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Tallis in Wonderland

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You Chemical Scum, You

Raymond Tallis engages with the dregs of philosophy.

I am sick of being insulted. There seems to be a competition among some contemporary thinkers to dream up the most hostile descriptions of Homo sapiens, a species of which I am proud to be an example.

Admittedly, badmouthing humanity is not an entirely novel pastime. There is a venerable religious tradition of currying favour with the Almighty by people-bashing, telling Him (in case He had forgotten) what third-rate, degraded, fallen, creatures He has created. The female of the species tends to be particularly singled out. St Augustine’s description of women as ‘bags of excrement’ is a characteristic gallantry. In recent centuries, however, the insults seem to be coming from non-religious sources, and to be inspired by the claim that science has revealed our true standing in the order of things.

Significant Insignificances

Voltaire got things off to a jolly secular start quite a while back, by instructing the eponymous hero of his novel Zadig (1747) to visualise “men as they really are, insects devouring one another on a little atom of mud.” The notion of the Earth as ‘an atom of mud’, or at least as a not-very-special address, was prompted by a growing appreciation of the implications of the first scientific revolution. This had begun with Copernicus demoting the Earth to just one among many bits of matter circling in empty space; and led, via Kepler, Galileo, Newton and a few other giants of early modern physics, to an image of the universe as a gigantic clockwork machine, in which our planet, and consequently its inhabitants, cut a pretty small figure. But the competition to find the most scathing description of humanity seems to have intensified, particularly over the last few decades.

Biology has been the inspiration in some cases. The philosopher and professional misanthrope John Gray has argued that Darwin has cured us of the delusions we might have had about our place in the order of things – we are beasts, metaphysically on all fours with the other beasts. “Man” Gray asserts in Straw Dogs (2003), “is only one of many species, and not obviously worth preserving.” And in case you’re still feeling a bit cocky, he adds: “human life has no more meaning than that of slime mould.” Slime mould? Yikes! Can it get any worse?

Yes it can. For physics has again been recruited to the great project of disproving our greatness. Stephen Hawking’s declaration in 1995 on a TV show, Reality on the Rocks: Beyond Our Ken, that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies” is much quoted. If we beg to differ, perhaps is it only because we are like the mosquito who, according to Nietzsche, “floats through the air… feeling within himself the flying centre of the universe”? (‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’, 1873.)

There is something repugnant about this nihilistic grandstanding. For a start, it’s insincere. Voltaire did not consider himself merely an insect, any more than Gray considers slime mould his peer, or Hawking regards Hawking as a quantum of chemical scum. Behind the desire to shock is the wish to demonstrate that the writer sees deeper and further than others, and thus are able to pierce the layers of self-delusion which support humans’ sense of their own importance. However, this diagnosis of these thinkers is not enough. We need to look harder at these digs at the dignity of man and woman before shrugging our shoulders and moving on.

They originate from exceptionally intelligent people – even though two minutes’ thought by persons of average I.Q. would be sufficient to show that the very act of making such statements proves their untruth. They are thus examples of something that philosophers call ‘pragmatic self-refutation’. If we really were insects we would not have the concept of an insect; nor would we be able to characterise (in order to denigrate) our habitat as an atom (technical term) of mud (a term used metaphorically). If our lives really had no more meaning than that of a slime mould (an organism being invoked to stand for a broader category of Third-Rate Stuff), it would not have occurred to us that our lives had any meaning; even less would we make the mistake of rating this meaning above that of a slime mould. We would not need Professor Gray therefore to correct an elevated view of ourselves. And, finally, if we were ‘chemical scum’ on a par with the kind of material we normally call by this term, we would hardly have the concept either of ‘chemical’ or of ‘scum’. It does not dawn on the stuff that remains in the bath after the water has drained out that it is scum. Nor does real scum invoke rather abstract reasons for arriving at such an insight into its condition, as Hawking does – namely that we are “on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies.” If scum did entertain such ideas, I would be the first to agitate for Scum Rights and join the Scum Liberation Front.

Philosophy For Scum

Although they are pragmatically self-refuting, these claims of our worthlessness do raise some not entirely empty questions about the very knowledge that seems to justify our denigrating ourselves – the Newtonian mechanistic world picture, the Theory of Evolution, and the advances in astrophysics that made us a shrinking part of an expanding universe. We have an interesting, not to say dizzying, situation: the knowledge that reveals us as smaller than we thought is also a testament to our greatness. As Pascal put it so beautifully:

“Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him… But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him – the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity then consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time, which we cannot fill.” (Pensées 347, 1670)

Insects, slime mould, and chemical scum do not think; nor do they have knowledge of their own thoughtlessness, or entertain the idea of the place – small or otherwise – they might occupy in the greater scheme of things. So underpinning the self-refuting claims of the denigrators of humanity is something rather interesting: knowledge itself. Knowledge is unique to humans (and deeply mysterious): the consciousness of other sentient creatures is confined to sense experience that plugs them into their immediate surroundings.

Karl Popper has characterised knowledge as ‘the greatest miracle in the universe’. Whether or not this is true, it carries within itself a paradox: through knowledge we wake out of our organic selves and the material limitations of our condition to the point where we are so able to distance ourselves from what we are as understood in material terms that we can regard ourselves with contempt.

The ability to look down on ourselves, or at least to see how small we are, develops at a quite basic level. It begins with human vision, that mode of our perception that is closest to knowledge. The human gaze discloses a world that is greater than the body that, as a self-conscious human being, I am aware of as myself. And, as my gaze extends – when, for example, I climb to the top of a tree or a mountain – I become conscious of myself as a comparatively small item in the ever-growing visual field I command. I see that I am outsized, and outnumbered, by things that will in many cases outlast me.

This simultaneous sense of enlargement and diminution that presents me as a shrinking thing in a growing world revealed by and to me, acquires dimensions beyond those known to visual sense. This happens when experience is pooled in the notion of a shared reality, as sustained in a community of minds bearing rumours of people, places, pasts and futures. Knowledge can be greatly developed when it ceases to be tethered to my individual self – when, to use Bertrand Russell’s distinction, ‘knowledge by (direct) acquaintance’ is increasingly supplemented and eventually dwarfed by ‘knowledge by description’. Now the world of experiences becomes a world of facts, and includes items, large, small, singular or numerous, which can be readily alluded to but not fully imagined – when, in short, we can speak of entities such as ‘atoms’ and ‘the universe’, and use them as, for example, terms of comparison. The gaze of knowledge that makes us cognitive giants then presents us to ourselves as ontological dwarfs.

Which brings us back to Nietzsche’s mosquito. In our preoccupied, busy everyday lives, we are a bit like that flying mite, unaware of being a minute part of a boundless material world. The dismaying diminutive self-image that we are offered in the mirror of objective knowledge, is offset by the ineradicable sense that we are at the centre of a great and growing universe that is in part present to us, but is to a much greater extent hidden beyond our actual or even our possible experience. What Russell called our ‘egocentric space’, in which the material and human world is arranged in concentric circles around our singular selves, for the most part occludes the vast spaces unconscious of us, in which our tiny bubble of awareness is located. This remains true, notwithstanding humanity’s cognitive expansion in the centuries since the Sun ceased to move round the Earth and we have been displaced from the centre of things to no particular place at all. And so it should: for the microsphere in which we are individually and collectively insulated from the objective truth of our miniscule place in the universe, is the arena in which we act out our responsible lives.

This is why we need to challenge the claim that natural science gives us the complete truth on what we truly are. For a start, it cannot explain its own roots in the insignificant creatures it portrays us as being. Objective knowledge cannot accommodate the subjective reality of those human beings who made that knowledge possible. Something is missing in a description of us as, say, pieces of matter, or as living matter lost in a boundless universe: an account of how in us, matter came to put itself in inverted commas, as ‘matter’; of how in H. sapiens, living matter came to utter the word ‘life’; of how a bit of the universe was able to speak the word ‘universe’, and to understand it.

In response to Pascal’s famous assertion that “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me” the great French poet Paul Valéry made the deflating observation “But the intermittent hubbub in the corner reassures me.” Valéry was not only being honest about the limitations of his ability to imagine what knowledge told him, he was also gently reminding us that we are not defined by what science claims to be the objective truth of our condition.

Reconciling certain objective realities of our nature with the lived truth of our lives, and understanding the consciousness that spans them both, is surely the key intellectual challenge of the 21st century.

Get thinking, you scum.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2012

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His latest book is Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

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