Book review in the Spectator

In the Spectator Dalrymple reviews The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky by Bryan Appleyard, which addresses one of his favorite topics, the claims by neuroscientists to be on the verge of understanding human behavior by reducing it to predictable chemical processes in the brain. The book’s title is taken from this poem by Emily Dickinson.
No book or blog—that you may read—
That causes you to see—
An Emily Dickinson piece—
A failure—could yet be—
[Appleyard] comes to the conclusion that was his starting point, namely that we are no nearer self-comprehension than ever we were, and that we shall never be any nearer to it. The nature, quality and wealth of our inner life will never be fully explicable by or translatable into physical terms, and — furthermore — it would be horrific if it could.
I share his opinion…Yet I am also aware of the dangers of proclaiming in advance of all experience that science can get no further, that there are questions that it cannot answer. Lord Kelvin said this of physics immediately before the greatest advances for a century; Sir John Erichsen said it of surgery immediately before the development of antisepsis expanded the field almost exponentially, and another famous surgeon, Lord Moynihan, repeated this bêtise half a century later. A certain modesty is therefore in order.
H/t Michael P.

9 thoughts on “Book review in the Spectator

  1. Jaxon

    I feel there’s so much I have to say on this and recent articles of TD… but I’m sure there are people saying it better and I’m a bit fed up by it all anyway I guess.

    I’ll give this one a shot… some time back on tele I happened to catch a bit of some ‘reality’ tv thing.. I think it might of being some sort of contest based on physical attractiveness (male and female, to find the ‘perfect’ partners).

    At one stage contestants were having their faces carefully analysed on computer. Now, as I understand it everybody’s face is naturally asymmetrical, and actually symmetry is somewhat freakish, uncanny and unnattractive (Madonna? Minogue?).

    I’m not sure they discussed this on the show, whatever the case one young lad, who did look a little freakishly perfect (I think they probably all did actually) was so distressed by having subtle asymmetries pointed out that he went off to the toilet to be sick.

    In his essay Diagnosing Lear, TD makes some passing mention, something about how perhaps one day vanity will show up on brain scanners.

    That should be a very disconcerting thought for a lot of people… just the idea of it.

    Reply
  2. Seymour Clufley

    > I feel there’s so much I have to say on this and recent articles of TD… but I’m sure there are people saying it better and I’m a bit fed up by it all anyway I guess.

    Well I for one enjoy reading your comments, Jaxon.

    Reply
  3. Damo

    Jaxon wrote: In his essay Diagnosing Lear, TD makes some passing mention, something about how perhaps one day vanity will show up on brain scanners.

    What essay is that Jaxon?

    Reply
  4. Jaxon

    ah you’re too kind… perhaps all is not vanity after all… I’m so fickle, Gnothi seauton indeed… sapere aude and so on

    Reply
  5. Jaxon

    Oh, it’s quite googable… I could give a direct link if you have difficulty finding it but I think it’s suppose to be subscription access only (New Criterion)… mind you, there are some encouraging responses to it; and it’s well worth a read.

    Of Appleyard Dalrymple says “Though each individual chapter is clear enough, Appleyard’s book does not fully cohere.”
    That’s fairly generous and maybe fair though I did dip into it and in about two pages I’d skipped from Hamlet to (or should that be through) McGilchrist to Heisenberg to Berkeley (and maybe one or two others in between) … maybe that’s not typical of the thesis overall… but clear enough?

    I found it misleading, not really coherent… but anyway, as far as Hamlet’s despair or “sheer burden of consciousness” (as Appleyard puts it) I’m more concerned about the sheer burden of conscience.

    Dr Johnson’s pragmatic response to Berkley’s radical insights questioning the objectivity of reality (or at least popular conception of) is perhaps apposite, on kicking a stone “I refute it thus”

    Reply
  6. Jaxon

    Thank you for that… I probably shouldn’t have said what I said, but that’s kind of why I said it… I know, confusing really. Not to worry.

    Reply

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