Thursday, 21 April 2011

Raymond Tallis could/would not explain why the question "What is consciousness?" is important in words a 12 year old could understand

Not wearing his red hat when I saw him.

To be honest, I was not planning to attend this talk because (a) I had to pay and (b) I predicted that the talk would be riddled with incomprehensible jargon and leave me none the wiser.

The night before the talk I caught the tail end of Joan Bakewell's interview of Raymond Tallis.

The skill of Joan Bakewell is that she managed to make Tallis much more interesting on radio by skilled questioning than he really was in the talk I attended.  It actually made me think he did have something worthwhile and profound to say.  Below are my sketchy notes on what I thought was interesting about the interview.

"To have an intellectual love of the universe ... "

"We are altruistic because we want the respect of others ..."

The opposable thumb makes humans create things and mark out a uniquely human domain ...
"The finger of God on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel does not quite touch man. Point of parity, but separation ..."
"The act of pointing is the ground floor of our sense ... "

Difference between science and scientism.  Science is the study of things and how they behave.  Scientism is an ideology that all problems can be solved by science.  
Difference between mind and the brain. Tallis says he doesn't know. I think I do. The mind cannot exist independently of the brain.   While it is necessary to have a brain to have a mind, when we are dead, our rotting brains will be no use to anyone and what we will leave behind is evidence of the workings of our mind, in the memory and perception of others.  The brain is material, the mind is abstract.  The power of ideas ie things we cannot see, touch and hold, has the power to move mountains.  
"Free will not an episodic thing. Network of social obligations and encounters that carry moral judgments. We are therefore culturally conditioned in our moral judgments."

Therefore I went along in anticipation, though I was a little late.  Tallis  was reading from a very long essay full of long sentences, long words that were basically jargon to someone like me who is not learning to talk incomprehensibly, pretentiously (but confidently), in a way that might dispose people think one might just be a student in philosophy.

When he started talking about "intentionality" I asked if one is allowed to ask question because I felt that my ability to understand the talk depended on my understanding of this concept.

His response was no, because that would distract him from his train of thought.  (Distract him from what, I wondered?  If you are just reading from your essay, just go back to reading from where you left off after answering my question, I thought.)  He continued that he was giving the talk on the basis that most people would know a little about the subject and the implication was that it was too bad if I didn't.  Did I have a pen, he asked, rather sarcastically.  Perhaps I would like to write my question down so I can ask him the question after he had finished his talk.  I replied that was not necessary as my question was simply "What is intentionality?"  The essay from which he was reading eventually mentioned intentionality which it it seems is about the "aboutness" of things.  From the sound of things at it is not an easy concept to understand, much less explain, even to someone known by one and all to be a distinguished philosopher such as Tallis.

Words such as dualism, materialism, empiricism, ontology were bandied about.  Interestingly, the word "epistemology" was not mentioned even once.

Whether a slug that was given an electric shock by a man called Cantrell every time it did a particular thing was discussed.  This snail learned not to do the thing that resulted in an electric shock and this, I thought, was evidence enough for me that a slug does indeed have consciousness because it has the ability to feel pain and the desire and capacity to avoid it.  For some reason Tallis mocked this conclusion.  I meant to ask him why he was so confident in his assertion that a slug that responded to pain and changed its behaviour had no consciousness, but did not quite get round to it.  Perhaps Tallis thought he knew  because he was one himself in a former life, and knew that he had no consciousness?  But I did not get round to making this point.  This was not challenged or picked up by anyone either.

More and more convinced than ever that this man was talking arrant but jargon-laden nonsense, I eventually resolved on asking him to explain the mish-mash of words in terms a 12 year old could understand.  "Why are we asking this question and why is it important?" I asked.  (His response was something I did not manage to take down and certainly did not understand or remember, and all I can attest to is that somewhere in that answer Darwin was mentioned.)

In response to my question, Tallis asked if anyone else understood what he was talking about.  A black lady from Kingston Further Education College doing a philosophy course raised her arm.   (I resolved to speak to this lady after the talk to get her to explain to me the meaning of consciousness, but did not get round to doing this before she left, unfortunately.)  He then asked those who did not understand to raise their arm. Mine went up immediately.  As far as I can remember, no one else raised their arms though I did not look behind me, and so it appears that the others appeared to be in the very interesting position of not knowing if they knew or did not know what he was talking about!)

I think it was at this point that I sensed Tallis begin to actively dislike me judging by his comments about 12 year olds that I felt were rather snide but which I cannot now remember.

Someone did however comment that 12 year olds can ask quite difficult and intelligent questions, but Tallis did not respond to this point.

I made the observation that perhaps, if one asked a silly question, one might get a silly answer, which could only have sharpened his dislike of me, I suppose.

It seemed odd to me that he should have been so unwilling to explain any of his theories properly.  If I had to give a talk on something I did not in fact know, then, to avoid embarrassment to myself I would prefer to read from a text and just hope no one would ask me questions I could not answer.

However, if I had a difficult concept to explain and in fact wished to explain it, I would be absolutely delighted if anyone understood enough of what I had said to ask an intelligent question.  If someone said they did not understand and clearly wished to, I like to think I would have felt a professional duty to see to it that they did eventually understand, however irritatingly obtuse they were being, rather than mock them for asking the question and treating them as a nuisance to be disposed of.

I am afraid I did actually say to him that it did not appear to me that he cared  whether or not I understood the question.  At this point he told me how much he resented this remark and referred me to his website at which would show how much he cared.  I have since had a look at it and do not quite see how it proves that he cares about explaining anything in an intelligible way, since a website is primarily for self-promotion inviting others to acknowledge one's genius and ideas.

If he really cared about other people understanding his ideas, then he would have taken more trouble to explain himself in terms a 12 year old could understand, is my considered view.  As it was, I was clearly in the wrong as far as he was concerned for not getting what he was going on about and daring to say this more than once when I received no satisfaction from his incomprehensible and convoluted answers.

This passage from Mein Kampf now comes to mind.  It was of course Hitler's birthday (and it was a trending topic on Twitter yesterday, I noticed) and it seems particularly apt because Tallis did the exact opposite of what follows below.

He [the speaker] will always let himself be borne by the great masses in such a way that instinctively the very words come to his lips that he needs to speak to the hearts of his audience. And if he errs, even in the slightest, he has the living correction before him. As I have said, he can read from the facial expression of his audience whether, firstly, they understand what he is saying, whether, secondly, they can follow the speech as a whole, and to what extent, thirdly, he has convinced them of the soundness of what he has said. If - firstly - he sees that they do not understand him, he will become so primitive and clear in his explanations that even the last member of his audience has to understand him; if he feels - secondly - that they cannot follow him, he will construct his ideas so cautiously and slowly that even the weakest member of the audience is not left behind, and he will - thirdly - if he suspects that they do not seem convinced of the soundness of his argument, repeat it over and over in constantly new examples. He himself will utter their objections, which he senses though unspoken, and go on confuting them and exploding them, until at length even the last group of an opposition, by its very bearing and facial expression, enables him to recognize its capitulation to his arguments.

Of course, Hitler had a mission - which was to spread his message.  Tallis perhaps only had the purpose of making everyone acknowledge that he was a very clever man indeed, and did not perhaps care so much as Hitler did about whether anyone at all knew what he was going on about.

Anyway, after his talk, I asked him if he wouldn't mind repeating to me what was his answer to the hypothetical 12 year old.  I knew Darwin was somewhere in his answer, but would he mind repeating it again?

That was when he let rip and told me that I was quite the rudest questioner he had ever come across.  (I tried to look contrite.)  He said that some of the others understood and known what he was talking about.  (He seemed to be suggesting it was therefore my fault that I did not understand and that it was not his fault that he could not explain it to me in a way that a 12 year old could understand.) In any case, he wanted nothing more to do with me, and walked away.

I then asked the organiser who is a lecturer in philosophy what the question was.  She told me it was "What is consciousness?"  I asked if she knew what consciousness is and why it is important, and she pointedly told me that philosophy was not about answers but the discussion of questions.  I pointed out that it should at least be about being able to answer a question about a question.  In any case, I said I thought that I had a better answer than Tallis to the whole vexed question.  She responded by challenging me to give a talk on the subject.  I readily agreed, so fingers crossed that this lady will actually invite me to speak on this, or will she be so cross with me that she will want nothing at all to do with me for ever and ever, just like Raymond Tallis?

I do wonder though if perhaps the decline of the West is in some way related to the dreadful way Westerners who regard themselves as philosophers so happily waste centuries of their time asking silly questions without ever expecting or demanding a proper answer?

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