Saturday, March 26, 2011

Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson

On a wire outside my window a hawk scans the wet fields. The rain is gone and the storm's last winds ruffle the feathers on its chest. Its head clicks left. Time dilates. It's not wrong to say that the hawk is as large as what it sees.

At some point, according to an inclination that I take some pleasure in imagining, it will fall into the sky with the same leisurely ferocity that humanity has envied in the hawk since we first encountered one another. It will open into metaphysics.

Show me a scientific understanding of that hawk and I'll show you a travesty of reductionism. Of course it's accurate that its eyes are made of molecules; that its breath heats the air just so; that its wings move the vortices of the wind. Its vision, if your curious, = x.

But science has no equation for the hawk's experience of itself. Less yet does it have language for our encounter, this Saturday afternoon.

The modern error is to address that absence, that insufficiency, by supposing that anything science can't measure doesn't, in the end, exist. Both the hawk and my thoughts are molecules, fundamentally identical to the wire upon which the hawk stands, the air on which it floats, the chair—all atoms—that I'm sitting on. The hawk's flesh is an arrangement of atoms warmed by other atoms, which I perceive as extraordinary hair.

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson writes: "Whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history." Through much of this book she laments our current willingness to hand over that definition to science, which promptly defines it as mind = brain.

If you don't respond to mind = brain with sadness, with skepticism, even—better yet—with terror, then you might not be interested in this book. But if you feel, as I do, that "the advance of science has impoverished modern experience," and that the insufficiency of science in the face of life's most compelling questions is, paradoxically, part of what makes science worthwhile, then I suggest you read Robinson.

But start with her novels. They swirl with hawks.

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