The Brain is Wider Than the Sky Bryan Appleyard

Weidenfeld, pp.271, 20

With all the advances of science, we may be no nearer to understanding ourselves than before, says Anthony Daniels — but we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility outright

Some years ago I had a patient who believed that his neighbours, unskilled workers like himself, had developed an electronic thought-scanner whose antennae they could, and did, direct at him in order to know his thoughts as and when he had them. He heard them laughing and jeering at the banalities with which, inevitably, his mind was filled most of the time. Needless to say, he found this intrusive and oppressive, and it made him murderously angry.

As life follows art, science follows delusion. It seems to be the ambition of neuroscientists to reach a level of understanding in which such a thought-scanner might be possible, and many claim that we are on the verge of understanding ourselves so completely that we shall no longer be mysteries to ourselves.

In this book, whose title is derived from a wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson, Bryan Appleyard contests such claims. He interviews prominent neuroscientists, and even subjects himself to experiments in a MRI machine, to explore them further. He 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. For all our astonishing advances, it does not seem to me that, taken as a whole, we have plucked out the heart of our mystery. The most advanced neuroscientist does not necessarily live better than his fellow beings, and there is still no uniquely compelling scientific guidance as to the nature of the good life.

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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.

Appleyard’s book is rather diffuse and its central theme, which perhaps was not altogether clear even to the author, has to be deduced by the reader. It is, in effect, scientific and rationalist hubris (a word he does not use), first to believe that we can fully understand ourselves by means of scientific method, second that technological advance in electronic gadgetry will necessarily improve the quality of our lives, and third that we can descriptively capture and therefore control infinitely complex systems for our own ends.

As an example of the latter, he cites the current financial crisis, brought about (so he says) by mathematically gifted young men who mistook their sophisticated equations for an understanding of the way in which infinitely complex markets work. Certainly the hubris existed: I remember being told in New York at the height of the boom that such young men had devised ways in which to invest in derivatives so that only large and continual profits, and no losses, could be made by everyone who followed them. I was sceptical: I did not see how bad loans could be turned into good by being pooled, unless all eventualities could be foreseen and defaults occurred at random rather than together, which reason and the most elementary reflection on economic history suggested was a distinct possibility. I was overruled and, being no mathematician, was as dumbstruck as Diderot at the court of Catherine the Great when Euler, the greatest mathematician of the century, proved the existence of God by a mathematical formula. But I was right: and false presuppositions undermine any amount of technical sophistication.

Of course, there is the question of whether any equations could adequately describe the operation of the market, and whether this can be known for certain in advance of attempts to find them. It is the nature of Man’s Promethean bargain that he is constantly engaged upon the search for what was previously regarded as impossible, the flight of machines heavier than air, for example, and which might indeed be impossible. The Promethean bargain guarantees neither success nor failure, neither triumph nor tragedy; but there seems no going back on it.

Appleyard is more hostile than friendly towards new electronic gadgetry that keeps us constantly connected in virtual fashion to the whole world. True enough, the revolutions in the Arab countries could not have occurred without the constant connection, but it is surely too early to say whether or not those revolutions were unequivocally an advance for human freedom and happiness. I don’t want to sound like Chou En-Lai, who said it was too soon to estimate the effects of the French Revolution, but not all the auguries are favourable.

The author is surely right (though not original) in drawing attention to the possibility that constant electronic contact with people may inhibit real contact between them, and thus hollow out human relations and eventually character. How many times nowadays does one see in cafés or restaurants people talking not to people present, but text-messaging to people absent? Even I, who am no technophile, begin to feel anxious if I am separated too long from my e-mail or my mobile phone. Yet earlier in my life I was perfectly content to go months in remote locations without any possible contact with my friends, certain in the knowledge that the friendships would persist through the silence. Technology (as well, perhaps, as time) changes character, but not necessarily in the direction of depth.

Are laments, such as Appleyard’s, over the deleterious effects of new inventions merely those of ageing people unable to keep pace with a world that they no longer understand, that they fear and dislike? Such lamentations are nothing new; and the world has been going to the dogs in this fashion ever since I can remember. But false alarms do not mean that there are no true alarms; and just because neuroscience fails to pluck out the heart of our mystery, it does not mean that the presuppositions upon which it is based, and its actual findings, will have no serious effect upon us.

Though each individual chapter is clear enough, Appleyard’s book does not fully cohere. The author is a philosophical gadfly whose sting is capable of irritating those whom scientism renders as complacent as any evangelical preacher.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Human, Neurology, Neuroscience, Non-fiction, Science