Ironically, the author is a passionate, if not intemperate, atheist, and yet, he absolutely demolishes the ground upon which his New Atheist middlebros stand most confidently. In short, he destroys materialism in all its most popular and fashionable forms. At the other end -- almost as an afterthought -- he flicks away any thoughts of woohoo quantum deepakery like a gnat.
So, where does that leave him? He doesn't exactly say, but it seems he's content to accept what we don't know, and to not sneak in bad metaphysics in order to pretend to know more than we do. Like a good lawyer, he needs only undermine the prosecution's case, not build his own airtight one. I've ordered several more of his books in order to better understand where he's coming from. I'm only halfway through this first one, so I'm hardly an expert.
This particular book focuses on neurological and biological reductionism, i.e., neuromania and darwinitis, respectively (you might recall that in mybʘʘk I coined some similar words of my own -- reductionosis and materialitis, I think). The first (neuromania) reduces mind to brain, while the second (Darwinitis) reduces man to his genes. Both are ridiculous, but Tallis excels at higher ridicule and fine insultainment.
He doesn't just poke fun; he eviscerates, often with novel and creative arguments. It's the sort of thing halfbright atheists enjoy doing with dumb religion, only he turns the tables and does it to the atheists. And yet he is one. That's what I call intellectual honesty: criticizing your own best arguments, not just the worst arguments of your hapless opponent. If Bill Maher produced Religulous, Tallis trumps him with Asinihilism. Or something.
Let's begin where we always do, with any amazon reviewers who have already said what I'm about to say, thus saving me the trouble. This guy notes that
Interestingly, while as an atheist the author repeatedly dismisses dualism and what he calls 'supernaturalism' as unnecessary alternatives, he ultimately has to admit that he has no good explanation for the mysteries of the human mind himself...
Indeed, the first half of the book (on neuromania) ends with the acknowledgement that the problem of consciousness is "more than 'a hard problem.' It is a mystery."
Well, yes and no. Tallis absolutely refuses to venture down any supernatural path, in particular, anything associated with traditional religion. And yet, everything he believes could fit harmoniously within a sophisticated traditional metaphysic, a la Aquinas or Schuon, more on which as we proceed.
For he clearly proves the existence of a transnatural world. Like me, he seems to regard humanness as an intrinsically irreducible reality. Except in his case, it is grounded in nothing, instead of being an expression of the Ultimate Something.
Tallis repeatedly describes himself as a Humanist, one who wants to build a kind of protective wall around the human world, so it isn't threatened from below -- by reductionist intellectual barbarians -- but also from above -- by the religious. He doesn't understand that he has nothing to fear from the likes of us. We're on his side, only more than he is.
Come to think of it, it very much reminds me of how liberals have nothing to fear from conservatives, only from leftists: the left is the common enemy of classical liberals and conservatives alike. But only a few liberals realize this, e.g., Alan Dershowitz and Steven Pinker.
The same reviewer mentioned above agrees that the book "should be considered mandatory reading for atheists who are interested in genuine reasoning about the reality of the uniqueness of the human mind, rather than in superficial pseudo-scientific reasoning that is rooted in Neuromania and in a simplistic biologism that seeks to minimize what distinguishes us from the remainder of the animal world, including apes."
There is no question that the popular atheistic types don't end their investigation with materialism, but begin with it. It is just an exercise in intellectual backshadowing, such that they perceive and cherrypick the evidence to support what they already believe. You know the old gag: The answer is the disease that kills curiosity. Thus, materialism is the disease that kills any remotely sophisticated philosophy (which is predicated upon openness to total reality and love of wisdom).
Here is an excellent point that highlights something I wanted to say:
Negative scientific studies, studies that demonstrate negative findings (like showing that a drug doesn't lower blood pressure any more than a sugar pill) aren't as sexy as positive studies. Very few professors have gotten tenure by only showing what is not true. No one has won a Nobel prize for solely criticizing other people's research. That said, negative research can be as practical and useful as positive research.
Oh boy and how. In the back of the book there is a note to myself about what I call "anti-punditry." We have quite enough pundits, thank you -- all those brilliant people who are wrong about everything. But we are sorely lacking in anti-pundits, that is, socratic types who call them on their bullshit without necessarily replacing it with more bullshit. What's wrong with no bullshit? Indeed, I propose an award to the best anti-pundit of the year: the Nobull Prize.
"Aping Mankind is negative research. While most popular science writers attempt to weave compelling stories from the latest neuroscience experiments to explain 'why we are the way we are', Tallis attempts to show why these stories simply cannot be true." Oh my yes. Any idiot can gaze at the stars and discern the pattern of a unicorn. But it takes a real idiot to imagine the unicorn is real.
"I have never read a book that demonstrates more blatantly how atheism can operate like a religious belief."
From the Raccoon perspective, Yes and No. For if traditional religion is the safeguard and vehicle of a metaphysics of the Real, then atheism definitely falls far short of qualifying as a religion. To imagine that materialism could be as capacious and explanatory as religion is to not know what religion or materialism are.
We've laid out a very general view, now to the particulars, which I suppose will have to wait until tomorrow.
One more general point: one great irony is that everything Tallis holds dear and wishes to preserve has mainly been preserved by one institution: the Church, or let's say orthodox Christian doctrine. Seriously, who else these days refuses to give an inch to the opponents of personhood, free will, genuine humanism, natural rights, love, truth, beauty, etc? It's not secular universities, that's for sure.