I first became familiar with Raymond Tallis a few months ago, when I was exploring my fury at post-Saussurean thinkers such as Lacan and Derrida. I saw a reference somewhere to a book called Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory. After finding a copy – hard to find at a reasonable price even online – I bought it without review primarily because such engaged critiques (as opposed to off-handed dismissals) of postmodernism are rare.
I was delighted to find that Tallis seemed to the rare sort of academic, much less academic literary theorist, who is at the same time a superb writer and careful thinker, with a serious grasp of both literature and philosophy (analytical and continental).
Recently I was further surprised to find out that Tallis is not in fact a humanities professor but a doctor and researcher in gerontology, specifically the neurology of old age. His publications include “The Clinical Neurology of Old Age,” “Brocklehurst’s Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology,” “Epilepsy in Elderly People,” “Increasing Longevity,” and “Restoring Neurological Function.”
The plot thickens: Tallis is not merely a marauding scientist gone to war with the worst specimens of the humanities, a la Alan Sokal. As much as he is concerned with challenging obfuscatory postmodernism, Tallis is just as concerned with challenging ill-informed philosophical speculations based on neuroscience, materialist conceptions of mind, what he calls “Darwinitis” (as in evolutionary psychology), and scientism generally. His books on such topics include “Why the Mind is Not a Computer,” “The Explicit Animal: A Defense of Human Consciousness,” “Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence.” Lest we assume that there are crypto-religious motivations here (since he obviously can’t be attacked as fuzzy and anti-science), Tallis also argues for atheism and is not, to use his own words, “a creationist nutter” or opponent of evolutionary theory.
Finally, visiting his website ((http://www.raymondtallis.com) and unfamiliar with his work, one might suspect that Tallis is some sort of self-promoting, dabbling savant. But as I think I’ve made clear, that’s simply not the case. And I’m left— even as I’m gratified by the fact that I share with him a similar set of varied preoccupations—to envy his polymathy: the same guy had the time to write both “The Cortical Topography of Swallowing Motor Function in Man” and “The Enduring Significance of Parmenides.” And just to rub salt in the wound: "Tom McAlindon, professor emeritus of literary theory at the University of Hull, says that "if he'd concentrated solely on poems he'd be a leading poet in England today"." (See The Guardian's 2006 profile on him, The Ardent Atheist).
Tallis is also an entertaining debater. In the video above he argues for atheism at a debate hosted by the Birbeck Philosophy Society. His rebuttal to the pro-theism argument of his (worthy) interlocutor begins at 25:25. Interestingly, he is at pains to distinguish good and bad reasons for atheism. Bad reasons, typically advanced by “new atheists,” include:
- Lack of empirical evidence (there are non-empirical forms of evidence, and people do not agree on what constitutes evidence in this case).
- The historical evils engaged in by religious institutions and their members (these evils are not relevant to the existence of God and even if they were, it could never be shown whether the effect of religion on human behavior is a net loss or a net gain -- you can’t run course of history twice, once with religion and once without).
But Tallis is not an agnostic. According to him, there are good reasons to be an atheist. It’s just that they are logical, not empirical, and come down to the fact that the notion of God is self-contradictory. The transcendent God cannot be squared with the personal God; God’s “being” with the fact that he was not brought into being; his intelligence with the fact that he has nothing in common with intelligent beings in the world. And so on. In general, he is not even thinkable as a determinate and self-consistent entity, and so need not be conceded even as a possibility by the would-be agnostic. I’m not sure that this argument works, but it’s a line of thought that deserves serious consideration.
As the debate goes on, Tallis will argue that morality does not require God. But that does not—not!—mean we can derive an ought from an empirical is, or fall into the trap of “Darwinitis,” and the illusion that evolution is going to somehow supply us with a warrant for our values. He refers rather to Fichte and the transcendental grounds of objective morality in the recognition of the consciousness of the other (a pre-Hegelian elaboration on Kant, and it is worth noting here that Kant does not require God to establish morality either, yet does not resort to an appeal to empirical fact). One audience member nicely sums up his conception of human beings as involving a “spark without the divine.”
So while Tallis thinks the world—including both consciousness and matter—are fundamentally mysterious, he is "not obliged to imprisonment in a thrilling intuition of transcendent possibility arising out of my sense of the unknown, in a ragbag of stale, confused, contradictory, and often but not always malign beliefs, culminating in inconceivable logical possibilities.” Despite the fact that this debate still leaves me an agnostic, that is very nicely put.
By: Wes Alwan