Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness Of Things

Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of Gilead, Housekeeping and Lila, had been on my radar for some time when her latest collection of essays, The Givenness Of Things, arrived at my doorstep courtesy of a kind aunt and uncle. I was eager to make her acquaintance, and more prepared than at any other time in my life to delve into the subject matter – Christianity and its influence on art and morality. And yet, from the very first essay, I found myself alienated by her belittling of science and what she takes to be its pernicious influence on the humanities and, by extension, on ethics.

The first essay is entitled “Humanism,” but this is misleading, for it is not the exposition or defence of an ethical framework but an attack on the encroachment of science into fields previously relegated to religion and philosophy. There is room for such an argument to be sure, and science and scientists are sufficiently thick-skinned – or ought to be – to take the criticism, but her arguments are underhanded and dishonest, and revelatory of her own ignorance and bias. Marilynne Robinson, you see, is a Christian, and a Calvinist at that, and so she reserves particular ire for “so-called neuroscience,” because its pretension of having proven the material basis of consciousness refutes the Christian conception of the soul. Here is her tendentious summary of neuroscience:

The gist of neuroscience is that the adverbs “simply” and “merely” can exorcise the mystifications that have always surrounded the operations of the mind/brain, exposing the machinery that in fact produces emotion, behavior, and all the rest. So while inquiries into the substance of reality reveal further subtleties, idioms of relation that are utterly new to our understanding, neuroscience tells us that the most complex object we know of, the human brain, can be explained sufficiently in terms of the activation of “packets of neurons,” which evolution has provided the organism in service to homeostasis. The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing.

This is on page 6 of a 300-plus page book of essays, and I confess that, with such a start, I was wary about proceeding further. Where to begin? Far from advocating for a simplistic view of the mind, neuroscientists champion its complexity – a standard introductory sentence in a neuroscience book declares that the human brain is the most complex organ in the known universe. It is true that there is an entire cottage industry championing the supposed self-help benefits of neuroscience, and these authors are given to making outlandish claims, but true neuroscientists are characteristically humble, aware – as they must be – that they are working in one of science’s most evolving frontiers. One wonders which scientists Robinson has been reading, particularly when she makes claims about the field of neuroscience that are demonstrably untrue (for example: “its tenets enjoy a singular immunity from the criticism of peers” or “neuroscience is remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and to go directly to assertion”).

Making matters worse, her prose suffers with her argument, devolving into a jumbling incoherency unworthy of even an average writer, let alone the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Never is this more evident than when she is invoking science – usually physics – to attack the encroachment of neuroscience into terrain she wishes to reserve for religion and philosophy. Her favourite tactic has been used by the likes of Deepak Chopra to obfuscate the obvious deficiencies of her position: she invokes the incredible strangeness of quantum physics – a subject she has no familiarity with whatsoever – to “prove” that our “mechanistic assumptions” about the mind are hopelessly simplistic. If Newtonian physics can be overturned, if the space-time continuum functions in wild and unpredictable ways, perhaps there might be room for god after all:

I am no physicist, but when I read about phenomena like quantum entanglement that seem to discourage an excessively literal belief in space, time, and causality as we commonly understand them, I feel the need to establish a new ordering of priorities in inquiring into the nature of reality, by looking at its quintessential expressions, for example, those outliers relative to the implied norms of physical being that form the baseline of contemporary thought – norms that are arrived at by excluding outliers insofar as they are seen to differ qualitatively from the cosmic run of things.

Her “new ordering of priorities” would banish neuroscience for its inability to explain, with its crude instruments, why one mind is perfectly ordinary and another composes Hamlet. Very likely, science will never supply a satisfactory answer to that question, but to suggest that the physical brain plays no role in the explanation defies everything we know about cognition and does not get her one step closer to her ultimate goal of reinstating the Christian conception of the soul. To watch Robinson call into question the materiality of consciousness and cast the most unfair aspersions on neuroscientists, even as she takes for granted the existence of a personal god, of immortal souls and virgin births and resurrections, is to appreciate our limitless capacity for rationalization – a worthwhile lesson to learn – but it makes for tedious and predictable reading.

Many of the essays avoid the topic of science entirely, preferring to focus on some question of theology or religious history, and here she displays an enviable erudition and curiosity, but her themes are so broad – Grace, Fear, Metaphysics – that her mind frequently wanders too freely, leaving her reader lost and weakening her arguments. At times, it is difficult to escape the impression that some grand theological argument is being invoked to make a petty and seemingly unrelated political point, as she takes various jabs at America’s Christian Right for their love of guns or refusal to assent to federal healthcare. No doubt these asides will earn her plaudits from her intended audience, but they diminish the coherency of her work.

Outside of the scientific community, The Givenness Of Things has been met with praise (Karen Armstrong wrote the NYT review, which perhaps explains some of the fawning), which I can only take to be another manifestation of the uncomfortable and growing gap between the sciences and the humanities – a gap that does not bode well for the humanities.