my brain, so my brain is

82. Snead, Neuroimaging and Capital Punishment.

83. Ibid.


guilty and I am innocent, because this pick-and-mix approach would have

to modify the mindbrain identity theory in various ad hoc ways.
The neuro-mitigation of blame, therefore, has to be used critically and
treated largely with suspicion except in those instances where there is
unequivocal evidence of grossly abnormal brain function, or abnormal
mental function due to clear-cut illness, which may have its origin in brain
disease. And scans can only occasionally be of use here, as when they turn up
otherwise undiagnosed gross brain pathology. In most cases we can uphold
the distinction between the direct consequences of stand-alone brain
activity and what we as humans do. The latter is the activity not of a brain
but of a person: a brain in a body, in an environment that has both mate-
rial extensity and temporal depth. This environment is a nexus of signica-
tions, with which the person actively engages as an equal partner, imposing
and receiving meanings, encountering them, seeking them out and making
them. It is a semiosphere and ethiosphere (to use the philosopher Susan
Stuarts term) as well as a biosphere. Maintaining that distinction lies at the
root of our commitment to personal development, in particular to active
self-improvement, and also to collective advancement (whose monuments
we see all around us): to the story of our lives as something that we lead. In
short, it lies at the heart of all that humans have been and have achieved.
We must, therefore, temper neural mercy with scepticism if we are not
going to allow our image of humanity to be eaced in a tidal wave of deter-
minism and if the human world is not to become Herman Melvilles ice
palace of sighs.84 And that scepticism must be extended to the inappro-
priate use of technology, whose glamour and expense conceals its blunt-
ness as a forensic tool.
Scepticism is in order also because neuroscience may not always be a
friend of the accused, as already indicated. Prosecutors, too, are alert to
the persuasive powers of neuroimaging. It seems to the gullible to hold
out the possibility of reading minds, so that the truth or otherwise of a
defendants testimony can be determined. Psychologists, legislators, secu-
rity forces and many others have long dreamed of 100-per-cent-accurate
lie detectors and quacks of many stripes have in the past claimed to have
fullled their dreams. Some lawyers, and worse still judges, think that the
Holy Grail of a 100-per-cent-reliable lie detector is now within reach. On
the basis of the belief that it takes more cognitive energy to tell a lie than

84. Melville, Moby Dick, 26.


to tell the truth, and this extra eort is reected in increased activity in the
pre-frontal cortex, fMRI scans have been used to determine which state-
ments an individual makes are false. Despite the primitive and speculative
state of the art, there is now huge investment in lie detection by this tech-
nique. According to Ian Leslie, a US company called No Lie MRI is already
selling brain scans to people seeking to prove their innocence or to check
out potential spouses.85 Your brain may be the chief prosecution witness,
speaking through expensive scans.
A hint of what this might lead to was illustrated by a murder trial in
India in 2008. A woman called Aditi Sharma was accused of killing her
former anc by lacing his food at McDonalds with arsenic.86 (There are
greater dangers, it appears, than being Supersized.) The accused agreed
to take a lie-detector test (brain electrode oscillation signature test) in
which electrodes recorded the activity of her brain while she responded
to the allegations posed in the rst person: I bought the arsenic, and so
on. According to the prosecutor, the parts of the brain associated with
memory were very active when events related to the crime were read out
to her. It was concluded from this that she was being forced against her
will to remember the crime, from which it was further concluded that she
did carry it out. Sharma was convicted and received a life sentence. Fortu-
nately, she has been bailed pending appeal on the basis of lack of material
evidence. But it does suggest a possible future in which the prosecuting
team may plead The brain scan made me do it, that is, nd the defendant
guilty. The science, however, seems to fall well short of the claims made by
those who want to exploit its commercial potential.87
The appeal to the brain as an excuse for bad behaviour has relevance to
our attitude to addiction and the argument about whether addicts should
be treated as delinquents or as individuals suering from brain disease.
Sally Satel has looked critically at the notion of addiction as a chronic and
relapsing brain disease.88 It is obviously not a brain disease in the sense
that Parkinsonism or Alzheimers dementia is a brain disease. A twelve-
step programme along the lines used by alcoholics would hardly have any
impact on the course or outcome of Alzheimers disease or even schizo-
phrenia. What is more, people tend to recover from addictions more

85. Leslie, No Kidding.

86. Ibid.
87. See e.g. Wolpe et al., Emerging Neurotechnologies for Lie-Detection.
88. Satel, Addiction and Freedom.


eectively if there is something in their lives that they value that is at stake.
Incentives work in these cases, but they dont do much for dementia.
Imagine the result of trying to bribe a patient with Alzheimers disease to
get better. Telling him that he would not get his job back if he did not shape
up would be futile and cruel.
The conceptual muddles, methodological inadequacies and hype of
neuro-law make implausible the prospect, welcomed by Zeki and Good-
enough, of a legal system no longer mired in error-prone human justice
but in biological justice,89 and one that put a biologically informed psych-
ology front and centre in jurisprudential study:90 unless, that is, sucient
people ignorant of neuroscience get together with sucient people igno-
rant of the law to bring it about. In which case it will be terrifying.


The law is in part rooted in ethical intuitions, particularly about justice and
personal responsibility. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that neuro-law
looks plausible at a time when so many thinkers are reducing our status as
moral agents to the properties of our evolved brains. Neuro-evolutionary
ethics is ourishing. An early proponent was Patricia Churchland, who in
1986, with the publication of her landmark Neurophilosophy, established
herself as the Queen of Neuromania: as we understand more about the
details of the regulatory systems in the brain and how decisions emerge in
neural networks, it is increasingly evident that moral standards, practices,
and policies reside in our neurobiology.91
I hardly need comment on the notion of decisions emerging in neural
networks, except to note that decisions are made or taken rather than
emerging. So let us move on quickly to Ramachandran, who tells us that
quite a lot of the brain is devoted to making normative judgements: while
the left brain specializes in what is, the right brain records what ought to be
or deviations within what-is from what-ought-to-be.92 The material world,

89. Zeki & Goodenough, Law and the Brain, xiv.

90. Ibid., xii.
91. Quoted in Snead, Neuroimaging and Capital Punishment.
92. Ramachchandran, The Evolutionary Biology of Self-Deception. See also Greene, From
Neural Is to Moral Ought.


it seems, has learned the trick of getting an ought from its own is, some-
thing that Hume said was impossible. One bit of matter is able, it transpires,
in virtue of being on the right side of the cranium (and hence presumably
on the side of what is right) to pass principled judgements on another bit
of matter (on the left side of the cranium and hence sinister) and stands
back from the world it serves up. This is nonsense of course: the isought
distinction, the normative sense, belongs to the community of minds, the
realm of Thatter, rather than a piece of matter such as the brain. The key
point is that ought relates to possibilities judged against abstract principles
(although they are often passionately espoused) and the material cannot
house what might generally be, only what actually and particularlyis.
Such philosophical niceties havent worried neuro-evolutionary ethi-
cists. For some, the brain is a Saint of Ought, extraordinarily progressive
in its views, arriving at egalitarianism well ahead of those morally retarded
creatures called people. It cannot, apparently, abide inequality, even though
it was forged in the Pleistocene era, when distributive justice was hardly the
avour of the epoch. According to Elizabeth Tricomi and her co-workers,
the brains reward centres respond more strongly when a poor person
receives a nancial reward than when a rich person does; and this still
holds when the brain in question is that of a rich person.93 We have learned
this cheering fact through some cunning studies involving brain scans. The
researchers looked at brain activity in the reward centres (the ventrome-
dial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum, for the neo-phrenologists) while
subjects were watching potential money-transfer scenarios. Before the
imaging began, the subjects had been given small sums of money (starting
out poor) or large ones (starting out rich). People who started out rich
had a stronger reaction to other people receiving money. The researchers
concluded that the brain is hardwired to dislike inequality and that it is not
entirely self-interested. If only people were as ethical as their brains!
Neuro-evolutionary explainers argue that ethical behaviour is devised to
support the survival of the organism so that it can be an eective vehicle
for ensuring the replication of the genetic material. Ethical codes are not
primarily about treating others as you would yourself be treated, out of a
sense of decency, respect for the other person or acknowledgement that
they are like you. They are about maximizing inclusive tness. They do not
address the otherness of the Other; nor is the behaviour in the organisms

93. Tricomi et al., Neural Evidence for Inequality-Averse Social Preferences.


they requisition to replicate themselves mediated by explicit acknowledge-

ment of others. Or, if they are, science has now shown us that these are
simply masks for the real drivers to ethical behaviour: the general impera-
tive to make more of themselves.
The key term for those who argue for neuro-evolutionary accounts of
ethics and oer us a science of morality is one of which we have already
heard too much: wiring. Even those who emphasize the role of culture,
nurture and learning in the acquisition of moral sensibility, still speak
of wiring, albeit of the soft rather than the hard variety. Soft-wiring is
cultural, learned; hard-wiring is genetic, implanted by evolution. (Very
early learning, we are to understand, may result in fairly hard-wiring that is
resistant to change.)
The hard-wirers tend to see morality as an evolutionary mechanism
with survival implications. Evolution implants morality through shaping
brain development.94 Even that extreme expression of altruism, namely
laying down ones life for another, which at rst looks pretty ill advised from
the point of view of individual survival, and would seem to be a disgraceful
betrayal of the replicator by the vehicle, can be understood in Darwinian
terms. The trick is to invoke group selection evolution is concerned not
with the individual but with the genetically homogeneous group (which
maximizes the chances of the genome surviving) and to throw in a bit of
game theory. By this means, the utterly amoral genetic material, which has
only its own survival to consider, can programme the phenotypes to behave
in such a way as to optimize its own chances of replicating, by behaving
morally and saving the expression of its own genes in other vehicles. These
are the amoral roots of the supreme self-sacrice of laying down ones life
for another; it makes evolutionary sense, as Haldane teasingly argued, if
one does it to save two brothers or eight cousins.95 By this means, the quan-
tity of genetic material that is lost is oset by an equivalent amount that is
So what is wrong with this kind of analysis of ethics? First, the experi-
ments used to demonstrate the evolutionary basis of our ethical sentiments
are, as we have seen, laughably simplifying and remote from real world situ-
ations. Second, if ethics were simply a matter of programmed behaviour, it
would be dicult to see how it could ever be made explicit, how it could

94. Craig & Loat, The Evolutionary Genetics of Morality.

95. Quoted in McElreath & Boyd, Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, 82.


be presented as a series of precepts, and, most importantly, how it could be

argued over between peoples, between individuals and within individuals
weighing the right thing to do or resisting or succumbing to temptation.
The golden rule Do unto others as you would be done unto would not
have to be articulated if it were simply a way of ensuring that the genome
maximizes its rate of replication in surviving organisms: precepts would be
pointless. The appeal to conscience, the commitment to resisting tempta-
tion, not to speak of the underpinning of ethics with reference to supernat-
ural validation, would seem to be very odd things for molecules to engage
in even when they utilize items as elaborate as organisms to ensure their
replication. What is more, evolutionary ethics does not oer any explana-
tion of the huge variation between and within cultures as to what counts
as good behaviour, or in the extent to which individuals behave ethically
under dierent circumstances.
In short, ethics seems even more unlikely to emerge from matter than
consciousness is, and an even more improbable way of maximizing repro-
ductive success than reason and rationalization. In saying this, I am not,
by the way, claiming that, in virtue of our appeal to explicit precepts, we
are morally superior to animals. A lion is no more moral or immoral than
a tree. Morality is a human construct and is therefore not amenable to
explanation in biological terms. And it is no use arguing that our ethical
principles are a mere rationalization of biological instincts, because ration-
alization is just as inexplicable in biological terms as are ethical principles.
No other beast glosses its natural behaviour as principled or objectively
good, even less feels obliged to. For that we need the community of minds,
which lies beyond the biosphere.


For almost everyone, evolution is about fossils, dinosaurs and

human origins. But it should be about governance, education,
health, peace and virtually every other public policy relevant to
human welfare.96

96. Wilson, Policymaking the Darwinist Way.


If politicians are going to be successful in delivering policies, it has been

argued, they will need to go with, rather than against, the grain of human
nature. To know what that grain is, we have to see that human nature is
animal nature. The wise politician will therefore be a neuro-evolutionary
physician to the body politic. The economic and the broader well-being
agendas will be informed by the latest ndings from neuroscience and
evolutionary theory.
What do we learn from these sources about those central human activ-
ities of getting and spending? They tell us that the decisions we make
as consumers are not wise or even narrowly self-interested. They are
programmed, and our reective self is impotent to deect them: the die is
already cast. Our decisions are snap and the snap snapped shut a long time
ago, perhaps as far back as the Pleistocene era. That is why David Sloan
Wilson, creator of the Evolution Institute, the worlds rst evolutionary
think tank, aims to connect the world of evolutionary science with that of
public policy formation.97 Some of our most important political decisions
are indeed economic, and formulating and selling such policies would be
easier if we understood what truly motivates us when we spend our money.
Traditional economists tend to exaggerate the extent to which consumers
are rational actors. Darwinian behavioural economists are not so foolish.
Lets look at neuro-evolutionary political economy in action. Georey
Miller (billed on the back of his book as a tenured professor of Evolu-
tionary Psychology) has seen through the supercial rationale of our
economic behaviour:

Although common sense says we buy things because we think

well enjoy owning and using them, research shows that the
pleasures of acquisition are usually short-lived at best. So why
do we keep ourselves on the consumerist treadmill working,
buying, aspiring?98

Why indeed?

Biology oers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups

in which image and status were all-important, not only for

97. Ibid.
98. Miller, Spent, 1.


survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing

children Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one
central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others. Buying
impressive products in a money-based economy is just the most
recent way to full that goal.99

John Naish has even put a date on when your decision to make that
impulse purchase was made: The desire-driven wiring of our primitive
brains evolved in the Pleistocene era, between 130,000 and 200,000 years
ago. It was moulded by half-starved hunter-gatherers and farmers [sic]
whose crops frequently failed.100
The shelf life of the impulse to buy that tin of beans seems to be rather
longer than that of the tin of beans. But it may be even older. Conspicuous
consumption, like the creation of art, is a way of advertising the health of
your genes, and necessary for all beasts that replicate sexually and thus
exercise sexual selection. Your being able to waste money, comparable to
the peacocks ability to maintain a costly tail, proves that you are in good
nick, and that, in short, you are a suitable partner. This aunting of your
genetic tness is all mediated by your brain, of course; hence the need for
neuro-economics, which will use ever more sophisticated brain imaging
methods to identify which parts of consumer brains respond to brands and
Neuro-economics certainly seems to be booming. Claiming to combine
neuroscience, economics and psychology, it relates the allure of the
brand and purchasing decisions to the activity seen in dierent parts of
the brain.102 The key to this scienza nuova is to understand that the brain
implements automatic processes that are faster than conscious delibera-
tions. Whats more, they occur with little or no eort or feeling. Lehrer,
one of the authors of a paper regarded as a landmark in the eld, is con-
dent that this has fundamental implications for our understanding of Homo
economicus, not least because it nally nails the fantasy (exposed by Miller)
of the rational economic actor:

99. Ibid.
100. Naish, Enough is Enough, quoted in Derbyshire & Raja, Shopping and the Stone Age
101. Miller, Spent, 125.
102. See e.g. Camerer et al., Neuroeconomics.


Because people have little or no access to these [brain] processes,

or volitional control over them, and these processes were evolved
to solve problems of evolutionary importance rather than respect
logical dicta, the behaviour these processes generate need not
follow normative axioms of inference and choice.103

If you thought you were following normative axioms of inference and

choice when you wandered starry-eyed and covetous in the shopping
mall, think again. You are in the grip of brain emotional systems that
are similar in human and animal. The aective (emotional) side will pre-
empt decision-making before the cognitive (logical, rational) side has had a
chance to kick in; automatic processes will dominate over controlled ones.
Rather than using your brain, you will be used by it.
Lehrer and his fellow neuro-economists think they have pinpointed the
neural bases of bad nancial decisions.104 Why are we so willing to run up
debts, often at ruinous interest rates, when we pay by credit card? Brain
imaging has shown that paying by credit card reduces activity in the insula,
a brain region associated with negative emotions such as, for example,
worrying about acquiring debts. As Loewenstein, a neuroeconomist
says, The nature of credit cards ensures that your brain is anesthetized
against the pain of payment. Spending money doesnt feel bad, so you
spend more money.105 Credit cards take advantage of a dangerous aw
built into the brain: the emotional brain overvalues immediate gains at the
expense of future costs. It doesnt understand things like interest rates or
debt payments or nance charges.106
As a matter of fact some people most people, most of the time
do understand these things; but presumably they are able to override
their brains, although with what is not clear. Undaunted by the obvious,
neuro-economists crack on with their work of anatomizing the soul of the
shopper. Cohen, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, believes that he
has helped us to understand the circuitry of temptation, identifying the
brain regions responsible for the allure of credit cards and (who would

103. Ibid., 11.

104. Lehrer, The Science of Spending.
105. Lehrer, How We Decide, 86. Loewensteins views are most accessibly summarized in his
Lottery Tickets and Credit Cards.
106. Lehrer, How We Decide, 87.


have guessed it?) of those notorious sub-prime loans.107 When individuals

put their heads into an fMRI scanner and are asked to choose between
a small gift card they could have right away or a slightly larger one they
could have in two to four weeks, dierent additional parts of the brain are
activated. When the subjects think about the delayed gift, the prefrontal
cortex which, you will recall is identied by neo-phrenologists as the seat
of judgement and rational planning is more active. When, on the other
hand, they think about getting a gift card straight away, the brain areas
associated with emotion the midbrain dopamine system and the nucleus
accumbens are turned on. This is the basis for the impulsive nancial
choices we make and for the preference for immediate over deferred grati-
cation. When we opt for a bad credit card, or choose a 2/28 mortgage, or
fail to put money in our [retirement plan] , we are acting just like experi-
mental subjects choosing the wrong gift card.108
All of this seems to support Grays assertion that The upshot of scien-
tic inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.109 However,
it rather conspicuously fails to explain how we acquired the science, with
its supremely rational methods of enquiry, that is supposed to demon-
strate this; or, indeed, how we arrived at the conclusion that we are irra-
tional. Irrationally, presumably. It is rather like the assertion that life is a
dream, or, as Gray puts it a consensual hallucination.110 How did he nd
out? Even if it is a question of the one-eyed man being king in the kingdom
of the blind, one would still like to know where that one eye came from.
And it also fails to explain how it is that many of us make rational nan-
cial decisions, save up for a rainy day, and do not take on sub-prime mort-
gages. How did we wake up out of the nightmare of evolution, escape the
prison of our Pleistocene brains? Neuro-economists and others would like
to pretend that we havent, as a result of which they remove the basis for
their own science.
The fallacy at the heart of neuro-economics and cognate modes of
thought will be evident from our previous discussion of action and free
will in Chapter 7. Contrary to the assumptions of Miller, Lehrer, Cohen
and others, the roots of our actions are not to be found in the immediately
preceding stimuli. Likewise, most decisions and certainly those such as to

107. Lehrer, The Science of Spending.

108. Ibid.
109. Gray, Straw Dogs, 28.
110. Ibid, 147.


take on a mortgage, even in response to high-pressure salesmen are not

snap. If they seem to be snap, the hinterland behind them, the things that
make sense of them, are not snap. And the procedures that make it possible
to take on a mortgage, after the decision has been made, are most certainly
not snap, nor so simple that brain scans could cast light on them. They are
less simple even than going down to London to attend a meeting, which,
as we saw, could not be seen as a chain of causes and eects, of reexes
(unconditioned, conditioned or operant), or of pre-programmed behav-
ioural products of instincts implanted in us 10,000, 200,000 or 5,000,000
(take your pick) years ago.
Just how little of the complexity the reality of getting and spending
is captured by pop neuroscience is highlighted when we remember that
spending is only one half of a transaction: for every buyer there is a seller.
No one, surely, is going to suggest that selling is a matter of following
impulses made possible by the temporary domination of one part of the
brain over another. After all, it requires all sorts of multi-layered, conscious
activities on the part of the vendor, such as maintaining stock, setting
prices, making the goods attractive, turning up to work on time, persuading
the potential buyer to buy, writing brochures, researching brand pref-
erences and so forth. There is no reason for assuming that the process of
buying is any simpler than that of selling; or that we go Pleistocene when
we ip (as we do every day) from being buyers to being sellers; that a teller
in a building society regresses tens, hundreds or thousands of years when
she nips out to the shopping centre at lunchtime and then returns to the
twenty-rst century when her break is over.
Economics lies at the heart of political decision-making. It is not
surprising, therefore, that neuro-economists have started to move into
social policy. Understanding the emotional brain, Loewenstein argues,
will help policymakers develop plans that encourage us to make better
decisions.111 There is talk of asymmetric paternalism: a political phil-
osophy that help[s] you make the choices you would make for yourself if
only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind.112
This entered popular consciousness through the international best-
seller Nudge.113 Nudge has attracted the approving attention of both UK

111. Lehrer, The Science of Spending.

112. Wikipedia, Soft Paternalism,, quoting The
Economist, Soft Paternalism: The State is Looking After You.
113. Thaler & Sunstein, Nudge.


Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) and Matthew Taylor (New

Labour), whom we have already encountered several times. Taylor has
nailed his ag as Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts to the mast
of something he calls neurological reexivity, in which social policies are
informed by neuroscience, and guided by the knowledge that (as he says
on his Social Brain blog) we dont make half the decisions we think we
do. Rather the brain makes them for us via unconscious cognition.114 One
particular striking example of neurological reexivity is the use made
of neuroscience by Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and
Pensions, and a key gure in developing Conservative social policy). He
has argued that early childhood abuse resulted in reduced brain size. Hard-
wired like many contemporary politicians to use the word hard-wired, he
argued that antisocial behaviour might be hard-wired into such children
and that early intervention was therefore essential.115
The thought that those who currently have much inuence (in
Camerons case, as Prime Minister) and who might have inuence again
(in Taylors case, as a key Labour think-tanker), are agreed on this kind of
thing, that Neuromania and Darwinitis command a cross-party consensus,
is yet another reason why we should take these ideas seriously. The return
of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, the notion that
neuroscience ought to guide social policy, while motivated by good
reasons, should be a matter of concern, in view of the historical record of
the impact of such approaches.116 I am not reassured that scientism will
lead to wiser or less disastrous consequences than in the twentieth century.
This is why I have spent so much of your time on the groundlessness of
the claim that observing brain activity in articial experimental conditions
can enable us to understand everyday real-world human behaviour to the
point where neuroscience could usefully inform, even less safely guide,
social policy. If you are still not persuaded of the potential inuence of

114. Taylor, Social Brain blog.

115. Woolf, Broken Homes Damage Infant Brains, Says Tory.
116. I cannot resist a recent example referred to in Minogue, Disinterest Rates, a review
of Norman, The Big Society, which brings together evolutionary psychology, neuroaesthetics
and neuropolitics. According to Minogue, Norman agrees with the rest of us in thinking
music a good thing. He therefore judges that we should do more to encourage it (and the we
here is the State as subsidy provider). The reason given is that music aids brain development,
facilitates self-discipline and releases oxytocin, a neurochemical which appears to increase
feelings of trust between people.


these ideas, then consider this oering from Julian Savulescu (an increas-
ingly loud, and possibly inuential, voice):

The coming decades will be a time when neuroscience really

goes forward exponentially. We will be able to inuence the basic
human condition, our cognitive abilities, our mood and perhaps
even our romantic relationships. Further down the track, we
may be interfering in early human development or contrib-
uting to augmenting early human development or even genetic

For Savulescu, this is a prospect not to be feared but rather to be welcomed.

He has argued that, as technology advances more rapidly than the moral
character of human beings, we are in increasing danger. We must there-
fore seek biomedical and genetic means to enhance the moral character of
humanity.118 Be afraid, be very afraid.


Things must be pretty dire when even an atheist like me wants to rescue,
if not God, at least the idea of Him (or Her or It). But its true. Neuroma-