WHAT REMAINS WHEN DISBELIEF IS GONE?

Roger Scruton is a British philosopher, lawyer, (and much more) whom I have come to read and admire in the last year. I have read almost all his books, but far from all his writing. He is a principled (English) conservative as well, something quite rare among academics there and elsewhere in the West, with persuasive reasoning many of us probably should listen to.

His interests are very broad but also coherent — from analytic philosophy to classical music, from politics in the formerly Communist Czechoslovakia to trendy modern French philosophers, from culture to religion, to name just a few.

I will just introduce him below (crudely, as a place marker for later, better written commentary) with some of my old notes on one of his books.

My excuse for this is that I studied and worked in Germany for three years in my mid-twenties and earlier this year began translating a book from German about Thomas Mann that enticed me into reading some superb overviews and commentaries on 19th and early 20th century German philosophy quite carefully for background. I surprisingly found them very relevant to understanding to our troubling 21st century times as well.

So with this as my background, what is relatively easy-going for me is not what most even very well-educated Americans will be able to dive right into. Eventually I need to write an introduction of my own to Scruton!

But I promised to a friend that I would begin a blog, and this is the result. Blame it on my choice of friends. (Maybe they will repent.):

SCRUTON — “WHAT REMAINS WHEN DISBELIEF IS GONE?”[1] 11/23/2016
Ch 4: The Transcendental Argument for the Transcendental (pp. 17–31)[2]
We human beings make sense of our experience in many ways, two of which stand out as fundamental: the way of explanation, and the way of justification…The way of explanation looks for causes and theories: it shows how one event can be predicted from another, and how the laws of nature unfold…The way of justification for reasons, through which we hold each other to account for what we are, what we think, what we feel and what we do…
In recent writings, I try to show that the human world — what Husserl calls the Lebenswelt and Sellars the ‘space of reasons’ — is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from scientific description of nature. Like secondary qualities, such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy, elegance, and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them. (Evolutionary psychology is such a theory: it purports to show, for example, that the belief in a distinction between the pure and the impure is an adaptation, which serves the ‘reproduction strategies’ of our genes.)
Given this, a hard-nosed empiricist would say, like secondary qualities, those ‘tertiary qualities’ on which our human relations, our religious sentiments, and our aesthetic experience all depend, are not part of the natural order. We ‘read them into’ the world: they are part of how the world appears to us , but not how it truly is. They stem, as Hume put it, from the mind’s capacity to spread itself upon objects’. But they have no objective basis, and our belief in them can be explained by theories that do not suppose them to be features of the underlying reality. The case is no different for the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us In the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.
Now that response if fine, as far as it goes. But it is imbued with the metaphors that it seeks to discard. It tells us that there is an ‘underlying’ reality, that the mind ‘spreads itself’ on things, that we ‘read’ things into the word, and so on. It is through and through saturated with the image of a world that we know objectively through science, but colour ‘subjectively’ by projecting features of our point of view. Bit it contains no independent argument for thinking that the ‘scientific image’ (as Sellars dubbed it) is an image of all that there is.
The most interesting version of the response, historically speaking, was given by Feuerbach, in his ‘materialist’ rejoinder to Hegel. Feuerbach’s philosophy of religion, as expressed in The Essence of Christianity (1841) , is an attempt to undermine the intentionality of our religious thoughts. These thoughts seem to be about God, Christ, the Virgin Mary, and so on. But those divine persons, Feuerbach argued, are mere ‘projections’ of the true subject matter of religion, which is man himself, in his species-being (Gattungswesen). Religious thoughts, which seem to be about god, are really about man. And by projecting our species-being in this way outside ourselves, we are alienating our nature, separating it from ourselves, bestowing it on the fictions that suck our lifeblood and deprive us of moral strength. In contemplating the Holy Trinity, we are really contemplating universal features of the human condition. However, by attributing those features to specific persons of the Deity we also discard them, so amputating an essential limb of our humanity.
Feuerbach set this idea in the context of a materialist theory of the mind, and an anthropology of ‘fetishism’ that was to prove immensely influential over the writing of Marx and the Marxists. He also inspired Wagner, who attempted to restore the gods to their human context, and to show them to be exactly what Feuerbach has postulated, projections on the screen of Valhalla of the passions that burn here below. And, in a manner that has never been emulated, Wagner used that idea to illustrate fundamental and universal truths about love, power and domination. By treating the gods as projections of our human passions, through which we mortals try to fathom the vast impulses that govern us, Wagner understood the gods for the first time. All the subsequent anthropology of religion has been footnotes to the Ring.
In The Soul of the World, I distance myself from evolutionary explanation of our psychological repertoire, on the grounds that they will always fall short of explaining the intentionality of our mental states. Nevertheless it is worth pointing out that an evolutionary psychologist would dismiss Feuerbach’s theory of religion as a non-starter, since it has the implication that religious thoughts and experiences are maladaptive. If we were really alienating ourselves from our species-being’ through thinking religiously, the religious humans would long ago have been replaced by the vigorous materialists, for whom life and virtue are all things of this world. But religion is an enduring universal, which has been expelled form human minds only here and there, by the costly energies f eccentric elites — a fact suggesting that religion is adaptive after all.
That thoughts suggest another. There may be benefits from the religious way of thinking that are accessible to philosophical reflection, and which do something to justify the thoughts that confer them. That is my contention in this paper, and I build my account on two foundations — first, the theory of cognitive dualism that I advance in The Soul of the World, and second the Kantian method of transcendental argument. These are shaky foundations, but what philosophical foundations are not?.[3]
…Here is how I summarize the point:
Central to inter-personal dialog is the practice of accountability. We hold each other to account, not only for our actions, but also for our thoughts, feelings and attitudes. The questions, “Why?”, addressed from me to you, is not as a rule asking for an explanation, and certainly not for the kind of explanation that neurologist might give. It is asking for an account of how thing are, from your first-person perspective, that will render you intelligible, and in the normal case acceptable, to me. Sometimes you might be able to offer a justification for your actions and feelings. (Think of the dialog in which the fist move is ”Are you angry with me?”)
So vivid ad central to our lives is the I-You encounter that we are naturally tempted to believe that it is an encounter between objects, and that these objects exist in some other dimension than that containing ordinary physical thins. It is this, I believe, rather than the mysteries of the ‘inner’ life, that prompt people to espouse some kind of ontological dualism, and to believe that the human being is not one thing but two. I have suggest that there is a cognitive dualism, but not an ontological dualism, underlying our response to the human world. The I-You encounter it is precisely not an encounter between objects…It is an encounter between subjects, and one that can be understood only if we recognize the logic of first-person awareness is built in to the concept through which our mutual dealings are shaped.
Much has to be added to that picture if I am to show that the conceptual scheme governing our interpersonal dialog contains a complete account of our nature — our nature, that is to say, as persons, rather than as human organisms…[4]
The I-You encounter lies at the heart of moral reasoning, and this encounter transfigures the world of those who enter it. The primary application of moral thought is not in resolving the dilemma and quandaries of the all-benevolent reformer, but in sorting things out between you and me. Derek Parfit has made a powerful case for objective reasons for action, rooted in principles that tell us when an action is wrong. But, as Stephen Darwall has argued, moral reasons are also, by their nature, reasons through which we hold each other to account, and the primary forms of wrongdoing are actions by which a person is wronged. Such is foundation of the calculus of rights and duties’ that I hold to be central to the life of persons. I try to show that we experience not only human society but also the Lebenswelt as a whole, in terms that we owe their sense and application to the accountability of persons to each other. And many of these terms are associated with categories of the sacred, the transcendental, the redemptive, the wholly innocent and the wholly pure.
Now it is here that my arguments confronts the spectre of Feuerbach. I grant, he will say, that we humans are disposed by nature to project our longings into the sphere of the supernatural. Our first-person beings, which situates us on he edge of the natural world, tempts us to suppose the existence of other such beings, who face us from the beyond with some simulacrum of our own emotions. But consciousness is a material process, which occurs in a body, and bodies belong to the natural world. All ideas of the supernatural are merely festishisms, ways of animating the material reality with the ghost of our own intentions. Every attempt to provide a real content to our thoughts must lead us to the material process or material object that gives rise to them. If it does not do so, then this is merely a proof that we are dealing with fictions — imaginary object and processes with no role in the world order. A modern scientific realist would add that the world order is the order of nature, that nature is simply what scientific investigation describes, and that the idea of a supernatural realm is not merely unjustified but in a deep sense incoherent, since it involves both applying and withholding the concepts through which we explain our experience.
Such a scientific realist will say that, since supernatural objects lie outside the causal order, no event in the natural world can provide evidence for their existence.[5] The very description of them as supernatural’ situates them in the realm of fictions. Hence, no number of sightings of the Virgin Mary will provide an answer to Feuerbach. But there is another way to answer him, which is to construct a transcendental argument for the use of transcendental concepts. Kant’ ‘Transcendental Deduction’, as I understand it, proceeds in the following way. We are self-conscious creatures, for whom the “I” accompanies all our representations. This means that we are aware of an original unity — the transcendental unity of apperception, according to which my knowledge that his thought, this sensation belong to one thing, is immediate and criterionless. I can have this kind of immediate knowledge of my own unity if I deploy the concept of identity over time, and this is possible only if my experience exhibits the order of substance and cause. In short, it is only because I think according to these categories that I can enjoy the self-consciousness that defines the human condition. Hence, I can know a priori that my world exhibits the order contained in the categories — and notably that it is world of substances and causes , united under universal laws.
The argument is subtle and convoluted and open to both a ‘objective’ and a ‘subjective’ reading. It could be understood as concluding that we must think of the world in certain way or as concluding that the world must be a certain way if we are to be conscious of ourselves as part of it. At first sight, these look very different. But only at first sight. For the peculiarity of transcendental arguments is that they confiscate the ground from which their opponents might mount a counter-offensive… [6]
**
To call something ineffable is not to dismiss it a unreal. Every inquiry into first principles , original causes and fundamental laws, will at some stage come up against an unanswerable question: what makes those first principles true or those fundamental laws valid? What explains those original causes or initial conditions? And the answer is that there is no answer: or no answer that can be expressed in the terms of the science for which those laws, principles and causes are bedrock. The question supposes an answer, but the answer is ineffable. The ineffable, in other words, is real — and indeed, the ultimate reality.
In reflecting on this puzzle, the aesthetic again provides measure of guidance. Something can be meaningful, even though its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words: Faure’s F sharp Ballade; the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa; the evening sunlight on the hill behind my house…Anyone who goes through life with an open mind and an open heart will encounter these moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meanings cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world — a worl to which we belong but which we cannot enter.
Like my philosophical predecessors, I want to describe that world, even though it cannot be described but only revealed. I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. There are many, like Feuerbach, who dismiss it as an illusion. But there is an aspect of human condition that is denied to such people. Moreover, this aspect is of the first importance. Our loves and hopes in some way hinge on it. We love each other as angels love, reaching for the unknowable “I”; we hope as angels hope: with our thought fixed on the moment when the things of this world fall away and we are enfolded in ‘the peace which passes understanding’. Putting the point that way, I have already said too much. For my worlds make it look as though the world beyond the window is actually there, like a picture on the stairs. But it is not here; it is there, beyond the window that can never be opened, and before which we cannot linger, for we are prisoners of time and our steps trudge always onwards and up.
Paying due respect to what I earlier said about the cognitive value of our ideas of the transcendental, we can surely conclude that the religious sensibility is not as empty a thing as Feuerbach and his modern followers suppose. Armed with a concept of the sacred that is a necessary part of our interpersonal understanding, and an idea of the ineffable that is nurtured on aesthetic experience, we can listen to the deeper meaning of our religious stories, and hear what they tell us about the sacrificial meaning of our lives. Not only I it better than nothing. Nothing, in its many forms, is the only alternative on offer.[7]
FINIS
§§
[1] Opening quote from Philip Larkin, ‘Church going’, in DEDICATION to Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, Continuum, 1998 & 2000, London & New York.
[2] The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton, edited by James Bryson, Bloomsbury Academic, London, New York, etc, 2016.
[3] P. 18–20, ibid.
[4] pp. 20–21, ibid.
[5] This straw-man line of reasoning would seeming ban the existence of software are well, since software is merely information and has not material existence! Information may be a subset of what Scruton is introducing next.
[6] P. 22, ibid.
[7] pp. 30–31. Ibid.
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