The correct change for life's bus

On the Edge of Certainty
October 6, 2000

Why is Raymond Tallis not better known? For one thing, he is a splendid exception to the helpless specialisation of our age, being a professor of gerontology who writes clear and useful philosophy. More crucially though, he aims his philosophy at a target that needs it terribly, namely the confused and lazy-minded scientism that blocks our attempts to talk sense about human consciousness.

It is now officially admitted among academics that this consciousness does exist and that it may safely be studied. However, most of those involved still treat it as a dangerously dazzling item, rather like the sun: something that can only safely be looked at through a thick screen of scientific verbiage.

Tallis has written a number of books debunking these screens and adds two essays in the present collection continuing this good work. One of them, engagingly called "A critical dictionary of neuromythology", lists and dissects a score of weasel words, for example calculations, complexity, grammar, information, instructions, language, memory, representation. Systematic misuse of these words lies, he says, "at the heart not only of the errors in neurobiological and computational theories of the mind, but also of their apparent explanatory force.

"The most important characteristic of these terms is that they have a foot in both camps: they can be applied to machines as well as to human beings and their deployment erodes, or elides, or conjures away the barriers between man and machine, between consciousness and mechanismI As a result, it is possible to overlook, for example, that seeing a computer as anything other than an unconscious automaton is crude animism."

In "The poverty of neurophilosophy", Tallis develops this point further, arguing that "neural theories of the mindI despite their role in raising our awareness of the enormous complexities that are embedded in even the simplest actI actually impoverish our ideas of human consciousness and our mental life".

By atomising their subject matter, these theories simply render its wholeness more incomprehensible: "The haystack in which needles have to come together is hugeI For my money, no multiplication of automata forming co-operatives will be able to replace the conscious human being knowing what he or she is doing.

"There is something called 'conscious understanding' that goes beyond a mass of modules (even though we need) the smooth working of various automatic systems which lie beyond the reach of consciousness."

Besides these two demolition jobs and a long, impressive essay on truth, the book contains two other, very interesting, shortish constructive pieces.

One is a meditation on the astonishment that can arise at the fact that one exists at all, and that one is irremediably oneself rather than somebody else. What does this amazement mean? How reasonable is it?

Helpfully, Tallis roots his discussion in a particular experience of observing somebody else's independent existence on a bus: "I was reminded of the extent to which I was , more or less, my body... of the material tautology of my own existence... "It is the destiny of that girl on the bus in some sense to be that body and it is the destiny of this man, me, in some sense to be this body... We are, and we are not, our bodiesI I wish to underline a tension in our relation to our own bodies - one which some philosophers, notably (Gabriel) Marcel, have seen as reflecting the wider tensions of the relations between having and being."

Despite reductive arguments that claim to show such experiences mean nothing, our sense of our own identity really is something complex, and the various ways in which we interpret it do affect how we live. Analytic philosophy can help us understand them, but it cannot destroy their significance.

Tallis's last essay brings out this complexity by discussing Wittgenstein's developing views on certainty and scepticism in the context of the time at which he finally wrote them down - namely, the last few days of his life.

He shows how Wittgenstein's "inability to connect his thoughts with his life - with the things that deeply disturbed him and still defined him, however much he dedicated that life to the process of thought - was curiously a part of his unassailable integrity.

"He knew that the two - his thoughts and his life - were connected, but that the connection lay unimaginably deep."

That connection is a terrific topic, and it is remarkable that Tallis can manage to discuss it so forcefully and clearly.

Mary Midgley was formerly senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Newcastle.

On the Edge of Certainty

Author - Raymond Tallis
ISBN - 0 333 80022 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £12.99
Pages - 224

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