How British imperialists created the orthodoxy of materialism

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How British imperialists created the orthodoxy of materialism

The current orthodoxy of materialism in science was created by a club of British scientists who were driven by social Darwinism and imperialism.

Naturalism was invented in Victorian times (1837-1901)

The modern materialistic worldview that is common today has been shaped by a certain perception of science as being ‘naturalistic’, which is a very recent development. A group of British imperialists called the ‘X Club’, led by the biologist Thomas Huxley, worked very hard to change the way people around the world perceive and practise science.[1] Their motive was to create a new ‘church scientific’ that would replace Anglican Christianity as the dominant worldview and culture of the British empire, and ultimately the whole world.[2] [3]

What is scientific naturalism?

In theory, ‘naturalism’ means that science should be conducted without referring to any religious ideas or values. This is often called ‘methodological naturalism’. In practice however, it has often meant that scientists deny the existence of any supernatural or divine phenomena, and try to explain the entire universe through strictly physical causes and mechanisms, including the workings of the human mind. This is often called ‘metaphysical naturalism’, or ‘scientific materialism’.[4]

Naturalism and Darwinism as weapons against religion

Huxley was the one who introduced the war metaphor into the science and religion debate, writing that science would not be content “with anything short of absolute victory and uncontrolled domination over the whole realm of the intellect.”[5] [6] One of Huxley’s main weapons against religion was the new theory of Darwinian evolution, which led to Huxley’s nickname as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. While Huxley had significant doubts about the truth of natural selection, he started promoting the theory anyway, because of its strictly naturalistic approach to the study of life (biology), which he wanted to spread around the world.[7]

Pre-Victorian science was mostly Christian

From the start of the Scientific Revolution until Victorian times, most scientists were devout Christians who wanted to better understand God’s creation.[8] [9] Huxley and his colleagues led people to believe that these early scientists used scientific methods that were totally opposed to their religious views, but in reality, these early scientists saw scientific rigour as a necessity for clearly understanding the creation of God.[10]

Even in Huxley’s time, both theistic and naturalistic science held basically identical views about how to do science properly (‘scientific methodology’). All scientists agreed that scientific knowledge was uncertain, subject to revision, and that it could only describe phenomena that were part of the uniformity of nature. They also agreed that science can only be done in a climate of intellectual freedom, without any forced belief or dogma. The X Club simply argued that these methodological principles could only be justified under a naturalistic worldview.[11]

Taking over scientific publishing and education

One of the main strategies the X Club used was to take over scientific publishing and education.[12] It is no exaggeration to say that Thomas Huxley is the reason we have ‘biology’ classes in schools today. The X Club took over the universities from the clerics by changing the system by which professors of science were made and chosen.[13]

Huxley supplied most of the candidates for science professorships in Britain, and even in other parts of the world. In the United States, his students introduced the naturalistic ‘Huxley method’ of teaching science at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Columbia University.[14] [15] The Club also began to influence the scientific establishment by dominating the council of the Royal Society, and by dominating scientific publishing with their ‘Nature magazine’, which still sets the standard in scientific discourse today.[16] [17]

‘Social Darwinism’ and imperialism

The value system of several X Club members reveals two important motivations for promoting naturalism, namely ‘social Darwinism’ and imperialism. Huxley was a great admirer of the ‘social Darwinism’ of his X Club colleague Herbert Spencer, even before he read any of Darwin’s work.[18] Spencer’s theory was that society itself was a ‘struggle for existence’ where the ‘fittest’ would naturally rise to the top, while the ‘unfit’ would naturally die off if society stopped helping them with charity and education.[19] Being at the top therefore proved that the British ruling class was biologically superior to the working class and to non-white races, which should be dominated through an expanding empire.[20]

Huxley used Spencer’s social Darwinism to justify and promote liberal (capitalist) imperialism, at a time when Britain’s free trade imperialism was under attack from socialism domestically and economic protectionism internationally.[21] [22] Darwin himself even discovered his theory of natural selection in an essay on imperialist economics by Thomas Malthus; the primary economist of the British East India Company that spread British imperialism around the world.[23] [24] [25] Darwin concluded that the struggle over scarce resources would lead to the survival of the fittest, which was ultimately a good thing.[26] Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, would then take this idea further in his pseudo-science of eugenics, which was later adopted by the Nazis.[27] [28]

The human mind as a machine

Huxley’s social Darwinism also promoted the assumption that human mental capacities were physically (genetically) determined, and that neither the soul nor free will existed. He began using this idea as his primary attack strategy against established religion.[29] The main question at the time was whether mental processes were part of the uniformity of nature, and therefore deterministic.[30] Huxley argued that the human mind was subject to the same forces and laws of the inorganic world, because psychologists had just discovered that they could physically measure nervous impulses.[31]

He therefore concluded that both humans and animals must be considered as automata (mindless machines), since their behaviour was completely determined by physical processes in the body.[32] Consciousness and the will, for Huxley, were simply by-products of these physical processes, like the steam whistle on a train, which has no capacity to modify the behaviour of the train.[33] However, Huxley was honest about the fact that he could not produce any empirical evidence or convincing theory for how matter produced the mind, which he simply assumed would arrive one day.[34]

Justifying social Darwinism and imperialism with naturalism

It is clear that naturalism (especially in its ‘metaphysical’ variety) has been used by the X Club to justify both social Darwinism and imperialism. However, the foundational assumptions underlying metaphysical naturalism (or ‘materialism’) are heavily contested by recent scientific findings and theories.[35] [36] [37] [38] Perhaps the orthodoxy of materialism can still be questioned today.

Timo Pieters

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[1] The group consisted of Huxley, Hooker, Lubbock, Tyndall, Frankland, Busk, Spencer, the mathematician William Spottiswoode, and Thomas Hirst.

[2] Matthew Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago University Press: 2015), p. 2-3, 6, 26.

[3] For example, Huxley titled his essays ‘Lay Sermons’, and he wanted to establish “a scientific Sunday-school in every parish.”

[4] Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, p. 3.

[5] Ibid, p. 27.

[6] Thomas Henry Huxley, “Science and ‘Church Policy,’” Reader 4 (1864): 821.

[7] Ibid, p. 29.

[8] Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, p. 3-4.

[9] B. Alan Wallace, Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness (Snow Lion Publications: 2011), p. 16.

[10] Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, p. 4.

[11] Ibid, p. 8.

[12] Ibid, p. 30.

[13] Ibid, p. 243.

[14] Ibid, p. 244, 260. H.

[15] Newell Martin started the biology program at Johns Hopkins. Henry Fairfield Osborn at Princeton and Columbia. John Dewey made naturalism the default in American science education.

[16] Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, p. 30.

[17] MacLeod, R. M. (1970). The X-Club. A social network of science in late-Victorian England. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 24(2), 305–322.

[18] He frequently recommended Spencer’s theory to Darwin, who would later adopt Spencer’s phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’.

[19] Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of Human Races | Britannica.

[20] Helfand, Michael S. “T. H. Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’: The Politics of Evolution and the Evolution of Politics.” Victorian Studies 20, no. 2 (1977): 159–77.

[21] Ibid.

[22] How Huxley’s X Club Derailed a 19th Century System of Win-Win Cooperation (and 150 Years of Science). Britain had just been plunged into an economic depression because its industrial and trade monopoly had been challenged by the ‘American System of National Economy’ of the United States and Germany, which rejected free trade.

[23] Excerpt from Darwin’s Autobiography – Evolution.

[24] Helfand, Michael S. “T. H. Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’: The Politics of Evolution and the Evolution of Politics.” Victorian Studies 20, no. 2 (1977): 159–77.

[25] Malthus claimed that population growth would inevitably lead to a struggle over scarce resources, making social improvement mathematically impossible. He therefore argued that British social engineers should promote enough war, famine, and epidemics to prevent the population (especially the poor) from growing too much: An Essay on the Principle of Population.

[26] Helfand, Michael S. “T. H. Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’: The Politics of Evolution and the Evolution of Politics.” Victorian Studies 20, no. 2 (1977): 159–77.

[27] Galton: “There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.” Charny, Israel W.; Adalian, Rouben Paul; Jacobs, Steven L.; Markusen, Eric; Sherman, Marc I. (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide: A-H. ABC-CLIO. p. 218.

[28] The overlooked religiosity of the Nazis – EARS.

[29] Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, p. 215.

[30] Ibid, p. 195-196, 215.

[31] Ibid, p. 200.

[32] Ibid, p. 194.

[33] Ibid, p. 206-208.

[34] Ibid, p. 241.

[35] Where does consciousness come from?

[36] Near-death experiences: A challenge to materialism?

[37] Childhood past-life memories: 50 years of evidence – EARS

[38] How meditative traditions can revolutionise modern science