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Free Will in Past and Present

Public lecture:
Professor emeritus Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania and Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind (8th December 2011)

The Economist's Intelligent Life Magazine (Autumn 2009) celebrates Professor Raymond Tallis as one of the top living polymaths in the world. And his oeuvre is indeed enormous. He has published fiction, three volumes of poetry, and over a dozen books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory, the nature of art and cultural criticism, including The Kingdom of Infinite Space (2008); Hunger (2008), and Michelangelo’s Finger (2010). Tallis originally trained as a doctor before going on to become Professor Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester. He was elected Fellow at the Academy of Medical Science for his research in clinical neuroscience. He retired in 2006 to become a full-time writer.

In his public lecture Tallis introduced the audience to the central themes of his latest acclaimed publication Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misinterpretation of Humanity (2011). In this book Tallis questions the exaggerated claims made for the ability of neuroscience and evolutionary theory to explain human consciousness and society. While he acknowledges that the progress neuroscience does help us to understand the functioning of the human brain, Tallis criticises the accompanying widespread belief that brain activity is not merely a necessary but a sufficient condition for human consciousness and that consequently our everyday behaviour can be entirely understood in neural terms. Tallis attacks the idea that “we are our brains” – he also calls it “neuromania” -- which has given rise to a multitude of new disciplines (including neuro-history initated by the Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail) laying claim to explain everything from history, art and literature to criminality and religious belief.

Symposium: “Free Will in Past and Present” (9th December 2011)- programme and selected podcasts

The symposium on “Free Will in Past and Present’ brought together Warwick researchers from law, sociology, history of science and medicine, and philosophy to explore the question of free will from the perspective of their respective disciplines. The Warwick scholars were joined by Professor em. Raymond Tallis who had introduced the symposium the previous evening with a talk on the dangers of believing that the neurosciences are in the unique position to explain human consciousness. The other external speaker was Dr Roger Smith who was visiting the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study at the time. In many ways, it is Smith’s work that inspired this symposium. Smith is one of the world’s most respected scholars in the area of history and philosophy of science and a leading expert in the history of the mind and brain, of psychology and psychiatry. Reader Emeritus in the History of Science from Lancaster University, Smith is currently Associate Fellow at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Among Smith’s many publications is Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials (1981); a history of the insanity defence in Britain in the nineteenth century. Inhibition: History and Meaning in the Sciences of Mind and Brain (1992) investigates the history of leading metaphors in the brain sciences. His The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (1997) is a so far unrivalled philosophical and historical synthesis of the sciences of human nature since the Renaissance. As the founding associate editor of the Journal History of the Human Sciences and the past President of The European Society for the History of the Human Sciences, Smith has been playing an overall decisive role in directing and shaping the discipline of history and philosophy of science over the last three decades. His last monograph, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature (2007) and his current book project Free Will: The Late Victorians on Body, Mind, Morals and History were central to the theme of the symposium. In Being Human, Smith provides major new insights into the nature and history of the human sciences and their relationship to the natural sciences, the scientific status of inquiry, and the importance of history for understanding the complex relations among the natural, social science and the humanities in our own times. In Free Will he focuses on the important issue of the possibility (or impossibility) of human freedom. The book tackles “free will” from the perspective of both nineteenth-century philosophy and history. It is a major intellectual and cultural study of the Victorian responses to the implications of natural science knowledge and encompasses the areas of physiology and medicine, psychology, philosophy, social sciences and history. The book also draws striking parallels with contemporary debates about evolutionary neuroscience, which are currently seizing scientific and public imagination. These parallels were explored in the symposium.