Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Logos by Raymond Tallis
We seek purpose and enlightenment as Stephen Anderson attempts to understand Raymond Tallis’s attempt to understand our understanding of the world.
We are sometimes slow to recognize any downside to our modern age’s mad enthusiasm for scientific achievement, technological advancement, globalization, bureaucratic rationalization and the proliferation of information. But philosophers have highlighted the paradox of the proportional diminishment of the human: knowledge is increased, but the genuinely human recedes. Measurement replaces mere human judgment. General theories are established by the elimination of the particular, the exceptional. Globalization eliminates key markers of individual identity: ethnicity, nationality, locality. Government institutions render communal action redundant. Technological innovation replaces the body. We are more powerful, but less personal. The paradox is that for knowledge to count as knowledge at all, it must be processed in an individual consciousness. From the one who makes the discovery to the community of persons who recognize and implement it, to the person ultimately receiving the knowledge, the entire process is shot through with the participation of particular human beings. Therefore, any reduction of the role of people in the production and circulation of knowledge is not a step in the direction of wisdom: rather, it is evidence of a kind of amnesia about what we’re doing. If today we fail to marvel at the world, this is only a signal of how far our loss of self-awareness has progressed.
This is where Raymond Tallis enters the discussion, with his new book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of The World (2018). The central question he’s asking here is, ‘How is it that the universe – presumably a product of the random actions of chance and time – is so consistent and law-like that the human mind can understand, predict, and interact with it effectively?’ Or, minimally, ‘How is it that the human mind can understand the world with any degree of clarity at all?’ These are not idle questions. They reach to the bottom of philosophy.
Painting of First Man and First Woman by Gerald Nailor
© Smithsonian Institute
Two forms of reductionism have sprung up in response to them. The materialist response (Quine, Ramsey, Tarski, et al) holds that apparently non-physical things such as minds, values, experience, consciousness, even science itself, are no more than by-products of the evolutionary process working on the physical structures of the brain. They burst out, emerging suddenly and inexplicably, as conditions not entirely adequately explained by their cause. Yet however odd they may be, these things are in principle entirely explicable in terms of brain mapping or some related matter-based strategy, the materialists say. Sure, there are questions about it at the moment: but all will eventually be absorbed into all we know about the physical world. In this way materialism issues a promissory note for the future.
A second response is from idealism (Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, et al, or more recently, Wheeler). In idealism, the apparently material world is thought to be the product of mere ideas, and (in Kant’s case at least) these ideas entail no genuine access to the reality beyond the appearances. We stand in a sort of solitude, a very long distance from whatever objective realities give rise to our experience. That we feel our experiences, viewpoints, insights and factual claims to straightforwardly represent reality is natural; but it is also essentially a misunderstanding. If there is a real world out there beyond our experiences, it is not accessible to any of us in a clear, distinct, unmediated way.
In both of these putative ‘solutions’, one side of the problem is merely dismissed. Either all our consciousness and cognitive complexity is ground down to mere matter, or reality itself is reduced to mere ideas floating in atomistic minds. Both solutions to the problem of the intelligibility of the universe, argues Tallis, are deeply flawed and existentially unsatisfying. As he puts it, “There comes a point at which the divorce between how the world looks and feels, and our scientific understanding of it comes to feel like a deep cognitive wound” (p.172). Indeed so. Tallis sets out his argument in several phases to circumvent this arbitrary divorce between the realm of human experience and the realm of the scientific/objective description of reality, to heal this ‘deep cognitive wound’.
Chapter One introduces the basic issues. How can we possibly make sense of a world we presume is generated by random, irrational causes? The issue here is not just that something exists where we might reasonably expect nothing; it’s that the something is capable of becoming the partner of intelligent reflection by personal observers – a huge surprise. The something is also governed by laws of particular types, with specific values, and consistency, and coherence. How could such a marvelous fit between conscious beings and a world that makes conscious sense come to be? It hardly seems random.
The second chapter deals with the conceptual background to the problem. Tallis forages briefly through the etymological, historical, and religious background of the idea of logos, from which we get both logic and all our – ologies. Logos means the coherent word of explanation, and this word is how Classical civilisation thought about the comprehensible content of physical reality. Tallis thoughtfully parses both Genesis and the first chapter of John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – from a symbolic perspective. For those worried that Tallis is here reopening the door to metaphysics, or even (gasp!) to religion, he vows that he writes from the view of a secular Humanist – but with a healthy respect for the intelligence of ancient writ, and of the Biblical narrative in particular, rather than the modernist presumption that wisdom began with the Renaissance or the French Enlightenment.
In the next two chapters Tallis shows why both materialism and idealism are inadequate responses to the question of human knowledge. Essentially, materialism abandons the human in order to grasp the physical, and idealism embraces the world of experience at the expense of recognising the indispensability of objective reality itself. In Chapter Five, Tallis further shows that the subjectivity of human knowledge cannot be explained or, as he puts it, ‘casually eliminated’ by presuming a tidy continuity between basic animal stimuli and the complex corpus of human knowledge and modes of understanding. Chapter Six introduces ‘the realm of thatter’ – the gap between immediate sensation and the knowledge that something is true. These types of experience are not identical, nor are they even on a continuum: knowledge is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from mere sentience. Here Tallis rejects the reductive narrative about how we allegedly went from the latter to the former.
His final two chapters bring the case home. He argues that we need both confidence in the accessibility of the physical realm, and a healthy skepticism about the firmness of our access to it. We may not be infallible, even when it comes to comprehending our own thoughts; but this is a great distance from implying that there is nothing ‘out there’, or that the physical world is not the real cause of what’s going on in us. Not only that, but some of our persistent uncertainties are actually assets. Opacity, the impenetrability of objects to our vision, is the basis of vision itself. Similarly, it is the resistance of the world to our manipulations and judgments that bestows on it the peculiar quality we recognize as reality. Moreover, ‘knowing that’ requires a distance between the mind and the world that permits reflective speculation rather than mere reaction to stimuli.
For Tallis, the key is that knowledge is a relational property. There is both a real reality ‘out there’ and a genuine knower ‘in here’. Eliminate one, and you’ve stultified human knowledge. Knowledge is not the one-sided material disposition of the human cranium, nor is it a mere figment of the imagination of a ghost inside a phantom machine. Rather, it is a kind of dance, a production of the constant dynamic of human consciousness moving between the internal world of experience and the real, resistant, physical world. The imperfections and challenges of this process, far from being signals of failure or any reason to abandon hope, are actually the indispensable preconditions of human knowledge. Moreover, there’s a community of knowers ‘out there’ too; and we cannot reckon without them: individually, we will only ever know partly, imperfectly, incompletely, no matter how full the stock of human knowledge grows. Essentially, then, Tallis calls for an end to the unfruitful antagonism perceived to exist between the human dimension of knowledge and the hard facts of objective reality. It is only by accepting the reality of both, and by paying more attention to the dynamic interplay between them, that we are able to make sense of things.
This book requires careful, thoughtful reading, and readers who already have some familiarity with the debate concerning knowledge will have an easier time. That said, it offers a substantial new direction in a pretty hot area of philosophy. In particular, Tallis’s critiques of the extremes are well-considered. If this is in your area of interest, then this book is more than worth its purchase price.
© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2019
Stephen Anderson is a philosophy teacher in London, Ontario.
• Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of The World, by Raymond Tallis, Agenda, 2018, 320 pages, $27 hb, ISBN 978-1788210874