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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.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: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?

    If natural selection explains the origin of species, as Darwin argued it does, then it follows that the mind emerged from natural selection. At the same time, natural selection is not the same thing as a “brute survival game.” It has as much to do with chance as necessity, and necessity does not reduce to brute survival.

    At the same time, the idea that our minds are useful for knowing God has certainly withstood the test of time. And so, although I agree with you that the apologetic angle is interesting, I think even if one is not persuaded by it, the claim that our minds are useful for knowing God stands well without apology.

    May 17, 2010
    • I’m not sure how the view that natural selection explains all of life without remainder can avoid the conclusion that everything is the result of a brute survival game.

      May 17, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think it is a matter of metaphor. I don’t think the metaphor “brute survival game” fits natural selection. For example, love can be said to be part of the mix of things that comprise natural selection. Brute survival does not appear to fit with love. The same can be said of beauty and kindness and giving and many other things that do not fit with brute survival.

        Natural selection does not mean “brute survival game.” Natural selection is a metaphor that Darwin used to argue that chance and necessity rather than creation by God explains the origin of species.

        I think an apologetics is futile that reduces natural selection to something it is not.

        May 18, 2010
      • I don’t think that I am reducing natural selection to something it is not. I realize that the nature writers you read aren’t as antagonistic as Richard Dawkins, but his description of human beings as nothing more than “survival machines” is not unique to him and it is one that, regardless of how appealing it may or may not sound, is consistent with a strictly naturalistic worldview.

        I agree with you, love doesn’t seem to fit with the “brute survival” metaphor. Neither do a lot (most!) of the things that we find most meaningful and valuable as human beings. That’s among the reasons why I believe that life is much more than a brute survival game!

        But Dawkins at least tries to be consistent here: whatever value we may want to attribute to things like love, beauty, and the love of truth, they are simply traits that happen to have been useful in getting our genes passed down. They have no intrinsic value; they are (and have been, apparently) useful tools in the biological struggle that is life on this planet.

        (Of course, I don’t think Dawkins [or anyone else] actually can or does live as if this were the case. Even he attaches enormous [objective?] value to truth.)

        May 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        You and I agree that life is more than a survival game. Apparently Dawkins differs from Darwin on this point by referring to humans as “survival machines.” That is not an expression Darwin ever used and it does not fit the description of natural selection that is at the core of Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species. Darwin did not see humans or other species as machines in any sense. While he wrote about the “struggle for existence” as part of developing his argument about the origin of species he did not describe natural selection as survival game.

        Re: “traits that happen to have been useful in getting our genes passed down.”

        The word “useful” also does not quite fit natural selection. This sounds like a Dawkins expression. It is not Darwin’s. It implies a teleology that is not found in Darwin’s description of natural selection.

        I have never read any book by Dawkins, although I have seen and heard him interviewed. I have only glanced at Dawkin’s works in the bookstore. I think of him as offensive – someone who tries to shock his readers and audiences. A close friend , who is as much of an atheist as Dawkins, and who is also a biochemist, tells me that Dawkins is not a respectable scientist. So, I figure it is a waste of time to read his work. Darwin is quite different from Dawkins – brilliant, articulate, civil, persuasive and broadly admired.

        I do find the idea unsettling that natural selection accounts for the origin of species. I just don’t think it is accurate to say that it reduces to brute survival.

        May 18, 2010
      • So what does it reduce to? What unsettles you about it?

        May 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: What does it reduce to?

        In Darwin’s writings, natural selection is a metaphor for chance and necessity – a way of saying that the origin of species occurred through chance and necessity, rather than by creation. It is a way of saying that small changes occurred by happenstance and over a long time resulted in the species we know.

        Re: What unsettles me.

        It is the lack of purpose, the meaninglessness of love, the apparent annihilation of consciousness and relationships at death, and the implied absence or nonexistence of God.

        It fights with my love of life and people and animals, birds, trees and mountains, and God.

        May 19, 2010
      • Perhaps we’re destined to talk past each other on this one. I don’t see how describing natural selection as “chance and necessity” is more palatable than describing it as a “survival game”—especially if the “struggle for existence” is one of the (main?) ways in which the unfolding of chance and necessity plays out. With respect to the issue in the post—what difference does it make if what we think of as our “minds” is the result of a “survival game” or the result of “chance and necessity?” Either way, on a consistently naturalistic worldview, they are around because they (and all of the things they do) are adaptive, because they aid in survival, nothing more. That is what I find unsettling.

        May 19, 2010
      • Ken #

        Only the understanding of natural selection is at stake. If you understand survival to mean production of offspring that go on to reproduce, then that is natural selection. Not all traits that have evolved result in more offspring. Some that have occurred by chance have no effect on that, and no effect on survival.

        May 19, 2010
      • So I guess the question for a Darwinian would be, which category does mind, with all of its “imponderables” (to quote Robinson), fall into: chance or necessity? 🙂

        May 19, 2010
      • Ken #

        Yes, and Darwinians ask that question.

        Joseph Wood Krutch is an example of one who has. And outside of the mind, there are many other imponderables. I think you would have a sympathy for Krutch’s perspective that you, and I, could never have for Dawkins, even though Krutch was a religious naturalist (or pantheist, perhaps) and not a Christian. Ecology involves thinking like Krutch, and not like Dawkins. Krutch’s book, The Voice of the Desert, connects with what you have written here and is yet most certainly Darwinian.

        May 20, 2010
  2. This is the last refuge of the “God of the Gaps”.

    Within 25 years it’ll be a dead issue. We can at this moment determine if and when a stimulus enters a person’s conscious awareness. We are getting better and better at determining what exactly someone is consciously thinking about.

    Within 25 years I have no doubt we will have a robust theory of how the brain implements the mind. Dualism is a category error, pure and simple. The “substance” of the mind is the arrangement of the brain.

    Daniel Dennett has a very good question: if the mind is separate from the brain, where does the energy to activate the neurons of the brain come from? Conversely, why does purely mental activity use up glucose in the blood?

    May 17, 2010
    • I agree about the category error of dualism, Gordon. I like how Robinson puts it in the article: “meat is, so to speak, that marvel [what we call ‘mind’] in its incarnate form.”

      Thanks for the links.

      May 17, 2010
  3. Hey Ryan, sadly the argument is often more in terms like this: “To experience a deeper intimacy with our creator prayer is something that our brains want to do and can do with a little help. Ken Wilson tells us how.”

    I read this off Booksneeze’s description of a book called “Mystically Wired.” It made me laugh seeing as I just read your post. From the sounds of it, Robinson offers significantly more apologetical substance than this Wilson character.

    May 17, 2010
    • Ugh. It doesn’t sound like it would take much to offer more apologetical substance than that :).

      May 17, 2010
  4. I’ve always found this topic fascinating, especially since I was introduced to the infinite regression problem of ‘evolved brains explaining themselves away as evolved brains using their (fallible) evolved brains’. Thanks for the links.

    May 18, 2010
    • That’s a great way to put it, Michael! Highlights some of the problems very well.

      May 18, 2010
  5. Looks like a very interesting book – thanks for this!

    May 18, 2010

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