Absence of Mind
The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth
of the Self
by Marilynne Robinson
Yale, 176 pp., $24
"In the matter of belief,” writes the Rev. John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s justly admired novel Gilead (2004), “I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” On the evidence of this new book, originally delivered as the 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale, Ames’s attitude to apologetics appears to be more or less that of Robinson herself.
In these lectures she takes aim at the claim—assumption would be the better word—that human beings are strictly physical organisms, their “minds” nothing more than the functioning of their brains, and that science provides irrefutable evidence for believing that this is so. Her targets are representative: Freud, Comte, Bertrand Russell, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins. But she isn’t interested in defending Christianity or religion from the attacks of these writers. Her goal is, rather, to suggest that their arguments frequently don’t exhibit the kind of rigorous logic they themselves claim for science against religion.
Time and again, in this “parascientific literature,” as Robinson calls it, one encounters the idea of a “threshold.” In past ages, it’s thought, people believed all sorts of hideous nonsense about souls and human nature and divine revelation. Now we know
otherwise. The temporal placement of the threshold moves around a good bit depending on the author and his agenda—sometimes it’s Darwin’s Origin of Species, sometimes it’s Freud or Nietzsche, sometimes it’s Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA—but in each case the threshold means the same thing, namely that “some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naïve and untenable, supplanted by a
Once you give yourself this kind of mental luxury, Robinson argues, your arguments become untethered to evidence and sound reasoning. And it’s for that reason that so much of the parascientific, antireligious literature has a curious circularity about it: It’s only persuasive if you accept its premises. If you don’t, it strikes you as ridiculous and vaguely offensive—but then you must be on the wrong side of the threshold, so it doesn’t matter.
Thus Robinson finds Russell and a host of his intellectual descendants writing about “religion” in ways that both fail to define the word and fail to distinguish between religion and the historical contexts in which religion exists. She wonders why Freud’s writings have so rarely been interpreted in light of the extraordinary circumstances through which he lived, “as if they have no significant historical context except that provided by Copernicus and Darwin, as if they formed in a weatherless vacuum of some kind, in the pure light of perspicuous intellect.” She asks why the concept of a “multiverse” is presented as an argument against the notion that God created the world instead of an argument for the absurdity of treating such a question in purely materialistic terms.
And how is it, Robinson asks, that such highly regarded intellectuals as Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker can assume the story of Phineas Gage illustrates what it manifestly doesn’t illustrate?
Gage was the railroad worker who, in 1848, survived an accident in which an iron rod pierced his skull. He was reported the following day to have recovered, despite a shattered upper jaw and the loss of an eye. After the accident, though, Gage became (according to contemporary records) “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.” Dennett, et al., suppose that this story illustrates the fact that what we call “character” and “personality” are merely manifestations of physical phenomena in the brain, of no more moral or spiritual import than any other physical trait. And yet it never occurs to any of these writers that a man who suffers sudden disfigurement and the loss of an eye may reasonably be expected to become profane and irritable.
Robinson’s intention throughout is to challenge the assumption, so deeply ingrained within modern thought, that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether.” It’s this assumption that allows a certain kind of intellectual to bypass thousands of years of human thought and to explain, with the knowing air of a pubescent boy, why it is that people think what they think and do what they do.
One of the best things about the literature of the New Atheists is that, for all the supercilious question-begging, it has provoked a number of highly literate and memorable responses. This is one of them.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.