The English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton might receive more grudging admiration than any other living thinker. My aesthetics tutor at Oxford—a self-consciously Wildean character with long hair and puffy sleeves—once assigned a text by Scruton with a caveat: There is, he explained, a little known but valid form of argument called argumentum ad Scruton: "If Scruton says p, p is necessarily false." This "argument" has what currency it does because Scruton is defiantly conservative, and he wears that designation on his (decidedly unpuffy) sleeve. But to the irritation of bien-pensants everywhere, his philosophical work is simply too sharp and cogent to be ignored.
"The Soul of the World" is an example of what conservatism can be, at its best—a clear-eyed, affectionate defense of humanity and a well-reasoned plea to treat the long-loved with respect and care. This kind of conservatism comes into being when something good is threatened: Here Mr. Scruton aims to conserve "the sacred" in the face of threats from scientific reductionism, an ideology that asserts that all phenomena—including things like love, art, morality and religion—are most accurately described using the vocabulary of contemporary science.
Viewed through the lens of scientific reductionism, all existence is fundamentally the bouncing around of various material particles, some arranged in the form of gene-perpetuating machines we call humans. Mr. Scruton almost agrees—we are, in fact, gene-perpetuating machines, and the finer, higher aspects of human existence emerge from, and rest upon, biological machinery. As he points out, though, it's a long jump from this acknowledgment to the assertion that "this is all there is." The jump, according to Mr. Scruton, lands us in "a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home." A truly human outlook involves the intuition of intangible realities that find no place in even our most sensitive systems of biology, chemistry or physics.
Philosophers and theologians have traditionally understood that certain things transcend our abilities to fully perceive, comprehend and articulate them and that the way we incorporate those things into our lives is through the experience of the sacred—the irruption of the transcendent into our mundane reality. The sacred stands, as Mr. Scruton puts it, "at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world" but also "looking into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face." While sacredness is most commonly associated with religious actions and artifacts—such as sacraments, scriptures and holy places—it is not limited to these. Mr. Scruton argues that our encounters with one another, and indeed with nature, are experiences of the sacred as well. He makes his case with bravado and sensitivity, exploring the role of the sacred in such realms as music, city planning and moral reasoning.
Happily, it is entirely possible to embrace the findings of science without rejecting the older vocabulary of the sacred, even if one finds oneself (as Mr. Scruton does) unable to fully embrace the claims of any metaphysical doctrine, religious or otherwise. The reductionist leap is unnecessary, in the first instance, because the idea that "this is all there is" could never be substantiated by science. What experiment could possibly prove that there is no such thing as a soul or that God doesn't exist? But perhaps all science needs to do is present a complete explanation for reality that eliminates any need for nonmaterial explanations. This will not do, according to Mr. Scruton. Even if the guild of scientists produced a million-volume tome that comprehensively tracked the tortuous series of causes and effects that led from the pinpoint origin of material existence through the Big Bang and the earliest wrigglings of life, all the way to our own wedding vows and Pachelbel's Canon in D, we would still need more. We would need the sacred.
In making this case, Mr. Scruton employs the concept of Verstehen borrowed from the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (roughly, this means the kind of understanding that is the product of human interpretation and interaction rather than scientific measurement). To take an example, the moment of a first kiss is not experienced simply as the mating ritual of complex gene-perpetuating machines. To describe it thus would be to take leave of the human perspective. Our actual experience is better captured by more emotionally, spiritually freighted language. As Mr. Scruton writes, "the lips offered by one lover to another are replete with subjectivity: they are the avatars of I, summoning the consciousness of another in mutual gift."
The interface between I and You is, for Mr. Scruton, the defining human perspective. In terms of religion, he writes: "People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God's existence . . . but for a subject-to-subject encounter, which occurs in this life, but which also in some way reaches beyond this life." Myriad other examples abound. When we make a vow to our lover, we do not—or, Mr. Scruton says, we had better not—understand ourselves as signatories to a provisional, mutually beneficial contract but rather as willing parties to a binding, eternal, even transcendent pledge, something stronger and more substantial than our momentary desires.
Viewed through the lens of science, we may be the products of genes and chance. But viewed as people, we are free, responsible and creative—and kisses are richer phenomena than any scientific analysis can capture.
Mr. Corbin is a 2013 Novak Journalism Fellow and doctoral candidate at Boston College