The much-admired Marilynne Robinson, best known for her two recent theologically-minded novels (Gilead , 2004, and Home, 2008), assays some straightforward religious thinking in Absence of Mind, a dense and challenging short work, originally delivered as a lecture series at Yale. Robinson’s sharp reasoning goes directly to the heart of the current debate between the neo-Darwinian atheists and those, like Robinson, who hope to preserve our sense of self and soul. She wisely ignores the distracting “religion versus science” argument and locates the origins of the present-day conflict in a wider philosophical frame. Post-enlightenment positivism encouraged thinkers to believe that metaphysics was outdated, and that specific material forces could account for human behavior. If Marx posited an economic base, Freud would argue for the importance of the unconscious; such reductive thinking became the hallmark of modern thought. In more recent days, neurologists have claimed to locate all human activity in specific areas of our brains, while evolutionary biologists have found explanations for behavior in some kind of programmatic nature. All these theories rely, in Robinson’s words, on the same sort of parascientific reasoning. Her discussions of well-known neurologists, biologists, and psychologists—from Richard Dawkins and Antonio Damasio to Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett—are trenchant, and often devastatingly on target. She gets to the heart of the matter—and that heart, she finds, is one with our soul, that dimension of ourselves that defies material explanation.
Don’t mistake this brief but challenging book for an anti-scientific jeremiad. Quite the contrary, for Robinson admires all that genuine science continues to offer us. What she rejects is the intellectual arrogance of overly deterministic thought. Her wonderful defense of an expansive self in a diminishing age deserves a wide readership—among other virtues, it is the perfect antidote to all those pop atheist screeds.