Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions, Princeton University Press, 2016.

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.


About Hazhir Teimourian, MA (Phil.), FRAS, MISST.

'Late love, if kindled, leads to scandal', says an old Persian proverb : Why bother 'to blog’ at 71? I find myself these days – August 2011 – one of the few grizzled old men of Middle East commentary still walking. Even though I was last on regular public view in 1996 – in the pages of The Times – broadcasters still remember. On some particularly hot days – and the past six months of the “Arab Spring” have seen many hot days – the BBC arrange for me to give up to 24 interviews to their innumerable national and local radio stations before breakfast: Every 8 minutes from 6 to 9, one of them is connected to my ISDN line – a miracle of modern technology that turns your desk into a radio studio – and that station gets about five minutes of reflection on the subject that’s making the headlines. This is partly explained by their own correspondents being stretched in the field, and partly by the convenience of the high-quality sound that the ISDN line provides. At short notice, it may prove hard to get a younger, more attractive commentator to a studio. But it must also have something to do with the bonds of friendship that develop across the years between broadcasters and print journalists - even more generally in the whole of the political class and across ideological lines. Until recently, I had on my noticeboard a fading piece of paper bearing an address in the City, in the Barbican. It was written by the late and beloved Brian Redhead – the John Humphries of his day – and it was his home address. One morning in 1990 in the Today office in Broadcasting House, he dragged me to his desk and wrote down the address and asked that I visit him and his wife at home. Unfortunately, I never did. In those days – remember the gassing of the Kurds of Halabja in 1988 by the accursed Saddam or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990? – it sometimes felt as if I lived at the BBC, to the annoyance of the Foreign Desk at The Times. (I was told that Simon Jenkins, at one of his first morning conferences as Editor, had asked: “Who is this man Teimourian who is everywhere described as of The Times”? Later, he told me – or threatened me – that he read every word I wrote, but he was also gracious enough to ask me to have breakfast with him at the fabulous Connaught Hotel, where he lived.) Thus I have accumulated many ‘friends’ I have never met, from Sydney to Calgary, through Dublin, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and New York. Sorry for the digression. Why am I starting what the young call a ‘blog’ in my 8th decade? Well, first of all, let’s see whether it lasts and whether anyone will read it. It’s probably a whim and one last attempt at weaving my way into the company of the glamorous young. I was once their darling and old longings die hard. As the Persians say: Eshqe piri, gar bejonbad / Sar be rosva’i zanad (Late love, if kindled / Leads to scandal.) But assuming it lasts, it won’t do any harm to hear the occasional reflections of a man who has watched the world from the privileged position of the British media superpower for over 40 years. If it becomes embarrassing, hopefully my family and friends will gently let me know that it’s time I spent the remainder of my time in the greenhouse talking to my aubergines. A glimpse of my career and some of my past writings can be found at or . You may also be interested in and . I am on the Council of the former, under Andrew Green, and a non-parliamentary member of the latter. The Cross-Party Group is chaired jointly by Frank Field (Lab.) and Nicholas Soames (Con.) and includes such non-partisan figures as former Archbishop Lord Carey and the former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd. Update (April 2017): for more up-to-date information, please see or my Author Profile on Amazon.
This entry was posted in Bertrand Russell, Bohr, Einstein, Ethics, ISST (Intl. Soc. for the Study of Time), Julian Huxley, language, old age, perception, Philosophy, Reading, science, Time, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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