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Raymond Tallis: 'At age 15 I was in despair. I roughly had the worldview of Richard Dawkins'

The polymath philosopher-doctor has spent a lifetime studying Homo sapiens up close. Now he’s written a book to show why science can’t explain human nature

by Daniel Hitchens, 17th July 2011

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Raymond Tallis: 'I want to celebrate what is the case.'

The things everyone always mentions about Raymond Tallis are these: that he is ludicrously, frighteningly clever, that he is one of the great living polymaths, that Kirsty Young named him as her favourite ever castaway on Desert Island Discs, that even while he was Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester (a position he held for 20 years) and a consultant he would get up at five o’clock to write influential works of philosophy before spending twelve hours at the hospital, that he has written over 20 books on a breathtaking range of subjects, and that he is a lovely chap.

The last point is interesting because, on the page, Tallis is something of a pugilist. Back in the early 1990s, his articulate fury at the ‘institutionalised fraud’ of postmodern theory provoked a great deal of abuse in return. More recently, he has opposed the view that humans are nothing more than sophisticated animals. The title of his new book is vintage Tallis – four jabs on the cover alone! It’s called Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Neuroscientists and philosophers who find themselves in the index should wince in anticipation.

On the day before I meet Tallis at his London club, he rings me up about the dress code. He is a bit apologetic over the whole issue, so I tell him he is entirely right to remind me. I am usually the person who does something embarrassing like arrive without a tie and have to borrow one. ‘And I,’ he declares, ‘would have no truck with any young person who wore a tie voluntarily.’

I am fairly cowed by the prospect of meeting Tallis, but he has the instinct for putting you at ease. When he comes through the door he looks preoccupied, until he sees I have arrived, at which his face lights up as if The Alligator is about to give him his first big break. With the facial hair and piercing eyes, he resembles an improbably genial Lenin.

We begin with ‘Darwinitis’. Tallis believes Darwin was right, but his interpreters are wrong when they conclude that we are selfish, rapacious beasts driven by genetic commands. ‘The notion that we’re all scumbags is quite comforting. Because you think, I am a scumbag, but they are scumbags as well, and I was destined to be a scumbag, simply acting out the biological prescription.’

It also relieves you of responsibility for trying to make the world a better place, which ‘as I know from medicine is boring, bloody hard work.’ So what makes our species any different from the rest?

Briefly, that we know what we are doing. Humans are, to quote one of Tallis’s other titles, ‘The Explicit Animal’. We may have the same needs and instincts as animals, but we think about those impulses explicitly and so can transform them. What is more, our ability to consider our actions means we make up a ‘community of minds’, in which ideas are shared and transformed still further.

'Elephants don’t have, as far as I can see, a literature about mortality. They don’t trumpet elegies'

This is why human technology has developed to such an astonishing extent. ‘Five million years ago,’ he points out, ‘chimpanzees were using a stone to break a nut. What are they doing today? They’re using a stone to break a nut. But a tool over there, a hammer or a handaxe which we all make sense of, is itself an explicit sign of shared sense and shared need.’

All right, but some animal activities resonate closely with our own, don’t they? I put it to him that animals can share needs. Look at elephants mourning their dead together. ‘But their acts of mourning are very brief interactions. Elephants don’t have, as far as I can see, a literature about mortality. They don’t trumpet elegies. There’s obviously a kind of animal sense of solidarity, but it’s not mourning in the way we have it, where we run with the whole idea of mortality.’ Having ideas and running with them: there is the human element.

‘I believe we are both organisms and people,’ he says. But as a doctor, much of his work has involved treating people as organisms. There is ‘a tension between what one observes objectively of the human organism when it is damaged by illness, and what one experiences empathetically with patients, who are people.’ Tallis has never known how to bridge the gap. ‘Neither has anybody else, by the way.’

Tallis first saw the division exactly 50 years ago, when he was 15. In this momentous year of his life, he was overcome with ‘a sense of despair’. ‘At 15, I roughly had the worldview of Richard Dawkins. I called myself a biochemical materialist.’ His academic achievements seemed pointless, because ‘I was not free. If you saw the world aright, it was just an endless array of meaningless material items. And there was a kind of braggadocio about being tough-minded. I mean, I felt very proud of myself. I remember telling my mother that love is just a mechanism built into us.’ A not untypical adolescent crisis, but remarkable in its depth and in Tallis’s response, which you could say has produced half a century of thought. It was philosophy that brought him out of his teenage gloom.

‘I felt no-one had had my thoughts before, and then you discover these are standard philosophical questions, which was fantastic. At the same time, there was a sense of overwhelming joy at the complexity of the world.’ He says this with an unexpected tenderness. ‘And also the sense that one was. That I am. You know? This peculiar office of being Raymond Tallis which had been imposed upon me was the most extraordinary joyful sort of feeling.’

So despair and joy were ‘the two drivers’. And then, yes, there was anger. ‘Anger at the absolute garbage people spoke. That certainly drove the three books that I wrote against literary theory.’ At the height of postmodernism, Tallis decided that students were being taught ‘bad philosophy and bad linguistics’.

‘There were these English dons giving out about philosophy, making statements that wouldn’t stand up for a microsecond in a philosophy department. And also bamboozling students by making statements of such scope that the students couldn’t even check them. I mean, when you say [as Jacques Lacan did], ‘The world of things is created by the world of words’ – you know, where are we going to check that?’ Moreover, Theory appeared to be motivated by ‘a hatred of literature’.

'My present state of thinking is that there are a lot of things that are genuinely unresolved'

Not Saussure is an entertaining blend of polemic and forensic analysis of the claims made by theorists like Terry Eagleton. When Tallis sent the book to publishers, he had been writing for years, and had collected around 130 rejection slips. He was amazed when Macmillan called ‘one Saturday morning’ to say they wanted it. ‘I felt I had been robbed of my posthumous fame.’ Two more books attacking Theory, In Defence of Realism and Theorrhoea and After, followed.

He describes this period as ‘a decade-long digression from really serious problems’. It was ‘the mystery of human consciousness’ that continued to preoccupy him. He wrote (just like that) another trilogy: The Hand, I Am and The Knowing Animal proposed an account of the origin of consciousness, summarised in Aping Mankind. The hand is particularly important to Tallis. Only humans point, and this is one of the sources of our ‘sense of being offset from the material world in which we find ourselves’. Humans became explicit over time.

Tallis believes our sense of selfhood is genuine, as is free will – in fact, the two are inseparable. ‘When I have the sense that ‘I am this’, the world is arranged around me. It has ceased to be a viewpointless expanse of matter. In a way, the self that worries over its freedom, and it’s only selves that do, is the self that guarantees that freedom.’

These are highly controversial positions, and they demand a full philosophical account of how our minds work. If we are genuinely free, then what is it about us that takes us outside the laws of nature? Tallis happily admits the problem. ‘My present state of thinking is that there are a lot of things that are genuinely unresolved. For example, I don’t know precisely what the place of mind in nature is.’ Nor, he again insists, does anybody else.

This brings us to the heart of Aping Mankind, and perhaps the most important argument Tallis has to make. A lot of people will retort that neuroscience has given us an understanding of the mind. In recent years, they might argue, we have seen that mental activity is only the (highly complex) interaction of matter in the brain. Study after study shows that what happens in the brain determines our behaviour.

To which Tallis answers: up to a point. The brain is a necessary condition of consciousness, he argues, but not a sufficient condition. ‘To me, neuroscience is one of the greatest monuments of human consciousness and the human intellect. I’ve contributed a minute amount to it’ – most of Tallis’s research has been in clinical neuroscience – ‘but I’ve contributed enough to know how big the big players are. But I think it discredits itself when it claims to explain things that lie beyond its scope. Just because you require a brain in some sort of working order to be a person doesn’t mean to say a person is a brain in some way. More is needed.’

articleimages/Tallisapinglg_1.jpg

Tallis’s argument is many-sided, but his essential point is that ‘consciousness and experience aren’t at all like neural activity. So I may have some activity in my occipital cortex when I’m having an experience of yellow. The experience of yellow is not at all what that neural activity looks like.’ And if neural activity just is conscious experience, isn’t it reasonable to ask that it looks like itself?

Philosophers such as John Searle reply that the neural activity and the experience of yellow are the same thing seen at different levels. In just the same way, water is a wet, shiny substance at one level; at another it is molecules of H2O.

‘Well, you can’t actually have that,’ Tallis replies. ‘In the purely material world, there aren’t viewpoints that deliver water as molecules or deliver water as shiny stuff. It’s our observations that make it either molecules or shiny stuff. The very existence of two aspects or two descriptions requires consciousness. It can’t explain the difference between consciousness and neural activity.’ So someone like Searle merely repeats the problem.

‘Being cross is a very important part of the life of the intellect, but it is a secondary part'

Tallis has called science ‘the greatest achievement of that community of minds called the human race’. Does he not feel that, just as science has explained so much else, consciousness must inevitably follow?

‘Let me give you a list of thing which science hasn’t explained and doesn’t look like explaining. Why is there something rather than nothing? The extraordinary attempts to explain why there is something rather than nothing don’t persuade me at all. Secondly, there is no complete, or completable, theory of matter. As Richard Feynman said, anybody who thinks they understand quantum theory doesn’t understand it. The third thing is time. Physics accidentally loses tensed time, and it will never regain it, for the very good reason that Einstein has set out.’ (This strikes me as pretty much the perfect Tallis sentence – Proust, Einstein and a bold, mind-expanding assertion.)

‘So it’s not empirically true that these big things – something rather than nothing, matter, time – have been explained. Why should consciousness necessarily be explained?’

Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained should be called Consciousness Evaded, Tallis suggests. Dennett, for his part, has a letter in this month's Prospect accusing Tallis of cowardice and ‘using pejorative labels…as a substitute for careful thought’. ‘He’s very angry, and it does matter to him to maintain a very consistent materialism,’ Tallis says. ‘It’s as though any backsliding there and before you know it you’ll have creationism and God.’

Tallis is an atheist – he believes the idea of God is full of logical contradictions – which makes his scepticism about materialism even more irritating to his opponents. And his professional background means he cannot be accused of anti-scientific bias or ignorance. Still, the neuromaniacs and Darwinitics will ‘probably accuse me of having an agenda, of being an occult creationist, or a covert fundamentalist or whatever.’

For the moment, he has had enough controversy. ‘Being cross is a very important part of the life of the intellect, but it is a secondary part. I am sort of sick of being against. I want to now celebrate what is the case.’ Maybe you can guess what comes next. ‘So I’ve got this trilogy which I’m preparing. One of the volumes is Of Time and Lamentation, which is the joyful mystery of time.’ The second volume, Logos, will explore the intelligibility of the world.

‘And the third is De Luce, which I’ve been writing all my life, but it’s become the third volume. It’s simply going to be about looking, and the gaze, and the light, and the joy of contemplating the extraordinary, mysterious complexity of the world. I’ve got literary theory out of my system, I’ve got Neuromania and Darwinitis out, now…rejoice. Stop arguing.’

There’ll be something else round the corner, though, won’t there?

‘Yes, some bloody thing will come along and spoil it all, yes!’ He looks delighted at the prospect.

The belief that we are our brains has a hold on the public imagination. Is he hopeful that his arguments will be heard?

‘Someone once said to Robert Frost, poetry makes no difference, and he said, well, how long are you prepared to wait? I think the causal chain in this context is very difficult to establish. I feel it’s the amplification through the newspapers that has caused the problem. But hopefully, people will say’ – Tallis performs his best impression of the average educated punter – ‘“Well, you know, Smith says we are our brains, but isn’t there a book by…someone or other where it says the opposite?”’

If we are not our brains, and if we are not entirely part of the succession of material events which has unfolded from the Big Bang, then what exactly are we?

‘We’re curious creatures – we do make sense about the world to the point where we have theories about stars. Blimey! Our making the world intelligible is the thing that sets us off from every other creature. So there is a big question to be answered about our nature. The main thing is that I now feel I was completely wrong when I was fifteen. And I’ve now got good grounds for thinking I was wrong. Doesn’t mean I think I’m going to go to Heaven or I’m going to escape the death that also preoccupies us all. But it does mean that the world is a much more interestingly unresolved place than we thought it was.’

‘There is a sense of the possibility of new thoughts. Thinking is a joy – it’s like giving yourself a gift. Wittgenstein once said the right hand can’t give the left hand a gift. I say, yes it can. It’s called thinking.’

And there are always the follies of other people\'s thoughts to entertain him. He is especially tickled by a recently published paper claiming that bees can suffer from depression. ‘Do they get a human in their bonnet when they’re depressed, do you think? Or do they come out in hives?’

Comments in chronological order

Total: 1

H. K.

Mon 25 Jul 2011 11:25pm

Enjoyable enough to forgive that last line. Thank you, DH.

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