Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
by Raymond Tallis
Acumen, 388 pages, $29.95
While acknowledging the progress neuroscience has made in helping us understand the brain, in his new book Aping Mankind Raymond Tallis directs his fire at neuroscience’s darker companion: the notion that “brain activity is not merely a necessary but also the sufficient condition for human consciousness.” A doctor, professor, and self-described secular humanist teaching at the University of Manchester, he delivers a passionate assertion of common sense against the delusive but entrenched acceptance of materialism in academia and particularly of “biologism,” the idea that man is only an animal.
Tallis is particularly eager to display to his readers the glaring errors involved in what he calls “neuromania,” an over-confidence in the neuroscience’s explanatory value. He argues that there is simply no empirical connection between the experiences of human life—deliberation, anxiety, romantic love—and brain states. It makes no sense, he writes, to say that phenomenological experience and neural activity are two aspects of the same thing, because the term “aspect” suggests a point of view, or consciousness, which is not explained.
The more troubling feature of neuromania for him is its elimination of intentionality. There seems to be an obvious causal relationship between the contents of our consciousness and the outside world; our thoughts are always about external things. But if conscious experience is only the result of neural activity, in what sense does the world affect our consciousness? Neuroscience’s strictly psychological description of consciousness turns on the belief that “the less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description.” Our experience, he notes, “does not seem to fit the pattern.”
Tallis writes because he is convinced that neuroscience’s claim to explaining human consciousness degrades the human person. We are not simply walking brains, and the richness of human experience cannot be reduced to firing synapses. It is regrettable, however, that he fails to make a positive case for a more satisfying anthropology in place of the reductionist evolutionary psychology he decries.
—Mark Misulia is a junior fellow at First Things.
Rediscovering Political Economy
Edited by Joseph Postell and Bradley C.S. Watson
Rowman, 272 pages, $32.95
Politicians and pundits alike go wrong when they attribute our current woes to an economic crisis. Whether it’s the fiscal problems posed by entitlements or the fallout from the Great Recession, what our country faces right now is a crisis in political economy. Politics, as Richard John Neuhaus would remind us, is about how we ought to order our lives together—necessarily a moral proposition. It is thus fitting that the ten essays collected in Rediscovering Political Economy helpfully highlight the moral and political values at stake in what are frequently referred to as “economic” debates.
Most essays are from a libertarian or conservative outlook, some with a West Coast Straussian flavor. Readers of First Things might particularly enjoy Fr. Robert Sirico’s moral arguments for economic liberty and John Mueller’s précis of his recent book, Redeeming Economics, on how a Neoscholastic approach to economics most accurately captures all the important aspects of economic action.
Thomas West argues that the founders almost all agreed on three main points: “the legal right to own and use property in land and other goods; the right to sell or give property to others, or acquire it, on mutually agreeable terms (market freedom); and government support of sound money.” Peter McNamara highlights one of their most important disagreements, between two competing “visions of Democratic Capitalism”: Hamilton’s commercial republic and Jefferson’s agrarian alternative.
Against much contemporary rhetoric, Joseph Postell argues that the founders thought neither that government intervention in the market violated natural rights nor that the state needed to regulate very much. The key is to identify the right kind of regulation.
Other essays explore competing assessments of commerce in Enlightenment thought, offer Austrian insights into our current problems, provide a history of banking in America, and argue that raising rather than leveling should be the goal of our economic policies. All are nuanced, tightly written, and relevant—which should lead a good political economist to conclude that it is in one’s self-interest, rightly understood, to read this book.
—Ryan T. Anderson, a member of First Things’ Advisory Council,
is editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute.
A Journey Through American Literature
by Kevin J. Hayes
Oxford, 192pp, $17.95
Kevin J. Hayes’ A Journey Through American Literature is a briskly paced study of the development of individuality and the “I” in American literature. In an encompassing survey, Hayes, English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, suggests that the preoccupation with identity is exactly what is so American about the hundreds of books, texts, and authors he includes.
His presentation is neat and swift, almost like a slideshow where he holds slide after slide to the light and makes quick yet close and strong readings of each piece examined, be it travel writing, promotional tracts, autobiographies, or attempts at the “Great American Novel.” American literature is not occupied with developing any one identity, he claims, but with the importance of the process of individual self-knowledge throughout the history of America.
In fact, the only thing that Hayes commonly attributes to the diverse literature is the motif of the journey. Ishmael’s pilgrimage on the Atlantic in Moby Dick is functionally no different from Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced trip to Vegas in Fear and Loathing, both share the drive to push outward into the unknown, motivated by the possibility that the self is somewhere “out there.”
This emphasis on journey makes it hard not to read the book as an argument for a kind of literary Manifest Destiny: American writing matures as it moves west, especially as it crosses borders into the unknown regions of the nation and the world. The exposure to the borderlands provides characters with moments for self-discovery and growth (or decay). It was in the first developments of American travel writing and adventure narratives that the theme “American Dream” first emerged, which indicates how much the idea of the free and self-made man is linked to the encounter and mastery of foreign realms.
Hayes’ argument that American writing is obsessed with inventing the American person neatly and impressively comprehends the majority of American texts. The book is a gloss on a more or less familiar history, yet remains a valuable aid for making better sense of it.
—Joseph A. Thompson is a poet and teacher from Southern California.