Professor Huxley as a Machine

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (April, 30, 1870)

[550] Professor Huxley has made a very intrepid overture to all whom it may concern, which his many hearty admirers, among whom we claim to be of the heartiest, will rejoice to think is not likely to be hastily accepted. In his address to "The Cambridge Young Men's Christian Association," published in the May number of Macmillan's Magazine, after a very interesting dissertation on the at once materialistic and idealistic tendencies of the philosophy of Descartes, he makes the following daring bid: – "I protest," he says, – in reference to the supposed danger of referring spiritual phenomena to the mechanical action of material causes, – "I protest that if some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true, and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right; the freedom to do wrong, I am ready to part with on the cheapest terms to any one who will take it of me." We sincerely hope, in spite of the enormous addition to the intellectual resources of the day which such a Huxley-clock would afford, that no great Power will take the Professor at his word, and so deprive us of that inimitable human freshness and personal distinctiveness which constitute the charms alike of the Huxleyan physics and the Huxleyan metaphysics. Who would exchange that sailor-like delight in the squalls and perils of the infinite ocean of speculation so characteristic of Professor Huxley,–

"Who ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder an the sunshine, and opposed
Free heart, free forehead,"

– for the infallible response of a calculating machine, striking the oracular answer to our scientific an moral questions with as much certainty as that with which the observatory clock at Greenwich strikes the mean time? One would have said a priori that Professor Huxley was much more likely to sympathize with that celebrated paradox of Lessing's, conceived in the exactly opposite school of thought, namely, that if he were offered, in one hand, the perpetual desire, for and power to hunt after, truth, and, in the other, absolute truth, he would choose the former, – a paradox of paradoxes, because any true thirst for truth is incompatible with the rejection of the prize itself, if offered, just as no true love, either human or divine, could prefer the state of aspiration to the state of fruition. But paradoxical and unreal as Lessing's saying was in one direction, Professor Huxley's is not less so in the other direction. It seems indeed to express the most profound devotion to truth and right, inasmuch as it offers to surrender even the faculty of going wrong, for the certainty of right. But an automatic arrangement for indicating the truth, and for ensuring right action, like that which discharges the blood into the arteries, and oxygenates it in the lungs, or for expelling error, like that which expels an irritating substance from the air vessels in a sneeze, would be precisely as dismal a substitute for the moral and intellectual loyalty to truth and right, and hostility to error and wrong, as a blind attraction like that of the iron filing for the magnet would be for human love, or the uniform diffusion of different tastes amongst each other, like that of different gases separated only by porous membranes, would be for that diversity of gifts in human society which takes all its beneficent effect from a unity of spirit. The truth is, as Professor Huxley knows as well as we do, that to keep your freedom to do right, while parting with your freedom to do wrong, is not keeping any freedom at all. Indeed, his own metaphor proves it, for the object, of course, of all clockwork is to take away from the clock all freedom, whether of going right or wrong, and to make its going right as nearly as possible as much a matter of absolute necessity as its going at all. Such a discernment of the truth and such an immunity from wrong-doing as could be gained by winding me up every morning before I get out of bed, would be worth just as much as the sense of involuntary power might be to a conscious locomotive, endowed with the capacity to know that as long as the stoker attended the fire, and the boiler remained in good order, it would generate so much momentum every hour. Professor Huxley appears, if we interpret his view rightly, to think that Mr. Pecksniff's highly developed self-consciousness of the organic perfection of his own digestive system was of the highest type of intellectual life. "I do not know how it may be with others, but it is a great satisfaction to me to know, when regaling on my humble fare, that I am putting in motion the most beautiful machinery with which we have any acquaintance. I really feel at such times as if I was doing a public service. When I have wound myself up, if I may employ such a term,' said Mr. Pecksniff, with exquisite tenderness, 'and know that I am Going, I feel that in the lesson afforded by the works within me, I am a Benefactor to my kind.'" As far as we understand Professor Huxley, he would apply precisely this language to a consciousness that he was would up to strike correct answers to scientific questions, and that he was "Going" in the sense of manufacturing pleasures for the rest of his race. Now we need hardly say that in our belief if once you could strike the real freedom out of Professor Huxley, – that power of evading a self-sacrifice for the cause of truth which alone makes his suffering for it a self-sacrifice, – that power of declining a great effort for his fellow-creatures which alone makes his generous self-forgetfulness true philanthropy, – he would cease to exercise that fascination over us which he at present does. Professor Huxley as a thinking machine, even if he could strike the answer to ten thousand questions on which now he can only exhort us to suspend our judgments, if he could sweep away from the lives of his fellow-citizens a thousand evils which he can now only help them to bear, would be, we think we may venture to say, comparatively a social and moral failure. We may say of freedom, as (was it not Voltaire?) said of God, – if it did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Look at the difference between an automatic moral act and an act to which at least freedom is imputed, in producing all that makes love valuable, – admiration, affection, loyalty, fidelity, trust. The sun, and stars, and seasons can be relied on to return in due order with far greater certainty than the moral actions of men can be relied on; yet because there is no freedom imputed to them, there is none of that sense of trust which is at the very root of all true life. If, indeed, Professor Huxley's inner mechanical arrangements were so perfect as to counterfeit the freedom which the best of us know ourselves to poses, it is quite possible that, under the illusion that he was still himself, and not morally wound up before getting out of bed of a morning, he would get even a great access to the popularity which he so well [551] deserves. But as the murder was out, – and it would come out, for almost every of our lives at present involves some vitalizing mite at least of free choice, mingled with a host of necessary conditions, – the great oracular machine, though it would assuredly be more constantly consulted than even Professor Huxley as he is, (and that is not a little), would soon find its relations with the world at large growing very dry, monotonous, and business-like indeed.

Seriously, we wish Professor Huxley's philosophy, delightfully fresh and original as its audacities often are, did not so often suggest to us the fear that the great triumph of the Darwinian principle of "natural selection" in relation to physiology, is mischievously influencing the general philosophy of the day. It is quite obvious that this is among the intellectual possibilities, and we fear it is among the intellectual facts, of the age. What is so natural as for a generation which has lit upon a great truth in studying the modifications of species produced by the principle of utility, to take from utility its standard of truth? Since apparently only those characteristics of animals which tend most to their safety and preservation, are "selected" for intensification and growth from generation to generation, what so natural as for man to take the hint, and give in his adherence to that system of philosophy which most visibly tends to his own prosperity on earth? Just as those insects which take their colouring and their veining from the leaves among which they live are most successful in avoiding the birds which prey upon them, so, it may be argued, those minds which take their whole philosophy most literally from the lessons of external nature, which identify themselves most closely with the laws which govern external nature, will best escape the shocks of collision with physical law, and the general mishaps to which moral idealists are liable. Imbue yourselves utterly with the principles of the laws which govern your physical life, and you will slide smoothly along with them longer, and succumb to them later, than those who have, comparatively at least, neglected that study for the study of spiritual principles which, however noble, do not so vitally affect the physical prosperity and happiness of man. As Napoleon III. hopes to avert collision with France by "imbuing himself" with the ideas of the people, so modern philosophy hopes to avert collision with nature by imbuing itself with the philosophy of nature. We confess that Professor Huxley's anxiety to show that materialism and idealism come to the same thing in the end, – materialism being the teaching side of the double shield, – and his heroism in volunteering at any time to become a machine on condition that the machine should both think and act rightly, though mechanically, – though how a mechanical action could be right we cannot even conceive, – seem to us very like an open assertion that there is in all probability no such thing as truth which is not of physical origin, and deeply-rooted in physical facts. That such an assumption will carry many great advantages in the conflict for physical existence we can easily see; indeed, if there be even a possibility of practical divergence between the drift of intellectual and physical truths, – as there is, – the too exclusive study of the latter may well benefit the race physically, even while injuring it intellectually or spiritually; and this is what we fear from the tendency of philosophy like Professor Huxley's, however much it may be rectified by the effect of his own example in practical life. A great thinker who expresses his eagerness to close with the offer to become a correct thinking and acting machine, and to part with all his freedom to act or think wrongly, – in other words, of course, with all freedom to act or think rightly as well as wrongly, – seems to us to have wholly lost the distinction between what is highest or best , and what will survive the longest, and to have pushed his Darwinianism so far into the mind as to accept the ultimate identity of laws of growth with standards of right. In one sense, too, the wiser, the nobler, and fresher is the mind which has accepted this fundamental falsehood, the greater the calamity to the intellect of the people over whom it has justly obtained so great an influence. There is but one consolation, and that is, that the notion of the broad, fresh, rich, and playful intellect of Professor Huxley as a perfectly regulated piece of clockwork is a notion flagrantly self-contradictory, an on the face of the matter almost too good a joke to have much weight for what it is, a very serious hint of the tendencies of his philosophy.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University