05 June 2010

Marilynne Robinson: The Absence of Mind

The Guardian online has published an edited extract from Marilynne Robinson's new book, The Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, based on talks she gave at Yale in 2009 as holder of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship.

Robinson, whose name I had not previously known, is an American novelist and writer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel Gilead and the UK's Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel Home. The Guardian essay is entitled "Can science solve life's mysteries?" I nearly didn't read the essay, based on the extract at 3quarksdaily that led me to it. That extract uses (or seems to use) a version of a popular (to me) red-herring argument, often used by defenders of supernatural religion, namely that materialists (although she doesn't use this word) commit the fallacy of assuming the proof of a negative in claiming that mind is "only" the activity of the brain. Thus the extract led me to believe (falsely, I now think) that Robinson's essay was one of those run-of-the-mill apologetics for God or the soul, which seem to me seldom if ever interesting enough to be worth reading.

But the essay is much much richer than that, and seems to me, at least on a first reading, to say instead, among many other things, that the problem with the materialist position (as she presents it) is not the claim that the mind is a product of the brain, but rather that the mind is only the  product of the brain. And the problem with this "only" is not that the mind has some existence apart from the brain (it does not appear that she is making this claim) but rather that the "only" is imprudently dismissive, for the brain is not a sufficient explanation of the mind.

This is a position with which I have much sympathy. I sometimes call myself, with my habitual tongue-in-cheek seriousness, a "spiritual atheist." I have been an active member of Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in West Roxbury, Mass since 2005, and I am currently a member of the Music & Worship Committee (which obviously doesn't forbid atheists from being members).  I gave a short talk about my atheism in a service there in 2006, and since that time, I've co-led services on Darwin (in commemoration of his 200th birthday) and on the notion of congregation as "community"; and this past November I led a service (in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species) on the evolution of religion. (I hope to make my talks for these services available online soon.)  If I were forced to give an "elevator speech" explaining "spiritual atheism," I would probably say something to the effect that I am searching for a way to maintain those social, psychological, and cultural functions of religion that may (and I stress the tentativeness) help account for its evolution, and which may (regardless of whether this explanation is true) be crucial to our survival as a species—but absent the supernatural doctrine or belief of any kind.

I am not a proselytizing atheist in the mold of the so-called "New Atheists." I am an atheist because this is simply the way the world seems to me to be. The notion of "God" seems to me not to be coherent: the word itself seems to be a nearly infinitely malleable marker for—well, it's not at all clear what it is a marker for, because of it's very malleability, and that's the problem: it's not clear that it has a denotation.  Perhaps it serves a function as a word (are there others?) that has only connotation. The word "supernatural" likewise seems incoherent in a rather similar way: for what can we possibly imagine to exist that is not natural? If any kind of God exists, then surely that God is a being, and as such, is part of what exists (that is, "the universe"), and thus "natural."

On a first reading, Robinson's essay seems to me to approach many of these same issues in an intellectually dense and profound, yet elegant way. As I finished my first reading, it struck me as a wonderful sermon for the spiritual non-believer, a sermon I would deliver to the Theodore Parker congregation, if I were able to write great sermons.  It is erudite in the best possible way, engaging with the ideas not only of Wilson and Pinker, but also Descartes, Comte, and Freud, among others, and showing (for a humanist) an impressively wide grasp of modern science.

However, I won't know whether I actually think that the essay is "great," in the sense of being a work to which it will be worth repeatedly returning, until I read it again and begin to argue with it. But it seems to me today to be something that all of my Unitarian friends (many of whom are subscribed to this blog) and perhaps many of my other readers will want to read.

It is not an essay that lends itself to easy summary, which is perhaps a defining characteristic of great essays. Rather than attempting to summarize the unsummarizable, here are a few quotes that I hope will give some hint of of the richness of thought in the essay. The essay begins:
It will be a great day in the history of science if we sometime discover a damp shadow elsewhere in the universe where a fungus has sprouted. The mere fossil trace of life in its simplest form would be the crowning achievement of generations of brilliant and diligent labour. And here we are, a gaudy efflorescence of consciousness, staggeringly improbable in light of everything we know about the reality that contains us. There are physicists and philosophers who would correct me. They would say, if there are an infinite number of universes, as in theory there could be, then creatures like us would be very likely to emerge at some time in one of them. But to say this is only to state the fact of our improbability in other terms.

Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word "I" and to mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and thought.
Other extracts:
If complex life is the marvel we all say it is, quite possibly unique to this planet, then meat is, so to speak, that marvel in its incarnate form...

If the mind is the activity of the brain, this means only that the brain is capable of such lofty and astonishing things that their expression has been given the names mind, and soul, and spirit...

Those who claim to dismiss the mind/body dichotomy actually perpetuate it when they exclude the mind's self-awareness from among the data of human nature...

The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations. As a notable example, no one expected to find that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that the rate of its acceleration is accelerating. It is a tribute to the brilliance of science that we can know such things. And it is also an illustration of the fact that science does not foreclose possibility, including discoveries that overturn very fundamental assumptions, and that it is not a final statement about reality but a highly fruitful mode of inquiry into it....

We may never know why gravity is so much weaker than, in theory, it should be, or know if we are only one among any number of actual and potential universes. But every real question is fruitful, as the history of human thought so clearly demonstrates.
 And "fruitful" is by no means a synonym for "soluble". What is man? One answer on offer is, An  organism whose haunting questions perhaps ought not to be meaningful to the organ that generates them, lacking as it is in any means of "solving" them. Another answer might be, It is still too soon to tell. We might be the creature who brings life on this planet to an end, and we might be the creature who awakens to the privileges that inhere in our nature – selfhood, consciousness, even our biologically anomalous craving for "the truth" – and enjoys and enhances them. Mysteriously, neither possibility precludes the other. Our nature will describe itself as we respond to new circumstances in a world that changes continuously. So long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already done so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question.
I wish I'd written that—and I think there's no more profound compliment one writer can give another.

When I went to the Minuteman Library site today to request Absence of Mind, I was informed that there were "16 holds on first copy returned of 3 copies." This in itself is perhaps indicative of a deep need among many to engage with these profound but crucial questions. 

Now there are 17 holds, and the book is also on my Amazon Wishlist. In the meantime, today I checked out of the Newton Library Robinson's 1998 collection The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.  If I find any of the essays in it at all as engaging as Robinson's essay in the Guardian, I will write about them here.

Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

  1. This quote from the post seems very familiar to me:

    The notion of "God" seems to me not to be coherent: the word itself seems to be a nearly infinitely malleable marker for—well, it's not at all clear what it is a marker for, because of it's very malleability, and that's the problem: it's not clear that it has a denotation.