20 March 2012
A new book from Robinson is a rare occurrence. She has only published three novels and three previous books of nonfiction in the past three decades. But in nearly every case, each of her books has been a major event, and the new one promises to be no exception.(1)
However, I am still digesting the new book, which is a collection of essays on a variety of subjects entitled When I Was Young I Read Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).
So, for now, I’ll limit myself to drawing attention to the last essay in the new collection, called “Cosmology,” which is, among other things, a skillful skewering of the New Atheists, and also to a recent interview in which Robinson makes some related remarks about scientism in her characteristically quiet but lethal manner.
I’ll start with the interview. In 2o10, Robinson spoke with Professor William Storrar, Director of the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry, where she was conducting a “Writing Workshop for Theologians.”
Towards the end of this typically witty, wise, and wide-ranging interview, Robinson discusses the nature of theology and its crucial role in human life:
[Theology] is the difference between religion and self-help. Of all the modes of thought, it integrates all the elements of human experience more exhaustively than any of them. Its purpose is to integrate at every level.
Now, a lot of scientists, and especially purveyors of pop science to the masses, will be surprised by this statement, as they will fondly imagine such integration—or “consilience,” in the favored jargon of the day—to be their own bailiwick, and not theology’s.
With this sort of objection in mind, Robinson turns to the subject of scientism, which affects to explain everything by reducing the human soul to the collisions of the particles that make up the human brain. Here is what she has to say about such claims:
I don’t really see why there would be a difference between, for example, religious people and atheists on the subject of the value of the human mind and all that it’s accomplished. I don’t see any logical necessity in this trivialization in any way of thought that we should take seriously. It seems like an opportunistic infection of the kinds of thinking that it’s associated with, but it’s very pervasive.
This fundamental idea—that scientism is not a rational intellectual position, but rather a pathology of contemporary intellectual discourse—is fleshed out further by Robinson in the essay, “Cosmology,” from the new collection.
This outstanding essay deserves to be read in its entirety, but here are some excerpts particularly relevant to scientism and human nature:
I want to pose another ancient question, one we seem to have put aside in the last few generations, for all the world as if we knew the answer to it. What are we, after all, we human beings? . . . (185)
At present, evolution is taken to have been propelled, in us as in all of life, by something called “genetic selfishness,” . . . This theory has the appeal of offering a one-word answer to the question of how the world works. That genetic infromation can be said to “seek” survival or anything else may seem surprising, though the language of motive recalls the Freudian id or the Nietzchean beast, the self within the self whose impulses are lacquered over by repression and good matters. The new Darwinists are anxious, as their predecessors often were, to avoid the impression that they are indifferent to the fine arts and the finer feelings. So the primitive has been bounded in a nutshell, put at a discreet remove from manifest beahvior. Yet it is still to be counted as the king of infinite space because “seeking” is still the basis of all life. . . . (186–187)
The exclusion of a religious understanding of being has been simultaneous with a radical narrowing of the field of reality that we think of as pertaining to us. This seems on its face not to have been inevitable. We are right where we have always been, in time, in the cosmos, experiencing mind, which may well be an especially subtle and fluent quantum phenomenon. Our sense of what is at stake in any individual life has contracted as well, another consequence that seems less than inevtiable. We have not escaped, nor have we in any sense diminished, the mystery of our existence. We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it. . . . (187–188)
At best and at worst human behavior does not square well with a formula that would make the individual’s well-being his primary interest and motive. So “selfishness” was ascribed instead to the gene. By this means actual human self-awareness and behavior were placed at a far enough remove from their biological origins to be more or less irrelevant to the question of the credibility of this theory. The slack between motive and manifest behavior means that we are utterly deceived in the matter of our true nature and the meaning of our choices, and so is everyone else. . . . (188)
Not very long ago geneticists spoke of “junk DNA,” which has turned out to be no junk at all but instead another compounding of the complexity of the once-so-legible genome. I think students of the history of ideas feel their work requires a weeding out of junk ideation, as if the true life of a thought existed in and was carried forward by whatever in retrospect seems sound and viable. At any present moment, before retrospect can make its exclusions, the cultural atmosphere is thick with junk ideation, which is, in that moment, indisputably influential, even dominant, and therefore not to be excluded from any meaningful understanding of what we are and how we proceed over time. It is the collective epxression of the individual capacity for error, which is continuous with our gift for hypothesis and no doubt crucial to our ability to learn and to imagine. My analogy breaks down because while “junk” was clearly a misnomer when applied to DNA, humankind can burst our of the contraining efficiencies of nature and generate ideas that, however potent, are really, truly, and at very best worthless. . . . (192–193)
Earthly nature may be parsimonious, but the human mind is prodigal, itself an anomaly that in its wealth of error as well as of insight is exceptional, utterly unique as far as we know, properly an object of wonder. . . . (193)
If we do not know the character of being itself—and I have never seen anyone suggest that we do know it—then there is an inevitable superficiality in any claim to an exhaustive description of anything that participates in being. And the assertion of the existence, or the nonexistence, of God is the ultimate exhaustive description. The difference between theism and new atheist science is the difference between mystery and certainty. Certainty is a relic, an atavism, a husk we ought to have outgrown. Mystery is openness to possibility, even at the scale now implied by physics and cosmology. The primordial human tropism toward mystery may well have provided the impetus for all that we have learned. . . (197)
My subject here is human nature, which I will define for these purposes as the difference between a world in which there is a human presence and one in which there are no creatures more like us than the apes. What would we not find in such a world? One thing that comes to mind is damage. I am a humanist, profoundly impressed with civilization. But the fact is that nature did not need to hear the word “Eureka,” or, for that matter, even the word “nature.” I think we can assume that it would have been content never to inquire into its own workings. The presence of human consciousness is a radical, qualitative change in the natural order. . . . (199)
The biologically enlightened often fret over our tendency to place ourselves at the end of an evolutionary sequence, as if we were its culmination. This is another effort to fold us into nature, to deny an exceptionalism that seems always to be thought of in positive terms. Mary Beth Saffo says, “Casual consideration of the average talk show, or faculty meeting, or the stupdendous folly of environmental abuse, makes it clear that even our vaunted intelligence, a key to our evolutionary success, has its limitations.” But every one of these things is a consequence of our vaunted intelligence, that same junk ideation that cannot be excluded from any empirical definition of humankind. . . . [original emphasis] (200)
I quote from [Victor] Stenger’s The New Atheism because it is a compendium of bestsellers, as he calls them, by like-minded thinkers—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others . . . Real science no longer supports the notion that genetic mutation is random, the genome presenting itself indifferently to be winnowed by the asperities of the world. But no hint of a deeper complexity appears in this literature. The need to popularize might be an excuse, if the argument were not itself dependent on an extreme simplicity, an algorithmic iteration of relative advantage in genes and their phenotypes. . . . (201)
The conclusion I have been moving toward can also be stated briefly. The flourishing of these ideas, of neo-Darwinism in general, would not be possible except in the absence of vigorous and critical study of the humanities. Its “proofs” are proof of nothing except the failure of education, in the schools and also in the churches. If I were inclined to use the metaphors of contagion they so often employ, I would say our immunity to nonsense has been killed out, the flora of historical and cultural knowledge that education should sustain in us, and this has opened opportunity for notions that could not otherwise take hold. But I prefer a loftier metaphor, better suited to its subject. The meteoric passage of humankind through cosmic history has left a brilliant trail. Call it history, call it culture. We come from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous.The study of our trajectory would yield insight into human nature, and into the nature of being itself. (201–202)