Science, Marxism and the Big Bang: A Critical Review of 'Reason in Revolt'
The dialectic of the unity and interpenetration of opposites in science
As briefly mentioned earlier, Woods follows Eric Lerner’s general approach to the Big Bang. Lerner, adopting a popular style, argues that the Big Bang theory is full of holes. This is misleading. When pressed, Lerner makes clear he rejects the Big Bang theory because one or more of its predictions have from time to time failed – such as the original calculations of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation mentioned above.
Science according to Karl Popper
Lerner takes the position that: "When a theory makes clear predictions which are contradicted by observation it is falsified and has to be rejected." (http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=89106&page=2) What Lerner expresses here is the well-known philosophy of the anti-Marxist, anti-dialectician Karl Popper. In broad terms, Popper said that if a single observation falsifies a scientific theory, the theory is wrong, and must be abandoned. He argued that if a science relies on theories that do not admit of falsification, or if a science simply modifies its claims to circumvent falsification, it can no longer be thought of as a science, but at best is no more than a "metaphysical research programme", and at worst is no different to mysticism, like astrology.
In its original and popular form, Popper’s mode of falsification may be conceived in terms of a single experimental result, which is capable of producing data that can falsify the scientific theory under investigation. This idea has entered into our common sense notions of science, but is an inadequate and misleading depiction of the methodology of science.
While there are many celebrated examples of falsification – such as the Michelson and Morley null result which failed to prove the existence of the aether discussed above – closer historical examination of such examples shows that this oversimplifies the situation. In the case of the Michelson and Morley experiment, there were serious conceptual problems with the very idea of the aether. There were related problems of how James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism was linked to the physics of light. There was a period of crisis in physics. There were a whole series of experiments, each of increasing accuracy and ingenuity, before and after the celebrated Michelson and Morley experiment, and yet scientists were at a loss as to what exactly was wrong. It was the combined weight of these failures, together with the emergence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, that finally overthrew the old Newtonian physics and the aether theory together.
Popper came to recognise that his original conception was inadequate, and modified his theory in various ways to circumvent criticism. Lerner uses the "naďve falsification" popularly associated with Popper’s theory to dismiss the current Big Bang theory, while some have used Popper’s theory to suggest that cosmology itself is not a science, arguing that it cannot, by its very nature, be falsified in the way Popper conceived.
But this only demonstrates that Popper’s theory of falsification was too narrow. In every field, including physics and especially cosmology, science advances on a broad front and requires evaluation, comparison and judgement of a wide range of evidence (often apparently conflicting) over time. For this reason, it is inappropriate to cast science into the mould of simple true/false laboratory tests. This is most clear in the sciences that are far removed from the experimental laboratory, such as the sciences which study evolution, archaeology, palaeontology, and so forth, but it applies in cosmology too.
Popper falsely argues that Marxism is not based on a scientific method since, he asserts, it has shown itself to be not falsifiable. Events, Popper argues, have provided evidence of the falseness of Marxism as a theory, and yet it has refused to die. Marxists argue that Popper and his followers display a profound lack of understanding of Marxist theory, if not a determined opposition to it. Popper concluded, at one point, that according to his criterion Darwinian evolution is not science, essentially because Darwinian evolution, a little like Marxism, does not generally avail itself of simple laboratory tests.
Yet the truth is that no science reduces itself to the simple criterion Popper proposes, as the example of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation in the previous chapter, The Big Bang and mysticism in science, shows.
Vulgar materialism and positivism
Popper’s theory of falsification fails its own test – it cannot be falsified. The theory is problematic since the falsifying observations themselves may turn out to be false. But these are merely technical objections. The truth is that complex phenomena such as scientific theories evolve in time, and any modern science is a complex result of historical development. By contrast, it is in the nature of what is termed positivist philosophy to attempt to reduce all things to simple facts, the atomic components, as it were, that make up the whole, rather than approaching things in a holistic manner. Although he refused the title, Popper was correctly seen as the representative of modern positivism in Britain. In their day Hegel and Marx were both hostile to all varieties of atomistic positivism, from the ancient Greek atomists to the positivists of their day.
Dialectics has always opposed this simplistic approach. The evaluation of scientific theories requires a comparative analysis of a wide range of observation and theories – all facets of the phenomenon. By comparison, Popper’s approach is reductionist: it tends to take the falsifying evidence in isolation (as Woods does in the cosmic background radiation temperature discrepancy) rather than examining the whole in its historical development. Some of the most prominent scientists have attested to the inadequacies of Popper’s approach, such as Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time, and Roger Penrose in The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, a thousand-page book aimed at giving a comprehensive guide to the laws of physics, published in 2004. Penrose says Popper’s method is "too stringent a criterion, and definitely too idealistic a view of science in this modern world of ‘Big science’." (The Road to Reality, p1,020)
Unfortunately, however, many scientists still pay lip service to Popper’s basic contention, even if in their daily practice they do not apply his method. Some, like the physicist Lee Smolin, appear to have an inconsistent or pragmatic outlook. Smolin demands that a theory is not only falsifiable, but also "confirmable" – something Popper denies is possible. Further, when Smolin discusses What is Science? he embraces the philosophy of Paul Feyerabend, a fierce critic of Popper. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, pxiii and p290)
Of course, any materialist, considering the Big Bang theory, would rightly object to the notion that something can come from nothing. But as we have said before, science assumes a substratum. Science continually uncovers as yet unknown physical processes. If something appears to spring from nothing, it indicates that there are limits to our scientific understanding, an understanding that does not encompass all aspects of reality. Marxists cannot take the crude approach exemplified by Reason in Revolt.
In fact, sometimes Woods takes a very crude approach to science: "In the last analysis, all human existence and activity is based on the laws of the motion of atoms." (Reason in Revolt, p60) This is not true in any sense, let alone in the last analysis. In the very simplest sense it omits gravity, photons of light and so forth. But it is an indication of the eclectic method of Woods that he then immediately proceeds to assert the opposite: "Nobody in their right mind would seek to explain the complex movements in human society in terms of atomic forces." (Reason in Revolt, p60) What does he mean then by "in the last analysis"? Cells, animals, species, consciousness, social organisation – most complex things cannot be reduced to the laws of the motion of atoms, "in the last analysis".
Later, Woods applauds the ancient Greek atomists "who visualised the universe as being composed of only two things – the ‘atoms’ and the ‘void’. In essence, this view of the universe is correct." (Reason in Revolt, p145) It is not true in essence or in any other sense. It is the crudest, most ancient expression of the philosophy of positivism of which Popper is a descendent – the modern school properly began with Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century, and with which outlook Reason in Revolt is flawed. This time Woods does not stop to contradict himself, but leaves this crude reductionist position to stand. Marx and Engels rejected the philosophy of Comte and those who took up a similar position later in the century.
Dialectics and science
In any case, from a dialectical point of view, everything that changes has within it an interpenetration of opposites, as Engels puts it in Dialectics of Nature. This dialectic applies in the field of science, and certainly brings us nearer to a Marxist understanding of the nature of scientific theories. Some opposing, contradictory data is likely to be unaccounted for by any scientific model in any field, especially the more ambitious models.
In the "great dialectic between theory and data", as the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called it, good scientific modelling attempts to find common ground in a riot of data. The Big Bang theory famously confronts a number of contradictions, the most important of which is how it came into being out of nothing. We have attempted to show that modern science is no stranger to the dialectic of coming into being, even if it does not consciously recognise this dialectic. But none of these contradictions yet seriously challenge the validity of the four pillars of experimental data that confirm the Big Bang theory. Instead, the contradictions lead to further developments and new conceptualisations of the universe and its contents, further experiments and discoveries.
As well as contradictions confronting scientific models themselves, there are also opposing political and social pressures on scientists to interpret their data in various ways. Take global warming. Enormous political pressures were placed by various elements of the ruling elite, particularly within George W Bush’s regime in the USA, on those scientists who defended the theory of global warming against the theory’s opponents, which included some of the large, powerful sections of the capitalist class that Bush represents, like major oil companies. This may now be beginning to change.
Yet the vast majority of genuine researchers in the field of global warming were prepared to oppose these political pressures. Why is this? There are divisions within the ruling class on the question of the environment, since some corporations fear a backlash arising from the failures of big business-led governments to counter global warming, among other concerns. This same pressure is no doubt felt within the scientific community, as well as being fed by it. Woods treats the scientific establishment as if it is monolithic, but it too suffers from the interpenetration of opposites. Scientific teams of researchers, at any rate, are in many cases skilled workers themselves, even if the grants, bursaries and investment in science are coming more and more under the thumb of the capitalist class at the present time.
In fact, contradictions in and between scientific theories and their data abound within science, as any practising scientist knows. We have shown how Newton was aware of contradictions in his own model of the universe, such as the problem of the collapse of the universe under its own gravity. There will always be data that is untamed, alternative interpretations, contradictory material. Some contradictions indicate the path down which a more advanced theory may one day be found, leading at a certain point to a revolutionary overturn of the old paradigm and the establishment of a new paradigm, which then largely dictates the outlook and direction of scientific research and its theoretical development over a whole period of time, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.
Thus the Newtonian paradigm of space and time was overthrown two centuries later by Einstein’s space-time paradigm and the Big Bang theory, resolving contradictions that had existed since Newton’s day. We cannot discuss the merits of Kuhn’s work here, but Kuhn is certainly right when he points out that a paradigm "need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted". (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p18)
Woods rather disdainfully writes that Kuhn’s philosophy of science "can be accepted as true" (Reason in Revolt, p380), although, in typical eclectic fashion, in the preceding paragraphs he embraces some of the very ideas Kuhn was successfully refuting. Woods can hardly argue that Kuhn’s approach, which has elements of a dialectical outlook, informs Woods’ own approach to science in Reason in Revolt, since the opposite is true. There is no question that the accumulation of material evidence is critical to the advancement of science. But Woods’ approach is too simplistic.
Contradictions found in scientific theories, such as the Big Bang theory, might indicate the dying embers of an old, negated paradigm, or aspects of it preserved but represented in unrevised methods and outmoded supporting theories, outdated instruments operating at the far limits of their range, or techniques that are still far from adequate.
Hegel explains that in the course of human development the negation of old ideas (or paradigms) does not simply mean that human history is a meaningless process of endless errors. Something is always preserved in the course of the negation. Now this something might be a positive or a negative hangover (or a mixture of both), but it indicates, as Kuhn hastened to emphasise after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that there is a continuing development of a greater understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to those philosophers who deny any progress at all. There seems to be insufficient recognition of the nature of this dialectical process of new ideas coming into being in Reason in Revolt.
In the collection of essays, It Ain’t Necessarily So, the evolutionary biologist and social commentator, Richard Lewontin, puts it like this, beginning with an oblique reference to the same revolution that inspired Hegel:
As in politics, so in science, a genuine revolution is not an event but a process. A manifesto may be published, a reigning head may drop into a basket, but the accumulated contradictions of the past do not disappear in an instant. Nor do the supporters of the ancien régime. The new view of nature does indeed resolve many of the old problems, but it creates new ones of its own, new contradictions that are different from, but not necessarily any less deep than, the old. And waiting, just across the border, are intellectual somocistas, saying, "I told you so. What did you expect?" trying to convince us that the old way of looking at nature was correct after all. Of course, the old view of nature can never return, but rather new revolutions displace old ones. (Darwin’s Revolution, New York Review of Books, 16 June 1983. The Somocistas were reactionary landlord supporters of the US backed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza prior to the 1979 revolution.)
Only a complete theory would consistently explain everything – and no theory is ever complete because observations constantly reveal new phenomena that require new, higher levels of theoretical understanding. Woods, however, rejects the entire body of the modern science of cosmology, calling it creationism: "The Big Bang theory is really a creation myth," complete with "its inseparable companion, the day of Final Judgement (the ‘Big Crunch’)." (Reason in Revolt, p183) This accusation of a creation myth, made by Hoyle (who died in 2001), and other opponents of the Big Bang theory – at least until the discovery of the cosmic background radiation forty years ago – is regarded by scientists as simply casting aspersions. On its own it is not a scientific refutation. If Woods wishes to criticise the Big Bang, he must do so by thoroughly examining – in an informed and balanced way – the experimental evidence.
In the chapter, The Theory of Knowledge, Woods elucidates the main reason why he feels there is mysticism in science: "… there has been no adequate philosophy which could help to point science in the right direction. The philosophy of science is in a mess." (Reason in Revolt, p381)
This is Woods’ justification for writing a book on a subject that he knows very little about: he is the philosopher bringing dialectics to the misguided or ignorant scientist. Reason in Revolt attempts to use philosophical reason to revolt against modern science, calling on the assistance of dialectics. As we have seen, Woods’ acquaintance with philosophy also appears to be sketchy.
Woods reiterates that "Einstein was partly responsible" for the supposed tendency to mysticism in science. (Reason in Revolt p381) Once again we must insist that this is not a materialist approach. It is not helped by a complaint of "prejudice against dialectics". (Reason in Revolt, p385) However true that may be, and however much it may hinder the rapid development of science, it is still no material barrier which could send science backwards, let alone so far back that at "no time in the history of science has mysticism been so rampant as now". (Reason in Revolt, p384)
As long ago as 1885, Engels concluded that "natural science has now advanced so far that it can no longer escape dialectical generalisation". Twentieth century scientific theory, in particular quantum mechanics, in many ways soon proved this to be the case. Engels merely notes that the scientist can arrive at these generalisations "more easily if one approaches the dialectical character of these facts equipped with an understanding of the laws of dialectical thought." (1885 preface to Anti-Dühring, pp19-20)
On the whole, however, Woods puts the causes of the supposed descent into mysticism of science down to philosophical mistakes. This is a very one-sided approach that has fallen into idealism. Hegel, the consummate idealist, would – indeed did – take the same position. Science, he said, was a "kind of witches’ circle in which… phenomena and phantoms run riot in indiscriminate company and enjoy equal rank with one another." (Science of Logic, p461) Hegel was an idealist philosopher. Marx and Engels broke from that view.
So should Marxists defend the Big Bang theory? Such a question would indicate a wrong approach to Marxist dialectics. We have tried to show that Marxism does not supply an a priori means of determining correct scientific theories – it cannot dictate by means of materialist dialectics which scientific theory is verifiable and which is not.
In general terms only a genuinely socialist society could re-establish workers’ confidence in the results of modern science, once science is no longer subject to the malign influence of big business agendas. In 1926, Trotsky wrote:
Although class interests have introduced and are still introducing false tendencies even into natural science, nevertheless this falsification process is restricted by the limits beyond which it begins directly to prevent the progress of technology. (Problems of Everyday Life, p287)
This is still true today. But scientific thought will only demonstrate truly "vast possibilities" once it is
… so to speak, nationalised, emancipated from the internecine wars of private property, no longer required to lend itself to bribery of individual proprietors, but intended to serve the economic development of the nation as a whole. (Problems of Everyday Life, p274)
Only then could we perhaps envisage the development of the social and political toolkit of Marxism into one which embraces and encourages independent scientific development (without any a priori judgements). Then, instead of perhaps in their ones and twos today, scientists as a body will be able to consciously apply dialectical considerations as an aid to their work.
But Trotsky issued the following warning:
Whenever any Marxist attempted to transmute the theory of Marx into a universal master key and ignore all other spheres of learning, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] would rebuke him with the expressive phrase "Komchvanstvo" ("communist swagger"). (Problems of Everyday Life, p274)
Dialectics and the universe
Science has demonstrated the dialectics of the universe. Some ten to twenty billion years ago, so far as is most broadly accepted by science today, there was a sudden catastrophic dialectical transformation, and the universe we know came into existence – from what cause we do not know. Time and space are bound up with matter and energy, and are not exempt from the dialectics of nature. Time has not been ticking eternally, exempt from the transformations of quantity into quality first discovered by the ancient philosophers of Ionia, and which in modern times helped form the Marxist understanding of processes here on earth.
Woods supposes that time is exempt from this dialectical transformation. In arguing for an infinite universe, Woods steps from the path of materialism and science, and onto a path towards what Hegel termed ‘metaphysics’. By metaphysics here we mean both a non-dialectical approach and an attempt to base a philosophy on a realm beyond the world of experience. The science of the Big Bang presents both a more material and a more dialectical view of the universe than that of Reason in Revolt. Woods dismisses the scientific evidence of the Big Bang without a proper consideration of that evidence. Is this dialectical materialism? Surely it is the opposite.
Some of the modern theories of the cosmos contain a rediscovery (not for the first time) by science of the dialectics of nature. The theory of cosmological phase changes or transitions helped scientists make definite predictions that have been experimentally proved, as Greene explains. He says "cosmological phase transitions have proven so potent" that many scientists feel that the concept of phase transitions will contribute to a unified theory of the cosmos. (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p268) They are used in theories of how the early universe developed. Phase transitions are an example of the dialectic of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa.
One thing is certain: an infinite universe can never be tested for or detected by a telescope, or any other instrument. The origin of the concept of an infinite universe is not to be found in nature but in the mind. It is an idea, and to argue that our universe is infinite in time and space in the twenty-first century is a move backwards to the epoch of the origins of Newtonian physics, and towards a philosophy of idealism.
At the beginning of this review, we suggested that Woods has a less than rounded-out grasp of science. He does not understand how water boils. He does not recognise Newton’s first law of motion, attributing it to Einstein’s relativity, and then attempts to discredit it. Had he chosen any other of Newton’s laws to discredit, he might have been correct, if only by chance, but he fell upon the one Newtonian law which remains fundamental to physics. Woods attempts to defend the Newtonian universe, yet no more recognises the fact than he does Newton’s laws.
But it was not Woods’ scientific pretensions that led us to review Reason in Revolt. Woods claimed, in his obituary to Ted Grant, that Reason in Revolt defends the fundamentals of Marxism. We strongly object. Woods supposes that dialectical materialism takes as axiomatic the Newtonian universe. He misrepresents 2,500 years of science and philosophy to support this mistake. He fails to grasp the dialectic between theory and experiment, and has little understanding of scientific method.
He calls on Hegel for support. Whereas Marx and Engels took Hegel’s dialectical idealism and stood it on its feet, creating what became known as dialectical materialism, Woods spins it around to get metaphysical idealism. He reverses Hegel’s rejection of the spurious infinite universe, embracing this undialectical ideal in the name of Marxism. Marx and Engels abandoned Hegel’s system and kept his dialectical method. Woods defends Newtonian absolute space and time, which Hegel incorporates into his Absolute Idea, and abandons Hegel’s dialectical method which contradicts it.
Woods misrepresents both Hegel and Engels. Engels explicitly praised Kant’s insight into the coming into being of our universe, yet Woods makes no mention of it. He attempts to turn Engels’ understanding of science into a timeless dogma, and ignores Engels’ dialectical method, which points clearly to the conclusion that our universe must have come into being and will pass away.
We have attempted to present an alternative to the reader, by discussing the historical development of ideas about the universe, which led eventually to the astounding and counter-intuitive theories of today: Einstein’s relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang. Marxism does not have the tools to evaluate these sciences independently of a full comprehension of the scientific evidence, incomplete as it always will be, purely on the strength of its philosophical method. Yet Woods supposes that dialectical materialism has some a priori ability to judge the correctness of a science, expressing an affinity for Popper, who thought that his method of falsification could do the same.
We have pointed to a more dialectical understanding of the nature of science, and briefly outlined the undoubtedly dialectical elements in modern scientific theories about the universe. Science will continue to develop and change, as will our understanding of the universe. In the last century, however, we have witnessed several remarkable revolutions in science, overturning centuries-old paradigms. Some may find them shocking and disturbing – just as shocking no doubt, as the ancient Ionians found the philosophy of Anaximander, who two-and-a-half millennia ago said the world had come into existence in a ball of fire and would eventually pass away. But these revolutions, which have opened such vast, unexplored horizons – even of universes beyond our universe – must not tempt us into false notions of the infinite.