Opportunity Lost


A review of: Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Terry Lectures)
by Marilynne Robinson
Yale University Press, 2010, 176 pp.

My acquaintance with Marilynne Robinson’s work has previously been limited to fiction, specifically her novel Gilead, for which she won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and “Kansas,” a superb distillation of Gilead’s take on Midwestern Protestant thinking and abolitionist activism in the 19th century. Both have a great deal to recommend them in terms of style and food for thought. So I looked forward to Absence of Mind, her Terry Foundation lectures on religion in the light of science and philosophy, delivered at Yale University.

The four essays comprising Absence of Mind address one of the great challenges facing children of the Enlightenment. To state it in my words, not Robinson’s: Before god was dead, there remained a subjective impression of communion between god and me. I was not ultimately alone. But among the costs of technological society has been an elevation of “objective” knowledge and thought to such an extent that other modes of experience are now routinely excluded from serious intellectual consideration. Is it too great a stretch to suggest that existential panic might fuel militant attitudes among religious fundamentalists around the world? Or the wearing of factual ignorance as a political badge of honor by some American social conservatives?

Robinson begins by pretending to concede that the “universe is devoid of theological implication” and that “life is simply another instance of matter working through the permutations available to it.” She seeks to turn the arguments of her positivist opponents—who are guilty of practicing a pejoristic neologism she labels “parascience”—against them, and thereby rediscover mind. This strategy is questionable at best. Subjectivity or awareness (immediately experienced as my mind) and empiricism (the methodology of science) are manifestations of processes as disparate as breathing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance aloud. Breathing is required to perform the recitation, but breathing isn’t discoverable by parsing the words of the Pledge. My mind is undeniably present to me. Can’t we start from there?

The essays caused me further disquiet by deriding “either/or” arguments while engaging in them—Robinson’s often exceed the bounds of credulity. Under a dazzle of complex verbiage there’s also a fair bit of sleight-of-hand. She actually proposes that the variously described behavioral disorders affecting Phineas Gage, after an iron bar was blasted through his head in 1848, may have been due to the insult to his humanity rather than his brain. She compares Gage to peg-leg Captain Ahab. Since Ahab also behaved badly, she quips sarcastically, why not suppose that behavioral regulation is a function of the leg? Perhaps she’d also like to suggest that the speech difficulties common to stroke victims with lesions in the distribution of the left middle cerebral artery are not due to those lesions, but rather to the fact that having a stroke is a bummer? Please. Only someone desperate to posit a mind (soul) totally separable from body could swallow such twaddle. And only then if they flunked Science 101.

The lectures conclude with a grand implausibility argument. (There ought to be a name for this particular fallacy. Maybe there is.) The game runs like this. Imagine the zillions of improbable things that had to happen in a particular way to result in me and my being here, in this place, at this time, typing on the keyboard of a fantastically complicated piece of technology, etc. What are the odds? Isn’t it more likely that a higher intelligence is at work? Not so fast. Since I do in fact exist in this moment, I must be somewhere doing something; why not this?

More importantly, arguing backward from present circumstance to primordial ooze is a fool’s errand or a route to willful failure. Moby Dick is not predictable from cuneiform writing circa 2000 BCE. Does this mean god wrote Moby Dick? Maybe not if one follows developments in the order of their occurrence, from Sumer to Melville’s writing desk. Do paradigm shifts and other revolutionary factors emerge to alter language and thought along the way to Pittsfield, MA? Yes, in droves. Is there evidence of intelligence? Certainly, but earthly intelligence acting over millennia is sufficient to the case. Valid arguments, unlike simple arithmetic equations, may not work the same in both directions. Nor is this asymmetry uncommon. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything may be 42, but which among a vast number of plausible contenders was the ultimate question?  

Robinson could have done so much better for the cause of mind. Had she been willing to question her traditional religious (Christian) worldview and certainty about the existence of a unitary “self,” she might, for instance, have thought to mine the riches of her own observation: “we do indeed continuously stand apart from ourselves, appraising.” Instead she takes the beaten path to Descartes and a climactic appeal to our sense of wonder and mystery. Perhaps she had no other choice, having failed miserably to win the reasoned arguments she set for herself against the tyranny of Reason she so legitimately decries.

With few exceptions—such as the idea that reductionist commentators in science may yet be defending against a return of the bad old pre-Enlightenment days—I regret to report that Absence of Mind succeeds mainly as a cautionary tale about how not to build a case for the value of subjectivity.

—Michael Hopping
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