A Writer on Science and Religion

September 30, 2010 | 12 comments

In this final installment of this month’s series of posts on religion and science, I will present a different take on things from the perspective of a celebrated writer. Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. She also delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale in 2009, resulting in the book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale Univ. Press, 2010), from which I draw the following quotations and summaries.

Robinson’s central point in the book is that the scientific view of the lived life of human beings has been unacceptably downsized and simplified to fit the naturalistic model of human origins, evolution, and behavior.

Modernist or rationalist arguments are not harmonious with one another, except in their conclusion … that positivism is correct in excluding from the model of reality whatever science is (or was) not competent to verify or falsify. The one thing [the theories of Darwin, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Skinner] do have in common is the assumption that the Western understanding of what a human being is has been fundamentally in error. This understanding has been based to a great degree on religious narrative and doctrine, and religion has been the subject of their explicit rejection. But the classical and humanist traditions, also deeply influential in Western thought, are just as effectively excluded by these variously determinist and reductionist models of human nature and motivation. (p. xiii.)

The balance of the book takes what Robinson terms “parascientific literature” to task for what she believes is a flawed approach to the question of what it means to live a fully human life. Here’s her description of parascientific literature, which sounds like what is often referred by other writers as “scientism”:

By this phrase I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions. (p. 32-33.)

One example she treats is altruism, obviously a hard case for evolution by natural selection to deal with as altruistic actions (to benefit others with no obvious or expected gain to oneself) don’t seem to promote fitness or reproductive success. Recent models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism have convinced some that altruism is just a form of clever self-benefit — it’s not really altruistic at all; practitioners of alturistic acts are (perhaps unknowingly) actually benefiting themselves, and such actions are thereby reconciled with evolutionary models. It is the case that some altruistic human behavior seems more understandable in light of these models. But Robinson notes that strangers still jump into rivers to try to save drowning children not their own, and firefighters still rush into burning buildings knowing it is not their kin inside hoping for a last-minute rescue.

Robinson’s real objection to the naturalized account of human behavior as a theory of reality is that it eliminates the human mind (as traditionally conceived) from the model. After citing the philosopher John Searle, who also has objections to the way the operation of the human mind is presently modeled by many researchers, she concludes, “While it may not have been true necessarily, it has been true in fact that the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind” (p. 75).

As a writer, Robinson naturally emphasizes the particular and the individual over the general. The “curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind” that she disputes, so convenient for general models employed by researchers, denigrates art and literature (that pesky “classical and humanist tradition” referred to above), a development no writer can let pass without objection. Here is her celebration of the particular.

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to …. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. … [T]hese are words any human being can say about herself, and does say, though always with a modifier of some kind. I am hungry. I am comfortable, I am a singer, I am a cook. The abrupt descent into particularity in every statement of this kind, Being itself made an auxiliary to some momentary accident of being, may only startle in the dark of night, when the intuition comes that there is no proportion between the great given of existence and the narrow vessel of circumstance into which it is inevitably forced. “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” (p. 110-11).

She later extends the same thought from the individual to a community, and I think the reflection applies to humanity and human history as a whole, to one civilization or culture, and even to a church. Seems like a nice quote to end with.

Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify. (p. 132.)

Other posts in this T&S series:

12 Responses to A Writer on Science and Religion

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    This remeinds me of the old joke in which the meterialist says “What we can’t see is not there”, and the listener says, “I can’t see your brain.”

    A blog over at First Things right now is discussing Alvin Plantinga’s argument that the theory of Natural Selection tells us that there is no such thing as “reason” in reality, just hominid animals with material brains that have no right to claim that how they perceive and think accurately reflects the reality of the universe, and the theory thus undercuts our ability to have faith in the reasoning capacity of the brains that we use to create the theory. The claim made by many defenders of Natural Selection, that it is not a theory but is a FACT, is thus shown to be an expression of faith, since the notion that our hominid brains have access to a transcendant, incontrovertible TRUTH makes an assumption that is specifically contradicted by the theory itself.

  2. Adam Greenwood on September 30, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you for this.

  3. Bob on September 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Marilynne Robinson is a bright person, but she takes me nowhere. I don’t believe that Science or Religion uses or has a definition for the term ‘Mind’(?) So I really don’t know what she is trying to tell me. If she has a definition (or anyone does), let me know.

  4. RW on September 30, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Ugh, reductionists, deconstructionist. Life is. I am. (At least for a while.)

  5. bdelliod rotifer on October 1, 2010 at 9:47 am

    #1: Common descent (all critters, great and small descended from a single source) is a FACT, as shown by three lines of data: the anatomy of living organisms, the DNA of living organisms, and the fossil record. The “why” of common descent, Evolutionary THEORY is the best explanation (and hence, a theory) that we have of the FACT of evolution. The “Reason” in science that provides “hominid animals” the ability to accurately reflect the universe is that people do experiments. If the experiment is replicable–if the same experiment done by different people in different locations gives the same answer–then we have, indeed, found out something about the universe, whether you accept the fact or not.

    I assume you use a computer, even if you don’t believe that we have the ability ( to understand the “reality of the universe.” The idea of scientific knowledge that both you and the incoherent though lavishly be-titled Marilynne Robinson belittle have allowed the creation of these objects that would not exist, let alone work if you-all were correct. So please back away from the keyboard, given to you by the grace of science, or grant the scientific method a modicum of the respect it deserves.

    OP. Altruism is a fascinating subject that is an active area of scientific research and has been for some time. As a minor example, mice raised together exhibit distress when one of their nest-mates is hurt. Also, don’t forget the ubiquity of the golden rule (do onto others…) in human societies. Ms. Robinson is not a scientist, she holds a PhD in English, and simply does not know about what she speaks.

  6. Dave on October 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

    bdelliod rotifer, thanks for the comments.

    Many commentators, including Ms. Robinson, make the point that scientists, in making broad pronouncements beyond their narrow fields of expertise when addressing social, historical, and philosophical questions, likewise do not know about what they speak (to use your phrase). That’s the whole point of her critique of “parascientific literature.”

    Also, keep in mind this is one installment on a series of posts on this topic. You should read the other posts to get an idea of the other discussions that have taken place here.

  7. S.P. Bailey on October 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Robinson is insightful. Science is great as far as it goes, but scientism impoverishes the imagination.

  8. Jeff G on October 1, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    “This understanding has been based to a great degree on religious narrative and doctrine, and religion has been the subject of their explicit rejection.”

    I’m not sure that I agree with this. It seems to me more likely that it is the other way around: religious narrative and doctrine is based on the traditional understanding of what it is to be human.

  9. grego on October 1, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    “…religious narrative and doctrine is based on the traditional understanding of what it is to be human.”

    I don’t know. Look at Cinema Paradiso…

    “Traditional” in what way? What “religious narrative and doctrine”?

    “…denigrates art and literature (that pesky “classical and humanist tradition” referred to above), a development no writer can let pass without objection.”

    Ha ha! Loved that.

    Altruism is hardly the only thing that seems to cause problems. Is it scientific to stare at a van Gogh until your eyes get tired? Is it scientific to feel moved by poetry? Is it scientific to watch the stars? Is it scientific to be hypocritical? Is it scientific to be proud? Is it scientific to believe that faith was required for many evolutionary changes to take place (as evolutionists understand them–like thousands or millions of years for an eye to completely develop, with nothing useful all those years inbetween, but all those resources and some kind of guiding force moving it all along)? Is it scientific to be a philosopher, especially when philosophy draws an logical and rational conclusion that science itself…?

    “…scientists, in making broad pronouncements beyond their narrow fields of expertise when addressing social, historical, and philosophical questions, likewise do not know about what they speak…”
    I see this many times I read a science article, and hear the scientist say, “This is the most important discovery in this decade…/ This means that…/ No doubt…/ etc. Scientists themselves continually remind me there’s more to life/ ourlives than just “science”.

  10. Velska on October 2, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Hey, I sometimes read in “scientific” rags that talk about how “Evolution planned” something this way or that.

    NB! Evolution with a capital “E” in the middle of a sentence, and a verb like “planned” which implies conscious imagination and action. As we would use God.

    Now, I’m all for popularizing science, since I think scientific knowledge is pitifully rare in population at large, but this kind of writing just makes the wrong kinds of impressions on already uninformed and -educated.

    These days, when I get something like that thrown in a discussion with a “new age” atheist, I don’t take the bait anymore, because most of them wouldn’t know science if it hit them in the face. And I don’t want to. Hit them in the face to try it…

    I freely admit there are huge gaps in my knowledge, and as a former agnostic I am never one to knock inquisitiveness. And, also, the more I read Science the more in awe I am of the true Master of the Universe, who knows it all and much beyond. Pseudo-science, not so much; even good fiction can be more enlightening.

    But that’s a thought that Robinson dangles in front of us: what if we just say or think, “I am” and let it sink for a while? Just think of the implications of that. Would Koko be able to spontaneously form that sentence, does anyone know (or is Koko dead by now, haven’t heard anything lately…)?

  11. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi on October 11, 2010 at 5:48 am

    According to Dr. Granville Dharmawardena of Colombo University reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the “essence” of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality.
    In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes divided everything in the universe into two realms as “Res Extensa” (matter) and “Res Cogitans” (mind). Gathering knowledge within the realm of Res Extensa was called Science and the phenomenon of reincarnation got pushed into the other realm Res Cogitans which was not considered suitable for scientific probing. Science developed in the framework of Res Estensa is known as “Classical Science”. Classical science had tremendous material achievements because it helped all round growth of technology which brought about prosperity to mankind. The air of frame work of Classical Science was blown out by Henry Becquerel in 1896 by the discovery of Radioactivity. The discovery of Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein in early 20th Century gave it further blow. The advent of Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle did the rest. It is significant to note that Einstein’s discovery fall entirely within the frame work of Res Cogitans as it did not involve any experiments or measurements. Gravitation Force Theory of Newton is also an example of such observation and intuition work involving no experiments and measurements.
    Modern Science enhanced man’s knowledge surpassing the restrictions imposed by the five senses and took us to hidden areas of nature and profound changes had been introduced in procedures of science. Our ability to understand everything by way of perceptible mental pictures is reduced and it became necessary to imagine models with components which behaved in ways that had no counterparts at all in the world familiar to us. In most cases mechanisms involved in these models not only are imperceptible but also consist of elements that operate in ways never known in the world that we actually experience through sensory inputs.
    Modern science tied up the two realms, Res Extensa and Res Cogitans and made us to understand that they are not independent and cannot be completely studied independently. Within the establishment of modern science some of the aspects of nature that did not strictly adhere to the realm of Res Extensa, which were therefore earlier condemned as unbecoming of scientists to talk about have become respectable. Reincarnation falls into this category
    Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it. For example Rene Descartes’ statement “What I have said is sufficient to show clearly enough that the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body and also to give men the hope of another life after death” in 1641 confirms his belief in reincarnation. About 20 percent of those in the Western World whose religions shun reincarnation nevertheless believe it. According to opinion polls this percentage is rising.
    Lisa Miller, Religion Editor of Newsweek says that Americans are becoming more Hindus. According to 2008 Harris Poll 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation
    Steven J Rosen writes in The Reincarnation Controversy, Uncovering the Truth in World Religions (New Age Books) that belief in reincarnation allows us to see ourselves as architects of our own future. Rosen raises certain queries,‘ what is it that reincarnates from one body to another? Is it the soul? the mind? the intellect? To understand this we should suggest answer to these questions. We all know that there are four fundamental forces in the universe viz., gravitation force, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. I have written a paper entitled ‘Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator’ and presented it at the 1st International Conference on Revival of Traditional Yoga held in Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla in January 2006. In this paper I have defined soul (individual consciousness), mind and body. According to this every point of action of Gravitational Force Field is individual consciousness or soul, electromagnetic force as the force of mind and weak and strong nuclear force as the gross material force which constitute physical frame of body.
    Consciousness is All Intelligent and pervades everywhere. Although all other remaining three forces are also intelligent but they are subordinate to Gravitational Force. THIS DESCRIPTION WILL HELP TO UNDERSTAND ‘WHAT IS IT THAT REINCARNATES FROM ONE BODY TO ANOTHER.
    According to Buddhism this is not the supreme atman or soul that ties one life to another, instead it talks about past lives as evolvement of consciousness, emergence of a new personality from the same stream of consciousness.
    Reincarnation is not an exclusively Eastern precept. It is contained in some form in almost every major religion and mystical philosophy. Research indicates that it was an accepted doctrine, at least in some quarters, at the time of Christ, and is still an integral part of some sects of the Jewish tradition. The Bible contain no condemnation of the principle of reincarnation, and in fact, when Christ was asked when Elijah would return, he answered that Elijah had returned, referring to John the Baptist.
    Sakina Yusuf Khan writes in an article A Night Of Forgiveness published in The Speaking Tree: “It (Shab-e-Barat) is also a festival associated with the dead. It is believed that the souls of the dead are set free on this night to visit their relatives.” What this indicates? This is a belief in reincarnation, of course in subtle body. Sadia Dehlvi also writes in her article Jesus In Islam published in The Speaking Tree (August 29, 2010) that both Islam and Christianity believe that Christ will return to destroy the Antichrist. This is affirmation to reincarnation although in some restricted sense.
    It is clear from the above descriptions that both Islam and Christianity appear not to opposed to reincarnation. Of course, they don’t believe reincarnation in broader sense as Hindus do.
    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. The is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth of Spiritual Head Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.

  12. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi on October 12, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Now I give Radhasoami Faith view of Creation Theory. In Sar Bachan (Poetry) composed by His Holiness Soamiji Maharaj the August Founder of Radhasoami Faith the details of creation and dissolution has been described very scientifically. It is written in this Holy Book: Only He Himself (Supreme Father)and none else was there. There issued forth a great current of spirituality, love and grace (In scientific terminology we may call this current as gravitational wave). This is called His Mauj (Divine Ordainment). This was the first manifestation of Supreme Being. This Divine Ordainment brought into being three regions, viz., Agam, Alakh, and Satnam of eternal bliss. Then a current emerged with a powerful sound. It brought forth the creation of seven Surats or currents of various shades and colours (in scientific terminology we may call it electromagnetic waves). Here the true Jaman or coagulant was given (in scientific terminology this coagulant may be called as weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force). Surats, among themselves, brought the creation into being.

    These currents descended down further and brought the whole universe/multi verse into being i.e. black holes, galaxies etc. were born.


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