14 July 2010

Absence of Mind on the Daily Show

Posted by Ryan Anderson

I normally like the Daily Show, but I had a problem with the July 8 interview with Marilynne Robinson about her new book, Absence of Mind . I had never heard of this book before, but it appears to be a discussion of the conflict between science and religion, with the message that scientific thinking does not fully take into account the complexities of the human mind.

Okay, interesting topic. But I was dismayed during the interview at how both John Stewart and Marilynne Robinson built up a caricature of science to knock down. Stewart claims: “The more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith.” As an example of this, he uses antimatter. It’s pretty clear that he meant dark matter and not antimatter as he jokes about not being able to detect it and just having to trust that it’s there. The problem is he’s still completely wrong. Dark matter can be, and has been detected based on its gravitational influence. There’s no faith involved here! It all goes back to the simple observation that galaxies were spinning too fast for gravity from the visible matter to hold them together. So astronomers suggested that there might be some other form of matter. And now, in cases like the bullet cluster, the dark matter has been detected. To draw a parallel between that and the notion that a god created the universe doesn’t really make sense to me. Dark matter is a testable hypothesis, god isn’t.

But I’ll accept that Stewart was making a joke, and that neither he nor Robinson are scientists so they might get dark matter wrong. That doesn’t change the fact that I am deeply suspicious of the book’s premise. From what I saw on the interview and what I have read in reviews of the book, it sounds like the entire premise comes from a misunderstanding of science and a desire to boost the self esteem of those who can’t deal with the endless demotions that science seems to throw our way. But science isn’t actively trying to make us feel small and insignificant, that’s just how the universe is. I’m reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan, who talks a lot about this sort of thing:

Is our self-esteem so precarious that nothing short of a universe custom-made for us will do?

As for the claim that science unjustly devalues the individual and those experiences that occur within the mind, well, I wonder exactly how she suggests we incorporate those into our theories. It’s not possible to fully communicate the richness of our internal thoughts to someone else, or to record them as data to be analyzed. We’re stuck with clunky tools like speech and art and music. Again, I’m reminded of a quote:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. -Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

It’s not for lack of trying that science has failed to take into account the depth of the mind and the individual experience. I’m sure psychologists and neurologists and many other -ists would love to have that information available. We’re just getting to the point where brain scanning technology can identify thought patterns with various emotions. But being able to say “Oh, that person is experiencing religious rapture” or “hey, look, this person is in love” isn’t quite the same as the actual experience.

Robinson brings up the point of altruism as a problem that science can’t explain. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I believe Richard Dawkins addresses this pretty thoroughly in the Selfish Gene. I’m probably going to butcher the argument, but basically, altruism could come about from an instinct to protect those to whom you have formed a close social bond, which until quite recently, evolutionarily speaking, would have been likely to be either related to you or your mate.

It’s certainly interesting to think about how science might have unintentionally become blind to so much of what makes us human, but to expect science to be able to use our subjective experiences to come to any meaningful conclusions is asking an awful lot. In fact, science works precisely because it does not use subjective, individual experience as the basis for drawing conclusions about the world! If it did, it wouldn’t be science anymore.

To be fair, I haven’t read Robinson’s book, and it’s entirely possible that she has counterarguments to everything I have said here. I’m probably grossly misrepresenting her arguments based on the minimal information in the Daily Show interview and in reviews. It sounds like a genuinely interesting and intellectually challenging read, and I suspect I actually agree with her on a lot of things. But it also sounds like there are some fundamental flaws in her argument. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read the book and can come to its defense, but based on what I’ve seen so far, it strikes me as a misrepresentation of science, and I am disappointed that the Daily Show wasn’t just a little more critical of it.