The Soul of the World

A couple of months ago I commented on Roger Scruton’s new book, The Soul of the World, discussing his insightful views on society and the arts. I hesitated, however, to comment on the book’s overarching theme, since metaphysics is a pretty big subject. Scruton’s analysis touches on epistemology, ontology, ethics and psychology. But ultimately these topics either point to, or derive from, our sense of the meaning of the universe.

At the heart of Scruton’s outlook is “cognitive dualism.” In a nutshell, it means that we can approach the world in one of two ways: “the way of explanation” (science) and “the way of understanding” (religion). For more details, see Peter Leithart’s comments at First Things. To illustrate the difference, I will invoke one of the author’s favorite metaphors. Scruton says that we can analyze music as a sound engineer would – a sequence of individual tones. But this is very different from how the person “listening to” a song hears those same notes. The former approach is scientific. The latter is aesthetic. Neither approach is wrong, yet it is clear that one form of understanding should not try to encroach on the rightful domain of the other.

In a similar fashion, the English philosopher accepts the evolutionary view of the universe in terms of the “facts” of biological existence, while rejecting “evolutionary psychology” which, he complains, would try to explain religion away “in terms of its reproductive function.” At the same time he is critical of theories like “intelligent design” which would impose the “why” of metaphysics on empirical data. For my part, I respectfully disagree. But it is worth pointing out that this debate is not a new one in the history of human thought.

As early as the Middle Ages the famous Arab scholar Ibn Rushd (Averroes) developed a philosophical system which was transformed by later Western skeptics into the theory of the “double truth.” This was the idea that something could be “true” philosophically or religiously but not necessarily both. As readers may be aware, much of Thomas Aquinas’ work was an attempt to refute such views. He believed that theology and philosophy could achieve harmony without serious detriment to either discipline.

On the other hand, Christian thinkers like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham reduced the amount of metaphysical knowledge they considered to be discernible outside of divine revelation to a bare minimum. In this sense they would seem pretty close to the views of a non-Christian scholar like Scruton, who is less moved by Aristotelian logical “poofs of God’s existence” than by experiential examples of “God’s presence” in the world. I think this comes closest to describing Scuton’s leap of faith about transcendental realities. Things of the spirit cannot be “demonstrated” yet they are, for him, undeniable. In closing, it would perhaps be interesting to compare The Soul of the World with the works of a leading Thomist like Jacques Maritain, who considered both the logical and existential approaches to be valid.

To be continued….

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