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Remembering Roger Scruton, who said science alone can't explain what makes us human

We revisit Michael Enright's conversation with the late British philosopher Roger Scruton, who died on Jan. 12, 2020. Neuroscience claims to hold the keys to human qualities like altruism, love, imagination, hope, creativity and ethics. Scruton disagreed in his book On Human Nature.
Roger Scruton is the author of On Human Nature. (Princeton University Press)

This story originally aired on ​October 6, 2017.

Sir Roger Scruton was the kind of conservative liberals love to hate. He was also the kind of conservative who welcomed their hatred.

He was almost an Evelyn Waugh-imagined character of Britain's elite. He believed in tradition over modernism, careful attention to moral imperatives, the importance of ancient and aging public institutions ... and, oh yes, fox hunting.

Scruton spent much of his life as England's most important and notorious public intellectual. He died on Jan. 12, 2020 of lung cancer.

In 2017, Michael Enright spoke to Scruton about his book, On Human Nature.

In that book, he took issue with the claims of evolutionary biology and neuroscience to explain the wonders of the human mind and consciousness. Science didn't cut it for Scruton — at least not as a way to understand what it means to be human. He was, after all, someone who said he wanted to "re-enchant the world."

Original story continues below. 

Respectable Victorians were outraged when Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of natural selection. The very idea that humans descended from primate ancestors and were, in fact, on a continuum with the rest of the animal kingdom was a humiliating demotion from being created in God's image.

One wonders what those Victorians would have thought of the advances made by evolutionary psychology and neuroscience in recent decades.

As increasingly sophisticated brain-scanning technology has revealed more and more of the fantastically complicated workings of the human brain, the more the mystique of exalted human qualities like creativity, altruism, ethics and rational thought has been wiped away.

Even the soul, some neuroscientists say, resides in the biological wiring of our grey matter.

That kind of thinking gets Sir Roger Scruton's dander up. He's an engaging, entertaining and outspoken thinker with an unusually high public profile for a philosopher.

Scruton is the author of dozens of books, the latest being On Human Nature.

Biological reductionism

On Human Nature is largely a critique of what he calls "biological reductionism" and "nothing but-tery": The idea that "thinking is nothing but a process in the pre-frontal cortex, or fear is nothing but a stimulation of the amygdala," he told Michael Enright in an interview. "That somehow you get the view that you haven't just explained things, you've explained it away. There's no longer any mystery to it."

Brain imaging captured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. (University of Alberta)
The brain may be where thinking takes place, and fMRI machines might show different parts of the brain light up when thinking or doing different things, but Scruton argues that this only tells one mechanistic part of the story. It's a pertinent issue in an age when Silicon Valley's most ambitious software engineers are working on ways to meld the human mind with computers.

"It isn't the brain that's doing the thinking; it's 'I' who am doing the thinking. You could take a person's brain to pieces and you'd never find the thing that calls itself 'I'."

On the nation-state

Cover of Roger Scruton's 2014 book "How to be A Conservative" (Bloomsbury)
Scruton is also one of the English-speaking world's most influential small-c conservative philosophers, who is renowned for his scathing critiques of the left.

At the same time, he is deeply dismayed by the rise of nationalist populism as an ascendant force in political conservatism, in the form of Donald Trump and far-right movements across Europe.

"I think the nation-state is a very important fact of the modern world, and it's something we should hold on to. And I think that national loyalties are very necessary," he told Michael Enright.

But, he added, "It doesn't follow, of course, that we should be, in some chauvinistic and bigoted way, attached uniquely to our own little bailiwick and ignoring other people. I think that one must distinguish a proper, humane patriotism from the excited nationalism that ruined Europe in the last century."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 


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