Absence of Mind

Robinson, Marilynne
Yale University Press (2010)
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It took me three efforts of will to get past the first few pages of this highly admired little book. It wasn't the thesis - I share Robinson's profound mistrust of para-science and all its major exponents, notably Freud, Marx and Darwin - but there is something jagged about the glittering prose which acts in much the same way as too much jewellery on a pretty woman one is trying to embrace.

But the effort was wonderfully worthwhile once I became reconciled to admiring her from a respectful distance. Her attack on the mess we have got ourselves into is devastating, exposing the "cheap certainty" of contemporary reductionism by tearing off the sticking plaster of rhetorical self-satisfaction. Others have chronicled the paradigm shift (she never uses Kuhn's typology) from minds operating in history to minds operating as entities governed by electro-chemical laws and she shrewdly observes that those who control the definition of mind control the definition of humankind itself, at which point she crushes the world famous entomologist E.O. Wilson as we might crush an ant with a contempt which her surface charm cannot conceal.

Her purpose is to show that, as a result of this para-scientific onslaught, assault, sometimes deliberate, sometimes collateral, through its reduction to mere anthropology and sociology. There is, she says "an odd, undeniable power in this defining of humankind by the exclusion of the things that in fact distinguish us as a species". She explains with alluring lucidity the problem of altruism for para-science and although she notes that Freudianism was, in a strange way, an attempt to establish a bulwark against nationalism (remarkably prescient, as things turned out), she does not spare him on that account, exposing the notion that "self is inaccessible to the self" as a clever non sequitur, declaring that "the mind is what the brain does", based on experience derived through the senses, a nice nod towards scholasticism; the evidence of subtlety and nuance in the human enterprise is overwhelming.

Modernists, Robinson says, assume that they are "playing with a full deck" but they should consider that: "The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science ... are very inclined to encourage false expectations".

Having delivered this devastating pincer movement, she concludes with a wonderfully positive summary: "each of us lives intensely ... continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify."

A maddeningly beautiful book which, I suspect, will do more damage than some of the more ponderous reactions to the new, militant, self-regarding, recursive atheism of Dawkins and his associates.