THE new book Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience by Philosophy Now columnist and polymath Raymond Tallis is an epic work both in length and ambition.
At its heart is a heroic attempt to rescue human or lived time from the clutches of science in which tensed time has no place and time itself is attenuated to point where it almost vanishes down the time/space continuum. But it is much, much more than that encompassing as it does consciousness, language, the theory of knowledge, causation and freewill. It is one of the most original and majestic works of philosophy I have read for a very long time. It is a rollercoaster of the intellect and a major reading commitment, although nothing compared with the decades it has taken Tallis to complete after several false starts.
Perhaps the most astonishing work is not about time itself but starts when he draws a distinction between two ways of imagining the universe. The first sees the universe as an unfolding, unindividuated continuum without interruption or discrete events; the second is one in which ‘there are discrete causes, acting locally (unlike laws) that bring about discrete effects (that have a local scope)’. In the first there is no viewpoint, intentionality or consciousness; the second contains the world of causation which is ‘broken up into localities by a point of view’.
He adds: “The point of view, sustained by an embodied subject, places an interruption in the seamless unfolding of the universe.” And it is the pre-conscious universe that ‘physics appears to aspire to recover in its ‘view-from-nowhere’ theory of everything.
It should be said that this bombshell lands on page 523 after much analysis of tensed time – the past, present and future. Intentionality or ‘aboutness’, the sense in which sentient beings have a point-of-view, especially humans, is key to everything. In fact, intentionality, which he says has no place in the purely material world, has to do an awful lot of heavy lifting. Not only does it introduce causality and tensed time into the universe, it is also responsible for free action or agency – or at least to identify and use causality for our own ends. This is because it enables humans to transcend cause and effect. His most persuasive argument for this is that future events can act as causal pull in a way that cannot happen in the material world. For example, if I have set a date for an appointment it is that future event that acts as a cause. Tallis argues that it is the ‘intentionality of consciousness that prizes open a material world that might seem otherwise causally closed…and creates the possibility of an outside from which (conscious) agents may act’. But he insists that that free action – with all the caveats on its limitations – still acts within the causation of the material world. “It is in this world that events are identified as causes and their law-governed relations with effects noted so that they can be exploited as means to bring about certain ends.” This is heady stuff – it is also the point at which I began to feel a certain intellectual queasiness as his position seemed to become increasingly unstable.
The problem is that Tallis is keen not to be drawn into the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant in his magnum opus The Critique of Pure Reason. So, intentionality has to be the product of the ‘embedded subject’. At the same time, it cannot be reduced to the pure materiality of the brain because that would eliminate the free agent that he seeks (he is so keen in fact that he gives short shrift to a particular kind of neuro-philosophy called Eliminative Materialism which predicts that a fully mature neuroscience will eliminate our Folk Psychology of propositional attitudes. He deploys a well-known argument against this position, which Eliminative Materialists like Paul Churchland have answered, without referencing this counter). He attempts to solve this problem by arguing that while intentionality ‘picks out the events that are causally related’ it does not ‘determine the nature of that relationship’.
Nevertheless, Tallis comes very close to slipping into idealism, constantly flirts with it and is acutely aware of the danger. He says: “This may seem close to philosophical idealism, or even a confusion of the epistemic giveness of the universe with its constitutive properties. This suspicion may be well-founded.” And he concedes that neither he, nor anybody else for that matter, has solved the problem of the place of the embodied mind in a mindless universe.
The problem, it seems to me, is how to square the notion of an embedded consciousness that cannot be reduced to the brain. If it cannot be reduced to the brain, what exactly is its ontology? Does it at some point separate from the brain in its immateriality, in which case you have the problem of how an immaterial epiphenomenon acts on the material world. And then you drift into the problems associated with dualism and idealism. For what it’s worth, my thinking about this situation is that while Tallis declares that intentionality has no place in the material world, there is at least one lump of matter – the brain – that has evolved to create intentionality. The solution may be that the brain, as some neuroscientists now believe, never evolved to perceive reality but to create models of reality from the senses and that consciousness, intentionality, aboutness, redness and qualia in general are a part of these constructs, including our ‘selves’. If this is true then it may be possible to reduce them to the brain, indeed it would be difficult to know where else they reside. Certainly, although of course I have thoughts and see redness in my ‘mind’s eye,’ I have never felt them to be anything other than a function of the brain and not in any sense existing outside of it. The exact ontology of these phenomena remains a mystery and one that will, no doubt, continue to engage philosophers, but for my part I believe that the materialist approach is compatible with Tallis’s attractive (to me at least!) idea that it was the irruption of consciousness and intentionality that led to tensed time, causality and our ability to transcend the latter while using it to enable agency.
Of Time and Lamentation is thrilling and, well, worth spending some time – tensed or otherwise – reading.