In the book The Face of God, Roger Scruton discusses the atheistic world-view that has been gaining ground in Western culture. The atheist says that the laws of nature determine everything that is real, including human thought and action. Consequently, because of scientific theory, there can be no supernatural explanation for existence. Nothing science can discover could count as a plan or a goal for the universe.
Those looking for a deeper meaning to life might wonder what is logically mistaken in such a materialistic world-view. Can it be true that religion consists merely in a set of beliefs, long ago disproved by science, but clung to nevertheless for the comfort that they afford?
Scruton, a well-known British philosopher, tries to address these questions. He does so by exploring what we mean by the terms ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘why’ in connection with the face of a person, the face of the world, and the face of God.
The human face according to Scruton
Scruton contrasts the objective world of science with the subjective world of human consciousness revealed in the human face. There are honest and deceiving faces, but not honest and deceiving elbows or knees. The face occurs in the world of objects as though lit from behind.
“Fashion models and popstars tend to display faces that are withdrawn, scowling, enclosed. Little or nothing is given through their faces, which offer no invitation to love or companionship. The function of the fashion model’s face is to put the body on display; faces are simply one of the body’s attractions, with no special role to play as a focus of another’s interest. It is characterised by an almost metaphysical vacancy as though there is no soul inside.”
He says that if I were to make a prediction about my future behaviour, I would be seeing myself from outside. This would involve me thinking objectively, assessing the evidence, extrapolating from past observations, and drawing conclusions just as I would draw them from observing another person.
But what is real is not just what is out there in the objective world but also what is in here in my subjective world of what I think and feel. Scruton argues that science forgets that the astonishing thing about our universe is that it contains subjectivity – rational consciousness, judgement, the knowledge of right and wrong and all the other things that make the human condition so distinctive.
I write this review and you read it. The ‘I-thou’ relationship is central to all human behaviour. And this brings in the ethical dimension. What is good and bad, right and wrong in relationships.
One contemporary idea is that moral virtue is merely an adaptation to provide an individual’s genes an advantage in the game of life. This argument employs a minimalist conception of altruism according to which a person acts altruistically if this benefits another with similar genes even at a cost to itself. So, it is thought that the concept applies equally to the soldier ants marching into the flames that threaten the anthill, and the officer who throws himself onto the live grenade that threatens his platoon.
Scruton writes: “The concept of altruism, so understood, cannot explain, or even recognise, the distinction between those two cases. Yet the ant marches instinctively towards the flame, unable either to understand what it is doing or to fear the results of it, while the officer consciously lays down his life to his friends. The human motive is founded on a consciousness of duty and of the cost of performing it. The genetic explanation is trivial. You cannot live life as we know it, that is to say the life of a person accountable to others like oneself, without experiencing the force of moral norms.”
Scruton on the question ‘Why?’
Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Scruton has argued that there is more than one meaning to the question “why?” And that the “why?” of science, which looks for causes, should be distinguished from the “why” of reason, which looks for arguments, and the “why?” of understanding, which looks for meanings. What is meaningful is what is for me e.g. relevant, significant, delightful, fearful, amusing.
Scruton points out that this question of ‘why do I exist?’ bears on our most fundamental anxiety. Jean-Paul Sartre answered it, in his early existential writings, by saying there is no answer other than that your own existence is a kind of absurdity. Scruton might have added that the Darwinian view of evolution – as natural selection and the survival of the fittest – amounts to life being an accident, similarly without any goal or plan. Both views of course are inconsistent with the religious belief in divine intelligence and design.
The sceptic might ask this question. If there is a God with divine intelligence, how could He be free to continue to act in the world? That is to say a place in which scientific laws govern everything? The writer acknowledges you will find no evidence for God in action if you look for inexplicable departures from the laws of nature. I would add, however, that at least according to philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, divine inflow does take place. It does so not miraculously affecting material reality but rather within the ‘spiritual world’ of the human subjective mind. God inspires enlightened thought, good-will, wisdom and love. And in doing so the dark forces of selfishness, corruption and hatred are counterbalanced.
For Scruton, the face symbolises a higher and moral dimension of life. So God has a human face. With our faces we look out on the physical and social world we have defaced. We are responsible to it and are judged by it. In that lies our capacity for self-transcendence.
Other matters covered by Scruton
Scruton covers much more ground that this short review can include. For example, he writes about the face of the environment as a sacred place. One that deserves respect and conservation rather than exploitation and consumption.
He also refers to the “abstract liberal concept of the person, as a centre of free choice, whose will is sovereign, and whose rights determine our duties towards him”. But this he says “delivers at best only a part of moral thinking.”
He contrasts this attitude with the ideas of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel. These stress the importance of inner conflict and self-restraint for personal growth. In my view Scruton successfully relates this to the religious theme of sacrifice.
My conclusion about this book by Roger Scruton
This book will be of interest to those who are uncomfortable with the notion of God as an illusion. By a professional philosopher who is also a sceptical Anglican, it covers some deep thought. Yet it addresses the general reader rather than a specialist academic audience. Well worth a read for those who seek answers.
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems