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Bones, Feathers, Wishful Thinking

By Max Dunbar.


Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010

The Guardian asks a loaded rhetorical question: ‘Can science solve life’s mysteries?‘ It’s a sneak preview of novelist Marilynne Robinson’s new book on science and religion. The implied answer is obvious and has pleased the pro-faith commentariat; it has even won praise from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Karen Armstrong, who we’ve met before, reiterates the book’s argument: ‘positivism, the belief that science is the only reliable means to truth, has adopted a ‘systematically reductionist’ view of human nature… The positivist approach would not only marginalise religion, but also the arts, culture, history, and the classical and humanist traditions.’

It’s religion Armstrong is concerned with rather than arts, culture, history and so forth, and Absence of Mind rests on assumptions that she shares. Robinson frames the debate as though the opposition to religion is purely scientific: ‘the great quarrel in modern Western life.’ She ignores the romantic rejection of faith emphasised in Shelley’s ‘The Necessity of Atheism’:

Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.

This aesthetic atheism stretches far before the age of the Enlightenment and can be found in Persian poetry. Eleventh-century poet Omar Khayyám wrote these lines:

When once you hear the roses are in bloom,
Then is the time, my love, to pour the wine;
Houris and palaces and Heaven and Hell-
These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.

Shakespeare, remember, thought that life was ‘a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.’

Even within Robinson’s frame of reference, there is a great deal of lyricism in the scientific attack on religion: Sam Harris defends mysticism as ‘a rational enterprise’ and you can’t read a Richard Dawkins book without being struck by the wonder in his descriptions of the natural world. Yet science writing amongst other fields, Robinson says, adopts the model of ‘the crossing of the threshold’:

It asserts that the world of thought, recently or in an identifiable moment in the near past, has undergone epochal change. Some realisation has intervened in history with miraculous abruptness and efficacy, and everything is transformed. This is a pattern that recurs very widely in the contemporary world of ideas.

True, in many discussions we take it for granted that there are milestones that have made things tangibly better than they were – the discovery of the germ theory, or the abolition of slavery. But it is a stretch to argue from this that the scientific worldview has given up looking. Can you name a scientist in any field (as opposed to a cleric) who believes that we know everything there is to know about the universe? (This is not a rhetorical question: email me at max.dunbar@gmail.com if you have any genuine examples.)

But Robinson is more specific: she believes that scientific explanations for human behaviour invalidate human goodness. She gives the example of the biologist E O Wilson who believed that ‘the ‘altruist’ expects reciprocation from society for himself or his closest relatives. His good behaviour is calculating, often in a wholly conscious way, and his maneuvers are orchestrated by the excruciatingly intricate sanctions and demands of society….’ his actions are characterised by ‘lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real.’

That’s an incredibly cynical view, but I’m not sure it’s representative of the general Darwinian argument that nice guys don’t always finish last and that exercising compassion and goodwill is actually a good way to propogate one’s genes. Darwin himself was by all accounts a kindly man who would have been horrified at the justifications of rapacious capitalism deployed by elites in the twentieth century.

Or take Robinson’s other example of great art:

The Freudian self is necessarily frustrated in its desires, and therefore it generates art and culture as a sort of ectoplasm, a sublimination of forbidden impulses. So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.

Is it wrong, though, that the sexual motive should be part of the drive towards artistic creation? Does this invalidate the Mona Lisa, any more than the genetic motive would invalidate acts of altruism? If as seems increasingly likely all thought and emotion is generated by the glands and nerve endings would this invalidate all thought and emotion? I don’t think so. We are creatures made of matter, and physical desires are not inappropriate in and of themselves. The choice of Hercules is often a false dilemma.

The terms of reference for this argument are set more by the pro-faith crowd than the New Atheists. They frame the debate in terms of science versus religion in an attempt to annex all that is artistic and contemplative under the banner of faith. This would make for a worse and poorer culture and is one of the reasons I keep returning to this subject.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 20th, 2010.