Elegantly Fisking Materialism.

September 1, 2010 at 12:59 am (By Amba)

David B. Hart, reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind:

Again and again, Robinson emphasizes the degree to which the mind’s experience of itself continues to elude the reach of the monist materialisms that want to subdue it.

And yet the reductionist project apparently understands itself, and certainly presents itself, as a kind of scientific project. Thus it generates the literature of what Robinson aptly calls “parascience”: a form of discourse whose rather grand, frequently incoherent, and usually irreducibly metaphysical assertions about the nature of the universe, the self, the genealogy of morality, and so on, masquerade as purely scientific claims. This is a literature that systematically blurs the distinction between fact and theory, and between legitimate theory and ideological invention; but it is marketed to readers who for the most part lack the special training needed to recognize when they are being misled, and so enjoys — as Robinson says of the works of Dawkins and Dennett — “the effective authority that comes from successful popularization.”

A great deal of the pleasure that Absence of Mind affords the reader comes from Robinson’s patient deflation of parascientific pretensions. She does not counter the reductionist case with vague appeals to hopeful sentiment, but instead quite effectively demonstrates how much of that case consists in baseless assumptions, ungoverned metaphors, and sheer assertion.

I love it!!  This is on the Templeton Foundation-sponsored website Big Questions Online, which looks like the kind of sandbox I love to play in.  You see, while Hart doesn’t suffer fools gladly, neither does skeptic.com‘s Michael Shermer, who in another piece on BQO eviscerates Deepak Chopra’s “quantum flapdoodle.”  (Shermer may be a parascientist, but that doesn’t make Chopra’s equation of subatomic and mental nonlocality anything but fanciful.)  You end up not knowing which is worse, the so-proud-to-be-boneheaded parascience or the mooshy new “spiritual” pseudoscience, but in any case being glad that there is a place that is ready to scrutinize all varieties of bad thinking with an endangered intellectual rigor.


  1. amba12 said,

    By the way, I have no choice but to accept subatomic nonlocality, and I have experienced mental nonlocality. I just think Chopra’s equation of them is another ungoverned metaphor.

  2. amba12 said,

    Oh, as a delicious postscript, I saw part of an interview Marilynne Robinson did with . . . I forget . . . Charlie Rose. He was positing her book as part of the argument between science and religion, and at the end he asked her, “Who’s right?”

    She said, “I am!”

    She said it with both humor and a sense of entitlement.

  3. Chickelit said,

    I don’t follow all the people and arguments you mention here. I did wonder whether it had anything to do with Hitchens and an unanswered question I raised here.

    I can try and find a YouTube version of the video link that takes you right to the spot.

  4. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    I listened to the whole video. He means agnostics, that’s all — people who admit that we really don’t know much, certainly not about ultimate questions like what this all is or why any of it’s here.

  5. Chickelit said,

    Thanks. I was just interested in who Hitchens thought was interesting regarding the uncertainty principle, enough for him to have called it out in that way. I’ve been interested in it too for quite some time- first as a scientist because of light atom transfer phenomena and later in a converstion with Jason.

  6. PatHMV said,

    Hey, Annie! Did you get the e-mail I sent you on Tuesday? No worries if you haven’t had time to respond, just wanted to make sure it didn’t get lost in the ether somewhere.

  7. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Chicken — I’m pretty sure Hitch was using the term metaphorically, i.e. he wasn’t talking about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle per se, but about uncertainty in the wider sense, which people not surprisingly connect to the fact that such a key principle of the new physics is called “the uncertainty principle.” Seeing as the effect of science has been that the more we know, the less we realize we know.

  8. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Pat: No!! Not until now. I don’t check gmail often enough. Answering now!!

  9. realpc said,

    I think that reductionism and materialism are just a passing fad. Of course the fad has been around for hundreds of years, but it’s one of those slow-moving fads. I didn’t read the book, just the review. I think it’s true that modern pseudo-scientific materialism is dogmatic and irrational, which seems to be one of the arguments of the book. I agree that it is possible to find many glaring holes in the reasoning of Dawkins, and others like him.

    However, I don’t think it’s helpful to mention things like spirituality, altruism, love, the great mystery of conscious, and all that stuff anti-reductionists usually talk about. For materialists, that’s all sentimentality and wishful thinking. Just more reasons for being skeptical of anti-materialism.

    Reductionism says our most exalted and poetic emotions are nothing but illusions, meaningless by-products of our mindless drive to survive and reproduce. And sentimental romantics don’t like that idea, so they argue against it. And then the “really smart,” unromantic, rational materialists argue back, and nothing gets resolved.

    I think that modern materialism, which claims to be supported by technological advances, is and always was mostly an attempt to exorcise the demons of darkness, and to shine a light of reason on all the ancient terrifying superstitions.

    Imagine living in a society where anyone can be accused of witchcraft at any time. We don’t have to worry about that now. If someone tries to get you arrested for witchcraft, they will just be laughed at.

    But what if witchcraft were found to be scientifically valid? What if merely speaking words, or thinking thoughts, could have effects on the physical world? What if someone could cast a malicious spell on you?

    That is how people lived for thousands of years. It was taken for granted that magic is real, and to be feared.

    Many alternative scientists believe the universe is made of information, not little particles of matter. They think the universe is alive and conscious, and there are good scientific reasons for believing that. Well that’s very similar to what the ancients believed.

    Dean Radin, and others, have done research showing that a person’s thoughts can influence material substances. So how is that different from magic? But the alternative scientists don’t usually look at it that way, and some of them tend to be new-agey and sentimental.

    Modern civilization has been running as fast as it can away from the old superstitions. But Western civilization is still mainly Christian, and Christianity really belongs in the old magical world. That’s why the smart sophisticated people “know” that Christianity is all a bunch of superstitious nonsense.

    Well anyway, I didn’t read the book and for all I know it makes some great rational arguments for non-materialism. But I am skeptical, especially when things like altruism are brought into the argument. We need hard cold scientific facts to argue against people like Dawkins.

  10. realpc said,

    But I should mention that there is also a modern sanitized aspect to Christianity, alongside it’s ancient magical aspect. The modern version of Christianity portrays Jesus as a nice guy, a peaceful fellow who just wants everybody to love each other. And he is so meek and non-violent he lets the bad meanies torture and execute him, just because it’s the nice thing to do. So the modern sophisticated, humanistic Christian can ignore the magic and the mystery of the religion and focus on pretending to be meek and loving and self-sacrificing.

    I don’t really think Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels was all that nice or peaceful. One time he told his followers to love their enemies, but other than that he was usually either angry or inscrutable. In some ways he resembled the Old Testament prophets, who tended to be raving lunatics. He was also a typical witch doctor, in that he specialized in healing and exorcism. And he was like a trickster god, often speaking in riddles.

    So it usually bothers me when people think all you need to be a real Christian is to be “nice.” And I never can figure out what “nice” means to them, or what they mean by “love,.”

    Christianity is ancient mystery and magic, the things our civilization is trying to run away from. We are striving for the daylight, where it’s safe, and always always running away from the Shadow.

    Is it true that almost everyone is on anti-depressants now? That’s what I heard but I don’t know if it’s true. But as a culture we really seem unable to tolerate the darkness. You can even see this tendency in popular songs. A hundred years ago most songs, as far as I can tell, were about death and tragedy. Well that has certainly changed. We can’t tolerate too much grief any more.

    And we can’t stand violence, maybe because we no longer have to kill our food, so we can forget that life is inherently violent. Everything now is light and bright and anesthetized.

    I know it seems like I got away from the topic. But I am trying to explain why I think materialism has been becoming popular. It’s sterile, exorcised, anesthetized.

  11. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    That seems right to me. Materialism is about the craving for control. We don’t yet understand and control everything, but only give us time and we’ll be able to.

    It’s true that we’ve dispelled some barbarous fears through understanding. Mentally ill people are no longer tortured with hot irons. But many aspects of life remain beyond our control and understanding. Cancer is as horrific as any sort of medieval demon possession, if you’ve ever seen how it twists a person into a gargoyle from within. We spent 4 decades and 200 billion dollars studying cancer and are hardly any closer to knowing how to stop it.

    The natural way to deal with grief is to howl and rend your garments and spend a year wearing black. Instead it is extremely common to take antidepressants to dull the pain, which feels as if it is unbearable.

    I am amazed by the younger people I know who no longer seek the meaning in their psychological suffering but want to know which chemical pathway is out of balance and what drug to take to fix it.

  12. realpc said,

    “It’s true that we’ve dispelled some barbarous fears through understanding.”

    No, I don’t think we dispelled them! We just swept them out of sight. The first sentence in every abnormal psychology text book says they used to think mental illness was caused by demon possession and now — how wonderful — we know that isn’t true.

    But Annie, we DON’T know that it isn’t true. I think possession (or whatever we might choose to call it) is somehow involved in most or all mental illness, as well as physical illness.

    If Dean Radin’s research is at all valid, then mind constantly influences the brain and body in all kinds of ways we don’t understand. It is the same thing as MAGIC.

    M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist who wrote The Road Less Traveled, also wrote a book called People of the Lie, where he expresses his experiences with patients who were possessed by demons.

    But I am not just taking his word for it! I am trying to integrate all the evidence.

    And they won’t ever make any progress with cancer, until they understand how the body is constantly and in every way under the control of Mind.

    The most common serious mental illness is schizophrenia. It is very obviously, to me and many others, that it is not really a disease. Certain individuals are born with the potential to become shamans or prophets (and I’m sure Jesus was one of that type).

    The potential must be developed. Of course in our society it becomes a disease, because mainstream medicine knows nothing about shamanism.

    There is so much we don’t understand at all, but we can get glimpses by studying ancient and primitive cultures. And from alternative science. We are not better, we are just different. We haven’t dispelled anything horrible, just traded this for that.

  13. realpc said,

    And by the way, the Shadow will express itself in one way or another. If you make your society nice and non-violent and compassionate and orderly, the Shadow will burst out as a nuclear war, or something.

  14. amba12 said,

    I’m very familiar with People of the Lie. I’ve given it to s number of friends who had to deal with evil people, particularly family members but also at work. The thing about evil people that Peck describes so well is the confusion they create. They stir up deep trouble but it is very hard to trace it back to them.

  15. realpc said,


    Yes People of the Lie is an interesting book. But I really think possession goes on all the time, and is not specific to evil people. I think there are all kinds of information fragments, sort of like viruses but not material, that can infect us. These information fragments are the same thing as what they used to call demons.

    The theory of digital physics, which has been around quite a while but is becoming more popular, says the universe is made out of information. Michael Prescott had something about this on his blog recently. I have known about it for a long time. It’s where they got the idea for the Matrix movies.

    So if that turns out to be true, then the universe is a big infinite mind. And it would not be at all surprising to find out that we can be infected by information fragments. And then we are right back in the old “demon-haunted world!”

  16. realpc said,

    “I am amazed by the younger people I know who no longer seek the meaning in their psychological suffering but want to know which chemical pathway is out of balance and what drug to take to fix it.”

    My niece is 25 and she said everyone she knows is on anti-depressants. She isn’t, thank God. But she knows a lot of people, and it is horrifying to think it’s considered normal now. This may be partly because the ideal American personality has always been extroverted and cheery, and those of us who tend to be morose and introverted are considered weird,. But we would be normal in a lot of Asian societies, and the cheery extroverts would be considered obnoxious.

    I hate to think what the young generations’s brains will be like after 20 years on those horrible drugs. Even worse, it will be in the drinking water and we’ll all be brain-damaged, if we’re still alive.

  17. amba12 said,

    Also significant are the deformed and parasitic ideas, rather like prions, that can arise in our own minds, often with the help of substances from outside — like the short-circuiting of the pleasure pathways that is addiction, for one; certain kinds of obsessive hate or paranoia, for another.

  18. realpc said,


    Where do our thoughts come from anyway? How do we know they are ours? I often get thoughts that seem injected by some demon, so I have to ignore them. I hope that doesn’t make me seem crazy — I think everyone gets them, not just me.

    And what do we mean by “me” anyhow? We really don’t know. I am gradually getting away from the idea that I am a walled-off separate mind. I really see my thoughts going out and influencing the world around me.

    All our ideas of separateness, and of numbers and differences, are based on our “flatland” experience of 3 dimensions in space and one in time.

  19. amba12 said,

    Well, Buddhists certainly believe there is no “real me,” only layers like an onion with an empty center of pure consciousness.

    I have come round to accepting that view. There are temperamental predispositions and there are layers of conditioning laid down so early they feel essential, which drive the basic desires and obsessions that feel like the “real me.” But if you satisfy those “needs,” others arise. “Me” is an entity that can never be satisfied. It is actually easier to serve another person than to satisfy oneself.

  20. realpc said,

    “It is actually easier to serve another person than to satisfy oneself.”

    No, I can be satisfied with my life as long as I can do the things I love, and as long as I’m constantly trying to get better at them. There is a chronic dissatisfaction and striving that is actually satisfying. I never tried serving another person. If it’s something you are good at and you find rewarding, then you can be satisfied that way. We have our different natures and experiences, and that determines what makes us satisfied.

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