In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus observed that he had ‘never seen anyone die for the ontological argument’. Galileo was right to recant, since the ‘truth was not worth the stake. Whether the Earth or the Sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference.’ What does matter, Camus argued, is to find reasons for living. He explored what meaning life might have in the face of the fundamental antinomy of the human condition: that we are flickers of freedom in a dull, mechanical natural world; that we are unique possibilities and yet march only towards the certainty of our own mortality. Camus’s mythological hero can only find a measure of happiness when he realises the absurdity that arises from the human drive to understand crashing into the unreasonableness of the world, and, accepting his ineluctable fate, finds that there is enough to keep him going in the very struggle to live without hope.
Roger Scruton, in The Soul of the World, agrees that hope for an afterlife is an absurdity. There can be nothing following on from death, since things only follow on from each other as causes in the bounded ‘space-time continuum that is the world of nature’. He argues that an acceptance of death allows us to ‘see the world as making a place for us’. But while Camus’s transcendence of the human condition was based on an all-too-human revolt against, and scorn for, a world lacking in God, Scruton makes the case for a transcendence founded on ‘our works of love and sacrifice’ in a world that we make human by looking for God. He finds room for this hope for mankind precisely in faith, by which he means our refusal ‘to rest content with the contingency of nature’. When we cry out in extremis ‘Why?’, we reveal that we are looking for reasons that will let us understand why things are the way they are, why it is I suffer, why it is I love. We demonstrate – in our faith that there can be answers to existential questions such as these – that there are two ways of looking at the world, says Scruton: the ‘way of explanation’ and the ‘way of understanding’. The former looks for natural causes and universal laws in a world of facts, in the order of nature; the latter looks for reasons and meanings in a world of experience, in the order of the covenant.
Human beings can think about the world in both of these ways, says Scruton. Unlike animals, which ‘live immersed in nature’, humans have evolved from nature and now ‘stand forever at its edge’. With this unique perspective, we can think about the world in a way that transcends our genetic needs. Scruton returns frequently to the example of music to cast light on this cognitive dualism. If, listening to the opening theme of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, we follow the way of explanation, then the concerto ‘consists of a series of pitched sounds, one after the other, each identified by a frequency’. But if we follow the way of understanding, then we can describe the concerto as ‘a kind of action in musical space’, in which a melody moves up from C, through E-flat, to G and then down again. These two accounts are incommensurable, yet they are both true. While the music depends upon the sounds, it is not reducible to them; while music is real, ‘it is perceivable only to those who are able to conceptualise and respond to sound in ways that have no part to play in the physical science of acoustics’, Scruton says. To put it another way, the sounds are not all there is. Not everything scientifically inexplicable is irrational - and nor is everything that is scientific necessarily rational or even reasonable, certainly from the point of view of practical reason and the question of how we should act.
The American composer Aaron Copland argued that ‘the ideal listener is both inside and outside the music at the same moment… a subjective and objective attitude is implied in both creating and listening to music’. Scruton also sees the ‘I’ that stands for our self-consciousness as ‘poised between freedom and mechanism, subject and object’, suspended between nothingness and being. As music exists in a different way to sound, so ‘I’ exist in another way to that of my brain and body. If we allow the truth of this, then we shift the argument about God on from whether or not we can find proof of His existence. After all, when science makes an account of the world, it cannot give an account of what it is like to be me. But from my first-person perspective, I know, without having to check, that my shoulder aches. I don’t carry out any kind of medical examination to know that, and I cannot be wrong about it. My shoulder aches only for me. This epistemological privilege amounts to an ability to know things about myself on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Is God, then, perhaps a person like me?
This relationship of self-consciousness, in which I can say to myself, ‘Angus, what do you think about this?’, is the basis for the way in which I can also ask you what you think about it. It has the structure of an I-you relationship. When I find myself in my thinking about myself, I also find that you are a necessary part of that finding: I cannot be anything unless you recognise it. As Sartre put it: ‘The intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine.’