Marilynne Robinson Takes on Bad Science Writers

The novelist wades into the religion-and-science debate with ‘Absence of Mind.’

"The mind, whatever else it is, is a constant of everyone’s experience, and, in more ways than we know, the creator of the reality that we live within . … Nothing is more essential to us." So observes Marilynne Robinson in her recent work, Absence of Mind, a slim polemic aimed at today’s popular-science writers: evolutionary psychologists E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and biologist/general grump Richard Dawkins. Such writers, says the Pulitzer-winning novelist, tend to reduce the person to brains, explaining away the strangeness and mystery of human experience. This reduction not only runs counter to our deepest intuitions; it’s also bad science, offered under the pretense that the modernist thinkers of the past 200 years have already answered the question of our existence.

It’s also bad theology, of course. Robinson, a Christian and Calvinist, talked to Christianity Today associate editor Katelyn Beaty about total depravity, the culture wars, and what scientific discoveries most excite her.

In Absence of Mind, your main argument is that the influential popular scientist-writers of our age (Wilson, Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker, et al.) fail to acknowledge the spiritual impulses, conscience, compassion, and other felt experiences, via the human mind, that show up in all of human history and that set our species apart from others. Why is proper attention to the "felt life" important to you?

Frankly, it seems bizarre to me to dismiss the reality of consciousness, by which I mean inwardness, subjectivity. I am pretty sure it would seem just as bizarre to me if I were an atheist. Anyone who has been moved by a poem or who has passed a sleepless night should be able to offer testimony to the reality of consciousness as experience. "Felt life" is my primary interest and pleasure in life, whether it is my own or that that I see and sense around me, in people, cultures, history, literature. There is nothing remarkable in this. To use a word I avoid, it is simply normal.

I have read that there are those who have no perception of the inwardness of other people. This is an affliction of psychopaths, a strange and pitiable incapacity. My point being that most of us know in the ordinary course of life that others have inwardness, that it is complex and potent, largely unknowable and largely unique, and that the qualities we call "human" are centered in it. This awareness is the basis of the presumption in favor of the dignity and worth of other lives.

I am not suggesting that the writers in the tradition I criticize themselves live as if they have no sensitivity to the inwardness of other people. That this would be an extraordinarily harsh judgment is itself proof of the importance of such sensitivity. Your question associates belief in the mind as you describe it with religion. This association is conventional rather than necessary. Certainly there is nothing scientific about dismissing the reality of a phenomenon whose importance is manifest in the history of the species and is likely or liable to determine the fate of the planet. Atheism has no necessary interest in dismissing the mind, either. Why this strange anthropology has flourished under the name of science and in association with the New Atheism, I don’t know, though perhaps acknowledging the brilliance and profundity of human beings would seem to these writers to have inevitable religious implications.


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