There is something of the pantomime to recent debates concerning science and religion, the question of their compatibility answered with alternating choruses of "Oh no they aren't" and "Oh yes they are". One would hope, therefore, that the entry, stage left, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson might raise the level of the dialogue. But although the arguments in Absence of Mind are eloquent and beguiling, what might look like subtlety is too often plain sloppiness.
The villain of this piece is a thinly characterised, amorphous "modernist". His tragic flaw is that he has fallen in love with an idealised vision of science which promises clarity and certainty, but cannot deliver. Besotted by this temptress, he becomes unable to recognise the qualities of his more spiritual first love, losing sight of not only the mysteries of religion, but the very nature of his own soul. Science has told him not to trust his feelings and he has heeded the advice for so long that he no longer even recognises them.
But this story is also an unsatisfactory whodunnit, because the identity of this wicked seducer is somewhat mysterious. At first, it seems to be positivism, which rejects all that cannot be tested and proven as meaningless. However, it soon becomes clear that the villain is not a single idea or school of thought, but a pervasive assumption called the "modernist consensus". This holds that "the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away . . . when any rational account is made of the human being and of being altogether".
The idea that there is such a consensus is questionable, given that even Robinson states that the schools of thought which support it "are profoundly incompatible with one another". But the author seems confident that she has identified the culprit, a serial killer of subjectivity. She argues that "a central tenet of the modern world-view is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And - an important corollary - certain well-qualified others do know them."
As is often the case in the book, there is something important and telling in Robinson's observation. At their worst, both Freudian psychoanalysis and contemporary evolutionary psychology leap from a justified scepticism about our ability to know our own minds to a hubristic confidence in their ability to know them better. Yet there is no such general assumption underlying a range of empirical research which does indeed show that the witness of the mind is unreliable. To accept that our memories, say, deceive us all the time is not to discount completely the testimony of subjective experience, but to be wary of it, and certainly not to treat its judgements as authoritative.
So it is not clear what restoring the status of subjective testimony would entail. Surely it cannot mean anything so crass as trusting our gut instincts or intuitions. This typifies a general failing of the book: by focusing on the inadequacies of some attacks on religion and subjective experience, Robinson avoids having to say much positive in favour of them. They just become varieties of venerable mystery that science has no right to defile. That does not prevent quantum theory and other scientific unknowns being invoked in religion's support, as though the acceptance of corners of mystery in one domain justifies a whole edifice of mystery in another.
Robinson is nonetheless right to challenge the legitimacy of many claims made in the name of science. She has coined the term "para-scientific literature" for the kind of writing in which "some allusion to the science of the moment is used as a foundation for extrapolations and conclusions that fall far outside the broadest definitions of science". Robinson is not careful, however, to distinguish this kind of abuse of science from other kinds of scientific writing which legitimately draw conclusions about human nature that she doesn't like. For instance, she accuses para-scientists of promoting "the exclusion of the felt life of the mind from their accounts of reality", but who exactly does this? Neuropsychological investigation of religious experience, for instance, does not exclude the felt life of the mind, but it might explain it in ways that religious people don't like.
Robinson appears to be trying to preserve a domain for theology and philosophy that science cannot touch. The approach is reminiscent of that of the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and religion deal with separate questions, and so the content of each forms "non-overlapping magisteria".
It may indeed be a mistake to confuse science with philosophy or theology, but it is an equal and opposite mistake to believe that each can be kept hermetically sealed from the other. Robinson protests that "metaphysics as traditionally practised has passed out of western thought", but the recent boom in philosophical metaphysics shows this to be somewhat overstated. Old-school metaphysics may be dead, but its subject matter - she quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as including in this category being, substance, essence, time, space, cause and identity - is very much alive. There has been no "abandonment" of metaphysics, only of its pursuit independent of empirical science.
Robinson's tendency to see in the materialist excesses of modern secular thought symptoms of its fundamental weakness is, ironically, the mirror image of the weakness of which the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so often stand accused: of taking religion's worst excesses to condemn it tout court. She laments much anti-religious writing as "a hermeneutics of condescension", claiming that "the tone of too many of these books is patronising". But her pity for what these shallow materialists are missing, typified by her reminder of "what William James called the power of the intellect to shallow", is equally condescending. I was reminded of Nietzsche's remarks on how pity drains strength, making the pitier as feeble as the pitiable.
There is a great deal of oversimplification and overconfidence in para-scientific, anti-religious literature, and Robinson's book is justified by the challenge it mounts to both. However, a critique that fails to separate these out from the real and serious challenges to religion that modern thought has generated cannot be entirely satisfactory. Robinson raises many interesting points that are worth the effort of arguing against, and she does so in prose most para-scientific writers can only dream of. But the eloquence of the plea is not matched by the substance of the case.
Absence of Mind
Yale University Press, 160pp, £16.99
Julian Baggini is the author of "Do They Think You're Stupid? One Hundred Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Pundits and Politicians" (Granta Books, £8.99)