Before I explain why this book didn’t quite come up to my expectations of Bryan Magee, let me express my gratitude of a lifetime to him. He’s been a guide and an inspiration since the 1970s, and I’ve had the good fortune of meeting him a couple of times, including a journey all the way from Oxford – where we’d been at a conference – to London in one of those tiny railways compartments that harked back to the age of steam. There were only the two of us and I got almost drunk on his wisdom and kindness (I’m a decade younger than him).
In some respects, Ultimate Questions scores 100% in my eyes. Magee has no place for God in explaining our existence, saying, in effect, that the moment you bring even a little religion into philosophy, you abdicate, you throw your hands in the air and say you’ve resigned from the chess game. He is also optimistic about the ability of scientists to solve some of the puzzles that remain. The book’s English is also, often, wonderful, coming close to poetry in places. Furthermore, an autobiographical chapter that at first suggests indulgence redeems itself with the joy of being alive that has enriched his long life in ideas, literature, music, friendship, love, nature.
Having admitted to these attributes that made this book a thoroughly enjoyable read for me, may I, with regret, say also why I’m disappointed. When he says that he doesn’t know if we have souls or not, he implies a strong supernatural element at our very core. To me, it’s clear that consciousness develops only gradually in us, taking at least a couple of years before the wonderful ‘I’ dawns upon the toddler. In other words, consciousness develops with the developing brain in the world and will disappear from the world the moment the molecules in our neurons fall apart on no-longer receiving oxygenated blood from the heart. To say, or imply, that there might be a consciousness or ‘soul’ that could exist outside the body is unacceptable. ‘Soul’, by the way, comes with as much religious baggage as does ‘God’. We know what a fellow empiricist philosopher such as Bertrand Russell or a Humanist biologist such as Julian Huxley would have thought of any such agnosticism.
More fundamentally, Mr Magee says that we can ever know very little because of the limitations of both language and our senses. On the former I would say that he is himself not doing too badly. He has conveyed tons of precise thought to his readers for decades through a highly developed language. On the latter, the dazzling ability of our eyes and the astonishing power of our brains alone suggest again that natural selection has had a long time to achieve for us a nearly-full – I’m tempted to say miraculously full – image of the world around us. Could what we see in a colourful meadow in bright sunshine really be improved?
Mr Magee is also disparaging of what the scientists have achieved in the past three centuries of precise instruments, advanced mathematics and super-fast computers. By saying that we still know ‘very little’ and that we shall go on discovering enormous numbers of new wonders, he implies that there will be a regular succession of Einsteins and Bohrs in the millions of years that he expects to be the future of humanity. But the evidence suggests the opposite. For a whole century now, equally brilliant scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have struggled to come up with a theory that combines relativity and quantum mechanics and they have failed. Yes, with the aid of supercomputers and telescopes in space, we have proved the existence of black holes – as required by relativity – and pushed back the boundary of the visible universe, but these are only details. I believe there won’t be many more breakthroughs. Even the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere would not revolutionise the world for me. We already know what wonders Darwinian natural selection can lead to given the combination of a mild climate and a billion years of stability. Only one mystery may evade us for ever, and that is the presence of things instead of absolute nothingness (There are a few pages on this subject in my Consolations of Autumn: Sages in Hard Times, London 2015).
To sum up, Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions is a wonderfully stimulating book, beautifully written, full of information and insight, even beauty. But in places, it lacks philosophical rigour and an up-to-date grasp of physics and biology. For the latter reason, I will give it only four stars out of five. Despite this meanness on my part, though, I remain hopeful that, because of his love of life and conversation, my old guide and master will accept an invitation to come to lunch with me in our beloved central London soon. Hazhir Teimourian, March 2016.
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- Peter Cave on my review of Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions
- Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions, Princeton University Press, 2016.
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