The Soul of the World

Academic philosophers in the English speaking world still regard philosophy as Locke defined it in the 17th century, as “the handmaiden of the sciences”: it doesn’t explore the world beyond science but the limits of science, with the result that philosophy doesnt really intrude into the public world. In the early 20th century were were caught up by the movement to form analytical philosophy, based in the study of logic, the foundations of mathematics, the syntax of ordinary language, the validity of arguments, something very formal. So when people have a big question, especially now since the decline of the orthodox religions, they don’t turn to philosophy for the answer but try to formulate it in whatever technical words have been bequeathed to them, and when a scientist comes along and says “I have the answer”, or even “there is no question”, they think “this guy knows what he’s talking about, I’d better lean on him”.

Belief without any practice is of no use to us. But there are two sides to religious practice: one is the ritualistic, which is terribly important to the people engaged in it, and the other is moral, living your life in a better way. You can pray five times a day and still not lead the moral life. We in our communities put more emphasis on the moral life than on ritual. I don’t want to say that in order to restore what we need we have to be believers in any strict sense, though I do mourn the loss of the christian faith because I regard it, in some of its better forms, as a relatively peaceful way of giving people access to this idea.

Durkheim pointed out that you don’t merely believe a religion but (more importantly) you belong to it, and that disputes over religious doctrine are, as a rule, not simply arguments about abstruse questions of metaphysics but attempts to give a viable test of membership, and hence a way of identifying and excluding the heretics who threaten the community from within. Religion

From this arises the belief that the order of nature is all that there really is. But to draw that conclusion would be a mistake, for two reasons. First, the Lebenswelt is irreducible. We understand and relate to it using concepts of agency and accountability that have no place in the physical sciences; to use the idiom of Sellars, the Lebenswelt exists in “the space of reasons,” not in “the space of law.

GK Chesterton once said that to criticise religion because it leads people to kill each other is like criticising love because it has the same effect. All the best things we have, when abused, will cause bad things to happen. The need for sacrifice, to obey, to make a gift of your life is in all of us and it’s a deep thing. In the Islamic world today, people are trying to rejoin themselves to an antiquated and ancient faith and the result is massive violence when they encounter people who have not done that. We’d say that sense of sacrifice is good but only if you’re sacrificing your own life; once you sacrifice another’s life you’ve overstepped the mark.

In a sense you are always more clearly aware than I can be of what I am in the world; and when I confront my own face, there may be a moment of fear, as I try to fit the person whom I know so well to this thing that others know better

Its true that we learn a lot from science about how we function but there’s a danger in thinking knowledge of how we function is the full account of what we are. If you’re a chemist who is really interested in the optical properties of certain pigments you could analyse the Mona Lisa and describe it completely but you would never have mentioned the face, which is the meaning of this thing. In that way a neuroscientist can put together an enormously impressively picture of the brain but he would not have described what goes on when we react to another person.

law of nature that our scientific thinking tends toward the truth, our morality toward the good, and maybe (though he doesn’t go this far) our tastes toward the beautiful.

Looks are voluntary. But the full revelation of the subject in the face is not, as a rule, voluntary. Smiles are usually involuntary, and “gift smiles,” as one might call them, always so. Likewise laughter, to be genuine, must be involuntary—even though laughter is something of which only creatures with intentions, reason, and self-consciousness are capable. The important point is that, while smiling and laughing are movements of the mouth, the whole face is infused by them, so that the subject is revealed in them as "overcome". Laughing and smiling can also be willed, and when they are willed, they have a ghoulish, threatening quality, as when someone laughs cynically, or hides behind a smile. Voluntary laughter is a kind of spiritual armor, with which a person defends himself against a treacherous world by betraying it.

Blushes are more like tears than like laughter in that they cannot be intended. Only a rational being can blush, even though nobody can blush voluntarily. Even if, by some trick, you are able to make the blood flow into the surface of your cheeks, this would not be blushing but a kind of deception. And it is the involuntary character of the blush that conveys its meaning, which resides in the fact that it is the other who summons it. Looks directed to the looks of another have an “interrogatory aboutness,” so to speak. The person who looks at his companion is also aware that he is on the verge of looking into him. There is an element of overreaching here, which is inherited from the I-You encounter, and which changes the appearance of the human look in the eyes of the person looked at. Blushing is a natural response to this, a recognition that the glance that originated at the horizon where you are has touched the horizon in me.

Many people under the influence of science, and particularly neuro-nonsense, will say the sacred is an old concept, it’s just a hangover, but you can easily see that’s not so, because everyone has a sense of desecration: there are things everybody values which, when they are spoiled are not just moved or destroyed, they are desecrated. Something that is vital not just to you but the world. People have this sense when they see their towns pulled apart and concrete blocks put in the middle of them. You only have to look at Aberdeen to see what happens to a beautiful place when the desecrators get their hands on it.

Music is a wonderful example of something that’s in this world but not of this world. Great works of music speak to us from another realm even though they speak to us in ordinary physical sounds.

Neuro-nonsense occurs when people take on board the supposed discoveries of neuroscience – all these brain images that tell us, for instance, that we’ve discovered now exactly what love is, it’s this little bit in the hippocampus, so we have no need to question what the meaning of these things is. But these images have no meaning, any more than a chemical reaction in a test-tube has a meaning. All kinds of nonsense comes into being as a result of this, the nonsense being essentially what happens when our own human nature is confiscated from us by science or pseudosciences which claim to explain us without really going into the question of what we are.

One of the great gifts of the Enlightenment is that we can form communities without necessaily agreeing on ultimate metaphysical grounds. We know that to a great extent that the principles of social coordination are manmade, we recognise the right of the other to exist. This is something that distinguishes our part of the world from the middle East.

One thing is immediately apparent, and this is that many statements made in the first-person case are epistemologically privileged.

Richard Dawkins and his followers have recycled the theory of evolution not as a biological theory but as a theory of everything – of what the human being is, what human communities are, what our problems are and how they’re not really our problems, but the problems of our genes: we’re simply answers that our genes have come up with, and it’s rather awful to be the answer to someone else’s question, especially when that thing is not a person at all. Nevertheless people swallow that.

Sense of sacrifice is good but only if you’re sacrificing your own life; once you sacrifice another’s life you’ve overstepped the mark.

Sexual desire, as it has been understood in every epoch prior to the present, is inherently compromising, and the choice to express it or to yield to it has been viewed as an existential choice, in which more is at risk than present satisfaction. Not surprisingly, therefore, the sexual act has been surrounded by prohibitions; it brings with it a weight of shame, guilt, and jealousy, as well as joy and happiness. Sex is therefore deeply implicated in the sense of original sin: the sense of being sundered from what we truly are, by our fall into the world of objects. There is an important insight contained in the book of Genesis, concerning the place of shame in our understanding of sex. Adam and Eve have partaken of the forbidden fruit, and obtained the “knowledge of good and evil” — in other words the ability to invent for themselves the code that governs their behavior. God walks in the garden and they hide, conscious for the first time of their bodies as objects of shame. This “shame of the body” is an extraordinary feeling, and one that only a self-conscious animal could have. It is a recognition of the body as both intimately me and in some way not me — a thing that has wandered into the world of objects as though of its own accord, to become the victim of uninvited glances. (...)
We lost what was most precious to us, which is the untorn veil of the Lebenswelt, stretching from horizon to horizon across the dark matter from which all things, we included, are composed.

The doctrine of Original sin, which is contained in the story of Genesis – one of the most beautiful concentrated metaphors in existence – is about the way we human beings fall from treating each other as subjects to treating each other as objects. Love, respect and forgiveness come from that. When we treat each other as objects, then we get the concentration camps.

The great benefit of philosophy, which is also its great weakness, is that all its steps are taken in the spirit of doubt.

The idea that scientific method is the only method of discovering the truth has a lot to be said for it, if you mean by truth how the world ultimately is as a system of organised matter, but I defend cognitive dualism: that world can be understood completely in another way which also has its truths which are not translatable into the truths of science. So we have to look at the different ways we organise this material that science explains for us.

The identification of any object in the first-person case is ruled out by the enterprise of scientific explanation. So science cannot tell me who I am, let alone where, when, or how.

There are big questions science doesn’t answer, such as why is there something rather than nothing? There can’t be a scientific answer to that because it’s the answer that precedes science. There are all sorts of questions like that that which at the periphery of scientic inquiry but which wiggle in the mind like worms: the question “what am I, what is this word ‘I’”? Does it refer to anything? If you try to capture the “I”, you don’t capture it, you capture the object, in which case it’s a nothing, but it’s a nothing on which everything depends. But this nothing on which everything depends thinks of itself as free. This is a philosophical question that worries everyone, but you can’t formulate it.

There’s a real question as to what beauty is and why it’s important to us. Many pseudo-philosophers try to answer these questions and tell us they’re not really answerable. I draw on art and literature, and music in particular, because music is a wonderful example of something that’s in this world but not of this world. Great works of music speak to us from another realm even though they speak to us in ordinary physical sounds.

Through sacred things we can influence and be influenced by the transcendental.

We live in an extremely anxious age in which the core of our beliefs has been undermined to a great extent by scientific thinking. People have a hunger for answers but an inability to formulate the questions, partly because of the short-term view of things that’s encouraged by the media and partly because there seems to be no centre to which people can turn in order to see what the heart of the discussion is. I think this is a failure of philosophy in our days – and also of the culture that our English-speaking world has generated – around the idea of an abstract question.

We must not think of this merely as a theological or metaphysical question. For