The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton (Princeton, 2014), $27.95/£19.95
The Soul of the World is based on the Stanton Lectures that Roger Scruton delivered to the divinity faculty of the University of Cambridge in the fall of 2011. The main argument of the book is that contemporary science, whether it be evolutionary psychology, neuroscience or any other, is at bottom no threat to humanity’s experience of the sacred. A true understanding of the nature of the religious perspective – that it is “a reaching out from subject to subject; it searches for a relation that is close intimate, and personal, with a being who is present in this world though not of this world” – coupled with a true understanding of ourselves, will help us see that while the transcendent, if it exists, is deeply mysterious, it is nonetheless not in danger of being epistemically eliminated by the march of science.
In Chapter 1, “Believing in God”, Scruton lays out his primary reason for thinking that religious faith has nothing to fear from science. The two areas of contemporary science that have been particularly noted as having anti-religious implications are evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Regarding the former, which can potentially explain all human behaviours via the reproductively advantageous adaptations behind them, Scruton argues that evolutionary psychology fails to account for the intentionality or “aboutness” of our mental states, and that it is this feature of our mental lives that is particularly important to us.
In the book’s second and third chapters (“Looking for People” and “Looking at the Brain”), Scruton argues that even a completed neuroscience that would explain all of the causes of our behaviour would not threaten our view of ourselves as persons (and seeing ourselves as persons who can enter into an I-Thou relationship with the transcendent is fundamental to the religious perspective). Scruton calls the perspective for which he argues “cognitive dualism”.
As he notes, his position bears a significant resemblance to Wilfred Sellars’ view that there is a distinction between the Scientific and Manifest images of humanity. On the one hand, the science of the human being is concerned with how the human body (including brain) operates; the goal is to tell a causal story explaining the functioning and behaviour of the human organism. But alongside this perspective is the way we see ourselves, and each other, as persons. Each of us has immediate, first-personal knowledge (knowledge on “no basis”, as Scruton puts it) of our mental lives. We also see other humans as persons in that we make contracts with them, we hold each other responsible for our actions, and together we create a world of social institutions that defy description from a purely physical science standpoint.
Each of these two perspectives or “cognitive schemes” is a way of dividing up the world, neither being reducible to the other. Although the scientific/physical description has ontological priority (in that we as persons are in some sense composed only of the physical stuff science studies), it is a mistake to think that the perspective of ourselves as persons is any less real. So, as noted above, even if we had a complete neuroscience that was able to causally account for our behaviours in purely neuro/chemical terms, we would not quit holding each other accountable, making contracts with each other, or treating each other as persons.
While the heart of the book’s argument is found in the early chapters and at the end, there are four fascinating chapters in between. These chapters provide an account of the nature of social institutions, discussions of origin myths and beauty, and finding the sacred in music. Scruton’s range of learning is truly remarkable.
Although the scientistic New Atheists are the target of the book’s main argument, a traditional theist might well think that she’s being offered a stone in place of the bread she seeks. Not only does Scruton argue that God is creator just in the sense of providing a reason for the universe (rather than also being a cause), but he maintains that a consistent theism would deny the possibility of God’s acting as a cause at all. For to be transcendent is to be outside of space and time; but to be outside of space and time is to be outside of the causal order. God and God’s activity are thus causally isolated from religious experience and belief.
In the end, the theist is offered precisely this hope: just as cognitive dualism maintains that the whole causal story of the human being might be told by science, and yet for all that we, as persons, are nevertheless real, so too might the whole causal story of the universe (indeed of everything that exists) be told by science and yet for all that God be real. Bread or stone?