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Blinded by parascience

Marilynne Robinson’s argument for the validity of faith skewers rationalists but has its own holes

The influential rationalist Sigmund Freud, shown in a 1937 photo, had little use for religion. Marilynne Robinson rebuts his theories on human nature and the origin of civilization, arguing that they constitute a kind of “parascience’’ and are best understood as his personal response to the irrational racism and anti-Semitism that flourished in his Vienna. The influential rationalist Sigmund Freud, shown in a 1937 photo, had little use for religion. Marilynne Robinson rebuts his theories on human nature and the origin of civilization, arguing that they constitute a kind of “parascience’’ and are best understood as his personal response to the irrational racism and anti-Semitism that flourished in his Vienna. (Library of Congress/Courtesy A. W. Freud)
By Adam Kirsch
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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On the strength of just three novels, Marilynne Robinson is widely acclaimed as one of America’s best fiction writers. Now, with “Absence of Mind,” a slim new book of nonfiction, she appears in a new role — as a theologian, or if that seems too traditional and dogmatic a title, as a thinker about religion. Robinson’s commitment to her Christian faith will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has read “Home” or “Gilead,” her twin novels about the spiritual and domestic struggles of Iowa pastors. Still, there is a significant difference between evoking the lived experience of faith, as Robinson so finely does in her fiction, and arguing for the intellectual validity of faith, as she sets out to do here.

The premise of Robinson’s essays, which are based on lectures she delivered at Yale University, is openly polemical, even confrontational. As Yale’s Dwight H. Terry lecturer — a role in which she has been preceded by Jung, Tillich, and Dewey, among others — Robinson was charged with carrying out the series’ mission: to nurture “the Christian spirit . . . in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge.” The problem is that, today, many people would deny that the Christian spirit and the full light of knowledge go together so easily. “Self-declared rationalists,” Robinson writes in her introduction, have ruled all varieties of religion out of bounds. Science seems to offer us a world “stripped of myth, unhallowed and unhaunted . . . simply itself.”

Robinson is not trying to mount a defense of Christianity, or of any particular religion. In fact, she declines to play defense against the attacks of pop atheists and secularists, knowing how ungrateful a role that is. Instead, refreshingly, she carries the fight to the other side, arguing that scientists such as Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and E.O. Wilson are actually, in their popular writing, practicing “parascience.” Unlike genuine science, which is open-ended and self-critical, parascience is devoted to “closing questions” by acting as if “scientific knowledge [is] complete.” In particular, parascience wants to rule out of bounds any interest in metaphysics — the age-old human interest in the nature of reality and in our origins and destiny.

Freud, Robinson argues, is the supreme example of the rhetorical power and intellectual frailty of parascience. She spends one whole chapter — a quarter of the book — arguing that Freud’s theories about human nature and the origin of civilization are best understood as his response to the irrational racism and anti-Semitism that flourished in his Vienna. There is much truth in this, and Robinson is not the first to say it. But it is surprising that she should devote so much effort to demolishing what she calls “The Freudian Self,” now that almost no one any longer thinks of psychoanalysis as a science. It can be explained only by her sense that Freud was instrumental in banishing what she calls “mind” from modern accounts of human existence.

Mind, to Robinson, is what we know about ourselves when we are not being objective: It is introspection, self-consciousness, or what she calls “the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self.” The whole tendency of modern science, she laments, has been to deny that this mind even exists, or that it can tell us anything worthwhile about the universe. Mind has been undermined — by Freud, who taught us to value the unconscious; by Darwin and his heirs, who taught that mind is merely the tool that our genes use to ensure their survival; by philosophers, who say that mind is nothing but the brain.

Against this “absence of mind,” of which her title complains, Robinson urges us to consider the unfashionable possibility “that our species is more than an optimized ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us” on our path from protozoan to homo sapiens. She allows that this idea “might look like theology, or mysticism,” but she audaciously insists that the truly scientific attitude is to remain open to all possibilities — even the possibility of such a destiny, or special creation, which flies in the face of what we currently think of as science. At the very least, Robinson argues, “it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.”

There is much to admire, and even to agree with, in Robinson’s humanist passion. Her defense of the insights to be gained from religion and literature is as convincing as her attacks on the facile generalizations of parascience. But it is unmistakable, reading “Absence of Mind,” that Robinson is not especially knowledgeable about science or philosophy. Her discussions of evolutionary biology and of the mind/body problem are seriously flawed. Above all, her key concept of mind is full of vagueness and contradictions. It has been more than two centuries since Kant showed exactly why we cannot treat our intuitions about the world as proofs in the way Robinson seems to desire; yet Kant’s name doesn’t appear in the book. Even readers who sympathize with Robinson are likely to feel, after reading “Absence of Mind,” that she is expressing an attitude rather than advancing an argument.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet Magazine.

ABSENCE OF MIND By Marilynne Robinson

Yale University, 158 pp., $24