The talk is somewhat misleadingly titled “Roger Scruton – Persons and their Brains”, but what he’s really concerned to do is point out the limits of neuroscience and justify a place for philosophy in the study of human behavior. Not sure if that’s a straw man or not, but he has some critical things to say of our podcast guest Patricia Churchland. Take a look:
So he leads with a bit of arrogance: “I’m English so I don’t see things like Americans,” which I guess is supposed to signal to us that he – what? If I interpret the subtext (pun intended, see below), he’s saying that he doesn’t worship at the church of science, like we Americans. Scruton refers to Churchland’s work and reiterates her question: What does philosophy have to contribute to our understanding of human mental processes, compared to neuroscience?
On his interpretation, not much or nothing at all, with which he will of course take issue. He restates her case briefly, calling out that philosophy of mind that is folk psychology (mental states like belief and desire are non-physical entities governed by their own causal relations) is a proto-science and claims that she dismissed old fashioned Phil of Mind in favor of Neuroscience. In the 20 years since her book was published, her “weak” arguments have been augmented by the likes of Dennett, but still aspire to nothing more than making Philosophy the handmaiden of Science.
He claims we’ve been here before. Locke described philosophy as the handmaiden of science, a claim which was furthered by Hume et. al. Churchland’s theory is better than Hume’s, but does this mean that philosophy has nothing to add about human mental processes?
His answer: absolutely not. Philosophy calls out the centrality of interpretation in human activity. Science might explain the mechanics of things, but not why they are important to humans. The essential human activity is interpretation, and science does not allow for interpretation.
He spends the second half of the talk focusing on visual imagery, using Titian’s Venus of Urbino as an example. The interpretative pictorial image is “emergent” from the colored patches, etc. There might be a use for philosophy in explaining (inter) personal interpretation not explained by science.
So I’m somewhat moved by the idea that science as an activity is designed to eliminate the need for interpretation of “facts” and that the essence of human activity is interpretive. However, I don’t see that this entails that Philosophy has a privileged position to explain human interpretive activity, particularly when he uses Art as his exemplar and we’ve discussed here Philosophy (at best) ambivalence to Art. What do you think?