The Faith of a Conservative

Russell Blackford

The Soul of the World, by Roger Scruton (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-691-16157-0) 205 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.

Understanding your opponents can be useful—and for many of us, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is definitely an opponent. I differ with Scruton across a wide range of philosophical and political issues, so much so that I expected to find little to agree with in his newest book, The Soul of the World. Still, opponents can have illuminating things to say, and it is especially important to look for insights from unexpected quarters. That is how positions change, develop, or deepen. It’s how we make intellectual progress.

In this case, my mind has not changed about anything. Scruton ultimately reaches far beyond what the facts allow him. Along the way, however, he provides genuine food for thought. He also writes with clarity and considerable beauty.

His essential aim in this book is to offer an alternative to the worldview implicit in the past four hundred years of scientific progress. From the perspective of science, we live in an incomprehensibly vast universe that stretches back to an origin almost fourteen billion years ago (and perhaps even this universe is only one of many). We have come to exist as extraordinarily complex, yet purely material, beings via processes that have unfolded over the eons of deep time. Human forms of interaction and creativity are products, however impressive and however indirect, of the Darwinian mechanisms that incrementally shaped us as a species.

There is, as have often been said, grandeur in this understanding of the universe and our place in it, but it also provokes much resistance. Importantly, Scruton does not deny the scientific picture as far as it goes; nor does he develop his response from a position of ignorance. He appears relevantly knowledgeable and is familiar with the essentials of evolutionary theory, including the emerging science of evolutionary psychology. At one point, he indicates sympathy for the arguments of Intelligent Design theorists, but this is not at all his emphasis, and he makes clear that none of his conclusions depend on rejecting mainstream science. Nonetheless, he seeks to defend what he characterizes as a form of dualism and to offer the attractions—as he sees them—of a broadly theistic faith. (In passing, let’s note that his worldview is scarcely an orthodox Christian one, since he appears to reject the core doctrine of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for humanity’s sins.)

The book’s main theme is its “cognitive dualism.” Scruton explains that this is not an ontological dualism such as offered by Descartes and numerous past-and-present religious thinkers. Indeed, he gives short shrift to any dualistic arguments based on the claim that something is left over, still unexplained, when we try to reduce consciousness to physical events, or on the idea that there is something mysterious in the way our neural processes manage to be “about” the world. Accordingly, he shows little interest in the sorts of puzzles that frustrate or fascinate contemporary philosophers of mind.

Instead, he is content to understand consciousness as a feature of ourselves and other animals that emerges once a certain level of complexity is reached in behavior and “the functional relations that govern it.” His focus is on what he calls “a kind of cognitive dualism” within which there are two equally correct, but incommensurable, ways to consider the world: the way of science and the way of interpersonal understanding. The latter, so he argues, is inevitable for self-conscious beings like us. We conceptualize the world not only in terms of space-time events and natural causation but also with reference to desires, reasons, meanings, and their justifications. There is something unique about I-You encounters, in which I recognize another human individual as a distinct person with his or her own subjectivity.

Much of the book insists on our need to think and speak in the language of reasons, meanings, etc., when we encounter each other directly or through cultural products such as art and law. Scruton is doubtlessly correct that we inevitably regard each other as individual persons capable of entering into commitments, assuming obligations, forming relationships, making sacrifices, and ascribing meanings to our experiences. He is most persuasive when writing confidently about music, theater, painting, and architecture. In these passages, he correctly emphasizes the legitimacy (and necessity) of traditional kinds of critical reflection and discussion. Whether or not we agree with, say, his analysis of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto—or with any of his musical opinions—the language he employs is fitted to our experience of music. It would, as he points out, be inapt to converse about Beethoven’s compositions merely as sequences of pitched sounds.

Again he is surely correct that “We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments.” On the same page, he adds: “Art, literature, music, and history belong to the Lebenswelt, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean.” Yes, we do seek to understand the meaning of King Lear or Macbeth, and not merely to explain the forces, whether proximate or more distant, that enabled its existence. Even if we must work with somewhat inchoate—perhaps not entirely coherent—notions of meaning, such works of the imagination seem to cry out for engagement and interpretation.

We are more likely to understand Shakespeare’s plays by immersing ourselves deeply in Elizabethan English and its nuances, and in the literary conventions and systems of ideas that Shakespeare could take for granted, than if we surveyed modern audiences to ascertain their preferred renditions of speeches and lines. But then again, who denies this? Perhaps no serious thinker does so, but I have sometimes heard or read such denials—always in informal contexts but frequently enough to accept that Scruton is not merely attacking a straw man. More generally, though again only in informal contexts, I’ve encountered what seem to be suspicions about the very idea of literary meaning or even about the fact that language can exhibit subtlety and nuance, as if attempts to interpret and discuss any subtleties amount to a kind of confidence trick such as cold reading or spoon bending. Against that background, I welcome Scruton’s defense of humanistic scholarship and conversation.

The deeper philosophical questions concern the implications of all this, and here Scruton drastically overplays his hand. Before going further, we ought to look more closely at his claim that we study Shakespeare’s plays not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting their meanings. “Hold on!” I want to say here. “Aren’t we interested in both?” Attempts to understand how literary compositions arose may well help us in understanding their meaning—and vice versa. Often, we cannot conclude what works of art might reasonably be taken to mean without first understanding much of the cultural matrix within which they were created. At the same time, deeper understanding of the meanings of individual works—the dramatic intentions and existential vision of King Lear, for example—enrich our knowledge of their cultural circumstances, including the great anxieties of their eras. This, in turn, informs our sense of the anxieties of other eras, including our own.

All these considerations support the importance of the humanities. They do not, however, suggest that humanistic scholarship and conversation are radically incommensurable with science or that they cannot be informed by insights from the sciences. Nothing
that I’ve said argues against an overall unity of knowledge and continuity of academic disciplines.

Scruton goes much further in developing his cognitive dualism. With some plausibility, he views systems of religion, law, and morality as ameliorating the human condition in restraining our more selfish and destructive impulses—impulses that were once adaptive but now “disrupt the work of civilization.” He claims that durable human communities require intergenerational bonds and particularly self-sacrifice for others who cannot reciprocate. This suggests, so he argues, that communities must be built on a sense of bonds that are transcendent and noncontractual. From here, he portrays morality as reaching beyond the empirical world for its authority and as somehow involving reasons for action that are transcendently normative and binding. All this implies a universe that is purposive—teleologically ordered—and it culminates in an affirmation, on the closing pages of The Soul of the World, of hope for spiritual immortality and posthumous oneness-with-God, though it is unclear to me how literally its author expects us to take this.

Thus, the book’s deep argument is that there are irreplaceable aspects of human culture and interaction that point beyond themselves to a realm of transcendent bonds, obligations, purposes, and meanings. Scruton wants to push our thinking to the edge of the empirical world and to an acceptance of something that lies beyond it—something unitary and purposive that we can identify with God.

But this strategy can cut both ways. Claims to transcendent intellectual and moral authority may well have assisted some or many of the moralists, lawgivers, and cultural mythmakers of the past. At particular times, in particular places, these stupefying claims may have helped to sustain order, enhance cultural identification, and contribute to social survival. None of this provides a reason to believe that any such claims are actually true; on the contrary, it gives us a reason to think they would have been made, and perhaps acceded to, whether they were true or not. Claims to transcendent authority could have been socially useful under definable circumstances, and yet the existence of any such authority could still have been an illusion. This exemplifies a recurring feature in arguments for religious beliefs that emphasize their personal or social advantages. All such arguments tend to suggest how beliefs in transcendent beings, forces, or principles might arise and persist even if they are false.

To be fair, the language and emotions that typify moral debate do seem, all too often, to reveal the participants as believing in transcendent demands and prohibitions. This belief appears to be deeply inscribed in our language, culture, and thought (though perhaps it’s an open question as to whether that is true of all human societies or mainly of those shaped by adherence to Middle-Eastern monotheisms). Even many atheists appear unwilling to let go of the illusion that there are standards of human behavior with a kind of transcendent and inescapable authority to back them up.

I question, however, whether there is any value in encouraging the illusion, particularly under modern conditions. When religious rivals have sought the state’s power of fire and sword to enforce their norms, the outcomes have often been disastrous. When morality is backed by claims to transcendent authority, this tends to preserve moral norms from earlier, more barbaric times, perhaps even intensifying their cruel effects if religious purity becomes a measure of social standing. When undue respect is given to religion, inhumane and oppressive moral demands can often receive veneration instead of being cast aside.

Contrary to Scruton, I submit that we would do better to understand law and even morality as what they really appear to be when examined more objectively. They do not reflect the purposes of any personal or impersonal transcendent authority. Instead, morality and law are humanly constructed standards of conduct that benefit us by facilitating social cooperation and protecting our worldly interests. These are not transcendent goals, but they are all-important human ones.

A political conservative in Scruton’s mold might question whether any standards of conduct will retain general respect without the widespread belief that they have a transcendent source. I disagree: we should expect morality and law to serve their important functions more effectively if we understand them in a secular and historical way. We can shape our standards to serve us, with our complex, changing needs, rather than imagining that if we serve them we’ll thereby conform to the purposes of some unseen order of things.

Russell Blackford’s books include 50 Great Myths About Atheism, coauthored with Udo Schüklenk (2013). He is a conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

A review of The Soul of the World, by Roger Scruton.

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