Marvels, Meat, and Minds
A few weeks back, while browsing the Regent College Bookstore, I was surprised to see a new book by Marilynne Robinson called Absence of Mind that deals with issues around the philosophy of mind. I was familiar with, and deeply appreciative of, Robinson’s novels (e.g., Gilead and Home), but this topic seemed like a rather radical departure for her—at least based on my limited exposure to her work. I did a quick scan and of the contents, mentally put the book on my “to read someday” list, and pretty much forgot about it.
Then, yesterday morning, I came across an excerpt from the book via Arts & Letters Daily. It’s a very interesting piece that deals with the nature of the mind. Are our minds some kind of spiritual “something” separate from our physical brains? Is mind reducible to brain states? Is it a synonym for “soul” or “spirit?” Is it just a lofty term we give to what is really just a neurological conflagration of dendrites and firing synapses? Is mind just “what the brain does?” And what does how we answer these questions say about who we are as human beings? These seem to be among the questions Robinson is addressing in what looks like a very interesting book.
It also seems to be something of an apologetic project. Robinson quite clearly is arguing against some prominent atheists (Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson) who are quite confident that what we like to think of as some separate thing called “mind” is simply, like every other feature of the animal world, a product of the inexorable drive to get our genetic material passed on. Robinson points out some of the interesting inconsistencies of this position, beginning with the inherent dualism required by the view that providing a physical explanation of what we call “mind” thereby explains it away:
This declension, from the ethereality of the mind/soul as spirit to the reality of the mind/brain as a lump of meat, is dependent, conceptually and for its effects, on precisely the antique dualism these writers who claim to speak for science believe they reject and refute. If complex life is the marvel we all say it is, quite possibly unique to this planet, then meat is, so to speak, that marvel in its incarnate form. It was dualism that pitted the spirit against the flesh, investing spirit with all that is lofty at the expense of flesh, which is by contrast understood as coarse and base. It only perpetuates dualist thinking to treat the physical as if it were in any way sufficiently described in disparaging terms. If the mind is the activity of the brain, this means only that the brain is capable of such lofty and astonishing things that their expression has been given the names mind, and soul, and spirit. Complex life may well be the wonder of the universe, and if it is, its status is not diminished by the fact that we can indeed bisect it, that we kill it routinely.
Robinson also wonders—as do many who come across reductionistic conceptions of mind like those set forth by Pinker and Wilson—if biological utility, in and of itself, is up to the task of explaining one of the most mysterious and marvelous phenomena on our planet. Is the human mind, with all of its proclivities toward the imponderable and mysterious, really best explained as what happened to emerge out of the brute survival game that is nature? Robinson thinks not:
Wilson and Pinker speak of the old error, that notion of a ghost in the machine, the image of the felt difference between mind and body. But who and what is that other self they posit, the hypertrophic self [(hypertrophy: “the phenomenon by which evolution overshoots its mark and produces some consequence not strictly useful to the ends of genetic replication”] who has considered the heavens since Babylon and considers them still, by elegant and ingenious means whose refinements express a formidable pressure of desire to see and know far beyond the limits of any conception of utility, certainly any neo-Darwinist conception of it? Who is that other self needing to be persuaded that there are more than genetic reasons for rescuing a son or daughter from drowning? The archaic conundrum, how a nonphysical spirit can move a physical body, only emerges in a more pointed form in these unaccountable presences whom evolution has supposedly contrived to make us mistake for ourselves.
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book—especially because of the apologetic angle Robinson seems to be pursuing. I have long thought that even leaving aside the wonder and magnitude of the cosmos we inhabit, the existence of conscious truth-seeking human minds just might be enough to inspire worship. Minds do not prove the existence of God, of course, but if there were a God out there and if he did bring into existence one creature that was unique among all the others, and if he was interested in that creature pursuing truth and responding to him, minds would certainly be fairly useful pieces of equipment to give them.