“ONE always tends to overpraise a long book simply because one has got through it.” This observation by E. M. Forster must be heeded by any reviewer of a book as long as Raymond Tallis’s latest offering.
But praise it one must, because it succeeds in something that has defeated many before him. He manages to rescue the study of time from the scientists’ arid reductionism, and give it a human face.
Tallis has been described as one of the world’s leading polymaths, with a gift for communicating complex ideas with a lightly worn but persuasive authority. He is not afraid of appealing to mystery as a respectable notion at a time when theories purporting to explain everything in physicalist and mathematical terms are to the fore.
Above all, he never loses sight of his, and his readers’, lived experience as crucial to making sense of what science can describe but not fully explain.
So this book has as one of its main aims that of reclaiming time from the jaws of physics — and so affirming the reality and role of time in our lived experience. As he says, we are “more than cogs in the universal clock, forced to collaborate with the very progress that pushes us towards our own midnight”.
That quotation is significant, because Tallis begins by making it clear that his main motivation here is the attempt to make sense of his own mortality, as someone who is “somewhere between supper-time and midnight in his life’s day”.
The book is in three parts. The first, “Killing Time”, traces attempts by most physicists, and some philosophers, to deny the reality of time and reduce it to a purely psychological phenomenon.
Although running to 250 pages, this section is in fact a masterclass in concision, clarity, and conviction. The root of the problem is that time has been defined as the fourth dimension and so has been spatialised along with the other three. We habitually talk about time as fast or slow, long or short, and moving like an arrow from past to future. It is deemed measurable, and so we concede the field to physicists and mathematicians. His chapter on the development of mechanisms to measure and “clock” time is especially entertaining.
Tallis understands why science and psychology have taken this reductionist approach to time, but he effectively exposes its inadequacies, and so opens a new front in our attempts to penetrate the mysteries of time.
Part two is called “Human Time”, and this clearly signals an emphasis on time as it is lived day by day.
He begins by defending the reality of tensed time against those for whom time can only ever be “now” and not “then”. It is only because we experience time in a tensed way that we, including the physicists themselves, can talk about it at all.
And we experience it as past, present, and future, to which phenomena Tallis devotes the rest of part two. Here “we shall rediscover the time of flesh-and-blood individuals living their lives.” Significantly, after a painstaking forensic examination of human time, he still concludes that it remains an “irreducible mystery”.
For Christians, his chapter on eternity is of particular interest. He believes it to be “a slippery concept”, but with the power to confer meaning on lives lived in time, and the words we use to conceptualise our lives. He marvels at our capacity to conceive a time beyond time — and so a progression from wonder through mystery to faith itself is possible. As Seamus Heaney put it, “a farther shore is reachable from here.”
Finally, in part three, Tallis arrives at what he describes as “the fundamental purpose of this book”. It is to argue that we owe our freedom to being creatures who are at once in time and, by virtue of our explicit awareness of time, also outside of it.
In short, for human freedom to mean anything at all, reductionist denials of time as real, or accounts of time which bypass lived experience, must be resisted. The passing of time may indeed be cause for lamentation, but its transience is a price worth paying for the freedom it confers.
As is the case with polymaths, specialists on all sides will probably challenge Tallis’s credentials. But, in spite of his avowed atheism, it is likely to be theologians who will be most affirming of his approach and conclusions. There is enough here about the mysterious nature of time, and a positive place for eternity in giving meaning to lived experience, to allow for, or even require, some form of theism by way of explanation.
Perhaps only time will tell.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on transience
Agenda Publishing £30
Church Times Bookshop £27