Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
Is ordinary consciousness just an illusion? Marilynne Robinson takes aim at reductionist “parascience.” -
Robinson’s central argument is, I think it fair to say, more or less indisputable — or, at least, it should be. It may be fashionable in certain circles, and very desirable for ideological reasons, to insist that our normal experience of consciousness is in some sense an illusion, begotten by one or another set of pre-conscious, purely material forces, which have merely dissembled themselves as personal motives, transcendental aspirations, moral principles, altruism, and so on. And it may well be the case that the “discourses of suspicion” that make these claims have spread wide enough through popular culture to have become a kind of tacit cultural orthodoxy. But, as Robinson acutely observes, there is one great problem that bedevils all the magisterial reductionist approaches to the mind, whether they be sociobiological, neurobiological, psychological, economic, or what have you: simply enough, all of them consistently prove extravagantly inadequate to what any scrupulous, unprejudiced examination of the complexity of consciousness actually reveals.
This is an old problem, and Robinson is aware that neo-Darwinian theory, at least, has occasionally taken notice of it. But the neo-Darwinian solution to the problem is merely to explain away the sheer exorbitance of human consciousness as an accidental hypertrophy of capacities shaped by genetic imperatives. Perhaps it is true, so the argument goes, that the human mind has aptitudes and dimensions that seem far to exceed what is demanded by evolutionary necessity, but that is only because evolution, on account of the complexity of its mechanisms, is capable of useful fortuity; it can, that is to say, unexpectedly overshoot its mark. But we still ought not to deceive ourselves that this proves that there is anything in us that does not arise from the economies of matter and the struggle for survival. Our “souls” may seem to us to stand apart from the iron law of genetic determinism, and our wills may seem to us to be moved by considerations that transcend the self and its needs, but this is only because we are in fact the beneficiaries of a surfeit of determinism.
As Robinson clearly recognizes, though, this actually explains nothing; it merely restates the problem in the form of a meaningless answer. Quite apart from the underlying pretense that we have some remote understanding of how self-aware consciousness can arise from matter in the first place, which we do not, this entire line of reasoning, of its nature, admits of no empirical verification. Instead, it always must resort to some entirely speculative fantasy, like Richard Dawkins’s theory of “memes,” for which no respectable scientist or philosopher should really have any patience. Again and again, Robinson emphasizes the degree to which the mind’s experience of itself continues to elude the reach of the monist materialisms that want to subdue it.
And yet the reductionist project apparently understands itself, and certainly presents itself, as a kind of scientific project. Thus it generates the literature of what Robinson aptly calls “parascience”: a form of discourse whose rather grand, frequently incoherent, and usually irreducibly metaphysical assertions about the nature of the universe, the self, the genealogy of morality, and so on, masquerade as purely scientific claims. This is a literature that systematically blurs the distinction between fact and theory, and between legitimate theory and ideological invention; but it is marketed to readers who for the most part lack the special training needed to recognize when they are being misled, and so enjoys — as Robinson says of the works of Dawkins and Dennett — “the effective authority that comes from successful popularization.”
A great deal of the pleasure that Absence of Mind affords the reader comes from Robinson’s patient deflation of parascientific pretensions. She does not counter the reductionist case with vague appeals to hopeful sentiment, but instead quite effectively demonstrates how much of that case consists in baseless assumptions, ungoverned metaphors, and sheer assertion. In two pages, for instances, she deftly demolishes Steven Pinker’s “statistical” proof that the modern, secular era has been less violent than earlier epochs by pointing out the shoddiness of his method and reasoning. At only slightly greater length, she reduces William Hamilton’s cost-benefit equation — which purports to prove that altruism is merely an extension of self-interest — to the heap of silly conjectures it is. And the book is full of similarly telling ripostes to Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson, and others of their intellectual kith.
And she is especially good on memes, principally because she does not merely treat them as the easy target they are. Memetics — with its dependence on flimsy analogies, its logical incoherencies, its complete immunity to verification — will no doubt one day take its rightful place alongside phrenology in the galleries of discredited pseudoscience; but Robinson does not dwell on this. Rather, she points out that what makes the theory of memes so fascinating is that it is actually inconsistent with the genetic determinism it is meant to supplement. The concept of memes — the notion that the apparently free workings of human consciousness are passively shaped by the impersonal agency of a host of mindless, paraphysical, “selfish” replicators that somehow colonize our brains — may be meant to fortify a purely reductionist account of the self. But, in fact, when memes are stripped of their dazzling parascientific mystifications, they turn out to be nothing more than a clumsily misleading name for all those aspects and actions of human consciousness that a truly reductive Darwinism cannot really explain.
Among the great fathers of modern suspicion, I should mention, only Freud earns an entire chapter to himself. This might seem a rather odd choice on Robinson’s part, inasmuch as Freudianism is hardly the going concern it once was. But the Freudian narrative — the reduction of all the structures of identity, will, culture, and consciousness to sexual impulse and psychic repression — remains very much a part of our shared conceptual grammar, in some ways more insidiously pervasive than any other. Robinson’s treatment of Freud is generous, if not gentle. She argues fairly persuasively that much of his bizarre mythology of the psyche, most especially his fable of an aboriginal Oedipal crime, was an attempt to counter the nationalist and racialist intellectual movements of his time with a more comprehensive tale of universal human alienation. In the end, though, all he produced was yet another vastly inadequate materialist theory of human nature that, however beguiling, could scarcely have been more dehumanizing.
In the end, perhaps the most penetrating question Robinson asks in regard to all the modern schools of suspicion is, simply enough: why? That is, if purely material, purely selfish impulses underlie all those behaviors we mistake for selfless altruism or spiritual longing or magnanimity or self-outpouring love, why do they so utterly invert themselves in our conscious minds? Why do they dissimulate themselves as the very opposite of what they are? Let us assume that the conscious mind, with all of its ambiguities and mysteries and abyssal sense of identity, is nothing but the illusory and superficial epiphenomenon of some hidden, unitary, primordial, and amoral material impulse towards survival. Very well, then, but why would it have to hide this fact? Surely it would have no need to deceive itself so elaborately, or to conceal its own genetic interests from itself, unless it already possessed some kind of moral sensitivity to the shame of selfishness. What, then, is that moral self that is there “before” the Darwinian self, whose conscience must be appeased, needing to believe that it is moved by altruism or disinterested love?
There are any number of forced answers that can be and have been made to this question, but none of them is particularly compelling. It hardly matters, though. What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”
Perhaps this is the most important lesson to take from Absence of Mind, but it would be presumptuous of me to say so with absolute conviction. It is all but impossible to summarize this book, for the simple reason that it would be difficult to state Robinson’s case with more economy than she herself has done. One really must read it, and with some care, to appreciate how powerful a counterinsurgency it mounts against many of the peculiar superstitions of our age.
[Tsekatkaa tästä koko juttu, niin saatte myös siinä olevat linkit aktivoitumaan - mm. Dawkins, meemit ja memetiikka, Pinker, Hamilton ym.]
Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self by Marilynne Robinson, Yale University Press, 176 pp., $24.00.
David B. Hart is an Orthodox Christian theologian and philosopher who has taught at the University of Virginia and Duke Divinity School. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.