Absence of Mind

Karen Armstrong in The Guardian:

Absence-of-Mind-The-Dispelli At the same time as the western scientific revolution empowered human beings, opened new worlds and broadened their horizons, it progressively punctured their self-esteem. Increasingly, luminaries of modern thought have told us that our minds are not to be trusted: that even though we thought we were standing on a static Earth, our planet was moving very fast indeed; that we could never be sure that our ideas corresponded to objective reality outside our own heads; that some of our noblest ideals were simply the product of repressed sexuality; and that, finally, we are deluded if we imagine that we “think”, “reason,” “learn” or “choose”. Our minds are simply a passive conduit for an unknown, indifferent force.

In this published version of the Terry lectures, delivered at Yale University last year, the novelist Marilynne Robinson argues that positivism, the belief that science is the only reliable means to truth, has adopted a “systematically reductionist” view of human nature. Since Huxley, for example, Darwinians have found altruism problematic, as evolution would necessarily select against benevolence to another at cost to oneself. Altruism can only occur because of the “selfishness” of a gene. Thus for EO Wilson, a “soft-core altruist” expects reciprocation from either society or family; his byzantine calculations are characterised by “lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real”. Every apparently compassionate action is, therefore, simply a matter of quid pro quo. In the same way, because it transfers useful information to somebody else and requires an expenditure of time and energy, language seems essentially altruistic. But, says the evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller, “evolution cannot favour altruistic information-sharing”, so the complexities of language probably evolved simply for verbal courtship, “providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female”.

More here.