Remarks on Huxley's Letter to Kingsley

Presented at the The North Texas Church of Freethought service of February 5th, 1995

I'd like to make a few remarks about Huxley's letter to Kingsley. Huxley certainly says a great deal worth thinking about. But the greater part of it is well summarized by his insisting that "my business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations."

I think it's safe to say that what Huxley is objecting to here can be called SELF-SERVING BELIEF.

Now, of course, we all know what that is. It's the other guy's self-serving belief. It's people who fear death and dying and so they convince themselves that death is actually a kind of rebirth and that they shall go on living in some blissful "afterlife." Or that they'll "come back" as someone (or something!) else here on earth.

It's people who have had a hard time finding their direction in life, who've been drug abusers, or alcoholics, or in trouble with the law — falling prey to yet another addiction: the fantasy that a book, or a name, and the dogmas and doctrines that have been attached to them, can "save them" and give their life a meaning without their having to discover for themselves what that meaning is.

And it's people who look at the world and see quite a bit of suffering, and of many people who seem to benefit themselves by doing things that hurt their fellows. Such people are apt to suppose that, somehow, these injustices will ultimately be put right: that wrongdoers will be punished and that "those who were last will be first" in some otherworldly place.

As freethinkers we may laugh at such self-serving beliefs. But let's remember that however foolish they may appear, and however much conflict and bloodshed they have led to, these self-serving beliefs flow from innocent motives. And we all have such innocent motives. It's just that it's a lot easier, as the prophet put it, to see the mote in your brother or sister's eye and miss the board in your own.

Life is full of things not being just the way we'd like them. And it's not just death, or having to find our way alone, or the senseless suffering of life that I'm talking about. It's a lot of other, less cosmic things too. Which is why we're often subject to self-serving beliefs.

In the short run, it's easier, and tends to magnify our own sense of self-importance, to suppose that other people aren't giving us our due, or are making things hard on us through no fault of our own. It certainly is harder for us to admit that we're weak, that we need love and encouragement, or that sometimes when things go wrong we're partly to blame ourselves, or, alternatively, no one's to blame.

But in the long run these self-serving beliefs about ourselves and others are as harmful as any other false beliefs. We need to search ourselves and root them out.

Now Niels Bohr once said that there are two kinds of truth: trivial truths and great truths. And he said you could tell the difference because the opposites of trivial truths were false, whereas as the opposites of great truths were true in a way as well.

So it seems to me that the truth that "self-serving beliefs are to be avoided" must be a great truth, because it's opposite: "self-serving beliefs are to be embraced" has some truth to it as well. Yes, it's a paradox. Of such things life is made.

We ought to embrace self-serving beliefs, it seems to me, because they can tell us something about ourselves. And sometimes they may even be helpful, and I'm thinking of all those self-help treatises down at the local bookstore. You know: "You can if you think you can," and so forth.

Now I daresay if your preparation for an exam of some sort is simply to convince yourself that you'll get an "A," that you're no more likely to pass. But if you study for the test and then tell yourself "I know I'll do well," this sort of self-serving belief may be of some use. Especially inasmuch as it's true that, once you've learned the material, there's little reason why you wouldn't do well. "I know I'll do well" then becomes little more than a bit of an exaggeration, a self-affirmation that one is prepared.

The key here, though, is to be able to back off and recognize what one is doing. Because if things turn out differently than expected, you have to be able to learn from your mistakes. The self-help books — and I've read several — are usually pretty thin on this point. They advise keeping a positive attitude about the next challenge, but not about the last failure.

And so the lesson we can take home from Huxley today is that we ought to avoid self-serving belief as touching matters of objective reality. Why settle for myth and fantasy when you can have facts and knowledge? For even when the facts make us unhappy, they motivate us at the same time to learn and grow. On the other hand, when one has a clear-eyed view of this, self-serving beliefs on a subjective level may be helpful — so long as the facts don't stand in opposition to them, and so long as we remain able to recognize them for what they are.

Thank you very much, and Good Morning.

© 1995 by Dr. Tim Gorski