Physician, philosopher, author, poet and Patron of Humanists UK
I am a humanist and see my work as a doctor and as a philosopher as respectively an expression of, and as setting out the case for, my humanist convictions.
Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor at the University of Oxford and St Thomas’s Hospital, qualifying in 1970. Between 1987 and 2006 he was Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and a consultant physician in Health Care of the Elderly in Salford. On BBC R4’s “Desert Island Discs” in 2007 he described his specialism in the care of elderly patients as an aspect of “unpacking the miracle of everyday life”.
His national roles have included: Consultant Advisor in Health Care of the Elderly to the Chief Medical Officer; a key part in developing National Service Framework for Older People, in particular the standard on stroke; membership of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence Appraisal Committee; Chairman of the Royal College of Physicians Committee on Ethics in Medicine; Chairman of the committee reviewing ethics support for front-line clinicians; and membership of the working party producing a seminal report “Doctors in Society, Medical Professionalism in a Changing World” (2005). On BBC R4’s “Desert Island Discs” in 2007, he described how he changed his mind and came to support assisted dying for the terminally ill:
“I’m strongly in favour of assisted dying,” he later explained to The Independent (11/4/08), “because I don’t want a bishop committed to medieval beliefs and ill-thought out ideas telling me how long I should suffer before I die.”
See also “Why I changed my mind on assisted dying”, first published in The Times, 27 October 2009.
And on human-animal embryos, he has said:
Cardinal [Keith] O’Brien doesn’t understand that the hybrids involved contain less human tissue than human embryos we use at the moment. A cluster of cells at a few days is not a person. The talk of ‘Frankenstein’ experiments is ill-informed, raising the spectre of something that has the front end of a bishop and the back end of a sheep, which is not on the cards at all.
When asked whether he despaired in the face of an “epidemic of irrationality” his response was, “Not particularly, because at least the epidemic takes place against a background of rationality…”
He has received many awards for his work in medicine: in 2000 he was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in recognition of his contribution to medical research; in 2002 he was awarded the Dhole Eddlestone Prize for his contribution to the medical literature on elderly people; and in 2006 received the Founders Medal of the British Geriatrics Society. In July 2007, he received the Lord Cohen Gold Medal for Research into Ageing. In March 2006, he became a full-time writer, though he remains Visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, University of London.
He has published fiction, three volumes of poetry, and over a dozen books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory, the nature of art and cultural criticism. Together, these books offer a critique of current predominant intellectual trends and an alternative understanding of human consciousness, the nature of language and of what it is to be a human being. For this work, he has been awarded two honorary degrees: DLItt (Hon Causa) from the University of Hull in 1997; and LittD (Hon Causa) at the University of Manchester 2002. He has also written 150 or so non-medical articles for the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, London Review of Books, PN Review and Prospect. He makes regular appearances on the festival circuit and lectures widely. In 2004, he was identified inProspect as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the United Kingdom .
His many wide-ranging books include: The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (2nd Edition Macmillan, 1999); Enemies of Hope: a Critique of Contemporary Pessimism (Macmillan, 1999);On the Edge of Certainty and other essays in philosophy (London Macmillan, 1999); The Raymond Tallis Reader(Palgrave, 2000). His major philosophical work to date is a trilogy on human consciousness, published by Edinburgh University Press: The Hand: A philosophical inquiry into human being (2003); I Am: A philosophical inquiry into first person being (2004); and The Knowing Animal: A philosophical inquiry into knowledge and truth (2005). His reflections on the origins, the present state, and the destination of medicine, Hippocratic Oaths, Medicine and its Discontents , was widely praised and provoked extensive debate on the direction British medicine is taking. His most recent books are Hunger(Acumen, 2008) and The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head (Atlantic paperback, 2009). If you his books at Amazon.co.uk through this link, a portion of the sale price will go to Humanists UK.
In February 2007 in his contribution to Enlightening the Future 2024, a Spiked discussion on key challenges facing the next generation, he wrote:
The great challenge for the immediate future is to find a way of thinking about ourselves, about human nature, that does not fall into one of two traps: a supernaturalism that sees our destiny as predetermined by the essence that has been implanted in us by a Creator; and a naturalism that says that we are entirely parts of nature and subject to natural laws. Both ways of thinking lead to a self-fulfilling sense of helplessness which could be very dangerous.
In order to avoid a regression to a militant, proselytising supernaturalism which will hamper the exercise of reason in human affairs, and may result in increasing conflict, we need to underline the evidence that religion is an entirely human institution, though a dysfunctional one. In order to avoid a bleak naturalism, we should acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of humanity in distancing human life from organic existence… Without a clear view of human potential, we shall be inhibited in our attempts to address the many practical difficulties that lie ahead.
On accepting the invitation from Humanists UK to become a Patron of Humanism, he wrote:
I feel deeply honoured and am delighted to accept. I am, of course, a humanist and see my work as a doctor and as a philosopher as respectively an expression of, and as setting out the case for, my humanist convictions. My trilogy on human consciousness – very generously reviewed by A C Grayling, another of your Patrons – which was published by Edinburgh University Press is an attempt to characterise human beings in a way that avoids both supernaturalism and the rather bleak (and erroneous) naturalism of some writers.
In July 2009 he was one of the eminent scientists and educators calling for vital changes to the proposed science curriculum for primary schools in England in a letter to Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
His 2007 “Sense About Science” Lecture, “Longer, Healthier, Happier? Human Needs, Human Values and Science” (You can also listen to the lecture as a podcast on The Times’ website .
Raymond Tallis on the dangers of junk science on The Guardian’s science podcast on March 5 2007. Download it here.