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Never Mind

Novelist Marilynne Robinson takes on some vexing ontological questions in Absence of Mind.

Book Cover Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) is, of course, a gifted novelist and a highly-regarded mentor at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. She is no stranger to nonfiction, having published two collections of essays, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. Now comes Absence of Mind (Yale University Press) in which she attempts to reconcile scientific reasoning with religious faith and various prickly concerns in intellectual history.

In Thinking Again: What Do We Mean by Mind, Robinson offers:
What is man? One answer on offer is: An organism whose haunting questions perhaps ought not to be meaningful to the organ that generates them, lacking as it is in any means of “solving” them. Another answer might be: It is still too soon to tell. We might be the creature who brings life on this planet to an end, and we might be the creature who awakens to the privileges that inhere in our nature—selfhood, consciousness, even our biologically anomalous craving for “the truth”—and enjoys and enhances them. Mysteriously, neither possibility precludes the other. Our nature will describe itself as we respond to new circumstances in a world that changes continuously. So long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already done so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question…

…The Ptolemaic model of the universe worked well enough, given certain cogs and wheels, epicycles and deferents. Wilson and Pinker speak of the old error, that notion of a ghost in the machine, the image of the felt difference between mind and body. But who and what is that other self they posit, the hypertrophic self who has considered the heavens since Babylon and considers them still, by elegant and ingenious means whose refinements express a formidable pressure of desire to see and know far beyond the limits of any conception of utility, certainly any neo-Darwinist conception of it?

…Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify. William James says data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintaining an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know. The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together. This is not an excuse for excluding them from consideration. History and civilization are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving, and will leave, and objectivity deserving the name would take this record as a starting point…
A good chunk of this book is taken from Robinson’s 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale and is available in video form.
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