WITH A TWO-PART INTERVIEW BETWEEN MARILYNNE ROBINSON AND PRESIDENT OBAMA THAT FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
The incomparable Marilynne Robinson has delivered an impassioned critique of contemporary societyour addiction to technology, our materialismwhile arguing that reverence must be given to who we are and what we are: creatures of singular interest and value, despite our errors and depredations.
Robinson has plumbed the depths of the human spirit both in her novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Lila and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, and in her new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern predicament and the mysteries of faith. These seventeen essays examine the ideas that have inspired and provoked one of our finest writers throughout her life. Whether she is investigating how the work of the great thinkers of the pastCalvin, Locke, Bonhoeffer, and Shakespearecan infuse our lives, or drawing attention to the rise of the self-declared elite in American religious and political life, Robinson’s peerless prose and boundless humanity are on display.
Exquisite and bold, The Givenness of Things is a necessary call for us to study our cultural heritage in search of both wisdom and guidance and to offer grace to one another.
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About the Author
Hometown:Iowa City, Iowa
Date of Birth:November 26, 1943
Place of Birth:Sandpoint, Idaho
Education:B.A., Brown University, 1966
Read an Excerpt
The Givenness of Things
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Marilynne Robinson
All rights reserved.
Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance. The recovery, translation, and dissemination of the literatures of antiquity created a new excitement, displaying so vividly the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind, with consequences for civilization that are great beyond reckoning. The disciplines that came with this awakening, the mastery of classical languages, the reverent attention to pagan poets and philosophers, the study of ancient history, and the adaptation of ancient forms to modern purposes, all bore the mark of their origins yet served as the robust foundation of education and culture for centuries, until the fairly recent past. In muted, expanded, and adapted forms these Renaissance passions live on among us still in the study of the humanities, which, we are told, are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being — for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.
The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science. This may seem an improbable stance from which to defend the humanities, and I do not wish to undervalue contemporary art or literature or music or philosophy. But it is difficult to recognize the genius of a period until it has passed. Milton, Bach, Mozart all suffered long periods of eclipse, beginning before their lives had ended. Our politics may appear in the light of history to have been filled with triumphs of statecraft, unlikely as this seems to us now. Science, on the other hand, can assert credible achievements and insights, however tentative, in present time. The last century and the beginning of this one have without question transformed the understanding of Being itself. "Understanding" is not quite the right word, since this mysterious old category, Being, fundamental to all experience past, present, and to come, is by no means understood. However, the terms in which understanding may, at the moment, be attempted have changed radically, and this in itself is potent information. The phenomenon called quantum entanglement, relatively old as theory and thoroughly demonstrated as fact, raises fundamental questions about time and space, and therefore about causality.
Particles that are "entangled," however distant from one another, undergo the same changes simultaneously. This fact challenges our most deeply embedded habits of thought. To try to imagine any event occurring outside the constraints of locality and sequence is difficult enough. Then there is the problem of conceiving of a universe in which the old rituals of cause and effect seem a gross inefficiency beside the elegance and sleight of hand that operate discreetly beyond the reach of all but the most rarefied scientific inference and observation. However pervasive and robust entanglement is or is not, it implies a cosmos that unfolds or emerges on principles that bear scant analogy to the universe of common sense. It is abetted in this by string theory, which adds seven unexpressed dimensions to our familiar four. And, of course, those four seem suddenly tenuous when the fundamental character of time and space is being called into question. Mathematics, ontology, and metaphysics have become one thing. Einstein's universe seems mechanistic in comparison, Newton's, the work of a tinkerer. If Galileo shocked the world by removing the sun from its place, so to speak, then this polyglot army of mathematicians and cosmologists who offer always new grounds for new conceptions of absolute reality should dazzle us all, freeing us at last from the circle of old Urizen's compass. But we are not free.
There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference, so one ontology or another is always being assumed if not articulated. Great questions may be as open now as they have been since Babylonians began watching the stars, but certain disciplines are still deeply invested in a model of reality that is as simple and narrow as ideological reductionism can make it. I could mention a dominant school of economics with its anthropology. But I will instead consider science of a kind. The study of brain and consciousness, mind and self — associated with so-called neuroscience — asserts a model of mental function as straightforward, causally speaking, as a game of billiards, and plumes itself on just this fact. It is by no means entangled with the sciences that address ontology. The most striking and consequential changes in the second of these, ontology, brings about no change at all in the first, neuroscience, either simultaneous or delayed. The gist of neuroscience is that the adverbs "simply" and "merely" can exorcise the mystifications that have always surrounded the operations of the mind/brain, exposing the machinery that in fact produces emotion, behavior, and all the rest. So while inquiries into the substance of reality reveal further subtleties, idioms of relation that are utterly new to our understanding, neuroscience tells us that the most complex object we know of, the human brain, can be explained sufficiently in terms of the activation of "packets of neurons," which evolution has provided the organism in service to homeostasis. The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing. If this could be true, if this most intricate and vital object could be translated into an effective simplicity for which the living world seems to provide no analogy, this indeed would be one of nature's wonders.
Neuroscience has, as its primary resource, technology that captures images of processes within the living brain. Fear lights up a certain area, therefore fear is a function of that area, which developed for the purposes of maintaining homeostasis. It prepares the organism to fight or flee. Well and good. But fear is rarely without context. People can be terrified of spiders, dentists, the Last Judgment, germs, the need to speak in public, thirteen, extraterrestrials, mathematics, hoodies, the discovery of a fraud in their past. All of these fears are the creatures of circumstance, of the history and state of health of a specific brain. They identify threat, interpreting an environment in highly individual terms. They, not threat in the abstract, trigger alarm, and they are the products of parts of the brain that do not light up under technological scrutiny and would elude interpretation if they did. If they are not taken into account, the mere evidence of an excitation has little descriptive and no predictive value. A fearful person might take a pill, faint, or commit mayhem. The assumptions behind the notion that the nature of fear and the impulses it triggers could be made legible or generalizable for the purposes of imaging would have to exclude complexity — the factor that introduces individuality with all its attendant mysteries. In fairness, however, the neuroscientists seem well content with the technology they have, extrapolating boldly from the data it yields. Refinements that introduced complication might not be welcome.
This all appears to be a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report. These methods are as much a matter of vocabulary as of technology, though the two interact and reinforce each other. Here is an example. Neuroscientists seem predisposed to the conclusion that there is no "self." This would account for indifference to the modifying effects of individual history and experience, and to the quirks of the organism that arise from heredity, environment, interactions within the soma as a whole, and so on. What can the word "self" mean to those who wish to deny its reality? It can only signify an illusion we all participate in, as individuals, societies, and civilizations. So it must also be an important function of the brain, the brain aware of itself as it is modified by the infinite particulars of circumstance, that is, as it is not like others. But this would mean the self is not an illusion at all but a product of the mind at other work than the neuroscientists are inclined to acknowledge. Of course the physical brain is subject to every sort of impairment, the areas that light up during imaging as surely as any others. Impairments that seem to compromise the sense of self may be taken to demonstrate that it is rooted in the physical brain, that same fleshly monument to provident evolution the neuroscientists admire, selectively. If the physical disruption of the sense of self is taken to prove that the self is an experience created by the physical brain, then there are no better grounds to call its existence into question than there would be to question equilibrium or depth perception. Obviously there is a conceptual problem here — equilibrium does not "exist" except in the moment-to-moment orientation of an organism to its environment. Say as much of the self, mutatis mutandis, and it is granted the same kind of reality.
* * *
But to take a step back. It is absurd for scientists who insist on the category "physical," and who argue that outside this category nothing exists, to dismiss the reality of the self on the grounds that its vulnerabilities can be said to place it solidly within this category. How can so basic an error of logic survive and flourish? There is a certain Prometheanism in this branch of science that would rescue us mortals from entrenched error — for so they see the problem of making their view of things persuasive. For this reason — because questions might seem a betrayal of science as rescuer — its tenets enjoy a singular immunity from the criticism of peers. And their proponents feel confirmed by doubt and objection on the same grounds, that their origins and motives can be taken to lie in a hostility to science. On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given. The physical as we have come to know it frays away into dark matter, antimatter, and by implication on beyond them and beyond our present powers of inference. But for these scientists it is a business of nuts and bolts, a mechanics of signals and receptors of which no more need be known. Their assertions are immune to objection and proof against information. One they dismiss and the other they ignore.
The real assertion being made in all this (neuroscience is remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and to go directly to assertion) is that there is no soul. Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition — it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word "belief" — cannot be dispelled by proving the soul's physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence. This might seem a clever evasion of skepticism if the character of the soul were not established in remote antiquity, in many places and cultures, long before such a thing as science was brought to bear on the question.
I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience. I would add that I find my own soul interesting company, if this did not seem to cast doubt on my impeccable objectivity. This is not entirely a joke. I am not prepared to concede objectivity to the arbitrarily reductionist model of reality that has so long claimed, and been granted, this virtue. The new cosmologies open so many ways of reconceiving the universe(s) that all sorts of speculations are respectable now. We might have any number of other selves. If most or all these speculations are only flaunting new definitions of the possible, the exercise is valuable and necessary. Possibility has been captive to a narrow definition for a very long time, ourselves with it, and we must expect to blink in the light. These new cosmologies preclude almost nothing, except "the physical" as a special category. The physicality enshrined by the neuroscientists as the measure of all things is not objectivity but instead a pure artifact of the scale at which and the means by which we and our devices perceive. So to invoke it as the test and standard of reality is quintessentially anthropocentric.
I am content to place humankind at the center of Creation. We are complex enough, interesting enough. What we have learned, limited as we must assume it to be, is wonderful even in the fact of its limitations. This is no proof, of course. Be that as it may. It is not anthropocentricity that is a problem here, but the fact that it is unacknowledged and misapplied, and all the while imputed to the other side of the controversy, as if it were, eo ipso, a flagrant error. The objectivity claimed by neuroscience implies that it is free of this bias. Yet there could be no more naive anthropocentricity than is reflected in the certainty and insistence that what we can know about the nature of things at this moment makes us capable of definitive judgments about much of anything. That we have come to this place is not a failure of science but a glorious achievement, the continuous opening of insights science itself could never have anticipated. Nothing can account for the reductionist tendencies among neuroscientists except a lack of rigor and consistency, a loyalty to conclusions that are prior to evidence and argument, and an indifference to science as a whole.
This kind of criticism is conventionally made of religion. I am not attempting some sort of rhetorical tae kwon do, to turn the attack against the attacker. My point is simply that neuroscience, at least in its dominant forms, greatly overreaches the implications of its evidence and is tendentious. Its tendency is to insist on the necessity of a transformation of our conception of human nature — to make it consistent with a view of reality that it considers clear-eyed and tough-minded, therefore rational and true. Its ultimate argument seems to be that we all really know better than to subscribe to the mythic foolery that sustains us in a lofty estimation of ourselves and our kind. The evidence they offer is secondary to this conclusion and inadequate to it because it is based in a simplistic materialism that is by now a nostalgia. The profound complexity of the brain is an established fact. The depiction of a certain traffic of activation in it can only understate its complexity. One might reasonably suspect that the large and costly machines that do the imaging are very crude tools whose main virtue is that they provide the kind of data their users desire and no more.
Is it fair to say that this school of thought is directed against humanism? This seems on its face to be true. The old humanists took the works of the human mind — literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages — as proof of what the mind is and might be. Out of this has come the great aura of brilliance and exceptionalism around our species that neuroscience would dispel. If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain.
Excerpted from The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2015 Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Son of Adam, Son of Man
Interview Between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson