“At his best, Scruton was a panoramic thinker of formidable intellect who puts to shame many of the lesser polemicists who have followed in his giant footsteps.”
t has now been one year since Roger Scruton, the greatest conservative philosopher of his generation, passed away. As a liberal socialist, I have naturally had many critical things to say about Scruton, especially when he allowed his cantankerous nature to become a barrier to his considerable talents. Scruton was also, unfortunately, prone to offering bad commentary about Muslims and homosexuality, which is unworthy of him at his best. However, he was, undoubtedly, a remarkable man and a formidable adversary to leftists, who was capable of absorbing and writing with grace and salt about a wide variety of topics. At his best, Scruton was a panoramic thinker of formidable intellect who puts to shame many of the lesser polemicists who have followed in his giant footsteps.
In this short review, I want to briefly discuss what I think is his best book: his 2014 work The Soul of the World. Interestingly, this is also his least overtly political text. It is largely a work of pure philosophy that offers critical takes on reductive scientific materialism and the religious consequences many draw from this worldview. In the conclusion of this piece, I will also provide some closing thoughts linking the The Soul of the World to Scruton’s other work and his politics. However, it is important to recognize that readers from across the political spectrum can find insights and edification in its pages.
The Problem With Scientific Materialism
“To explain religion in terms of its reproductive function is to leave unexplained and indeed unperceived the central core of the phenomenon, which is the religious thought—the aboutness of the urge to sacrifice, of the need to worship and obey, of the trepidation of the one who approaches holy and forbidden things and who prays for their permission.”
Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World
The main target of Scruton’s ire is naturalism or—to put it more precisely—reductive scientific materialism. In its more vulgar forms, this amounts to little more than the conceit that the only thing that is real is matter and, consequently, the only kind of knowledge worth having is empirical. In effect, we become strict empirical realists. In its more sophisticated iterations à la Willard Van Orman Quine and others, scientific materialism takes the form of justified true beliefs that, in Scruton’s view, “link the organism to its environment in the right way, so as to give reliable information about their causes…Our ontology, on this view, consists of all those items that are referred to in the true explanation of our beliefs. It does not contain the creatures of our dreams or the characters in fiction; nor does it contain gods and spirits that haunt our lives, however dear to us these are…”
This is some heady stuff, so I will provide a slightly fuzzy example. When I hold up an apple and look at it, the optic nerve transmits information to my brain, which is processed and creates a visual image of a red piece of fruit. Each stage of this process can—in principle—be explained scientifically: from where the fruit itself came from, to how the optic nerve transmits the visual information to the brain, and, finally, to how the brain produces a perception of the apple. Of course, we may not yet have a full scientific explanation of every part of this process; quantum theory may still have an unsettled account of what generates the distinct biology of the apple (and the human being for that matter). Cognitive science and neurology are new sciences with a long way to go in describing the nature of perception completely. But that is not necessarily a shot against them. Indeed, defenders of scientific materialism often point out that it is one of the virtues of their standpoint that it will not offer complete explanations of phenomena, when the empirical evidence is not yet decisive. Science is an incrementalist discipline, which proceeds experiment by experiment to provide a richer but ever incomplete account of the world.
Scruton does not want to deny the extraordinary power of scientific materialism in explaining many things; he goes out of his way to praise its efficacy at numerous points in the book. This is a savvy move, of course; anyone who decided wholesale to reject scientific materialism would quickly be accused of simply being an irrationalist who wants to close his eyes to centuries of advances in knowledge. However, Scruton insists that there are limitations to scientific materialism. The most pressing is that it cannot account for the existence of any number of important entities that are not present in the environment, and, as such, it cannot be naturalistically explained through appeal to strict causality. These entities include the mind, mathematics, moral and aesthetic truths, and, of course, a religious sensibility. Since none of these emerge in the natural environment, their existence cannot be explained adequately by scientific materialism. Scruton wants to argue that each of these entities does have an independent existence and, consequently, that scientific materialism is intrinsically limited since it is unable to explain them. Therefore, we should reject it in favor of a more robust philosophy of the world that can account for their existence.
The Mind and Morality
It is important to note that this claim need not be attached to any specific moral or political program. While Scruton himself is a conservative, left-liberals like Thomas Nagel and Marxists such as Terry Eagleton have also made similar critiques of reductive scientific materialism. Similarly, members of the Intellectual Dark Web, along with radical progressives such as Peter Singer, have been known to defend iterations of scientific materialism. The reason for this trans-partisan concern is many thinkers remain at cross purposes about scientific materialism’s global, theoretical ambitions. For some, scientific materialism has proven so powerful that its explanatory method should be extended to all domains possible. If the consequence of this is that mystical concepts like God or aesthetic beauty are undercut (at least in their pre-scientific form), then so be it. For others, this totalizing drive to reduce everything to scientific materialism is not only unpalatable but also ends up producing self-parodying absurdities, like Neil deGrasse Tyson complaining about Star Wars movies being inaccurate. It misses the forest for the trees—or, more accurately, the quantum processes that generate the trees. More importantly, scientific materialism cannot explain where our sense of the world’s value comes from, except through Munchausenian naturalistic reasoning that seeks to build itself up from nothing. Consequently, scientific materialism leads to a kind of nihilism.
However, this seems to totally miss the actual experience of “seeing” a blue sky, or the teal waters of the Caribbean.
Scruton provides many examples throughout his book. I will simply focus on two. The first example is the mind, or consciousness. In his reading, scientific materialism à la Daniel Dennett attempts to reduce our concept of mind down to a sequence of physical processes that can be accounted for by causal, deterministic explanations. This is true even of human actions, which seem to have an “intentional” quality to them that cannot be explained by reference to mere causality. In this reading, the mind is “what the physical brain does.” We are no different from a computer or thermostat, which also seem to display “intentional” behavior when they boot up or register the temperature. However, their actions can, of course, be explained with reference to the environment. The problem with this reading is that it seems to explain away the existence of our irrevocable subjectivity: the sense, as Scruton puts it, that we are selves that takes an internal perspective towards our actions. These matter to “us” more than simply as being an “external perspective,” where we claim to be little more than automatons playing out a causal script. Consider, for instance, the example of qualia, like color. Our experience of the color blue could be reduced down to the brain processing visual information sent by the optical nerve. We could even describe the color in terms of light of different wavelengths hitting the eye. However, this seems to totally miss the actual experience of “seeing” a blue sky, or the teal waters of the Caribbean.
A classic thought experiment on this point was given by Frank Jackson in his seminal papers “Epiphenomenal Qualia” and “What Mary Didn’t Know”, which are, sadly, not referenced by Scruton. Jackson asks us to imagine Mary, a “brilliant scientist,” who is asked to study color from within a black and white room. The scientist knows a tremendous amount about the physical properties of color, as well as how it is perceived by the central nervous system. However, what happens when Mary is released from the room into the real world? When she sees any number of colors never before perceived, has she learned anything beyond what she knew from the standpoint of scientific materialism? Most of us would say, “Yes.” Indeed, Mary has now partaken in something of tremendous experiential importance to her as a conscious being.
Another example, which is—in my view—even more important, is the issue of morality. From the standpoint of strict scientific materialism, moral principles are not actually features of our environment. There is nothing like the “Golden rule” or the injunction to “love one another as I have loved you” that exists in the empirical world; they are conventions that human beings invented to govern their behavior. However, if we are strict scientific materialists and have to admit that moral principles do not exist in the empirical world, isn’t the idea of an objective morality simply a fantasy? Are we left with the conclusion that moral conventions are purely arbitrary? Today, we say, “Don’t kill,” but we could just as readily hold to a convention that says, “Kill anyone who gets in your way.”
This is a very unpalatable conclusion—so unpalatable that even vigorous scientific materialists like Sam Harris have struggled mightily to avoid it. The usual tactic is to explain moral conventions using a more naturalistic language, typically appealing to the evolutionary role basic moral principles such as “Do unto others” plays in ensuring the survival and propagation of the human species. As far as it goes, this is likely true. However, Scruton correctly draws our attention to a key problem, which is that the naturalistic language of evolutionary biology can only explain how we might have developed certain moral conventions. It cannot independently provide a reason as to why we should hold to them or, to use Scruton’s language, to see them as “internally” binding on our behavior. It may be to everyone’s evolutionary advantage that one does not kill. But why should individuals regard evolutionary advantage as definitive? Nature is, after all, nothing more than matter in motion. It does not impress on us any definitive reason that human life is intrinsically valuable and, as a result, should not be taken from someone. Perhaps one simply might not care about the evolutionary benefits to the species (or the life of another) and only pursues his own self-interest without inhibition. If that requires this self-interested person to take someone else’s life because it is to his advantage (and he believes that he can get away with it), then so be it. For Scruton, it is not clear what any naturalistic morality could say to such a person to convince him to behave otherwise—beyond appealing to the possibility that he might be wrong about the odds of his being caught and punished.
I chose to review this book because, while I strongly disagree with Scruton’s political convictions, I largely sympathize with his position on these matters. There is much that is deeply dissatisfying about the stricter variants of scientific materialism, which cannot be answered by either waiting for new empirical data or tinkering with its foundations. My own belief, following Roger Penrose, is that we need to extend our ontological vision of the world to include other kinds of entities that overlap with (but cannot be strictly accounted for) by reductive scientific materialism. This includes consciousness, as well as Platonic and quasi-Platonic entities such as moral principles, the rules of logic and number, and so on. This does not mean abandoning science or rationality, of course. After all, I believe that a sufficiently rational philosophical outlook will eventually account for this. Rather, it means expanding our understanding of the realms of science and reason to attempt to explain beyond reductive materialism. (Here, dialectical materialism was often more nuanced anyway, at least when it comes to social and human phenomena).
This tension is reflected in his writing at its best, and it is one of the reasons The Soul of the World is his greatest work.
Where I disagree with Scruton is his tendency to slip into irrationalism at some points, insisting precisely that our inability to explain some of these phenomena testifies to fundamental human limitations, which can be overcome only through a faithful commitment to the sacred and mysterious beyond—or, as he puts it, “the order of the covenant.” This reflects a deep, conservative conviction that there must exist some transcendent source of order in existence, which vindicates its meaning and provides a justification for human existence and action, a propensity that I have previously discussed. For some conservatives, this source of transcendence is God; for others, it is the “nation” or the sacred tradition. In my mind, these appeals always amount to mystification backed up in the final instance by demands for submission, a reference to some higher power, or a truth that can never be fully understood or seen. These, accordingly, must be obeyed and venerated. The answer to the riddle of existence is not arbitrarily to overcome it through such mysterious sentiments but, rather, to commit ourselves to deploying our limited capacities to resolving them. This has an affinity to the proper form politics should take, through providing tremendous opportunities for individuals to engage in different experiments in living. If, as a consequence, certain thin and mysterious traditions or sources of transcendence come under fire, then those who wish to venerate them will have to live with it.
In this late work, Scruton, himself, seems at an impasse on these points; on the one hand, he is unwilling simply to withdraw from scientific reason and embrace a life of faith. On the other hand, he is deeply attracted to the delights of faith in the mysterious and sacred. This tension is reflected in his writing at its best, and it is one of the reasons The Soul of the World is his greatest work. My rejoinder is that I do not think we need to “pass over” into some other place to understand the issues he raises, even if we do not yet fully grasp them. If we have to settle for not knowing and experimenting or not knowing and hypostasizing, the more honest and fruitful approach is, ultimately, the former.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof
The author wishes to thank Meaghan McManus for her help in clarifying a few points in the above piece.