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Marilynne Robinson on Science and Religion

by on May 14, 2015

Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson spoke at the Logos Colloquium held at Mundelein Seminary on May 6. Professors and graduate students from the area participated in the colloquium. The topic of discussion was her excellent book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.

Dr. Robinson started by talking about the lack of seriousness and reverence for “the mystery of the relationship between mind and the cosmos” typical of today’s naïve “science” representatives (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, et al.). She emphasized that true science presupposes a stance of wonder at the world and the human’s place in it. However, as Michael Hanby notes at the beginning of his excellent book  No God, No Science, the scientists Dr. Robinson is looking for either do not exist, are in short supply or are not being heard. Let us hope that scientists will move beyond the positivism and empiricism that currently inform scientific thinking.

Dr. Robinson then clarified the meaning of modernity. The word “modern” etymologically comes from Latin’s “modo” which means “just now.” Modernity’s characteristic focus on the moment has led to a forgetfulness of the past that, ironically, has led to a depreciated awareness of the plentitude of the moment. Recollection of the past is crucial for understanding the goodness and meaning of the present. Read Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor if you want to learn how the past still influences the present.  A cultured architect, like our very own Dr. Denis McNamara, could tell you that. While the following quote from Nietzsche may seem forced, I cannot resist. Nietzsche is like G.K. Chesterton in that you can find a delicious quote by him on any given topic. That said, Nietzsche’s remark on architecture is useful if we apply it  to our culture’s lack of understanding of  the human being and the cosmos. He says,

“In general we no longer understand architecture…[An] atmosphere of inexhaustible meaningfulness hung about [an ancient] building like a magic veil. Beauty entered the system only secondarily, without impairing the basic feeling of uncanny sublimity, of sanctification by magic or the gods’ nearness. At most the beauty tempered the dread – but this dread was the prerequisite everywhere.”

You could easily replace ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ with ‘mind’ or ‘cosmos.’ While we typically distinguish architecture as a cultural artifact from science, which ideally is removed from cultural muddiness, the distinction is not so clear cut. Science is influence by culture and personal commitments. Read Michael Polyani on this. Science is based in observation which are always linguistically and historically embedded. Man never stands completely outside himself.  Sometimes an etymological understanding of a word can enhance our understanding of the thing the word is meant to signify. Historical context is enlightening, too. Many have remarked that Darwin’s original theory can be seen as contingent upon the economic theory of Malthus and the mechanistic ontology of theologian William Paley. Linguistic and historical awareness (i.e. culture) is crucial to understanding science.

But if one is to pinpoint the great vice of the new atheists it is their tendency for explaining crucial phenomena away, like consciousness. In a philosophy of mind course I took in college  I was forced to label anything phenomenal (i.e. anything in my experience) with the awkward name of ‘qualia.’ Many of the students initially laughed upon being asked to use that term when talking about their experiences, and for good reason. But this all made sense to the enlightened philosophical scientist for whom this awkward practice was quite natural. He knew better than all of us, so we could not object.

As a novelist who writes about the intimate experiences of her subjects, Dr. Robinson understands the human situation well. I cannot imagine Dr. Robinson calling herself a ‘qualia’ expert.   But according to the new atheists, her sense for the human is just that. She probably wrote the book to tell them to stop dismissing all non-reductionists. Thank God a novelist is coming forward to tell scientists and philosophers to open their eyes. Maybe she can heal the eyes of a blind Daniel Dannett who seems to have suffered from the universal acid of his Darwinism.

Scientists and philosophers would do themselves a favor by reading novels. Supposedly, Leon Kass made everyone on his Presidential Bioethics Committee read novels. This was an effort to get them beyond their habitual reductionism. Sadly, most of these reductionists remain content to explain things away, objecting that any sense of mystery or subjectivity is a trapdoor for obscurantism. Read C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. He explains this there. I have read the book many times. It is always a fresh read.

The irony of it all is that the reductionists want to see everything with a sharpening focus and give up on anything that does not submit to such analysis. But Dr. Robinson calls them to greater self-awareness. She suggests that they view things from a broader, metaphysical framework so as to truly see the object at hand. Subjective appreciation for life is not external to the object, but it unveils something already inherent in the object. In the colloquium, Dr. Francesca Murphy of Notre Dame commented on this indwelling of the self and the world. She said that the center of Dr. Robinson’s book is in “the recuperation of the happy indwelling of the self in its world.” As Dr. Murphy suggests, it is the Christian who can offer this recuperation to the scientific community, helping science truly see the world and their place in it. Positivism and strict empiricism cannot offer this. Christian metaphysics can.