Adventures in Neuropolis: Justin Robertson Interviews Rob Newman
‘The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and it gives it some of the grace of tragedy’ – Steven Weinberg
Before I tap another word into this technical marvel, can I first state that I think Science is great. It can represent the best in humanity; our inquiring nature, our desire to innovate, our hopes for a better world. It has created so many marvels. X ray machines, space exploration, computers, pacemakers, the internet upon which you are reading this article, all amazingly good. Without a doubt all our lives would be considerably more difficult and decidedly grimmer without tireless work of our lab coated friends. I have no problem with the natural Sciences. As a study of the material world they really are top notch. So there you have it; Science is good, just remember I said that, if by the end of this interview, you are tempted to assemble an angry mob.
Quite recently a friend of mine suggested on that well known symposium of objective knowledge, that is Facebook, a quite modest idea: that one might question some of the conclusions scientists reach. That seems quite rational, that’s what a scientist would do after all? But the reaction was quite extraordinary. He was lambasted as a post truth warlock, peddling dangerous heretical ideas, that might see us banging each other over the head with clubs and feasting on each others brains as we danced around the flames of our civilisation. For many, Scientists now occupy the same role that high priests did in years gone by. They are seen as unique individuals, ‘geniuses’, who have privileged access to ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that we cannot have, to question them is seen as dangerous. I’m not saying this is how scientists actually see themselves, though some certainly do, but it is the popular mind set of the contemporary stern faced materialist.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Science remained concerned with, well, Science stuff? If one was to become sick, one would be better off visiting a doctor not a tree surgeon. Likewise, if a tree was in danger of damaging your roof, then a tree surgeon would be a better person to call than, say a heart surgeon. When it comes to photons, quasars and space time I would certainly take the advice of Stephen Hawking for example; he seems to be a good spokes person for such matters. In other words, Scientists are pretty good at Science, and science is a very helpful tool for humanity, so we should listen to what they have to say. Fine. But take this quote from the universe’s cleverest man.
‘How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did it all come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time. Traditionally these are the questions of Philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with the developments in science, particularly Physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’
Hmmm? Stephen Hawking certainly knows a great deal about physics, but seemingly nothing about the history of Philosophy. By making some very broad ontological assumptions; equating everything that exists to that which can be understood by physics, he is actually just doing bad philosophy, not good physics, but to many the idea that ‘Philosophy is dead’ must be true, because Stephen Hawking said it.
And what about from the undoubtedly brilliant Francis Crick, the late father of DNA research and eminent molecular biologist:
‘You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and your free-will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules’
What Crick is saying here is; that YOU do not exist, or at least the ‘You’ that you think you are does not exist. (oddly, he uses ‘You’ here seemingly excluding himself from non existence). Again, this is a very dramatic claim, many would argue that this is simply not true; it relies on a terribly unsatisfactory narrow reduction of what it is to be ‘You’, but this isn’t an article about Francis Crick, so I’ll just point you in the direction of ‘Are you an Illusion’ by Mary Midgley for a full critique of this position. (Or, you might agree with Francis Crick? In which case you’d be no fun to go to the pub with).
But the the pertinent point here is this, it is presented as hard scientific ‘fact’, and due to the lofty position afforded to scientists in our society, many will take such statements at face value, despite the fact that they are based on shaky assumptions with little satisfactory evidence. What you might call ‘blind faith’. Again, let me be clear, this isn’t necessarily how scientists themselves operate, but more the filter society puts on these statements.
The Francis Crick quote in particular, demonstrates a tendency of the natural sciences since the enlightenment, to remove the first person, human element, from attempts to understand ‘reality’. We are considered to be either deluded, mistaken or in Crick’s model ‘non existent’, basically we can’t be trusted. Only the natural Sciences can reveal the truth. This again seems very odd, for how else can one look at the ‘world’ except from a human perspective? As the philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it; we cannot attain ‘the view from nowhere’.
If we can’t trust ourselves, if indeed we exist, can we trust comedians? Personally I think a plurality of opinions is exactly what we need, and one person who combines clear thinking with ribald delivery is Robert Newman. Rob came to prominence in the early 1990’s with the Mary Whitehouse experience, and his stadium filling comedy partnership with David Baddiel, Newman and Baddiel. Since the end of their partnership Robert has pursued a fascinating path taking in political activism, novel writing and philosophical examinations of some contemporary sacred cows through print, radio and live stand up. His 2015 show ‘Robert Newman’s Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution’, challenged, amongst other things, Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene theory, and his most recent book ‘Neuropolis’, dissects some wonky thinking embedded within modern neuro- science. It has been serialised on Radio four, and is highly recommended for its clarity of thought as much as it’s quality jokes. So, with that in mind, Robert Newman would seem the perfect person to consult about our current Scientism problem.
Thank you for taking the time to join our Symposium Robert.
Nice to be here. I enjoyed your introductory essay.
Can I start by asking why you chose to take Science to task in your recent work? And why do you think it important for us to be concerned about some of its conclusions?
Rather than take science to task, what I am trying to do is to separate the reductive dogma and philosophical stowaways from the fascinating science buried beneath this ton of bricks.
In Neuropolis – both book and series – most of my ire goes on the brainless interpretation of brain science, on the way people read ideology into the science. For example, there is no evidence to support, Steven Pinker’s idea that the human brain is not wired to cope with anonymous crowds or schooling, nor is there any evidence that I know of to support Dick Swaab’s bizarre claim that Japanese and New Guineans cannot tell fear from surprise. But this wacky racist myth is central to an international bestseller.
How do you think these questions feed into our ‘Post Truth’ world? It seems important that we don’t lose sight of who’s knowledge we can trust? Science like any branch of knowledge must be respected, maybe it has just become unmoored from the rest of thought?
Karl Popper’s insights are important here, I think. His famous point is that a scientific statement is scientific to the extent that it can be falsified. He also defines science as more or less the perpetual attack on previous scientific findings. Science progresses, he says, by way of conjecture and refutation, as he put it.
In this regard, I think Popper would have found Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s comment that ‘the great thing about science is that it is true whether you believe in it or not’ to be as unscientific a statement as it were possible to make. Niels Bohr puts it better in a famous story. Someone was surprised to find that he had a lucky horseshoe on the wall of his lab, and Bohr said. well, I’m told they work whether you believe in them or not.’
Did you get stuck into the brain imaging experiments you describe in Neuropolis? What was it that sparked the idea to challenge some of the assumptions of the neuro science?
I never did take part in any brain experiment. I based that sketch on Ray Tallis’s detailed exposition of what actually happens in a number of landmark neuro-imaging experiments. Ray Tallis’s surgical unpeeling of fact from fantasy is one of the things that makes his book on neuromania; ‘Aping Mankind’ so brilliant.
You’ve written about the ethics of Artificial Intelligence; is this another area you see, where some quite odd ideas have snuck in without critical scrutiny?
AI is a classic example of the ever-widening gulf between science and magical scientism. The science in the last few years has published one discovery after another that finds the body to be way more involved in the brain that we thought. The body influences brain development by everything from hormones to gut bacteria. And yet, as if there were no such science as biology, there has been an algal bloom of retro sci-fi fantasies of ‘uploading consciousness’ and ‘escaping our biological wetware’ and ‘strong AI’.
Not just recent biology falsifies AI. Studies of the first Cambrian life forms do too. Going back to the very first multicellular organisms, Peter Godfrey-Smith points out that there are no known organisms with neurons that do not also have muscle cells. There has never been brain without brawn.
I heard a wonderful talk by Howard Jacobson on Radio 4’s a Point of View yesterday about the drastic limits of AI, which I highly recommend.
I watched a talk by Mary Midgley which you chaired, one member of the audience seemed quite upset that he wasn’t just a collection of nerve endings and electrical pulses, have you experienced much resistance to your arguments?
Not as much as I expected.
Let’s talk about your life as a Comedian; Do you think comedy has a duty to confront accepted ideas, or should it just be escapist entertainment?
I think what Brian Pattern said of poetry will do for comedy too: “When in public poetry should take off its clothes and wave to the nearest person in sight; it should be seen in the company of thieves and lovers rather than that of journalists and publishers. On sighting mathematicians, it should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra.”
“No composer of comedy, iambic or lyric verse shall be permitted to hold any citizen up to laughter, by word or gesture, with passion or otherwise” (Laws, 7: 816e; 11: 935e). Plato.
Plato was absolutely no fun, he wanted to ban music and control comedy, for fear of anarchy breaking out in his republic of tedium. Descartes was suspicious of laughter, and well most things. Hobbes thought laughter selfish, my own recollection of the Manchester University Philosophy departments Christmas party is not one that conjures up visions of un bridled mirth. Are there any Philosophers you would fancy having a night out with?
Yes, in the book I talk about how laughing and smiling were big in the enlightenment but frowned on by the Romantics.
I would have loved to have spent time with Isaiah Berlin, who gets big back-of-the-room laughs in some of the live lectures you can now get as free downloads. Bertrand Russell was very witty too. Either of them would have been great company. And I am very much looking forward to seeing Mary Midgley in Newcastle soon.
Plato was no fun. He would be on the list of the least fun philosophers to hang out with.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself continuing to pursue this philosophical path? Is it important for you to keep challenging things?
Funny you should say that: we have just submitted a proposal to Radio 4 to let us do a series about philosophy. One of my favourite sketches in the last series was about Pythagoras murdering Hipparchus of Taranto for leaking the secret of pi. I am hoping this sketch and the reception it got will help convince BBC that there are laughs to be had in philosophy.
But philosophy of science is my real love, and I hope to do more of that too.
Neuropolis, the book by Robert Newman is out now published by William Collins. And adapted for radio on Radio 4 HERE.
Justin Robertson’s ‘Explorer’s Chronicle’ Art show is on at the Refuge Manchester from May 25th. Visit his site HERE.