Roger Scruton tracks down the soul — the divine spark that distinguishes us from
the rest of creation
Human beings are animals, composed of nerves and sinews, cardiovascular systems
and digestive tracts. We hang from the tree of evolution on the same branch as
the chimpanzee and the bonobo and not far from those of the elephant, the zebra
and the mouse. We are governed by the laws of biology, and even our thoughts and
emotions are the result of electrochemical processes in the brain. Such, at any
rate, is the conception fostered by popular science and tub-thumped into us by
Richard Dawkins. What room is there in this picture for the soul — the divine
spark that supposedly distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and which
bears within itself the meaning of our life on earth? Can we not give a complete
account of the human condition in biological terms, without referring to the
elusive soul-stuff within? And if that is possible, what grounds have we for
thinking that the soul exists, still less that it is the inner essence, the
originating cause and the final end of our existence?
Suppose you were to look at a painting — say Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergère’
in the Courtauld Gallery — and ask yourself how it is composed. From the point
of view of chemical science, it is a canvas on which pigments are distributed.
From the point of view of the art-lover, it is an image of a woman on whose face
the last pale twilight of innocence is fading. You could draw a graph across the
picture, and indicate exactly what pigment is to be found at every pair of
co-ordinates. This description would not mention the woman, still less her
fading innocence or her blank but haunting gaze. Yet it could be a complete
description. Somebody who daubed a canvas in the way mapped by the graph would
produce an exact copy of Manet’s picture. He would do this even if he had not
noticed the woman and even if he was entirely blind to pictorial images. From
the scientific point of view, therefore, the woman is nothing over and above the
pigments in which she is seen.
But this woman exists in a space of her own. We see the back of her head,
reflected in the mirror, some ten feet behind her. Of course, there is no part
of this canvas that is ten feet behind any other part. The space within the
picture is not mapped by our imaginary graph, even if it will be automatically
reconstituted when we follow the graph’s instructions. Moreover, no smear of
chrome white can possibly have a fading innocence, nor can patches of cerulean
and Prussian blue look at us inquiringly or await our interest. But all those
things can be seen in the painting, and someone who doesn’t see them doesn’t
understand what he is looking at.
In short, the picture can be described in two contrasting ways, and the
descriptions are incommensurable. This resembles the case of the human soul. We
can imagine a complete account of the human being as a biological organism from
which nothing observable has been left out. Any creature with just this
biological constitution will behave as I do, and lead the life that is
distinctive of our kind. So why add a further story about the soul? Why not draw
the obvious conclusion, that because nothing needs to be added to the biology,
the biology is all that there is?
That would be like saying that since no woman is mentioned in the scientific
description of Manet’s canvas, there is no woman in the picture. We can tell two
stories about Manet’s canvas, both complete. One explains it, the other tells us
what it means. Likewise we can tell two stories about the human organism, one
that explains its physical appearance and behaviour, the other which tells us
what it means to us. Many concepts that feature in this second story have no
application in the first. For example, we describe people as responsible and
free. We praise them, blame them and see worth and meaning in the things that
they do. We criticise, argue, persuade. A complex language has emerged through
which we relate to each other, and this language bypasses reference to the
organism in something like the way our description of the woman in Manet’s
picture bypasses the physical constitution of the canvas.
As in the case of the picture, the two descriptions that we give of the human
being are incommensurable. There is no place in the language of biology for the
concepts of freedom and responsibility. Biology can describe grimaces and facial
contortions, but it lacks the concept of a smile — ‘for smiles from Reason flow
... and are of love the food’, as Milton finely put it. The concepts that we
spontaneously use to describe the human being do not explain; they interpret.
And the interpretation that we favour describes a reasonable creature,
accountable to his kind.
Crucial to this interpretation is the concept of self. Other animals are
conscious, have thoughts, desires and emotions. But only we are self-conscious,
able to address each other from ‘I’ to ‘I’ and to know ourselves in the first
person, as subjects in a world of objects. As Kant plausibly argued,
self-consciousness and freedom are two sides of a coin. It is I, not my body,
who choose, and it is I who am praised or blamed, not my limbs, my feelings or
my movements. There is a mystery here: how can I be both a free subject and a
determined object, both the ‘I’ that decides and the body that carries the
decision through? Kant argued that the understanding stops at the threshold of
this mystery, and I suspect that he was right. It is precisely this mystery that
religions try to normalise with the story of the soul.
The story varies from epoch to epoch and creed to creed. But it is never more
simply put than in the language of the Koran, in which one word — nafs — means
both ‘self’ and ‘soul’. This soul is raised in me: only by learning the ways of
accountability do I rise to the condition of a free being, who realises his
freedom in his deeds. Hence the soul can be corrupted. There is such a thing as
the Devil’s work, which consists in undermining the self, tempting people to see
themselves as objects, leading them to identify completely with their biological
condition, to squander their selfhood in orgies of concupiscence and to refuse
all accountability for what they are and do. The moral truth is conveyed with
admirable simplicity in the great Sura of the Sun, Koran 91, which invokes the
wonders of creation: sun and moon, day and night, heaven and earth, and finally
‘a soul, and what formed her, to which He revealed both right and wrong’. The
Sura goes on to tell us that the one who safeguards the soul’s purity will
prosper, while he who corrupts it is destroyed. It requires no metaphysics to
understand the words ‘wa nafsin...’ — ‘and a soul...’. They are spoken in me and
to me. The verse refers to the self that harbours knowledge of right and wrong,
and it is just this that is the source of meaning in me.
Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists have other ways of capturing this simple
thought, but the fundamental observation is shared. Human beings stand out from
the rest of creation. They are subjects in a world of objects, and as a result
they judge and are judged. Hence they can be redeemed and corrupted. This work
of redemption and corruption is neverending. We do not need a metaphysical
doctrine of the soul to make sense of this; as we learn from the Koran, the
reflexive pronoun is enough. Faith adds just one crucial detail: namely, that
the reflexive pronoun is used also by God.
Of course, seeing the matter in this way, we do nothing to justify the belief in
immortality. Nevertheless, we can go some way towards making that belief
intelligible. Although the woman in Manet’s picture is nothing over and above
the pigments in which we see her, you do not destroy her by destroying the
pigments. If Manet’s work were perfectly copied and then burned, we would
confront a new canvas, but the same woman. The person seen in the new painting
would be identical with the person seen in the old. This is a strange kind of
identity, and not without paradox. But it provides a model for theologians,
should they wish to explain the identity between the person that I encounter in
encountering you and the person who exists eternally in God’s perception.
Immortality, seen in that way, is not a prospect to look forward to but a light
in which we stand.
Roger Scruton. "What it means to be human." The Spectator (March 20,
This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton.
See his web site