Sunday, 8 May 2011

Absence of Mind

Of the books I read while I was away on holidays, the one that got my brain moving the most was Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson.  The chapters of this book were originally a series of lectures given as part of the wonderfully named Dwight Harrington Terry Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy

Her subject is what she calls "parascientific writing" - that is writings, generally by scientists, which attempt to apply scientific insights to subjects such as religion or human culture which are strictly beyond the bounds of those sciences.  Obviously uppermost on her mind are those we think of as "scientifics atheists" - the Dawkins, Dennets and EO Wilsons of this world - but she also delves further back to the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, not to mention a whole chapter on Sigmund Freud. 

One of the key aspects of this kind of thinking, she says, is that its authors see our society as having crossed some sort of intellectual threshold - whether represented by Darwin's theory of evolution, Freud's exploration of the science of human behaviour, or Einstein's theory of relativity - which requires a re-evaluation of everything we thought we knew. 

This motif of shocking newness that must startle us into painful recognition is very much a signature of the "the modern" and potent rhetorically, more so because we are conditioned to accept such claims as plausible.  But it often achieves its effects by misrepresenting an earlier state of knowledge or simply failing to enquire into it.

One consequence of this way of thinking is that earlier ways of understanding the universe, and particularly religious ones, are seen as outmoded and needing to be replaced. 

The degree to which debunking is pursued as if it were an urgent crusade, at whatever cost to the wealth of insight into human nature which might come from attending to the record humankind has left, and without regard to the probative standards scholarship as well as science should answer to, may well be the most remarkable feature of the modern period in intellectual history.

Or to translate - modern scholars are committed to debunking no matter what the intellectual cost or value of that exercise.

To illustrate this practice, she spends the entire second lecture talking about the problem of altruism.  The problem is this - if we have evolved through a process of "survival of the fittest", then all our traits must have survival value.  What, then, is the survival value of altruism?  Surely the practice of sacrificing our lives for others is the very opposite of an adaptation for survival?

The writers in her critique attempt a number of explanations of this trait.  Perhaps it's evolutionary over-reach, a trait which has developed beyond its usefulness in a species already securely established.  Perhaps it has developed out of our need to save our descendents, and hence our gene-pool - or course we will save our children!  Perhaps it's an example of a "meme" - a self-replicating piece of cultural behaviour which attaches itself to our brains and is as self-seeking and self-relicating as any physical gene.

The core problem with each of these arguments, says Robinson, is that they rely on our conscious thoughts and motivations having no value. 

(The theories she has been discussing) represent the mind as a passive conduit of other purposes than those the mind ascribes to itself.  It reiterates that essential modernist position that our minds are not our own.  The conviction so generally shared among us, that we think in some ordinary sense of that word, that we reason and learn and choose in response to our circumstances and capacities, is simply... a persisting illusion serving a force or a process that is essentially unknown and indifferent to us.

This of course, begs the question about the value of these theories themselves.  If our motives and thought processes are mere slaves to some other, unconscious, process then surely this also applies to the theorising of the parascientists themselves.  However, Robinson doesn't go down that track.  Instead, she devotes her third lecture to the social thinking of Freud as expressed particularly in his Civilisation and its Discontents.  Here we find more of the same - our human religion, mythology and culture are simply the result of our hereditary trauma and the resulting suppression of our sexual and aggressive desires. 

So where does Robinson want to take us with all this?  What she tentatively begins to build in her final lecture is a view of humanity which rejects the reductionism of parascience, with its tendency to "strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment".  Instead, she wants to build a world-view which takes our history and culture seriously as pieces of evidence in the puzzle of the nature of humanity.

Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts.  And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify....The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together....History and civilisation are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving and will leave, and objectivity deserving the name would take this record as a starting point.

1 comment:

Sammy said...

A teacher and good friend of mine is a good friend of Marilynne Robinson and, although I have never met her (but hope to in the future), I have greatly enjoyed her works.

After I read this post, I went and ordered the book on Amazon. It looks absolutely fascinating. As a scientist myself, I have had discussions with friends and colleagues about how scientists constantly attempt to apply scientific theories to every facet of our lives. I am in the minority who believes that this is not always a good idea. Yes, science can give us wonderful insight into human behavior and the civilizations and belief systems we have created. But the rejection of something solely because it is not based on science is a mistake. There is more to life than the rational. There are questions science just is not capable of answering. That's not a failure of science, it's just the realization that other methods of thinking and doing are more appropriate in certain sphere of human life.