Marilynne Robinson, fog machine

I first encountered the name of Marilynne Robinson when I read her review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion for Harper’s Magazine in November 2006. I had heard about the book but hadn’t read it at that time and found her review annoying. It was not because she clearly did not like it, which I had already gleaned from the title of the review Hysterical Scientism, but because I did not get a clear idea as to what the main argument of the book was about, which you would expect to be a minimal requirement for a review. Instead she gives an extended tour of the things she thought Dawkins should have written about, written in a maddeningly obscure way.

I later learned that Robinson writes fiction as well as about how science and religion are compatible. She is a professor of creative writing and has won awards for her books so who am I to criticize her style? But I will anyway.

Like most sophisticated religious people who think they have a deep understanding of religion that is compatible with science, Robinson goes about it in an elliptical style that gives the appearance of profundity. They wallow in ambiguity and metaphor where their words can have any number of meanings and go on forever without seeming to say anything. Reading their prose is like walking through a thick brush where you have to fight for every step. They make me want to yell out, “Dammit! Why the hell don’t you just simply say what you mean?”

There is nothing wrong with metaphor. Good metaphors can greatly clarify difficult ideas. But for Robinson metaphors are ends in themselves, to be endlessly embellished until they become opaque and the original meaning obscured. Their metaphors do not clarify but obfuscate. Robinson likes to wander around in a fog of religious language that she herself generates, reminding me of the character Pig-Pen in the Peanuts strip who is permanently surrounded by a cloud of dust. As she wanders around in that mist, everything is gauzy and an endless source of wonder and mystery and awe. She seems genuinely puzzled as to why everyone else cannot see what she thinks she sees, that the shadowy ephemeral shapes that she finds so enthralling are unmistakably signs of god.

I think that this is an unavoidable problem for accommodationists because they have to, in George Orwell’s words, give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. For example, John Polkinghorne is a physicist-clergyman who writes well when it comes to science but switches to this kind of theospeak as soon as the subject turns to religion. People like Robinson and Polkinghorne do not believe in a traditional god so much as what I call a gosh (god of the scientific holes).

Robinson was interviewed on The Daily Show on July 8, 2010 and it was simply awful. Basically her point was that no one other than her really understands science and religion at their deepest levels, which is why there is a conflict. The conversation was so vacuous that Jon Stewart ended up making absurd statements that science is like faith.

The reason that I bring up Robinson now is she has a long article in the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred and it seems like sunlight has still not penetrated her cloudy world. You think I’m exaggerating? Take this bit about the soul. She loves to talk about the soul and thinks about it a lot. See if you can make out what she means by that word.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

I think that what she is saying is that there is more to the mind than the brain and this extra something is the soul. If so, this is nothing more than warmed over Cartesian dualism, which modern neuroscience has convincingly disposed of. (See the first part of my 16-part series on free will for a brief discussion of Cartesian dualism.) She could have said that without all that science-y stuff about neurons and the Milky Way and the universe. But these people love to throw in modern science terms in order to hide the fact that their ideas are nothing more than the same old religious ideas.

That this is what she thinks the soul is becomes even clearer from an excerpt from an interview in the September/October 2010 issue of The New Humanist where she is asked once again about her favorite topic.

Q: You use the word “soul” in your book. What do you mean by this?

A: There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession.

What the hell? I have a companion inside of me that I answer to? Who knew? Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. I would have hated to continue neglecting and causing offence to my secret sharer.

Coming back to her latest effusion, take this paragraph:

We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.

So she can judge when fiction is not true but she has no idea why it is even possible to speak of fiction being true or false. Somebody please take her up on her invitation and let her know that the time has come to pack it in.


  1. Henry Gale says

    There is nothing wrong with metaphor.

    it seems like sunlight has still not penetrated her cloudy world.

    Just wonderful.

  2. jamessweet says

    I think that what she is saying is that there is more to the mind than the brain and this extra something is the soul.

    My read of the paragraph you quote just before this is that she is saying that the brain’s complexity creates an emergent phenomenon which is not well-described by simply referring to it as a collection of neurons (the same way my computer here is not well-described by simply referring to it as a pile of transistors, even though that’s really what it is) and that she likes the term “soul” to describe that emergent phenomenon.

    If that’s what she’s saying, I wouldn’t entirely object (Douglas Hofstadter used the term “soul shards” to describe little pieces of other selves that find existence in our brains, and I rather liked the imagery). But by the same token, the fact that you and I thought she was saying entirely different things rather buttresses your main point, doesn’t it?

  3. mnb0 says

    What do you expect? That whole Abrahamistic god-thing is one big metaphor, or rather a set of different and sometimes contradicting metaphors. How are deep thinkers going to write about that phenomenon without using mist inducing metaphors?

  4. Jared A says

    Her writing is pretty vague, so it’s hard to tell, but she isn’t necessarily espousing cartesian dualism. I would have to read her writing more in full to judge on my own (which I have little interest in doing), but it seems she is going more towards property dualism, which is more about categories of properties than categories of matter. I’m not a philosopher so I can’t go much more in depth than that.

    Like Jamessweet, I was primed by this interpretation of her writing having read Hofstadter, who uses the term ‘soul’ in a non-cartesian, epiphenominal sense.

    Regardless, I agree wholeheartedly with the main point that she uses her vagueness as a shield so that she doesn’t HAVE to come down and actually define her beliefs. Thus, she can jump back and forth between property dualism, cartesian dualism, epiphenominalism, etc. as needed. She might obsequiously tell anyone “see, our beliefs are really compatible!”.

  5. Ramel says

    I later learned that Robinson writes fiction as well as about how science and religion are compatible.

    There is a difference?

  6. Mano Singham says

    Good one. I wish I’d thought of that joke when I wrote that sentence! The story of my life, thinking of funny lines far too late…

  7. Gabi says

    “I think that what she is saying is that there is more to the mind than the brain and this extra something is the soul.”
    I thought it was clear enough that that is not what she is saying. (If I were more cynical I might say that the author didn’t have to name-drop Cartesian dualism but clearly likes to throw in philosophy-y terms).
    I understood the final paragraph as meaning that a fictional reality that isn’t complex is so profoundly negated to our reality that it can be said to be false. What we now have is a “true or false fictional reality” -- a paradox.

  8. Alastair says

    I think Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind” (2010) is a very insightful analysis of the literary style so many scientists and scientistic writers take towards these large themes of the presence of religion, religious faith and art in human life. She reminds us that style is every bit as important as content when it ones to conveying meaning. But it is not just a plea for more literary sophistication. There is a real critique here of the sometimes far from rigorous thinking of popularisers of science when they address such important things as mind and religious practice. I recommend it to you.

  9. AEY says

    I agree that Robinson writes in a very subtle, abstract way that is night and day from what you would find in, say, a science textbook. I find her writing deeply moving and beautiful, and I actually think her style is ideally suited to her subject in this case. A curious thing about the responses to the responses (from Robinson, Eagleton, Hedges, et al) to the New Atheists is that they are often accused of believing the exact opposite of what they actually believe.

    I have heard the slur “post-modernist” leveled at both Robinson and Eagleton. In Robinson’s case, her arguments essentially amount to a rejection of a great deal of modern, post-Englightenment thought. She is basically a classicist and a pre-modernist. With Eagleton, the guy has dedicated a large portion of his career to criticizing and delegitimizing post-modernism. If you think their arguments are post-modernist, you either don’t understand their arguments or don’t know what post-modernism is.

    To your points, if you listen to Robinson for five minutes, you will know that she explicitly rejects the “God of the gaps” theory. She has harsh words for it in her most recent book of essays. Her point is that science provides a literal, physical description of the universe, while religion is after a more abstract explanation of what it all means and what we should do with it.

    Robinson is not a Cartesian dualist. She rejects the distinction between the material and spiritual, and does not believe that a physical description precludes a spiritual explanation. She uses what I thought was a telling anecdote: In ancient Rome, a sculptor would build a statue, and then would immediately swear up and down that the gods had built the statue. He obviously knew he had built it, but the story of the gods building it would become part of Rome’s religious mythology for generations to come. One explanation would be that the sculptor was insane. But perhaps a more likely one is that this mythology was never designed to provide a literal, physical description of anything. They knew what the physical description was (the sculptor built it) but didn’t think it was particularly important. They were after something else, something deeper.

    Robinson believes that the word “soul” is essentially a synonym for the more scientific word “consciousness.” We can step outside of ourselves and analyze our thoughts and actions. It’s a course a lot more complicated than this, which is why she phrases it so much better. And yes, if you are conscious, you do have a metaphorical “companion inside of you that you answer to.”

    I think you just misinterpreted that last paragraph from Robinson. She is just observing, in a throwaway manner, that it is peculiar how we can apply words like “truth” to fiction. She is not saying we shouldn’t do so. In fact, I think much of her writing on this subject is aimed at illuminating the difference between facts and truth, and between knowledge and wisdom.

    I don’t understand why New Atheists always insist that everyone write and reason exactly the way they do. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to think about the relationship between science and religion. It seems to me that you are basically rejecting any abstract pursuit, which would include not just religion but art, philosophy, music, and so on. The conceit behind these cultural institutions is that, sometimes, the best way to get to the truth is by making stuff up.

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