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Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson

Saturday 29th May 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury's review of "Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self" by Marilynne Robinson. He hails it as one of the most significant contributions yet on the role of faith in modern society. The review was published in the Telegraph newspaper.

Nick Hornby – not exactly an obvious soulmate for her – wrote recently that Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had for the first time given him a sense of how Christianity "might be used to assist thought". Absence of Mind, a small and fiercely concentrated book containing lectures given at Yale, will amply bear out that reaction.

Like her earlier essays, collected in 1998 in The Death of Adam, the lectures focus on the oddly obsessive urge in various kinds of contemporary thought to dissolve the mind itself, to deny the evidential importance of what it feels like to be a conscious subject.

Assorted popular scientists and psychologists have insisted that what we think we are doing, what we experience as thinking or judging or deciding, is illusory: we are self-deceived, because we are in fact acting out a script prescribed by genetically driven imperatives, or by the ergonomics of impersonal forces in the psyche.

This "exclusion of felt life" overflows into wider cultural attitudes and has the effect of lowering our expectations of ourselves – and so of reducing our imaginative reach. As Robinson puts it starkly at one point: who are "we", if the entire life of "reflection and emotion" is simply the method adopted by genes for their self-propagation?

She does not say this in so many words, but one obvious consequence is that the work of the novelist or dramatist is not only useless but actively misleading on such a basis. The effort to refine our listening to or reading of human language and interaction is a waste of time if there is no interaction in any meaningful sense, only the play of forces.

But she does not confine herself to lamenting the consequences of such a philosophy. Some things may after all be true, however unwelcome. On the contrary, she undertakes a rigorous examination of the argumentation of the reductionists, and shows time and again the extraordinary leaps in reasoning, the begging of questions, the fallacies and mythmaking that go blithely unchallenged in the world of what she calls "parascience" – popularised and moralised scientific journalism of the kind that has such impressive sales.

She distinguishes this carefully and consistently from specific scientific argumentation, making the all-important point that a scientist outside their special field has no particular claim to philosophical acumen.

Thus she wants to know where the cultural pressure comes from that apparently bids us to conceal from ourselves the selfish truth about the genetic battle for survival by clothing it in myths of ethical motivation, especially altruism. The whole of the second lecture is devoted to this question.

Why does the evolved consciousness not admit its own determined character? Why is it that an impersonal process has thrown up not only the illusion of the self but the fictions of motivation, above all of something like selfless motivation? In this context, she addresses and thoroughly dismantles the extraordinary theory of cultural transmission by way of "memes" – units of cultural habit somehow transferred from brain to brain like genes propagating themselves. The gallop of false analogies involved in this theory and the lack of anything remotely resembling evidence for it have been spelt out by a good few critics and it is ironic that so wildly speculative a scheme has been used as a stick with which to beat theology.

Robinson goes a bit further in pointing out that, while genetics and "memetics" are supposed to work in the same sort of way, the latter is actually seriously subversive of the former, in that it allows the brain to be "infected" with ideas that can overrule the genetic impulse. And where do these dangerous anomalies actually come from? "One might wonder," she muses, "if some unacknowledged metaphysics lies behind the parascientific positing of these immortal, incorporeal destinies that possess us to their own inscrutable ends, rather in the manner of the gods of Greek mythology."

The third lecture offers a powerful analysis of the Freudian myth of selfhood, seeing it, surely correctly, as the attempt to resist a deeply malign and destructive appeal to culture as determinative of human destiny. The racist resonances of this in the Central Europe of the early 20th century, along with the intellectual respectability given to these atavistic ideas by thinkers in the lineage of Fichte and Nietzsche (she unfashionably but rightly refuses absolution to the latter as regards racial mythology), make it profoundly important to construct "a model of human nature that enters history already moral and religious... and already guilty and self-alienated".

Alienation is no one's fault – least of all the fault of the beleaguered Jewish minority popularly blamed for diluting the pure stream of racial consciousness. This radical political reading of Freud allows Robinson to do justice to the seriousness and the tragic sensibility of Freud – while pointing out that he ends up in the same place as the far less interesting parascientists she has already dealt with. He too dissolves the self, he too claims that "the mind is not to be trusted". Freud, in other words, for all his moral seriousness, will not get us out of our difficulties.

"Whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself." The more the definition of mind is left to the parascientist – to Dennett and Dawkins and to reductive neurologists such as Steven Pinker and Michael Gazzaniga – the more political, moral and imaginative trouble we are corporately in.

Pushing religion out of the public sphere in the name of rationality, she insists, has had the effect of giving more room to world views that trivialise or demean the "felt life" of the human consciousness – the complexity, the liberty, the innovative capacity (and the self-delusional temptations) of mind as we experience it.

She is not alone in implying that without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.

But she makes the case with exceptional elegance and authority – the authority not only of one of the unmistakably great novelists of the age but of a clear and logical mind that is wholly intolerant of intellectual cliché. She does not set herself to charm the reader, and this book has a greater density (and sophistication) of argument than many three times its length; but it is one of the most significant contributions yet to the current quarrels about faith, science and rationality. At once luminous and relentless, it challenges the ease with which we have got used to the systematic alibis in modern thought that lift the burden of the self and its history at the price of killing the human.

Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the author of Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (Continuum, £12.99)

Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

by Marilynne Robinson

176PP, Yale, £16.99

Buy now for £14.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) from Telegraph Books

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