An eloquent argument against (literally!) mindless pop culture
reviewed Marilynne Robinson's new book Absence of Mind, a blockbuster slam at reductionism:
The chief purpose of Absence of Mind — the published version of Marilynne Robinson’s splendid Terry Lectures, delivered at Yale in 2009 — is to raise a protest against all those modern, reductively materialist accounts of human consciousness that systematically exclude the testimony of subjectivity, of inner experience, from their understanding of the sources and impulses of the mind. Its targets are all the major schools of reductionism (Freudianism, Marxism, Darwinism), but also all the currently popular champions of the reductionist cause (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and so on). It is, in simple terms, a robust defense of the dignity and irreducible mystery of human conscience, personal identity, and self-awareness; and, as such, it is a stirring success.
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Robinson’s central argument is, I think it fair to say, more or less indisputable — or, at least, it should be. It may be fashionable in certain circles, and very desirable for ideological reasons, to insist that our normal experience of consciousness is in some sense an illusion, begotten by one or another set of pre-conscious, purely material forces, which have merely dissembled themselves as personal motives, transcendental aspirations, moral principles, altruism, and so on. And it may well be the case that the “discourses of suspicion” that make these claims have spread wide enough through popular culture to have become a kind of tacit cultural orthodoxy. But, as Robinson acutely observes, there is one great problem that bedevils all the magisterial reductionist approaches to the mind, whether they be sociobiological, neurobiological, psychological, economic, or what have you: simply enough, all of them consistently prove extravagantly inadequate to what any scrupulous, unprejudiced examination of the complexity of consciousness actually reveals.
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In the end, perhaps the most penetrating question Robinson asks in regard to all the modern schools of suspicion is, simply enough: why? That is, if purely material, purely selfish impulses underlie all those behaviors we mistake for selfless altruism or spiritual longing or magnanimity or self-outpouring love, why do they so utterly invert themselves in our conscious minds? Why do they dissimulate themselves as the very opposite of what they are? Let us assume that the conscious mind, with all of its ambiguities and mysteries and abyssal sense of identity, is nothing but the illusory and superficial epiphenomenon of some hidden, unitary, primordial, and amoral material impulse towards survival. Very well, then, but why would it have to hide this fact? Surely it would have no need to deceive itself so elaborately, or to conceal its own genetic interests from itself, unless it already possessed some kind of moral sensitivity to the shame of selfishness. What, then, is that moral self that is there “before” the Darwinian self, whose conscience must be appeased, needing to believe that it is moved by altruism or disinterested love?
There are any number of forced answers that can be and have been made to this question, but none of them is particularly compelling.