Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence Hardcover – 1 Feb 2010
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"'An amazing book about the human head, I've never seen anything like it... A very heady, heady experience... Thrilling' Lynne Truss, Sunday Times 'Fascinating... A wonderful treasury of stupefying facts, a sort of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" compendium... This is a wonderful book.' Michael Simkins, Mail On Sunday 'The pages burst with an entertaining mixture of intriguing facts and thought-provoking observations.' Andrew Robinson, New Scientist"
The ability of the human index finger to point is truly unique in the animal world. In Michaelangelo's Finger Raymond Tallis shows just how central this seemingly insignificant difference has been in determining the amazing evolutionary pathway of the human being.See all Product description
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Tallis' style is captivating; at one point employing a reverent accent for his subject matter, at another point making amusing puns. More than any other philosopher I have read he infects the reader with his own passion and humour. And equally impressive is his marshalling of knowledge; without straying towards the inaccessible or pretentious he can cite an array of authors to reinforce his arguments. Having previously wondered if there was any parallel between Popper's World 3 (the world of human knowledge) and what Tallis' often calls the community of minds I was particularly intrigued by his noncommittal use of Popperian Cosmology.
While the whole of the book is noteworthy the last chapter and, more precisely, the last section of the last chapter, is astonishing. It is amongst the best example of Tallis' writing. It is profound without loosing relevance, clarity or specificity. Here he describes the origins of the divine in human awareness transcending the particular. This all encompassing transcending experience is shown to be temporally bordered by mortality and arising from, only to escape, biological origins. I would contend that it is a book impossible to close without feeling awestricken.
That "pointing is both universal in, and unique to, humans should alone make it worthy of study." This will strike some as speciesist, although Tallis would deny such a charge and the evidence is on his side. As a good Darwinian atheist he celebrates our connection to all living creatures and the fact that we evolved and were not made. He also makes a strong case for a clear line between human and non-human animals and explores how, "alone of all living creatures, we express the world we live in".
Pointing is not just a physical arrangement of the limbs: there has to be the right kind of mental activity going on as well. Those dog lovers who think Fido can point should try pointing something out and see if he understands what they're doing. Chances are, he'll look at you, adoringly, but won't follow your gaze or the axis created by your finger and arm. Dogs, unlike humans, cannot adopt another's viewpoint and look at the world through another's eyes, which is what true pointing requires. Tallis is a puckish intellectual and he begins chapter three (which asks the question, "Do Animals Get the Point?") with a frank admission: "The previous chapters may have made some readers cross." (He continues in playful mood with a section concerning "the dog B" - a much-loved family dog that nevertheless lacked the "existential intuition" of humans, and so most definitely did not get the point.) In acknowledging the effect his words may have had on our psychological state and in imagining how we might be feeling, he is of course demonstrating the very thing he is writing about: our ability to go beyond what is immediately presented to our senses and to read the mind of another person.
"I shall argue that this voluntary displacement of the human subject from the material centre of his world is a first step in the growth of an important intuition: that one is part of something greater than one's self and greater than the parish uncovered by one's sense experience".
The significance of this, especially for humanists sick of being slandered as "less than human", is that it begins to reclaim ground so long occupied by religion. The nineteenth-century bishop of St Asaph, William Beveridge, is typical in contrasting the evidence of the senses (which can at best provide us with "the garish and seeming beauty of the world's vanities") with what is presented to the "eye of faith" - "the presence of what is absent". A similar phrase ("the presence of the absent") is used by Tallis in an entirely secular sense. He too thinks that we humans go "beyond mere sentience" but for him it is the "transcendence of ordinary perception" that enriches our lives and not the transcendent supernatural "realities" of religion. Daily, and in countless ordinary ways, when we perceive an object "we experience something that goes beyond what is currently appearing to us".
Getting back to pointing, the act itself is like a sign, but pointing involves more than acting like a fingerpost: it requires "an explicit awareness of one's own body and an explicit awareness of another's mind". That which is pointed to is "meant to be meant". With pointing "we move from the indexical to that deindexicalized realm in which we spend most of our conscious existence, related... to things we cannot see but can envisage." This is where it gets challenging for a general reader like myself, unfamiliar with the philosophy of language. As a regular user of language, however, I was intrigued and willing to stick with the argument. And as an atheist unwilling to accept the tired old dualism pitting the "physical" against the "spiritual", here was a sensible approach that promised meaning rather than mumbo jumbo. Our "human world has two profoundly different faces: that of a collection of material objects and that of an ocean of collectivized awareness gathered up in language."
Moving beyond our current sensory horizon involves making this crucial transition from indexical to deindexicalized awareness. This, for Tallis, is the only transcendence worth considering, and it's what allows us to go beyond our own individual resources to partake "of the power of all humanity". While Raymond Tallis may not quite have absorbed the whole of human knowledge, he's certainly ahead of many of us. This book took me on a journey of intellectual discovery and also told me something about how that journey is made possible.