Elegy for Experience

Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind:  The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is a tough read.  Much of the book, originally delivered as the Terry Lectures at Yale, is annoyingly academic and recondite -- and my own annoyance with it made me realize how conditioned we have all become to polemic, and to the association of polemic with populism, its implicit equation with democratic virtue.  If you’re not expressing yourself so Joe the Plumber can follow and get het up, you’re an elitist snob.

Well, yes.  Robinson’s essays unapologetically reside at a rarefied altitude.  Much of the time, reading them -- with their lofty subtlety, learnéd name-dropping, and aversion to straight talk -- is like walking in on the middle of an academic theological discussion hundreds of years long, still being carried on in certain sheltered venues (not unlike the remote island where a Japanese soldier was still fighting World War II 40 years after it ended) in willed unawareness that out there in the world’s center of mass, “academy” has become a dirty word.

Too bad, because if a polemicist is a street fighter, in your face with a flurry of fists, Robinson is a ninja, around behind you cutting your airway—at least if you’re Pinker, Dennett, or Dawkins -- before you’re aware that anyone else is in the room.  Her evident training in both the history of ideas and formal logic makes it easy for her to get the drop on these proudly ahistorical thinkers, who feed on ad hominem frontal assaults from counter-polemicists but can’t withstand the exposure of their own ideological antecedents, false assumptions, and self-contradictions.  Let’s hope some of Robinson’s supply-side intellect trickles down, because otherwise the culture at large might never know how deftly the reductionist view of a material universe ruled by blind chance, and a humanity driven by selfish genes, has been eviscerated.

Robinson doesn’t prove that those two key dogmas of what she scathingly calls “parascience” are wrong.  Rather, she shows that the arguments for them (when they are argued for at all, rather than merely assumed) are hopelessly shoddy, and that the smugness with which the final authority of “science” is claimed for them is unwarranted.  She traces their “Now everything can be explained!” triumphalism straight to the Victorian era, with its confidence -- comical in the light of what science itself was soon to discover -- “that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them”:

This confidence was already firmly asserted by Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, in 1848.  … ‘[M]en of science … have left no gap of any importance, except in the realm of Moral and Social phenomena.   And now that man’s history has been for the first time systematically considered as a whole, and has been found to be, like all other phenomena, subject to invariable laws, the preparatory labours of modern Science are ended.’  I seriously doubt that any scientist active today, if pressed, would speak of the sufficiency of our present state of knowledge with equal assurance.  Yet in literature of this [parascientific] genre, of which Comte is also an ancestor, that tone of certainty persists, an atavistic trait that defies the evolution of its notional subject.

Robinson is religious, of course -- a private-conscience, social-justice Protestant in the grand line that descends from Calvin through the abolitionists, a lineage she traced in her previous book of essays, The Death of Adam -- but she is not here to crusade for an Intelligent Designer.  She just wants to reopen the questions -- or rather, to point out that real science reopened them almost a hundred years ago, when physics rode to the rescue of metaphysics:

It is and may always be premature to attempt, let alone to assert, a closed ontology, to say we know all we need to know in order to assess and define human nature and circumstance.   The voices that have said, “There is something more, knowledge to be had beyond and other than this knowledge,” have always been right. … The notion of accident does nothing to diminish mystery, nothing to diminish scale. …

“[T]he material” itself is an artifact of the scale at which we perceive.  We know that we abide with quarks and constellations, in a reality unknowable by us in a degree we will never be able to calculate, but reality all the same, the stuff and the matrix of our supposedly quotidian existence.  We know that within, throughout, the solid substantiality of our experience indeterminacy reigns.

Nor is Robinson, however, most interested in cosmology.  She is most interested in its witness, human consciousness, that most inexplicable of cosmic creations (embodied in a brain that is “the most complex object known to exist in the universe”); and she is most alarmed, not by proclamations of the death of God, but by the endangered status of consciousness, as both a key term in the long conversation and its acknowledged ground.  (The most rigorous “objectivity,” she points out, cannot be anything but the practice of a subjectivity that prizes it.)

What’s more, as befits her inward tradition, Robinson does not consider “consciousness” a general phenomenon, but one that is most marvelous and mysterious in that it is irreducibly individual.  The meanness of parascience, in her view, is not only its reduction of everything to (a fantasy of) stone-dumb matter, but its determination to generalize about the motives of human beings.  The exclusion of consciousness, Robinson implies, is a direct threat to individuality and individualism. That there is an intimate, chicken-and-egg interdependence between the dawning of private self-awareness and the apprehension or imagining of its Witness -- between “I am” and “I AM” -- is an idea central to Robinson’s book, although she barely breathes it, because she is here to fight for the inherent value of subjectivity whether you believe it has indisseverable roots in religion or not.