Scientists and the Dialectic.
Correspondence from Labour Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, May 1982

Scientists are members of a society in struggle. and Marxists cannot discuss science. or its theories, in an isolated context of academic specialisation. Recognising this fact does not however place a constraint 0n Marxism from exploiting an academic specialisation or from contributing to this specialisation and therefore I personally am delighted to see the recent interest in science in the columns of Labour Review and the News Line.

Idealism finds its most consistent defence perhaps in the work of academics and for the obvious reason that they can call upon specialist knowledge which is only accessible to other academics, not only in discipline, but more often than not in their specialised interest within this discipline. The ideological struggle cannot be won by argument, but must be resolved through the development of Marxism by a party built to lead the working class to State power for the socialist transformation of society, which will release the potential of science for the development of mankind.

Marxism must however win the ideological struggle if it is to be successful in its struggle for power and this is not a conundrum, but a necessary recognition of the dialectical nature of the problem.

Science does not develop out of the class struggle and neither are the dialectical laws of· physics, to take a specific example of the natural sciences, translatable to the dialectical struggle of the class struggle. This point is made clear in Engels’s classic work Dialectics of Nature when he insists on the absolute differentiation even of science from science, i.e. the laws of physics can not form the basis of the science of chemistry although many laws of physics find application in this sister science.

Recently, important questions have arisen for the revolutionary party from its philosophical and political struggle in the field of natural science and in particular physics. Comrade Healy has made fundamental contributions of late by developing the philosophical work of Lenin and has drawn extensively on the recent work of scientists in the Soviet Union on dialectical materialism.

I would like to make a few points about certain problems in the work of the party. Some of the work being discussed by Comrade Healy is of very old vintage, for example the importance of the duality of wave and particle nature of matter. This discovery is of fundamental importance to dialectical materialism and it is a measure of the betrayals of Stalinism that such an important discovery has not been assimilated by Marxism. The discovery of the duality of nature was made at the beginning of this century and a period of traumatic crisis for the old so called classical physics. The new physics was born out of this crisis and it was in this period of revolutionary change that the Russian Revolution was born, as were the new sciences of physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics.

I do not claim to be an expert in either of these sciences, but have been able I hope to grasp the fundamentals of these two sciences and it appears to me that there are some misconceptions about these in the Party’s literature which may discredit the important work of Healy if certain mistakes in the views of two of your science correspondents are not corrected. Firstly, may I point out that Chris Talbot in Labour Review Vol. V. No.7 quotes Neils Bohr and Heisenberg, two founders of quantum mechanics, and discusses their reservations about the unbridled and unthinking application of mathematics. This science began with attempts to build models of atoms, nuclei and other molecular processes, but by the 1920s the leading workers had abandoned attempts to build models and had accepted that mathematics provided the basis for the new sciences and that models had exceeded their usefulness or scope. The lessons of this development have been hammered home by more than half a century of work of tens of thousands of scientists since that time, mathematics is not a fetishism, it is in modern science more of a reality than any model. Mechanical materialism would be horrified by this unmechanical discovery, but nature is not mechanical in a Newtonian sense, it is imbued with life and self-development, and Marxism must be the first to recognise this and not be afraid to accept the consequences of this recognition, i.e. models are limited and belong to the past.

Secondly, the consequence of this is that on the surface modern physics does indeed appear as a mathematical abstraction, but Talbot himself points out that even so called classical physics contains fundamental contradictions in its central mathematical definitions of infinitesimals which provide the basis for the description of the most fundamental of all contradictions, viz. motion. The laws of Newton are indeed conceptually limited and we can discover this by consulting an elementary physics text-book. Engels pointed out that this outlook based on the concept force was, even in the 19th century, inadequate and being replaced by a view based on energy through the work of Mayer, Joule, Helmholtz et al, who introduced the so called Law of Conservation of Energy. The work of Einstein who introduced the Theory of Relativity showed that force is not invariant, i.e. it changes with different frames of reference and is not conserved, but he proved that energy and momentum are always conserved and that these are the fundamentals of physics. Einstein failed in his quest after his Relativity triumph to produce a generalised Unified Field Theory which would have been a supreme culmination of his life’s work; in all probability he failed principally because of the inadequate level of experimental work on the fundamental particles of nature whose interactions form the basis of all forces (interactions) in nature, but today this work is proceeding very rapidly and developing around the quark theory. There is not space here to discuss exhaustively the central role and importance of mathematics to the new materialism, but it appears to me to be the height of folly for Trotskyism to fail to understand this point, because it will not only damn itself in the eyes of any serious scientist, but it will also disarm it in its life and death struggle with idealism in the domains of science or fundamentally for Marxism, philosophy. am not here claiming that mathematics or physics, chemistry or other sciences is free from idealism, it is in fact contained within the framework of bourgeois sciences and must be restructured along the lines outlined by Trotsky who initiated in the Soviet Union an inventory of all sciences to discover what was useful and what was a bourgeois misrepresentation. Neither should Talbot so uncritically associate mathematics in the natural sciences with the prostitution of mathematics in pseudo-sciences such as economics.

Thirdly, it appears that the Science Correspondent in The News Line on March 2, 1982 was confused in attempts to confound the Anti-evolutionists in the USA who claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics supports the creationist view of nature, although after many readings of the article I have been unable to unravel exactly what is being said. He quotes Engels on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but I think Engels is mistaken in claiming that there is a logical inconsistency between the First Law, the conservation Jaw of energy, and the Second Law, the entropy or disorder law, and I doubt if today you will find a reputable scientist who would accept the first law excludes the second. It is also dangerous to downgrade the Second Law, which is to my mind the law of motion in thermodynamics, as this is an extremely general law of science finding applications in biology and chemistry determining the direction and limit of changes in bio and chemical systems and from this microscopic level it has an enormous sweep and in fact is being used as a fundamental theoretical tool in probing the nature of the most massive of macro bodies postulated in the universe so far, namely the black holes. While it is true that there is not the same basis for claiming the Second Law to be a universal law as the First, which finds its universal nature in Einstein’s theory, it is dangerous to underestimate its importance.

The Second Law poses what has been called the problem of the heat death of the universe, when all matter devolves to a uniform temperature. While this is a real problem for materialists to face, it is wrong to suppose that this supports creationism. Certainly John Tyndall, the Irish scientist whose translation of Clausius’ book from German to English introduced the Second Law in 1867, did not think so, as revealed by his major contribution to the Evolution debate in 1874 at the British Association when he delivered his explicitly materialist Presidential Address at Belfast. Tyndall had advised Clausius during his epoch making researches and was well aware of the important philosophical consequences of this work and indeed the earlier work on the First Law and it must be remembered that he and T.H. Huxley formed the vanguard in the so called Battle for the Origin. Despite their agnosticism, these two perhaps had greater confidence in the ability of scientists to resolve all these problems given time than some modern day materialists, but we must not run scared from such real theoretical problems or resort to quotations from authorities like Engels to confound our idealist enemies.

There is in fact a science devoted to studying the consequences of statistical phenomena, known as Statistical Mechanics, which has shown that entropy (a measure of disorder) can decrease in time, but that there is an overwhelming probability that it will increase. What laws of physics will apply within black holes remains to be discovered and how these and other astronomical entities fit into a theory of evolution of the universe is a matter of debate. The materialism of scientific theory has not as yet properly resolved the big bang theory’s difficulties, but even accepting this prognosis, the facile appeal to a creative act of God is a circular argument as was explained by Karl Sagan in the last programme of his marvellous TV series and this is therefore no answer at all to the dilemma. The fact that physicists are attempting to use theoretical tools such as the Second Law to explore the physics of yet to be experimentally confirmed black holes is not a sign of strength of idealism, it is on the contrary an affirmation of materialism for as Tyndall insisted science can not stop when the microscope fails.

There is an important final point to make, Marxism insists it begins with the theoretical and confronts the practice of the party and thus rejects spontaneity and other manifestations of empiricism in the workers movement. A study of the methods of science will reveal that the origins of science lie in the practice of the early craftsmen in pre-history. In Greece we see the pre-eminence of a second scientific method, the theoretical deductive and logical. The practice of the craftsmen on which this society depended came to be despised. In the middle ages and Renaissance developed the empirical method and in our own time the modem method of science, theory leading practice. This modem method is essential today because scientists are investigating the unseeable atoms, nuclei fundamental particles and so forth and obviously practice here can not lead theory. Theory has in fact to obtain from the microscopic, macroscopic predictions which can be checked in practice. It is not a coincidence that Marxism applies a similar method or that the development of class society led to the first scientific method of practice, slave society produced the second theoretical development of scientific method or that the appearance of the bourgeoisie on the historic stage was accompanied by the development of the method of empiricism. The working classes can not take power spontaneously and the destruction of class society can only come out of a conscious act of that class led by a party guided by Marxist method. Scientists will have to confront the contradictions of their position in class society the same as all other members of this society in the coming revolutionary struggles, but Marxism must aim to gain the allegiance of these people, who are at present being used to provide in the West (sic) the brutal tools of exploitation and destruction for the capitalist class with which they plan to hold on to power. The surplus value the capitalists use to bribe scientists to simply concentrate unthinkingly in their specialisations will become so limited that they too will be driven to consider revolutionary solutions, theoretical clarity in the revolutionary party with respect to science will among other things expedite this nucleation of scientists around this party and this will in turn lead to a most important development in the party.