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Marilynne Robinson on the Humanities, the Limits of Neuroscience, and the Usefulness of the Soul as a Sensemaking Mechanism for Reality

“A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.”

Marilynne Robinson on the Humanities, the Limits of Neuroscience, and the Usefulness of the Soul as a Sensemaking Mechanism for Reality

“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul,” Willa Cather wrote as she turned her life around to become a writer. But what is the soul, really, and dare we talk of saving it? Over the past century, the effort to salvage the soul from its religious connotations and reclaim it as a useful humanistic concept in a secular context has only rendered it a polarizing term of equal parts aversion and allure. The more we enlist our tools of inquiry in solving the perennial puzzles of consciousness and the self, the more disquieted we are by how the soul continues to feed us mystery as we hunger for knowledge and certainty.

Virginia Woolf captured this paradoxical pull perfectly when she observed: “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet look we do, pointing our keenest probes in its direction, hoping to localize it and dissect its nature. We fail and stumble and try again, our powers and our limitations locked in an abiding tango.

No one has examined this strange and profoundly human dance more insightfully and beautifully than Pulitzer-winning writer Marilynne Robinson in The Givenness of Things: Essays (public library).

Marilynne Robinson by Danny Wilcox Frazier

In the opening essay, titled “Humanism,” Robinson laments how the “joyless urgency” of our time has dehumanized the spirit by sidelining the humanities. She points to a counterintuitive remedy:

The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science. This may seem an improbable stance from which to defend the humanities, and I do not wish to undervalue contemporary art or literature or music or philosophy. But it is difficult to recognize the genius of a period until it has passed. Milton, Bach, Mozart all suffered long periods of eclipse, beginning before their lives had ended. Our politics may appear in the light of history to have been filled with triumphs of statecraft, unlikely as this seems to us now. Science, on the other hand, can assert credible achievements and insights, however tentative, in present time.

But science, Robinson cautions, is susceptible to the same delusion of omniscience that has traditionally bedeviled religious dogma. Half a century after Henry Beston’s exquisite meditation on the limits of science, Robinson calls out one particularly prominent area where our voraciousness for knowledge is blinding us to the many dimensions of the unknowable:

Neuroscience has, as its primary resource, technology that captures images of processes within the living brain. Fear lights up a certain area, therefore fear is a function of that area, which developed for the purposes of maintaining homeostasis. It prepares the organism to fight or flee. Well and good. But fear is rarely without context. People can be terrified of spiders, dentists, the Last Judgment, germs, the need to speak in public, thirteen, extraterrestrials, mathematics, hoodies, the discovery of a fraud in their past. All of these fears are the creatures of circumstance, of the history and state of health of a specific brain. They identify threat, interpreting an environment in highly individual terms. They, not threat in the abstract, trigger alarm, and they are the products of parts of the brain that do not light up under technological scrutiny and would elude interpretation if they did. If they are not taken into account, the mere evidence of an excitation has little descriptive and no predictive value. A fearful person might take a pill, faint, or commit mayhem. The assumptions behind the notion that the nature of fear and the impulses it triggers could be made legible or generalizable for the purposes of imaging would have to exclude complexity—the factor that introduces individuality with all its attendant mysteries…

This all appears to be a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report. These methods are as much a matter of vocabulary as of technology, though the two interact and reinforce each other.


On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given. The physical as we have come to know it frays away into dark matter, antimatter, and by implication on beyond them and beyond our present powers of inference.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

For the agonistic humanists among us, who side with Bertrand Russell and believe in the human spirit but see the immortal soul as an escapist illusion stemming from our chronic dread of our own impermanence, Robinson’s defense of the soul as a useful concept for understanding reality is of particular interest:

The real assertion being made in all this (neuroscience is remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and to go directly to assertion) is that there is no soul. Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition—it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief” — cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence…

I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.

By attempting to localize the nonphysical in the physical, Robinson argues, neuroscience makes a false claim to freedom from bias — in reality, its tools of inquiry and perception greatly shape the results perceived. (As Krista Tippett aptly put it, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.”)

Robinson writes:

There could be no more naive anthropocentricity than is reflected in the certainty and insistence that what we can know about the nature of things at this moment makes us capable of definitive judgments about much of anything…

This kind of criticism is conventionally made of religion. I am not attempting some sort of rhetorical tae kwon do, to turn the attack against the attacker. My point is simply that neuroscience, at least in its dominant forms, greatly overreaches the implications of its evidence and is tendentious.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

She contrasts this with more humanistic views of the mind and its locus of genius:

If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s memorable assertion that asking unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Robinson adds:

Science may never find a way to confirm or reject the idea of multiple universes, or arrive at a satisfactory definition of time or gravity. We know things in the ways we encounter them. Our encounters, and our methods and assumptions, are determined by our senses, our techniques, our intuitions.. To have arrived at this point is not a failure of science but a spectacular achievement.

That said, it might be time to pause and reflect. Holding to the old faith that everything is in principle knowable or comprehensible by us is a little like assuming that every human structure or artifact must be based on yards, feet, and inches. The notion that the universe is constructed, or we are evolved, so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it, is entirely as anthropocentric as the notion that the universe was designed to make us possible.


The impulse toward generalization that would claim to make the brain solvable should on these grounds be rejected, certainly until we have some grasp of the deeper sources of this complexity and order, the causal factors that lie behind this infinitesimal nuancing. The brain is certainly more profoundly individuated than its form or condition can reveal.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

In another essay, titled “Experience,” Robinson revisits the usefulness of the soul as a sensemaking mechanism:

The concept “soul” allows us to acknowledge the richness and variety of the experience of the self.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Sy Montgomery’s bewitching inquiry into the consciousness of the octopus, Robinson considers our limited anthropocentric definitions of reality:

[Starfish] were thought to have no eyes. Then it was discovered that they were all eyes, that their bodies were entirely covered with visual receptors, and that the simple-looking creature somehow integrates a mass of sensation. A more considered understanding of the soul, as an experience that I think we do share, would put an end to these mystifications about its physical locus.


What we experience as physical reality is profoundly untypical of physical reality. Human experience is the central factor here. We can know that we are part and parcel of the universe at large, that great storm of energy. From the soles of our feet to our worst idea, from a Beethoven sonata to Yankee Stadium, nothing can be accounted for in any other terms…

I have called it a storm, but there is a profound order or predictability in the whole fabric of it. Whatever atoms are, certain of their properties and combinations can be described. There are other constancies, which we call laws and forces. I take the Jamesian view, that what we know about anything is determined by the way we encounter it, and therefore we should never assume that our knowledge of anything is more than partial. If this principle applies to reality at the smallest scales that are so far accessible to us, it most emphatically applies to the stratum of reality that we consider familiar.

Proper acknowledgement of these limitations and of the inherent partiality of our knowledge, Robinson suggests, welcomes the notion of the soul as a haven for the unknown and possibly unknowable, so essential to the very fabric of being:

A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul.

The Givenness of Things is a sublime read in its seventeen-essay totality, exploring everything from fear to memory to grace. Complement it with Robinson on what storytelling can learn from science, then revisit Simone Weil on the most fertile form of thought and Parker Palmer on how to stop hiding our souls.

Published December 15, 2015




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