Absence of Mind, Dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the Self, Marilynne Robinson, 2010.
“But there is a fact of modern history, and there is the fact that intellectuals, renowned in their time, made significant contributions to the worst of it.”
So speaks the literary mind, author of the novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, across C.P.Snow’s divide between the two cultures – science and the humanities – to the illustrious “parascientific” priests of modern atheism: Dennett, Wilson, Dawkins, Harris, and others. In her Yale Terry Lectures, she speaks of her concern for the modern scientific dismissal of human subjectivity – the human soul – that is so increasingly entrenched, and unacknowledged, in the pontifications of these august thinkers.
“The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbor a non-physical brain.” E. O. Wilson
She finds these pronouncements to be breezy and deft, but unsubstantiated and conjectural, and indeed not very scientific. Parascience, she calls this, a sort of science fundamentalism. You could learn something from the best of religious thought, she tells them: Respect what you cannot know.
“From antiquity, insistance on the ontological unlikeness of God to the categories to which the human mind has recourse is at the center of theological reflection.”
“gravity, light, or time . . . are sufficient to persuade me that conclusions about the ultimate nature of things are, to say the least, premature, and that to suggest otherwise is unscientific.” Harper’s Magazine, 2006.
Robinson notes that despite the true and profound biological origins of the human mind that are rooted in the drives for survival and for reproduction, the subjective human mind still is what it does, and what it does is have emotions, and aspirations, and seeks knowledge, and wonder, and develops culture, and art, and social cooperation, all with a capacity that can’t be explained.
“there is that haunting compatibility of our means of knowing, with the universe of things to be known.”
Conscious subjectivity is substantially who and what we are, and has consequences that can’t be denied.
For Robinson, this growing arrogance of modern science – that everything that has come before is wrong, that subjectivity is not central – is as dogmatic and authoritarian as the religions they decry. Morality is nothing if not respect for the subjectivity of individuals.
She wants science to see its own active role in fostering tribalism and violence in human history. “if there is a special virtue in the scientific perspective, why do the worst regimes have so little trouble recruiting the best scientists?” She reminds us that Huxley, the great Darwin champion, was eugenicist, that the abolitionists were christians, and that the Amish fundamentalists – who don’t teach evolution – are very ‘green’ and are pacificists!