More than Animals

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton
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Roger Scruton, photograph by Pete Helme
Roger Scruton, photograph by Pete Helme

“We human beings are animals, governed by the laws of biology.”  So begins Roger Scruton’s new book, based on his Test Memorial Lectures at Princeton. This opening sentence could as well have begun a book on human nature by a materialist philosopher or scientist, say Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, who—like Scruton—would go on to cite results of comparative anatomy, evolutionary biology, ethology, and recent neuroscience to show the similarities and continuities between humans and other animals. But where thinkers such as Dennett and Dawkins end with a view of a human being as simply another animal, even if in some ways the most advanced, Scruton maintains that animality is but one aspect of our human nature. Unlike other animals (so far as we know), we are unique in possessing a mental life that empirical science cannot adequately understand. Moreover, according to Scruton, this mental life is not that of an isolated Cartesian thinker in need of elusive arguments to prove that there is an external world and other minds. Our mental life is by its nature directed outward to a human world that we share with other human beings and that we must understand via concepts such as subjectivity, truth, moral values, persons, and beauty that are not open to scientific explanation.

Scruton begins with two common human behaviors: laughing with one another about our faults and blaming one another for our misdeeds. He acknowledges that evolutionary psychologists might offer plausible explanations of these behaviors. “By laughing together at our faults, they might say, we might come to accept them and this makes cooperation with our imperfect neighbors easier,” and such cooperation gives a laughing community a competitive advantage for surviving over one that does not laugh. But, Scruton urges, this explanation assumes the concept of cooperation, which is part of the human world but not of the scientific world of genetics. Similarly, Nietzsche’s proto-scientific explanation of blame, in On the Genealogy of Morality, sees blame as arising from guilt—the sense of sin that the weak feel when their powerful masters punish them. But, Scruton asks, how can a normative concept such as guilt be part of a merely descriptive scientific account? Such an account, he says, could only explain blame as arising from fear as a purely physiological response, which would miss the force of blame as a moral concept.

To make sense of such distinctive concepts, we must, Scruton says, think of ourselves not only as human beings (a biological category) but also as persons (a philosophical category). Scruton does not separate, in the manner of traditional dualism, the person from the body. Rather, he suggests that “we understand the person as an emergent entity rooted in the human being but belonging to another order of explanation than that explored by biology.” Here the term “emergent” is crucial. It is meant to provide a middle way between materialism, which sees a person as simply a body, and dualism, which sees a person as an immaterial thing (like Plato’s soul) quite distinct from—even if closely connected to—a material body.  The problem, of course, is to make sense of a “middle way” between there being one thing and there being two things.

To show that introducing emergence is not just a verbal sleight-of-hand, Scruton presents an analogy with the art of painting. “When painters apply paint to canvas they create physical objects by purely physical means.... When we look at the surface of the painting, we see...areas and lines of paint and also the surface that contains them. But that is not all we see. We also see—for example—a face that looks out at us with smiling eyes.” The face, Scruton notes, “is really there,” although “there is a sense in which the face is not an additional property of the canvas, over and above the lines and blobs.” This is what he means by saying the face “emerges” from the paint on the canvas. Similarly, a person emerges from a physical body: it is not a separate thing from the body but, at the same time, it is not reducible to the matter that is the body.

Just what is this person that emerges from a body—in other words, what is this “embodied person”? For Scruton it is, first of all, not only an object in the material world (because of its body) but also a subject. To be a subject is first of all to be aware, and awareness is always directed toward something (the object of my awareness). When, for example, my thirst leads me to look into the refrigerator, I see a pitcher of lemonade, believe that it will quench my thirst, and desire to drink it. Here seeing, believing, and desiring are conscious states; and the lemonade, the quenching of my thirst, and the drinking are their respective objects. Philosophers use the term “intentional” to mean “directed toward something,” and they call organisms that are aware of their world “intentional systems.” (Note that, contrary to ordinary usage, this technical sense of “intentional” need not involve acting deliberately.)

Scruton allows that at least some animals are intentional systems in the sense of having experiences, beliefs, and desires; and he agrees that biology may entirely account for such systems. But he thinks that human beings are examples of a higher sort of intentional system. All of us not only have experiences, beliefs, and desires (intentional states) but also are aware of our own intentional states and attribute such states and an awareness of them to other humans. As a result, we inhabit not only the material world but also an interpersonal world in which we are “accountable for what we think and do” and must “try to relate to one another as responsible subjects.” This is a world that is not accessible to the descriptions and explanations of empirical science, which can only account for the objective aspect of human reality and not the personal, subjective aspect. 

Another way to make the point: science can provide only a third-person account of human existence, not a first-person or a second-person account. Scruton supports this claim through “the argument from language.” This argument starts from the fact that “first-person declarations exhibit a special kind of privilege.” If, for example, I honestly assert that I am in pain, then I cannot be wrong about being in pain. This contrasts with the situation in science, where any assertion by an individual can be refuted by public evidence available in principle to any inquirer. No amount of public, scientific evidence could ever refute your honest claim that you are in pain. If it could, people could rightly say that it merely feels like you’re in pain. But if you feel like you’re in pain, you are in pain. This is so because it’s part of the linguistic meaning of the world “I.” As Scruton puts it, someone who thought she could be wrong about being in pain would show that “she had not grasped the grammar of the first-person case.” 

Further, since this grammar is established by the usage of a linguistic community, the infallibility of certain first-person claims implies the existence (present or past) of other language-users, whom I would have to address as “you.”  So the argument from language establishes the reality of a community of subjects, beyond the third-person objects accessible to science. (Scruton offers a similar argument, in a continental rather than an analytic mode, based on Hegel’s account of mutual recognition.)

Science can provide only a third-person account of human existence, not a first-person or a second-person account

None of this, however, is to deny that science can, in principle, provide a complete account of the causes that operate on our bodies to make the interpersonal world emerge. But this interpersonal world itself is not a world of causes but of reasons (and therefore also of meanings and norms). Many philosophers, however, think that this world of reasons is merely the way that the material world appears from our limited subjective perspective. To return to our earlier example, the face in the picture, they maintain, has “no reality beyond the colored patches in which it is seen.” Similarly, a person is “nothing over and above the biological organization in which we perceive it.”

Scruton agrees that the face causally emerges by “incremental additions” of paint to a canvas. But he notes that, once the face emerges, the picture takes on an entirely new aspect, and we can begin asking questions about why the artist chose that particular flesh tone, whether the face is expressing pain or anger, and whether and why the face adds or detracts from the painting’s overall aesthetic effect. Gathering more information about the physical properties of paint on canvas will not give us answers to these questions about purpose, meaning, and aesthetic value. Going a bit further than Scruton’s explicit formulations, we might even reverse the critic’s point about a “limited perspective”: a scientific account of the face is itself merely the way it appears when we have only the empirical concepts of science to explain it. 

A materialist might, however, agree that science cannot answer our questions about pictures or, more importantly, persons, and argue that this is because we formulate those questions in terms of inadequate and outdated concepts. This is the philosophical view—called “eliminative materialism”—perhaps most prominently defended today by Paul Churchland. According to Churchland, talk of purpose, meaning, and values—and related concepts such as perceptions, beliefs, desires, and intentions—is part of a common-sense psychological theory almost every one grows up believing. This theory—called “folk psychology”—is admittedly useful in many everyday cases for explaining human behavior. But the explanatory power of folk psychology falls far short of even current scientific psychology and neuroscience. Folk psychology may explain such things as my running toward the river because I heard what I took to be a call for help and wanted to save someone’s life. But folk psychology has—to use Scruton’s examples—“no theory of memory retrieval, of image construction, of visual-motor coordination, of sleep,” etc. There is, Churchland maintains, good reason to think that science will someday explain everything folk psychology does and much more, with no reference to the concepts of Scruton’s “interpersonal world.” Instead, it will use only concepts that describe the brain and other parts of the body as, say, an electro-chemical system. 

Once this happens, Churchland says, this successful scientific theory will be able to replace folk psychology, just as the heliocentric theory of the solar system replaced the geocentric theory. Of course, we may, for practical reasons of simplicity, still often use the language of the outdated theory. But we will recognize that this theory is only a useful fiction and reject it as a literally true account of human nature and behavior. We will then have recognized that the interpersonal world does not actually exist and eliminate it from our account of what there is.

But, Scruton replies, eliminating the interpersonal world means eliminating the self-awareness that, as the language argument showed, requires that honest self-reports such as “I am in pain” cannot be wrong. For example, if a scientific account eliminates pain, replacing it with the occurrence of certain electric-chemical events in my brain, then my honest report that I am in pain might be falsified by a brain scan showing that the relevant events are not occurring. It follows, therefore, that eliminative materialism eliminates even my immediate subjective awareness of pain. But, according to Scruton, this is simply to reject the most obvious of all evidence: my direct awareness of myself as a conscious person. As Scruton puts it: “The concept of the person, and its attendant idea of first-person awareness, is part of the phenomenon [the given data to be explained] and not to be eliminated by the science that explains it.” Unless we are willing to deny the authority of our own self-awareness, we must conclude that empirical science cannot offer a complete account of what it is to be a human being.

Some materialists—Daniel Dennett, for example—are willing to deny the authority of their own self-awareness. According to Dennett our belief that there are aspects of consciousness that science can’t explain is like the belief that the Sun moves around the Earth: it seems to be true even though it isn’t. He predicts a future “when philosophers and scientists and laypeople will chuckle over the fossil traces of our earlier bafflement about consciousness: ‘It still seems [they will say] as if these [scientific] theories of consciousness leave something out, but of course that’s an illusion. They do in fact explain everything about consciousness that needs explanation.’”  

In a recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett makes his point by evoking the philosophical concept of a zombie. This is not the flesh-eating undead of the movies but rather an organism physically the same as a human being but without any flicker of self-awareness—a living human body but with the “internal light” of consciousness turned off. Contrary to Scruton’s view, Dennett insists that we have no experience showing that we are not zombies. If someone suggests that “you might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness,” you will, he says, respond “I know I am not a zombie!” But to this Dennett’s reply is: “No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself.” I suspect, though, that for most of us Dennett’s conviction that there is no self-awareness is itself supported only by the “vehemence of the conviction itself.” The strength of Scruton’s argument is signaled by the fact that a position as radical and implausible as Dennett’s seems the only alternative to it.

Dennett insists that we have no experience showing that we are not zombies

The argument I’ve been discussing strikes me as the central achievement of Scruton’s book, offering a penetrating but accessible response to the materialism that many regard as unavoidable in light of recent science. Building on the foundation of this argument, Scruton sketches (sometimes too schematically) his views on major aspects of the interpersonal world that require an understanding that eludes scientific account. Here he discusses, for example, the metaphysics of the person, including what it means to be a person, the basis of personal identity over time, and the dialectical structure of I-you encounters. He also touches on the philosophical psychology of pleasure (particularly sexual pleasure) and of the passions. 

Particularly important is a wide-ranging chapter titled “The Moral Life,” including discussions of the individual and society; praise, blame, and forgiveness; pollution and taboo. The chapter culminates in a stimulating—if too condensed—critique of contemporary utilitarian ethicists (e.g., Peter Singer and Derek Parfit), from a standpoint that combines Kant’s ethics of duty and Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

Scruton concludes with a fascinating chapter titled “Sacred Obligations,” which begins with a critique of social-contract liberalism as developed from the thought of John Rawls and moves though reflections on the ancient virtue of piety, the sacred/profane distinction, and evil as a metaphysical category, to the seeds of a philosophy of religion.

The laundry list of my last few paragraphs may give the impression that, after developing a tight argument against materialism, Scruton fills out the later chapters of his book with a hodgepodge of idiosyncratic aperçus. In fact, however, these chapters are best read as a high-flying survey of a well-thought-out philosophical vision, based on his critique of materialism, that has been percolating for some time in Scruton’s mind. Those familiar with Scruton’s controversial political views and activities will note a certain consonance between his defense of more traditional philosophical positions and his conservative ideology. But Scruton’s philosophy of human nature can and should be appreciated and assessed independently of his politics. Elements of this philosophy are also present in earlier works, particularly The Soul of the World, The Face of God, and his writings on aesthetics; but this volume is a welcome introduction and overview

Published in the May 19, 2017 issue: 

Gary Gutting, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, was John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book was Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).

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