Thursday, November 24, 2011

Meaninglessness and atheism

In his discourse on meaninglessness, excerpted from Huxley's 1937 book Ends and Means by Ed Babinski, Aldous Huxley (apparently unbeknownst to Robin Schumacher) arguing against a philosophy of meaninglessness. In the essay, Huxley acknowledges the successes of the scientific method and admits its value, but notes that the naive Positivistic, Humean project of reducing all of reality to what can be measured and counted ignores the purely qualitative aspects of reality. According to Huxley, scientists have largely transcended the limitations of Positivism, but the general public, and presumably non-scientific intellectuals, lag several decades behind; the general public had, at the time of Huxley's writing, just begun to see Positivism as the essence of the metaphysics underlying scientific thought, but — with some justice — did not like it. They sought to replace the meaning and value that Positivism ignores with "absurd" philosophies, such as "nationalism, fascism and revolutionary communism*."


Huxley naturally asks: is there really is meaning and value in the world? If so, what is the nature of that meaning and value? He notes that, at least in his own context, these questions appear to be entirely novel; he and his contemporaries, he asserts, simply "took it for granted" that there was no such thing as meaning and value, partly because he accepted Positivist metaphysics, but also because he had an ulterior motive for seeking and finding meaninglessness. These ulterior motives are not unique to those seeking meaninglessness; they are, rather, ubiquitous. "No philosophy," Huxley asserts, "is completely disinterested."
The philosopher who finds meaning in the world is concerned, not only to elucidate that meaning, but also to prove that is it most clearly expressed in some established religion, some accepted code of morals. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is not 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 advantageous to themselves.
Huxley claims that his own and his contemporaries' denial of meaning was from similar ulterior motives, in reaction to the equally ulterior motives of "Christian special pleaders to justify iniquity by an appeal to the meaning of the world."

Here Babinski leaves off his quotation, but we can imagine that Huxley follows through on his warning that "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," and explores his earlier allusion to "the world we actually live in, the world that is given by our senses, our intuitions of beauty and goodness, our emotions and impulses, our moods and sentiments" from which "the man of science abstracts a simplified private universe of things possessing only... elements which can be weighed, measured, numbered, or which lend themselves in any other way to mathematical treatment." Huxley presumably goes on to argue that it is true that the world has meaning or value, and we must always stand ready to sacrifice our preferences to the truth.

Huxley's passage contradicts Schumacher's thesis — that atheists reject otherwise persuasive evidence for the existence of God because they want to escape Christianity's moral strictures — in several ways. Most obviously, atheism is not synonymous with meaninglessness. Atheism entails only that if there were meaning and value in the world, that meaning and value does not rely on any supernatural being. (It should also be noted that theism is not necessarily synonymous with meaningfulness; a deity can do anything, even act entirely arbitrarily and capriciously.) Furthermore, Huxley clearly asserts the symmetry of both the rejection of and search for meaning; Schumacher's must establish an asymmetry, that atheists (or advocates of meaninglessness) employ ulterior motives in a way that theists do not. Most importantly, while Huxley is realistic about the role of ulterior motives in philosophy, he fundamentally argues the opposite of Schumacher's thesis: from from being a justification for any philosophy, it is incumbent on all philosophers to do their best to transcend their ulterior motives.

Indeed, we can turn Huxley's essay against Schumacher. I do not, of course, want Yahweh, the villainous character depicted in the Christian Bible, to exist. Neither do I want cancer, war, pestilence, famine, murder, rape, nor child abuse to exist. But if Huxley is correct, then Schumacher probably does want Yahweh to exist. Simply pointing out that some atheists do not want Yahweh to exist (and some nihilists do not want meaning and value to exist) is to point out the obvious. We can point out — with equal banality — that some Christians want Yahweh to exist, and employ the existence of Yahweh to support their own preferences and desires. Bias is ubiquitous. The question is not what we want or don't want; the question is not whether or not reality felicitously coincides with our desires; the question is: are we able to set aside what we want the truth to be, so we can determine what the truth really is?

Is Schumacher honestly seeking what the truth really is, instead of simply rationalizing his own biases? I do not intend to single out Schumacher for special investigation; this is a question which everyone must answer; everyone falls under suspicion. As Feynman observes, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Sadly, Schumacher gives every indication that he is simply rationalizing his own biases; he is projecting his own behavior onto atheists. The logical fallacies, post hoc and anecdotal, the use of quotations out of context, his use of unreliable secondary sources, and his failure to check primary sources, all argue that he is merely assembling a rationalization, not conducting an inquiry.

Most tellingly, though, he fails to directly support what ought to be the most important point: regardless of a priori bias, he does not include any direct support for any atheist, scientist, philosopher, or intellectual, ever admitting that they have ignored compelling evidence to the contrary to maintain their bias. We might forgive this omission: it is true, and perhaps important, that many atheists do indeed have an a priori bias against theism, and every honest atheist needs to carefully examine her own biases. But in the form of an anonymous quotation, Schumacher expressly asserts that not only do atheists have a bias, but they also ignore evidence to the contrary to maintain that bias. If Schumacher wants to argue this case, then it is incumbent on him to actually argue it, with direct, cited, and reliable evidence, not third-party hearsay and friend-of-a-friend urban legend. That he does not do so, that he considers his arguments compelling and persuasive on such ridiculous "evidence", decisively indicates that he is merely rationalizing his own biases; he is the pot calling not just the kettle but also the silver spoon black. Schumacher, like most Christian apologists in my experience, not only fails to honestly inquire into the truth, but appears willfully ignorant of what an honest inquiry actually entails.


  1. Hi Larry,

    Just a note about Robin Shumacher and his comment that he "doesn't know if Dr. D. James Kennedy was in error" concerning Kennedy's attribution of a quotation to "Julian Huxley." Well, Kennedy and his team never were able to verify that "Julian" ever said such a thing. Furthermore, Kennedy's proven ability to commit errors in citation, attribution, etc., has been demonstrated many times.

    Kennedy's TV appearance for a week on Ankerberg's show in the 1980s consisted of over a hundred misquotations, incomplete quotations, and miscitations as proven by a reviewer of those programs, a professor Thomas J. Wheeler who meticulously cataloged each error and wrote the show's producers concerning the matter.

    One large Evangelical Christian site also mentions Wheeler's paper on the subject:

    "Not quite free is a 'Response to D. James Kennedy's Presentation on Creationism and Evolution on The John Ankerberg Show' (April 1989). Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Coral Gables, Florida, has frequently 'preached against evolution' on his daily radio and weekly TV programs. We know of several ASA members who have written to Kennedy in the past to point out shortcomings of his 'young-earth' approach to biblical interpretation, which seems to be based largely on materials from the Institute for Creation Research. Now, a biochemist at the U. of Louisville has produced a detailed refutation of what he considers egregious errors in Kennedy's scholarship made in a telecast series on origins in fall 1987. The author says, 'Kennedy's presentation is not an exception, but rather is typical of the creationist presentations which I have seen. If there is an honest, scientifically valid case for creationism, I have yet to see it.' Copies of his 86-page 'Response' are available from the author, Dr. Thomas J. Wheeler, 426 Deerfield Lane, Louisville, KY 40207, for $3.50 each to cover copying and postage."

    After the Kennedy debacle on his show Ankerberg started inviting old-earthers on his program as well, not just young-earthers, and allowed them to debate each other.

    As for Wheeler, I may still have a copy of his paper in my files. Kevin Henke also wrote the Ankerberg show back then, at the same time as Wheeler. I rec'd copies of both their letters at that time along with copies of letters from the Ankerberg show that they each rec'd. Kevin Henke used to be a young-earth creationist and studied geology to disprove it, but finally had to admit that young-earth creationism is bunk. He obtained a Ph.D. in geology and currently teaches at a secular institution, and continues to sometimes write articles on the web rebutting nonsensical creationist flood geology arguments.

    See also THIS ARTICLE

    Dr. D. James Kennedy's "Scholarship"

  2. I also wrote Robin adding . . .

    It's not just a matter of switching the quotation's author from Julian to Aldous.

    The point is that Aldous Huxley was not addressing his quotation as Kennedy presumed, at the rise of Darwinism. In fact Aldous says elsewhere in the same book, "The Victorian passion for respectability was . . . so great that, during the period when they were formulated, neither Positivism nor Darwinism was used as a justification for sexual indulgence." [p. 316-317]

    Aldous was writing in general about the rise of the "philosophy of meaninglessness," and hastened to add that such a philosophy rose partly in reaction "philosophies of meaning," and Aldous questioned the latter as well as the former, writing:

    "The desire to justify a particular form of political organization and, in some cases, of a personal will to power has played an EQUALLY [emphasis added] large part in the formulation of philosophies postulating the existence of MEANING [emphasis added] in the world. Christian philosophers have found no difficulty in justifying imperialism, war, the capitalistic system, the use of torture, the censorship of the press, and ecclesiastical tyrannies of every sort from the tyranny of Rome to the tyrannies of [Calvin's] Geneva and [Puritan] New England. In all cases they have shown that the meaning of the world was such as to be compatible with, or actually most completely expressed by, the iniquities I have mentioned above -- iniquities which happened, of course, to serve the personal or sectarian interests of the philosophers concerned. In due course, these arose philosophers who denied not only the right of 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. 314-316]

  3. Thanks, Ed. This is a complicated issue.

    Certainly, as someone who calls himself a credentialed scholar, Schumacher does not appear to be even as competent as a college sophomore, such as myself.


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