"This Essentially Meaningless Conflict": An Interview with Marilynne Robinson by Creative Nonfiction Editor Lee Gutkind and Issues in Science and Technology Editor Daniel Sarewitz

By Gutkind, Lee; Sarewitz, Daniel | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

"This Essentially Meaningless Conflict": An Interview with Marilynne Robinson by Creative Nonfiction Editor Lee Gutkind and Issues in Science and Technology Editor Daniel Sarewitz


Gutkind, Lee, Sarewitz, Daniel, Issues in Science and Technology


Marilynne Robinsons 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 email, 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? …

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