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A Certain Perturbation

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

By Marilynne Robinson
Yale University Press, 2010

When I was a college undergraduate, I took a class with the cognitive philosopher, and subsequently spokesman for the New Atheists, Daniel Dennett. I was at the time oblivious to Dennett’s renown and ill-prepared for the class’s focus of study, which concerned the neurological explanations for consciousness. I liked philosophy but was unused to it without the security blanket of Lite Beer; I knew it mostly from all-nighter symposia in dorm rooms with friends, where the ontogeny of lubricated bull sessions crudely recapitulated the phylogeny of Western thought. Which is to say, philosophy was the abstraction of personal worries, informed and limited by my own cares and embryonic creeds.

Dennett’s class was, on the other hand, professional business, pedagogic rather than dialectic. It took one vital thing for granted: consciousness is a strictly biological phenomenon. This meant that any ideas that were not grounded in the mechanics of evolutionary biology were as obsolete as alchemy, and the introductory sessions disposed of them with equal parts pity and bemusement. We pooh-poohed Descartes, who had suggested that the pineal gland was the conduit between the body and soul; we grinned at Edgar Allen Poe’s lack of prescience when he contended that no machine could possibly beat a human at chess; we laughed at anatomical charts that accounted for Aristotle’s notion that sperm contained pre-formed homunculi. And then, with the well-meaning interpretations of the pre-1950s Dark Ages declared obsolete, we moved on to learn the newly revealed truths of consciousness and being.

In fairness, Dennett was probably trying to spice up his technical material with a little light, nerdy humor. But it was off-putting to find the wisdom of the sages disregarded inside of ninety minutes with the help of an overhead projector and a laser pointer. I felt a contradiction well beyond the scope of Dennett’s syllabus. I was being introduced to The Idiot, “The Waste Land,” Hamlet, and the Book of Ecclesiastes; I was forging lifelong friendships, falling in love, and making love. Being told that belief in the soul was a longstanding delusion tantamount to a belief in fairies made Dennett’s philosophy parochial and nearly irrelevant. The things I was taught in that class seemed true, but insignificantly so.

This cleavage between what we think and feel and what specialists like Dennett tell us is true is the focus of Marilynne Robinson’s new work of nonfiction, Absence of Mind. Robinson makes the point early on that just because the soul is not a thing we can see on a CAT scan doesn’t mean we can dismiss it as a vestige from a superstitious time:

If “mind” and “soul” are not entities in their own right, they are at least terms that have been found useful for describing aspects of the expression and self-experience of our very complex nervous system.

Robinson’s not going to win inclusion in Bartlett’s with that sentence, and I’ll come back to the prose soon, but the salient idea here is that, in negating the concept of the soul, Dennett and his band have left us bereft of a metaphor for the inner life.

To the science popularizers of the day, any talk of inner lives is inherently suspect. Many familiar names from the polemical God Debates can be found in Absence of Mind, but it’s interesting that Robinson’s quarry is less the recent spate of atheist (or “anti-theist”) manifestos than older and more established works of popular science, such as Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

Her objection, she insists, is not with atheism but with bad science, especially those efforts to leap ahead of existing knowledge and speculate on the causes of human behavior (Robinson’s coinage for this is “parascience”). As in Dennett’s philosophy class, this science operates from two crucial a priori assumptions: there is no divine power responsible for our existence and every aspect of human experience can be explicated by neuroscience, genetics, or some other field of empirical inquiry.

These assumptions would be fair enough if made with what zoologist Desmond Morris called the “attitude of humility that is becoming to proper scientific investigation.” But as Robinson stresses, the belief that science eventually will explain everything has led popular writers to act as though it already has explained everything. The result is the shoddiest sort of speculation and corner-cutting, and the most satisfyingly persuasive parts of Absence of Mind come when Robinson punches holes through the complacent assertions of some recent bestsellers.

These bestsellers rely, like the Bible, on instructive anecdotes, and a favorite anecdote is that of Phineas Gage, who in 1848 had his brain pierced by an iron rod after a railroad explosion. Gage’s personality was fabled to have altered in essential ways following the accident, and this has been taken as proof that our character is contained in certain segments of the brain. Robinson’s point-by-point demolition of the overreaching certitudes drawn from this story is immensely effective – she shows, in essence, that what we know about Gage, whose accident was over 150 years ago and was only spottily documented, is based on lore, not evidence. It is typical of these books, Robinson writes, that an event which can support no more than intriguing hypotheses is made to seem like irrefutable proof. Similarly, Richard Dawkins and others will talk of genes and memes in the same sentence as though both share an equal reality, despite the fact that the former are physically verifiable and the latter are purely theoretical constructs that have never been mapped with any credibility.

But it’s the other assumption – that there is no God – that bothers Robinson even more, because it then compels the popularizers to account for the annoying persistence of faith in a world full of telescopes and microscopes. Those who do so must deal with two uncomfortably coexisting statements: God does not exist; nearly everyone believes that God exists. One response to this apparent contradiction has been to say, There’s something going on here that we don’t understand. The other response has been, Nearly everyone is deluding themselves. You need not be on the front lines of the God Debates to know which explanation Robinson’s opponents prefer.

The bulk of Absence of Mind, then, is a précis on the ways that 20th century intellectuals have embraced mass delusion as the explanation for the stubborn continuation of faith in the unprovable, a modern tendency Robinson calls a “polemic against the mind.” The meme theory, for instance, by submitting behavioral patterns to a mathematical equation, emphasizes the idea that “our minds are not our own.” Freud, although he pioneered a branch of study deeply at odds with evolutionary biology, also consistently asserted that, in Robinson’s paraphrase, “the mind is not to be trusted.”

The tie that binds such different worldviews, she writes, is the assumption that “we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And – an important corollary – certain well-qualified others do know them.” As an antidote to this sort of overreaching arrogance, Robinson offers up William James, who took the position that “unknowability is the first thing about reality that must be acknowledged” – a position, Robinson adds, that is actually more scientific than that of the popularizers because it “accords uncannily well with the idea of indeterminacy in modern physics.”

Marilynne Robinson talking with students after a Dwight H. Terry lecture;
©Yale Daily News

This is about as far as Robinson is willing to go in Absence of Mind, although there are moments when we see her edging toward more personal ground. For a half a page she hints at her religious belief that human nature is not the product of accident but design – and then leaves that thought behind. At moments in the chapter “The Strange History of Altruism” we can feel her working up to a passionate cri de coeur against the insistence that generosity is always, at heart, based on self-interested survival instincts – and then the peroration is put aside. Most temptingly, Robinson at times seems on the verge of making a defense of the mind from the perspective of a creative artist: what the New Atheists call delusions seems from that point of view to be only a pejorative label for the imagination, and to speak of someone freed from the “spell” of so-called delusions is to evoke a creature that has no relationship to human beings. But this thought, too, is left unfinished.

The frustrating impediment to these more deeply felt explorations brings us to the question of Robinson’s intended audience, and that in turn leads us back to the prose. Absence of Mind originated as a series of lectures at Yale University, and I wonder how many staunch believers had their faith in God shaken as hours of colorless, jargon-heavy oratory filled the auditorium. Here, for example, is a doozy of a sentence from the early pages, when Robinson is establishing her keynote, that modern discontents are related to our inability to trust our own beliefs and experiences. She writes,

Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt life of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts.

When I read this and other passages like it, I experienced the same emotional disjunction I felt in Dennett’s philosophy class. On one hand, Robinson is talking about the sacred importance of our private selves, and encouraging readers to cultivate a sensitivity to their own intuitions and deep-rooted affinities. And on the other hand, she’s using language that may as well have been produced by a machine for all the human warmth it sheds.

Nearly all of Absence of Mind is stunted by its refusal to venture outside the cloister of academia. What Robinson needs for her writing desk is a variation on the swear jar, into which she has to put twenty dollars each time she uses a word like “hermeneutics” or “monism.” Her designation “parascience,” for instance, seems to speak for itself, but see if you can make anything of the definition she appends to it:

By this phrase [parascientific literature] I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions.

You think? This is argument that makes itself unassailable by virtue of being unreadable. Robinson’s previous works of nonfiction, Mother Tongue (1989) and The Death of Adam (1998), concern modern thought and have their turgid stretches as well, but far more often they display a sublimely sharp-tongued quotability. These are chiding, rousing works injected with the vigor of a humanist railing against cant and injustice. Absence of Mind, in contrast, gives the impression of a crafty scholar staking out arcane intellectual ground in order to score points off of her opponents.

This conclusion is discouraging. Having taken the academic coign of vantage, Robinson has gotten in some successful shots at Sigmund Freud and Stephen Pinker. But though I think the points she makes are true, they are also insignificant. Posterity will know Robinson as a novelist who wrote (so far) three beautiful works of fiction, one of them a masterpiece. I admire her deeply, and when I sit at her feet, I do so in the hope of wisdom, not in order to hear her stick it to Richard Dawkins.

The most short-sighted thing about Absence of Mind, it seems to me, is its unwillingness to consider why the genre of science popularizations have rapidly proliferated. At no point does Robinson explore what is evident to any neutral observer of these debates: that scientific overreach is directly connected to religious intransigence. It’s one thing to complain that popularizers have gone too far in trying to replace religious verities with scientific theorems, but Robinson must recognize that these writers are simply filling a vacuum that has been created by religion’s incompetence in adapting itself to basic scientific discoveries. E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also written such marvelous works of ecology and biology as The Diversity of Life and The Ancestor’s Tale, and yet most religious leaders, in their zeal, toss these books out with the bathwater – or rather, the books are the bathwater, despite being impeccably grounded in research and field work. I agree that thinkers look foolish when they claim to know that the soul is no more than a debunked myth; but when those who argue for the idea of the soul also argue, in same way, that the universe is six thousand years old, the diagnosis of mass delusion can hardly come as a surprise.

Instead of any kind of long view, we get in Absence of Mind a great deal of dissertation-like infighting, and the irony is that, to read this book about the importance of contemplation and inwardness, you have to suppress your own individuality, as you do for manuals and textbooks. In her introduction, Robinson relates having read to a class from “The American Scholar,” in which Emerson writes, “He … learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” “These words caused a certain perturbation,” Robinson says, implying that her students were too distrusting of their own minds to find any reward in searching through them. But it strikes me that Robinson may once again be purblind in this conclusion. Perhaps her students felt perturbed because Emerson had eloquently reminded them of a profound truth – and perhaps their reaction was not so wholly different from that of the students of the 1830s, to whom Emerson gave his counsel.

Certainly I read Marilynne Robinson’s foray into the amazingly unfruitful God Debates with the hopes of a little perturbation. Robinson complains that science writers couch their shaky conclusions in ex cathedra pronouncements that the layperson can only take on faith; but by adopting the terminology of the textbook, she’s doing the exact same thing. Her book speaks directly to a handful of philosophy professors. Everyone else can sit quietly and take notes.

Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters Monthly. His book reviews have also appeared in Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, The Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The New York Press, among other places. He lives in New York.