No help needed from Tallis

There are two methods to examine the world: basically the philosophical way and the scientific way. The one I am calling philosophical uses introspection, semantic argument and logic, rational arguments from axiomatic first principles. The one I am calling scientific is based on observational or experimental evidence and building of models/theories consistent with evidence. This does not mean that individual scientists and philosophers do not reach over the fence and use the other method occasionally. And, of course, in the final judgement, both methods depend on being convincing to the audience. Clean logic is convincing; good fit with reality is convincing. I am talking about two stereotypes rather than a distinct line of demarcation.



The difference is illustrated by the use of ‘truth’. In the philosophical method, truth has to do with logic. A logical statement is true or false. In the scientific method, truth has to do with how close a model/theory is to reality. Another difference is the respect that introspection has in philosophy and its lack of respect in science, especially neuroscience.



There was recently an article in the Guardian by Raymond Tallis (here) in which he complains about the lack of metaphysics in physics and other slights of philosophy by science. But the signs of hubris are on his side.



An argument that he uses in several places is that science has not solved several questions after many decades of effort. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years.”, and, “The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally…”. It seem odd for a philosopher to be concerned about a mere half a century when some philosophical questions have been around for a few millennium with many an analysis and never a consensus. The idea that if a question is not answered in a short time, it will never be answered is laughable. Some questions are hard, some are badly framed, some lack the tools that have not yet been invented. But philosophy is not in a position to demand that science always be fast and thus slow is equal to failure. Philosophy is not speedy.



Further, Tallis wants a particular answer from neuroscience. Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. … there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists). What sort of gibberish is this? I would be very surprised if any neuroscientists were trying to understand consciousness in this way. First physics is not about accommodating consciousness. Consciousness will be accommodated by physiology, and that by biology, and that by chemistry, and that by physics. There are physiological differences between consciousness and unconsciousness and these are amenable to experimentation. Hidden dualism is not part of the science.



Another tack of Tallis is to point out that the science is not understandable.The dismissive “Just shut up and calculate!” to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists’ picture of the universe is simply inadequate. (as if philosophical works were always that comprehensible) Indeed, it is unfortunate that sometimes we cannot internalize what we think reality is like. Our brains appear only able to deal with three dimensions, linear time, strict causality and so on. That is fine, it works very well for our normal lives and has been evolutionarily successful. But we do not have to reject models of reality that have enormous predictive accuracy because we find them difficult to comprehend. Nobody promised that reality was going to be comfortable. There is no reason to dismiss a model of reality because it takes some mathematical knowledge to use it. We have been adapted to survive in reality, not reality to fit us. Hidden dualism is not part of science and neither is a hidden theology where the nature of the university was ordained to fit the architecture of our brains.



He confuses two ideas of time as well. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. One idea has to do with how memories are stored from conscious experience and the other has to do with objective measurement of one element of space-time. Is my hippocampus to dictate the nature of the cosmos? If mathematics freezes change, what are all the little t‘s doing in differential calculus equations? The little t’s are indicating time is a component of change.



One thing the science does not need is help from Tallis.




3 thoughts on “No help needed from Tallis

  1. “Some questions are hard, some are badly framed, some lack the tools that have not yet been invented.”
    That’s precisely where philosophy (and also mathematics) might help.

    “Consciousness will be accommodated by physiology, and that by biology, and that by chemistry, and that by physics.”
    It could be useful to distinguish here consciousness as an observable cognitive process, and consciousness as phenomenality. Tallis apparently talks about the latter but I don’t think it is a scientific question at all (so maybe Tallis is too demanding?)

    “But we do not have to reject models of reality that have enormous predictive accuracy because we find them difficult to comprehend.”

    The problem with quantum mechanics is not that the model is difficult to comprehend or that it takes some mathematical knowledge (this could be said of non-euclidean geometries in relativity theories but no one claims that this is a serious problem and after all, philosophers such as Russell or Whitehead settled the foundations of modern mathematics ) it is that it challenges our realist assumptions. So again, it’s a philosophical question and philosophers did a great job analysing where the problem lies exactly.

    “The little t’s are indicating time is a component of change.”

    This is an interpretation of yours, which is probably based on your own first-person phenomenology… Something you know by introspection…

    JK: Thanks for the comment. I actually have nothing against mathematics and philosophy helping science. That seems good. I probably should have said that in the posting. But Tallis’ is simply unhelpful, it seems to me. And I find his arguments (the ones I quoted) almost silly.

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