Building Strawmen With Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a perfect fit for Yale’s Terry Lectures, in which writers, philosophers, and scientists speak about the intersection of science and religion. Few American writers of recent vintage engage with religion with as much depth and sincerity as Robinson—even a lesser novel like last year’s Home is miles ahead of other writers on the subject. Still, on the evidence of the Yale Daily Newsstory on her first lecture, she wasn’t making her arguments particularly clear. The paper reports:

In the first talk of the four-part 2009 Dwight H. Terry lecture series, Robinson dismissed the notion that humans have reached a stage where they have fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, an idea she called the “crossing of the threshold.”

Hands up: Who makes the argument that we have unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, or believes in anybody who says so? After coming down hard on a line of thought that nobody believes in anyway, she goes on:

Robinson also found fault with the tendency of academics to take the “intellectual high ground” and dismiss the belief systems of seemingly primitive societies. “Religion is a point of entry for anthropological inquiries whose intents are largely invidious,” Robinson said. “But that ancient religions contemplated cosmic origins should instill awe at what humans are, the mind is.”

Again, it’s hard to imagine that academics are so cavalier in their thinking about ancient/primitive/non-Western societies. If Robinson believes that the very act of an anthropological inquiry is “invidious,” she’s making a broad-brush and hard-to-respect dismissal of an entire academic discipline; if she had evidence of a particularly invidious recent anthropological pursuit, hopefully she actually cited and discussed it. Of course, it’s hard to make too much of this without seeing the text of the actual lecture, and I’m aware that all of this is being run through the filter of a college journalist on deadline. Plus, apparently the talk was a little dense: As one student told the News, “At times it seemed somewhat impenetrable.”

Update, March 29: Videos of the first two lectures are now online.

5 thoughts on “Building Strawmen With Marilynne Robinson

  1. Strawmen, really? Dawkins, Harris, et al, make the claim that science has brought us to crossing the threshold revealing the ‘mysteries of life.’ They are crystal clear that the scientific approach will describe everything that has been here-to-for dealt with by religious faiths. We still may not know how human consciousness works mechanically, but that is a matter of time and research, not an issue of whether science will eventually solve the problems. Any knowledge that comes from something resembling religious faith does harm: diverts us from knowing the truth, and leads to destructive behavior. The clear issues then come around to the meaning of life, ethics, purpose. If we are reduced solely to what science can prove, then we jettison what gives us meaning and purpose. Dawkins himself is quite clear on this: “the universe does not owe us meaning.” In The Devil’s Chaplain: ‘Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.’ Can’t derive any ‘oughts’ from any ‘is’: philosophy 101. Dawkins uses language of beauty in beholding the every expanding understanding of the universe, but begs the question of what ‘beauty’ is and why we should care about anything so subjective (and eventually one day mechanistically explained, so that what is experienced on any level is deterministically generated). This reductionist view of what it means to be human robs us of the significance of love, human longing, art (Dunnett’s recent book is interesting, but still doesn’t deal with the ‘is/ought’ issue), ethical behavior, and so forth. Our interior lives are more significant than Dawkins et al. can either explain or will ever be able to explain. Science reveals how we exist, but is itself agnostic on the issues of ‘why.’ Folks who are in the Dawkins camp will sputter, “But I am an atheist from scientific bases and still have ethical beliefs,” but never explain the scientific basis for those beliefs.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Grant. I think what threw me here was the story saying that Robinson was attacking scientists’ claims that they have “fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition.” You may be more correct in saying that what she was actually addressing was the idea that science has sole claim on investigating and revealing the human condition, cutting religion and philosophy out of the discussion. That’s obviously a much more complicated and reasonable debate. As I mentioned, I’d be very interested in reading the lectures once they’re published to get a clearer picture of what Robinson is saying.

  2. Grant nailed it. I only chime in because I saw Robinson speak in November and while the subject was different I suspect many of her preoccupations carry over. In the lecture I attended she discussed Calvinism (frequent target of straw man generalizations) in a scholarly and complex analysis which recast the concept in a liberating, radiant light. While some anthropologists are more sensitive than others, without additional context I might interpret her criticism of those who take the “high ground” as a broad critique of a rigidly empirical strain within the intellectual elite, which filters into the culture at large. Of the few remaining book buyers, how many dismiss fiction as a waste of time? I want to learn something or read about something real, they will say. Yet even Dawkins admits that the inner workings of human consciousness are a profound mystery beyond the reach of present scientific inquiry. Art and religion are the only ways in.

  3. Mark,
    I actually attended both afternoons of this talk; I think your intuition is much closer to the truth–the point that bothered me isn’t that Robinson wants to assert that science doesn’t have the whole story, it’s that she thinks that science inevitably diminishes the human whenever it tries to touch the subject. She doesn’t seem to believe that there is a form of scientific reason which can hold the human as a subject of inquiry, or at least, she hasn’t yet granted that there are or have been exceptions.

    At any rate, I was also kind of unimpressed by the YDN’s coverage of the event, so I tried to write up something a little more extensive:

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