Absence of Mind on the Daily Show

I normally like the Daily Show, but I had a problem with the July 8 interview with Marilynne Robinson about her new book, Absence of Mind . I had never heard of this book before, but it appears to be a discussion of the conflict between science and religion, with the message that scientific thinking does not fully take into account the complexities of the human mind.

Okay, interesting topic. But I was dismayed during the interview at how both John Stewart and Marilynne Robinson built up a caricature of science to knock down. Stewart claims: “The more you delve into science, the more it appears to rely on faith.” As an example of this, he uses antimatter. It’s pretty clear that he meant dark matter and not antimatter as he jokes about not being able to detect it and just having to trust that it’s there. The problem is he’s still completely wrong. Dark matter can be, and has been detected based on its gravitational influence. There’s no faith involved here! It all goes back to the simple observation that galaxies were spinning too fast for gravity from the visible matter to hold them together. So astronomers suggested that there might be some other form of matter. And now, in cases like the bullet cluster, the dark matter has been detected. To draw a parallel between that and the notion that a god created the universe doesn’t really make sense to me. Dark matter is a testable hypothesis, god isn’t.

But I’ll accept that Stewart was making a joke, and that neither he nor Robinson are scientists so they might get dark matter wrong. That doesn’t change the fact that I am deeply suspicious of the book’s premise. From what I saw on the interview and what I have read in reviews of the book, it sounds like the entire premise comes from a misunderstanding of science and a desire to boost the self esteem of those who can’t deal with the endless demotions that science seems to throw our way. But science isn’t actively trying to make us feel small and insignificant, that’s just how the universe is. I’m reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan, who talks a lot about this sort of thing:

Is our self-esteem so precarious that nothing short of a universe custom-made for us will do?

As for the claim that science unjustly devalues the individual and those experiences that occur within the mind, well, I wonder exactly how she suggests we incorporate those into our theories. It’s not possible to fully communicate the richness of our internal thoughts to someone else, or to record them as data to be analyzed. We’re stuck with clunky tools like speech and art and music. Again, I’m reminded of a quote:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. -Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

It’s not for lack of trying that science has failed to take into account the depth of the mind and the individual experience. I’m sure psychologists and neurologists and many other -ists would love to have that information available. We’re just getting to the point where brain scanning technology can identify thought patterns with various emotions. But being able to say “Oh, that person is experiencing religious rapture” or “hey, look, this person is in love” isn’t quite the same as the actual experience.

Robinson brings up the point of altruism as a problem that science can’t explain. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I believe Richard Dawkins addresses this pretty thoroughly in the Selfish Gene. I’m probably going to butcher the argument, but basically, altruism could come about from an instinct to protect those to whom you have formed a close social bond, which until quite recently, evolutionarily speaking, would have been likely to be either related to you or your mate.

It’s certainly interesting to think about how science might have unintentionally become blind to so much of what makes us human, but to expect science to be able to use our subjective experiences to come to any meaningful conclusions is asking an awful lot. In fact, science works precisely because it does not use subjective, individual experience as the basis for drawing conclusions about the world! If it did, it wouldn’t be science anymore.

To be fair, I haven’t read Robinson’s book, and it’s entirely possible that she has counterarguments to everything I have said here. I’m probably grossly misrepresenting her arguments based on the minimal information in the Daily Show interview and in reviews. It sounds like a genuinely interesting and intellectually challenging read, and I suspect I actually agree with her on a lot of things. But it also sounds like there are some fundamental flaws in her argument. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read the book and can come to its defense, but based on what I’ve seen so far, it strikes me as a misrepresentation of science, and I am disappointed that the Daily Show wasn’t just a little more critical of it.

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10 Comments on “Absence of Mind on the Daily Show”

  1. Dan Says:

    It seems to me that “dark matter” is just the most popular explanation for physical behavior that does not agree with established theories. When I read about “dark matter” it makes me think of the “luminiferous aether” that was once believed to explain the constant speed of light.

    • Ryan Says:

      Yeah, until recently I was in the same boat, but the bullet cluster observation provides some pretty compelling evidence that there really is something there causing the observed effects. What happened with the bullet cluster is that one galaxy cluster collided with a second cluster, and while the luminous matter was slowed down, the dark matter kept going. So the center of mass doesn’t match up with the observed matter anymore. The blog Cosmic Variance has an excellent description of the discovery: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2006/08/21/dark-matter-exists/

  2. Joseph Says:

    You’ve been reading my stuff again, haven’t you? :P

    Some of these tired old well-science-can’t-explain-altruism arguments also remind me of E.O. Wilson’s work. He suggested that societies and cultures can evolve, according to the familiar principles of natural selection, and that some of those societal and cultural behaviors can them get encoded in our genes. The argument goes something like this: suppose at birth I had a mutation that predisposes me to altruistic behavior; I go about doing things that benefit other people in my group, maybe at my own expense. By definition, that benefits the group – and even though I’m not benefiting myself, I am a member of that group. So my chances of reproducing are higher than those of the members of other groups, and I eventually pass on those genes to descendants of my own group.

    It’s a pretty cool argument, I think, and it certainly applies to all the evidence for societal bonds in apes, dolphins, hunting packs, etc. And it certainly works well as a rebuttal to those who claim that science cannot explain morality.

    However, it’s important to remember that this is not the same as science determining what IS moral…

  3. Jon Says:

    Hi Ryan,

    A previous commenter already covered the posited evolutionary mechanism for the development of altruism (although notice that this positing of evolutionary mechanisms amounts to giving a just so story with no real evidence). I’m quite interested in this stuff professionally and personally, so I’ll add a few separate thoughts.

    First, based on your description of the book and the description in the interview, it sounds like garbage. It’s actually pretty hard to say what’s in the book because she doesn’t say much of anything in the interview. (For some reason, very few commentators have noticed that Stewart is actually an extremely bad interviewer when tackling serious topics.) That’s my educated guess, though. Now I’ll try to convince you I’m right.

    So, second, I want to look at what she actually says herself (setting aside for the moment the points Stewart makes):

    1. The public science-vs-religion debate is subpar by scientific standards and the partisans in the debate are basically politically motivated idiots (“inferior representatives”).

    2. The “complexity and the importance of the human mind” has been minimized since the beginning of the 20th century.

    3. It’s inappropriate to move from the study of ants to cosmological conclusions.

    4. She likes science and finds cosmological studies beautiful.

    5. Science and religion “meet” at the limits of language.

    6. Top scientists (the only example she gives in Newton) were profoundly religious.

    1 is absolutely spot on. Philosophers ought to have jumped into the public debate to clarify the issues and keep both sides honest long ago, but haven’t been able to do so, largely because the public intellectuals are themselves partisans in the debate (almost always on the anti-religious side). The one reservation you might have about 1 is that it involves considering people like Richard Dawkins inferior scientists, whereas I think a better view is that Dawkins is a very good scientist who happens to be a bad philosopher and also kind a prick. 4 is very well and good but nobody cares. 5 doesn’t appear to mean anything determinate enough to bother with. 6 is even more true than you might think. (Newton proposes, I believe in Principia, that space is “an emanative effect of the first existing being,” i.e., God.) But 6 doesn’t tell you anything, as it’s just an appeal to authority. That takes care of the 4 unimportant things among the 6.

    2 and 3 are important, but I think she just misunderstands what’s going on philosophically. I assume that 2 refers to, among others, the American pragmatists, behaviorists, and Wittgenstein, at least. But that program was about not taking an untenable Cartesian view of the mind as a starting point, and instead developing a theory of mind that was actually compatible with science. I think the program goes too far, and some of my philosophical work has been devoted to undermining it, but nothing she says makes me think she actually knows what was going on with the relevant thinkers. It’s just not enough to say that, say, behaviorist views miss what’s distinctive about minds, and therefore minds are something outside of science. One rather needs to elaborate a scientifically respectable theory of mind. That brings us to 3, which I assume is a shot at her fellow Pulitzer winner Douglas Hofstadter, who uses an obnoxious story about ants in Gödel, Escher, Bach to make an emergence theory of mind plausible. (See the discussion of ant colonies at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence#Living.2C_biological_systems –the application to philosophy of mind should be obvious enough.) But that she takes the shot suggests that she simply misunderstands the role of the story about ants. The point is that emergence is a plausible view of what happens, and dynamic systems people have lots of models of how this can happen. E.g., a computer program with birds programmed with very simple tendencies to be slightly influenced by surrounding birds end up converging to fly in organized patterns without being explicitly programmed to do so. (I’m told that whenever you see CGI stampedes in movies, this is how it’s done.) The idea is that neurons could operate like this too, and indeed research into so-called ‘neural nets’ has made at least some progress in seeing that this could in principle work.

    So, to sum up so far, her only substantive philosophical points are highly debatable and she shows no evidence in the interview of actually understanding the issues. (Her academic appointments, I should note, seem to be in creative writing programs, although she was invited to a lecture series at Yale that has previously hosted well-respected philosophers, but it’s certainly not limited to philosophers, respected or otherwise.)

    I might seem uncharitable so far, but part of the reason for the lack of charity is that she not only lets Stewart draw an inapt comparison between science and religion, but also goes on to agree with it. That’s not confidence-inspiring. The relevant–and obvious–difference between what he describes as faith in science and religious faith is that (good) scientists are committed to a certain research program, and only espouse a defeasible belief in their current best theories. It is part and parcel of science that you give up such a belief when countervailing evidence presents itself, and that you actively look for such evidence. (Bas van Fraassen, now emeritus at Princeton after a long career and semi-retired at San Francisco State for some reason, explored this epistemic attitude in a 1980 book called The Scientific Image.) Religion, on the other hand, typically steps in where evidence steps out. So the analogy is just bad.

    There is, however, a better analogy, that Robinson would have offered if she were worth her salt as a philosopher, which is that scientists do have to make a leap of faith in their method. They have to believe the truth about the world is accessible to empirical investigation. They have to believe that induction works, that the sun will rise tomorrow. Philosophers have worried, at least since David Hume, that they can’t have a justification for this, that it’s an unjustifiable leap of faith. One way to deal with this is to elaborate a theory of truth according to which the notion of truth tracks what is empirically investigable. (The keyword here is “verificationism” and one of the more famous proponents is A.J. Ayer in a small book called Language, Truth, and Logic, although the late Wittgenstein’s more modest formulations are more intuitively appealing.) But if you have the normal intuitions about truth, that looks like a cop out, and indeed it looks like science and religion are on equal footing here. But it is still open to the scientist to note that he at least has a plausible method, and incumbent on the religious person to explain what his method for determining truth is, and how it’s supposed to be plausible.

    Anyway, sorry for such a long note. I think that’s most of what I wanted to say. I am indeed very interested in this stuff. You might also be interested, by the way, in Stephen Jay Gould’s take on the science vs religion question, if you don’t know it already. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria

    Hope all that is helpful.


    • Ryan Says:

      Awesome. Thanks for chiming in on this! You’re right of course that the leap of faith that scientists have to make is that the methods of science can reveal truth (whatever that means) about the universe. This is a point that was sort of rattling around in my head as I hastily wrote this post but I couldn’t quite articulate it.

      I am of course biased toward science because, as you say, there’s at least a plausible method with a pretty good track record to back it up.

      You’re absolutely right about point 1: It’s not that they are bad scientists, but they’re rarely good philosophers. I’m reminded of a TED talk that I watched a little while back by Sam Harris who claimed that science can answer moral questions (http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html). My thought after watching the talk was “interesting point, but I bet a real philosopher would tear it apart”.

      Also, thank you for clearing up what she was talking about with the ants! I assumed it was an allusion to something, but didn’t know what!

      I’ve heard of the idea of non-overlapping magisteria before but haven’t read much about it. I may have to do something about that.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this, it was really helpful!

      • Jon Says:

        No time now to watch all of that TED talk, but he seems confused about a number of things. The two main mistakes it looks like he’s going to keep making are (1) assuming that settling empirically investigible facts settles all the moral facts and (2) overgeneralizing. Re: 2: he claims all moral views are ultimately concerned about changes in conscious experience, whether human or not. But the right kinds of religious views won’t care about this, holding instead that human consciousness is sui generis because humans are endowed with souls (by God, if you like). So he’s just wrong about how general his approach is. Because of that, (1) remains pretty contentious. (It isn’t just religious views that will cause problems, but those are the easiest examples.) He also has what are probably overly optimistic views about what brain science is going to be able to do. That said, it’s obvious that figuring out all the scientific facts would help our moral theorizing.

        Certainly, there are philosophers that would agree with him that settling the scientific facts settles all the facts (you might Google “reductive naturalism” or “moral naturalism” for discussions of views in this area), but he seems to think that sort of view is a lot less contentious than it is are. Because of that, I think he’s just missing some stuff that he would have to deal with if he were writing a peer-reviewed article. He’s simply dogmatically advancing a view instead of comparing it with serious competitors.

        Incidentally, I’ve had it playing in the background while listening to this, and now he seems to be attacking cultural relativism. Nobody with a halfway decent philosophical education (I’m looking at you, social scientists) thinks cultural relativism is a respectable position. So, again, no serious competitor (e.g., some form of non-reductive naturalism) is considered. But his final plea (it just finished) is for people to admit that moral questions have answers. So now it just sounds like he thinks moral realism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_realism for a brief overview, with the caveat that I haven’t checked it for accuracy) requires thinking that science can settle moral questions. That’s simply confused, and again depends on the contentious (probably false) view that science can tell us everything (in the most robust sense) there is to know (in the broadest sense) about the world.

  4. Bryan Says:

    The Daily Show is a foreign environment for someone like Marilynne Robinson, and she definitely wasn’t in her element for this interview. Robinson definitely knows, loves, and respects science. What she doesn’t like is bad science. To get a better understanding of her thinking, you can watch the lectures which form the basis of her book: http://www.yale.edu/terrylecture/robinson

  5. Dave Says:

    Cosmology at this point relies on the Big Bang Theory to get things started = leap of faith to have something to hang ones hat on. Science can explain most everything physical that is happening but how it got started is as good in a religiuos text as in a scientific text. Can science explain why the moon and earth at their respective distances are the same apparent size or why water is the only substance that expands when it freezes, which by the way, if it didn’t, would negate most all life on earth. Just a thought.

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