November 8, 2010


Against humanism: Of course we should love, honour and cherish our species, says Mary Midgley. But should we have to worship it too? (Mary Midgley , New Humanist)

In the whole sweep of our lives the physical sciences play only a marginal part, and the positivist approach that tries to rely only on them is not really workable.

At this point it is worthwhile to look at the message of the next prophet who shaped this concept after Comte, Julian Huxley. Huxley was largely responsible for giving this idea the form that it has today and in particular for placing the whole area so deeply in hock to science – that is, to neo-Darwinian ideas about evolution. He did, however understand that something more was needed. He was more aware than most of today’s science-worshippers of the rest of culture, particularly of the varied spiritual territories that we lump together under the name of “religion”, and he made suggestions about how humanism could occupy some of them. In particular, he grasped the ontological trouble that was making modern materialism unworkable and tried to do something about it. He is worth looking at, both because he played a great part in causing our present troubles and because he did try to do something about them.

Like Comte, Huxley retained the concept of worship and he rooted it in anthropological thinking. He writes in his Essays of a Biologist (1923), “The most fundamental need of man… [has always been] to discover something, some power, some force or tendency, which was moulding the destinies of the world – something not himself, greater than himself, with which he yet felt that he could harmonize his nature.” He quotes Matthew Arnold’s statement of the need to recognise “a power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness”. That power is (he says) not the human race itself but the evolutionary process that produced it and, behind that process, the whole evolving cosmos. Like Spinoza, he retains the term God and effectively equates it with Nature. “It is a simple fact that the conception which man has of the universe and its relation to himself exercises important effects upon his life. A name therefore is needed for this anthropological phenomenon. God is the usual name applied and we shall retain it in default of another, premissing that … we apply it here in a peculiar and perhaps somewhat novel sense. God in this sense is the universe, not as such, but as grasped as a whole by a mind.”

Within this universe, however, he sees the human race as having a rather peculiar role at the forefront of evolution. Huxley goes to great trouble to explain – what today’s theorists usually just take for granted – why it is that he thinks humanity should be considered specially valuable and important. This (he says) is because the mental qualities that it is developing through emergent evolution – especially its capacity for intelligent worship of the universe through science – are the growing-point of the whole cosmic process. These mental properties are not something alien to the material properties that the physical sciences study but are continuous with them, so any materialism that fails to recognise their continuity is mistaken. The still-surviving Cartesian dualism that treats mind as a separate substance from matter must therefore be abandoned. Mind must be taken to have been somehow present in the cosmos from the start. “We come, that is, to a monistic conclusion … that there is only one fundamental substance, and that this possesses not only material [but mental] properties. We want a new word to denote this X, this world-stuff; matter will not do for that is a word which the physicists and chemists have moulded to suit themselves, and since they have not yet learnt to detect or measure mental phenomena they restrict the word ‘material’ to mean ‘non-mental’.”

Huxley, in fact, saw clearly – what few of those who now exalt science seem to have noticed – that this exaltation does not make sense unless we somehow enlarge the notion of reality to make room for mind. Doing science is, after all, a mental activity; it can hardly constitute the purpose of a purely physical universe. More widely, of course, Huxley’s whole way of conceiving evolution as purposive is itself profoundly religious. Darwin himself avoided such thoughts, as do most of those who claim to follow him today. Yet people still do often take it for granted that Evolution, like Progress, is directional – an escalator bound to carry us, or at least our descendants, safely on to higher levels.

To the contrary, that's all Darwinism is and the only reason people (only people in the most developed societies, of course) accepted it. As Darwin himself put it:
I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 8, 2010 5:14 AM
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