Review: Absence of Mind

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Summary: The text of Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, challenging “parascientific” explanations reducing the mind to nothing more than the physical brain.

The idea of the mind has been under assault from those who would contend our “minds” are nothing more than the physical processes making up the extensive neural network of our brains. In this collection of four essays, the text of Marilynne Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, she challenges this notion. She does not oppose the work of neuroscientists, but rather those like Daniel Dennett, who in the garb of science, make metaphysical conclusions about the existence of the mind, or rather the absence of such apart from the physical substrate of the brain. She calls this “parascience,” an intellectual argument operating alongside and apart from real scientific research.

Her first essay “On Human Nature” notes the modern assumption of a threshold, before which explanations of human nature were benighted, compared to the enlightened explanations of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett, who “explain away” the mind and traditional religion.

“The Strange History of Altruism” challenges the assumption that evolutionary forces protecting gene pools explain altruistic behavior and the disregard of counterfactual evidence.

The third essay, “The Freudian Self,” takes on the suspicion of the mind in Freud, that the mind is not to be trusted due to subconscious processes. She looks at the intellectual milieu surrounding Freud and how this shaped his ideas.

The final essay, “Thinking Again,” celebrates our sense of self-awareness, that mechanistic explanations dismiss. She writes in introducing her discussion:

“Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as an argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently” (p. 110).

Each of these essays are densely argued, invoking the various shapers of the modern mind, challenging the “authorities” who reduce mind to materialistic explanations.

Essentially, Robinson is saying, “not so fast.” At the same time, her argument also has a bit of a feel of a “mind of the gaps,” the mind not yet explained by physical processes. I would not want to see another version of the evolution-creation battle of the last 150 years in the field of neuroscience. Might there be an approach of humility, of genuine listening that refuses to dismiss both the powerful experience of our self-awareness, our consciousness, and the powerful advances of neuroscience in understanding the physical substrates of many of our “mental experiences”? Physical explanations of other phenomena have only increased for believing persons their joy in the Creator. Could not more holistic physical explanations of the mind also increase our wonder, even as we understand how that wonder is wired into us?

Robinson challenges the reductionistic materialism of parascience. I would also want her to speak against the denials of real advances in scientific understanding. I hope we can develop both a robust materiality and a robust spirituality, neither of which are at war with the other. Perhaps what we need is a sequel to these lectures titled “Presence of Mind,” for it seems that this is what we require in the present time.

One thought on “Review: Absence of Mind

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2021 | Bob on Books

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