Saturday, June 26, 2010

Phineas Gage

In particular, [Marilynne] Robinson says, these "parascientists" [e.g. E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett] deliberately slight "the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left." At the very least, "an honest inquirer" into the nature of religion "might spend an afternoon listening to Bach or Palestrina, reading Sophocles or the Book of Job." We are not, she maintains, simply the instrument of selfish genes. Indeed, she suspects that the "modern malaise," our sense of emptiness and alienation, can be attributed not to the "death of God" but rather to the widely promulgated, and reductionist, view of the self as wholly biological.

Robinson assails Wilson and company most powerfully by accusing them of faulty, narrow-minded thinking. Take their frequent use of the story of Phineas Gage, the railway worker famous for surviving an accident in which a large iron rod was driven through his skull. Afterwards, according to contemporary accounts, his behavior changed dramatically and he was "fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane." For the parascientists, this proves that personality and character "are localized in a specific region of the brain [e.g. cerebral cortex]," a fact, adds Robinson, "that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature."

But Robinson asks us to actually think about Phineas Gage. How would you feel and react if you had had your upper jaw shattered, lost an eye and suffered severe disfigurement? Gage "was twenty-five at the time of the accident. Did he have dependents? Did he have hopes? These questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered." In the parascientific writings about Gage, she asserts, "there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate." In essence, these scholars "participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind."

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