Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work Part 10

Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work -

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In similar fas.h.i.+on he shewed that the hardness, roundness, and even the singleness of the marble were, so far as we know, states of our consciousness and not in the marble. The argument is capable of application to all that we call matter, and it thus appears, on a.n.a.lysis, that what we know of matter is simply a series of states of our consciousness, or mind. In similar fas.h.i.+on, it turns out that what we call mind is, so far as practical experience goes, always a.s.sociated with and dependent on what we call matter. We have no direct knowledge of thinking without a brain, or of consciousness without a body. Alterations and changes in matter, as for instance in the tissues and nutrition of the body, are, so far as our experience goes, inseparably a.s.sociated with mental operations. In the animal kingdom we see the development of the mind creeping slowly after the development of the material nervous system, until, in man, the most complex mind and most complex consciousness of which we have knowledge accompany the most complex body and brain.

Two great rival solutions to this fundamental problem are Materialism and Idealism. Materialism supposes that what we call matter is the real substance of the universe, and that mind is merely one of the forms of its activity. The advance of physical science has done much to make the materialistic hypothesis more plausible. When matter was believed to be inert, the mere vehicle or theatre of forces, materialism remained a singularly crude and unsatisfying position. But now that science has shewn all that we call matter--the most solid metals and the most attenuated vapours, the most stable and resisting inorganic bodies, and the unstable tissues of living bodies--to be alike in restless, orderly motion, to be, in fact, motion itself and not the thing moved, to be changeable but indestructible, pa.s.sing through phases but eternal, there seems less difficulty in a.s.suming it to be the ultimate reality, and mind and consciousness to be its most highly specialised qualities. Huxley, while stating this view plainly enough, refused to accept it as a legitimate conclusion from the facts.

"For anything that may be proved to the contrary, there may be a real something which is the cause of all our impressions; that sensations, though not likenesses, are symbols of that something; and that the part of that something, which we call the nervous system, is an apparatus for supplying us with a sort of algebra of fact, based on these symbols. A brain may be the machinery by which the material universe becomes conscious of itself. But it is important to notice that, even if this conception of the uuiverse and of the relation of consciousness to its other components should be true, we should, nevertheless, be still bound by the limits of thought, still unable to refute the arguments of pure idealism. The more completely the materialistic position is admitted, the easier it is to show that the idealistic position is una.s.sailable, if the idealist confines himself within the limits of positive knowledge."

However we attempt to form what philosophers call "ejects," to imagine that what is really in our consciousness is really the world outside ourselves, these ejects remain mere phenomena of our minds. Matter itself and its changes may, in the long run, be but modes of motion, but "our knowledge of motion is nothing but that of a change in the place and order of our sensations; just as our knowledge of matter is restricted to those feelings of which we a.s.sume it to be the cause."

Huxley's exact position in regard to materialism is most plain in his expositions of the writings of Berkeley, with whom began in England the greatest movement towards an idealistic philosophy.

"Berkeley faced the problem boldly. He said to the materialists: 'You tell me that all the phenomena of nature are resolvable into matter and its affections. I a.s.sent to your statement, and now I put to you the further question, What is matter? In answering this question you shall be bound by your own conditions; and I demand, in the terms of the Cartesian axiom, that you in turn give your a.s.sent only to such conclusions as are perfectly clear and obvious.'"

Huxley then goes on to state the general lines of the arguments by which Berkeley arrived at the apparently paradoxical conclusion "that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth--in a word, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world," have an existence only so far as they are in a perceiving mind. And he proceeds at length to explain the immense importance of the truths underlying Berkeley's position.

"The key to all philosophy lies in the clear apprehension of Berkeley's problem--which is neither more nor less than one of the shapes of the greatest of all questions, 'What are the limits of our faculties?' And it is worth any amount of trouble to comprehend the exact nature of the argument by which Berkeley arrived at his results, and to know by one's own knowledge the great truth which he discovered--that the honest and rigorous following up of the argument which leads us to materialism inevitably carries us beyond it."

Huxley, however, while he opposed a materialistic explanation of the universe with the strength of exposition and acute reasoning at his disposal, did not pa.s.s directly into the other camp and become a pure idealist.

"Granting the premisses," he wrote, "I do not see any escape from Berkeley's conclusion, that the substance of matter is a metaphysical unknown quant.i.ty, of the existence of which there is no proof. What Berkeley does not seem to have so clearly perceived is that the non-existence of a substance of mind is equally arguable; and that the result of the impartial application of his reasonings is the reduction of the all to co-existences and sequences of phenomena, beneath and beyond which there is nothing cognoscible."

Hume had written: "What we call a mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations, and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and ident.i.ty." Here was mind rejected for the same negative reasons as matter, and Huxley was as ready to point out that while we can know nothing of the

"substance of the thinking thing, we go beyond legitimate reasoning if we therefore deny its existence." ... "Hume may be right or wrong, but the most he or anyone else can prove in favour of his conclusions is, that we know nothing more of the mind than that it is a series of perceptions. Whether there is something in the mind that lies beyond the reach of observation, or whether perceptions themselves are the products of something which can be observed and which is not mind, are questions which can in no wise be settled by direct observation."

In another pa.s.sage he writes:

"To sum up. If the materialist affirms that the universe and all its phenomena are resolvable into matter and motion, Berkeley replies, True; but what you call matter and motion are known to us only as forms of consciousness; their being is to be conceived or known; and the existence of a state of consciousness, apart from a thinking mind, is a contradiction in terms. I conceive that this reasoning is irrefragable. And therefore, if I were obliged to choose between absolute materialism and absolute idealism, I should feel compelled to accept the latter alternative. Indeed, upon this point Locke does, practically, go as far in the direction of idealism as Berkeley, when he admits that the 'simple ideas which we receive from sensation and reflection are the boundaries of our thoughts, beyond which the mind, whatever efforts it would make, is not able to advance one jot.'"

Locke went further, and Huxley agreed with him. He declared that the mind cannot "make any discoveries when it would pry into the nature and hidden cause of these ideas." We must, in fact, definitely reject what we know as matter as the absolute reality of the universe, for it becomes very plain that what we call matter we know merely as affections of our own consciousness. In a sense, then, so far as it is opposed to materialism, idealism, according to Huxley, must be the philosophical position of a scientific man. But the idealism is not the absolute idealism of Berkeley, as we have no logical right to deny or to affirm the existence of absolute matter or of absolute mind. The real truth of the philosophy of science lies in a separation between metaphysical theory and actual pursuits. In ultimate philosophical theory it is impossible to rest content with a plain natural conception of the universe. When any conception of matter, or of its affections, is pushed as far as a.n.a.lysis can take us, what we know resolves itself into affections of mind, into what without metaphysical finesse may be called ideas. But this empirical idealism must be taken positively as being merely the limits of our knowledge, and it must carry with it neither an undue exaltation of mind nor an undue depreciation of matter.

"The Platonic philosophy is probably the grandest example of the unscientific use of the imagination extant; and it would be hard to estimate the amount of detriment to clear thinking effected, directly and indirectly, by the theory of ideas, on the one hand, and by the unfortunate doctrine of the baseness of matter, on the other."

Materialism was dismissed by Huxley as being an inadequate philosophical explanation of the universe, and as being based on a logical delusion. There remains, however, a practical application of the word in which the conceptions it involves are almost an inevitable part of science, and which was strenuously urged by Huxley. In the earlier days of the world and of science almost all the phenomena of nature were regarded as random or wilful displays of living intelligence. The earth itself and the sun, the moon, and the stars were endowed with life; legions of unseen intelligences ruled the operations of nature, and although these might be bribed or threatened, pleased or made angry, their actions were regarded as beyond prediction or control. The procession of the seasons, the routine of day and night, the placid appeas.e.m.e.nt of the rains, the devastating roar of storms, the s.h.i.+ning of the rainbow, the bubbling of springs, the terrors of famine and pestilence; all these--the varying environment which makes or mars human life--were regarded as inevitable and capricious. The whole progress of physical science has been attended with a gradual elimination of these supernatural agencies and with a continual replacement of them by conceptions of physical sequence.

"In singular contrast with natural knowledge, the acquaintance of mankind with the supernatural appears the more exact, and the influence of supernatural doctrine on conduct the greater, the further we go back in time and the lower the stage of civilisation submitted to investigation. Historically, indeed, there would seem to be an inverse relation between supernatural and natural knowledge. As the latter has widened, gained in precision and trustworthiness, so has the former shrunk, grown vague and questionable; as the one has more and more filled the sphere of action, so has the other retreated into the region of meditation, or vanished behind the screen of mere verbal recognition. Whether this difference of the fortunes of Naturalism and Supernaturalism is an indication of the progress, or of the regress of humanity, of a fall from or an advance towards the higher life, is a matter of opinion. The point to which I wish to direct attention is that the difference exists and is making itself felt. Men are growing seriously alive to the fact that the historical evolution of humanity, which is generally, and I venture to think, not unreasonably, regarded as progress, has been and is being accompanied by a co-ordinate elimination of the supernatural from its originally large occupation of men's thought."

Every stage in this long process, every new attempt to place physical phenomena in a chain of direct causation has been denounced as dangerous and degrading materialism, and in this sense Huxley was not only an adherent but one of the foremost champions of materialism. As everyone knows, some of the greatest advances in this process of co-ordinating physical phenomena were made during Huxley's life; and his vigorous onslaughts on those who tried to thwart all attempts at material explanations in favour of unknown agencies made him specially open to abusive criticism. The battle was almost invariably between those who had not special knowledge and those in possession of it, and it occurred in practically the whole field of science, but particularly in the biological sciences. A single example will serve to shew what is meant by materialism in this sense and the att.i.tude of Huxley to it. The study of the human mind naturally has attracted the attention of thinkers almost since the beginning of philosophy, but until this century, with a few crude exceptions, it has been conducted entirely apart from anatomy and physiology. Advances in these physical sciences, however, have changed that, and the modern psychologist has to begin by being a physiologist and anatomist.

"Surely no one who is cognisant of the facts of the case, nowadays, doubts that the roots of psychology lie in the physiology of the nervous system. What we call the operations of the mind are the functions of the brain, and the materials of consciousness are products of cerebral activity. Cabanis may have made use of crude and misleading phraseology when he said that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile; but the conception which that much-abused phrase embodies is, nevertheless, far more consistent with fact than the popular notion that the mind is a metaphysical ent.i.ty seated in the head, but as independent of the brain as a telegraph operator is of his instrument. It is hardly necessary to point out that the doctrine just laid down is what is commonly called materialism. I am not sure that the adjective 'cra.s.s,' which appears to have a special charm for rhetorical sciolists, would not be applied to it. But it is, nevertheless, true that the doctrine contains nothing inconsistent with the purest idealism."

The whole doctrine of evolution is similarly a materialistic account of natural phenomena, in the popular and not the philosophical meaning of the term. But even within this popular meaning, it is extremely necessary to have an exact conception of the limits within which Huxley was materialistic. Take for instance the question of the origin of life. It would be one of the greatest achievements of physical science could it shew that life was not inco-ordinate with non-living physical phenomena, but was a special case of them. Huxley knew that this advance had not yet been made.

"It may be that, by-and-by, philosophers will discover some higher laws of which the facts of life are particular cases--very possibly they will find out some bond between physico-chemical phenomena on the one hand, and vital phenomena on the other. At present, however, we a.s.suredly know of none; and I think we shall exercise a wise humility in confessing that, for us at least, this successive a.s.sumption of different states (external conditions remaining the same)--this spontaneity of action--if I may use a term which implies more than I would be answerable for--which const.i.tutes so vast and plain a practical distinction between living bodies and those which do not live, is an ultimate fact; indicating as such, the existence of a broad line of demarcation between the subject matter of biological and of all other science."

In another pa.s.sage he wrote:

"Looking back through the prodigious vista of the past I find no record of the commencement of life, and therefore I am devoid of any means of forming a definite conclusion as to the conditions of its appearance. Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter, and needs strong foundations. To say, therefore, in the admitted absence of evidence, that I have any belief as to the mode in which the existing forms of life have originated, would be using words in a wrong sense. But expectation is permissible where belief is not; and if it were given me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was pa.s.sing through physical and chemical conditions which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from non-living matter. I should expect to see it appear under forms of great simplicity, endowed, like existing fungi, with the power of determining the formation of new protoplasm from such matters as ammonium carbonates, oxalates, and tartrates, alkaline and earthy phosphates, and water, without the aid of light. That is the expectation to which a.n.a.logical reasoning leads me, but I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith."

Since these words were written the reasons for Huxley's "philosophic faith" have been strengthened by later discoveries, and perhaps a majority of biologists would take the view that except for practical purposes there is no sound reason for placing living and inorganic aggregations of matter in totally different categories. But even if the main outline of the theory of evolution were proved beyond the possibility of doubt, if we could trace existing plants and animals backwards with the accuracy of a genealogist and find that they had been developed, under purely physical "laws" from a few simple forms, and if we could understand exactly how these few simple forms of living matter took origin from non-living matter, we would not, if we followed Huxley, be able to rest in a purely materialistic position.

As he, in different words, repeatedly said:

"It is very desirable to remember that evolution is not an explanation of the cosmos, but merely a generalised statement of the method and results of that process. And, further, that, if there is any proof that the cosmic process was set going by any agent, then that agent will be the creator of it and of all its products, although supernatural intervention may remain strictly excluded from its further course."

The doctrine of evolution was, for him, no attempt to reinstate the "old pagan G.o.ddess, Chance." Darwin had again and again explained, and Huxley again and again had called attention to the explanation, that when words like "chance" and "spontaneous" were used, no more was intended to be implied than an ignorance of the causes. In the true sense of the word "chance" did not exist for Huxley and Darwin. So far as all scientific and common experience goes, every event is connected with foregoing events in an orderly and inevitable chain of sequences,--a chain that could have been predicted or predetermined by any sufficient intelligence. Moreover, Huxley did not believe that Darwin's views, rightly interpreted, "abolished teleology and eviscerated the argument from design." They only abolished that crude expression of teleology which supposed all structures among animals and plants to have been created in their present forms for their present purposes. Under the stimulus given to biology by the doctrine of evolution that science has progressed far beyond conceptions so rudely mechanical. We know that behind each existing structure there is a long history of change; of change not only in form and appearance, but also in function. In the development of living organisms to-day, as they grow up into tree or animal from seed or egg, we can trace the record of these changes of form; in some cases we can follow the actual change of function. But in a wider sense there is no incongruity between evolution and teleology.

"There is a wider teleology," Huxley wrote, "which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is actually based on the fundamental proposition of evolution. This proposition is that the whole world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. That acute champion of teleology, Paley, saw no difficulty in admitting that the 'production of things' may be the result of mechanical dispositions fixed beforehand by intelligent appointment and kept in action by a power at the centre."



Authority and Knowledge in Science--The Duty of Doubt--Authority and Individual Judgment in Religion--The Protestant Position--Sir Charles Lyell and the Deluge--Infallibility--The Church and Science--Morality and Dogma--Civil and Religious Liberty--Agnosticism and Clericalism--Meaning of Agnosticism--Knowledge and Evidence--The Method of Agnosticism.

In the practice of modern law-courts, a witness rarely is allowed to offer as evidence any statement for which he himself is not the direct authority. What he himself saw or heard or did with regard to the matter at issue--these, and not what others told him they had seen or heard or done, are the limits within which he is allowed to be a competent witness. As a matter of fact, in the business of life we have to act differently. A large proportion of our opinions, beliefs, and reasons for conduct must come to us on the authority of others. We have no direct experience of the past; of the present we can see little and only the little immediately surrounding us. In a mult.i.tude of affairs we have to act on authority, to accept from books or from persons what we have not ourselves the opportunity of knowing. It would seem, then, to be a primary duty to learn to distinguish in our minds those matters which we know directly from those matters which we have accepted on trust; and, secondly, to learn and to apply the best modes of choosing the good and of rejecting the bad authorities. The work of the scientific man is a lifelong exercise of these primary duties. From the first moment he begins to observe living things or to dissect their dead frameworks, to mix chemical substances, to make experiments with magnets and wires, he begins to build, and as long as he continues to work he continues to build for himself a body of first-hand knowledge. But, however he work arduously or through long years, he can visit only the smallest portion of the field of nature in which he is working. It is necessary for him to employ the work of others, submitting, from time to time such accepted work to the tests suggested by his own observations. He learns to regard in a different light all knowledge taken on the authority of others; to distrust it a little until he has learned to weigh its general credibility by his own standards, and its particular credibility by subjecting portions of it to his own tests; to distrust it still more when even small portions fail to answer his tests, and to reject it altogether when the percentage of detected error is large. He learns, in fact, what Huxley called the duty of doubt.

This duty has not been universally accepted. In the history of Christian civilisation (and a parallel series of events might be portrayed from the history of other civilisations), many great inst.i.tutions and very many great and good men have condemned and feared the habit and att.i.tude of doubt in all its forms. Certain doctrines believed to be of supreme importance to mankind were held to rest on authority independent of, and perhaps not susceptible to, the kind of testing employed in science. Around these doctrines there grew, in time, a body of traditions, customs, new dogmas, and fantasies; and the duty of belief in the first was extended to cover the whole system, the central jewel as well as the accretions and encrustations of time. The domain of religious authority was extended to the whole field of human thought and of human action, and the more unreasonable the dominion became, the more strenuously was the duty of belief urged. The Protestant Reformation was one of the great stages in the conflict for freedom against the universal tyranny that had arisen, but the reformers very naturally retained a considerable portion of the bias against which they had fought. In Protestant countries, in the first half of this century, the duty of belief in the Protestant doctrines, traditions, philosophy, history, and att.i.tude to science reigned supreme, and all weapons, from legitimate argument to abusive invective and social ostracism, were employed against those who acted in accordance with the duty of doubt.

Allegations of "unsoundness" or of "free thinking" became barriers to success in life, and those against whom they were made became lowered in the esteem of their fellows.

At the present time, when the advance of science and of civilisation has almost won the battle for freedom of thought, it is difficult to realise the strength of the forces against which Huxley and many others had to fight. Huxley himself said with perfect justice: "I hardly know of a great physical truth whose universal reception has not been preceded by an epoch in which most estimable persons have maintained that the phenomena investigated were directly dependent on the Divine Will, and that the attempt to investigate them was not only futile but blasphemous." As a particular instance of this he cited some episodes in the history of geological science.

"At the present time, it is difficult to persuade serious scientific enquirers to occupy themselves, in any way, with the Noachian Deluge. They look at you with a smile and a shrug, and say they have more important matters to attend to than mere antiquarianism. But it was not so in my youth. At that time geologists and biologists could hardly follow to the end any path of enquiry without finding the way blocked by Noah and his ark, or by the first chapter of Genesis; and it was a serious matter, in this country at any rate, for a man to be suspected of doubting the literal truth of the Diluvial or any other Pentateuchal history. The fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Geological Club (in 1824) was, if I remember rightly, the last occasion on which the late Sir Charles Lyell spoke to even so small a public as the members of that body. Our veteran leader lighted up once more; and, referring to the difficulties which beset his early efforts to create a rational science of geology, spoke, with his wonted clearness and vigour, of the social ostracism which pursued him after the publication of the _Principles of Geology_, in 1830, on account of the obvious tendency of that n.o.ble work to discredit the Pentateuchal accounts of the Creation and the Deluge. If my younger contemporaries find this hard to believe, I may refer them to a grave book _On the Doctrine of the Deluge_, published eight years later, and dedicated by the author to his father, the then Archbishop of York. The first chapter refers to the treatment of the 'Mosaic Deluge,' by Dr. Buckland and Mr. Lyell, in the following terms: 'Their respect for revealed religion has prevented them from arraying themselves openly against the Scriptural account of it--much less do they deny its truth--but they are in a great hurry to escape from the consideration of it, and evidently concur in the opinion of Linnaeus, that no proofs whatever of the Deluge are to be discovered in the structure of the earth.' And after an attempt to reply to some of Lyell's arguments, which it would be cruel to reproduce, the writer continues:--'When, therefore, upon such slender grounds, it is determined, in answer to those who insist on its universality, that the Mosaic Deluge must be considered a preternatural event, far beyond the reach of philosophical enquiry; not only as to the causes employed to produce it, but as to the effects most likely to result from it; that determination wears an aspect of scepticism, which, however much soever it may be unintentional in the mind of the writer, yet cannot but produce an evil impression on those who are already predisposed to carp and cavil at the evidence of Revelation.'"

The great evil of authority was its tendency to erect itself into some form of infallibility of universal application. When, for a time, the geological victory was won, and the supporters of authority had comforted themselves with reconciliations, there arose the much greater and more serious opposition between authority and the conceptions involved in evolution. Huxley, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, found that all the old weapons of authority were resumed with a renewed a.s.surance, and his advocacy of the duty of doubt became not merely the defence of a great principle but a means of self-defence. The conception of infallible authority had been transferred by Protestants from the Church to the Bible, and against this Huxley strove with all his might. It is convenient to reserve a full treatment of Huxley's att.i.tude to the Bible for a separate chapter, but at this point a quotation will shew his general view.

[Ill.u.s.tration: SIR CHARLES LYELL]

"The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made it and those who have accepted it; and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. For sacerdotal corporations and schools of philosophy are able, under due compulsion of opinion, to retreat from positions that have become untenable; while the dead hand of a book sets and stiffens, amidst texts and formulae, until it becomes a mere petrifaction, fit only for that function of stumbling-block, which it so admirably performs. Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation."

Moreover, Presbyter is but Priest writ large, and the Protestant clergy were the leaders in denunciation of every person and every branch of investigation or of thought in any way connected with evolution. Huxley was no respecter of persons, and, following the example of Darwin, he was ready to study carefully any arguments for or against any scientific doctrines by whomsoever or howsoever brought forward. The right of criticism and duty of doubt, which he insisted on for himself, he was extremely willing to extend to others, and, as a matter of fact he was on terms of intimate friends.h.i.+p with some of his most distinguished clerical opponents. But to an extent which it is almost impossible now to realise, the clergy generally abused their legitimate position and authority, and demanded or a.s.sumed a right to give authoritative opinions on questions which did not come within their domain. It was the old attempt of the Church to make its authority felt in all departments of thought and of action, and the attempt was made in the traditional fas.h.i.+on. Questions of fact were a.s.sociated with questions of morality, and those who held one view as to the meaning and implication of certain facts were denounced as wicked. Huxley at once carried the war into the enemy's own country:

"And, seeing how large a share of this clamour is raised by the clergy of one denomination or another, may I say, in conclusion, that it really would be well if ecclesiastical persons would reflect that ordination, whatever deep-seated graces it may confer, has never been observed to be followed by any visible increase in the learning or the logic of its subject. Making a man a Bishop, or entrusting him with the office of ministering to even the largest of Presbyterian congregations, or setting him up to lecture to a church congress, really does not in the smallest degree augment such t.i.tle to respect as his opinions may intrinsically possess. And when such a man presumes on an authority, which was conferred on him for other purposes, to sit in judgment on matters his incompetence to deal with which is patent, it is permissible to ignore his sacerdotal pretensions, and to tell him, as one would tell a mere, common, unconsecrated layman: that it is not necessary for any man to occupy himself with problems of this kind unless he so choose; life is filled full enough with the performance of its ordinary and obvious duties. But that, if a man elect to become a judge of these grave questions; still more if he a.s.sume the responsibility of attaching praise or blame to his fellow-men for the conclusions at which they arrive touching them, he will commit a sin more grievous than most breaches of the decalogue, unless he avoid a lazy reliance upon the information that is gathered by prejudice and filtered through pa.s.sion, unless he go back to the prime sources of knowledge--the facts of Nature, and the thoughts of those wise men who for generations past have been her best interpreters."

In the campaign for absolute freedom of thought, for the duty of not believing anything except on sufficient evidence, Huxley was frequently met by an argument of superficial strength, and which no doubt was in the minds of many of his clerical opponents. In the minds of a majority of people, it was said, and particularly of slightly educated people, the reasons for right conduct and the distinctions between right and wrong are firmly a.s.sociated with the Bible and with religion. If you allow doubts as to the absolute veracity of the Bible, or as to the supernatural origin of religion to reach such persons, you run a grave risk that they will reflect the uncertainty on the canons of morality. In taking from them what you believe to be false, inevitably you will unsettle their ideas on moral questions although you might be in full agreement as to these moral questions.

Huxley refused to accept the a.s.serted a.s.sociation between morality and particular metaphysical or religious doctrines.

"Many ingenious persons now appear to consider that the incompatibility of pantheism, of materialism, and of any doubt about the immortality of the soul, with religion and morality is to be held as an axiomatic truth. I confess that I have a certain difficulty in accepting this dogma. For the Stoics were notoriously materialists and pantheists of the most extreme character; and while no strict Stoic believed in the eternal duration of the individual soul, some even denied its persistence after death. Yet it is equally certain, that, of all gentile philosophies, Stoicism exhibits the highest ethical development, is animated by the most religious spirit, and has exerted the profoundest influence upon the moral and religious development not merely of the best men among the Romans, but among the moderns down to our own day."

He held the view now generally taken by students of the history of man, that standards of conduct and religious beliefs arose in separate ways and developed independently, and that it was only comparatively recently that "religion took morality under its protection." But he met the argument in a still more direct fas.h.i.+on by rejecting entirely the possibility or advisability of founding any system of ethics upon a false basis.

"It is very clear to me," he wrote, "that, as Beelzebub is not to be cast out by Beelzebub, so morality is not to be established by immorality. It is, we are told, the special peculiarity of the devil that he was a liar from the beginning. If we set out in life with pretending to know that which we do not know; with professing to accept for proof evidence which we are well aware is inadequate; with wilfully shutting our eyes and our ears to facts which militate against this or that comfortable hypothesis; we are a.s.suredly doing our best to deserve the same character."

Freedom of thought meant for Huxley all that is best in liberalism applied to life. In an essay on Joseph Priestley, he described the condition of affairs in England last century, when scientific investigation and all forms of independent thinking laboured under the most heavy restrictions that could be imposed by dominant ecclesiastical and civil prejudice. He pointed out the astounding changes between these times and the times of to-day.

"If we ask," he wrote, "what is the deeper meaning of all these vast changes, there can be but one reply. They mean that reason has a.s.serted and exercised her primacy over all the provinces of human activity; that ecclesiastical authority has been relegated to its proper place; that the good of the governed has been finally recognised as the end of government, and the complete responsibility of governors to the people as its means; and that the dependence of natural phenomena in general on the laws of action of what we call matter has become an axiom."

The common ground of those who advocate the duty of belief and those who insist on the duty of doubt is clear. Both are agreed as to the necessity of accepting whatever has sufficient evidence to support it; both agree that there is room for doubt though not necessarily for rejection in cases where the evidence is contaminated or insufficient.

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Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work Part 10 summary

You're reading Thomas Henry Huxley; A Sketch Of His Life And Work. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): P. Chalmers Mitchell. Already has 791 views.

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