Aldous Huxley and the meaning of the world


"I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantegous to themselves... For myself, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political." -- Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means, 1937 (according to Josh McDowell)


Introduction

When I read the quote above by Aldous Huxley in Josh McDowell's Evidence that demands a Verdict (page 11, paragraph 9) I intuitevly understood that there was something wrong, and I made a comment about it in the margin. I decided that I would check the quote up some day, to see what Huxley really said, and what the context was. Then I got the following comment in an E-mail, and decided that I had some digging to do.

"Didn't Huxley once say that he had a reason to believe as he did when he believed that the world has [sic.] no purpose, simply because he and his friends could do as they please?"
Shortly afterwards I went to the library and decided to borrow Ends and Means to check out what Huxley really said and ment (p. 270-273). It surely didn't surprise me when the quote, like most of EVIDENCE, turned out to be quite dishonest.

Formal error

First of all the quote as it is stated above is not formally correct. The punctuations after the word "themselves" shows that McDowell is at least aware that one should show the readers what editions you have made to a quote. He got the quote from another (fundamentalist ?) christian, Michael Green (Runaway world, 1968), so the errors may not be due to McDowell personally. It is possible that the punctuation that exists was inserted by McDowell and that it is Green that is to blame for the errors, but it is not advisable to quote somebody without checking out the original document, and extremely irresponsible to quote people when you know that what you have them saying is contrary to the things they stand for. EVIDENCE is basically a review -- second hand information from fundamentalist sources -- so it may be difficult for the reader to unmask the truth. But if you look at the original documents, you will find that McDowell has no case whatsoever.

Formally the quote should look like this:

"I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption... The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantegous to themselves... For myself... the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation... sexual... [and] political."

Freedom to do as one pleases?

Now that we know how the quote has been edited we are better equiped to see where there may be mistakes in the editing of the quote. The most obvious part is the last. What Huxley really said was this (the text quoted in McDowell in italics):

"For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotical revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever." (p.273)
Huxley then continues by describing how his "contemporaries" have used the philosophy of meaningless to liberate themselves from conservative and reactionary political and moral systems, and that they (i.e. not Huxley himself, though it is likely that he used to agree with them) have thought that liberation from sexual prejudice leads to liberation from political ditto. The way McDowell quotes Huxley, however, one gets the false impression that he wanted the world to have no meaning so he could do as he pleased. What he actually does say is that he has turned away from that doctrine, because he could not solve this problem.

It is also interesting to contrast this with the preceeding paragraph:

"In due course there arose philosophers who denied not only the right of these Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world, but even their right to find any such meaning whatsoever. In the circumstances, the fact was not surprising. One unscrupulous distortion of the truth tends to beget other and opposite distortions. Passions may be satisfied in the process; but the disinterested love of knowledge suffers eclipse." (p. 273)
Furthermore "liberation, sexual and political" is an inconsequent interpretion. A consequent interpretion would be either "liberation, sexual and from unjustice" or "liberation, moral and political", but it is obvious from the context that the liberation was mainly political.

It is true that Huxley talks about erotic freedom in the chapter, but that has not to do with being able to do what you want sexually, but that science does not concern emotions and passions. The philosophy of meaningless can therefore not concern human passions:

Our conviction that the world is meaningless is due in part to the fact (discussed in a later paragraph) that the philosophy of meaningless lends itself very effectively to furthering the ends of political and erotic passion; in part to a genuine intellectual error -- the error of identifying the world of science, a world from which all meaning has deliberately been excluded, with ultimate reality. (p. 267)

The philosophy of meaning in the world just as biased

Unfortunately, Huxley points out, does this philosophy lead to "the hard, felicious theologies of nationalistic and revolutionary idolatry" and consequently he turned away from the philosophy of meaningless. A reader of McDowell, however, gets the false impression that Huxley advocated this philosophy, when he in fact had dismissed it for the same reason that he had previously accepted it. It is obvious from Ends and Means that Aldous Huxley thought that any philosophy is basically founded on what you want the world to be. McDowell's book is for me just one more example of this.

The quote is put in the section "Will the real Mr. Excuse please stand up?" of EVIDENCE, and is put there to show that Huxley rejected christianity because of bias, when the context clearly shows that it was the meaning of the world that he had rejected. He turned away from this doctrine, but remained an atheist, so I don't really see what this has to do with christianity at all.

Every philosophy has its problems

Another interesting thing to note is what Huxley means with "The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do". Huxley says in the line immediately above that: "The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate that meaning, but also to prove that it is most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals." (p. 272) In the light of this it is far too obvious that "problem" is not an insolvable problem, but merely a task; something the philosopher must be able to justify, just like the philosopher who does find mening in the world has his problems to solve. Together all these quotes express all thoughts by Aldous Huxley on the pages McDowell's dishonest quote is taken from. I would like to give an alternative version of what Huxley says in the section. This quote is just as biased as McDowell's version, and also formally incorrect, but together they constitute a fairly good picture of what Huxley really wanted to say:
"The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate this meaning, but also to prove that it is most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals... The desire to justify a particular form of political organisation and, in some cases, of a personal will to power has played large part in the formulation of philosophies postulating the existence of meaning in the world. Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalist system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press, and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort. In all these cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to be most completely expressed by the iniquites above which happened, of course, to serve the personal or sectarian interests of the philosophers concerned." -- Aldous Huxley (Ends and Means, 1937, p.272-273)

Final words

McDowell says in the book (page 10) that he became a christian when he investigated the validity of the Bible in order to disprove it, but had to accept it because of the evidence he found. I don't doubt that, for it is ovious that McDowell has not gone to the bottom of things. If he had, he would have found that almost everything of what he says is either invalid or dishonest. The whole case in EVIDENCE is based on ignorance of the original texts. The Huxley quote turned out to be just one more example of this fact. I would like to advise the reader of EVIDENCE to check out the original, first hand texts, because it is always important to be critical of texts you read. Have this in mind when they read McDowell's book:

"Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence... No philosophy is completely disinterested. The pure love of truth is always mingled to some extent with the need, conciously or unconciously felt by even the noblest and the most intelligent philosophers" -- Aldous Huxley (Ends and Means, 1937, p.270-272)

References

  1. Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, 1937
  2. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1972

Links

  1. Lies Creationists Tell: The Julian Huxley Lie, by Ed Babinski

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Created: November 1996
Last update: Tuesday, February 07, 2006

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