Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson, Yale University Press, 158 pp., $24.00
The thoughtful ruminations that Marilynne Robinson delivered as the Terry Lectures at Yale and has now published as Absence of Mind are not so much a sally in the ongoing debate between science and religion as an attempt to clarify its terms. In many respects, as she argues eloquently, there is no debate at all; both endeavors seek the truth, and for much of human history they have been companions in that search. It is only the modern era that separates them, for reasons she exposes either as logically inconsistent (with her treatment of scientifically inclined writers like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson) or as historically contingent (with her treatment of Freud). Her tone as a polemicist is thoughtful, calm, and closely reasoned, and she pretends no expertise other than an active mind—of which, she fears, some recent popular writers would gladly rob us. At the same time, the sheer elegance of her brief reveals, as it unfolds, how deep a debt both science and religion owe to art, which is the great unstated premise of her lectures and her book. And it is part of her own artfulness not to state something so obvious as the care with which she has chosen her language or her long history as a novelist of exquisite sensitivity.
Robinson’s prime target in the Terry lectures is the genre of book she calls “parascientific”: those ambitious works on scientific subjects, such as Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, that have been aimed at a general audience and hence take the liberty of speculating beyond the limits that strict scientific discipline might normally impose on their authors. She singles out two aspects of this genre for close scrutiny: first, an almost universal consensus that humanity has crossed a threshold of enlightenment in the past century or two, that we moderns are fundamentally different from our ancestors; and second, the tendency to apply findings in one area, such as brain chemistry, particle physics, or the social habits of insects, to the larger questions about the existence of God or the purpose of human life, questions traditionally addressed in the past by disciplines like metaphysics or theology. Her own meticulously quiet, rather dense prose suggests that she is also mounting an unspoken attack on a certain susceptibility of such books to large, expansive proclamations. Certainly, some of the most vocal bearers of the tidings that there is no God still seem to reserve a place in the firmament for a new Messiah—in their very own image and likeness.
Robinson dismantles the idea of modern distinctiveness by wielding an ancient rhetorical technique, reductio ad absurdum, with wicked skill. But her point is not really rhetorical; it is historical. Big reductive visions and expansive oratory are companions of long standing. Ever since the Enlightenment, at the very latest, but perhaps as early as the sixth century before the Christian era, sages have invited us to consider the world as an entirely rational phenomenon, susceptible, despite its evident complexity, to our complete understanding. And the world, with scathing irony, has bitten back. The philosopher Empedocles is said to have fallen into Mount Etna because its boiling magma so beautifully proved his point that the universe could be reduced to a cataclysmic struggle between fire and water. Only a lone sandal on the volcano’s lip bore witness to his passage. For decades, the physicist Stephen Hawking has flung his mind to the ends of the universe as his body gradually robs him of the supports that bodies normally afford us. Sooner or later, of course, we shall all go that same way, losing our grip on the flesh as certainly as Empedocles lost his footing on the crater’s edge, and it is painful to wonder why it must happen, no less painful in the modern world than in the ancient. This, really, is Robinson’s point. We know infinitely more than our forebears, but our knowledge is no less incomplete in the face of life, death, good, evil, or infinite complexity.
All the while, however, there have also been wise heads like Pythagoras and Plato who maintained that this reality we know, in its mysteries, dangers, and delights, is only the shadow of something else, so different as to make any comparison meaningless. As it happened, both Empedocles and Plato were poets, and Empedocles chose to write his masterwork, On Nature, in metered verse. Plato, for various reasons, gave up poetry for philosophy early in life, but he could not give up poetic language; the need to make words sing was too essential to his own nature, and his words sang no less resonantly in his charmed prose as he argued with Empedocles and others that there were forces far greater than heat and cold at work in making the universe.
The debates of these long-dead Greeks suggest that the conflicts we now describe as a struggle between science and religion actually involve—and have always involved—more than those two varieties of experience. The questions themselves, as Robinson suggests, extend back to the time when science had not yet been defined as a discipline, and religion had not yet been distinguished from the conduct of daily life.
Furthermore, those long-dead Greeks have so completely captured our habits of thought that we barely notice their guidance anymore; they are guiding us every time we formulate a thought or open our mouths to speak. When a modern particle physicist writes about the qualities of a good hypothesis, the criteria for quality—robustness, elegance, simplicity—are pure Plato. And the string theorist’s pursuit of the place where four kinds of energy shall converge on a single sovereign principle of oneness is the Platonic quest for wisdom, the state in which all mathematical operations melt into the cosmic unity. It was a glimpse into the same forge, after all, that so attracted Empedocles to the summit of Mount Etna.
Robinson seems to be suggesting, inter alia, that the factual knowledge we have amassed in the modern era has not always been accompanied by clear thinking about how to order all those facts. And it is easy to imagine how her suggestions might apply to, say, the Internet’s tendency to substitute free-floating information for the more disciplined sets of data that used to be classified as knowledge.
If her first two Terry lectures sound a densely reasoned call for reason, the third, on Sigmund Freud, suggests that the modern search for general principles has sometimes arisen from highly specific historical circumstances. Freud mounted his search for universal patterns of human consciousness, as she shows with vivid economy, precisely when (and perhaps because) many of his Viennese neighbors, including an aspiring painter named Adolf Hitler and the fiercely anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, were imbibing ideas about the specific destinies of Germanic Volk and wandering Jews. It is hard to believe now that anyone took that frustrated painter seriously or that Adolf Hitler’s eventual reign of terror lasted, in fact, for only 10 years. How could such cataclysmic worldwide destruction happen so quickly? Without openly saying so (given her aversion to the large pronouncements of “parascience,” it would be inconsistent for her to proclaim), Robinson suggests that the complexity of the world remains infinitely greater than our most noble attempts to account for it and that our attempts are themselves conditioned to a powerful extent by our circumstances.
Robinson’s final lecture focuses on a resolute insistence that concepts like ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ still make sense in a scientific era, not least because no scientific discipline has yet put its finger on them. She makes no grand pronouncements, no ringing defense of religion, saying only on two or three occasions that she is, herself, a religious person. After so fierce a challenge to the proponents of a godless universe, what are her arguments to the contrary? They are not mustered here; Absence of Mind is not a believer’s manifesto. She leaves us only with her determination to keep on thinking in terms that include the full range of philosophy and theology, as well as science, and with her insistence that what these endeavors seek out is truth—not a word set off by coy postmodern quotation marks, but an absolute value in a universe shot through with a divinity she does not linger to describe.
And this, too, is part of Robinson’s method. As befits her careful attention to category and to craftsmanship, in writing as in thought, she does not relegate her thoughts about religion to expository prose. Instead, like Plato, she has spun out her understanding of the highest truths in the transcendent medium of story and song. If we want to know what Marilynne Robinson thinks about the big questions, we have Gilead, the haunting novel where she takes the voice of the Reverend John Ames, a dying Congregational minister in a small Midwestern town, and spells out the nature of things like good, evil, God, soul, redemption, love, and grace as they work out through the specifics of a tale. We are unlikely to get more than this from her on these subjects; but then we got no more from Sophocles or Shakespeare than their plays. In the meantime, it is a rare treat to have a novelist express herself so forcefully, and so eloquently, in another medium.