2 February, 2015Issue 27.2PhilosophyReligion

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Is Nothing Sacred?

Gabriel Roberts

Roger Scruton
The Soul of the World
Princeton University Press, 2014
£19.95 (hardback)
201 pages
ISBN: 9781400850006

This book is really two books, clumsily compounded together. One is an interesting if schematic philosophical argument about the difference between how the world appears when looked at from the external viewpoint of science and from the internal viewpoint of our personal experience. The other is a vague and unconvincing religious apologetic.

The philosophical argument is intricate and can only be loosely summarised here. It begins with an account of the mind, in which Roger Scruton argues that there are important features of our experience which can be explained but not understood in causal terms. These include our recognition of each other as persons, our acting on and asking for reasons, our aesthetic judgements, our moral intuitions, our capacity for free choice, and our ability to use indexicals such as “here”, “now”, “I”, and “you”, meaningfully. These may be explained in causal terms—through an account, for instance, of which parts of the brain operate when we use the word “I”—but explanations of this kind will not help us to understand what any of these terms mean. For this, a different set of concepts is needed.

The argument is transcendental in the sense that if we reflect on our experience, Scruton believes, we cannot but think in terms of the features which he describes. We cannot shake off the conviction that we are a conscious self among others, that there are reasons for actions and beliefs, that a certain location is “here” and a certain time is “now”, that we choose which actions to perform, and so on. Once we realise this, we find ourselves in need of an account of our experience which runs in parallel with, but is irreducible to, the account which is offered by science. We find ourselves “on the edge of things”, as Scruton repeatedly puts it, acting within the physical world but looking at it from the outside.

This is not the view that there are two fundamental realities which connect at a mysterious point of causal interaction (a view which Scruton attributes to Descartes and terms “ontological dualism”). Instead, it is the view that there is one fundamental reality and two ways of conceiving it (a view which Scruton terms “cognitive dualism” and associates with Spinoza and Kant). And in Scruton’s account, the physical conception has “ontological priority”, meaning that the Lebenswelt, the world of personal appearances, emerges from the physical world rather than the other way around.

Much of the book is concerned with things—law, art, music, architecture, nature, and sex—which are increasingly seen from the scientific viewpoint. These sections of the book owe a lot to Scruton’s previous writings, especially The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979), The Aesthetics of Music (1997), Green Philosophy (2011), and The Face of God (2012). The unifying theme of these works, as seen from the vantage point of this one, is the repositioning of objects from the physical world into the Lebenswelt, in which Scruton believes we are truly at home. An awful lot depends, however, on how far the Lebenswelt extends. There are clearly many things which we habitually and correctly describe from the scientific viewpoint and, if there are two parallel ways of describing the world, then we need some account of how those descriptions relate to each other and when we should use one rather than the other. It is not clear, at least in this work, how these questions should be answered.

Scruton’s cognitive dualism is connected (though the connection is not very clearly established) with a different set of arguments about the adequacy of evolutionary and neurological explanations as causal explanations. Scruton claims, for instance, that “in a creature with a mind, there is no direct law-like connection between sensory input and behavioural output”, a claim which, if true, would mean that neurological explanations of human behaviour are false, even as explanations. Likewise, in his description of things from the internal viewpoint, Scruton often slips into causal language. He writes, for instance, that “the pleasure of a kiss is not a matter of sensations, but of I-You intentionality”, which suggests that there are not two parallel descriptions of kissing, one causal and one non-causal in character, but rival causal explanations, one explaining the pleasure of a kiss in terms of sensory responses and the other in terms of I-You intentionality.

The problem with this is that Scruton seems unwilling to concede that for every feature of our experience that he wishes to position within the Lebenswelt there should, according to his own premises, be a corresponding causal account, set out in evolutionary, neurological, or other terms. At times, he seems to want to argue that causal explanations are not only irrelevant to certain features of our experience, but inadequate as explanations of them, so that reasons, persons, aesthetic judgements, and the rest of it not only emerge from the physical world but are causally independent of it. But this should not be at issue if Scruton’s real objective is to show that there are features of human experience which are only visible from the internal viewpoint. What may perhaps worry him is that if there are adequate causal explanations for all of the features which interest him, then anyone who wants to look at them will always have two viewpoints available. And this again raises the difficult question of which one we should prefer.

Religion comes into the picture because Scruton believes that it has preserved the internal viewpoint on many areas of our experience which the rest of society now views from the external one. He draws a parallel, for instance, between the problem of the real presence (the problem, that is, of how God can be both transcendent and immanent) and the problem of identifying people as subjects when we look at them from the scientific viewpoint. The suggestion here is that by thinking about a problem in theology we can find our way back to the realisation that to each of us other people are subjects, a realisation which we cannot reach from the scientific viewpoint.

At the heart of the matter is the concept of the sacred. Sacred things, Scruton believes, are set aside from ordinary use and confer meaning on our lives by allowing us to make acts of sacrifice in the name of something larger than ourselves. The frustration of our ability to perform these acts by the modern habit of seeing everything as an object for exploitation lies behind many of the problems of modern culture: its treatment of the natural world as an object of consumption; its creation of alienating urban and domestic environments; its depiction of sex as a meaningless act of recreation; and its emphasis on choice and contract in ethics at the expense of obligations which we acquire in other ways. By rediscovering the sacred, he thinks, we can go some way towards solving these problems.

But Scruton also hints at a deeper connection between the internal viewpoint and religion. When we encounter each other, we look for reasons and meanings, rather than causes. But our interpersonal attitudes have an “overreaching intentionality”, so that we also look for reasons and meanings in our interactions with art and nature and in the religious life, in which the act of overreaching encompasses the whole world. Quite what this means is hard to say. It isn’t an attempt to resuscitate the design argument for the existence of God. But to view the world as an action arising from reasons we need independent grounds for believing in a being to whom those reasons can plausibly be ascribed, and Scruton does not give us them.

Throughout the book, Scruton depicts religion in uncompromisingly appealing terms: rather than offering explanations which compete with scientific ones, religion looks for reasons and meaning; rather than positing the existence of an incomprehensible metaphysical super-being, religion merely “searches for God”; and rather than taking spurious history seriously in the form of holy scriptures, religion provides us with myths of origins in which layers of social reality are cast in a fictional chronological sequence. If any of these claims were generally true, then Scruton might have a point about the potential of religion to ameliorate secular culture, but the sceptical among Scruton’s readers may justly ask whether his vision is really representative of the majority of religious practice today.

It remains unclear at the book’s conclusion whether Scruton thinks that religion enshrines a truth which is invisible to atheists and secularists or a truth which they merely tend not to see. But this, of course, is crucial. If secular culture should be trying to free itself from the external viewpoint, it makes all the difference whether this is a question of becoming more religious or of stripping religion of its intellectual assets before it goes into liquidation.

Gabriel Roberts is a final-year DPhil in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.