Another unpleasant discharge from the disreputable Terry Lectures

What is it with some English professors and their contempt for science? Some of the noisiest, most obnoxious, most self-indulgently prolix and goofy critics of the New Atheism are full-of-themselves pomposities like Eagleton and Fish, and now we can apparently add another, Marilynne Robinson. She’s a novelist — I have not read any of her books, but they have received quite a bit of critical acclaim — and she recently gave a series of lectures, now published as a book, Absence of Mind, in which she is going to give the godless a piece of her mind. Unfortunately for her, it seems to be a small sliver, very spongy and soft, and it bounces off like a bullet from a nerf gun. This review starts off promisingly:

“Absence of Mind” derives from the Dwight Harrington Terry lectures on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” [uh-oh, bad sign already: Eagleton’s awful book was also a product of the Terry lectures] As Robinson tells us in her introduction, her book aims to “examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion.” In particular, she wants to question the kind of authority claimed by certain modern scientists and to raise questions about the quality of their thinking. In her first chapter she focuses on what one might loosely call the sociobiologists, thinkers like E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who assert that our lives are ordered by overt or unconscious self-interest, that our minds are unreliable and constantly trick us, and that traditional religious belief is a primordial hold-over, certainly childish, sometimes deluded and generally embarrassing.

Yes, actually, I think she’s got it right. At least that’s how I feel about the matter. Charges accepted, officer. Now all she has to do is show that she can criticize the anti-religionists without demonstrating that her position actually is rather embarrassing.

Robinson argues strenuously that such thinkers grossly simplify religious thought and testimony — and they ooze condescension. “The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them.” She notes that these same crusading debunkers consistently portray those who dare to disagree with them as intellectually dishonest, as naifs who refuse to face facts.

Ooooh, I don’t think she like us. But OK, show us that she can face the facts. Show us that religion is something more than the delusion we say it is.

In particular, Robinson says, these “parascientists” deliberately slight “the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left.” At the very least, “an honest inquirer” into the nature of religion “might spend an afternoon listening to Bach or Palestrina, reading Sophocles or the Book of Job.” We are not, she maintains, simply the instrument of selfish genes. Indeed, she suspects that the “modern malaise,” our sense of emptiness and alienation, can be attributed not to the “death of God” but rather to the widely promulgated, and reductionist, view of the self as wholly biological.

Bad start. Criticizing legitimate scientists by coining a new label for them, parascientist, while incapable of demonstrating that she has any grasp of science herself is a very bad idea. See this article on scientific impotence: what she’s doing is trying to pretend that the scientists who disagree with her aren’t doing science. But then, she’s no scientist herself, so if thinking scientifically is a virtue and unscientific ideas are grounds for insulting people, where does that leave her?

Scientists know about and appreciate art. Seriously, does she think we’ve never listened to Bach, and all we have to do is hear the Magnificat and presto, we’ll believe in God? We admire and respect the accomplishments of our fellow human beings — people of flesh and bone and nerve and sinew — and it is no surprise that they can create beauty. This is no argument against us.

If we are not the product of our genes (and many other natural and material influences, as any biologist will tell you), then what else? Does Dr Robinson have any component to add, other than supernatural, magical stuff for which she has no evidence?

And what modern malaise? I don’t feel empty and alienated, do you? Almost all the atheists I know seem to be enthusiastic and cheerful, with a real sense of optimism about the future. If it’s just the miserable god-botherers who don’t understand science who are moping along under the cloud of this imaginary malaise, I don’t think you can logically blame their psychological problems on being depressed about the conclusions of biology.

Sure, God is dead. But we aren’t at all sad about it — we’re dancing on his grave. Viewing the self as biological is a wonderfully liberating way to see the world, too, since it means we don’t have to rely on the whims of uncommunicative ghosts to find fulfillment in life.

As it is, she’s just a blustering babbler with a lot of resentment towards those darned scientists who keep on shaking up her comfortable illusions about her soul. She takes another step, though, and this is where she does embarrass herself — she uses her ignorance about a significant medical case in the history of science to bash away at “parascientists” some more, and she gets it all wrong.

Robinson assails Wilson and company most powerfully by accusing them of faulty, narrow-minded thinking. Take their frequent use of the story of Phineas Gage, the railway worker famous for surviving an accident in which a large iron rod was driven through his skull. Afterwards, according to contemporary accounts, his behavior changed dramatically and he was “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.” For the parascientists, this proves that personality and character “are localized in a specific region of the brain,” a fact, adds Robinson, “that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature.”

But Robinson asks us to actually think about Phineas Gage. How would you feel and react if you had had your upper jaw shattered, lost an eye and suffered severe disfigurement? Gage “was twenty-five at the time of the accident. Did he have dependents? Did he have hopes? These questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered.” In the parascientific writings about Gage, she asserts, “there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.” In essence, these scholars “participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind.”

Why, yes, Phineas Gage did have a very serious accident that almost killed him, and seriously damaged his brain, resulting in changes in personality and behavior. That’s a well-documented fact. But Robinson’s claims about the interpretations of this event are bizarre and wrong.

No one claims that “personality and character ‘are localized in a specific region of the brain'”. In the 19th century, phrenologists were all over the Gage story, but their claims are no longer accepted. Personality and character are diffuse in the brain, with different regions contributing different, interacting influences. The forebrain, for example, has (in very broad terms) a restraining effect on impulses — it’s a region involved in thinking ahead and recognizing possible consequences, and damage to this area, as in the case of Gage, can lead to the kinds of behavior he exhibited.

I don’t even know what she means by “compromises the idea of individual character”. Does she think scientists reject the idea that individuals have different personalities? Our minds are complicated ensembles of modules that generate our thoughts and behaviors; we’re all different.

As for “undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature”…no, that makes no sense. Actually listen to what those New Atheist scientists are saying, and you discover that they’re actually arguing that our ‘amiable traits’, like empathy, cooperation, morality, actually do have a biological foundation, as do some of our more hostile traits, like competition and aggression. She’s arguing that we hold a view that is the exact opposite of the one we actually endorse!

The rest of her account is equally fantastic. She seems to be implying that maybe there wasn’t a discrete change to the functioning of his brain, but that he was just rightfully upset about a devastating accident. This is absurd. The doctor who treated him happily reported that his recovery went well and that he seemed to have full return of his mental faculties — it was Gage’s friends and family who reported that his personality had changed to the point of unrecognizability. This is the report Dr Harlow published on the changes:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

In the “parascientific” writings about Gage, by which Robinson actually means the genuinely scientific writings, there certainly is a focus on fact and observation. Read Harlow’s account of the accident, for instance: what you will see is a dispassionate account by a doctor who was doing everything in his power to keep a seriously injured man alive. I’m not sure what Robinson expected in these writings; that they do not indulge in hysterics, that Harlow did not treat the patient with prayer or literary readings from the Book of Job, may disappoint her, but do not indicate that the doctor had a lack of feeling for Gage as a human being. That Harlow followed the case of his patient for at least twenty years suggests that perhaps there was more to it than Robinson can believe.

You can also read an account of the Gage accident here on Scienceblogs, and I can tell you that it is also a common entry in introductory biology textbooks — but the interest is precisely because this was a human being with hopes and fears and a unique personality who was tragically changed by a sudden accident. To claim, as Robinson does, that scientists have no sense of Gage as a person, that they lack a “compassionate imagination” is simply rank defamation and dehumanization. It is the vile bigotry of a provincial mind that substitutes prejudice and stereotype for actual knowledge of what scientists think.

It was a good review of her book, though. It convinced me that I needn’t bother reading anything she’s written.