Absence of Mind- Marilynne Robinson 1 of 3 posts

Friends recommended that I read Marilynne Robinson’s writings, especially her Pulitzer winning novels. She is touted as a master craftsmith of the written word, theological believer, and creating her own form of Neo-Calvinism. So I decided to pick up her recent response to the skeptics.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 158 pages

The book is her answer to the new atheists in which she argues that we have humanism, subjective self, and human experience. She does not respond to their claims as much as say that there is more to the world. She claims that they are creating a lack of mind, a lack of self. And that they are only creating a “para-scientific literature”

She quotes Dennett’s definition of religion “as about social systems avow with a belief in a supernatural agent.” Dennett is not talking about private religion, religious experience, religion as meaning in life or creation of moral order. Maimonidean rationalism, Buberian dialogue, and new age renewal is not religion for Dennett.

Robinson shows that the problem of materialism, scientism, and behaviorism are not new problems. She claims that the Materialist position is separated from the wealth of human insight. The subjective human mind is what gives us knowledge of the human experience.

She opens her book with a description of how scientists feel a sense of discovery, accomplishment, and fulfillment when they solve a scientific problem. From a human point of view, science is not just facts in a text book.

She is an advocate of the writings of William James and his radical empiricism. And treats the new atheists as rejecting James. She reduces much of their materialism and the selfish gene to the nineteenth arguments of T. H. Huxley. (more on this in later post- post #3) And she uses Freud as her example of psychological reductionism.She finds ever new ways of showing that these new writings do not add anything to the debate of the last two centuries. (Except that a generation of science trained religious fundamentalists are discovering them for a first time. They trade the absolute claims of their material religious fundamentalism for a secular version.)

She thinks they are bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates. She considers as essential to human life metaphysics, imagination, human experience, and in turn these are to be considered a revelation from God

Even in the social realm, she finds their obsession with Fundamentalists misleading. She asks: what of the religion of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or her own cultured Calvinism?  She does accept  from the new atheists that some of the fundamnetalists were equally bad for the soul since they are just as materialist and not concerned with the self as the new atheists.  They are also obscurantist and anti-education. She suggests and I agree, “that some of the new atheism is a reaction to militant religious fundamentalism.”

She agrees with Harvard popularize of science Stephen Gould, that religion and science have nothing to do with each other. Gould used to be assigned at YU and the subject of frequent public lectures by the Bio dept.

Pinker considers that religion offers the answers to the ultimate questions, but since the ultimate questions are unanswerable then we dismiss the whole activity. To this  she answers, no, no, no. Questions that are deemed unanswerable has driven the thoughts of humanity. The history of civilization  answers these questions in ever new answers and forms. From the Library at Alexandria  to the Library of Congress we have collections that enrich our lives- ideas, texts, human experiences, quests for meaning.

She is defiantly preaching the choir. She assumes her reader has read, or at least can read, Grotius, Calvin, Spenser, Emerson, Jung, Searle and Putnam. Those who cannot are the very materialists swayed by the new rhetoric. And those who defend against the new atheists through materialist apologetics and trying to refute scientific method wont find comfort here either.  Religion is not in the scientific realm. Yet, Robinison as a committed non-liberal Calvinist does point in the direction that future discussions of a viable religion position needs to take.

Quotes from reviews:

Robinson makes a strong, unapologetic case, not for mystery but for self-respect.

We look in the mirror, Marilynne Robinson writes in “Absence of Mind,” and we see an untrustworthy, self-interested creature with an untrustworthy mind. No wonder a philosopher such as Tolle, for instance, who offers the idea that we aren’t so bad after all, that we have a right to believe in the value of experience and the mystery of the universe, might be clung to like a floe that a polar bear has finally found to rest upon.

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” Robinson in this new nonfiction work questions the authority of science, not its methods, which she sees as evidence for the capacity and beauty of the human mind. She is annoyed by the arrogance of modernist thought, which has entrapped us for so many generations: “After Darwin, after Nietzsche, after Freud, after structuralism and post-structuralism, after Crick and Watson and the death of God, 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.”

Robinson, however, affirms her own “very high estimate of human nature”: “We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what our place might be.”

But positivism and modernist thought have had the opposite effect: They encourage the “exclusion of felt life”: We are discouraged from making explanations about our place in the universe. Subjectivity is not allowed; instead, there is what Robinson calls an “absence of mind.”

Guardian Review by Karen Armstrong

Washington Post Review

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3 responses to “Absence of Mind- Marilynne Robinson 1 of 3 posts

  1. Her core argument is like the argument for theism that goes (premise) God exists, (conclusion) God exists. Valid, but not helpful since he who doubts the conclusion would doubt the premise. Robinson argues we have real subjective experiences, therefore the experiences we have are real.
    She says science cannot do justice to the flow of consciousness. For that we need language and folk psychology that describe the contents of this flow from within. This is true, we need writers and poets and ordinary people and even, if she insists, Eckhart Tolle. Yes, scientists might be helped in deepening their humanity by having a night seder in James Joyce. What she needs to show is that we have minds that are not epiphenomena. This topic is central to current discussions in philosophy. The alternative is that only our neural states are real causing us to have thoughts, but we are not creating these thoughts ex-nihilo. Robinson does nothing to disprove this latter view. We now know that neurons fire before the conscious intention or action, which is a difficulty for the view of the mind as autonomous and independent entity. David Chalmers a maven on this topic has catalogued 18000 recent papers on this topic.

  2. No, she specifically does not want to get into the current arguments in phil of mind, nor should she. It’s not as if there is really some new problem here. A cause is a cause is a cause, whether it is material, psychological, neurological, evolutionary, etc. People who get really excited about these questions seem to forget that they are entirely theoretical in the sense that they do not intersect with practical reasoning at all. From the pragmatic perspective we all have some degree of practical agency and we cannot help but think otherwise. To think otherwise is to dispense with practical reason. And this is why for Kant, God is absented from the first critique but returns in the second.

    The argument, such that it is, is that we exist as subjective consciousnesses with practical agency. That is the explananda. From there you can move to whatever metaphysical apparatus or deflationary account you prefer. Her critique is in making the latter move instead of the former.

  3. Her point is not that the mind is “autonomous and independent entity” but that the mind is an authentic phenomenon – just as the brain is – and that its many functions which go beyond the basic functions of seeking food and reproducing as espoused by the most reductive Evolutionary Theoriticians, are valid areas of exploration in their own right. She does so not by categorically stating that the opposing views are ‘wrong’, but by pointing out the flaws in their analysis/ interpretation of the subjective experience and even objective approach to Mind and by exposing how their discourse fails to do justice or even account for what is going on. They fail to take into account interiority, or the fact that our lives are ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, ‘fulfilled’ or ‘unfulfilled’ outside of their remit. Explaining themselves in terms of what they are not doesn’t answer the fundamental question: why do we have them and why is what goes on in them so important? To find even possible answers, she argues, we have to drop our condescending attitude towards other ways of thinking and look at what is there.

    She doesn’t espouse dualism. She never denies the connection of the mind to the body or biological processes, she merely states that the vast panoply of experience the human mind – whatever its origins or nature – has to offer, as well as its rich legacy in terms of past and present culture, cannot be ignored or dismissed even by the most strident materialist approach. Saying that the sense of Self is ‘an illusion’ doesn’t account for why the illusion is there, nor does it get round the fact that we live and die with it and work out our destinies in its context. Saying its ‘an illusion’ is therefore basically unhelpful, as even if one were to ‘prove’ it (how would one? As an illusion has to be experienced by something, so we are stuck in an infinite regress of consciousness and ‘illusory’ Self-hoods), of what actual use would that be to us?

    These are the points she seems to be making, it seems to me. I don’t agree that she has to prove that Mind is not an ‘epiphenomenon’. Why? Its not a consensus view and as a view it holds immense problems (such as why evolve such a thing?). Her point is that even if it WERE an epiphenomenon, we still have to live with it and it still remains our field of experience, with all the complex matrices of emotional and mental meaning that involves.

    The last thing Marilynne Robinson is is strident. By couching the debate in these confrontational terms, it appears to me to evading her questions and arguments by reframing the discussion, rather than addressing what she actually says.

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