Monday, May 17, 2010

Marilynne Robinson against the Abolition of Man

The inimitable Marilynne Robinson speaks up for consciousness in her new article in Commonweal magazine. Robinson, the author of Gilead, and Housekeeping: A Novel, eloquently states the case for the uniqueness of consciousness and what is says about who we are as human beings:

There is much speculation about the nature of the mind, its relation to the brain, even doubt that the word “mind” is meaningful. In his book Consilience, the biologist E. O. Wilson claims, “The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbor a nonphysical mind.” But if such a site could be found in the brain, then the mind would be physical in the same sense that anything else with a locus in the brain is physical. To define the mind as nonphysical in the first place clearly prejudices his conclusion. The experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, writing about the soul in How the Mind Works, asks, “How does the spook interact with solid matter? How does an ethereal nothing respond to flashes, pokes and beeps and get arms and legs to move? Another problem is the overwhelming evidence that the mind is the activity of the brain. The supposedly immaterial soul, we now know, can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals,” and so on. By identifying the soul with the mind, the mind with the brain, and noting the brain’s vulnerability as a physical object, he feels he has debunked a conception of the soul that only those who find the word meaningless would ever have entertained.

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.

In any case, Wilson’s conception of mind clearly has also taken on the properties of the soul, at least as that entity is understood by those eager to insist that there is no ghost in the machine. As Bertrand Russell pointed out decades before Gilbert Ryle coined this potent phrase, the old, confident distinction between materiality and nonmateriality is not a thing modern science can endorse ...
It is amusing to see people like Harold O. Wilson and Stephen Pinker, presumably conscious beings, trying essentially to explain consciousness away--doing it in a way only conscious beings could and in a way that only other conscious beings could understand. Robinson does a brilliant job explaining that those like Wilson and Pinker, who want to reduce all things to the material, themselves assume an outmoded duality between the material and non-material.

I wonder if people like Wilson and Pinker are even capable of understanding Robinson's case, since Robinson speaks in the very language of the human, whereas the materialists have reduced the human (a category of which they themselves are members) to non-human categories. There seems to come a point at which the advocates of the human (Robinson, Berry, Chesterton, Lewis) face the skeptics of the human (Wilson, Pinker, Dawkins) over a yawning and unbridgeable intellectual chasm.

The Abolition of Man, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, is self-inflicted.

1 comment:

Michael Janocik said...

Oddly enough, their own arguments are self refutational. By positing that the mind is a hunk of meat, they also forfeit any claims to truth. How does chemical/biological reaction A claim chemical/biological reaction B is wrong? Against what benchmark can one chemical reaction be judged to portray reality with more accuracy than another chemical reaction? Have these people become this stupid in an attempt to escape the grand accounting at the end or all of our lives? It would appear so.