Marilynne Robinson and Marcelo Gleiser —
The Mystery We Are

What do a fiction writer and an astrophysicist have in common? Marilynne Robinson and Marcelo Gleiser connect the dots between the cosmos, our minds, and all the ways we discover the story of where we came from.

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is a professor at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s the author of several novels including Housekeeping, Home, and Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

is Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He’s author of The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang and A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Cosmos.

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A diverse panel of big thinkers demonstrate how writers and scientists can jointly explore the wide spectrum of theories and questions around storytelling.

Selected Audio

2012 Symposium on Spiritual Progress

Robert BellahPrinceton's Center of Theological Inquiry held a special forum on spiritual progress, focusing on five landmark books and authors fostering new conversations on science and religion. We selected audio excerpts from three of our favorite speakers for you to hear:

» Robert Bellah on the Axial Age
» Jonathan Sacks on Conversation as Prayer
» Marilynne Robinson on Human Exceptionalism

About the Image

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity.

Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole's spin rate.

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I enjoyed this conversation. I think the main part that really stood out to me was Marcello discussing the beauty of imperfection and how science is coming to terms with that. I think there is so much in that idea that I would like to explore further.

Can we expect the transcript here in the coming days?

Trent Gilliss's picture

Wess, we'll have it sometime by the end of the day today. Cheers!

Every week is rich and expansive. This week is possibly the widest and deepest. Wow. I love it when we invite atheists into the conversation. Gleiser takes us into the sacred mystery in unique and important ways. And, Robinson? I don't know what to say. I'll read anything she writes! Thank you Krista and team.


The discussion of the terms describe vs. explain should include the word create. Science uses the term loosely. Our arrogance is our biggest obstacle to true knowledge and understanding. Robinson and Gleiser did not hesitate to use the term. I was alittle dismayed. The conversation was going welll to that point then returned to the ego driven state most intellectual discussions end in.

We do describe rather than explain. We also manipulte rather than create.

I thought science was about measurement, observations and organized data? Yet your 2 guests whom you had a “public conversation” with two scientists M. Robinson and Gleiser, was full of pithy lines and loaded with quotations of others, no data or observations, just generalizations, nominalizations, presumptions, history of others beliefs instead of their own, and undefined jargon. These two brought nothing to the conversation.

When Marilynne (Irish/Scottish? accent) lectured us on how Americans are so dumb regarding sciences, she gave no examples and you did not follow up and have her elaborate. I was constantly confused by the pseudo-debate since they both spoke of the “presence of God” yet both seem desperate to trump God with science. Wish you could have deconstructed that a bit(?)

Wish Marcelo could have touched on the mechanics of Big Bang theory. What data exactly is he talking about? And he couldn’t support unified theory imply or string theory or God……what exactly does he believe? Very confusing people, that much is true. Was sad when Marilynne lectured Gleiser on his usage…… like he was an 18 yr old college student.

If you want a useful debate/conversation/even controversy, could you just once balance with a real theologian? Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Dr. E Michael Jones? How about a conversation with Robert Sungenesis who believes we are in a geocentric solar system. (sounds like Marcelo might agree with him?). See if your backers would allow a Catholic spokesman on your show.

It's gratifying and encouraging to hear a brilliant compatriot speaking so humbly about the marvels of the Atlantic forest, the enchantment of nature, uncertainty theory and the vast domaine of the brain. It's also encouraging to see Marcelo transcending ethnic limits, a Brazilian contribution to the world. "Transculturation", the dynamics of Latin American cultures, characterized by absorbing, transforming, and reinventing is what his words brought back to mind. Congratulations Marcelo! Would you spend time in to Brazil share what you have been saying in the US? People will adore you!

you sound surprised a Brazilian can make a contribution. nice!

The first time I ever listened to this program, and I was "blown away." I was driving home, listening, after an intense work weekend in southern Vermont where the radio signal threatened to fade off, so I slowed down to hear the end before I lost the signal. There were so many revelatory thoughts .... I cannot isolate one. The dialogues from disparate fields was so fascinating. I arrived home in NW Mass. and shared with my wife about the issues raised. So want to hear again and share with her... how can I download?

thanks Mike for taking the time to share! I am curious, or maybe just don't listen well, can you isolate one revelatory thought so I can go back and try to understand? Many thanks.

Michael Bedford, please try, try to express at least one of the many revelatory thoughts. See if you can isolate one, I would appreciate it. I know I am a poor listener and would like to know what you heard. Ok, thanks.

Krista! Like your e-mail audience, I couldn't be happier that you were able to get Marilynne Robinson to do this live conversation. As editor of a sixty-five year old scholarly journal, RENASCENCE: ESSAYS ON VALUES IN LITERATURE, I had the good fortune to hear three talks on Robinson's work in May of this year. I am currently working on a special issue on Robinson's work. The more I hear about and read her work, the more I am impressed with the importance of this voice for the religious view in Amercia. With great gratitude.

Please check out ny new book (just published) "The Joys and Benefits of Connecting with Our Cosmic Spirit". It describes what True Meditation is and how to connect with the Spirit within your Being (It explains what is meant by "The Kingdom of God is within You").

I tell a story about an in-person meeting with Dr. Gleiser in my kickstarter project video.

I didn't appreciate Ms. Robinson's dig at Richard Dawkins, who has done so much for science. It seems that Ms. Robinson feels threatened by atheism and those who advocate for it. Intuition certainly plays a role in science's quest for truth because scientists must rely on their own best educated guesses about how things work in order to formulate hypotheses and design experiments. I don't want to base my own understanding of the origins of the universe on faith in a religious text, some sort of personal "experience" of a deity, or gut feelings. I want facts and figures. If you truly understand the enormity, complexity, age, and magnificent energy of the universe you will feel awe and wonder in a way that no manmade religious myth could ever duplicate. I enjoy On Being, but this is the first time this show ever offended me, a devout atheist. Here is a gorgeous video called "Science Saved My Soul From Religion." Yes, it may offend those who believe in an organized religion, but it's breathtakingly beautiful.

Yeah, I was a bit disappointed at that too. To say that "as far as the scale of what we're learning to know, the psalmist has better intuitions about it than Richard Dawkins" is a claim that boggles my mind.

Are you sure you aren't threatened by sound theism? If your answer is no, it would stand to reason that instead of Ms. Robinson, or other believers of faith, being threatened by atheism, maybe it's simply a matter of an opposing opinion. With the same certainty, either side could say the same. I'm neither threatened, nor will I be offended by anything that helps you feel sound in your truth, however, I will logically respect that it is your truth.

“If you truly understand the enormity, complexity, age, and magnificent energy of the universe you will feel awe and wonder in a way that no manmade religious myth could ever duplicate”. -

But how does one “truly understand” the universe, and who can claim that they “truly” understand it? The greatest spiritual writings of all religions, including psalms, mysticism, and mythology, are reflections on and acknowledging expressions of the “enormity, complexity, age and magnificent energy of the universe”, not attempts to ”duplicate” it. In “The Case for God” author Karen Armstrong describes an all too common miss-take on our current thinking about mythology: “Today…myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy, rather like logos (reason), it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world in a different way…they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos. Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology.”
We’ve regressed in our thinking about “God”, falling behind great theologians, scientists and philosophers of the past who didn’t feel pressed to approach these ways of thought as contradictory. A literal interpretation of the bible (fundamentalism) is relatively recent; in previous centuries biblical stories were not read as they are now, like a “book”; they were enacted as plays or told as stories that were adapted by the presenters to be most effective as morality lessons or calls to action. To quote Armstrong again: "A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time." Fundamentalism has squeezed the life out of “God”, a concept that historically and contemporarily comprises our senses of “the enormity, complexity, age, and magnificent energy of the universe.”
Before the proliferation of the printed bible and its subsequent translations, the kind of fundamentalism we’ve seen in 20th century America to the present would not only likely have been considered bizarre, it would also probably have been considered idolatrous. Avowed atheists who have contempt for religion in general have valid complaints and concerns in light of what Armstrong refers to as “unskillful” approaches to faith, but they need to look at the history of religion beyond its most negative extremes to have a better understanding of how it serves us.

"Fundamentalism has squeezed the life out of “God": To my mind, Kathryn, you have directly hit the nail that atheists focus their anti-God attention on in their efforts to debunk, disprove and intellectually demean belief as well believers. From what I have listened to, the God atheists debunk is the God of fundamentalist belief systems, and of those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible.

I wonder how they debunk a God that is described as : "all there is, all there was and all there ever will be is God" or some other very broad transcendental view of GOD..

Marcello notes how what we can understand about reality is limited by what we can observe and experience about the world.

It may be technically true that our instruments are limited and incapable of making certain measurements, thus limiting our direct understanding of reality, but it seems that Marcello also alludes to us being limited by a subjective perspective that is not fully possible to overcome.

This butts-up against our desire for ultimate truth, which extends from our need for understanding of our origins (As Marilynne notes, if we know our origins we feel that we will then be able to find our purpose in the universe or the meaning of our existence), but perhaps opens up a plurality of paths that may all lead to some understanding of the self and its place in the universe for the individual who chooses to pursue them.

Interestingly, Marilynne praises science for its capacity for self-criticism, yet there are truisms familiar to scientists that go along the line that science may only progress one funeral at a time. Science is a human endeavor, and the way in which new ideas are adopted can be a human and so chaotic process.

I have just listened to and enjoyed this conversation between Marcello Gleiser and Marilynne Robinson, conducted by Christa Tippet. I found the podcast having already discovered Marilynne Robinson's book "Absence of Mind", which I return to often.

At one or two points in the conversation, the physicist Richard Feynman is mentioned. Marilynne Robinson refers to writing by Feynman in which he wonders how it is that my self can persist, and I can have memories of my self, when over the course of time the atoms of my brain are replaced. Robinson reminds us that the English empiricist philosopher John Locke arrived at this thought in the 17th or early 18th century, to reiterate, I think, that thought is capable of reaching places at a time many would regard as pre-scientific, or at least backward in some sense, compared to our time. Marcello Gleiser refers to Feynman as one of his personal heroes.
There was also some discussion of the role of the words "describe" and "explain" as used in popular science, and a consensus seemed to be reached in this conversation that describe is the better word, because it preserves a notion of incompleteness to our thought.

While listening to these things I was reminded of a wonderfully entertaining lecture given by Richard Feynman which I think, somewhat paradoxically, illustrates both the tendency of popular science to want to diminish mind, and also the brilliant awareness Feynman had of treating mathematics as descriptive while also being mindful of the "explanatory power" of any physical theory.
The lecture is called "The Relationship Between Mathematics & Physics", from 1965, and is on YouTube and other places.
It is Feynman's closing statement to this lecture that has interested me, in which, really I think out of a feeling of frustration or even inadequacy, he wants to admonish people of what he calls "the other culture" (by which he seems to mean philosophers) who wonder how or why it is that our thinking, our mathematics, should, so to speak, fit the world. Feynman says, with not a little force and even animus, "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest in man".

Given Marcello Gleiser's view that science needs a kind of aesthetic shift towards recovering human "centrality" in the universe, and his evident admiration for Feynman as a scientist, which so many share, I think Feynman's statement, and it's context, is interesting here. From Marilynne Robinson's side, she has been concerned to show the ways that the style of thinking evinced by popularisers of science, in their writing, tends to close down questioning in advance. So again, I think Richard Feynman's performance of this lecture, and his closing statement, is interesting.

Feynman's lecture was given at a time when there seems to have been a considerable cultural stand-off between the disciplines of sciences and humanities. When Feynman, in his lecture, refers to the "other culture" I think he has in mind a book called "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" by CP Snow, which was published in 1959. This book shows a personal attitude (on the part of CP Snow) hostile, for various complcated interesting reasons, to the kind of things valued in humanities academic disciplines. I think it is a book which contains many of the "declensions" Marilynne Robinson describes as common to what she calls "para-scientific" literature.

I wonder if Feynman would have been quite so antipathetic towards those of the "other culture" if he had been alive to the importance to Einstein of Kant's attempt to answer that very question of why our minds seem to fit the universe such that we can have knowledge of it? Newton's theory, the very model of warranted knowlege, was being overturned, after all. It seems to me that Karl Popper was driven to develop his adaptation of Kantian epistemology and philosophy of science in opposition to the attitude that mathematics is in direct contact with the world. He is the philosopher of science who would be at pains to support the use of the word "description" in preference to "explanation", precisely to deter the feeling underlying scientism or positivism that we have achieved complete knowledge. Again, I wonder if Feynman would have had any interest at all that people like Popper, or Kant or Einstein for that matter, could have found interesting any kind of problem to do with why our mathematics works. My feeling is probably not.

I write because I listen to a conversation like this one and come to anticipate mention of, say, Kant, or Popper, or Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, particularly from the scientist. Popper seems important to me, because he makes explicit that science is an outgrowth of mythical thinking, and of the same character as mythical thinking. Science is an expression of human being, and cultural. For Popper there is no cognitive divide (as Marilynne Robinson speaks of in "Absence of Mind") that elevates our thinking so greatly that we can be dismissive of the past. His work is quite deflationary in that sense.

At the beginning of the conversation, Marcello Gleiser refers to the centrality of the notion of irreducibly conflicting values in the work of the one-time linguistic philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin. Not long ago, I was very motivated to research and get to the bottom of what I had come to regard as a characteristic antipathy towards, or blindness for, the kinds of thing valued in humanistic or humanities learning. It was because I had found this antipathy in myself at a young age, as it had been in my father, and it has had a huge impact on my life. So I was very grateful to come to (not long before finding Marilynne Robinson's book) to an essay by Isaiah Berlin called "The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities". I think Berlin locates a time and a place, after Descartes, when certain human-centred studies are preserved from the limitless domain of mathematics, in the person of the Italian philosopher Vico.

I am very concerned about the closing-down quality of thinking that goes into the "para-scientific" literature, because it comes from people who are popularly regarded as thinkers par-excellence when, even before any thoughts are put down, the tone of presentation is already conveying to the reader or listener that all the thinking has already been done and "he has it". It is not from science that we acquire the ability to understand the significance of style in communication, but from attending to qualities of feeling, in other words from art. Yet, armed with facts and bolstered by prestige and plaudits, what para-scientific thinking seems to push onto impressionable minds is that there is nothing for me to learn, because there is nothing to learn, because it has already been learned (by him). The reader finds himself participating in the writer's assumption of completeness. An opening into what could possibly make of my style of presentation, of my voice and tone and choice of words, anything remotely significant is closed off in advance, always in advance. Becoming aware of this in oneself is disquieting and painful. It is painful to be gripped by an essay like "Modern Science, Mathematics and Metaphysics" by Martin Heidegger, only to find that the "scientific world view", sanctioned by virtue of its success, and pressed into one, casts those insights as meaningless, and that writer as a charlatan, if not an irrationalist. One does not want to be caught unaware quoting the work of a one-time Nazi, and another reason comes up to feel defensive about even raising any kind of query or question or reservation over the value of science.

I'm sorry for a meandering response, but as you can see, I found this conversation very thought provoking!

Richard Feynman did not, at least at the time of his 1965 lecture at Cornell University, " The Relation Betwee Mathematics And Physics", share Marcello Gleiser's desire for a science with humanity in any place of importance. Speaking of people of the "other culture" (by which it seems he meant humanists), he says, at the close of this lecture, with some force and animus, "the horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest is man".

"The truth is, indeed, that love is the threshold of another universe. Beyond the vibrations with which we are familiar, the rainbow-like range of its colours is still in full growth. But, for all the fascination that the lower shades have for us, it is only towards the "ultra" that the creation of light advances. It is in these invisible and, we might almost say, immaterial zones that we can look for true initiation into unity. The depths we attribute to matter are no more than the reflection of the peaks of spirit."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
"The Evolution of Chastity" (1934), as translated by René Hague in Toward the Future (1975)

Hallelujah. the mystery. yes. this IS sacred territory. We must not disrespect the fact that we have no idea what's going on here, and more specifically, the mystery is consciousness. so we can learn about "thinking" in neuroscience, but it's a mistake to assume consciousness comes from the biology. Let's not disrespect the mystery.

Trent, I just want to say thank you for what you're doing here.
We are in a time when consciousness is getting hit by
big storms from all four directions.
We need to feel our creation and its love for all,
and you're helping, sir, and I send you blessings.

In a famous Buddhist book about the concept of reality, it was compared the scientific approach to nature, by dissecting, 'a flower' has a corolla, a pistil, a chalice etc. meanwhile the oriental approach (or we may say, the contemplative approach) is 'the flower' as it is when is seen, smelled or chewed without stopping being the flower that grows in your sidewalk.

I think this statement isn't quite correct; "This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays"…X-radiation does NOT "light up" the disk, which visually appears black. X radiation is the only radiation that "emanates" from or comes out of the black hole, because of it's unique frequency. The recent ability to focus X-ray radiation has given scientists the ability to "visualize" (but not actually "see") where the black hole is. We can see the stars near the black hole as they "fall in" to it; and this direct vision (not reflection) allows us to quantify the size and density of the black hole. Several photographs have shown this; Search proof of stars falling in to black holes.

I bit disappointed by the lack of substance in the discussion. And why the jab at Dawkins who has done more than most to advance rationale, scientific thought over the degenerative forces of scripture and superstition?

I was reminded of Tyson's quote: "God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance." I would recommend listeners check out any of his youtube clips for a more direct discussion on this topic.

Very interesting discussion. My thanks to everyone for such enlightening program.

The challenge before us can be explained rather simple terms. Our finite mind, within finite time of our consciousness can never fully comprehend the infinite universe existing over endless time. Hence the need for God and for science.

Think of this simple equation, (I will call it Jyotindra Shukla Equation)

Total Universe = Known Universe + Unknown Universe

The first term on the right belongs to the realm of knowledge and the second term represents the unknown and therefore belongs to the realm of faith. Since the Total Universe is infinite, and the first term on the right hand side is finite, the second term on the right hand side must always be infinite for the equation to be valid. Hence the need for God will remain. We can see the evidence of the validity of the above equation in a limited manner in our day to day life. When we trust the knowledge of doctors, we take medicine and not pray to God because we are in the Known Universe, but when doctors cannot cure us, we resort to prayer (the second term, the realm of unknown and faith).

If we can somehow reach a point where the second term is zero and the Total Universe becomes equal to the known universe, God would cease to exist for us. This boundary condition will never be reached except through the wormhole of human intuition and this is where science and religion meet in the highest reaches of the supreme Knowledge. When we reach that level, the conflict between science and religion dissolves. Also, the limitations of space and time fall away and we enter the realm of timeless bliss that is known as Brahman by ancient Hindus and by other names by all the inquisitive souls that followed them. We get tangled in limitations of language while trying to describe what is essentially beyond language.

Our need to know this ultimate entity (unified theory or Brahman, whatever we may choose to call it) is the result of the homing device that is in each one of us (and in every living entity). Just as Monarch Butterflies fly to their destination; we try to reach this panacea. Trouble is, we get lost when the language combined with intellect strays us away from what can only be felt from within.

We seek the mercy of our creator to give us the divine vision to see through the fog. There is nothing Holier than this ultimate knowledge.

Best wishes to all who use their conscious span (this precious life) to pursue this ultimate knowledge.