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In Defence of Wonder by Raymond Tallis
Daryn Green wonders at Raymond Tallis’s collection.
Professor Raymond Tallis has an excellent prose style, and is highly adept at the essay form, so although one could hardly describe this book as a light read, what difficulties there are stem from the weight of the questions being tackled, not from the style of the writing. Refreshingly, in both content and style Tallis is clearly not one of those who think (or unthinkingly accept) that philosophy is only meant for a minuscule coterie of jargon-toting aficionados. Rather, it’s for all who wonder at their place in the world.
This book is an anthology of pieces, most of which were first published in the Philosophy Now column, ‘Tallis in Wonderland’, while some appeared elsewhere. Tallis covers a huge range of topics here, and in the process invokes a great many disciplines – philosophy, psychology, neurology, linguistics, maths, the natural sciences, medical science, literature – while maintaining the breadth of vision necessary to see the gaps and interdependencies between these fields. He starts with essays on classic philosophical issues: about the value of philosophical scepticism, the sleeping/ waking distinction, and the nature of truth. Then, with a psychological turn, he investigates the interaction between conscious and unconscious thought, and looks at the complexity of human memory. Moving on to physics, after dismissing the myth of time travel, he focuses on the limitations of the subject – the inability of physics to truly include the human observer; its inability to incorporate how we actually experience time; and the apparent paradoxes that can arise from mathematically modelling physical reality. Switching to biology, Tallis then explores the many-layered mental/physical human condition, the great gulf between us and animals, and the unimaginable complexity of all life, from the level of the cell to that of whole organisms. Linguistics is his next port of call, with a brace of essays about the hidden complexity behind proper names and the workings of language as a whole. Another brace shows how some common errors of thought are, to an extent, the inevitable flip-sides of necessary components of the cognitive process: thus the necessity of generalisations; or our constant need to act with only incomplete knowledge; or the problem of mapping dichotomies onto continuums (when does a balding man become ‘bald’?). There are three essays analysing some of the challenges facing modern literature: how it can best express consciousness; how it should deal with human sexuality; and how much implausibility matters when writing in a ‘realistic’ genre; essays dealing with the tension between philosophy and urgent practicality (via Chekhov); the paradox of the humanizing and animalizing tendencies of modern medicine; the exaggerated fears of the impact of technology on our species; reflections on our expanding life expectancy; and how best to come to terms with our inevitable deaths: followed by an analysis of good and bad arguments for atheism. Tallis’s closing essay, or ‘Coda’, presents Parmenides (c.500 BCE) as the true parent of modern Western thought. By now the reader should have some idea just how much intellectual nourishment is packed into this volume.
Where Tallis comes into his own is in his ability to comment with philosophical insight upon areas that one would otherwise be unlikely to come across at all. With the academic world being so highly specialised, it is easy for some important matters to be either buried within specialisms, fall into the cracks between specialisms, or perhaps require too-rare combinations of specialisms. Thus, sadly, such topics may remain largely unobserved in the public debate. Tallis is often able to haul such items into the light with seeming effortlessness. I think the key to his success in this is that he’s making a genuine attempt to look at the human condition through fresh eyes; and only after the event, so to speak, does he take any note of what academic terrain he has covered. Because of his wide expertise, and by being in, and yet not trapped in, so many camps and institutions, he has the benefit of a perspective that relatively few possess.
Let me select a few highlights. Right from the start, in the opening few paragraphs, he sets out his stall as trying to place modern philosophical activity within the widest intellectual context – temporally, sociologically, and scientifically. I particularly liked the way that he delves into the psychology of philosophers – an otherwise woefully neglected subject, not least in philosophical circles. As well as highlighting the uniqueness of the psychology of the philosopher – compared to the more straightforward psychological state required of the scientist, say – he suggests how this psychology can go astray.
Concerning the individual essays: in ‘Just a Little Tune I Found in my Mouth’, whilst investigating the relationship between deliberate and automatic thought, Tallis highlights the idea of the prepared automatic response – an important notion that tends to be downplayed as people seek to maintain the illusion of entirely conscious and calculated intent. Although the feat of time travel is commonly held to be implausible, even laughable, the idea is nonetheless so prevalent within our culture that it is good to see someone with genuine philosophical and scientific credentials bothering to delve into the nitty-gritty of its absurdity, as Tallis does in ‘The Myth of Time Travel’. In ‘Time, Tense and Physics: The Theory of Everything But…’ he challenges the ‘everything’ of this well-known goal of physics by pointing out that, like any physics theory, ‘the theory of everything’ does not include the “living reality of the conscious individual” and is therefore, strictly speaking, a misnomer. Tallis is providing so many victims of scientism with a wake-up call. In his essays about novels, in exposing that art form to philosophical questioning, he does a great favour to those literati who falsely imagine that literature’s sophistication automatically covers the philosophical terrain. In ‘The Mystery and the Paradox of Scientific Medicine’, Tallis again does great service in describing the humanising and animalising tendencies of that endeavour, and one can’t help but wonder whether all health professionals are adequately clued into the highly relevant concepts he discusses.
I would like to draw attention to three essays in particular. In two of them, ‘The Professor of Data-Lean Generalisations’, and ‘“I Kid You Not”: Knowingness and Other Shallows’, Tallis exposes some of the mechanics of our thought processes, along with the inevitable pitfalls associated with their operation, and thus he helps to clear avenues of psychological and intellectual criticism and self-criticism – thinking skills that should be much more prevalent in our culture than they are. But above all, in his essay ‘Literature, Philosophy and Medicine: On Anton Chekhov’s Ward No.6’, in exposing the complex tension between philosophy and urgent practicality, Tallis is helping to make clear a vital mode of self-examination I believe all philosophers should be wrestling with: the business of contextualising their work within, and prioritising their efforts towards, society’s practical needs. The reality, I fear, is that philosophers of all persuasions manage somehow to cushion themselves from this mode of thinking to an alarming extent, to the detriment of both their usefulness and their philosophy.
Questions & Quibbles
Seeing that this book is an anthology of previously published essays together with a specially written introduction (or ‘Overture’), the prospective reader might be excused the suspicion that the proffered overarching theme, the ‘defence of wonder’, is no more than a token justification for bringing them together. This would do this book a great disservice; for to my mind the value of wonder is a genuine guiding belief that has formed at the centre of Professor Tallis’s philosophy, and a valid, even vital, sentiment for us all. And in any case, this anthology easily earns its place without any further justification.
In fact, in the ‘Overture’, Tallis does a good job of showing how wonder weaves through the various topics. I think he could have gone further with the core notion by presenting a linguistic analysis of the meaning of ‘wonder’, particularly in order to explicitly separate out its objective and subjective justifications, since he does seem sometimes to conflate or subordinate the subjective component to the objective. Wonder’s objective justification is that we are a part of a universe of bewildering complexity and unexplained phenomena, and so ought to recognise that fact (this Tallis certainly does make plain). Its subjective justification, I believe, is that ‘wonder’ at least comes close to defining something that as a kind of attitude or psychological backdrop, forms an essential part of our happiness, our optimum functioning, even our mental health.
Tallis has much of originality and importance to say, However, inevitably, I have a few minor disagreements. In ‘A Smile at Waterloo Station’, and at several other points, Tallis refers to Einstein’s comment that ‘Past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’. He mostly affirms this statement, but in ‘Time, Tense and Physics’ he is strongly critical of it. I agree with the latter stance, and wonder if Einstein wasn’t here slipping into metaphysics, and thus slipping off his true area of expertise. (One gleans from a quote here that Einstein seems to have wondered this himself at one point.) In ‘Seeing Time’, in which Tallis argues that our power of visualisation is critical to how we perceive time, I wondered if the importance of sight to our having a sense of space and time wasn’t being exaggerated. And in his ‘Coda’, entitled ‘Parmenides: The Great Awakening’, Tallis claims that Parmenides, through his only surviving work, On Nature, shows himself to be “the first … ontologist.” On balance, his interpretation of Parmenides’ primacy does not seem persuasive to me, considering the severe dwindling of artefacts such as books as one goes back in time.
But despite my own atheism, my main criticism relates to the essay, ‘Why I am an Atheist’. To me this essay is a bit like a magnificent stallion in a pony’s paddock. That is to say, Tallis makes many excellent points, centring chiefly on the idea that the core argument over God’s existence should shift away from the inconclusive evidence-based debate towards an investigation into the coherence, or otherwise, of the concept of God – but he makes these points within a framework that is only a superficial improvement on the standard (and in my view misguided) Dawkins-esque paradigm of criticising religion in natural-scientific terms. Once that mistake has been made, there is an inexorable pull towards certain errors. Central to these is the unjustified privileging of the objective over the subjective, and of the literal over the symbolic.
To be fair, Tallis does recognise the significance of the God concept – “the supreme marker of our existential depth” and the “ultimate expression of our sense of possibility” he writes. He appreciates the seriousness and solemnity that a religious mentality can bring to considerations of the human condition, and the huge historical significance of religion to various art forms. And elsewhere in the book he does appear to recognise that religion’s demise leaves a spiritual vacuum in its wake. But despite these notable strides, the problem remains: the errors at the root of the naturalistic (anti-) religious paradigm are not trivial, but game-changing; they cannot be tweaked away from the inside.
Notwithstanding these slight criticisms, once the nit-picking microscope is put away and the wide-angle lens is brought back, the bigger picture reemerges, showing Tallis to be a important worker at the philosophical coalface. In his breadth, independence, and accessibility, not only is he an example – or dare I say, a ‘Tallis-man’? – to up-and-coming philosophers, he also provides an authoritative corrective to much of the received wisdom. And this book in particular is so packed with ideas that it is no exaggeration to say that if, having read it, you don’t feel yourself to be significantly philosophically richer for doing so, then you weren’t paying attention.
© Daryn Green 2013
Daryn Green is a carer, and also works as a supply teacher in North London.
• In Defence of Wonder and Other Philosophical Reflections, by Raymond Tallis, Acumen, 2012, 256 pp.