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In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robins In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality. By defending the importance of individual reflection, Robinson celebrates the power and variety of human consciousness in the tradition of William James. She explores the nature of subjectivity and considers the culture in which Sigmund Freud was situated and its influence on his model of self and civilization. Through keen interpretations of language, emotion, science, and poetry, Absence of Mind restores human consciousness to its central place in the religion-science debate.


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In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robins In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality. By defending the importance of individual reflection, Robinson celebrates the power and variety of human consciousness in the tradition of William James. She explores the nature of subjectivity and considers the culture in which Sigmund Freud was situated and its influence on his model of self and civilization. Through keen interpretations of language, emotion, science, and poetry, Absence of Mind restores human consciousness to its central place in the religion-science debate.

30 review for Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    A clearly written and closely reasoned series of lectures--five in all--concerning the conscious mind, and how what it tells us is invariably excluded from what Robinson terms "para-scientific literature," e.g., writing that adopts the assumptions of science--and often an outdated form of science--to criticize religious beliefs and other spiritual assumptions. Robinson takes issue with this kind of writing--often polemical in nature--because it adopts the prejudices of science without accepting A clearly written and closely reasoned series of lectures--five in all--concerning the conscious mind, and how what it tells us is invariably excluded from what Robinson terms "para-scientific literature," e.g., writing that adopts the assumptions of science--and often an outdated form of science--to criticize religious beliefs and other spiritual assumptions. Robinson takes issue with this kind of writing--often polemical in nature--because it adopts the prejudices of science without accepting any of its rigor, and because it excludes a valuable source of information about the origins and workings of moral impulses and spirituality . . . the human mind observing itself.

  2. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    The Religion of Science The psychological infirmity of projection is probably the cause of more strife in the world than any other. Those who oppose or impede us are not merely wrong; they are, we are sure, misinformed, incompetent or ill-willed. We impose these judgments based on their opposition not because we actually know anything about our opponents. We do this largely because we fear our own ignorance, lack of talent, and questionable motives. Our own defects are attributed to those over wh The Religion of Science The psychological infirmity of projection is probably the cause of more strife in the world than any other. Those who oppose or impede us are not merely wrong; they are, we are sure, misinformed, incompetent or ill-willed. We impose these judgments based on their opposition not because we actually know anything about our opponents. We do this largely because we fear our own ignorance, lack of talent, and questionable motives. Our own defects are attributed to those over whom we want to exercise power. Marilynne Robinson does a very good line in neurotic psychological projection. She does not like science; or at least she does not like her idea of what science is, which is a clear attribution of the defects of her own religious position to those with whom she disagrees. The remarkable thing is that in order to make her slurs about science, she must disavow her own principles of religion as well as a long history of Christian theology. Robinson starts with a self-contradiction. She believes that most people (by which she means most intellectuals, particularly sociologists and analytic philosophers) think that they think differently than did their ancestors of several hundred years ago - mainly because they no longer speak and write in terms of religion. She disagrees: “...my argument [is] that the mind as felt experience had been excluded from important fields of modern thought. I meant to restrict myself, more or less, to looking at the characteristic morphology of the otherwise very diverse schools of modern thought for which the mind/ brain is a subject. But I find that these schools are themselves engrossed with religion.” So quite apart from the extensive scientific and philosophical research into the “mind as felt experience” and the rejection in most of this research of religious terminology (has she heard of phenomenology and existentialism?), Robinson claims that not only has there been no epochal shift in thought since the Enlightenment, but also that science is a special kind of religion which is inferior to Christianity. And just to round out the contradiction, she would like us all to stop thinking the way we do about science and religion! Oddly, however, Robinson is right. Science is a religion according to the way she would like religion to be. And it is a religion which is superior to Christianity precisely according to the criteria she uses. Her view of Christianity is that it has always been about continuous assimilation, interpretation and re-interpretations spiritual experience. I don’t think any post-modernist philosopher or the most hard-bitten physicist would disagree with the value of such a religion. One can only wish that her vision of religion were shared by her fellow-Christians! Robinson, however, projects onto science the doctrinaire character of Christianity by presuming science is defined by fixed principles. This is a characterisation of the Christian religion not science, which changes its methods and principles of proof about as often as it does its theories. There is nothing in science considered immune from learning and modification, from theory, to method, to the people engaged in debate. Science, or more generally reason, has no fixed definition. The criteria for what constitutes both are constantly shifting. Christianity on the other hand holds that there are fundamental principles - like the existence of God, and any number of abstruse doctrines - which are not matters of investigation nor are they subject to change. This is precisely how Christian sects define themselves - as adherents of some originary doctrine. The fact that there are many interpretations of this originary doctrine tends to make them more rigid rather than more curious. Therefore, while religion as ritualistic and ethical community may indeed be compatible with science, religious faith of the kind promoted by Christianity is not - because it claims there are things which cannot be learned about further, not because of what it claims to have learned. There may indeed be things which cannot be learned about; but we cannot possibly know what these things are. This is what might be called the principle of scientific humility: we can only investigate what we have at hand. This principle has a religious origin. It is historically derived from what is called negative theology - the idea that whatever God is, he, she, or it cannot be captured in language; God is beyond our capacity to learn about. Negative theology has a long orthodox religious history; it is accepted without exception by all Christian theologians. It is also ignored by everyone of these theologians as soon as they start to write about the divine. Only science takes negative theology seriously. It simply refrains from idolatry by being circumspect and highly conditional in its claims. So in that sense, but only in that sense, is science an alternative religion. And it is also in that sense that science is a superior religion. It recognises the impossibility of achieving knowledge of the divine. So it avoids the presumption and blasphemy of theological speculation. Science does not condemn theology as poetry only as pretending to knowledge that it cannot attain in light of its own principles. It is this which Robinson cannot admit - that the problem she has is not with science but with her religious colleagues, and is within her own mind.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    I have a hard time with Marilynne Robinson's non-fiction--I find her essays to be a little too allusive, too oblique, too given to assuming I know things that I don't know. I just have a hard time following her. I'm often unsure whether she's being ironic. Other readers seem not to have these problems. Nevertheless, from the 66% of this that I think I understood, I certainly was convinced. She comes down very hard on the "parascience" of our time--the Steven Pinkers, E.O. Wilsons, Daniel Dennett I have a hard time with Marilynne Robinson's non-fiction--I find her essays to be a little too allusive, too oblique, too given to assuming I know things that I don't know. I just have a hard time following her. I'm often unsure whether she's being ironic. Other readers seem not to have these problems. Nevertheless, from the 66% of this that I think I understood, I certainly was convinced. She comes down very hard on the "parascience" of our time--the Steven Pinkers, E.O. Wilsons, Daniel Dennetts, who write with the appearance of certitude about matters outside their fields of expertise. She accuses them--in one of the sarcastic quips that I actually got--of assuming that they're playing with a full deck, of assuming that what is discoverable by science is sufficient to explain everything. She finally comes down to a position which I think is pretty much my own--one sometimes called (not by her) "physical agnosticism." That is, she admits that everything may be material (physical)--even thoughts, emotions, and selves--but that we really are only beginning to learn that we don't know very much about what physicality means. Quantum physics has raised too many contradictions and anomalies about the underlying structure of what we take to be physical for us to be certain about much of anything.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    Eh. A rambling, less coherent extension of the essay 'Darwinism' in her "Death of Adam," this one deals with what Robinson calls 'parascience,' essentially, the kind of populist journalism written by Dennet, Dawkins, Pinker and their ilk, with the 'problem' of altruism for their dogma, and with Freud. The argument here is weaker than in 'Darwinism,' and simultaneously more polemical, which means people are going to give this one star on the basis that Robinson is a crazy religious nut-bag who do Eh. A rambling, less coherent extension of the essay 'Darwinism' in her "Death of Adam," this one deals with what Robinson calls 'parascience,' essentially, the kind of populist journalism written by Dennet, Dawkins, Pinker and their ilk, with the 'problem' of altruism for their dogma, and with Freud. The argument here is weaker than in 'Darwinism,' and simultaneously more polemical, which means people are going to give this one star on the basis that Robinson is a crazy religious nut-bag who doesn't understand science, or five stars on the basis that she is a crazy religious nut-bag who rejects science. That she isn't, and doesn't, won't deter those reviewers. The basic approach here is: many modern theories use supposedly scientific claims to make social-scientific claims; the scientific claims are often mistaken and the social-scientific claims are almost always ludicrously reductionist (people are not, in fact, ants). Instead, we need a model of intellectual inquiry which grants to human beings a special kind of rich experience that we can call, say, 'mind' or 'culture' or 'art' or any of those big words. Parascientific attempts to 'explain' this experience are very bad, which should be obvious to anyone who has a facebook account and has friends who constantly link those 'scientific' experiments proving, for instance, that men in relationships lie to themselves about how attractive they find women, based on the assumption that all men find all women who are at a certain stage of their menstrual cycle attractive (and ignoring, for instance, the possibility that *not* all men find all women at that stage attractive). Maybe being in a relationship is something valuable that men want to hold onto more than they want to bang hot chix? But nobody needs a hundred and fifty pages to make that argument, and the great one liners and beautiful sentences that you'll find in "Death of Adam" are sorely missing here, and her inability to understand German philosophy from Fichte through Nietzsche to Freud is on greater display. Too bad.

  5. 4 out of 5

    robin friedman

    A Novelist's Thoughts On The Mind Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Gilead" portrays an aging, dying minister in a small Iowa town who reflects upon his life and family, on God, and on the United States for the benefit of his young son. The book is written eloquently and poignantly. "Gilead" is thoughtful in its simplicity, but never forgets its form as a work of fiction. I was eager to read more of Robinson. Instead of turning to her other novels, I found her recent book of essay A Novelist's Thoughts On The Mind Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Gilead" portrays an aging, dying minister in a small Iowa town who reflects upon his life and family, on God, and on the United States for the benefit of his young son. The book is written eloquently and poignantly. "Gilead" is thoughtful in its simplicity, but never forgets its form as a work of fiction. I was eager to read more of Robinson. Instead of turning to her other novels, I found her recent book of essays, "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self." (2010) I also found an excellent review that Robinson had written for the December 13, 2010, issue of "The Nation" of "The Heart of William James", a new selection of essays by the great American philosopher with an introduction by Robert Richardson. The Heart of William James (John Harvard Library) Judging from "Absence of Mind", Robinson has learned a great deal from James. In particular, Robinson focuses on James' pluralism and on his great interest in broad philosophical questions together with his scientific efforts. James opposed explanatory monism -- the effort to explain all human experience by reducing it to a single theory -- whether that theory was Hegelian idealism or scientific materialism. Investigative trains need to be followed where they lead but not necessarily beyond them. Human life requires a multiplicity of of explanatory paths, and lived experience, for James, always has primacy over theory rather than the other way round. Throughout his life, James struggled with questions of theism and ultimately developed his own concept of an evolving God that, to the extent I understand James, owes little to traditional Judaism or Christianity. Much of what is best in "Absence of Mind" seems to me the result of Robinson's engagement with James. The essays in "Absence of Mind" derive from lectures Robinson gave at Yale under the auspices of the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the light of Science and Philosophy. The aim of these lectures is to broaden and purify religion by considering and integrating within its framework the teachings of the sciences. Accordingly, Robinson takes as her broad subject the relationship between religion and certain forms of thinking claiming to derive from science. Her broader subject is the individual human mind and its subjectivity and the creation of art and culture. Unlike, "Gilead" which moves with simplicity and unforced persuasion, "Absence of Mind" is dense, difficult, and at times sharply polemical. The style of the book is elegant and shows the personal touch of a creative writer. And the theme of the book is akin to "Gilead" as Robinson celebrates self and humanity against various modernisms. There is a great deal of insight in "Absence of Mind" but Robinson frequently does not help herself, as, it seems to me, she elides important distinctions, moves too quickly at times, and offers illustrations and critiques that sometimes appear to have little relevance to the points she is trying to make. This short book is a struggle. It is worthwhile, but Robinson is less effective as a philosopher or essayist than she is as a creative writer. Robinson targets what she terms "parascience" -- which many modern writers refer to as scientism. It is a form of reductivism that tries to show how scientific discoveries in one or several fields suffice to answer questions outside the field and to eliminate or rephrase questions of religion, philosophy or, broadly, human culture. For Robinson, these reductivisms, which are inconsistent with each other, brush away the individual mind, its subjectivity, and its ability to reflect upon itself. What she says is valuable and important. It seems to me that she doesn't distinguish clearly enough different approaches to reductivism. At times, she speaks in the language of transcendence, or Cartesianism, by apparently considering mind as a thing separate from physical bodies. Usually she avoids this ontological dualism. In the last and best of the four essays included here, "Thinking Again" she seems willing to grant that the mind in an important sense is "part of" the brain.(my term) She says that human inner life and culture cannot even so be explained solely in physicalist or evolutionary or other reductivist terms. This too is an important point, but it should not be conflated with ontological dualism, and it should be seen to be independent of any necessary commitment to theism. The reductionists Robinson considers include Sigmund Freud in a long and interesting essay on Freud's metapsychology. Robinson does not challenge the analysis Freud made of individual patients (although she might) but instead she attacks claims that Freud made in his late books about the origins of civilization and religion in claimed universal acts of sexual repression. Robinson argues against this claim as reductivist and as based upon Freud's own extrapolation from the political situation in the Europe of his day. What she says is interesting but not necessarily convincing insofar as it proposes to explain the origins of Freud's theories. Other more contemporary writers that Robinson considers and rejects for reductivism include Herbert Spencer, and the contemporary writers E.O. Wilson, James Kugel, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, among others. The first essay, "On Human Nature", I found a confusing effort in which Robinson moves from James' treatment of religion in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" to other ostensibly scientific approaches to religion which would remove the importance of the heart of the individual. The second essay, "The Strange History of Altruism" argues that sociobiologists and other reductionists are unable to account for the prevalence of altruism in human thought and behavior. The remaining two essays, on Freud, and on mind-brain reductivism, are more challenging than the first two essays, and I have touched on them earlier. Robinson is at her best when she describes the intimacies of the human heart and the achievements of human culture. Thus she writes well of "the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word 'I' and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. 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, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently." (p. 110) Robinson writes well and convincingly when she speaks in her own voice and discusses individual subjectivity and human culture. She also did well in her focus on William James, a thinker who will repay many rereadings and rethinkings. In her attacks on scientism, I think Robinson is broadly correct, but her considerations of specific authors and positions tends to be fuzzy and obscure. Robin Friedman

  6. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Review title: Incident or accident? The great metaphysician Jimmy Buffet worked that question into a song lyric worth quoting here Now we're back where we belong Without a clue and still without A master plan Incident or accident It all depends on if you're meant To understand apropos to the subject of Absence of Mind, this slim volume of essays by Robinson. The Mind as incident (intentional existence) or accident (Darwinian evolution) is very much present in Robinson's mind as she writes these essays Review title: Incident or accident? The great metaphysician Jimmy Buffet worked that question into a song lyric worth quoting here Now we're back where we belong Without a clue and still without A master plan Incident or accident It all depends on if you're meant To understand apropos to the subject of Absence of Mind, this slim volume of essays by Robinson. The Mind as incident (intentional existence) or accident (Darwinian evolution) is very much present in Robinson's mind as she writes these essays as part of an endowed lecture series on "Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy." If you have approached any of her other fiction or non-fiction (I'd start with the classic What are We Doing Here), you know which side she's coming down on in the mind/brain discussion: "that accident does not explain us, that we are meant to be human." (p. 72) But as I have felt from my first reading Robinson is at heart meant to be a theologian, or at least that is where her heart is at when she writes the most eloquently: Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these 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. (p. 110)At the same time, Robinson, ever a contrarian, turns the arguments of science against itself by referencing the bizarre findings of recent physics as examples of science which seems as unreal as the most spiritual of feelings or incorporeal of souls, and proceeds to defend the existence of the mind, the soul, and the incidental (not accidental) human being with reasoning based on scientific hypotheses (p. 116-119). As she writes, the "ancient and universal theological institution" of a God-created world and the modern theory of infinite multiverses of which we are the only known of many possible evolved intelligences both allow "the human mind to see around its edges, so to speak--to acknowledge the potential in the interstices of the actual." (p. 122-123) As befits a volume printed by a university publisher and funded by an academic endowment, Robinson includes notes and a bibliography of her sources (but not her arguments, which are strictly her own), and a topical index, which is unusual among her writings. It isn't a large volume, 135 small-format pages that can be quickly read but not as quickly digested. It all depends on if you're meant to understand.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    I have to admit that, as a fan of some of Robinson's other work (Gilead, The Death of Adam, a few essays and reviews), I was disappointed with Absence of Mind. As a religious person who agrees with her thesis--that atheists like Dennett and Harris have missed something crucial about human consciousness--I didn't find the kind of rigorous argument for which I had hoped. Like the New England Transcendentalists, on whom she draws, Robinson is coyly vague about just how specific religious beliefs re I have to admit that, as a fan of some of Robinson's other work (Gilead, The Death of Adam, a few essays and reviews), I was disappointed with Absence of Mind. As a religious person who agrees with her thesis--that atheists like Dennett and Harris have missed something crucial about human consciousness--I didn't find the kind of rigorous argument for which I had hoped. Like the New England Transcendentalists, on whom she draws, Robinson is coyly vague about just how specific religious beliefs relate to specific, theoretically understood aspects of human existence. While she gets in some good jabs and some gotcha-style criticism, as Sarah Palin might put it, she ends up coming across as a bit of a know-it-all and less of a careful thinker here. Some sections (such as the extensive historical background on Freud) seem oriented more toward showing off her (relatively) original research rather than toward building a coherent case for why her opponents are wrong. In the end, her case seems to amount to the worst kind of "God of the gaps"-type argument. Like intelligent design theorists do with biology, Robinson seems to use human cognition as a means of saying "It's really complicated, too complicated for us to understand, therefore something beyond the physical world likely exists, QED." Unfortunately, this is neither philosophically nor theologically satisfying. Theologically, it claims very little beyond that human beings are searching for something spiritual (which is true, but gives us little that someone like Sam Harris wouldn't affirm). Philosophically, it meanders through a ton of issues that are hotly debated by specialists without the kind of rigor that would convince a non-specialist like myself that Robinson has done more work in those fields than various specialists (philosophers of mind, metaphysicians, philosophers of religion, etc.) already have. Still, I gave this three stars because it is characteristically well-written, even if not perfectly argued or conceived.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Corinne E. Blackmer

    Robinson was invited by Yale to give the Terry lectures on the relationship between science and religion. These essays are the result of that invitation. It is quite easy to see why Yale wanted Robinson to give these lectures (in 2009). She had produced a first novel that was luminescent in its implied spirituality and, after that, Gilead, which explicitly deals with two Christian ministers and their theological beliefs--in an extraordinarily moving fashion. She had also published her fine essay Robinson was invited by Yale to give the Terry lectures on the relationship between science and religion. These essays are the result of that invitation. It is quite easy to see why Yale wanted Robinson to give these lectures (in 2009). She had produced a first novel that was luminescent in its implied spirituality and, after that, Gilead, which explicitly deals with two Christian ministers and their theological beliefs--in an extraordinarily moving fashion. She had also published her fine essays on religion and science--the Death of Adam. So, she was a natural for this year-long position. However, this work occasionally has the aura of made-to-order work and does not, on the whole, have the punch of her earlier set of essays, Death of Adam. Having said that, her original essay on Freud (which, for whatever reasons, some other reviewers didn't like) I found one of the best pieces on Freud I have ever read. According to Robinson, many of the salient features of Freud's psychosexual theories can be traced back to the anti-Semitism he confronted in Vienna in the earlier twentieth century, which such passions were becoming virulently violent. The predominant view was that Jews were artificial and cosmopolitan outsiders who were not part of the rhetoric of racial and national authenticity. Against this, Freud produced a theory that set all human beings as products of a cannibalistic devouring and murder of the father, accompanied by guilt. Fascinating and convincing, particularly to this Jewish reader. There have been other complaints about the learnedness of this book, and reading it might requite that the reader look up names and references. I enjoyed it much, without thinking it the best production of this remarkable, salient, brilliant mind.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    Robinson dazzles me again with her non-fiction, this a somewhat continuation of what she explored in "The Death of Adam," that is the lack of intellectualism in today's religions. The difference is here she explores the proliferation of what she calls "parascience" - those thinkers from Bertrand Russell to today's Hitchens and Hawkins, who believe that since science has explained much of what the brain does, religion is no longer necessary. She refutes this claim and instead posits that even tho Robinson dazzles me again with her non-fiction, this a somewhat continuation of what she explored in "The Death of Adam," that is the lack of intellectualism in today's religions. The difference is here she explores the proliferation of what she calls "parascience" - those thinkers from Bertrand Russell to today's Hitchens and Hawkins, who believe that since science has explained much of what the brain does, religion is no longer necessary. She refutes this claim and instead posits that even though science has brought us forward, there's still an edge to thought and experience that it can't explain, a void into which philosophy and religion must probe with wonder. I was delighted to read her well thought out arguments on this case, as it's something I've thought about for some time now, how religion and science often ask the same questions, yet are so at odds with each other in our national conversations. If you've ever asked these same questions, or if you've read some of the previously mentioned authors, this book is a great companion.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Hiskes

    I'm not normally interested in apologetics (i.e., rational defense of religion), and I didn't give this dense book the careful reading it requires, but I'm drawn to Robinson's sense that modern "parascientific" accounts of humanity have a deeply limiting conception of the human mind. Reducing us all to a bund of evolutionary impulses just isn't very interesting, never mind that it overlooks the collected wisdom of thousands of years of spiritual, cultural, and artistic traditions. "What is man t I'm not normally interested in apologetics (i.e., rational defense of religion), and I didn't give this dense book the careful reading it requires, but I'm drawn to Robinson's sense that modern "parascientific" accounts of humanity have a deeply limiting conception of the human mind. Reducing us all to a bund of evolutionary impulses just isn't very interesting, never mind that it overlooks the collected wisdom of thousands of years of spiritual, cultural, and artistic traditions. "What is man that thou art mindful of him?"

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alex Stroshine

    In "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self," Marilynne Robinson writes a concise, stimulating rebuttal against modern "para-scientific" thinkers who promulgate a materialist view of humankind. Like C.S. Lewis excoriating Gaius and Titius in "The Abolition of Man," Marilynne Robinson takes aim at certain thinkers, particularly Sigmund Freud, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Auguste Comte, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. She critiques the belief that humans a In "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self," Marilynne Robinson writes a concise, stimulating rebuttal against modern "para-scientific" thinkers who promulgate a materialist view of humankind. Like C.S. Lewis excoriating Gaius and Titius in "The Abolition of Man," Marilynne Robinson takes aim at certain thinkers, particularly Sigmund Freud, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Auguste Comte, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. She critiques the belief that humans are simply motivated by the desire to carry on their genes, arguing that this cannot answer satisfactorily the purpose of altruism. Readers of Lewis will also detect a clear rejection of "chronological snobbery" by Robinson; she complains that the thinkers she critiques disparage the past and naively assume that all of its ideas are outdated and outmoded. As well, she highlights how narrow parascientific thinking; if the cosmos is simply the result of accident, little more can be said about meaning or purpose whereas if it was intentionally formed by a Creator, this leads us to have to think about such things as purpose and telos. The point that stood out most for me was that Robinson notes that modern materialist worldviews contradict one another but that this is rarely acknowledged (unlike critics of religion who claim the contradictory tenets of say, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism thereby proves all religion false and illusory); the Marxist has a different anthropology than the Freudian.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tyler Grant

    The author was featured on The Daily Show and is from Iowa. The book sounded interesting so I picked it up. It is a short book, but don't let that fool you. The author writes in difficult prose more suited for a book on philosophy. The main premise is very interesting and relevant as a balance to the scientific discoveries of the past few centuries. The premise is that evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis have taken away from our inward self. They do this by claiming to be able to explain all The author was featured on The Daily Show and is from Iowa. The book sounded interesting so I picked it up. It is a short book, but don't let that fool you. The author writes in difficult prose more suited for a book on philosophy. The main premise is very interesting and relevant as a balance to the scientific discoveries of the past few centuries. The premise is that evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis have taken away from our inward self. They do this by claiming to be able to explain all or a large part of our behavior. Sometimes it seems as if there is no place for people to make any decisions, they are just a product of evolution or psychology. For example, Freud tried to explain nearly all behavior in accordance to his theories. Evolutionary theory tries to explain all behavior in terms of reproductive fitness. For an author like Robinson, and a member of the community of creative arts, there is something wrong with this. So this book is simply a high-brow rebellion against the modern sciences that purport to know more about ourselves than we do. It's foolishness to throw out any useful information or methods from evolutionary theory or psychology, but I think her point is well-taken. The myth of self where each person can overcome their environment and can be more than than anyone else defines them as is a more useful and helpful myth of self than one where everyone is simply a product of external forces.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jef Sneider

    In this collection of essays, Marilynne Robnson starts out as a critic. Her targets are those scientific writers of the 20th and 21st centuries who have sought to take the products of contemporary scientific inquiry and blend them into a coherent commentary on the meaning of life and the universe for the general public. Ms. Robinson does not like their method of inquiry, their style of presentation or their conclusions. She labels it “parascience,” and indeed it is. The scientists in question in In this collection of essays, Marilynne Robnson starts out as a critic. Her targets are those scientific writers of the 20th and 21st centuries who have sought to take the products of contemporary scientific inquiry and blend them into a coherent commentary on the meaning of life and the universe for the general public. Ms. Robinson does not like their method of inquiry, their style of presentation or their conclusions. She labels it “parascience,” and indeed it is. The scientists in question include those such as Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins who “present an assertive popular literature,” attempting to describe “the mind as if from the posture of science.” She seems to want to criticize such writing as shallow, in that it claims scientific objectivity without using “the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished.” In making such a statement, she implies that readers like myself are deluded into thinking that statements about the nature of the brain, the self and mind, God and religion when made by these writers are true with no recognition of the limited nature of the scientific underpinning that might be present. That may be fun for her, to give herself a platform for criticism, but in the end it is nonsense. Of course, she has no scientific background that I could discern, and claims none; she is just a writer. I find it strange that her writing is almost impenetrable with complex sentences and a vocabulary that calls for the reader to keep a dictionary at the ready. Is it really necessary to write in such an opaque manner to sound erudite and intelligent in criticizing those who write with clarity of the difficulties of understanding the implications of modern scientific discoveries? Do we really need to ponder the “hermeneuticization of philosophy” or “polemics against religion” as “hermeneutics of condescension?” And what is chthonic? Tell me before you look it up. She disagrees with those who “attribute the universe in all its complexity to accident.” I don’t see that she takes a position in opposition except to show that those who negate the religious impulse, often using science and scientific explanations as the alternative, have failed to take into account the profound limitation of their own science and a failure to consider that their pronouncements are limited by the time and place from whence they arise. In this she is surely right, but it doesn’t mean that the contemporary reader isn’t aware that everything written today could be proven completely wrong tomorrow. I did love her discussion of Freud and the way in which his immersion in the Austrian culture that was in the process of degenerating into Nazi Germany unconsciously infused his theories and writing. Hers is an interesting and, to me, novel analysis of the great analyst. For some reason the writing in the section on Freud was very readable. This is obviously a very intelligent and gifted writer who is widely read and thoughtful. Reading her musings on the mind and science and religion, Freud, Darwin and the meaning of life are challenging and enlightening. I hope to read one or more of her celebrated novels. In the end, in her final chapter, “Thinking again,” about the brain and the mind, she is eloquent as she writes, “here we are, a gaudy effervescence of consciousness, staggeringly improbable in light of everything we know about the reality that contains us.” The human brain might just be “the most complex object known to exist in the universe.” The brain is also just a lump of meat, but “the brain is capable of such lofty and astonishing things that their expression has been given the names mind, and soul, and spirit.” I share her joy and amazement at the very existence of the world, the universe and her mind (and mine) in it. I am reminded of a quote I took from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man: "To our sense of mystery and wonder the world is too incredible, too meaningful for us, and it's existence the most unlikely, the most unbelievable fact, contrary to all reasonable expectations."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Derek

    This is the third book that I have read by Marilynne Robinson, and I am starting to get more of a feel for some of the themes of her work. One of her themes seems to be mystery. Specifically the mystery of the human mind. In Absence of Mind she argues that those who argue that there is no such thing as a mind are practitioners of what she calls “parascience.” Basically, this is a kind of quasi- or pseudo-science that gets passed off as the real thing. She cites Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, a This is the third book that I have read by Marilynne Robinson, and I am starting to get more of a feel for some of the themes of her work. One of her themes seems to be mystery. Specifically the mystery of the human mind. In Absence of Mind she argues that those who argue that there is no such thing as a mind are practitioners of what she calls “parascience.” Basically, this is a kind of quasi- or pseudo-science that gets passed off as the real thing. She cites Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Pinker as three salient examples of those who practice parascience. According to Robinson, they are the progeny of thinkers like Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, who said in 1848, “[Scientists] have left no gap of any importance, except in the region of Moral and Social phenomena” (Quoted by Robinson on 33). All of this is to say, according to Robinson, that parascience is the premature attempt to assert “a closed ontology, to say we know all we need to know in order to assess and define human nature and circumstance” (34). It is premature because it draws conclusions before enough evidence has been gathered to support them. And, according to Robinson, and I tend to agree, this parascience actually turns out to be anti-scientific. It replaces the search for knowledge with the search for ways to close the doors on certain purported knowledge. Ultimately, it is a counterfeited version of science—it claims to know something (i.e., that there are no such things as minds, gods, spirits, etc.) and to use science to justify this knowledge. It’s all a bit vague, though, for the parascientist. It’s not clear that “science” can actually do the justifying work these parascientists want (or need) it to do, says Robinson. And if that doesn’t work, then these writers, like Pinker, “dismiss these things [i.e., minds, gods, spirits, etc.] as insoluble, as if that were a legitimate reason to dismiss any question” (130). Contra the parascientists, Robinson argues that “every real question is fruitful, as the history of human thought so clearly demonstrates. And ‘fruitful’ is by no means a synonym for ‘soluble’” (130). She argues that we cannot dismiss evidence coming from subjective inner experience just because it is subjective and inner. In fact, she says, it is a great offense to science to dismiss so much of the most relevant and salient evidence for minds (i.e., what it feels like to be a mind, inner experience, etc.) and to act as if that settles the question. To assert that there are no minds is to ignore what is perhaps those propositions that have perhaps the greatest weight of evidence in their favor. For it does indeed *seem* that we have minds. It seems this way anytime there is any seeming whatsoever for us. I think the book is provocative, and as usual, Robinson does a good job challenging the kind of academic groupthink that it is so easy to fall prey to: she simply says, “so why does everything think that idea [parascience] is so great? What makes it so great?” The question is merely a plea for humility. And sometimes this plea can reveal the farce of the emperor’s new clothes. For often claims are advanced as the *obvious truths* when they are not so obvious, but we are all afraid to speak up and say so. Ultimately, the book is a challenge to the new-atheist brand of scientism. The challenge comes by way of an exhortation to the virtue of humility. Scientific progress has always been marked by those moments of profound humility when one begins to open oneself to the possibility that one has gotten things wrong. Of course, ego often drives these changes, and false humility muddies the waters of history. I liked the book, but of the three I have read (Gilead, When I was Child I Read Books, and this book, Absence of Mind) it stands in third place. I recommend the book to those who are especially enamored by new-atheism as a kind of challenge, I recommend it to the philosopher of mind as an interesting non-specialist view on philosophy of mind issues, and I recommend it to the general reader as straightforwardly thought provoking reading. Still, I don’t think it’s my favorite Robinson book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Adam Robinson

    Philosophy is one of those things that people think they don't have when in reality all of us do. There are thoughts, ideas, and understandings that shape how we see reality and these form our philosophy whether we know it or not. One of the ideas that seems to be guiding more and more of us is that science has all answers that are worth knowing and any answer that cannot be proved or measured by science is therefore worthless or nonsensical. On the surface this would seem like a fair statement. Philosophy is one of those things that people think they don't have when in reality all of us do. There are thoughts, ideas, and understandings that shape how we see reality and these form our philosophy whether we know it or not. One of the ideas that seems to be guiding more and more of us is that science has all answers that are worth knowing and any answer that cannot be proved or measured by science is therefore worthless or nonsensical. On the surface this would seem like a fair statement. But then so does relativism. A few seconds of serious thought however begins to show how thin a belief like this really is. This is what Marilynne Robinson tackles in a series of lectures that comprise this short book. In serious fashion she exposes the ways that certain scientists speak of spirituality, the soul, and especially the mind, assuming that they have debunked all of these for lack of evidence. Yet all the while the scientists making such claims must use a mind that, for all their intellectualizing, is necessary to even make said claims. Her critique of Dennett, Dawkins, Freud, and others centers on their reductionistic ideas about our minds. This is sawing off the branch your sitting on in that without your mind there is no actual person who can understand these ideas. It is remarkable how obvious this is once you weed out all the bluster and parascience of these authors and simply look at what they are saying. In short order it becomes patently ridiculous for the very simple reason that is doesn't correspond with reality. Robinson is no mystic. These lectures are extremely academic (sometimes needlessly so.) She is not arguing against science in any way but instead is fine to live in the mystery that we, and science with us, simply don't understand all of reality. The weirdness of quantum mechanics, the existence of "dark" matter that fills 85% of the universe, and other scientific confessions should leave us with some humility when it comes to understanding who we are and especially what our mind is. The New Atheists claim science as an ally but leave it behind in trying to prove such claims. Simply crying "no evidence" is no win against the soul, God, or the spiritual world. True scientists understand this. But parascientists, which is a category that is enveloping a lot of people who think they understand more than they do, are shutting their eyes and ears to such things while still pointing and laughing at others for (what they think is) doing the same thing. This is a helpful book but fair warning, it's thick reading. But if you think you're figured it all out about spirtuality and can simply wash your hands of it all I dare you to tackle this book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Corinne Wasilewski

    Man I love the way this woman thinks. I’ve never given it much thought before -- the division between modern thought/science and the arts/religion -- but I’ve definitely experienced the fall-out and Robinson frames the problem in a way that makes sense. It’s pretty simple actually – anything to do with the experience of the individual mind is explained away or excluded from consideration when modern thought/science (pseudoscience) makes any rational account of the nature of human being or the or Man I love the way this woman thinks. I’ve never given it much thought before -- the division between modern thought/science and the arts/religion -- but I’ve definitely experienced the fall-out and Robinson frames the problem in a way that makes sense. It’s pretty simple actually – anything to do with the experience of the individual mind is explained away or excluded from consideration when modern thought/science (pseudoscience) makes any rational account of the nature of human being or the origins of our species. Reductionistic/deterministic theories do the trick as do sweeping statements that dismiss the mind as felt experience. Never mind that these sweeping statements do not withstand the rigors of true scientific analysis. All that matters is eliminating/discounting the subjective, inward experience of man. Once this is accomplished, the rest is easy: Abracadabra! Religion disappears. Hocus pocus! Literature, too. And history. And art. And metaphysics. And culture. Basically anything to do with human nature and the “beauty and strangeness of the individual soul”. Anything that distinguishes man as a conscious, self-aware being doesn't count, and, by extrapolation no longer exists (at least not in the mind of the modern thinker/pseudoscientist whose ideas then trickle down to the general population). Ta-da! Man’s humanity and dignity -- gone, all gone. It’s been an insidious take-over and here’s what we get for it: a cold, sterile world void of personal meaning. Not very nice of you, modern thought/pseuodoscience. And maybe us lay folks were a little slow to catch on, but, we’re on to you now and we’re going to take back what’s ours! Provocative reading for sure.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Absence of Mind collects several essays by novelist Marilynne Robinson, which were originally delivered as part of Yale's Terry Lectures in 2009. In them, she critiques positivism and its inheritance to many modern scientists who discount metaphysics and subjective experience in their inquiries. She particularly takes issue with those she calls "parascientists" (e.g., Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett) who reject subjective evidence in their exploration of consciousness and the nature of humanity, but do Absence of Mind collects several essays by novelist Marilynne Robinson, which were originally delivered as part of Yale's Terry Lectures in 2009. In them, she critiques positivism and its inheritance to many modern scientists who discount metaphysics and subjective experience in their inquiries. She particularly takes issue with those she calls "parascientists" (e.g., Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett) who reject subjective evidence in their exploration of consciousness and the nature of humanity, but do so without a thorough evaluation of metaphysical philosophy and thought. This book is exceedingly thought-provoking and very welcome to anyone peeved by the "hermeneutics of condescension" so famously employed by, particularly, Dawkins. I do not consider myself a religious person or a deist, but the condescension of discarding centuries of metaphysical thought without seriously exploring it first does indeed seem "para"-scientific and worth calling out. This was an engrossing read. Robinson's prose is sharp, dense and to the point, sometimes requiring careful rereading of a sentence here and there, because she packs a lot of ideas into each one, wasting no words. For a well-considered critique of Robinson's arguments, check out Julian Baggini's review in New Statesman.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    As usual, Marilynne Robinson's point of view--in this case on the question of our current cultural assumptions about the human mind--is refreshingly original, steeped in scholarship and deep reading, and thought-provoking. She places the current positivist, "parascientific" worldview in context, examining such influential voices as E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Pinker, down to Freud and Descartes, and ultimately concludes that there may be more to the story than pure science can offer. Ne As usual, Marilynne Robinson's point of view--in this case on the question of our current cultural assumptions about the human mind--is refreshingly original, steeped in scholarship and deep reading, and thought-provoking. She places the current positivist, "parascientific" worldview in context, examining such influential voices as E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Pinker, down to Freud and Descartes, and ultimately concludes that there may be more to the story than pure science can offer. Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology would have us believe that the mind is basically an illusion, and that we aren't to trust it; she counters this by pointing to the evidence of human civilization--art, literature, music, architecture, all of culture--and offers a liberating vision of a "humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are."

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sheri-lee

    When Steve asked how I liked this book the first thing out of my mouth was, "It feels like an anchor of wisdom in this wishy washy world." I like her reference to William James who says 'data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintain an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know.' For me, this read like what I would expect a conversation with Marilynne Robinson would be like. She is lady I would like to sit down with and talk about the big and small th When Steve asked how I liked this book the first thing out of my mouth was, "It feels like an anchor of wisdom in this wishy washy world." I like her reference to William James who says 'data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintain an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know.' For me, this read like what I would expect a conversation with Marilynne Robinson would be like. She is lady I would like to sit down with and talk about the big and small things of life. It seems to me that big and small things would be important ideas and topics no matter their 'size'.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I should not want to get in a battle of wits with Marilynne Robinson, as she has more than her fair share. These collected lectures address the limits of scientific and quasi-scientific mindsets in their application outside of the controlled circumstances of the lab, make much-refined versions of the common-sense critique of dodgy single-answer theory (Freudian, Marxist, Behaviorist, Social Darwinist, etc.), and generally make the case that a little introspection is a good corrective for wooden I should not want to get in a battle of wits with Marilynne Robinson, as she has more than her fair share. These collected lectures address the limits of scientific and quasi-scientific mindsets in their application outside of the controlled circumstances of the lab, make much-refined versions of the common-sense critique of dodgy single-answer theory (Freudian, Marxist, Behaviorist, Social Darwinist, etc.), and generally make the case that a little introspection is a good corrective for wooden thinking. Like most lecture collections, it reads like a collection of lectures, and would probably be more fun to hear than it is to read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Bertaina

    Marilynne Robinson is intelligent. I enjoy this about her. At times it makes her essays harder to access. In short, I wish Marilynne would dumb it down every once in a while. Interestingly, when I've heard her speak she's mentioned that she believes her readers, and people in general, are way more intelligent than most people give them credit for. Anyhow, she's giving us too much credit. Marilynne Robinson is intelligent. I enjoy this about her. At times it makes her essays harder to access. In short, I wish Marilynne would dumb it down every once in a while. Interestingly, when I've heard her speak she's mentioned that she believes her readers, and people in general, are way more intelligent than most people give them credit for. Anyhow, she's giving us too much credit.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Brown

    Would have been five stars except I found the chapter on Freud a bit abstruse. I just love her writing though. In this, and her other non-fiction, her deep and wide reading leads to some delightful critiques. This volume on parascience and its treatment of religion as well as its neglect of human experience (mind) was very revealing and insightful.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    Smart lady.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Derek

    Everything that Marilynne Robinson writes is equal parts elegant prose and powerful thought.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Marilynne Robinson is an astonishingly good writer: her prose is incisive, clear, and just beautiful to read. Even though, by its topic, this is a polemical work, its tone is not: Robinson is gently aggressive, but her contemplative prose possesses a self-confidence that does not need to lay into her opponents. The main point of this book is that modern-day atheists refuse to recognize a distinction between mind and brain, with severe consequences for human understanding of self, its relation to Marilynne Robinson is an astonishingly good writer: her prose is incisive, clear, and just beautiful to read. Even though, by its topic, this is a polemical work, its tone is not: Robinson is gently aggressive, but her contemplative prose possesses a self-confidence that does not need to lay into her opponents. The main point of this book is that modern-day atheists refuse to recognize a distinction between mind and brain, with severe consequences for human understanding of self, its relation to the cosmos and the nature of truth. In a series of four chapters (+ Introduction) Robinson considers the modern conception of human nature, the phenomena of altruism and the difficulties it presents to modern thought, the Freudian self and how Freud brought rationalization, not reason, to bear on the then-current myths and frenzies of Europe, and finally, the consequences of conflating of mind/brain and how we might start "thinking again". Early in the book Robinson points out that the great majority of influential modern ideologies (e.g. Darwinism, Freudianism and Marxism) are incompatible except when they agree "that the Western understanding of what a human being is has been fundamentally in error." More specifically, all refuse to accept that subjective conclusions (e.g. I did such-and-such for such-and-such a reason) have any basis in truth except where they happen to agree with the conclusions of 'objective' methods. So, in Darwinian thought, art is a means of attracting mates... and if Leonardo da Vinci happened to think otherwise, then Leonardo is wrong. And this conflicts with a Freudian understanding of art, that it is a sublimation of forbidden impulses (usually sexual), except that, again, Leonardo is wrong in what he thought his motives were. And sitting on a fence doesn't help: "[t]o acknowledge an element of truth in each of these models is to reject the claims of descriptive sufficiency made by all of them." In short, we (apparently) cannot understand ourselves or our motives by contemplative means, but only by the application of objective methods. The problem is, though, that complete objectivity cannot be achieved by humans without coming completely outside ourselves, a serious barrier to truth claims of any kind, but one which is implicitly ignored, routinely and blithely, by 'parascientific' writers, such as the new atheists. This ignoring is partly helped by the modern notion that "we as a culture have crossed one or another threshold of knowledge or realization that gives the thought that follows it a special claim to the status of truth" and parascientific writers take full advantage of this assumption, as it brings with it cutting-edge authority. In this modern age, where we gratefully welcome the tyranny of the New, the Cool, and the Sensational, as Ken Myers puts it, this is an effective strategy, but an inherently thoughtless one (why is something good? because it's new! why true? because it's sensational! why beautiful? etc). One way Robinson tackles this problem is by simply asking obvious questions that never seem to be asked (as well as not-so-obvious questions) of the evidence that materialists provide us with. Her subsequent reflections are eye-opening - her thoughts on Phineas Gage, the railway worker who lost a significant portion of his brain in a railway accident, but survived, is a case in point: since he was found to swear fluently after the accident, it is often used to show that we, in effect, have no real means of control over our behaviour, "as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge sputtering expletives if our frontal lobes weren't there to restrain him". However, in this example, so glibly used, no-one considers that Phineas was, after all, a human being, with aspirations and might very well have experienced extreme frustration and confusion following such a horrible accident - and swearing is quite a natural reaction in the circumstances. Yet, this example and others like it are passed on and accepted as adequate explanations of what and who we are. Robinson offers, in part, as a solution to these problems that the mind is more than merely the brain, that we "continuously stand apart from ourselves, appraising" and that actions of the mind do indeed yield true and meaningful reflections on reality. At this point, this review becomes inadequate at explaining the ideas of a really excellent book, so I'll finish up with a few quotes that I liked. Atheists often say that the God hypothesis is lazy (where did the universe come from? God made it), but when we look at what they offer instead, we find that it is, by comparison, not only lazy, but also unappealing and narrow-minded: "I have come to the conclusion that the random, the accidental, have a strong attraction for many writers because they simplify by delimiting. Why is there something rather than nothing? Accident. Accident narrows the range of appropriate strategies of interpretations while intention very much broadens it." From the first chapter "On Human Nature:" "What I wish to question are not the methods of science, but the methods of a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for a science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished." Even if I ever were to become an atheist, I could not accept an atheism pedaled by the like of Dawkins; it is too parochial and sterile: "And there is that haunting compatibility of our means of knowing with the universe of things to be known. Yet, even as our capacity to describe the fabric of reality and the dimensions of it has undergone an astonishing deepening and expansion, we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are part of it all. ... The very truncated model of human being offered by writers in the tradition that has dominated the discussion from the beginning of the modern period is a clear consequence of the positivist rejection of metaphysics. It is true that philosophical speculation was the only means at hand for the old tradition that pondered such ideas as human-soul-as-microcosm. Nevertheless, the insight that we, along with the apes, participate in a reality vastly larger than he sublunary world of hunting and gathering, mating, territorialism, and so on is indisputable. ... It is not to be imagined that the character of matter would not profoundly affect the forms in which our reality has emerged." And on asking questions: "The voices that have said, "There is something more, knowledge to be had beyond and other than this knowledge," have always been right. If there is one great truth contained in the Gilgamesh epic and every other epic venture of human thought, scientific or philosophical or religious, it is that the human mind itself yields the only evidence we can have of the scale of human reality." Overall, this was a book I found highly valuable (the terms and ideas used could make reading a little difficult for someone unacquainted with them, but the quotes above should help you decide that) - perhaps other people have written similar things better, but, until I find them, I can't recommend this book, particularly to scientists and apologists, more highly.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dirk

    Let me begin by saying that I’m an admirer of Robinson’s fiction. I’ve read both Gilead and Home with great satisfaction. It happens I have never read her best-known novel Housekeeping. Since this book is involved in a supposed controversy between science and religion I should say also that I’m an atheist and, on the level of glib generalization, uncomfortable with religion and comfortable with science, which I follow as an informed non-professional. This book sets out to defend the value of subj Let me begin by saying that I’m an admirer of Robinson’s fiction. I’ve read both Gilead and Home with great satisfaction. It happens I have never read her best-known novel Housekeeping. Since this book is involved in a supposed controversy between science and religion I should say also that I’m an atheist and, on the level of glib generalization, uncomfortable with religion and comfortable with science, which I follow as an informed non-professional. This book sets out to defend the value of subjective experience from a group of thinkers she perceives as reducing it, which she calls 'parascientists'. She is careful to distinguish parascience writers from real science (my phrase), which she asserts she respects and seems to. I’m handicapped in reading her book by being ignorant of many of the writers she is trying to argue with. I have barely read Comte. I have barely read Darwin (I know - you think he’s a real scientist. I too found her distinction was a little strained in his case, but it makes sense in context). I’ve never read any of Richard Dawkins, though I have read reviews, which in general impressed me favorably. I have never heard of somebody named Bennett that she seems to couple with Dawkins. I have read Freud pretty extensively and a couple of linguistics books by Harold Pinker, which I found informative and stimulating. In debating with ‘parascience’ it seems to me that she is beating some dead horses. My understanding is that within science Comte, Darwin, and Freud, are regarded as historically influential, and admired for their pioneering work, but their ideas have largely been bypassed by current work in their fields. She discusses at length problems that Darwin and other 19th-century writers about evolution like Julian Huxley had fitting ‘altruism’ (a word coined by Comte) into evolution, particularly among mammals, and apparently, they did. They need only have looked at ants. These days there is a whole sub-field in evolutionary biology of the study of altruism, for example the seemingly paradoxical altruism of vampire bats (http://www.bio.davidson.edu/people/ve...). I think no one in the field now doubts that altruism is consonant with evolution; the discussion is how it works in particular cases. She devotes a chapter to Freud. Basically it has two themes. The first is that Freud developed his ideas of a common human nature in struggle with the divisive nationalism of his time, which was often anti-Semitic. That idea strikes me as illuminating. Second, she talks about Freud’s notions about the foundation of social organization based mostly on his books Civilization and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo. Very briefly, the theory she is discussing holds that at some past mythic and determinant moment a group of sons murdered their father and society is ordered to deal with the complex consequences of that act. I doubt any sociologist, or probably anyone at all, believes that anymore; I doubt anyone reads these books except from a general interest in Freud. What does survive, much altered, from Freud is the idea and technique of psychodynamic therapy. This technique seems to me deeply respectful of subjectivity. Some one has made the metaphor of Freud wandering in the vast darkness of the mind with his little lamp of reason. That seems to me a picture of the presence of mind. The other two themes that dominate her argument are the complexity of the mind and a sense of wonder. She seems to say, without exactly committing herself to the idea, that the mind is so wonderfully complex that it could not be a product of evolution, and cannot be a function of the brain, which is an argument for the existence of a soul. Her perspective reminds me of the creationist argument that the eye is so complex, it could not have possibly evolved. But the evolution of the eye is well documented from light sensitive cells, to a surrounding depression to restrict the direction the light can come from, to a protecting covering, to a protective covering in the form of a lens and so on. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutio...) In the millions of generations of evolution there is no problem fostering this complexity. As to the mind being a function of the brain, we live in a time when significant discoveries about where and how in the brain particular mental functions take place are published almost daily. Of course, if you want to believe that the mind is not a function of the brain, or not 'merely' that, then these discoveries need not affect your conviction, but it seems to me they steadily erode the dualist position. Finally she writes about wonder. She seems to imply that the degree that some things seem wonderful, and her primary example is the mind, vitiates what she calls parascience. It seems to me that wonder is in the mind of the beholder, and the fact that humans attribute wonderfulness to one thing or another tells us about human beings, but not about the things they wonder at. That’s one reason I could enjoy and esteem her novel Gilead, which lives in the mind of a minister who spends much of his time and his caring thinking about Methodist doctrine. That is his way of being a person and it is fascinating. But it is not an argument for Methodism. This book is very well written, and shows a knowledge of people's thoughts about themselves that is wide, but not inclusive. I found it a bit tedious reading about the superseded ideas of researcher of the past as if they were current. For me she does not establish her fundamental argument that mind is diminished by the writings she cites.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    I really liked this book. I can't give it the 5 stars I wanted to because: a) I think it deserves a second reading (by myself, to absorb the entire thesis better) b) I thought it could use some editing to make the text more easily understood. For point b, I mean that in several cases (that I, unhelpfully here, didn't bother referencing) I had to re-read sentences putting mental commas or other punctuation in different places to see what made the most sense. In other words, since this book was adap I really liked this book. I can't give it the 5 stars I wanted to because: a) I think it deserves a second reading (by myself, to absorb the entire thesis better) b) I thought it could use some editing to make the text more easily understood. For point b, I mean that in several cases (that I, unhelpfully here, didn't bother referencing) I had to re-read sentences putting mental commas or other punctuation in different places to see what made the most sense. In other words, since this book was adapted from lectures, it appears that some of the verbal nuances that would have assisted an audience weren't added/included in the test. These are my conjectures, and, since the book is relatively short (though weighty), maybe I'll look for these instances the second time I read (which I really do want to). So, given my desire to read this book again, one must ask why I have that desire. Well, that depends on what you consider 'desire', 'me', or even 'my mind'. (That's a joke - based on the book). But seriously, I think that in this book, we see evidence of serious thought being focused on what may be summarized (by me) as 'the milieu of our scientific views on the human mind'. That's pretty vague, but what do you expect? A concise summary of an already dense book? There are four chapters: i) On Human Nature (1) ii) The Strange History of Altruism (31) iii) The Freudian Self (77) iv) Thinking Again (109) Of the four, I found the third to be the least accessible, from my own ignorance of nuanced Freudian theory. However, I did find some of the ideas in that chapter to be compelling - such as our tendency to view scientific theory as completely free of any context. The following quote from the first chapter, is, I think, one of the repeating themes of the book: I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of "modern" thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether. In its place we have the grand projects of generalization, solemn efforts to tell our species what we are and what we are not, that were early salients of modern thought. (22) I liked the second chapter for its wrestling with our self-knowledge, -revelation etc. as well as what I think is a very strong point about memes vs genes: A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And -- an important corollary -- certain well-qualified others do know them. I have spoken of the suppression of the testimony of individual consciousness and experience among us, and this is one reason it has fallen silent. We have been persuaded that it is a perjured witness. (60) [The meme] is a selfish, brain-colonizing personal or cultural concept, idea, or memory that survives by proliferating, implanting itself in other brains. (65) For example, let us say altruism is a meme, inexplicably persistent, as other traits associated with religion are also. Then is there any need to make a genetic or sociobiological account of it? If its purpose is to have a part in sustaining related memes by which it would also be sustained, such as "family" or "religious community," would it be dependent on the process of Darwinian selection represented in the theoretical rescue/non-rescue of the drowning child? To put the question in more general terms: the role of the meme in this school of thought is to account for the human mind and the promiscuous melange of truth and error, science and mythology, that abides in it and governs it, sometimes promoting and sometimes thwarting the best interests of the organism and the species. Then why assume a genetic basis for any human behavior? Memes would appear to have sprung free from direct dependency on our genes, and to be able to do so potentially where they have not yet done so in fact. (66-67) Finally, I also liked this quote/paraphrase of William James: "data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintaining an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know." (132) In all, a worthwhile read. Robinson is a deep thinker and her assessment of some of the lack of nuance around what she calls 'parascientific' literature is worth slowing down around and thinking about clearly. I recommend it highly.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Equal parts un-engaging and disengaged, Absence of Mind teems with unprecedented insularity. Robinson invests her full intellectual capacity towards analyzing antiquated primary texts, commandeering the marginalized voices of evolutionary thought and planting them center-stage as a surrogate for the movement of modern thought as a whole. One of the glaring fallacies I believe Robinson's book is almost completely predicated upon is the fallacy of composition. What happens more often that not is an Equal parts un-engaging and disengaged, Absence of Mind teems with unprecedented insularity. Robinson invests her full intellectual capacity towards analyzing antiquated primary texts, commandeering the marginalized voices of evolutionary thought and planting them center-stage as a surrogate for the movement of modern thought as a whole. One of the glaring fallacies I believe Robinson's book is almost completely predicated upon is the fallacy of composition. What happens more often that not is an overtly polemical assault on a mode of thought based on one person's attitude, assessment, or even de-contextualized quote. That any one voice, philosopher, or quote from one individual could be used as a mouthpiece for the current trajectory (weird, granted the lack of current references) is hypocritical given the utter complexity championed by Robinson's point. Placing the blame for Freud's ideas on the zeitgeist by simply drawing thematic parallels between Freud's analyses and the sociological anxieties of the time period is poetic, metaphorical thinking. It reads as if a writer is trying to make a Leverkuhn out of a living individual; it is unconvincing precisely because it is not scientific. Simply because analogies can be drawn - grand, symbolic analogies - between one entity and another does not immediately entail a concrete, detailed relationship. I found this assessment of Freud peculiarly reductive, given how vehemently anti-reductionist Robinson's stance intends to be. If a polemical collection of essays cannot avoid the pratfalls of reason that its own foes traditionally espouse, perhaps we should look for a greater, broader problem regarding the "absence of mind," or perhaps, our incompetence to reason. Through the course of this frustratingly erudite read, I found Absence of Mind to be more or less an opportunity to instigate the contrarian impulse within the reader. But, further than that, the hugest omission here is the complete and utter lack of mention of current neuroscience. For a book so invested in the capacities and mysteries of the human brain, little to no mention is made to the crisis of free will that current neuroscience lends us. Why is this not dealt with? Why did Robinson - instead of addressing the concepts of 'self' with our most up-to-date assessments on the brain - opt to berate old-hat scientists? Darwin is most assuredly respected, but it seems ignorant to assume that current advocates of Darwin still take his ideas wholesale; they have undoubtedly been expanded upon, appended, and some replaced and modified. This is not my point: my point is that not a single neurotransmitter is mentioned in a polemical assault regarding modern thought's portrayal of the brain. This ought to be disconcerting, and only lends more credence to the reputation Robinson possesses of being shackled to the past. I myself am ignorant of the offers neuroscience brings to the table regarding senses of self, morality, even subjectivity. But intuitively I find it the field through which Robinson can make her point within a contemporary framework. It is not terribly pressing to dissect the modernists when the post-modernists are currently making the decisions. However, I ultimately find these to be minor concerns despite the length granted them earlier. Absence of Mind is as enjoyable as it is rigorous, namely the brilliant essay regarding the problem of altruism in Darwinist and neo-Darwinist thought. There is a quote here that will always resonate: "To say there is no metaphysics is in and of itself a metaphysical statement." Woah. Robinson is indisputably a genius. The book serves as startling evidence of this. But Robinson is being critical instead of revolutionary. Perhaps Darwin receives the reverence he gets because he pioneered an entirely new and provocative - and ultimately viable - means of interpreting the data in the natural world. This gets people more places than dissecting and re-visiting discarded philosophical text. The spirit of invention trumps the spirit of negation. This clearly goes for both science and religion. At heart, Absence of Mind instigates degrees of provocation I would not have thought possible. Robinson's still beyond superb.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    Robinson's screed against parascience (her term for neo-Darwinism, Freudianism, neuro-science, Modernism and post-Modernist schools) rages for pages. The absence of mind for her is the negation of meaningful mysteries of experience, hope, faith and art denied by the post-Modernists, the ones who debunk the ghost in the machine or expunge the soul from scientific and academic discourse. At times I thought her arguments were insightful; particularly, her defense of altruism as a genuine rationale Robinson's screed against parascience (her term for neo-Darwinism, Freudianism, neuro-science, Modernism and post-Modernist schools) rages for pages. The absence of mind for her is the negation of meaningful mysteries of experience, hope, faith and art denied by the post-Modernists, the ones who debunk the ghost in the machine or expunge the soul from scientific and academic discourse. At times I thought her arguments were insightful; particularly, her defense of altruism as a genuine rationale for morality in spite of its assumption that we exist merely to propogate our genetic species, and also her contextualization of Freud's work within the era of rising anti-Semitism in 19th C. Europe. But by repeatedly attacking Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, Freud, Comte, and Neitszche, and other authors of parascience and only using William James (and possibly the Psalmist, the one who wrote, "Who is man that Thou art mindful of him?") to support her parries made her task more difficult. By the final paragraph, by the final sentence of the essay, she concludes with a wisp of empassioned reasoning, a plaintive call that the mystery of life be restored to the debate. I read mystery to be synonymous to a religious, Deo abscondus, God-in-a-cloud-of-unknowing kind of thing. Great. Back we go, though, because how do we prove the mystery, the negative presence of the Mind of God, after she has tried so diligently to establish that post-Modernist thinking precludes the presence of mind? This, to me, smacks of a new kind of absence. Oh, well. If anything, she raises several probing questions for reflection. This alone makes it honest reading: She continually evokes honest skepticism.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Cunningham

    This is a hard book to rate for me... On the one hand, it calls for a humility that is lacking in 'parascience' (or scientism, or perhaps New Atheism, or maybe simply positivism.) Great. Yes. On the other hand, Ms. Robinson clearly misunderstands or misrepresents some of the arguments and claims of e.g. evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. More annoyingly for me personally, though a minor part of the book, is the author's use of quantum uncertainty and entanglement. If I could never see an This is a hard book to rate for me... On the one hand, it calls for a humility that is lacking in 'parascience' (or scientism, or perhaps New Atheism, or maybe simply positivism.) Great. Yes. On the other hand, Ms. Robinson clearly misunderstands or misrepresents some of the arguments and claims of e.g. evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. More annoyingly for me personally, though a minor part of the book, is the author's use of quantum uncertainty and entanglement. If I could never see another philosophical/pop-science/religious/New Age piece misuse QM... I don't even know... I would give up my left arm. But that is a minor portion of the lecture/book. In any case, "Not great. No." And then the argument for "I" as evidenced by long history and culture and civilization... but what of the long traditions in e.g. Buddhism and Hinduism that specifically speak to the illusion of the "I"? This is a somewhat interesting contribution to a long argument and has some solid points about the need for greater humility and understanding amongst "parascientists." But in other respects, the book reveals Ms. Robinson's somewhat weak grasp of the arguments and counter-counter-arguments to her own counter-arguments.

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