On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton (Princeton, 160 pp., $22.95)
‘There is no escape from metaphysics, that is, from the final implications of any proposition or set of propositions,” E. A. Burtt wrote in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science in 1924: “The only way to avoid becoming a metaphysician is to say nothing.” But reductive scientists (and philosophers) have been particularly keen to escape this truth, especially since the time of Darwin. The scientistic, Darwinian Harvard mathematician-philosopher Chauncey Wright wrote in the 1870s: “Behind the bare phenomenal facts there is nothing.” Here is the valley of dry bones that visionaries from Ezekiel and Socrates to Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot have warned about.
Jonathan Swift had an outraged and prophetic intuition about the perverse attractiveness of this kind of transgressive, reductive scientism and mocked it in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels (1726). John Hands, in his vast, brilliant recent survey of contemporary scientific thought, Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, also takes a satirical view: “If you decide to shoot your neighbor, . . . it would be somewhat less than convincing to argue in court that you had no choice because Francis Crick, Stephen Hawking, and other materialists maintain that free will is an illusion.”