Books

Reflections on a Metaphysical Flaneur, by Raymond Tallis - review

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

There are books we read for pleasure and there are books we are paid to review. However enjoyable the books we review, they are still, in some sense, ‘work’, and my attitude to them is different. Even when reading them with delight, I find myself ticking off the pages, as so much ‘job done’.

I was sent this book weeks ago. But I forgot that I was meant to review it. I have been carrying it round with me, reading and rereading, and it has been like the most engaging, stimulating conversation with an unpredictable, witty new friend. Only lately did I remember that I was actually expected by the Lit Ed to say what I thought about it.

Raymond Tallis was the Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, but he is also well-read in philosophy, and interested, particularly, in the philosophy of mind. He identifies as ‘one of the world’s fastest growing faiths’ the simple identification of minds with brains, the reduction of all human creativity and activity — jokes, music, poetry, personality — to purely neural activity.

He is very good at isolating the fundamentalism which lies at the heart of this approach to philosophy. For example, he quotes the philosopher John Searle’s bald statement, ‘The brain is a machine. It is a conscious machine… So of course some machines can think and be conscious.’ Or he gently takes to pieces Simon Baron-Cohen’s kindly meant but unsustainable attempt (for example in Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty) to reduce the capacity for cruelty to a matter of something he calls ‘Empathy Quotient’. Those with low EQ can become concentration camp guards and still sleep at nights. Baron-Cohen imagines them to be inhabiting some spot on the curve of ASD — Autistic Spectrum Disorders.


For Tallis, this isn’t quite good enough as an explanation for why some people are downright cruel, any more than is the attempt to identify neural causes for laughter. Moral wickedness and laughter just seem to be two of the things which distinguish us human beings from other creatures. As Tallis so refreshingly says in another essay, ‘The organism H. sapiens is readily understandable in biological terms; people are not.’

One of the most attractive essays in the book is entitled ‘Was Schubert a Musical Brain?’ ‘The Little Mushroom’, as Schubert was nicknamed, was an unprepossessing human being. A short-sighted syphilitic dwarf, this 12th of 14 children was responsible for some of the most sublime music ever composed. Benjamin Britten used to say that the last year of Schubert’s life, when he was still in his thirties, was the most miraculous year in the history of music, producing the great Symphony in C, the Schwanengesang Lieder, the last three piano sonatas, and the peerless String Quartet in C — among many other works. As Tallis, music-lover, scientist, philosopher concedes, ‘the ache for explanation persists’. He acknowledges how earnestly so many in these fields of study yearn to explain a phenomeneon such as Franz Schubert in evolutionary or neuroscientific terms. But Tallis is surely right to say that neurological explanations do not get us any further than cod psychiatry (Schubert haunted by a buried memory of sharing the intrauterine bed with a dead twin). In the end, the music, and where it comes from, remains a mystery.

Tallis  is an awestruck man, a wistful humorist who is a secular visionary. In the essay which gives the title to the collection he describes himself as having had ‘not a transcendent vision of an invisible what-might-be but an immanent vision of what was indubitably there’. People, with their consciousness, and their consciousness of being conscious, are deeply mysterious. This does not lead him to any form of religious belief. But he is extremely good at demolishing the pretensions of pure ‘materialism’. In this book, as in his previous publications, he shows that for all their hopes that it would be possible to ‘explain’ the phenomenon of consciousness in purely neurological terms, the mind-equals-brain merchants have  come no nearer to any plausible explanation, not least because very little of the central nervous system, about which we know so much more than was once known, is associated with consciousness.

Apart from these metaphysical speculations, the book also contains excellent essays on medical ethics. The final essay in the book is an impassioned plea for ‘The Right to an Assisted Death’. ‘I believe it is not those who support assisted dying but those who oppose it who have a moral case to answer.’ He quotes, at length, the daughter of Dr Ann McPherson, whose protracted death from cancer — despite palliative care — makes painful reading. Her mother, a supporter of assisted dying, became tolerant of morphine and endured three weeks of torture. ‘There was no Mum; just a wounded animal who needed drips changed.’ ‘It is an honour to care for someone you love, but it no longer felt honourable to try to care for someone who wants to be dead.’ I find that the margins of this essay in my book are already black with ticks and many a sentence is underlined.

Tallis has no difficulty in exposing the sheer nonsense talked by religious groups which, for example, support the idea of a just war while nonetheless believing that it is sinful to ‘take’ a life which is the gift of God, in the case of terminal illness. I should like this lucid essay to be compulsory reading for every imam, rabbi, priest or minister of the Christian gospel before they are ordained. The sheer illogicality of the Catholic Church’s ‘Care not Killing’ is precisely exposed by Tallis, who shows the muddled (and often dishonest) way in which Christian churches conflate euthanasia, assisted dying and assisted suicide. He points out that it is still against the law for medical practitioners even to give advice to terminal patients who wish to be helped to die.

This book will be my companion for life, and I hope that by the time I am on my deathbed, wise words such as Tallis’s will have led to a change in the law, allowing my doctor or my family to do the decent thing.

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