Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book Review: Absence of Mind

Science dominates our culture as the ultimate way of knowing. For many, if science can’t demonstrate it then it is not true. In her masterful book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self Marilynne Robinson, an award-winning author of fiction, argues that parascientific writings have too quickly dismissed the mind’s own evidence of its nature.

Parascientific literature is that which is written in response to scientific discoveries which are assumed to bring about a radical change in understanding and a complete reversal of what is known before. These include the “discoveries” of great thinkers such as Darwin, Nietschze, Marx and Freud. It is often assumed that thinkers like these have turned around our ideas of human nature to such an extent that all that has gone before that moment has to be radically revised or jettisoned.

Robinson comments on writers such as Rorty, Dennett and Dawkins arguing that, while their intention to bring a rational approach to topics such as religion, they do not do justice to the inadequacies of a rationalist, positivist approach which is limited in its ability to generalise about such things.

The first chapter of the book deals with human nature and the way in which humans have expressed and recorded their own experiences and understandings throughout the millennia – and the way in which modernist thinkers have unquestioningly accepted that ‘… we have stepped over a threshold that separates old error from new insight…’ resulting in a ‘[t]riumphalism [that] was never the friend of reason.’

Robinson describes how she

… was educated to believe that a threshold had indeed been crossed in the collective intellectual experience, that we had entered a realm called “modern thought,” and we must naturalize ourselves to it. We had passed through a door that could swing only one way. Major illusion had been dispelled for good and all. What we had learned from Darwin, Marx, Freud, and others were insights into reality so deep as to be ahistorical. Criticism was nostalgia, and skepticism meant the doubter’s mind was closed and fearful. (p. 21)

For Robinson,

The great new truth into which modernity has delivered us is generally assumed to be that the given world is the creature of accident, that it has climbed Mount Improbable incrementally and over time, through a logic of development, refinement, and elaboration internal to itself and sufficient to account exhaustively for all the complexity and variety of which reality and experienced are composed. Once it was asserted, and now it is taken to be proved, that the God of traditional Western religion does note exist, or exists at the remotest margins of time and causality. In either case, and emptiness is thought to have entered human experience with the recognition that an understanding of the physical world can develop and accelerate through disciplines of reasoning for which God is not a given. (p.23)

All of this (and more that she discusses just in the first chapter!) has led to a situation where those writing from a perspective of science about things religious, have not successfully constructed arguments that satisfy the rigorous demands of science itself. Robinson has made it clear in interviews that she loves science and the cosmological theories that have been developed are beautiful – but they do not necessarily say anything that is automatically antithetical to religion and religious understandings of human nature.

In the second chapter of Absence of Mind Robinson turns to ‘the strange history of altruism’. Explaining the altruistic impulse in human behaviour that has been a contentious issue between evolutionary theorists and those that wish to affirm the self-sacrificial nature of altruism. How is one to understand altruism if everything must be explained in terms of the survival of a group or a selfish gene? Here, too, writers of parascientific literature confidently assert ‘…that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only for dismissing them.’ (p. 33) One of these areas is the ‘felt life of the mind’ – the self-reporting of the subjective experience of a phenomenon like altruism is dismissed on the assumption that science can now explain everything including what is “really” going on with the mind. According to Robinson, ‘… the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind.’ (p. 75)

The third chapter then turns to analysis of the ‘Freudian self’ and the often-forgotten fact that Freud’s psychodynamic theories were developed within a very specific historical, political, and sociological context. One of the problems with Freud’s theories is that they are mostly immune to scientific criticism and reduce, once again, the phenomenon of altruistic morality and other aspects of the life of the mind to seething, self-centred, obsessive drives that completely deny the positive subjective expressions of the mind as it tries to understand itself. As Robinson points out, Freud’s fundamental and pervasive premise about the mind is that it is not to be trusted. Since Freud, the mind’s subjective experience has been devalued in preference to the parascientific assertions that all can be reduced to the physical, chemical, and mechanistic rules of evolution.

Marilynne Robinson calls for a rethinking of our approach to mind and, in particular, a recognition of the condescending, arrogant approach of parascientific writing that assumes it has all the answer for the questions raised by the mysterious human mind. Robinson, as she has said elsewhere, loves science. But she believes it has its place and that it has neglected the best of what religion may offer in our pursuit to understand the mind. The long history of the mind expressing itself needs to be listened to and we need to resist the poor thinking of parascientists who wish to reduce everything to their perspective.

It is impossible for me to do justice to Absence of Mind in this brief review. Based on a series of lectures, it is a short book but each page requires deep thinking. It is a polemic against poor thinking and a call for deep inquiry that respects the intransigent mysteries of the mind. The language is often abstract but always prosaic with a vocabulary that provokes deep reflective thought. This is a book I am going to return to again even if only for the inspirational perspective that the mind is more than the sum of its physical parts, rationalist sociological processes, reductionist evolutionary forces, or unconscious negative psychopathologies. The mind is a mystery and that mystery will never be comprehensively quantified by limited perspectives that ignore the rich heritage the mind itself has produced – art, music, philosophy, religion. Absence of Mind is a great book and worthy of every thinker’s bookshelf.

- Steve Parker

Book details

Robinson, M. (2010). Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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