Tuesday, July 06, 2010

bones and feathers and wishful thinking...?

Guardian | In this published version of the Terry lectures, delivered at Yale University last year, the novelist Marilynne Robinson argues that positivism, the belief that science is the only reliable means to truth, has adopted a "systematically reductionist" view of human nature. Since Huxley, for example, Darwinians have found altruism problematic, as evolution would necessarily select against benevolence to another at cost to oneself. Altruism can only occur because of the "selfishness" of a gene. Thus for EO Wilson, a "soft-core altruist" expects reciprocation from either society or family; his byzantine calculations are characterised by "lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real". Every apparently compassionate action is, therefore, simply a matter of quid pro quo.

In the same way, because it transfers useful information to somebody else and requires an expenditure of time and energy, language seems essentially altruistic. But, says the evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller, "evolution cannot favour altruistic information-sharing", so the complexities of language probably evolved simply for verbal courtship, "providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female".

"Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!" Robinson comments wryly, when our "proto-verbal ancestors found mates through eloquent proto-speech". In the same way, art may appear to be "an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand," but according to some neo-Darwinians, it too is simply a means of attracting sexual partners. "Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better."

This disdainful "hermeneutics of condescension" cannot function outside of a narrow definition of relative data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the positivist critique of religion. Daniel Dennett, for example, defines religion as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". He deliberately avoids the contemplative side of faith explored by William James, as if, Robinson says, "religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". Bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates, Dennett, Dawkins and others are free to reduce the multifarious religious experience of humanity "to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death".

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. To adopt such a "closed ontology", she insists, is to ignore "the beauty and the strangeness" of the individual mind as it exists in time. Subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method."