Half of you, I reckon – the half with a ‘Y’ chromosome – must have seen the South Park episode Go Go God, where Richard Dawkins comes to the school to teach the theory of evolution. Mr(s) Garrison’s response – “if I’m a monkey, I’ll act like a monkey” – is to fling her faeces at him. This is humour at its cheapest, but it’s strangely satisfying to watch. Many who have been on the receiving end of Dawkins’ polemics feel that the biologist-turned-polymath has been flinging faeces around for the last five years. Live by the turd, die by the turd.
I apologise for the scatological start to this review, but bear with me a moment. You see, the trouble with the religion-science controversy in the 21st century is that it has hardly been a controversy at all. On a global stage, with primal emotions running high, it has all too often descended into a shit-slinging match. Fortunately, it seems, times are a-changin’. Last term’s excellent edition of the Oxford magazine Exposition featured an article charting the attacks on the New Atheism from within the scientific community. Tightly focused critiques of the methods and assumptions of the most prominent attacks on religion, they are almost unanswerable.
And now Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize with her novel Gilead and the Orange Prize with Home, has walked into the debate like a seasoned UN negotiator entering a border dispute in sub-Saharan Africa. The first rule of conflict negotiation is to point out that there is no conflict, and this is exactly what Robinson does in Absence of Mind.
The springboard of her argument is that the polar opposition between science and religion is banal. “The great quarrel in modern Western life,” she writes, “is said to be between religion and science. They tend to be treated as if there were a kind of symmetry between them, presumably because of their supposedly Manichean opposition.”
Modern critics of religion either fail to define what they are attacking, or otherwise define it as a behavioural phenomenon. Even when they look at individual religious feeling, Robinson argues, they simplify it to a pathology, as though belief in God were a form of mental illness. This is a “hermeneutics of condescension”: “to condescend effectively it is clearly necessary to adhere to a narrow definition of relevant data.”
We neglect the experience of faith – what it feels like to be more certain of a transcendent belief than of one’s own hands and feet, as Cardinal Newman put it. “Scientific” atheist thinkers tend to dismiss it because their brand of rationalism is founded on the belief that a thing either is or it ain’t. If you can’t measure and objectify its existence, they maintain, it must be hokum. Robinson thinks that this approach is unscientific. Quantum mechanics and modern cosmology have shown that the fibres of the world itself are as fragile as dreams: reach out to touch them, and they slip behind you. If you can’t measure the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle at the same time, you can ill afford to scorn other modes of knowledge.
Absence of Mind argues that reality is intensely subjective. The way things are is closely linked to the way we think and feel they are. Robinson wants the self – the way we experience the world around us – to be brought back to the heart of science. She calls for a science that embraces the full complexity of concepts instead of reducing them to generalisations and quantifiable phenomena. This means taking pre-Enlightenment – and even pre-Socratic – thought seriously. “In culture as in nature,” she writes, “there is no leaving the past behind.”
This is a profoundly powerful thesis. Like all the best works of philosophy, it brings you back wide-eyed to what you already knew. True, Robinson is not innocent of the odd volley of faeces-flinging, but her rigour and openness redeem this book. Like some vast sacred river, Absence of Mind wanders disconcertingly across the plains and massifs of world history, leaping over precipitous non sequiturs and bubbling out of unexpected troughs, but ultimately reaches its end with a calm momentum.
The tragedy of this book is that it is simply too difficult for anybody used to Dawkins’ prose style to digest. There were too many sentences where I understood every word and just couldn’t fit them all together. It’s a horrible experience. You sit there, and you move all the ideas around in front of you like a child with the pieces of some jigsaw puzzle, but somehow they won’t quite fit together and all you get is the vaguest impression of the picture. I felt like Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse when, faced with a single impossibly enigmatic sentence of Bergson, she flees in revolt from the whole world of seriousness and academic strain.
If you – like me – are not acquainted with the entire history of Western philosophy from Plato to Pinker, fasten your seatbelt for a turbulent ride through concepts you only half understand. Positivism, for example, seems to mean so many things in so many different spheres that it is almost meaningless. Three pages of clear explanation would be more welcome than the single word “hermeneuticization.” This is not really Robinson’s fault – she is dealing with a field of writing that bears as much resemblance to practical modern English as Cicero’s translations of Greek bear to contemporary Latin, a world where abstract nouns wind up doing horribly contorted things to other abstract nouns. Still, as a novelist she might have simplified her expressions without losing any of the richness of her arguments. Absence of Mind is only 135 pages in length, but it would be a quicker read if it were twice as long.
Anyway, buy it, read it, puzzle it out, disagree with it, misunderstand it (as I probably have), love it, despise it. A book like Absence of Mind is valuable not so much for itself as for how the world responds to it. It’s a book that’s worth hating.