Essays, Reviews, Science.

Parascience: Fair – or not

Book Book Review, Title Absence of Mind, Author Marilynne Robinson, Rating 2.5, Parascience? Fair ... or not

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson

Book Review

In her collection of essays entitled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self, Marilynne Robinson sails the still uncharted territory of consciousness, or perhaps, the territory of charting consciousness. She fires an immediate broadside in her very first sentence:
"These essays examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion, in order to question the legitimacy of the claim its exponents make to speak with the authority of science and in order to raise questions about the quality of thought that lies behind it." (page i)  

‘Absence of mind’ appears at least to be a double entendre: The removal of the mystery of the mind by sloppy, imprecise parascience (a word Robinson uses more in the sense of scientism) and a poke at those who would arrogantly misuse the authority of science as being absent of mind.

Robinson bemoans the loss of influence that religion and metaphysics has today, particularly around the conception of the mind; she is concerned that over the last few hundred years, secular and scientific thought has come to dominate, and this worries her, because she believes that ‘whoever controls the definition of the mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history.‘ She is particularly concerned that the intellectual authority and dominance that science has garnered is not always put to honest use, but sometimes is used to buttress weak ideas and bully those who would oppose. She thinks that scientific hypotheses of the mind are too simple and limited to account for the mind’s awareness of itself and its place in the universe. Further, she holds that ‘the absence of mind and subjectivity from parascientific literature is in some part a consequence of the fact that the literature arose and took its form in part as a polemic against religion.

These are provocative ideas; to begin to address them, it is important to note the disparity between the stated and actual scope of the essays. Within the first thirty five pages, it becomes clear that the topic actually being examined is the conflict between religion and social science, a significantly smaller question than the boldly proclaimed conflict between all of science and religion. Social science has been routinely described as ‘soft science’ because it has proven difficult to produce models of human behavior that are robust and sometimes even testable, in contrast to much of chemistry and physics. She further reduces her target primarily to two groups within social science; the first, old and discredited thinkers, and the second recent writers who produce layman’s interpretations of social science, much of it clearly speculation (popularized social science), such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and E. O. Wilson, leaving aside the more careful, professional, and less exaggerated works of the field, some of that by the same people mentioned above.


William James. PD-OLD, PD-US.


In these popularized accounts of social science the inner life is dismissed, and the mind is explained using science alone. By itself, this shouldn’t be a problem, but Robinson notes that underlying all of this is the driving assumption that science will eventually explain all that is the mind, and popular science writers write as though science already has explained everything. These two leaps make the highly speculative portions of their books sound as if they are barely speculation, which makes them clearly misleading. Some of the best parts of Robinson’s essays are in the areas where she demonstrates the shoddiness and limitations of this kind of thinking. The clear arrogance with which some of these popularizers speak, even when speculating, from the lofty perch of ‘science,’ can be quite galling. Robinson reminds these ‘parascientists’ that, from William James, ‘unknowability is the first thing about reality that must be acknowledged.’ The idea that reality is ultimately unknowable is in fact a part of practicing science, but clearly these popularizers sometimes depart from the dictates of good scientific practice. Ironically, some of the popularizers writing in this authoritarian style are also legitimate and more appropriately humble scientists in their own right. There are many works from Dawkins, for example, that hew to the methods and more appropriate attitudes of science, and cannot be casually dismissed on the basis of parascientism, although the author does not bring this out.

In these essays, as in the earlier Darwinism essay from her Death of Adam collection, many of the ideas she analyzes are passé, such as Skinner’s behaviorism or Freud’s various theories. Some of Robinson’s examples of parascientism might alternatively be labeled as ideas that were proposed, tested, and ultimately discarded; that is, the scientific method at work. Her fixation on the parascientism of Freud, who is easily the most dominant figure in these essays, would be more relevant if his ideas still held sway, but they have long been rejected by mainstream science as being untestable or demonstrably false.

These essays are not easy to read, not so much for the academic prose or sometimes obscure Latin references, which provide some welcome challenge, but because of the jarring logical and scientific misunderstandings that issue forth. Her deliberate reduction of science to the realm of popularized social science creates serious problems for the author: her own interpretations of science are often at the same level, and often lead her astray. For example, she suggests that bacteria ‘choose’ antibiotic resistance genes ‘out of the ambient flux of organic material.’ What she is alluding to is a inter-bacterial mechanism for gene exchange. Genetic material containing antibiotic resistance genes, produced and excreted by other bacteria, can be taken up by another bacteria from the immediate surroundings. She is clearly implying that her ‘ambient flux of organic material’ is one in which this genetic material randomly forms, a requisite for her extended argument that nature provides some room for ‘mystery’; but the genetic material is the product of other bacteria, not randomly formed.


Phineas Gage, with the iron spike that impaled him. PD-US.


Another example of this overly simplistic thinking is Robinson’s treatment of Phineas Gage’s spike through the head, and his subsequent change in behavior. Robinson suggests that his change from a sober supervisor of men to a fitful man prone to profanity might be explained as someone who’s life has changed in a terrible way, and might feel more agitated and swear more often (a reasonable, if limited point); she suggests that otherwise Gage’s story is too vague and ill-documented to allow social scientists to draw the conclusion that the brain damage changed his personality, and thereby make some link between the physical brain and the mind. Were Gage the only example of this kind of reasoning, she would have a point. However, Gage is only the tip of the iceberg; he has been used in popularized social science (and elementary psychology textbooks) for many years because he epitomizes a much more comprehensive approach in the social sciences than she seems to be aware of. One of the oldest and still current means of learning about brain function in psychology is to study behavioral changes that result from brain trauma or focused electrical interference to specific regions of the brain; it turns out that in many cases, quite specific and consistent behavioral changes can be associated with trauma and electrical interference to specific regions of the brain. A large body of evidence has been compiled over the last century in this regard.

Even more problematic is the author’s attempt to demonstrate a weakness inherent in science by suggesting that, if one were to use positivist reductionist arguments, one might conclude that in combining hydrogen gas and oxygen gas at room temperature to produce water, water will form as a gas rather than a liquid, because . . . its constituent components were gases! Indeed, one might have come to that conclusion – in 1760 – but certainly not by the mid-1800’s, when, any hypothesis aside, liquid water had been produced from gaseous hydrogen and oxygen for eighty years. By 1905, no one would have come to the conclusion she suggests, as this was when the kinetic theory was given its final push by Einstein’s explanation of Brownian motion, and it was finally agreed that molecules were real: The consequences of phase changes had been worked out thermodynamically. (note 1) This is typical of science, where ideas are refined by observation and experiment, and where an earlier, more ‘atomic’ understanding often gives way to a more integrated and radically different understanding when more is learned, and the parts are combined into a whole.

To carry this analogy through, social science’s theories of the mind are yet early and crude; there is every hope that the simple things learned today will be combined into a larger, much different and more explanatory whole as more is learned. Her point about the over-reliance on mechanistic arguments is a legitimate one, but one poorly served by her seeming lack of understanding of both the specific science she alludes to, and the scientific method more generally.

Robinson talks of the secular humanistic wave that has been building from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment to current times. She refers to modern thought as closed to the more religious and metaphysical concepts of the mind. There is some truth to this, beyond the point that science, which she clearly includes as part of secular humanism, by definition can look only at testable assertions, and religious and metaphysical descriptions of the mind are generally untestable. Beyond that not so minor point, closed thinking, narrow focus and zealotry are universal human traits, yet the author only makes the point in regards to secular thinking, and is not careful to acknowledge that religious thinking has its own strong tendency to be closed.

Robinson also regularly makes arguments about the limits of secular humanism, arguments that could equally well apply to religion, but again fails to make the latter point. One obvious example of this is her observation that World War I (WWI) was fought over secular and not religious issues, which is true, but not necessarily the whole truth: Modern European nation states were formed as partnerships between Christian churches and secular government (there are many vestiges of this today, with obvious examples being major political parties aligned with specific churches, like the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, or state subsidies for parochial schools), and it is difficult to disentangle the purely secular from the religious influence in the maneuverings leading to the onset of WWI. Robinson follows her WWI observation with a deep departure from history: ‘It is seldom if ever the case that religious considerations are determinants in such matters.’ So Charlemagne’s conversion of the Saxons to Christianity by the sword, the Islamic jihad of the 7th and 8th centuries, the various Crusades, the Thirty Years War, or the English Civil War, among many others, were not religiously motivated conflicts?

The author also suggests that these secular ideas are often in reaction to the religious and metaphysical ideas that prevail in their time, and that these secular ideas are often in wild conflict with each other. Both points are again true enough, yet . . .

In her first point, the author stops short of acknowledging the Western Christian Church’s almost complete and dogmatic control of ideas, in the university system or in the local parish, for much of its life. During the Middle Ages, the Church could be argued to be the single most powerful institution in Western civilization, and its power extended to banishment, imprisonment, torture and execution of those who espoused thoughts different than its defined dogma. As economic fortunes and means of communication improved, ideas blossomed, and the Church fought direct and sometimes bloody battles over ideas of which it did not approve. This is still the legacy of religion, and there are today still serious efforts by religious adherents and thinkers to suppress or delegitimize ideas (e.g. new Creationism), not necessarily on the basis of rigorous analysis, but often because the ideas in question don’t align with religious dogma. (Note that the Catholic Church did not officially apologize for its treatment of Galileo until 1981.) Religion has its own history of authoritarianism, and the author’s rejection of inappropriate scientific authoritarianism, quite correctly, would carry more intellectual weight if she were to clearly and carefully identify the problem as more universal, as extending to religion, also.

In her second point, that secular ideas were and are often in wild conflict with each other, is certainly true. But the author attempts to immodestly stretch this point into a condemnation of scientific or positivistic thinking as being essentially incoherent. A great many of today’s well-tested scientific theories are reasonably consistent with each other. For example, the great advances in biology in the last 100 years have come largely by adoption of the laws of chemistry and physics. That not all of even physics is completely consistent, however, is in fact consistent with the methods of science, where competing ideas are the norm, and holes in one theory can beget another, more inclusive theory. This point, again, carries to religious and metaphysical ideas; anyone familiar with the historical body of religious ideas would find them wildly conflicting, but would also note that there are ideas that have persisted over time. Again, this would seem to be a more universal trait of shared ideas.

Marilynne Robinson will not go gently into that good night, and is nothing if not intellectually scrappy, but, does she fight fair? Is an openly one-sided argument the best approach to understanding? Even Galileo’s most polemical works were in the form of a dialogue which included opposing arguments. Employing some of the same rhetorical sleight-of-hand that she rightly derides in parascience, Robinson sometimes over-generalizes the problems in discarded or exaggerated social (‘soft’) science so as to minimize aspects of positivism and science as a whole. It would seem that she has employed the same kind of reductionism she derides in positivism. The author is rightly upset by parascientific intellectual bullying, but she herself is not immune to the temptations of condescension and less than rigorous dismissal that constitute such bullying.

Do scientists and metaphysicians sometimes over-react to each other? Do the ideologues from each discipline react only to the most exaggerated posturing from the other? Is the author sometimes guilty of this in Absence of Mind? Are there occasions where scientists, in their frustration over the worst dogmatism publicly asserted by practitioners of religion, become what they behold, over-state their case, and dismiss opposing ideas that are unprovable, while blithely asserting equally weak and unproven ideas in their place? Are there occasions where scientists wrap themselves in a false authority, like the religious dogmatists they often openly despise, to assert the superiority of their ideas? On all accounts, it would appear so.

Marilynne Robinson is right to defend the humanistic tradition, and the view that the mind is complex and as yet unfathomable. She is right to suggest that the mind is much more than the current crude materialistic models of science suggest, even those arising from neurological studies, and that religion has its place in the search for the elusive mind, but I think she misses a good bet: science has shown to incrementally and inexorably provide more a refined understanding as its ideas are tested; science will likely never explain the mind in full, but it will likely provide a more detailed picture of human experience as time goes on. There will always be room for religious and metaphysical contributions to our understanding of the mind, even if they don’t produce perfect agreement between science and religion.

Having identified the failing that is parascience, but by then exaggerating its influence, ignoring more careful and current science, and neglecting to emphasize similar failings in religious and metaphysical thinking, the author unfortunately adds little else to our understanding of the current dialogue between scientists and metaphysicians on the subject of the mind, or adds much that would be useful in bringing the two disciplines to any shared common ground. Most importantly, she provides no serious alternatives to the shoddy thinking she takes to task; she makes no real defense of the religious and metaphysical concepts of the mind (soul).

Robinson is a celebrated religious writer whose frustration with modern secular thinking is palpable. Fortunately, in today’s America, under the protection of the First Amendment of the Constitution, itself the fruit of secular humanistic Enlightenment thinking, she is free to challenge the authoritarians, scientific and religious, and make more full-blooded arguments to provide what she thinks is missing from the modern conception of the mind. The marketplace for ideas is quite open, and she has the passion and the intellectual skill to add more substance to this dialogue; I for one would very much welcome it.



1. Hydrogen and oxygen gases under high pressure will in fact produce steam, which is water in gaseous form, the very thing the author suggested couldn’t happen. Of course, once the water cools sufficiently, it will become liquid water, and if it continues to cool, will eventually freeze to become solid water. The explanation for the phase changes of matter were precisely worked out thermodynamically in the 18th and 19th centuries, using an atomic model. The initial and ongoing thermal conditions of the reaction determine the initial phase of water formed from hydrogen and oxygen, and its subsequent phase states.

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