“This Essentially Meaningless Conflict”

An interview with Marilynne Robinson by Creative Nonfiction editor Lee Gutkind and Issues in Science and Technology editor Daniel Sarewitz.

Marilynne Robinson’s accomplishments are impressive by any standard: she has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Humanities Medal, among other honors. But perhaps a better measure of her eminence as a writer and thinker for our times is this: When the New York Review of Books ran an extended interview with Robinson in November 2015, her interviewer was … President Obama.

Robinson’s fiction and essays display a combination of fierce intelligence and profound human empathy. Her four novels are at once gorgeous, revelatory, and lapidary; her essays, ruthlessly clear and often deeply challenging. At the heart of her work is her Christianity, and from there she explores everything from the prospects for democracy to the role and limits of science in our lives. She is equally comfortable, eloquent, and convincing in discussions of cosmology and the power of the sermon, and she celebrates both science and faith as expressions of our humanity.

We interviewed Robinson via e-mail, and our questions referred specifically to three of her works: her 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, narrated by the elderly preacher John Ames, and the essays “Proofs” and “Humanism,” from her 2015 collection, The Givenness of Things. Her responses, which offer only a glimpse of the warm and penetrating brilliance of her thinking and writing, highlight a perspective that we wish were more broadly available in efforts to explore the interactions and intersections of science and religion. If, she suggests, one views science as a skeptical, questioning mode of inquiry “whose terms and methods can overturn the assumptions of inquirers,” then it can be neither a threat nor an alternative to religion. After all, there are no possible scientific tests for the reality of soul, self, or God. She holds science to a strong standard of integrity while insisting that the concepts of science “are beautiful in their own right.” This rigorous and generous way of understanding things points the way toward a harmony that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

In “Proofs,” you write, “We have made very separate categories of science and learning on one hand and reverence for the Creator on the other.” Was there ever a time when these categories were easily seen to be closely related? What are the main ways in which this separation came about, do you think, and how has it come to be so powerful?

First of all, for the purposes of responding to all these questions, I must object to what I take to be an overly general use of the word “science.” I see a vast, qualitative difference between sciences whose terms and methods can overturn the assumptions of the inquirers, and “science” that simply insists on the truth value of its assumptions. The accelerating expansion of the universe, the great prevalence of apparently non-atomic dark matter, the role of the lysosome in regulating the life of an organism—the list of such surprises is endless, and might be called the history of scientific progress. When a method is not finally captive to prevailing consensus, it is science in the positive sense. It is real exploration.

This other business, which is called neuroscience—again, a word probably applied too generally—proceeds on the basis of dubious thought experiments and vast generalizations based on tiny, wildly atypical sample populations. It relies on notions about genetics that are discredited, and economic concepts (cost/benefit analysis, notably) that are never examined. And it depends on an indefensibly simple anthropology. All this is in the service of its assumptions, which are endlessly reiterated and asserted as if proved. Since the nineteenth century, every type of “brain science” from phrenology on has proceeded from and/or arrived at the same conclusions—no soul, no self, no God. Is there any science properly so-called that would find these to be legitimate conclusions on the basis of anything known, learned, or observed? Is the apparent existence of dark energy relevant to these questions? The apparent existence of gravity waves? No, and what could be? These concepts are beautiful in their own right, not proof or disproof of the ultimate, metaphysical character of Being. That said, they are arguably less irrelevant than any conclusions cost/benefit analysis could yield. It is bizarre that when science is in such a brilliant period its public face is this parasitical “science” that flaunts a prestige earned by work of a very different order, and that takes religion as an adversary because for many generations that’s what its ancestors have done.

Much important early work was done by devout men—Descartes, Locke, Newton, and very many others. Their thinking has been treated as if it banished the sacred from experience, but in fact it invested it much more deeply in mind, perception, and knowledge. Calvin said the brilliance of the human being, felt in dreams, imagination, and learning, and demonstrated in science, was proof of the existence of God and of the divine in human nature. This kind of celebration was characteristic of his period, the European Renaissance. Early science was fascinated with the wonderful capacities of the mind and the wonderful order it discovered in nature. Both of these were seen as God’s providence. It seems that often in history only the polemic against a thought or movement is remembered. This kind of religious experience was treated by its adversaries as atheism. And this image of science became fixed.

In “Humanism” you write, “The notion that the universe is constructed … so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it [i.e., through scientific research], is entirely as anthropogenic as the notion that the universe was designed to make us possible.” Is it your view, then, that the belief—common among scientists—that all things are potentially knowable is itself actually a matter of faith? And if so, is it equally reasonable to view such mysteries as evidence of the work of a higher power? Or is it more that scientific methods of inquiry are simply unequal to the task of understanding such mysteries?

This confidence is a perfectly good beginning place for any inquiry. Its disappointments need never be considered final. It is really better thought of as a stance than as a faith. In any case, the mysteries science encounters arise from the kinds of questions it can pose. Are there multiple universes? Could we ever know how many of them there are, or how many might be inaccessible to us? Assuming that they are significantly unlike our universe, could we ever know any of them comprehensively, or know that we did or did not? I am not making a theological argument when I say that science will no doubt run up against very real limits, though I would expect much collateral insight to come from its attempts. My point is that it is remarkable to ascribe such capacities to the mind, even as potential in it. We have learned in the last few decades that we had overlooked the greater part of the mass of the universe. This is an instance in which we discovered what we had not known. There could be any number of things we don’t know we don’t know. Again, this is not a theological argument. The model nonreligious people have of religion as a way of accounting for things science has not gotten to yet is just nonsense. If the purpose of the maxim about the ultimate knowability of everything is to preemptively seize contested ground from religion, this is nonsensical for the same reason.

In “Proofs,” you also argue that the received distinction between science and religion reflects a failure to understand religion—that religion is not some brainless abdication of critical faculties, but that “[religion], like science, addresses and celebrates mystery—it explores and enacts wonder and wondering.” Would the pursuit of science be enhanced if done with a greater openness to the sources of religious insight? What might this more enlightened version of scientific exploration look like, in a practical sense?

I think scientific exploration as I described it above is just great. It should do what it is doing. This question seems to reflect that entanglement of science with “science.” I will mention the name [Richard] Dawkins to make the point that hostility to religion under the banner of science is the whole object of that exercise. Every criticism I have made of their model of reality, of human nature, motivation, and so on, would still be just as valid if they were somehow to add a tincture of religion to it.

In reading Gilead from a science-and-religion perspective, it’s hard not to get this sense that science was deliberately banished from your telling of John Ames’s life—that Gilead is in part a thought experiment to show that the principal (or highest?) meaning that one can derive from and in life must flow from the sorts of moral and existential reflection that religion allows and sustains—and that science does not. Is religion a more essential foundation for human wisdom and psychological flourishing than science? 

Ames is writing in 1956. Science then was a very different thing. He would have known as much about it as any intellectually curious reader, but much he knew would be superseded by now. I didn’t want to involve myself in anachronism, and I didn’t want him to appear naive, when, by the standards of his time, he would not have been.

Pursuing this idea a bit further, in “Humanism,” you also offer a scalding critique of neuroscience, which you portray as founded on denial of the one thing that we all know to be true—that our individual, subjective selves actually do exist. Your critique would seem to suggest, then, that in being based on an ideological fallacy, neuroscience’s capacity for catalyzing false beliefs is much greater than its promise for yielding lasting insight. Is that a fair reading of your position? What are the implications of your critique of neuroscience for the scientific ideal of freedom of inquiry? 

Neuroscience will do what it will do, and should be willing to stand up to considered criticism of its methods and conclusions. If it makes a better account of itself in future than it has done to this point, excellent. Freedom of inquiry has never meant a loss of the same freedom by people who find a project questionable. I’m surprised to find such a thing suggested in a scientific context. I mention Dawkins because he is an especially voluble instance of the fact that this worldview—and I am not speaking of atheism here, but of the whole rattletrap machinery of his and their particular school of thought—is presented as Indubitable Truth. It is a bad model of science and reasoning. It makes the kinds of claims that surely exist to be tested. You use the word “ideological,” which is striking. Is it ever appropriate for science to be ideological? That may be a part of my unease. Sciences that undercut individuality, like racial science and eugenics, rationalize inhumane ideologies, which in turn support them politically. That said, my criticisms always address their methods and reasoning, areas where opinion or ideology can be put aside.

In Gilead, John Ames seems to espouse many opinions similar to arguments you have made in lectures and essays. Stylistically, however, your fiction and essays are quite different. Do fiction and essays serve different purposes for you in exploring such matters as science and religion? Do you approach them very differently, as a writer? Do you aim them at different audiences? 

I don’t really think about an audience for my fiction. My essays are all lectures, so they are written with the audience in mind that I expect at some particular occasion.

John Ames’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual inner lives are so richly realized. Do you see fiction as uniquely suited to deeply probing this sort of inner subjective reality? Does fiction—with its suspension of disbelief—make the issues you want to explore somehow more accessible to skeptical or secular readers than can be accomplished through nonfiction?

Writing is a very interior experience for me. I’m very happy to have secular readers, but I don’t think about making the work accessible to them or to anyone else.

Above all, your characters are tremendously human; they grapple with faith, but more generally with making complex, difficult decisions. Is this what it means to be human? And is the role we assign to science in our culture changing that in any way, by affecting the ways we understand ourselves and each other? 

To insist again on that distinction—real science is a spectacular achievement, a great demonstration of brilliance that should help us to value and celebrate humankind. “Neuroscience” tells us we have neither mind nor self. This can hardly enhance our value in our own eyes or one another’s.

It seems in many ways that the endeavor of the writer—or any artist—is to explore and translate what in religion is understood to be the soul. Referring back to your view of neuroscience, does this mean that art itself cannot escape conflict with science, in some ways? 

Again, that distinction—no real science offers a judgment about the reality of the human qualities traditionally called the soul. So long as an ideological neuroscience inserts itself into these questions, art and everything we call humanist will be caught up in this essentially meaningless conflict.

Cite this Article

Gutkind, Lee, and Daniel Sarewitz. ““This Essentially Meaningless Conflict”.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 1 (Fall 2017).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall 2017