Frequently readers of this blog will know I have a keen affection for Home and Gilead, the novels of Marilynne Robinson. I'd caught rumors that her philosophical writings were very good but it didn't seem possible that this empathetic and subtle novelist was also an intellectual. Turns out she is. In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson steps into the religion-science debates with a unique and I think powerful entry. This is a dense work that requires slow reading because it is an artfully shaped product of the human mind -- and that is part of the point. Robinson points out that for all the success of scientific endeavor, the parascientific writers who explain the science to the masses are often crude in their understanding of philosophical issues or even the simple mysteries of the human mind interacting with its environment, the universal gift of consciousness. For all her contradicting writers such as Dawkins and Dennett, Robinson does not present a theological counterpoint based on God, but rather a humanist counterpoint based on the subjectivity and yet inescapability of the mind itself. God still haunts the book, don't get me wrong.
I personally was slightly disappointed as the book wore on and Robinson's main target turned out to be Freud. To each her own, I suppose, but I would prefer that we have arguments against the new parascientific writers because those are the ones that are truly continuing. Freud's influence is complex and problematic, and it seems all too easy for defenders of Freud to jettison one beleaguered part of his work while keeping the rest. Regardless, Robinson's arugments are gems, even if they have been fundamentally stated before and will be stated again, they are polished to a sheen by her lapidary prose. Her insights are profound and the book itself is really a sliver of words relative to the torrent in general on the topic. They're all the more powerful for being so distilled.
Ultimately, this book may be difficult but it's worth it, and it's very enjoyable to catch the thousands of tiny allusions Robinson makes with a well-placed word or phrase. The footnotes are sparse and don't tell the half of what she's actually rebutting. I've definitely never encountered anything else quite like this book.