Marilynne Rouse: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

Marilynne Robinson is a Christian and a deep thinker (this very conjunction may shock some). She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Gilead, Home) and leader in that great thrumming Midwestern engine of the American fiction scene: the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She has taken to heart the traditional Christian insistence that we have been given minds, the faculty of reason, as God’s highest gift, and that we must thus steward them well–see this post, point #6. Now she is training her focus on the mind itself, against certain reductionistic genetic approaches (she calls these “parascientific.”) I link here a recent article in Commonweal, which is taken from her new book, Absence of Mind (which is now Amazon’s #3 “religious nonfiction” book).

A mentor sent me this same link, saying in his email “If you set out to read this, disconnect the phone, sit up straight, and lock the door.” Indeed. She traverses rocky philosophical terrain in engaging the “parascientists.” But she does it with tremendous beauty and potency. Though I have a PhD (granted it’s in one of those fuzzy-headed humanistic disciplines), I had to “blip” through parts of this, as one of Charles Schulz’s characters once said he had to with the Russian names in a Dostoevsky novel. But it was worth the extra time and thought.

A few tastes of the essay follow, but I recommend you simply disconnect the phone, etc., and then click the link above and read the whole thing for yourself:

The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are inclined to encourage false expectations.


The best wisdom and the most venerable of natural laws do not have standing to preclude our acknowledging solid data, though the grounds for refusing to take account of them could perfectly well be called “scientific.” The exclusion of what the brain does from an account of what the brain is is “scientific” in just the same sense. By this kind of reasoning, the laws of nature supposedly tell us what we must exclude from what we might otherwise consider entirely relevant, one example being our own inwardness.


We know that within, throughout, the solid substantiality of our experience indeterminacy reigns. Making use of the conceptual vocabulary of science to exclude a possibility which in a present state of knowledge—or a former one—that vocabulary would seem to exclude, has been the mission of positivist thinking since Auguste Comte declared scientific knowledge effectively complete. If doing so is a reflex of the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new, it is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of the same polemical impulse.

The ancient antagonist that has shaped positivism and parascientific thought and continues to inspire its missionary zeal is religion. For cultural and historical reasons, the religions against which it has opposed itself are Christianity and Judaism, both of which must be called anthropologies, whatever else. “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” The very question is an assertion that mindfulness is an attribute of God, as well as man, a statement of the sense of deep meaning inhering in mindfulness.


In order to arrive at a parascientific view of humankind we are obliged to put to one side whatever is not to be accounted for in the apparently simple terms of genetic self-interest. I say “apparently simple” because in every instance these theorists build in devices to account for the inadequacies of their theories.


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 strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are inclined to encourage false expectations.

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