Peerless style, conventional content, astounding lapses in logic…

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[The following is the review I left at after finishing David Eagleman‘s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.]

Eagleman is a charming writer, but in this book I think he’s bitten off more than he can chew–or rather, he shoveled out more than I care to swallow. If you’ve read anything by Ramachandran, then you’ll know most of the neuroscientific claims in this book. If you’ve read Stanovich‘s _Robot Rebellion_ or any serious book on memetics, or, heck, even some good articles on economic psychology, then you’ll already know about the deflationary account of consciousness and rationality espoused in this book. And if you’ve read a fair share about free will and responsibility by Parfit, Strawson and/or Honderich, then you’ll already know enough to have fairly settled opinions about Eagleman’s proposals for guilt and penal reform.

All of that goes to say that, unless you’re getting into these topics for the first time, I doubt you’ll gain much from reading _Incognito_. I nearly gave up on it in the first chapter, due to the many howlers about the history of science and philosophy. However, at my friend’s behest, I stuck with it. The second chapter was a significant improvement over the first, but I ended up really enjoying only the third, fifth, and latter half of the final chapter. Eagleman’s forte is in presenting compelling, or at least intriguing, analogies to express his points. His major weakness, however, is how roughly he rides over basic logic. For example, in his discussion of Whitman, the tower sniper, he gives no account of why we should favor the written confessions of Whitman as exculpatory pleas for help over the cold-blooded, premeditated nature of his crime. Eagleman’s whole point, repeated ad nauseam, is that, wowzers, kids, there is no such thing as the real you! Yet supposedly there was a real Whitman who was, tragically, bested by the false self undermining him in the form of a tumor.

In the same vein, by the time he mounts his non-punitive theory of legal reform, Eagleman has spent most of the book trying to persuade his forgivably folksy readers that they’re almost entirely and irremediably in the grip of blind, irrational zombie drives, and that calling ourselves rational animals is a pleasant fiction we use to get through the night.However, Eagleman would not bother mounting his “logical” argument step by step unless he believed not only that there are unitary conscious selves that endure from the first step of the argument to the last, but also that those human selves are sufficiently autonomous to transcend their biases, blind spots, zombie drives in order to fulfill their rational obligations to the truth. This performative contradiction is the fundamental problem with determinism, of course, so I can’t blame Eagleman for inventing the error; he’s just one of the latest pied pipers strutting in its service.

Finally, while Eagleman, in an appendix, does address the constant performative contradiction of referring to himself as if he were a unitary person, whilst denying any such things exist, it’s a weak and disingenuous caveat. After all, Eagleman willingly receives accolades and royalties as the author of this book, and we know he himself would be guilty of plagiarism if he committed it (a charge, incidentally, that I’ve heard intimated). Eagleman is just a little too clever for his own credibility, and his night job as a writer of fiction only augments this perception.

The greatest irony of the book is that Eagleman thinks he’s presenting a novel account of reason, identity, and social reform, but in fact very many of his claims belong in their ancient home, the Aristotelian tradition. Eagleman, like too many of his peers and readers, seems to think that, arguendo, defeating Cartesian dualism entails defeating dualism as such, but that is false. If only Eagleman, not to mention his readers, realized how deeply Aristotelian some of his theses are! Even so, the biggest compliment I can give to Eagleman as a thinker is that he’s my favorite kind of materialist: the agnostic kind. To his great credit he rejects both scientism and reductionism. He’s fair and big-minded, even though this book is crippled by, most likely unwitting, ignorance of classical philosophy and a facile deployment of logic in behalf of sensationalistic hypotheses.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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2 Responses to Peerless style, conventional content, astounding lapses in logic…

  1. Crude says:

    I get suspicious of arguments that seem to rely on extreme cases to get their initial justification. I haven’t read the book, but the case of Whitman sounds like, ‘Let’s ignore all the mundane, obvious examples of humans we experience and we know about, including from our own first person perspective. Let’s focus on the weird limit cases!’ I’m sure something can be learned there, but if someone points at the behavior of a person struggling with a brain tumor to make their case, it seems pretty fair to point at all the behaviors of people lacking brain tumors to mount a reply.

    I think Chastek once mentioned that the modern scientist tries to learn about living things by breaking them and looking at the broken parts. I’d also add we seem to take the behaviors of the most damaged people as models for how we should think about ourselves, at least at times.

  2. It’s an old Freudian tactic. His whole methodology, in fact. He based the pillars of his theory, and thus pillars of what became mainstream psychiatry, on cases that were recognized even by him as being deviant and rare. Looking through the wrong end of a telescope. This is why the APA manual swells every year. Once you deny that there is a a naturally healthy state and natural ends for humans–i.e., deny that human nature is a universal reality among persons–, then everything is just as deviant as anything else. Eagleman repeatedly lapses on that point. He presents a rare case that Challenges Everything We thought We Knew, but then frequently inadvertently uses the word “normal”, or “disorder”, etc. in his clinical appraisal of the patient. As lawyers say, hard cases make for bad laws.

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