Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Glimpses into the Life and Work of Great Thinkers in Neuroscience and Philosophy


Denise Motus

Among the many dystopian novels written throughout the 20th century, Brave New World is a classic that sits atop with other literary works such as George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Who exactly was the mind that imagined a futuristic society in which citizens are genetically engineered to feel no pain, psychologically manipulated, and routinely drugged to uphold an authoritarian ruling order? His name was Aldous Huxley.

Aldous Leonard Huxley
Aldous Leonard Huxley

Aldous Leonard Huxley was an English literary writer born on July 26, 1894 in Godalming, Surrey, England. One could say that he already had a penchant for literature and science ever since he was born into a prominent intellectual family, the Huxley family, who were known for their contributions to the sciences, arts, and literature. The Huxley's rise to prominence began with Thomas Henry Huxley, Aldous's grandfather, who was a biologist and anthropologist. He became known as “Darwin's Bulldog” for his unyielding support of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Aldous Huxley was different; he was nobody's dog and explored life to his heart's content. In his early twenties, Huxley became an established writer and social satirist. Brave New World ironically started out as a parody of fellow science fiction writer and colleague H.G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods and several more like it. Huxley tried to marry science and literature. He believed that it is crucial to be intellectual in different bodies of knowledge. The compelling writer used concepts of science as themes and settings for his novels while he used literature to critique the anomalies of scientific advancements. With his profound familial ties with science and his dream of becoming a doctor, how did young Aldous become a writer and philosopher instead?

At the age of sixteen, Huxley suffered from a disease that temporarily blinded his eyes. He had plans to enter the medical profession but found that his condition would negatively impact any future in medicine. In Balliol College, Oxford, he took up English literature instead. He loved reading so much that he resorted to using a large magnifying glass and sometimes others would read aloud to him. His eye problems also made him ineligible to serve in the military during World War I. Although, if he had gone off to war, he could have been one of the nearly 700,000 British soldiers who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918.

After graduating from college and becoming a relatively established writer, he briefly taught French at Eton College where he had Eric Blair (who would later use the pen name George Orwell) as one of his students. Blair would then go on to write a classic of his own namely 1984—a dystopian novel about a middle-aged man living in an oppressive totalitarian rule led by Big Brother.

Huxley sprinkled his novels with how he viewed society, such as in Crome Yellow (1921), Point Counter Point (1928), Brave New World (1932), and Eyeless in Gaza (1936). For instance, the factory setting in which genetically engineered babies were produced was inspired from the assembly lines in Henry Ford's manufacturing plant. While he did not necessarily condemn it, he was highly critical of the capitalist American culture he witnessed.

Whereas his works of fiction defined his writing career, his essays contained the crux of his philosophy. While not as revered as his earlier novels, his essay collections which include The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) showcased his unfiltered insights on such topics as drugs, religion, psychology, war, science, and technology. In The Doors of Perception, Huxley takes the reader with him through his psychedelic experiences. Native Americans regarded a certain cactus, called peyote, as a gift from the divine spirits thus using the plant for religious ceremonies. Mescaline is the principal active psychedelic agent of peyote. After reading up on psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond's academic paper on mescaline, Huxley eagerly called him up to submit himself as a guinea pig to test out the psychedelic. On the day of the experiment, he ingested four-tenths of a gram of mescaline dissolved in water. His account of the experiences while under the influence was recorded on a dictating machine allowing himself to refresh his memory of what had happened.

Reflecting back on his experience, Huxley suggested that each person is capable of remembering and perceiving everything that is happening. However, the brain and the nervous system protect the person from being overwhelmed by shutting out most of what is going on in the surroundings and funnels in only what may be practically useful. What will be left would then be the consciousness that keeps only biological survival possible. When taking mescaline, the intellect remains intact and the perception is greatly enhanced but the will takes a turn for the worse. Levelheaded individuals typically would repeatedly think, and sometimes overthink, of ways on how to go about to do something especially in situations that could profoundly affect their circumstance. Mescaline takers do not see any good reason to care that much for such trivial things.

Huxley introduced the concept of “Mind at Large” to describe reaching into the consciousness once the filters that the brain and the ego provide are expelled. He declared that “the urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood is a principal appetite of the soul.” When individuals fail to transcend self-consciousness whether it is by means of worship, good deeds, or meditation, then they are more inclined to resort to chemical substances such as alcohol and drugs. Ideally, religion should fulfill self-transcendence for everyone but since this is not the case, anyone should be given the opportunity to partake in activities (i.e. taking psychedelics) that could help them get to the Mind at Large. The mescaline experiment with Osmond was only the start of his appreciation for hallucinogenic drugs. He continued to study and share his experiences with them for the next decade.

On November 22, 1963, he died in his Los Angeles home on the same day that his fellow English writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) died. Their deaths may have been overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just hours later. Still, Huxley managed to do something remarkable on his deathbed. He asked second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, to administer a dose of LSD to him and so she did. Despite having partial blindness, Aldous Huxley truly had a colorful life. As life escaped his frail, diseased body and LSD ran rampant though his system, he probably saw colors so bright and so intense it took him back to his first glimpse of the Mind at Large.

Further Reading

1. The Doors of Perception: Heaven and Hell

2. Island, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 1 edition (October 20, 2009)

3. The Perennial Philosophy, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 6/28/09 edition (2009)


Selected Excerpts
of an Interview

with Aldous Huxley by The Paris Review

Interviewers: Do you see any relation between the creative process and the use of such drugs as lysergic acid [diethylamide]?

Huxley: I don't think there is any generalization one can make on this. Experience has shown that there's an enormous variation in the way people respond to lysergic acid. Some people probably could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it. Others I don't think could. For most people it's an extremely significant experience, and I suppose in an indirect way it could help the creative process. But I don't think one can sit down and say, "I want to write a magnificent poem, and so I'm going to take lysergic acid [diethylamide]." I don't think it's by any means certain that you would get the result you wanted -- you might get almost any result.

Interviewers: Would the drug give more help to the lyric poet than the novelist?

Huxley: Well, the poet would certainly get an extraordinary view of life which he wouldn't have had in any other way, and this might help him a great deal. But you see (and this is the most significant thing about the experience), during the experience you're really not interested in doing anything practical -- even writing lyric poetry. If you were having a love affair with a woman, would you be interested in writing about it? Of course not. And during the experience you're not particularly in words, because the experience transcends words and is quite inexpressible in terms of words. So the whole notion of conceptualizing what is happening seems very silly. After the event, it seems to me quite possible that it might be of great assistance: people would see the universe around them in a very different way and would be inspired, possibly, to write about it.

Interviewers: But is there much carry-over from the experience?

Huxley: Well, there's always a complete memory of the experience. You remember something extraordinary having happened. And to some extent you can relive the experience, particularly the transformation of the outside world. You get hints of this, you see the world in this transfigured way now and then -- not to the same pitch of intensity, but something of the kind. It does help you to look at the world in a new way. And you come to understand very clearly the way that certain specially gifted people have seen the world. You are actually introduced into the kind of world that Van Gogh lived in, or the kind of world that Blake lived in. You begin to have a direct experience of this kind of world while you're under the drug, and afterwards you can remember and to some slight extent recapture this kind of world, which certain privileged people have moved in and out of, as Blake obviously did all the time.

Interviewers: But the artist's talents won't be any different from what they were before he took the drug?

Huxley: I don't see why they should be different. Some experiments have been made to see what painters can do under the influence of the drug, but most of the examples I have seen are very uninteresting. You could never hope to reproduce to the full extent the quite incredible intensity of color that you get under the influence of the drug. Most of the things I have seen are just rather tiresome bits of expressionism, which correspond hardly at all, I would think, to the actual experience. Maybe an immensely gifted artist -- someone like Odilon Redon (who probably saw the world like this all the time anyhow) -- maybe such a man could profit by the lysergic acid [diethylamide] experience, could use his visions as models, could reproduce on canvas the external world as it is transfigured by the drug.

Interviewers: Here this afternoon, as in your book, The Doors of Perception, you've been talking chiefly about the visual experience under the drug, and about painting. Is there any similar gain in psychological insight?

Huxley: Yes, I think there is. While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one's own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour -- and considerably cheaper! And the experience can be very liberating and widening in other ways. It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It's a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it's healthy that people should have this experience.


The Study of Consciousness

Human interest in the nature of consciousness dates far back to our ancestral past. However, it is only in the last century or so that researchers and philosophers have been able to tackle the problem in a more scientific way. This is primarily due to our increasing understanding of human physiology and how our brain functions. With the advent of ever more sophisticated technology—from fMRI scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to DARPA's neural engineering program, understanding neural “dust”—we are now able to not only create vivid simulations of cerebral activity but also to systematically reverse engineer the brain. Whether such empirical observations will unlock the secrets of self-reflective awareness is still open to vigorous debate. Nevertheless, the study of consciousness is now considered to be of elemental importance and has invited a large number of brilliant thinkers—from a wide range of disciplines, including mathematicians, quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers—to join in the discussions and offer their own contributions.

The following essays briefly explore the life and work of pioneers in the field of consciousness studies. Included in this eclectic mix are such notables as Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin), Paul and Patricia Churchland (University of California, San Diego), Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.), the late Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, and Jean Pierre Changeux (Collége de France) among others.

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