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November 1, 2016 / compassioninpolitics

Roger Scruton’s Critique of Scientism in the New Atlantis

Roger Scruton starts at a foundational level:

We are persons, and personality is of our essence.

Flowing from personality, there are concepts that play an organizing role in our experience — concepts like ornament, melody, duty, and freedom — but belong to no scientific theory because they divide up the world in a way that no natural science could countenance. Science tells us a lot about the ordered sequences of pitched sounds; but it tells us nothing about melodies. A melody is not an acoustical but a musical object. And musical objects belong to the purely intentional realm: they are about something else; they are imbued with meaning; they are sounds as we self-conscious beings experience and relate to them. The concept of the person is like the concept of a melody. It features in our way of perceiving and relating to each other, but it does not “carry over” into the science of what we are. The fact that the person does not carry over into science does not mean that there are no persons, but only that a scientific theory of persons will classify them with other things — for example, with apes or other mammals.

In other words, the kind of thing we are is defined through a concept that does not feature in the science of our nature. Science sees us as objects rather than as subjects, and its descriptions of our responses are not descriptions of what we feel. When we refer to the soul, we generally do not refer to some Cartesian substance floating in the inner nowhere. We refer to the organizing principle of first-person awareness: the capacities for self-attribution, self-knowledge, and inter-subjective response that seem to distinguish ours from every other species, and that make the life of a person into a thing worthwhile. This organizing principle is what Aristotle and Aquinas meant by describing the soul as the form and the body as the matter of the human being; all that I have added to their account is to define the form in terms of the organization exhibited by the first-person singular — that is, in terms of a person.

Our behavior towards each other is founded on the belief in freedom, in selfhood, in the knowledge that I am I and you are you and that each of us is a center of free and responsible thought and action. Out of these beliefs arises the whole world of interpersonal responses, and it is from the relations established between us that our own self-conception derives. It would seem to follow that we have an existential need to clarify the concepts of the self, of free choice, of responsibility and the rest if we are to have a clear conception of what we are, and that no amount of neuroscience is going to help us to clarify those concepts. We live on the surface, and what matters to us are not the invisible nervous systems that explain how people work but the visible appearances to which we respond when we respond to people as people. It is these appearances that we interpret; and it is upon these interpretations that we craft responses that will in turn be interpreted; and so on. It is because culture is built upon these interpersonal and inter-subjective relations that it is a distinct realm of human inquiry, one which cannot be replaced by a natural science.

Scruton continues:

Scientism involves the use of scientific forms and categories in order to give the appearance of science to unscientific ways of thinking. It is a form of magic, a bid to reassemble the complex matter of human life, at the magician’s command, in a shape over which he can exert control. It is an attempt to subdue what it does not understand.

Scruton concludes:

We appreciate works of art, arguments, works of history and literature, manners, dress, jokes, and forms of behavior. And all these things are shaped through judgment. But what kind of judgment, and to what does that judgment lead?

It is my belief that culture in this sense, which stems from the “I” perspective that is the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world. And when we lose our sense of that thing, and of its eternal, tranquil watchfulness, all human life is cast into shadow. We approach the point at which even the St. Matthew Passion and the Rondanini Pietà have nothing more to say to us than a shark in formaldehyde. That is the direction we have taken. But it is a direction of drift, a refusal to adopt the posture that is inherent in the human condition, in which we strive to see events from outside and as a whole, as they are in the eyes of God.

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  1. compassioninpolitics / Jan 20 2017 3:26 am

    This quote from Austin Hughes:

    But Pinker wants us to believe that “the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” He provides no information regarding which scientific facts might be the ones doing the militating, and the idea that we should have a “defensible morality” is hopelessly vague. Moreover, the morality of “maximiz[ing…] flourishing” that Pinker advocates is indistinguishable from traditional utilitarianism — an approach to morality most associated with nineteenth-century philosophers but with intellectual roots that can be traced back to ancient Greece. Because utilitarianism was well developed before we knew about evolution, DNA, the age of the earth, radioactivity, relativity, and quantum mechanics, it is hard to see how it can be viewed as a consequence of modern science.

    Furthermore, as with any utilitarian ethic, a weak point of Pinker’s ethical theory is that it leaves “flourishing” undefined. Surely each individual will have his or her own idea of what would constitute flourishing, and those definitions may often be in conflict. The utilitarian ethic provides no basis for resolving cases where one individual’s concept of flourishing can only be accomplished at another’s expense.


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