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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Cornwell
Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves
By James Le Fanu (Harper Press 303pp £18.99)

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At the midpoint of the 1990s, the much-hyped Decade of the Brain, Peter Brook directed a stage version of Oliver Sacks's book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at the Cottesloe in London. At one point a patient was presented to a neurologist with a condition known as visual agnosia. The patient watched a screen on which a video of a seashore was depicted. He could describe moving white and blue lines and a strip of yellow: but he could not put it together to say what it was. At the end of the play, all the cast of patients and neurologists came on stage to watch another video: it depicted a PET scan showing the map of a brain gently pulsing in vivid colours. Brook meant his audience to grasp that brain imaging, as a way of understanding the mind, is as empty of meaning as impressions on a patient with visual agnosia.

James Le Fanu, like Brook, and indeed Oliver Sacks, passionately believes that the human genome and contemporary neuroscience (the study of the brain and central nervous system) are ultimately futile as explanations of human nature. Le Fanu, a medical doctor by profession, is a very fine and thoughtful writer, a contributor on science and medicine to many periodicals, and author of the magisterial The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, arguably the best history of public medicine written to date. In this book, a strongly philosophical and historical critique of recent science, he stands out against the tide of effervescent scientific optimism that proclaims imminent explication of what it means to be human. It takes courage to resist that tide.

Le Fanu grants that the Human Genome Project and recent neuroscience 'have indeed transformed, beyond measure, our understanding of ourselves - but in a way quite contrary to that anticipated'. He would be crazy not to acknowledge the benefits to medicine, but he is talking about something much deeper. Our sense of ourselves and our experience of life are far more than the sum of our genes or what can be mapped with an MRI scan.

His aim is to debunk purely materialist, reductionist accounts of what it means to be a human person. An example is the attempt of neuroscientists, and neuroscientifically informed philosophers of mind, to explain the origins and nature of human consciousness. Le Fanu shows, for example, how the philosopher Daniel C Dennett boasts of having 'explained' consciousness in a purely materialist, scientific fashion, yet neglects to describe its central mystery. In essence, he argues, Dennett's failure consists in his inability to explain how the 'monotonous firing of neuronal circuits can give rise to qualitatively different experiences as the smell of a rose or a Bach fugue'. Dennett would say that the 'onward march of science will decipher the code ... then all will become clear'. But another philosopher cited by Le Fanu, Colin McGinn, responds that such is the nature of consciousness that science, in principle and forever, cannot explain it, since objective descriptions can never entirely encapsulate subjective states.

Where then does this leave us? Le Fanu is not afraid to use the 's' word: soul. But what is the nature of the immaterial soul? How does it arise? It is surely not enough merely to state its existence. Le Fanu does not build his arguments on religion, although he does produce a form of theism. Albeit briefly, he presents his option for a version of the Intelligent Design notion. While rejecting the idea of a designer, up there, 'hard at work designing several thousand species of beetle', he argues that 'there is vastly greater evidence of "design" - for those who would wish to interpret it as such - than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of those numerous random genetic mutations that the genome projects have so unequivocally failed to identify'.

I wanted to cheer Le Fanu on, as I like the way he writes, and he brilliantly exposes the hubris of aggressive reductionism. To be unhappy with mind-body dualism, however, is not necessarily to be on the side of the demons. One of the interesting aspects of contemporary neuroscience is its insistence on the idea of the soul being 'embodied'. This is nothing new. Aristotle believed that the soul was the 'form of the body', and he was followed in this by Thomas Aquinas. It has taken new brain science to challenge Cartesian dualism, which reduced the body to a kind of machine, while relegating the soul to a kind of spooky stuff. The idea of an embodied soul is closer to Judaic and early Christian construals of the human person than Descartes.

Le Fanu looks forward to the kind of scientific theories that will confirm the mysteries of the soul and the universe. He cites Rupert Sheldrake's experiments as an example of this. I like the way Sheldrake writes, too, but I wonder whether his bizarre species of theorising - morphic resonance, for example - will draw people away from materialist thinking or back into it by his tendency to draw an equivalence between mystical and quantum physical states. But there are other, eminent, non-reductionist scientists that Le Fanu neglects, such as Charles Scott Sherrington, Gerald Edelman, Freeman Dyson, and, in mathematics, Kurt Gödel.

If there is a significant absence in this book, it is a lack of appreciation for the wonders of the imagination. Like consciousness, imagination is powerfully resistant to scientific probing, and yet it enables us to transcend the tyranny of materialism and determinism. Imagination inspires, and make connections between, science, religion, and art, and it is James Le Fanu's lively literary imagination that makes this book such a stimulating, challenging read, even when one disagrees with him.

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. His latest book is 'Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Riposte to the God Delusion'.