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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion / philosophy

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson

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To purchase Absence of Mind

Title: Absence of Mind
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 145 pages
Availability: Absence of Mind - US
Absence of Mind - UK
Absence of Mind - Canada
  • The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
  • Based on The Terry Lectures delivered by Robinson

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Our Assessment:

B : spirited arguments, but only pieces that are persuasive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 25/4/2010 Adam Kirsch
The Guardian A 3/7/2010 Karen Armstrong
The National . 3/6/2010 Chris Lehmann
The Telegraph A 28/5/2010 Rowan Williams
The Washington Post . 27/5/2010 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is much to admire, and even to agree with, in Robinsonís humanist passion. Her defense of the insights to be gained from religion and literature is as convincing as her attacks on the facile generalizations of parascience. But it is unmistakable, reading Absence of Mind, that Robinson is not especially knowledgeable about science or philosophy. Her discussions of evolutionary biology and of the mind/body problem are seriously flawed. Above all, her key concept of mind is full of vagueness and contradictions. (...) Even readers who sympathize with Robinson are likely to feel, after reading Absence of Mind, that she is expressing an attitude rather than advancing an argument." - Adam Kirsch, Boston Globe

  • "Robinson takes the science-versus-religion debate a stage further. More significant than this jejune attack on faith, she argues, is the disturbing fact that "the mind, as felt experience, has been excluded from important fields of modern thought" and as a result "our conception of humanity has shrunk". Robinson's argument is prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely. It is not an easy read, but one of her objectives is to help readers appreciate the complexity of these issues." - Karen Armstrong, The Guardian

  • "Absence of Mind usefully dispels the aura of certainty that has long prevented anyone with a direct rooting interest in the science-belief conflict from approaching it with an open mind. (...) It is to the great credit of Absence of Mind that Robinson recovers the path toward such a faith. One just wishes she had brought a few more thinkers -- from both sides of the religion/science divide -- along with her." - Chris Lehmann, The National

  • "(S)he undertakes a rigorous examination of the argumentation of the reductionists, and shows time and again the extraordinary leaps in reasoning, the begging of questions, the fallacies and mythmaking that go blithely unchallenged in the world of what she calls "parascience" -- popularised and moralised scientific journalism of the kind that has such impressive sales. She distinguishes this carefully and consistently from specific scientific argumentation, making the all-important point that a scientist outside their special field has no particular claim to philosophical acumen. (...) (O)ne of the most significant contributions yet to the current quarrels about faith, science and rationality. At once luminous and relentless, it challenges the ease with which we have got used to the systematic alibis in modern thought that lift the burden of the self and its history at the price of killing the human." - Rowan Williams, The Telegraph

  • "(T)hese impassioned pages require and reward very close attention. Absence of Mind is a philosophical polemic, and its language is often abstract, the syntax convoluted, and the reasoning subtle. (...) She reminds us that throughout history our most profound thinkers have been concerned with metaphysical questions and to call them insoluble or irrelevant, as do her antagonists, is no reason to dismiss the process of deep inquiry." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Absence of Mind tackles aspects of "the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion", with Robinson taking aim in particular at those who have embraced (and achieved popular success with ...) 'parascience' rather than true science:

What I wish to question are not the methods of science, but the methods of a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self criticism for which science is distinguished.
       It's a valid complaint and concern, but Robinson's own method also has its limits. Her selective examples do, in most cases, very clearly make her point -- but they remain selective, and tailored to her argument. She is only interested in scientific (or philosophical) rigor to a certain extent; indeed, her own use of the word and concept 'mind' remains so loose that her own arguments about it are hardly on any firmer foundation that those spouting parascientifcally; so, for example: "The elusiveness of the mind is a consequence of its centrality, which is both its potency and its limitation." But, of course, she can (and implicitly does) argue that what she's after can't be explained scientifically, and doesn't need to play by the same rules -- that's the wonder of art, religion, and all the rest that makes us civilized.
       (Her one attempt at an extended engagement with the science on the subject -- of altruism -- also falls woefully short.)
       Robinson is also sure (and dead set against) what led to the flowering of parascience:
I would argue 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.
       Robinson has a way with words, and there's a certain eloquence (occasionally excessive: mankind as a: "gaudy efflorescence of consciousness") to these essays; there's also a surprising amount of humor -- though of the rather crueler sly kind, as when she admits:
     The meme is not a notion I can dismiss out of hand. It seems to me to describe as well as anything does the obdurate persistence and influence of writing I have called parascientific.
       It's easy to enjoy that kind of argument, but examined slightly more closely proves not to be much argument at all. (A trick some of the more eloquent parascientistific writers she cites also employ.)
       Somewhat surprisingly, the most successful of these pieces is the one on Freud -- perhaps because so much of his work has largely been so firmly demolished. Even most of her parascientists -- never mind someone like Popper -- would hardly use him as an example of a scientific thinker. For Robinson he is only the most extreme of parascientific examples; presumably readers are left to infer that the current-day examples of popular expounders and their notions she points to -- Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, etc. -- will similarly eventually be exposed (even beyond to the extent they already may have been).
       There's a lot here that is of interest, but most of what Robinson presents can only offer staring points for debate. She jumps around a lot -- memes ! multiverses ! emtaphysics ! mind ! -- and while much of this is of interest, the arguments and presentation largely remain underdeveloped. She makes some good points, and the idea of 'parascience' (and how it applies to some of her deserving targets) is certainly a useful one, but ultimately Absence of Mind is a bit thin.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2010

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Absence of Mind: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943.

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