What Philistinism Looks Like

Do you believe that?  I don’t. W.H. Auden did not have the honor of helping to discover DNA, but when it comes to the reality of human experience, he is a much sounder guide than Francis Crick. “We seem to have reached a point,” Auden wrote in Secondary Worlds

where if the word “real” can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as in the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is and always has been presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body and objects are either in motion or at rest.

This is an insight that the English philosopher Roger Scruton has expatiated on in several places, including in his book Modern PhilosophyIn one sense, as Scruton notes, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. “The search for meaning and the search for explanation,” Scruton writes, “are two different enterprises.”

The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our human reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. “This worry is not just philosophical,” Scruton observes,

it is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not recognize: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging. ... The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations. ... The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description.

It is “naked truth”: in Eliot’s words: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away — a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology — deprives us of our consolation.

Consolation? Indeed, more: it threatens to deprive us of our humanity. In Plato’s phrase, philosophy turns out in the end to be an effort to “save the appearances.”

We all of us inhabit a world irretrievably shaped by science; we know that the sun does not really move from east to west, just as we know that the stars are not really hung like lamps from the sky. And yet … Scruton’s point is that such truths are accompanied by other, conflicting truths. “The human world,” he suggests, “may be through and through the product of unscientific ways of thinking, and yet at the same time a true representation of an objective reality.” As the quotation from Auden suggests, we recognize the legitimacy of that reality — our reality — every time we wake and find that the sun, once again, has risen.

Also read: Sam Tanenhaus’s ‘Original Sin’