Roger Scruton frowns on “scientism,” which he describes as involving “the use of scientific forms and categories in order to give the appearance of science to unscientific ways of thinking.” The arts and humanities, he insists, lie beyond the reach of the empirical:
Art critics have a discipline, and it is one that involves reasoning and judgment. It is not a science, and what it describes forms no part of the physical world, which does not contain Olympia or anything else you see in Manet’s painting. Yet someone who thought that art criticism is therefore deficient and ought to be replaced by the study of pigments would surely be missing the point. There are forms of human understanding that can be neither reduced to science nor enhanced by it.
Here is where the neurothugs step in, to declare that, of course, the science of pixels won’t explain pictures, since pictures are in the eye of the beholder. But there is also such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame. Since understanding a picture is a matter of seeing it in a certain way — in such a way as to grasp its visual aspect, and the meaning which that aspect has for beings like us — then we should be examining the neural pathways involved in seeing aspects, and the connections that link those pathways to judgments of meaning.
But what, exactly, would such a study show?