Sunday, March 29, 2009

Absence of Mind: Marilynne Robinson at Yale

[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."


Grant Barber said...

I find Calvinism an inaccurate understanding of Jesus Christ's message, specifically the bleak understanding of human nature and the emphasis on divine determinism (sounding an awful lot like scientific determinism in the end). As an Anglican I have no struggles with bringing scientific insight into my larger world view...God has given us intellect as a gift (for good, and for ill use at times unfortunately). However Robinson's point about the scientific dismissal of the subjective, the reductionist view of what it means to be fully human, Blake's "Newton's sleep"--that is a point worth discussing. I suspect she's on to something there, although maybe Karen Armstrong has done a cleaner job of it elsewhere (Battle for God and her distinction betwen mythos and logos). Can't really tell though about Robinson's argument from your account: your tone is dismissive without engaging any of the substance of what you find wrong, as if just stating again what Robinson argues is on the face of things enough for any right minded person to hear and join you in dismissing. If you could address the substance of what she's said, and without the distracting diction...or maybe that's the gimic of your use as many latinate adjectives and nouns as you can?

Andrew Seal said...

What can I say, Latin's a great language--I wish I knew more of it.

I think that presenting Robinson's unwillingness to define a form of science which she finds acceptable is enough to make most reasonable people take a step back from her arguments. Had she given any indication that she has considered standards by which science is distinguished from "parascience," and even more importantly, criteria by which she distinguishes "parascientific literature" from actual scientific literature, then I would at least be in sympathy with her. But I really can't tell where proper science ever starts with her: she is so uniformly dismissive of science as a tool for understanding human behavior that I wonder if she doesn't believe there is any role for science in this endeavor.

Andrew Seal said...

One thing I want to clarify: I'm not trying to claim that Robinson adheres to Intelligent Design; my reference to Behe was meant to emphasize the way that Robinson seems to me to be intent on stressing the hypothetical nature of some of the more adventurous claims of neo-Darwinism as if that hypothetical status actually proved that this line of thought was a failure and desperately required the supplement of some more poetic theory or worldview. At first it was just the typical argument that science overreaches; over time it became that science has not only overreached but can't ever reach far enough, that there will always be a gap which religion and art must fill, and that we can assume the existence of this gap because the science we have "hasn't proven" everything it has conjectured.

I also feel that she is uncongenial to any science that trespasses on human consciousness as a sacrosanct space which is despoiled by the inevitable reductions of scientific postulates.

It is for this reason that I am emphasizing her indifference to making a distinction between science and "parascientific literature." Such a distinction would make clear the location of any boundaries she is placing on where science cannot go, or would make clear that she places no such boundaries on science at all.

Anonymous said...

You are very generous to Robinson. What a ludicrous set of lectures. I find myself unable to separate this particular author from her writing. I couldn't finish Gilead, finding it smug and bland and unsurprising.

Loved Housekeeping, written back before she became a religious scold.

Why do people like this get asked to speak such nonsense in the 21st century?

Richard said...

I don't know, Andrew. I'm having a hard time figuring out what the problem is. It seems to me that she is indeed on to something. Granted, she might help her case if she was more familiar with the details of, for example, Dawkins' selfish gene work. But she's hardly wrong that our culture's thralldom to science ("scientism") means ignoring or forgetting what people already knew.

(I haven't watched the video yet, for what it's worth. Perhaps I'll find her tone off-putting, and her own condesencion palpable. I'll report back.)

Shelley said...

Hi -- You may have seen that I linked to your post and called her "anti-science." That's my characterization of her, my conclusion based on your report; I didn't mean to say that you're calling her "anti-science," which, right, you're not. I'd be glad to clarify that on my blog if you'd like. But I do think it's a fair conclusion, not least the final sentence of your Update 2. Notwithstanding her coinage of this nonsense term "parascience."

Shelley said...

Sorry for the typo. It should have said "not least from the final sentence" etc. Cheers--Shelley

Andrew Seal said...

Shelley, I'm very glad you linked to me; I'm really enjoying reading your blog--the Marlon James post I shamelessly lifted from you (sorry--should have given credit!).
I just have found that I can sometimes cloak my points in rhetorical gauze, and I didn't want to do that here. Hence, the clarification.

Shelley said...

Cool. I did adjust my wording to make the point clearly mine. And thanks, glad you like my blog (and glad you found the James link useful). I have a bit of an inferiority complex about my blog as it's decidedly less learned than many, including yours, but, well, it is what it is. Which among other things is fun.

Anonymous said...

Yes there is an unwarranted smugness in her Calvinist religiosity.

Especially if you read the contents of this reference.

Plus you might find this extraordinary prose-opera-novel of interest. A "novel" which thoroughly examines every philosophical point of view ever proffered in any time and place.

Gary Miranda said...

I found your post on Robinson’s talk both insightful and even-handed, especially in your “update,” where you disclaim any assertion that Robinson is “anti-science.” I heard Robinson talk (well, almost heard—she mumbled a lot) here in Portland, Oregon once and, like you, was very disappointed. I do, however, think that you are misinterpreting Robinson to some degree. And since I tend to agree with Robinson, I’ll begin with my viewpoint, on the assumption (perhaps erroneous) that it reflects Robinson’s.

Using Occham’s Razor—the principle that essences should not be multiplied without necessity—science set God aside as irrelevant to the task at hand. And God is irrelevant to the task of the natural sciences, much in the way that the soul of a patient on an operating table is irrelevant to the surgeon. It serves no purpose—and is likely even counter-productive—for a surgeon to be thinking of that patient as anything other than a machine, and of himself as a skilled mechanic. But if the patient dies on the operating table and that same surgeon has to inform the patient’s family of this, he will be remiss indeed if he views those relatives as soulless machines and treats them accordingly. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens—call it an occupational hazard. Science’s (read “modern society’s”) occupational hazard is to forget that it set aside the soul of nature—God—for practical reasons and to proceed as if this applies universally outside the scope of scientific inquiry. As Coleridge put it in “Ode to Dejection”:

This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

This kind of “occupational hazard” is what Robinson is getting at when she says that "the emptiness of modern life is not the 'death of God' but the exclusion of felt life in both parascientific literature and in art" and that the inability to depict or represent subjectivity has "evolved into principle and method"--in other words, that a “principle and method” that suits a part has infected the whole. This is related to but slightly different from “scientism”—i.e., a held view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life—a view that is objectionable in its own right. What Robinson is getting at is that even people who would deny science this authority proceed as if they were granting it, because the implicit assumption of this authority “infects the whole“ and has “grown the habit” of the modern psyche.

In your “update,” you acknowledge the “deficiencies” of science in “accounting for human behavior,” but go on to say that “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.” I do not feel, as you do, that Robinson is laughing at scientists. I think she is simply pointing out, as I would, that you can’t eliminate the spiritual as irrelevant to a certain method of inquiry and then use that method of inquiry to investigate the spiritual. It just won’t fly.

Christian said...

I thought a great deal about your critique of Robinson as “reading widely in order to think the more narrowly.” I concluded that although poetic, this is nonsensical. By the very nature of reading widely — and by all account Robinson does — one is being exposed to strong currents of thought. Unless it would be possible for someone to read without absorbing, but I have no idea what that would mean.

This seems to be a confusion between reading and critiquing versus reading and internalizing. It’s permissive (last I checked) to survey literature without baptizing it. That Robinson reads widely in science and dismisses certain blocks of it doesn’t equate to a wholescale protest of it.

I sincerely appreciate your evaluation of her here. I do, however, feel that the fulcrum of your critique rests upon a muddled belief that if she is anything less than charitable to the literature she treats that she must therefore be hostile towards it.

Anonymous said...

"I thought a great deal about your critique of Robinson as 'reading widely in order to think the more narrowly.' I concluded that although poetic, this is nonsensical... Unless it would be possible for someone to read without absorbing, but I have no idea what that would mean."

It would mean something like answering questions about the boundary between science and parascience adequately when asked, or failing that, giving clear examples of what you felt overstepped the bounds of valid scientific inquiry.

I would imagine someone steeped enough in a body of work they feel comfortable in criticizing, would be willing to answer a question they've presumably considered at length. From reviews, I've been led to believe that Robinson considers the "Selfish Gene" of Dawkins' work, to be a gene for selfishness, or contributing to a character in some fashion, I haven't even read his work, and I know that's a false interpretation, a mis-characterization of his work.

Simon said...

Robinson is talking complete bollocks in Absence of Mind - and this from someone who thinks all three of her novels are great. Rigorous editing could have helped to introduce clarity, though this would only have exposed her desolate arguments for the rubbish they are, nothing more that to apply a patina of respectability to Intelligent Design. The discussion is around the nature of belief (not religion), and the value of its imaginative products. Dawkins, Hitchens and co aren't equipped to deal with this aspect of human nature, and as such are straw men in the argument. However strong your belief in a god might be, that won't gaurantee its existence - and nothing else will. But that's not to say that buying into a belief system lacks integrity. To revel in the imagination that evolution has delivered to us can lead to experiences of great value. It's just that creating music, art, literature has greater value than creating a god that might deliver certain goods - comfort, consolation, hope - but also justify impossibly narrow views of the world we live in. Freud's work is about the imagination, drawn from the imagination. That doesn't make it right but it does make it valuable. Robinson might like to ponder the notion that human beings are not the purpose of evolution, that we have larger brains (not "large"), and that evolution will continue after the extinction of homo sapiens. That may mean a development from homo sapiens, the development of another imaginative animal from a different source, or the end of the line for imagination altogether. But it won't mean the end of life.

Anonymous said...

I read Robinson's book based on these lectures and think that she's onto something: i.e., that our society values instrumental thinking and a positivist view of the world at the expense of any awareness of inner life.

Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Tillich, W. James, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley come to mind as writers with a similar take on things. No dummies in that list. (The basic move of serious thinkers of the past 100 years regarding religion, in case you missed it, has been to regard it as a subjective experience rather than a historic or supernatural event, but a very important subjective experience.)

I think we're quite probably headed straight to Huxley's Brave New World or worse and see nothing in contemporary thought to prevent that or worse. (I don't think sociobiology or postmodernism is going to do much to help our culture to rival ancient Greece or Renaissance Florence.)

I hold no brief for fundamentalist religion and the fanaticism it brings. (Though the names Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao should give one pause concerning linking bad politics narrowly with religion.) Maybe religion will wither away in our culture filled with so many facts and so little wisdom.

I agree with Robinson that scientists trivialize the inner life of people, because it escapes their instruments and offers a rival view of things. Don't worry though. We'll all be reduced to biological robots in fifty or sixty years, and won't know what we're missing. We'll still have our gadgets to play with.