[Since this post is getting linked to a bit, I feel some clarification may be necessary; the larger argument in which Robinson's lecture participates is part of a highly contentious and typically peremptory nature. To diffuse some of the contention and peremptoriness, please read the second update at the end of the post.]
I attended what were the first two of an eventual four lectures given by Marilynne Robinson; her chosen topic is "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self." I am not sure I will be attending the last two, which are scheduled for next week. I am not sure what the use would be, other than perhaps disillusioining myself further.
I read Gilead last year at some point, and Housekeeping maybe a few years ago; I've picked up her new novel Home twice, but each time I have been distracted by other books—I guess the switch from Gilead's rich, gentle voice to the much more mannered tone of Home's narrator threw me. I've been telling myself I'll pick it up later, and I still hope to—Marilynne Robinson is one of the finest living American writers, and the two novels I've read have each touched me profoundly in rare and (for me) unusually personal ways.
The Terry Lectureship is given every year to address "issues concerning the ways in which science and philosophy inform religion and religion's application to human welfare." Terry Eagleton's series last year attained some notoriety on campus, for various Eagletonian reasons. His lecture title was "Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?" Marilynne Robinson picks up in the same neighborhood: she has spoken on both afternoons about Dawkins and his cohorts in what she calls "parascientific literature"—Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, and their predecessors Darwin, Spencer, Comte, Malthus, and (getting a whole lecture to himself next week) Freud. She pronounces the word "parascientific" in such a way that you are almost certain she will be saying "parasitic;" this homophony gives nearly the whole of her argument.
The first lecture, modestly titled "On Human Nature," was congenial as far as it went; Robinson nursed what she assured the audience was a long-stemmed glass of ginger ale, and she said very nice things about many human people, including William James, various Christians, and her audience. She dwelt emphatically on the deficiencies of a collective protean myth and its effects: she dubbed it the myth of the threshold, the idea that the "world of thought has undergone an epochal change" after which "everything is transformed." This myth is repeated in various intellectual subcultures as the flood myth in the Near East: "there are any number of thresholds which initiate any number of conceptual eras." Robinson especially deplored the "assertive" popular/popularized literature which springs up just beyond these thresholds; she twisted Paul Ricoeur's phrase around a bit and dubbed this collective of intellectual mushrooms "a hermeneutics of condescension."
It is particularly the condescension toward the "mind as felt experience" that she doesn't like, and as you might infer from that (W.) Jamesian phrase, she finds a large part of that "felt experience" to be religious in nature. More than just its disdain for religion, however, she felt that this hermeneutics had simply turned away from any concern with subjective experience: she asked of the deconstruction of metaphysics, "how is it lived in the hundreds of millions of minds that must actualize this concept?" (I was blinking while she was thus supplicating, and I half-imagined that upon opening my eyes, I would find Saul Bellow at the lectern, or his ghost.)
She dallied there for awhile in comparisons of Science and Religion; she graciously conceded that Science was the younger and more zestful of the two, but pointed out its poor choice of friends, hanging about too much with War for the past few centuries. Science was also almost exclusively a Western phenomenon (sorry, China, you're not getting your gunpowder or compass back). Religion, on the other hand, was "ancient and global," and evidently had no regrettable friendships. Its tremendous age was, however, a problem insofar as it tended to skew perceptions of its past behavior; Robinson fulminated against the (evidently common?) argument that Christians had killed more Christians than the Romans ever had: you have to remember, she admonished, that the Romans were killing from a much smaller pool. She lavished praise on the Christianity she has encountered throughout her life, but she noted with a quiet sentiment approaching regret that "others have encountered other Christianities."
Science's young turk nature has led it to see religion as (collectively but not mutually exclusively) "a problem, an anomaly, or an adversary." It prefers, if it can, to relegate religion to a prior form of antiquated existence, and she picked out a damning example from popular scientific literature (Pinker) to show how poorly "science" dealt with antiquated conditions: Pinker had evidently inserted a misleading and even nonsensical graph into The Blank Slate to prove something about "primitive" men being more violent (per capita) than European men of the 20th century. Pinker being generally inexcusable, I found this demonstration of one specific failure to suggest something less than comprehensive fraudulence among the scientific community.
Yet she soldiered on: science and other recent intellectual discourses laid claim to "insights so deep as to be ahistorical;" their "flood of neologisms seems meant to signal" the crossing of the threshold; this "modernist consensus" had reached a "core assumption," namely, that the "experience and testimony of individual mind is to be explained away." However, "the march of the modern has many stragglers," and she spent a few minutes describing the contempt with which the "modernist consensus" disciplined anyone who threatened to, for instance "backslide into Cartesianism."
In the finale of her address, she invoked the example of James L. Kugel, the author of How to Read the Bible, as an example of the precipitously eager attitude by which our age is beset. Men like Kugel are so anxious to display those "bold strokes of intellect that burn the fleets of the past" that they end up "misinterpreting an earlier tate of knowledge or simply failing to look into it." She compared Kugel's triumphant recitation of the other Near Eastern flood myths similar to (and often preceding) the Hebrew one to Hugo Grotius' much more sober analysis of the same phenomenon from 1622, attempting to demonstrate by this gap that Kugel's triumphalism was not only scholarly unseemly, but also seriously undermining to his project. "Contempt for the past surely accounts for the consistent failure to consult it," was her closing line.
Hugo Grotius was, like many people in 1622, considered vaguely heretical by most of the people living in close proximity to him; in this case, it was the Dutch that couldn't stand his exegesis, and he had to escape from Holland in a book chest after being sentenced to life imprisonment. The book he wrote that included the analysis of flood myths was very popular across the continent, but I'm not sure he really represents the pinnacle of untrammeled Christian self-criticism, if that's what she was going for. But of course she wasn't: what she means by "contempt for the past," it seems, is "contempt for Protestant intellectuals."
None of this is new; William Deresiewicz ran over all this in his review of Home in The Nation back in September. I was not, shall we say, blindsided by this first lecture. I was knocked on my ass in the second.
The nadir for me was when Robinson insisted that "none of this has been proven" in reference to neo-Darwinian notions of human behavior, sounding more like Michael Behe than Paul Tillich. Robinson smugly (she chuckled otiosely through almost every quotation she drew from any "parascientific" author) ran down a litany of the ways that the parascientific worldview has failed to account for human subjectivity: "the emptiness of modern life," she said, "is not the 'death of God' but the exclusion of felt life in both parascientific literature and in art;" the inability to depict or represent subjectivity has "evolved into principle and method."
Robinson circled around the challenge of altruism to neo-Darwinian thought and the various ways it has tried to account for ostensibly altruistic behavior. Her recitation of these arguments neglected some important treatments (including Dawkins, though she referenced him in other capacities), while it cast about for the worst possible couchings of the arguments against altruism extant. She also took on memes, which was brave and generous, since she thought that the theory of memes was incompatible with genetic study; tackling both at once seemed like giving science two completely distinct shots to prove her wrong, but in her mind she prevailed.
She did have a strong argument against the use of a particular anecdote which has been cited a number of times by her antagonists: she proved that instead of being just brain damaged, the infamous Phineas Gage might have also been angry.
At the end of the lecture, two young men, evidently confused by this attack on parascience without any effort to distinguish it from real science, asked her if there were any scientists she admired and, when she replied only with the names of the scientific magazines she reads (Scientific American, Discover, and Science News), inquired if there was a primary characteristic of parascience that made it different from science. She replied that "science always wants to break through something" and that "loyalty" to certain ideas characterizes parascientific thinkers. I felt the ghost of T. S. Kuhn breathing down my neck.
To encounter Robinson's idiosyncratic Calvinist form of contrarian Christianity was neither unexpected nor unwelcome; to find such sheer indifference masquerading as principle was absolutely petrifying. Robinson's complete absorption in the annals of "parascientific literature" without any reference to a literature that she would call properly scientific showed her to believe, like the intelligent design folks, that the only good science is science that smiles at God.
I am always wary of people who read a great deal of literature which they have already rejected as being flawed, evil, or asinine, and who do so not to test their arguments but to load their weapons, reading widely in order to think the more narrowly. Robinson is just as much one of those people as Richard Dawkins, and the pleasure she takes in rolling her eyes at whatever she wants to call "parascientific literature" is just as repellant as Hitchens's scabrous little philippics. She wants to browbeat her antagonists with the charge of condescension, well, condescension is a sort of instinctive response toward anyone who thinks that your death may be her last, irrefutable argument.
It is never a pleasant experience to be deprived of admiration, though it often happens with writers (the novelist Marlon James has a lovely post on this). I suppose I do not feel that I have been deprived so much as I have been warned. The words one loves in a novel do not come from the writer's mouth, even at a reading, and to think otherwise is painful and obtuse.
Update: You can now judge for yourself if I'm giving Robinson too hard a time: let's go to video. (h/t Mark Athitakis)
Update 2: Just to make sure that this post is not taken the wrong way, I'm going to expand upon a comment I left below in clarification: There is a big difference between saying that Marilynne Robinson is "anti-science"—which is not what I'm saying—and that she believes that the hypothetical, "unproven" nature of some scientific conjectures requires artistic or religious alternatives. I am very much of the belief that the study of art and religion are critical parts of the great project of human self-exploration and self-critique, but I do not believe that the reasons for art and religion's persistent value has anything to do with past, current, or future scientific deficiencies in accounting for human behavior. Furthermore, I do not see any such deficiencies as sufficient reasons for science not to probe into these regions, or as sufficient grounds to laugh at scientists when they do. Marilynne Robinson, I have reason to believe, is making her case on those grounds: that "parascientific literature" (which she does not distinguish meaningfully from science in general) not only cannot address some problems satisfactorily, but because it cannot it should not try, and that the only response to its attempts is an eye-roll and a reiteration of the ineffable mystery of "the mind as felt experience."