Friday, July 23, 2010

Marilynne Robinson Thinks You're an Idiot

I just saved you $24.00 plus tax.

I really like The Daily Show with John Stewart, and of course, the Colbert Report.  Both Stewart and Colbert interview authors, politicians, and scientists who would never get interviewed on the Faux News Channel.  When they have the occasional conservative or libertarian they're very polite with them, and let them say their piece, so I enjoyed John Stewart's July 8th interview with Marilyn Robinson, the author of Absence of Mind.

Even though I'm convinced that there is no god, no afterlife, etc. the interview made me want to read her book.  The argument that she presented on The Daily Show was that my posse—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al—were not the best people to defend science, and that those on the religious right who argue with them were not the best representatives of religion.

Wow, that piqued my interest.  I assumed that she is religious, but was curious as to what she has to say.  She came across as being sophisticated and nuanced.  The Claremont Library doesn't have a copy, so the other night after walking the dog, I went to the mall's Barnes & Noble with a built-in Starbucks.  They only had one copy of Absence of Mind, and it was in the religion section.  I grabbed it, and plopped down at a table in the bookstore Starbucks with a Grande Mocha, and the world's biggest oatmeal raisin cookie.

I can't emphasize enough: I started reading her book with a positive attitude, under the assumption that she had something new and interesting to say—regardless of whether or not I would eventually agree with her.

It didn't take long for me to see that the empress has no clothes.  There was a huge disconnect between what she said on The Daily Show, and what she says in her book. 

     Before I even get into what she talks about in her book, I'm going to start with a quasi ad hominem attack on her writing style:  she comes across as one of these academic blowhards who are in love with all of the big 5 dollar words they done larned in college.  I understood what she was talking about in the chapters that I read while still in the book store, but it was shear torture.  I felt like I was marooned on a tropical island with my old college advisor, whose idea of a good time was to trot out all of the in-house lingo that is only used at universities.  The one person who I know could read her pages at a much higher rate of speed than myself would be my friend Steve Finlay, who teaches philosophy at USC.  But for the average Joe (or Tom), Robinson's writing is a barely-penetrable backyard weed patch that looks lush and pretty from across the street, but is chaotic and displeasing upon closer inspection. 

I'm only going to attack her on two points.  To do more would exhaust—if not irritate—me, and any unfortunate readers of this diatribe:


Robinson does not like Positivism.  Wait.  What the hell is Positivism?  Ah...this is the first of many instances where the school marm digs into a topic, brandishing her professorial vocabulary around the room, while we the general public hope she doesn't poke our collective eyes out with it.  Tell me again why Barnes & Noble put her book into the religion, instead of the philosophy section?   Sans introduction, she launches into a full-frontal assault against Positivism, which in plain English is the following school of thought:  If we can measure it, record it, or otherwise pke or prod it, it exists.  If we can't test it, measure it, or poke it, it either doesn't exist, or isn't important.

Who cares?

Well, the crux of the New Atheists' argument is as follows: I've never seen God, and neither have you.  We don't have any photos or sound recordings of him.  We can't detect him with any electronic devices.  Same thing goes for miracles, ghosts, and people in the afterlife.  Therefore, they don't exist.

This pisses Doctor Robinson off.

Too bad, lady.  deal with it.

II.     FREUD, DARWIN, and other Stupid White Men

Another weapon in Robinson’s anti-New Atheist screed is a collective attack upon various dead white guys. She claims that Freud’s, Darwin’s, and others’ theories, hypotheses, and contributions to Western thought are a disorganized collection of mutually incompatible ideas that cancel each other out, therefore proving via their collective lack of merit that only religion has the answers.

For example: she says that Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, e.g. Survival of the Fittest (even though Darwin never used that phrase) are incompatible with Freud’s beliefs about everything starting from sexual urges—taboo, or otherwise—therefore, they’re both wrong. No—wait; she takes it back: they’re not wrong, just irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists, or religion serves any useful purpose.

This is the epistemological equivalent of apples and oranges.

Sticking with her Darwin vs Freud chapter, the reader cannot help but remember the obvious: life is complicated. The human mind is complicated. Freud and Darwin were interested in different topics. They were asking—and answering different sets of questions. The fact that Freud and Darwin had different ways of seeing the world does not automatically mean that they’re both wrong, and now God—with a capital G—is the only person who can step in, and provide the right answers. I say this, despite her repeated protestations within the book, that of course, evolution etc. are real, but that doesn’t prove that God isn’t real, too. She doesn’t refute Darwin et al—she damns them with faint praise.

Oh, wait, I remember that God from a college biology class: The God of the Gaps.

On the brighter side, Robinson does not agree with religious fundamentalism. Instead, she wants to save God—and us—by converting him from being an angry old white guy with a beard and a toga into some sort of a New Age, amorphous spirit of brotherly love.

Don’t let Victor Stenger read that last paragraph: he’ll sneak off to the faculty men’s room, and cut his wrists.

The reason that Stenger, Dawkins, and Hitchens piss off religious folks is that they pose the ultimate uncomfortable questionIf God hasn't shown his presence in a long time (only fundamentalists of any stripe still believe that he personally intervenes in events), and he's just this benevolent dude who nods sympathetically, while listening to our thoughts, and wishing us well, then what use is he?

In the end, I don’t know what Robinson’s goal is in publishing Absence of Mind. Money? Fame? Adulation? respect from her academic peers?  All writers suffer from the pathetic need to be recognized and admired, but by whom? Who is her target audience?

Her colleagues? Your average city college part-time philosophy instructor would shred Absence of Mind over a short, beer-soaked weekend, easily cranking out a 20 page rebuttal while never allowing his blood alcohol level to dip below 0.16%

The General Public?  The book is written with a rich, heavy vocabulary that would give the Common Man a toothache, or an upset stomach, if not both.  Perhaps this is the point.  She certainly bamboozled Stewart, who must have read a few pages, and said, "Wow, this lady must know what she's talking about.  Look at all those big college words!" 

The problem is that Robinson's academia lingo-laden prose is the intellectual equivalent of a magician who waves one hand in the air, while we're not supposed to see when she uses her other hand to pull the hard-boiled egg out of her vest pocket.

She may have fooled John Stewart, but she isn't fooling me.


Jim said...

The reason that Stenger, Dawkins, and Hitchens piss off religious folks is that they pose the ultimate uncomfortable question: If God hasn't shown his presence in a long time (only fundamentalists of any stripe still believe that he personally intervenes in events), and he's just this benevolent dude who nods sympathetically, while listening to our thoughts, and wishing us well, then what use is he?

As someone said recently, “To pay homage to beauty is to admire Nature; to admire Nature is to worship God” and to loosely quote Alexander Dumas, "God is everywhere". The common misconception is that God is the old man in a toga with a beard nodding his head to our wants and wishes.

God is an issue of faith, not religion and while the RIGHT might be religious, I have never known more faithless people in my whole existence. Albert Einstein said " without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."

As for this crazy author; well I think that she was sparking a discussion among intelligent peoples if they would buy her book. You have in fact saved me $25 and as a friend, I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you suspect that you are less knowledgeable than you would like to think you are and reading Marilynne Robinson provided evidence that supports your suspicion

Marilynne Robinson can't be read without a dictionary close by. I don't attack her for it, I just start looking up words. To suggest that she does this to impress anyone or to accuse her of using lingo is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

This is the same "anonymous" as above. Did you even notice that this book is a compilation of a series of lectures Robinson gave?