There’s a piece in today’s Guardian Review by American author and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who bravely challenges the materialistic interpretations of the brain offered by the likes of Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson. It is an extract from her book Absence of Mind. I say’ brave’ rather than ‘persuasive.’ I’ve got some sympathy for her criticisms of the way the pop neuro- and cognitive scientists try to explain the brain by ruling out of bounds those things that seem too intangible or difficult. And although Pinker makes a valid point by confessing that we have no reason to suppose the human brain is capable of understanding the resolution to some of the hard philosophical questions, Robinson is right to suggest that this, even if it is true, is no reason to stop asking them. (The likes of Pinker will probably be pulling their elegantly coiffeured hair out at the way Robinson casually makes Freud a part of mainstream science, but let’s put that aside.)
My main complaint is that the article is encrusted with what seems to be the characteristically clotted style of American academics of letters, which strives always to be artful at the expense of plain speaking. For example, in response to E. O. Wilson’s comment that ‘The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbour a nonphysical mind’, Robinson replies: ‘To prove a negative, or to treat it as having been proved, is, oddly enough, an old and essential strategy of positivism. So I do feel obliged to point out that if such a site could be found in the brain, then the mind would be physical in the same sense that anything else with a locus in the brain is physical. To define the mind as nonphysical in the first place clearly prejudices his conclusion.’ The same point might have been made with less fuss had she simply said ‘But how can a nonphysical mind have a physical location?’
Here at least, however, her meaning is clear. But how about this: ‘What grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind? It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense. Such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body.’ I have read this several times, and still doubt that I really understand any of it. Would a statement like this be permitted by an editor in a commissioned piece? I’d like to think not.
And isn’t it odd, after stating ‘What Descartes actually intended by the words "soul" and "mind" seems to me an open question for Descartes himself’, to simply sign the question off with ‘No doubt there are volumes to be consulted on this subject.’ Indeed there are – why not consult them? Better still, why not tell us what Descartes actually said? (For what it is worth, I think she is trying to complicate the matter too much. The soul, for Descartes, seems to me to be simply what motivates the body-machine: what puts its hydraulics and cogs and levers into particular motions. No big deal; except that it enabled Descartes to defend himself against charges of atheism.)
The standfirst of the piece (obviously not by the author) asks ‘What is meant by the idea of a soul?’ Robinson suggests that Pinker identifies the soul with the mind, which seems fair enough on the strength of the passage she quotes. Aristotle did likewise, at least as far as humans are concerned, for he said we are distinguished from other beings by possessing a rational soul. But then, Aristotle’s soul was always a thoroughly secular, quasi-scientific notion. All I can find as Robinson’s alternative is that the soul is ‘an aspect of deep experience’. I can see that this may be developed into some kind of meaning. She might also have usefully pointed out that this apparently deviates from the traditional Catholic notion of a soul as a non-physical badge of humanness that is slotted into the organism at conception.
But the least convincing aspect of the piece is the classic ‘just-as’ reasoning of the scientific dilettante. Robinson knows about quantum entanglement (sort of). And her point there seems to be ‘if we don’t really understand that, how can we think we can understand the brain/mind?’ But the hard thing about entanglement is not ‘understanding’ it (though we can’t claim to yet do so completely), but that it defies intuition. And please, no more allusions to the ‘quantum brain’.
Similarly, just as we don’t see a bird as a modified dinosaur (ah, do we not?), she argues that ‘there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry.’ Hmm… you might want to have another attempt at that sentence. Even if we allow that Robinson perhaps means it to apply only to aspects of brain, this is more a desperate plea to liberate us from our evolutionary past than a claim with any kind of reasoned support. ‘Might not the human brain have undergone a qualitative change’ [when the first artifact appeared], she asks? Well yes, it might, and some have called that change ‘hominization’. But this does not mean we lost all our former instincts and drives. It would doubtless have been catastrophic if we had. Even I, a sceptic of evolutionary-psychological Just So stories, can see this as an attempt to resurrect the specialness of humankind that some religious people still struggle to relinquish.
Pinker et al. will have little difficulty with this rather otiose assault.