He’s got an ology, you know

lysenko.jpg

It’s a rum business, fish. I mean, one recognises that the broad masses must have their fish. But let’s say that your daily routine involves springing out of bed at 4am so you can hove down to Billingsgate Market and spend a pleasant several hours up to your knees in dead whitebait. After a certain amount of this, the entertainment value starts to pall and you begin to look on fish with a jaundiced eye. But still, you soldier on in the stoic recognition that it is necessary the proletariat have their fish. Sometimes I feel a bit like that when it comes to writing on the left, which is why I haven’t done it for a while. Nonetheless, I suppose it is this blog’s bread and butter, and I would have to come back to it at some point.

To start at a bit of a tangent, you will be aware that some universities, even in the age of academic downsizing, offer a subject called Philosophy of Science. This is not to be confused with actual science – scientists, on the rare occasions they come into contact with PoS, tend to think it a bit weird and not at all related to what they’re doing. Of course, the Philosophy part of the title is the operative bit. PoS, to cut a long story short, is the creation of Bertrand Russell types attempting to build up another bulwark against the perennial foe of philosophical scepticism, nowadays trading as postmodernism. Its connection to science per se is usually platonic.

You get something rather similar, in a low-rent kind of way, with Marxists who reckon that Marxism provides them with a golden key to understanding everything. A lot of this is the fault of Engels, an enthusiasic dabbler in science who liked to claim that scientific advances vindicated Marxism. As a result, lots of Marxists maintain an amateurish interest in science. This would be fine if it wasn’t for their assumption that they – or rather their gurus – understood science better than scientists. It’s worth noting at this point that few scientists join Marxist groups.

So, let’s take as an example the dialectic. On a philosophical level, and in the hands of an accomplished practitioner like Plekhanov, Deborin or Mao, the dialectic can be an elegant intellectual tool for understanding the world. In the wrong hands – and if you don’t believe me, read Studies in Dialectical Materialism by Gerry Healy – it can be a tool for mystification. But that’s not the point. Take the four so-called laws of the dialectic. According to the precepts of diamat, these are the laws of everything. Now try and pitch that to a practising scientist, and you will almost invariably find she stares at you as if you were an acolyte of L Ron Hubbard or Hare Krishna.

And rightly so. The various scientific disciplines work along their own tracks. They have trouble enough respecting each other’s laws, let alone philosophical schemata put forward by people, moreover, who have a track record of lapsing into the realms of mysticism. Furthermore, the scientific method, to the extent you can talk of a coherent method, is experimental, empricial and evidence-based. And that is why you’ll have trouble finding any scientists who will give house room to diamat.

(Parenthetically, there may be some exceptions among theoretical physicists. I continue to hold that Deborin’s attempt in 1929-31 to make diamat the basis of theoretical physics was no more than theoretical physicists deserve, because as a group they do have a tendency to go in for metaphysical speculation rather a lot. Biologists don’t do that. My own subject, as it happens, was chemistry, which is the most empirical of the lot. Add liquid A to liquid B and see if they go boom.)

This does not, of course, hold back our Marxists. Some readers may be familiar with the volume Reason in Revolt by Grant and Woods. In it, Ted and Alan pontificate on modern scientific controversies around things like time travel and chaos theory. It’s not as bad a book as it’s sometimes made out to be, and there is interesting stuff in it, but it doesn’t really convince as an attempt to marry Marxism to science. Although I would say that Ted and Alan’s insistence that scientific advances vindicate Marxism does, at least, place them squarely in the tradition of Engels.

Now, at the risk of winding Richard up, let’s consider for a moment scientific discourse in the Socialist Workers Party. This is an outfit with no programme, but with a multitude of informal “lines” on the most esoteric of subjects, including lots of subjects there is no conceivable justification for a left group having a “line” on. Many of these “lines” are based on nothing more than the subjective opinion of this or that CC member, most notably perhaps Renaissance Man Chris Harman, who has a ready-made opinion on everything under the sun.

Thus it is that you get the emergence of a party “line” on, say, genetics or evolutionary biology, and not only that, but a “line” that contradicts the existing scientific consensus. A lot of this can be traced back to the Cliff method of fighting an undesirable position by back-forming a theory that is supposed to preclude that position. The debate over the “gay gene” is a case in point. The possibility that there is a genetic component to homosexuality doesn’t necessarily, or even probably, lead to the Nazis’ pseudo-scientific theories of degeneracy, but it’s another thing to say that, in order to avoid these undesirable outcomes, we should reject scientific theories on ideological grounds.

Look, we all know about past and present abuses of science. But in the last analysis there is no “right” or “left” science, only good or bad science. To hear folks with degrees in politics or sociology give out about “bourgeois science” or “reactionary science”, which happens much more often than I’d like, is funny only because the left is small and impotent. If the far left, with its current culture, attitudes and prejudices, ever got a sniff of power… who said Lysenkoism was dead?

140 Comments

  1. Rob said,

    January 23, 2008 at 11:14 am

    What do you think about people like Lewontin, Levins and Gould?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 23, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Levins would be my pick of the bunch, and the work he’s doing has a lot of relevance.

    As for Lewontin and Gould, I’ve enjoyed reading them. But I don’t have the specialist knowledge to make a serious guess as to whether they’re right against the academic consensus, and I don’t want to take that step on ideological grounds.

  3. chekov said,

    January 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    I’m a bit of a fan of evolutionary biology and the amusing battles that its practitioners engage in. It’s a funny discipline due to the media attention that it gets which in turn attracts a whole load of prima-donnas and creates an added incentive for people to declare their work to be unique and paradigm changing, while attacking the work of everybody else.

    My view is that, in every area where one can make out a meaningful disagreement that Gould, Rose and Lewontin had with scientific orthodoxy in the field, they were wrong. Their epic battles with Dawkins and Smith were, pretty much entirely based on a misreading and misinterpretation of what he was saying (which Dawkins didn’t help much due to his tendency towards grandiosity).

    The trouble is that, in the late 1960’s and 1970s, the sort of approach to science that ss attributes to the SWP above – misplaced wishful thinking based on a desire not to give any ammunition to the social-darwinists – was actually pretty common in US universities.

    Incidentally, spliny, I think your description of the relationship between marxists and scientists is spot on. It’s completely impossible to take anybody seriously who claims to have devised the universal laws of society – in an era when we understand the logical impossibility of deriving absolute laws to govern complex dynamical systems (of which our society is an almost impossibly complex example).

  4. andy newman said,

    January 23, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I am not so sure that working scientists have not been attracted to the left, JBS Haldane, Hymen Levy and JOhn Desmond Bernal immediately spring to mind, and the 1931 visit by Bukharin and others to the History of Science and Technology conference resulted in a swathe of scientists and science journos attracted to the CPGB.

    What is more they all took an interest in the pholosophy of science.

    I certainly concur with your main thesis about the tendency to deduce science from Marxist first principles. But the reverse is true that the philospophy of acsience does have something to teach marxism, Stathis Psillos’s book “Scientific Realism” is a very good read.

  5. Rob said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Andy, whilst you’re right that historically a lot of scientists attached themselves to Marxism, it certainly seems like this is not so much the case today. Theoretically, Marxism and the philosophy of science (and science more generally) ought to have a lot to say to each other. With Marxism being the ‘philosophy of praxis’, and resolutely materialist it has produced some really interesting work in this regard (Caudwell, Gramsci, Bukharin, Lukacs etc.). But I think the problem that SS has correctly identified is the twofold problem we face today.

    Firstly, there’s the assumption that Marxists who are not in any way involved in science can nonetheless pass judgment on it entirely. Secondly, there is the weird way in which modern parties seem to function, so that every party leader, elder etc. is supposed to be some grand theoretician. This leads to the situation where a bunch of mediocraties, with very little in-depth experience in the field, nonetheless feel content to lord it over scientists. This is a long way away from the tentative, lively debates within the Marxist movements during and around the Russian Revolution.

  6. andy newman said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Rob

    I agree with you 100%

    By the way, I have been working on an article about Lysenko for a while but never get around to finishing it: taking as a starting point Helena Sheehan’s very good account of his position, but locating it in the specific historical circumstances of the aftermath of the 1927 famine and the sociological shift of the agricultrial paradigm in Russia towards modern industrial methods away from localised traditional peasant agriculture.

  7. andy newman said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Oh that is the cover story, the hidden agenda is obvioulsy to hammer the left opposition.

  8. Idris said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    One reason why Lysenko got as far as he did was that he plagiarised traditional peasant methods of crop production maximisation and passed them off as his own invention.

    I read somewhere that the Russian Academy of Sciences was always independent of the state. How much that ‘independence’ would have been worth in practice would be a moot point, of course. But it’s an interesting wee factoid all the same. . .

  9. chekov said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Andy, you’re conflating the left with marxism! I’m a working scientist (actually a slacking scientist is more accurate right now) and anarchist – a leftist but not a marxist. I reckon that marxism generally went the same way that psycho-analysis went – a promising start which introduced powerful analytic tools, which went on to turn its back on testability and rigour in favour of mystification and wishful thinking.

    Rob, the problem as I see it is not that marxism and the philosophy of science don’t talk to each other – in my experience there are a good few marxist types who are familiar with philosophy of science, Kuhn in particular. The problem is that philosophy of science is itself a discipline which is packed with total bullshitters and at its heart lies a whole heap of mystification. I’ve always thought that the basic idea of science – the search for models which better approximate to reality – is just totally philosophically straightforward and thus most of the stuff that gets written about it has to be festooned with nonsense and irrelevant considerations. In general, I find the experience of reading material by most philosophers of science like being lectured to by somebody who obviously doesn’t have the first clue of any of the most basic ideas.

    The amount of times I’ve been told that “science is a belief system too” by some leftie who doesn’t even have a basic understanding of the scientific method is amazing. Much of the philosophy seems to me to be guided by the desire not to have to understand any of the science and also to be able to ignore whatever findings you find inconvenient due to them being tainted with some sort of weird thing called “bourgeois science” or “scientism”.

    “I have read a book in which some dude exposes the philosophical inadequacies of science, therefore, I know much more about all scientific topics than the philosophically simple-minded drones who think about them and painstakingly work on them over decades. For while they may know some trifling details these can be trumped by my greater philosophical understanding in any area that I choose to disagree with them.”

  10. andy newman said,

    January 23, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Chekov

    I am guilty as charged with conflating the left with marxism.

    But I would argue (possible against the run of play) that if you turn your back on testability and rigour then you are not a marxist, but perhaps as most actually existing marxists disregard the necessiaty for exvidence or consistency, perhaps it woould be easier to just part company and say if that is marxism then I am not a marxist.

    I would also say that some of Kuhn’s emphasis on consensuality as a test of truth likeness has had an influence on marxist thinking – in an entirely negative way.

  11. Idris said,

    January 23, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    So, what do we think of Popper?

    And as for Marxism – a philosophy, a sociology, and a system of political economy – ever being a science, well I would have to agree with Anthony Giddens, who when talking of the possibility of a science of human society equivalent to the science of the natural, said something like this: ‘Those who expect this are not just waiting for a train that will never come, they are in the wrong railway station’.

  12. Phil said,

    January 23, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Popper? We hates it.

    Falsificationism is a myth, I’d argue, although it’s a myth that’s gained extraordinary currency as part of an image of ‘scienciness’. (I’ve heard it argued that Dawkins’s popularity owes a lot to his conformity to this mythical image of science – there are no value judgments in science, there’s one right answer, science is always advancing…)

    Actually a theory stands or falls, not by whether any single ‘white crow’ observation disproves it, but by whether it’s consistent with other accepted theories, whether it has any predictive power and… er… help me out, Andy, what’s the third criterion?

    I’d happily call myself a critical realist (if really pushed I’d call myself a phenomenologist who subscribes to critical realism, but never mind) – which suggests one way of reconciling Marxism with science. I don’t know if Andy would go that far.

  13. Binh said,

    January 23, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Mao was not a dialectician, much less a great one. And please stop blaming Engels for the mistakes of his epigones.

  14. chekov said,

    January 23, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    “(I’ve heard it argued that Dawkins’s popularity owes a lot to his conformity to this mythical image of science – there are no value judgments in science, there’s one right answer, science is always advancing…)”

    Sounds to me exactly like what I’m talking about (I’ll bet this argument was made by somebody who didn’t like Dawkins) – analysis that purely depends on abstract ideas of scientific conformity instead of actually looking at the science.

    To my mind Dawkins popularity is down to the fact that he makes compelling arguments, writes well, is a very clear thinker, and most importantly that he is a posh oxford type who is the media’s perfect stereotype of a boffin.

  15. Mark P said,

    January 23, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    “Reason in Revolt” is a bizarre book, for much the reasons splinteredsunrise suggests in the original post. I think that it is perhaps a bit unfair to describe it as being by “Grant and Woods”, even though that is the official billing. Ted Grant was more than capable of coming out with gibberish on occasion, but by the time this book was produced he was an elderly man. His name was commonly appended to writings primarily by Woods in that period, for reasons which had more to do with establishing a kind of Apostolic Succession within the Appeal group than anything else.

    The Socialist Party in England recently, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me, produced a 100 page review of “Reason in Revolt”. The book wasn’t widely discussed in Socialist Party circles so I’m not sure why they bothered. I suspect that it was mostly down to a member with a background in science getting irritated by the mysticism of the book. Anyway, the central content of the review could have been condensed to a passage in the introduction which reads as follows:

    “Grant and Woods believe that their knowledge of dialectical materialism bestows on them an ability to make decisive judgements on the correctness of science with little need to grapple with the evidence and its scientific interpretations… We entertain no illusions that we, as Marxists, have, on the basis of materialist dialectics, ready-made criteria by which we can judge scientific theories.”

    This should be a statement of the obvious. The fact that it isn’t is an indictment of the thinking of sections of the far left.

  16. Neil said,

    January 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    “Marxism, Science & The Big Bang” the SP’s critical response to “Reason in Revolt” was a long term project of Pete Mason’s since the publication of RiR in the early 90’s. Pete’s main reason for publishing are for much the same reason as the thrust of this posting, that RiR attempts to dismiss current scientific theory as “unscientific” because it supposedly contradicts the laws of dialectics. In this case RiR accuses Einstein and cosmological scientists of promoting a creation myth in the form of the Big Bang.
    Pete Mason contends that firstly the Big Bang is emphaticly not a creation myth and backs this up with exhautive reference to peer reviewed, rigerous scientific reasearch. Second that materialist philosophy, if it is to mean anything, must proceed from empirical research, experiment, best scientific practice etc and not try and force the results into a schema dictated by the theory of dialectics. It was always Engels contention that if scientific research contradisted the theories of materialism than materialism itself must be reassed not the science and Pete is arguing from this perspective.
    for this reason I think your being unfair to engles, SS. I would add in passing that Pete’s book was reviewed by Geoff Jones a lecturer in advanced physics and member of the SP. We actually have quite a few practicing scientists and engineers in our ranks as do those organisations coming from a CP tradition. I think your contention that not many scientists are attracted to Marxism might be explained by the fact that you come from a political traditon that (I say this with the greatest possible respect) tends to attract people from the liberal arts spectrum of society?

  17. Neil said,

    January 23, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Reassed? Some kind of new fangled plastic surgery I think.
    I meant reassessed.

  18. enochlown said,

    January 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    There is Science as an Art and way of life and Science as a job or a career vehicle. Guess which one is independent and free and which one causes war and ecological mess?

  19. Phil said,

    January 23, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Chekov – yes, the comparison was drawn by a critic of Dawkins (a professor of archaeology, as it happens), but I’m not sure what it has to do with not actually looking at the science; his argument was that when you do look at the science you find something a lot more complex and qualified than Dawkins’s certainties.

  20. chekov said,

    January 23, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    “when you do look at the science you find something a lot more complex and qualified than Dawkins’s certainties”

    Did this professor profer any actual examples?

  21. Idris said,

    January 23, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Well, when I read Dawkins musing on his meme concept, I just feel embarassed for him. The idea of a unit of cultural reproduction (the ‘meme’) which is analogous to the unit of biological reproduction (the gene) fails at the first hurdle, because the analogy cannot be sustained. The various elements of a culture are affected by their position within that wider culture in a way in which genes are not.

    Now here’s something to chew on. On my hard drive I’ve got a paper by an anthropologist who’s been thinking about the debate over Yanomamo warfare and its implications for evolutionary psychology. According to this, the evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides aver that the Yanomamo engage in warfare in order to capture women from neighbouring groups, for purposes of maximising their reproductive chances. In other words, they have misquoted Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who did so much to establish the reputation of the Yanomamo as ‘the fierce people’. Chagnon is a very keen proponent of biological explanations for human social behaviour – but he specifically states that the Yanomamo do not engage in warfare to capture women.

    So why did Tooby and Cosmides misquote him, and misrepresent his findings? I’d say it’s because there are some cases where ideology does affect and undermine the rectitude of the scientific method.

  22. Phil said,

    January 23, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Well, it was a while ago, and I haven’t read Dawkins myself, so I don’t feel able to get into that argument. I think the argument about there being an inaccurate popular image of science (‘scienciness’) – and about the centrality of falsificationism being involved in that image – is more important than arguing about whether one or other writer fits the image.

  23. chekov said,

    January 23, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    It’s just that, as a populariser, most of what Dawkins comes out with is pretty standard, generally accepted stuff. When he goes off on a speculative one, like with memes, he’s very clear that it’s speculative. I’ve heard a lot of people criticise him with sweeping assertions about his scientific deviations, but never seen any actual examples of these in practice.

  24. Andy said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Phil

    “Actually a theory stands or falls, not by whether any single ‘white crow’ observation disproves it, but by whether it’s consistent with other accepted theories, whether it has any predictive power and… er… help me out, Andy, what’s the third criterion?”

    ….. explains the known evidence.

  25. Andy said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I dunno about the argument that the Grants/Woods book was written by Woods with merely a blessing from Grant.

    That may indeed be the case, but i remember seeing Grant speaking on science at the MIlitant summer camp in the Forest of Dean in around 1990 arguing very much the ideas that are in the Grant/Woods book. To the credit of the MIllies he was received with some scepticism (derision would be more accurate) by a section of the audience.

  26. Andy said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Well i am a practising engineer myself, and I know a few scientists who are in, or were in the SWP, so I don’t think Neil’s point is true that the SWP has not recruited them. More to the point, the expert knowledge of the rank and file members has not been allowed to cloud the inspired theories of the amateurs and cranks that run the organisation.

    Actually, it is interestng that philospohy never approahes the question of engineering, which as opposed to the scientific aproach of how we can collectively develop a theoretical truth approximation, engineering is about how we build the world we live in.

    Obvioulsy it is not theorised in philospohical terms, but a lot of professional engineers have a sophisticated understanding of what their task is.

    Enginerring being about developing functionality that works, or more accurately reaches a socially mediated criteria of success in meeting a socially constructed requirement, and at a socially acceptable cost.

    In assessing whether something works or not, and whether the evidence is reliable, or is infuenced by the measurement method, or observer bias for example, many working engineers could teach social scientists a thing or two.

  27. Rob said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Andy, that’s a very interesting thought, I think a Marxist approach to science would embrace the sort of insights you have – maybe viewing engineering/science as a critico-practical unity. Of course, none of this is particularly new to Marxism.

  28. Rob said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Also, the article on Lysenkoism sounds pretty interesting. I am a big fan of Sheehan, particularly her line on Caudwell (who I think is brilliant). I will reiterate again that I think this period saw Marxism make a really productive engagement with science.

  29. Andy said,

    January 23, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks rob, the article on Lysenko is on the back burner at the moment, but I will get there eventually.

    The considerable merit of Shhehan’s book is that she takes an inclusive view of marxism, rather than regarding marxist philosophy as belonging to any political tradition.

    As you say my own ramblings here are far from novel insights, Bukharin et al in their 1931 book located science firmly as a continuity of engineering (or vice versa). In the sense that the test of theories is whether we can use our mental truth approximations to effect predictable change in the world we live in, and then expereince that change as confirmation of the this-sidedness of our thinking – as the man said.

    In this sense, science can only test those theories that technology can test; and ultimately the questions that are prioritied are those for which there is a social need – hence the drive for newtonian phsyics by the military demands of ballsitics.

  30. Mark P said,

    January 24, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Andy – You may well be right that Grant held similar views to those outlined in “Reason in Revolt” in earlier years. As I said, he was well capable of coming out with gibberish by himself. My point was broadly that in the final years his name was appended to all kinds of publications, few of which he is likely to have had all that much to do with. He may well have agreed with all of the things put out in his name, but I would be very surprised indeed, given his age, if he had actually written them.

  31. Neil said,

    January 24, 2008 at 12:16 am

    re 26: Fair cop Andy about the SWP recruiting scientists. However I would say that Ted’s scientific flights of fancy was never a ‘line’ even in his heyday in the Millitant although some comrades (not just the Woods-Sewell crew) aparently did give it some credence. Actually that summer camp in Dean was the real genisis of Pete’s book as I believe he was one of the louder rasberry blowers at the time.
    I still think SS is overemphasising the dogmatic element in the relation between science and Marxism. Certainly he is correct in his criticism of Stalinism and the left sects. In relation to the method of Marx and Engels this is dead wrong. You only have to think for a moment about how Marx developed his theories in Capital spending years pouring over the best available empirical data in the British library to see that Marx, in as far as is possible with a social science like economics, always tried to proceed from the world as it was and not from an ideological schema. The same goes from Engels even if some of the Family, State and Private Property is a bit dodgy (although the parts dealing with the state is still top class imho) but to repeat Engels himself said that with every shift in scientific paradigm materialism must be reviewed. I think so long as Marxists retain this humble reminder they can avoid making a fool of themselves like some of our more egotistical comrades.

  32. Ray said,

    January 24, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Idris: “The idea of a unit of cultural reproduction (the ‘meme’) which is analogous to the unit of biological reproduction (the gene) fails at the first hurdle, because the analogy cannot be sustained. The various elements of a culture are affected by their position within that wider culture in a way in which genes are not.”

    Well, actually, the effect of a gene is very much dependent on the ‘genetic environment’, the presence or absence of other genes in the genome. So that’s a similarity between genes and memes, not a difference.

    Andy: “In assessing whether something works or not, and whether the evidence is reliable, or is influenced by the measurement method, or observer bias for example, many working engineers could teach social scientists a thing or two.”

    This is amusing, because there’s a long-running joke in some circles that engineers are particularly prone to becoming creationists, arguing against special relativity (preferring some modified Newtonian physics), or denying global warming. There’s speculation that it’s a scaling problem – engineers are used to working on a human scale, with visible results, and a fuse gets blown when they move too far from the directly testable.
    (Which is not to say that this happens to many engineers, but that a high number of people who claim that they have the scientific background to prove that Einstein was wrong turn out to be engineers)

  33. prianikoff said,

    January 24, 2008 at 8:42 am

    “Reason in Revolt” isn’t that bad. The weakest aspect of it is the dogmatic attacks on theoretical physicists based on a crude understanding of materialism, based on 19th century conceptions of what this means. Grant, in fact, believed the “Big Bang” was ruled out on materialist theoretical grounds from the 1950’s and hence his tendency has attached himself to various ‘alternative cosmology ‘ projects like that of Eric Lerner and his supporters.

    This was partly because the BB theory was associated with Le Maitre, who was a practising Catholic priest and Grant felt that it reinforced the idea of miraculous ‘creatio ex nihilo‘.
    Alan Guth’s inflation theory is treated in a similar way.

    The problem is that there are just too many empirical reasons for why these theories can’t be dismissed and the crude 19th century understanding of what constitutes ‘matter’ has been undermined by quantum theory.
    So physical materialism has to take this into account.

    Essentially, the vacuum doesn’t consist of “nothing” and it’s necessary to think in terms of gauge field theories, from which particulate matter emerge.

    There is nosingle consistent theory explaining all this, anymore than there is one consistent theory linking physical materialism to historical materialism.
    But I think Marxists have to accept physical materialism as the basis for all knowledge and dialectics is a useful tool for understanding change in a non-mechanistic way.

    “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Marxism” by RS.Baghavan (Socialist Platform, 1987) is a useful place to start.
    I also like Christoph Schiller’s approach to physics http://www.motionmountain.net which is a widely recommended in the educational world, if not quite mainstream.

    There are always good debates about science and religion at Cosmic Variance and related sites too.

  34. andy newman said,

    January 24, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Ray:

    This is amusing, because there’s a long-running joke in some circles that engineers are particularly prone to becoming creationists, arguing against special relativity (preferring some modified Newtonian physics), or denying global warming. There’s speculation that it’s a scaling problem – engineers are used to working on a human scale, with visible results, and a fuse gets blown when they move too far from the directly testable.

    I think this is unfair, as engineering describes everything from very simple devices made of discrete comonents, up to extremely complex systems. Systems engineering certainly deals with the issues of emergent properties, non-testability, catastropic failure cascading, etc, etc.

  35. Alex Naysmith said,

    January 24, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    I’m interested in Andy’s contribution to this thread as I am an engineer as well. I am very much clueless with regards to the cohesion of Marxism, Philosophy and Science. I’m fairly confident I know what Science is; I only know a little Marxism; but Philosophy I’m unsure of. Reading Rosa Lichtenstein’s ‘Anti-Dialectics’ web page, the anti-philosophy argument there I found convincing and very much in the analytical tradition. Whereas Splintered believes philosophy has much to offer.

    I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further threads on this topic. There is much to think about.

  36. johng said,

    January 24, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Engineering is Crap (cue heated debate).

  37. Idris said,

    January 24, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Ray – you’re right about the relationship between individual genes and the rest of the genome. It’s just that Dawkins insists that evolution operates at the level of the individual gene, and that therefore cultural evolution must also occur at the level of the individual ‘meme’.

    And even if genes exist in a structured relationship with the rest of the genome and culture traits exist in a structured relationship with the rest of their culture, that’s about as far as any analogy can go.

    As for Dawkins being a populariser, I have to say that whenever I read I feel as if I’m about to be ordered to climb out of my trench and march towards the German machine guns.

  38. January 24, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I published a short piece on the launch of Marxism, Science and the Big Bang as well as the introduction to the book here http://leftwingcriminologist.blogspot.com/2007/11/new-book-science-marxism-and-big-bang.html

    You can read the book here, http://www.marxist.net/sciphil/reasoninrevolt/index.html

  39. chekov said,

    January 24, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    It’s just that Dawkins insists that evolution operates at the level of the individual gene, and that therefore cultural evolution must also occur at the level of the individual ‘meme’.

    Evolution does operate at the level of the single gene – that is beyond doubt. We know many individual gene mutations which significantly decrease an organism’s survival and reproduction chances and are therefore selected against.

    It does not, however, only operate at the level of the individual gene, but I’m pretty confident that Dawkins never asserted as much. You’re going to have to provide a quotation to back it up. I think it’s simply a misreading of Dawkins by people who are trying to put forward their work on complex interactions between genes as genuinely paradigm-changing (as is pretty typical of a field given to polemic and egoism).

  40. Idris said,

    January 24, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    I’m pretty sure that he sees the individual replicator as the vital entity in the evolutionary game. From the closing paragraph of The Selfish Gene (a book with, as I’m sure you know, a very different message from that which is implied in its title):

    ‘Replicators are no longer peppered freely though the sea; they are packaged in huge colonies – individual bodies. And phenotypic consequences, instead of being evenly distributed throughout the world, have in many cases congealed into those same bodies. But the individual body, so familiar to us on our planet, did not have to exist. The only kind of entity that has to exist in order for life to arise, anywhere in the universe, is the immortal replicator’.

    Now it’s over a decade since I read TSG, but that sounds to me like he’s saying that in considering how natural selection works, you have to consider what is being selected – and what is being selected is the individual unit of replication, the gene. Hence what I said about Dawkins insisting that evolution operates at the level of the indvidual meme.

    Finally I would never presume to put forward work on genes as genuinely-paradigm changing. At least not until I’d got some training in the subject. That’s why social and cultural anthropologists find ‘meme chatter’ so annoying; those who shoot off their mouths about it don’t seem to have read any of the stuff anthropology has produced on the subject of culture.

  41. Idris said,

    January 24, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    AAARGH!

    The last word of my third paragraph there should be ‘gene’ not ‘meme’.

  42. chekov said,

    January 24, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    idris, that’s a misreading of what he’s saying. It’s a simple and correct observation that all you need for life is something that replicates, he is pointing out that it doesn’t matter what the unit is or how it is bundled, as soon as you have something that replicates, you have life. It’s an argument against evolution having teleology, not about what is the unit of replication.

  43. andy newman said,

    January 24, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Alex

    Helena Sheehan’s book is a good start, as it mainly avoids technical philosophical language.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Marxism-Philosophy-Science-Helena-Sheehan/dp/1573925519

  44. Idris said,

    January 24, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    chekov – maybe you’re right, maybe I’m right, maybe we’re arguing past each other.

    I got the distinct impression from my reading of TSG that when natural selection occurs, what’s being selected is not the individual organism but the individual gene. That’s what I meant by ‘evolution operating at the level of the gene’.

    If I got that completely wrong, can you give me a reference for what RD really meant? Because there’s no way I’d have time to reread TSG again.

  45. Ray said,

    January 24, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Idris, Dawkins does argue that selection takes place at the level of the single gene – the gene is the unit that changes. But he’s also clear that a gene is expressed within a genome, and when you talk about ‘fitness for environment’, in many respects the environment you’re talking about is the genome.
    A quick look in “Climbing Mount Improbable” finds “A gene’s meaning is context-dependent. The embryo develops in a a climate produced by all the genes. The effect that any on gene has on the embryo depends on the rest of the climate.” (p93 of my Penguin edition)

  46. Ray said,

    January 24, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Oh, and Andy, I didn’t mean to slag off all engineers, its just sentences of the form “what we really need here are some clear-thinking engineers” have some amusing associations for me.

  47. WorldbyStorm said,

    January 24, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Brilliant discussion. Talking about memes, a friend of mine did an MA on an aspect of Irish material culture some years back. She gloomily recounted recently that while she’d used memes as a part of her methodological framework the problem was she hadn’t realised (and nor had her supervisor) they’d gone out of fashion in that particular area of cultural research and criticism which meant that when she delivered papers at cultural studies conferences she had to rework the whole approach.

  48. johng said,

    January 25, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    So whats wrong with Kuhn then?

  49. January 25, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    By coincidence, Andy, I interviewed a (still active) SWP comrade who was at that summer camp for my PhD. She recalls the bemusement of many who were staring agog at Ted Grant’s musings on time travel, though I’m sure there must also have been comrades nodding seriously along to his ramblings and imbibing it as if they were the very tablets handed down by Moses himself.

    I haven’t read much in the way of the philosophy of science recently, but years ago when I locked myself up with various books on Marx and Marxism, I came to the understanding that you cannot realistically impose models derived from Marxist philosophy and the philosophy of natural science on one another. The substance of our investigations are fundamentally different: if natural science is about understanding natural processes, uncovering natural laws, etc, then Marxism is about interpreting and explaining the social world in order to change it. A consensus around this emerged at the end of the 70s, when there was an explosion in academic interest in Marxism in British universities, so when I see self-titled Marxists pontificating in the manner beloved of Grant and Woods, they show up not just their ignorance of the philosophy of science, but also one of the key debates within Marxism of the last 30 years.

    As an aside, I also find it depressing when the so-called laws of the dialectic are propounded as the golden key to the study of social phenomena. I’ve always preferred to view them as abstract metaphors that call for attention to be paid to certain characteristics of social processes rather than iron wheels mechanically grinding along the tracks of History. They are correctives to the prejudices of common sense thought, to the habit of treating objects as discrete phenomena without histories, interdependencies, and tensions.

  50. johng said,

    January 25, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    But scientific knowledge is itself a product of society (as are debates about what sort of knowledge it is). This is true of literature as well, but it doesn’t mean that knowledge of this allows you to write books or even predict what their content is before you read them. Despite the fact that these are different kinds of social practice (doing science, doing literature) I fail to see why the same thing doesn’t apply.

    Its also true that in philosophy of science there is much dispute about the ‘scientific method’ with nobody having pinned down exactly what sort of thing this is (ie there doesn’t appear to be one). There are plenty of normative texts of course (Popper’s is one) telling us what it ought to be, but whether these describe accurately what scientists do is much disputed (falsification being notoriously a bit tricky and an uncertain guide to how theories are actually disgarded in practice however much it makes us feel good about the dominant ideology of the age).

    I’ve always thought both Kuhn and Lakotos had a fair stab at defining what happened in science (both like Popper of course also having normative things to say) and also defending science as a practice. Lakotos was taught by Lukacs and was a bit of a Hegelian himself (which makes his work a bit better then Kuhn’s in my view).

    Seems to me that people are talking here as if there is some agreed modern paradigm whilst Marxists do witch craft. I don’t think this is true. Much of modern philosophy of science can’t agree on the criteria for distinguishing witch craft and science for goodness sake.

  51. Phil said,

    January 25, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    The substance of our investigations are fundamentally different: if natural science is about understanding natural processes, uncovering natural laws, etc, then Marxism is about interpreting and explaining the social world in order to change it. A consensus around this emerged at the end of the 70s

    …which was challenged (or at least reformulated) by the critical realists in the 80s. I think it was Andrew Collier who argued that reality is a laminate: the laws of particle physics hold true on the particle physics level, the laws of genetics hold on their level, the laws of psychoanalysis on their level and the laws of class struggle on theirs. None is reducible to or expressible in terms of any of the others, but none necessarily contradicts the others either. I like that idea.

  52. chekov said,

    January 25, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    The problem with Kuhn, is that he was arguing against the philosophical conjectures of the logical positivists – a position that pretty much nobody holds. Thus, while he does provide an interesting historical account of scientific revolutions, there’s nothing particularly surprising or insightful about it to your average working scientist. I doubt that there ever was a scientist who actually thought that the practice of science really translated into a perfectly progressive accumulation of absolute truths.

    Therefore, the various observations that tend to flow from those who are influenced by Kuhn – e.g. “scientific knowledge is itself a product of society” are extremely irritating to your average scientist because they are so extraordinarily obvious that somebody feeling that they don’t already know this and need to be told it is an insult to their intelligence. It is also the case that scientists know, better than anybody else, that science is not “what scientists do” and that what is claimed to be scientific knowledge is often bullshit – hell they spend half their time attacking the theories and questioning the validity of the results of other scientists.

    None of these imperfections, however, detract from the utility of the scientific method and the various tools, procedures and conventions that have been developed for its application. The scientific method is at its heart, simply a requirement that theories should be based on reality and need to show that they work in practice. The precise requirements for what this means and how best to achieve it (and how best to convince others that you have achieved it) are, of course, a subject of intense debate in all fields. These debates are often focused on detailed and complex aspects of methodology and are generally motivated (in the hard sciences at least) by people actually wanting to have better ways of comparing their theories to reality. In certain fields ‘falsifiability’ is an almost realisable goal, but in general we are dealing with systems which are far too complex to be considered as binary – true or false. We have to do with ensuring testability – the idea that reality could produce evidence which undermines our thesis, without ‘disproving’ it (properly speaking science doesn’t prove anything – it merely provides evidence for and against theories – mathematical systems developed from axioms are the only place where proofs are possible).

  53. WorldbyStorm said,

    January 25, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    JohnG, if you reread splintered’s point initially you’ll see that he actually points up the limitations of philosophy of science to address these things in the way you suggest. To be honest I’m with Chekov on this, much of what is crammed into PoS is simple mystification of a very straightforward approach through the scientific method which has one great strength over all other approaches mentioned, i.e. it actually works in practice. Again, and again and again.

    And that demonstrates the problematical aspects of suggesting that “scientific knowledge is a product of society” as if that explicates the situation further. Interpretations certainly can be a product of society, to a limited extent, but the distinction between the actuality of the material world, and the nature of the theoretical constructs we devise to explain or describe that material world is crucial, but not such that the latter casts doubts upon the former, or the latter are impervious to logical analysis to determine their greater or lesser validity.

    I’m very taken with AVPS’s final paragraph.

  54. chekov said,

    January 25, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    “the laws of genetics hold on their level, the laws of psychoanalysis on their level and the laws of class struggle on theirs. None is reducible to or expressible in terms of any of the others, but none necessarily contradicts the others either. I like that idea.”

    It may be attractive in a “everything neatly in order” sort of way, but it’s a view which hasn’t been prevalent within science since Marx’s time. We don’t actually have “laws” anymore. Quantum mechanics and complex systems theory gave such deterministic thinking a bit of a kicking. It’s also not true that the properties of higher-level abstractions can not be reduced to or expressed as the properties of the lower level constituents. The search for the grand unified theory is named as such because it will, in principle, explain why everything in the universe happens. The materialist view of the world (which is the default guiding philosophy of science) holds that you can model anything as it’s component fundamental quantum particles and the relationships between them. In practice, however, heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the sensitivity of complex systems to minute differences in starting parameters means that such a theory will never be useful for analysing higher-level stuff. Happily, however, the forces between quantum particles causes them to form all sorts of stable systems (e.g. protons, atoms) with emergent properties. These emergent systems have systemic properties which can be considered independently of their constituent parts, but depend entirely upon them and are reducible to them. Nobody would use quantum mechanics to work out the behaviour of the transistors on a computer’s circuit board, not because you can’t do it, but because the maths are hideous and you get the same answer as if you just consider the transistor to be an on-off switch.

    As one goes onto higher levels of abstraction, each built upon the other, with atoms being built from protons, electrons and neutrons and molecules from atoms and so on, the complexity of the system increases due to the combinatorial nature of the possible arrangements and associations. Therefore, theories become more uncertain, dependant on more assumptions. As you get up to really, really complex systems like human phsychology or society, the ability to concoct general theories which define the system’s dynamics disappears, you can only really speak of relationships, forces and tendencies.

  55. Phil said,

    January 26, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Chekov – I was conscious of simplifying my already-hazy recollection of Collier’s account; to judge from your reading, I seem to have simplified it out of all recognition.

    These emergent systems have systemic properties which can be considered independently of their constituent parts, but depend entirely upon them and are reducible to them.

    In particular, I was wrong to say that upper layers are not reducible to lower ones – not least because that would also tend to suggest that lower-level concepts (e.g. hunger) can’t be related to higher-level ones (e.g. food riots), which would be daft.

    I think Collier’s model would require a couple of qualifications to your formulation, though – shall we say, ultimately depend entirely upon them and are in principle reducible to them?

    I think the laminate model perhaps makes more sense if you think in terms of layers a bit further apart than quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. As you say yourself,

    As one goes onto higher levels of abstraction, each built upon the other, with atoms being built from protons, electrons and neutrons and molecules from atoms and so on, the complexity of the system increases due to the combinatorial nature of the possible arrangements and associations. Therefore, theories become more uncertain, dependant on more assumptions. As you get up to really, really complex systems like human phsychology or society, the ability to concoct general theories which define the system’s dynamics disappears, you can only really speak of relationships, forces and tendencies.

    I think what Collier and the critical realists take issue with is the last sentence here. I think they’d say that we can at least aspire to answer questions like how capitalism works, what makes people submit to poverty and how revolutions start, and answer them in terms of law-like regularities. Those explanations will rest on psychological mechanisms operating at the level of the individual consciousness (and unconscious), which themselves will be driven by physiological states such as exhaustion and hunger, which in turn can be explained in terms of organic chemistry and ultimately (presumably) in terms of quantum mechanics. But there’s nothing to be gained – and plenty to be lost – by trying to explain social movements in terms of individual psychology, or the urge to rebel in terms of hormonal imbalances. Hence the ‘laminate’ image.

  56. Prianikoff said,

    January 26, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    #54 ‘Quantum mechanics and complex systems theory gave such deterministic thinking a bit of a kicking’

    That’s where I think the classical Marxist account needs to be defended against the postmodernist view of science. There’s no doubt that this is often distorted, quite consciously, to produce idealist and metaphysical conclusions.
    You only need to look at the use of Chaos theory in stock market prediction and its misuse by Global Warming deniers. The latter regularly argue that Lorenz’s ‘Butterfly Effect’, which is based on the fact that the evolution of a weather system is sensetive to initial conditions, which can produce widely divergent outcomes, mean that predicting climate is impossible.
    Similarly, there are physicists who use quantum indeterminacy to argue against determinism and for religious ideas.
    But at a macroscopic level, physical systems are deterministic and physical laws do apply. Human society can’t exist without certain preconditions, one of which an environment that allows biological evolution to take place.
    The laws of Biology may not explain politics, but a political system which destroys the biosphere simply has no future.

  57. chekov said,

    January 26, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    “That’s where I think the classical Marxist account needs to be defended against the postmodernist view of science. There’s no doubt that this is often distorted, quite consciously, to produce idealist and metaphysical conclusions.”

    Sounds to me a bit like burying one’s head in the sand! The fact that one’s opponents distort the science to support their claims does not mean that one can reject the science altogether and defend an outdated framework.

    “You only need to look at the use of Chaos theory in stock market prediction and its misuse by Global Warming deniers. “

    Both weather and the markets are complex dynamic systems. Thus, simulations are used rather than laws to predict their results. Complex dynamic systems are not unpredictable or non-deterministic, they are predictable but with uncertainty. It’s why weather forecasts nowadays are expressed in terms of probabilities.

    Of course climate change denialists constantly use public misunderstandings of science in their propaganda – but in fact chaos theory (the idea that a single insignificant event can throw a system out of a state of more-or-less dynamic equilibrium into a new cycle altogether – creating new attractors) is pretty fatal to their case. The more we affect our climate, the more likely it is to switch into a new cycle altogether – plunging us into a new ice-age or a positive-feedback warming cycle like Venus. Complex systems theory tells us that we have to be very, very careful about affecting the climate as we never know whether any change will have a cataclysmic effect.

    The rules of dynamic systems also hold on a macroscopic level – that is that they are deterministic and predictable, but with a considerable degree of uncertainty and there is always the potential for a single seemingly insignificant action throwing the system out of its current equilibrim into a new orbit. The implications of this, to me, when applied to human society are wholly optimistic. We can make predictions, analyse major forces and so on, but we can’t come up with hard and fast laws and a single individual’s actions have the potential to make a huge difference.

  58. prianikoff said,

    January 26, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Yes, you’re interpreting the theories correctly, as opposed to misusing them to deny determinism. The point being, that a single event, or the actions of an individual are only critical within certain boundary conditions that they *can’t* change.
    But I’m not sure that authentic Marxists ever really said anything very different to that. Perhaps the theoreticians of the 2nd International did, but that was one of the reasons that Lenin spent so much time going through Hegel and writing notes on it – as well as defending the concept of an external Objective Reality against the Machians and Bogdanovites.
    While the scientific ideas at the time may have been limited by the historical period, the basis approach hasn’t really been superseded.
    Interestingly enough, there’s a little section in ‘Materialism & Empiriocriticism” (can’t give you a page ref. offhand), where Lenin actually discusses the concept of extra spatial dimensions and definitely does NOT reject it.

  59. Andy said,

    January 26, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Mmm.

    There is a lot of meat here now.

    I am not sure – as a practising systems engineer – I agree that complex systems behaviour is deterministic and predictable. Nor that high level behaviours are either reducible nor ultimately dependent upn lower level bevaviours. Though I am sympathetic to why people are arguing that, it is also true that there are properties which only operate at a higher level.

    But I want to go back to JohnG’s point, because although I may have misread him.

    But scientific knowledge is itself a product of society (as are debates about what sort of knowledge it is). This is true of literature as well, but it doesn’t mean that knowledge of this allows you to write books or even predict what their content is before you read them. Despite the fact that these are different kinds of social practice (doing science, doing literature) I fail to see why the same thing doesn’t apply.

    There is of course a huge difference between literature and science, as science is not just social practice, it is also an attempt to theroise an actually existing reality; and test that mental model in practice. Remember that there is now a move y some in the WP – for example Richard seymour – to argue that the actually existing world is unknowable (he argues that we cannot know whether atoms exist or not). Is John defending this retreat from rationalism here?

    Its also true that in philosophy of science there is much dispute about the ’scientific method’ with nobody having pinned down exactly what sort of thing this is (ie there doesn’t appear to be one). There are plenty of normative texts of course (Popper’s is one) telling us what it ought to be, but whether these describe accurately what scientists do is much disputed (falsification being notoriously a bit tricky and an uncertain guide to how theories are actually disgarded in practice however much it makes us feel good about the dominant ideology of the age).

    This is a bit disingenuous, as the thrust of scientific realism is not a defence of scientific method, but defence of the idea that there is an actually existing reality, and that current broadly accepted scientific theories are truth-approximate. the argument about the scientific method is then a secondary issue, of judgng how the social practice of science allows to judge which theories are more truth-approximate.

    Seems to me that people are talking here as if there is some agreed modern paradigm whilst Marxists do witch craft. I don’t think this is true. Much of modern philosophy of science can’t agree on the criteria for distinguishing witch craft and science for goodness sake.

    This is where John is definately wrong. In fact i have no real idea what he is talking about. the scientific realist school mount a robust defence of the fact that the phsyical world exists, is knowable, and current established theories are broadly correct. So who cannot distinguish between this and witchcraft?

    There is also a false polarisation. Marxists are (or should be) scientific realists – as that is the materialist tradition in science – indeed marxism has contributed understanding of the role of scientists in scoiety..

  60. Prianikoff said,

    January 27, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Certain things are determined given a few simple basic conditions –
    It is determined that evolution will take place, although it is not determined evolution will produce a Wagner, or that we will have to listen to him.

  61. David Ellis said,

    January 27, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    JohnG and Seymour have undoubtedly taken the post-modern turn.

    On Popper though: Falsifiability is the kind of super inductionist crap that Engels destoys in Dof E. Just look at it in terms of the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution explains the evolution of all creatures. It, of course, contains within itself an exlucion of the possibility that any creature will ever be found that is not a product of evolution therefore as far as Popper is concerned the theory is unfalsifiable and therefore the theory of evolution is simply wrong.

    Marxism is also wrong because is closes off any other sociological explanations i.e. it has the cheek to draw scientific conclusions. The Enemies of the Open Society, Popper’s book, is based on the idiot idea that only inductive logic can keep us free because it never draws definitive conclusions just as for the economists the free market is the only viable economic system.

    As for Kuhn, he was a sociologist not a philosophy of science. His paradigm shifts were attempts at a sociological explanation of what goes on in the scientific community when new discoveries are made. It was picked up by the subjective idealists because they like the idea that science is all about paradigm shifts, purely subjective meanings, as opposed to ontological shifts i.e. a genuine deepening of our understanding of the material world.

  62. David Ellis said,

    January 27, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    That should be DofN (Dialectics of Nature) not DofE of course.

  63. Andy said,

    January 27, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Hi

    I got interrupted by urgent childcare issue half way through what i was writing yesterday..

    The point is that Popper in particular generalised from the practice of science to hold it as an exemplary discipline to sompare it with what he regarded as the faith based doctrines of marxism.

    But although popper may have somewhat constructed his own fiction of the working methods of scientists, he is still broadly correct that evidence based debate underpins democracy. As Ernest Gellner has pointed out, the philosophial exemplers of rationalism, Hume and Kant, both assumed that they were writing about universal human attributes, whereas in fact they were arguing a novel WeltAnshauung for a new industrial age of commodity production (not yet necessarily generalised), where measurement, rationality and accountability were essential to economics. I a sense therefore rationalism and matrialism are social products.

    So for the Mediaeval Guild master the mystique of craft and his prestige within the handicraft workshop, his guild and the city were more importnat than accounting for profit and loss. There is no accountability, there is no potential democracy as the guild masters control information.

    Popper was quite correct to point out that the modern approach of science is amathema to closed groups that rely upon secrecy and writing their own histrory without being held account to facts in the outside world.

    It is understandable thereofre that those Marxists who defend the totalitarian party model are also more uncomfortable with the philospohy of scientific realism. After all in science if you systematically lie, you will probably get found out and exposed.

  64. David Ellis said,

    January 27, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Of course I agree that democracy in the party is essential if science is to thrive and vice versa as is the use of empirical evidence, nothing can outlaw that not even the greatest dictator. However, we would do well to remember that Popper was first and foremost a political philosopher and a Cold Warrior. His defence of science was a bit like Bush’s method of democratisation of Iraq i.e he abolished it.

  65. David Ellis said,

    January 27, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Abolished Iraq that is.

  66. korakious said,

    January 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    There is a conspicuous absence in this discussion of any mention of Anton Pannekoek, perhaps the only Marxist scientist (an astronomer/astrophysicist) to have been very successful as both a scientist and a Marxist. Pannekoek seemed to have little problem in thinking dialectically about his field. His Lenin as Philosopher while in my opinion weak as a critique of Lenin’s thought, is an awesome explanation of what the materialist method is all about. I particularly liked his saying that “laws are not what happens in nature, they are what we expect to happen”. I encourage everyone here to give it a go.

  67. Ray said,

    January 28, 2008 at 8:40 am

    “The theory of evolution explains the evolution of all creatures. It, of course, contains within itself an exlucion of the possibility that any creature will ever be found that is not a product of evolution therefore as far as Popper is concerned the theory is unfalsifiable and therefore the theory of evolution is simply wrong.”

    The theory of evolution _is_ falsifiable. It is, in principle, possible to find a creature that didn’t or couldn’t have evolved. The theory of evolution also makes predictions, and those predictions could turn out to be wrong.

  68. David Ellis said,

    January 28, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    I’m definitely intrigued. This mythical creature, could you give us some kind of clue? A unicorn maybe? Something out of star trek? Adam and Eve?

    I’m kidding! I guess you’re talking about the transition from inorganic to organic life. Obviously not `evolution’ as such. Unless you mean literature or something.

  69. Ray said,

    January 29, 2008 at 9:27 am

    You want an example of something that couldn’t have evolved? Obviously, this is going to be an example of something imagined, rather than existing, because if it existed it would falsify the theory of evolution. So, any sort of chimera would be a counter-example – something that combines genetic material from two different evolutionary paths. I’m not a biologist, but I reckon an animal with tracheal respiration and placental birth would qualify, or a bird with rigid cellulose cell walls. If you want science fiction, an animal that is part machine couldn’t have evolved.

    As I said, the theory of evolution does not allow for the existence of creatures like that, so if they are found, the theory is falsified.

  70. johng said,

    January 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    You’ve misread me, and where an earth ‘post-modernism’ comes into it I have no idea. Crucially I highlighted that literature is not the same as science, but pointed out that both are products of society. I cannot agree that there is no connection between what scientists do and science. Science just is what scientists do and anything else is idealism as far as I can see.

    Crucially though Kuhn is not anti-science and I don’t really understand how anyone can come to that conclusion, unless they are dreadfully shocked by the idea that science might be something that scientists do (ie they are idealists).

    The question of the scientific method is related to the famous debate about demarcation: ie how do we differentiate science from other types of knowledge and indeed other types of practices. Part of the death of logical positivism was the inability of modern philosophy to supply any even halfway coherent answer to that question in terms of a definition of the scientific method.

    Scientific Realism argues as the poster above states a position of the relationship of science to reality ie defends it as a practice in its own terms. I happen to think that Lakotos does a rather better job of this.

  71. chekov said,

    January 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    “Crucially I highlighted that literature is not the same as science, but pointed out that both are products of society.”

    That’s gotta be up there when the prizes are handed out for wanton misuse of the word ‘crucially’.

    “Crucially, I highlighted that oxygen is not the same as science, but both are present in the atmosphere”

    “I cannot agree that there is no connection between what scientists do and science. Science just is what scientists do and anything else is idealism as far as I can see.”

    You cannot agree with an absurd position that nobody stated – well I never. I just played football with a group of scientists – we made science yeah?

    “Crucially though Kuhn is not anti-science and I don’t really understand how anyone can come to that conclusion, unless they are dreadfully shocked by the idea that science might be something that scientists do”

    You disagree with another opinion that nobody has stated – wow. I also doubt that anybody would be dreadfully shocked at your definition – most people hear similarly absurd opinions every day.

  72. chekov said,

    January 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    s/science/hydrogen/ in my quote btw.

  73. johng said,

    January 29, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    “is also the case that scientists know, better than anybody else, that science is not “what scientists do”

    yes it is. What else is it? Importantly science also includes those wrong theories which you say scientists spend a lot of time trying to refute. A scientific theory which is later rejected is presumably not the same as a belief that the moon is made of green cheese.

    On Kuhn the critique of him you presented was that many people like the idea that science is simply subjective. I don’t know how anybody could arrive at that conclusion reading Kuhn (although I concede some have).

    My point about science and literature both being human practices was to stress both the usefulness and the limits of philosophy of science. Its useful to have some understanding of what science is in the same way as its useful to have some understanding of what literature is. But such knowledge won’t help you predict scientific discovaries anymore then such knowledge would help you predict exactly what was in a book before you read it.

    On Lenin’s (tomb) anti-realism, I disagree with him.

  74. johng said,

    January 29, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Oh to clarify, the first para, you seem to imply that scientific knowledge can be equated with true knowledge. This doesn’t make any sense. Not all true beliefs are scienfic and not all scientific theories have been true. True beliefs which are not based on scientific theories are not therefore less true, and scientific theories which turn out not to be true, were not therefore not scientific.

  75. Prianikoff said,

    January 29, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    #68 “You want an example of something that couldn’t have evolved?”

    It’s really a probability issue – check Dawkins ’The Blind Watchmaker’ on the question of cumulative evolution versus the spontaneous generation of a living organism by random processes.

    There’s a well worn debate in theoretical physics regarding the possibility of ’Boltzman Brains” – a sentient organism arising via the chance coalescing of atoms exploring phase space over time.

    Although it’s a theoretical possibility, the chances of it happening, let alone that the organism would have a support system and memories, are infinitesimally remote. Nature works according to the principle of Least Action and so does evolution. Which is also quite a good indication that the universe we observe has not existed for an infinite length of time.

    (If you really want to get into this debate try going to Cosmic Variance and doing a search on BB’s)

  76. Ray said,

    January 29, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Which suggests another possible way of falsifying the theory of evolution – prove that a species of complex, multicellular animals (as complex as a mammal, say) existed on land when the only other life on the planet was single-celled organisms in the oceans.
    (though I take Prianikoff’s wider point about falsification and probability)

  77. chekov said,

    January 30, 2008 at 12:28 am

    Although, as I said above, falsification has always been an impossible goal for scientific theories. With Darwin’s theory, no matter what bizzare creature was discovered, there would be a way of incorporating it into the narrative – albeit highly improbable. Nothing could actually prove it false – and this is something that the creationists never cease to point out (and their pomo allies like johng). The problem with this is that it totally misunderstands science – which is what happens when you learn about it from an effing philosopher.

    You will never prove any general theory absolutely false in science. If you get an unexpected result, your first assumption (correctly) is “my measuring machine must be broken”. If the problem persists, it’s an “unexplained anomaly” and you can normally write it off (correctly) as interference from some unkown thingummy or faulty experimental design.

    Thus, criticising evolutionary theory as unfalsifiable is absurd. The important thing in science is testability – the idea that you can perform some test and it will produce positive or negative evidence. The evidence is balanced out with repetition and no theory that needs ‘anomalous’ explanations very often is going to be used by other people who want to understand the world – in short it will be considered to be a rubbish theory.

    Now, when we come to evolution, we see that it is in fact one of the best tested theories the world has ever known, with the most stunningly positive results imaginable.

    A vital requirement of Darwin’s theory was that all biological entities possessed some sort of bio-chemical mechanism which allowed them to pass on a set of hereditary traits to their offspring and that this mechanism allowed the random alteration of some of these traits. Darwin’s theories further predicted that once this mechanism was uncovered, it would show a viable bio-chemical pathway by which all of the lifeforms on the planet are connected.

    For almost a century of unparellelled scientific revolution, the verification of these predictions remained a matter of faith. It was eminently possible to believe that each creature might have its own, entirely different, means of passing on traits, or that something as puny as a cell was incapable of capturing the immense subtlety of individual differences and that there must be some sort of spirit in mind.

    Over the last few decades since the discovery of DNA and the enormous strides in understanding it, we’ve had a mountain of evidence, all of it stunningly supportive of Darwin. We’re within the margin of error on opinion polls as being the same as mice.

    In short, evolution by natural selection is one of the best validated theories there is.

  78. January 30, 2008 at 3:01 am

    Woods and Grant’s execrable book is systematically demolished in several of my Essays.

    For example, their crass misconstural even of Aristotelian logic is exposed here:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/Summary_of_Essay_Four_Part_One.htm

    As is that of most other dialecticians.

  79. January 30, 2008 at 3:05 am

    By the way, Engels’s lamentably poor books (i.e., Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Duhring) are picked apart here:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/Summary_of_Essay_Seven-Part-01b.htm

  80. January 30, 2008 at 3:16 am

    That last link should have been:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%2007.htm

  81. January 30, 2008 at 3:17 am

    And the one before it:

    http://homepage.ntlworld.com/rosa.l/page%2004.htm

  82. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 9:03 am

    Chekov uses the theories of science I would defend that criticise Popper on the basis that ‘falsification’ is a rather tricky business (arguments developed by Kuhn, Lakatos and more philosophically by Quine) and then, once again, accuses me of ‘post-modernism’. According to his own (unstated) criteria, he’s a post-modernist. Its not just a question of faulty equipment. The argument is that most theories attempt to explain anomolies and there are no clear cut criteria for deciding when anomolies reach a pitch were there is a need for a paradigm shift (think of the continuing uneasy co-existence of relativity theory and quantum mechanics in Physics despite anomolies in both: in the absence of something better it would be quite wrong to ditch them, even though its true that they’re both clearly, in some sense, wrong. According to Kuhn and Lakotos anybody who actually followed Popper’s normative injunctions in science would resemble more an anti-evolution creationist then a scientist).

    Strange business this constant recourse to allegations of ‘post-modernism’.

    Part of the problem is that if you set up entirely artificial standards more closely aligned to normative ideologies science as opposed to its practice, you get on the one hand triumphant obscurantasists decrying the best established theories on the basis that they do not meet the criteria of some arbitrary normative theory, and on the other hand anti-science post-modernists who secretely believe in the god of science all along and find the actual science sadly wanting by comparison.

    The fear of post-modernism is partly used as a wand to ward off evil spirits of a quite different kind. In any case what is odd is an attempt to argue that Marxist discussions of science are witch craft (on the basis of stuff which seems to have little to do with any actual contempory Marxist discussions of science) and then return with ones own very special brand of dogmaticism.

  83. andy newman said,

    January 30, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Why is it John that you find it impossible to say anything straightforwardly, so that other people know what you are talking about?

    I have no idea what this refers to:

    The fear of post-modernism is partly used as a wand to ward off evil spirits of a quite different kind. In any case what is odd is an attempt to argue that Marxist discussions of science are witch craft (on the basis of stuff which seems to have little to do with any actual contempory Marxist discussions of science) and then return with ones own very special brand of dogmaticism.

    Cleary the debate between Grant/Woods and the response from Pete mason is both actual and contemporary. We could also point to debates only a few years ago in the SWP about the aquatic ape, or the gay gene, where theories of what actually happened in the real world were deduced from the “first principles” of an idealist version or Marxism.

  84. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 11:31 am

    The ‘evil spirits’ are the problems proposed in the first paragraph. I’m not familiar with the debates between Grant et al, but I fail to find anything anti-scientific in debates about the ‘aquatic ape’ or on the other hand the gay gene (the latter argument borrowed from well known left wing scientists whose arguments presumably stand or fall on the basis of how coherent they are). I well remember Duncan Hallas debating Chris Knight and making the point that the evidence for or against his propositions was so tiny (‘you can go to the British museam and look in the display case) that the discussion inevitably became overdetermined ideologically. The idea that discussions of this kind can’t, on principle, be overdetermined ideologically strikes me as a superstition.

    A book whose author I can’t remember but called ‘Times Arrow’ attempted to defend a block theory of time. I’m certainly not qualified to have an opinion, but as someone who knew both sides of the argument (ie science AND philosophy) he very interestingly pointed to the frequency with which scientists relied on non-scientific bad philosophical arguments to justify their more scientific arguments, at least at the level of popularising them. So in the case of whether backward causation was possible or not, they relied on circular arguments which rested on then contemporary analytical philosophy and not on their own science, to rule out a hypothesis.

    Because I’d read that book when I came to read Steven Hawkings I looked out for arguments which did not rest on what could strictly be called science. There were rather a lot of them (partly familiar with them because of my half baked familiarity with certain strands of analytical philosophy). Of course only someone familiar with both the science and the philosophy would be able to work out the significance (if any) of this to his broader arguments. But at all sorts of levels its not really possible to rule out of court the role of ideology in science. None of which implies that science is in some way bad or wrong or anything like that. Disturbingly problems involving demarcation criteria at certain points make the attempt to neatly seperate philosophical pre-suppositons and ‘science’ rather difficult as well.

    At the risk of being circular myself it just seems unscientific to rule out the possibility, for example, that arguments about genes and their relationship to behaviour, dispositions etc might not have ideological elements to them. In the case of the activist Marxists I’m most familiar with, ie the SWP, in such debates whats really going on is a distilling of already published arguments between scientists on these questions. Its not as if what is presented is some sort of hocus pocus special theory of science Lysenko style. This is simply a distortion. Most discussions rely on secondary literature produced by scientists.

    To argue that one should not have discussions like this, should not present these arguments to a wider audience (surely one of the functions of socialist organisation) just strikes me as bonkers. Its always been the case that one reason Marxism was attractive to many was that it allowed debates about a variety of subjects hitherto the reserve of academically trained specialists (this also linked to the autodiadect tradition of many working class intellectuals, institutions and practices).

    To spit on all this just because there is currently a bit of a faction fight going on, strikes me as neither philosophically or scientifically serious. The question is of course also deeply important because of debates about the enviroment as well as genes and race and other such pressing matters. “Leaving things to the scientists’ in these cases does not strike me as more compelling or sensible an argument then Plato’s recommendations about ‘philosopher kings’.

  85. chekov said,

    January 30, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Amazing debate you are having with your straw-man friends there johng – whoever they are, you sure told em. Anyway, I hope they were able to identify some meaning in your words, because I sure wasn’t. As far as I can see, it’s just a loosely strung together collection of straw-man arguments which don’t make sense and have no coherent point other than dissimulation.

    For example:

    “At the risk of being circular myself it just seems unscientific to rule out the possibility, for example, that arguments about genes and their relationship to behaviour, dispositions etc might not have ideological elements to them.”

    It seems extremely obvious to me that nobody has put forward a position that arguments about genes never have ideological elements to them. Who put forward this position? Why do you feel that you have to refute it? Are you just being dishonest?

  86. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Andy just did Chekov. You are being tiresome.

  87. chekov said,

    January 30, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    “Andy just did Chekov.”

    Only if you totally ignore what he says and substitute your own version.

    “You are being tiresome.”

    I know, I just won’t let a fella bullshit in peace at all.

  88. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    er, chekov, you accused me of being a post-modernist. You then went on to repeat the kind of arguments I had actually made, seemingly unaware that this was what you were doing. Andy attempted to suggest that arguing about the ideological dimension of arguments about the gay gene was ‘idealism’ because not fitting the ‘scientific concensus’ (as I understood him he was suggesting that we were being too ‘political’ and not ‘scientific’ enough). My wider point would be that working out how existing kinds of knowledge slot into each other in scientific practice is a remarkably complicated business if taken seriously, and, very tentatively, and with all due caution, its led me to be a bit less dismissive of those tendencies in Marxism which talk of these things in terms of ‘totality’ (basically the hegelians) then I used to be. Fairly eminant non-Marxist thinkers in philosophy of science have come to similar sorts of conclusions (here I’m thinking of Kuhn, Lakatos et al). I’m no longer convinced about the autonomy of science in other words.

  89. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    On Andy’s specific point about individuals, I don’t really see why I should take someone whose thought on and off quite seriously about these questions (say Chris) then I would take….well Andy. I always enjoy the debates about science and contrary to what Andy says they tend to be very lively and disputatious. In an earlier life I remember being deeply shocked when Duncan Blackie told me that he thought Kuhn and Freyaband were great. ‘but…but…but thats postmodernism’ i spluttered indignantly. I think he was right and I was wrong.
    Thinking about it that happens much too often for my liking.

  90. chekov said,

    January 30, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    johng I don’t really think you are a post-modernist, just a bullshitter who will use pomo arguments if they suit. My real problem is the total lack of any actual content from your posts. You are arguing in purely abstract terms in response to total straw man arguments.

  91. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Glad you cleared that up Chekov.

  92. johng said,

    January 30, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Glad you cleared that up Chekov. I will study to emulate your rigour at all times and in all places.

  93. Ken MacLeod said,

    January 30, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    It took about a quarter of a century for the SWP’s red professors to read more than the title of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. (The rest of the far left has been no better.)

    As for Marxism, what are we to make of a supposed social science that can’t tell the difference between capitalism and socialism? Andy and johng would each say that the other is confusing the two. This isn’t just a problem in the Trotskyist tradition. Back in the 80s, Maoists and ex-Maoists had the same sort of argument about Brezhnev’s USSR. Mainstream Communists are similarly divided over China today.

  94. korakious said,

    January 30, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Do you all feel a compelling need to act like pricks?

    It’s a fucking blog post, not an inch contest.

  95. andy newman said,

    January 30, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    JohnG’s method of argument does seem to be a sophisticated form of trolling. For example, #84,

    “On Andy’s specific point about individuals, I don’t really see why I should take someone whose thought on and off quite seriously about these questions (say Chris) then I would take….well Andy. I always enjoy the debates about science and contrary to what Andy says they tend to be very lively and disputatious.”

    I have of course made no point about individuals. So it is impossible to know what John is referring to. But he has disrupted an interesting debate, to the point where no-one is quite sure what it is about any more.

    JOhn G’s anti-rationalist idealism can be summed up by this argument of his:

    “Science just is what scientists do and anything else is idealism as far as I can see.”

    Scientfic knowledge is part of a wider human culture, but ultimately science is about understanding the actually existing world. Part of the reason to defend science is the defence of the fact that there is such a thing as truth.

    One of the reasons I dislike Kuhn is that he posits a consensual test of truth. i.e. that the most truth approximate theory is the one over which there is the most scientific consensus. Kuhn is explicitly opposed to the idea of an independently existing reality that is the final arbiter of the truth likeness of theories.

    ie. Kuhn writing in 1970: “There is I think no theory indepependent way to reconstruct phrases like “really true”; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature seems to me illusive in principle”

    Not that Kuhn refers to that which actually exists in nature in quote marks as “real”.

    Now we can accept that scientists are working in a particular social context, and infleunced by the prevailing ideologies of their day. But equally, even in the case of an overwhelming pressure to socially conform (arrest, prison and even murder), prevalent ideologies do not determine science. For example, despite the hold of Lemarkism in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, there was a revolt of biologists and psychiatrists during the 1950s, because the prevailing ideological consensus did not match their measured data.

    Marxism has made a significant contribution to sceintific realism by arguing that the social role of the scientist must be taken into account, but we also stand with the Thesis on Feuerbach. As Marx writes:

    “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. ”

    This is exactly correct. the testimony to the truth approximity of the currently broadly accepted scientific theories is not in books, but in our ability to build bridges, skyscrapers, engines, cloned sheep, telephones and GM crops.

  96. ejh said,

    January 30, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    It took about a quarter of a century for the SWP’s red professors to read more than the title of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

    Quite likely, but then again that’s true of most people, isn’t it? I mean I was amazed to find, looking it up after you’d posted, that it was actually published as long ago as 1976. I was at university ten years after this and I don’t recall becoming aware of any of the debates or even the people involved until ten years after that. (Well, I’d heard of Dawkins’ mate Pete Atkins, but that’s because he was a fellow at my college. I’d not heard of Dawkins.) At the beginning of this period there were quite a lot of left publications in existence: I saw many of them and don’t recall reading much or anything on the subject of Dawkins v Gould or what you will.

    Now I don’t know whether this was:

    (a) because the Left wasn’t really interested in this stuff, having, it thought, more immediate things to do;

    (b) because there wasn’t that wide a public interest in this stuff and the debates only came to a wider audience later, perhaps as a indirect consequence of A Brief History of Time.

    (It’s worth noting that debates in academica quite often go on for a generation or more before they become more widely known: this is what often bugs me about the Timewatch approcah to my academic discipline, history, in which some telly programme always overturns all previous thinking on some historical character or event. So if Francis Pryor turns up on the box saying that in fact, the Anglo-Saxons never drove the Britons out of England, this isn’t some revelation, it’s the fruit of thrity-odd years of historiographical discussion. Mind you, I say that, but my tutor in Anglo-Saxon history never mentioned any of it.)

    As for Marxism, what are we to make of a supposed social science that can’t tell the difference between capitalism and socialism?

    I’m far from sure what Ken means by this. But I’m pretty sure I can’t always tell the difference between the two, certainly if we’re referrring to the former USSR, about which question I have heard many arguments over a period of 25 years, as a result of which I am less sure about the question than at any time before I started.

    On the initial posting – I wonder if, like not a few postings on this blog and others, it doesn’t make large claims about the apparent beliefs and approaches of leftists which in fact apply only to some of them? I very much doubt whether most leftists would have much disagreement with the claim “there is no “right” or “left” science, only good or bad science” and while it’s not entirely a man of straw that’s being assailed here, it’s not a very substantial monster and doesn’t really require too much slaying.

  97. Eoghan Harris said,

    January 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Dear Splintered Sunrise,

    Congratulations on one of the most consistently intelligent and well-written political blogs on the web. Best of blogging in 2008.

    Senator Eoghan Harris

  98. Ken MacLeod said,

    January 30, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    ejh, my point re the SWP and Dawkins was that they were quite happy to slander Dawkins’ book in Socialist Worker as an apologia for Thatcherism, genetic determinism, (etc etc) for years and years before they’d read it. A year or two ago I started going through old ISJs to track the change in line, and was on the point of writing something about it when I was struck by the thought who the fuck cares what these people think?

    On Marxism and the USSR, I think we’re in vehement agreement. ‘Marxism’ is a completely empty signifier, like ‘Christianity’. Which is by no means to say that Marx and the Marxists are not worth reading.

  99. ejh said,

    January 31, 2008 at 8:09 am

    who the fuck cares what these people think?

    Well, as I occasionally observe in various places, a lot of people seem to spend a lot of time commenting on what they think while simultaneously pronouncing them irrelevant. This always strikes me as strange.

    we’re in vehement agreement. ‘Marxism’ is a completely empty signifier, like ‘Christianity’.

    Well, not all that vehement since I probably wouldn’t agree with the second part of this. Christianity is a much wider and therefore much looser term than Marxism and the texts on which it is based are far less coherent and consistent.

    But of course we may be considering Marxism in the sense of “all the things historically said and believed by people who have called themselves Marxists” in which case you might be right – but it’s probably an inevitable problem where you’re talking about a set of ideas lived and interpreted by vast numbers of people, all of whom, at all levels of intellectual engagement, interpret these ideas in their own way, in the light of their own experience, and in the imperfect and limited way imposed on them by the fact of being flawed and inadequate human beings.

    I think people take less account of this than they should. Any mass movement is going to generate all sorts of sillinesses, stupidities, errors, failures of understanding, what you will. It’s not a failure of method, of having the wrong politics or not nhaving the right ones, or of the Left being fundamentally flawed from the inception. It’s because it’s a movement of people: there’s nothing that can be done about it. Obviously if we look back we can see all sots of things that seem really stupid now, just as we’d do in our personal lives, but we know both that it didn’t seem so at the time, and that we’re going to carry on making mistakes in the same way. (You want to try playing chess – I undergo this process on a weekly basis, every time I look back on the previous weekend’s game.)

    I think if people appreciated this they would spend less time worrying about past and present errors, less time bemoaning the flaws and follies of the Left, less time in the apparently endless process of retiteration and examination which tends to substitute obsessive knowledge of the tree for a good view of the wood and the world beyond the wood. “Who cares”, indeed? I think that’s a good approach, provided the not-caring comes with generosity.

  100. Mezhrayontsi said,

    January 31, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Interesting discussion

    Getting back to Reason in Revolt and Pete Mason’s critique.

    I remember RiR well being expected to sell and promote it at the time (1996), which I did, while also being pretty disappointed with the content. The publication was preceded with a lot of hype inside our organisation as a response to the bourgeois offensive against Marxism of the early ’90’s and also as a counterweight to what was seen as the ‘hyper-activism’ of the CWI following the split with Ted Grant and Alan Woods.

    My feeling at the time about the book was that –

    1. It was very superficial about the fields of science it covered most of which it dealt with in less than a chapter and did not really reflect much of a grasp of this science (not that I have any more of a grasp)

    2. It had a very simplistic and reductionist idea of what Marxism had to say about science, based pretty much exclusively on Engels’ ‘Dialectics of Nature’, which if I remember rightly was never written originally for publication

    3. On the really interesting stuff such as chaos and complexity theory, Alan (who actually wrote the book) totally fudged the issue, saying only something like ‘history may prove this to be consistent with dialectics’ (again from memory)

    However on the Big Bang aspect of the book I was more sympathetic, in part because I was directed to Eric Lerner’s book on the subject before RiR came out. I also remember reading more widely and discussing this with others with some expertise in the field who all agreed that there were fundamental problems with this theory and also with its total acceptance within the scientific community, an acceptance that could not be reconciled with this same community’s commitment to the principles of scientific discourse.

    To me, with no knowledge of physics, the convincing part of the objection to the Big Bang theory is conceptual, not empirical. It is this – the most important evidence supporting the theory is the presence of background radiation – but this contradicts the fact that the universe is also ‘lumpy’, that is, no existing theory of the mechanics of the universe can explain the spread of galaxies and clusters of galaxies on the basis of what we know about the forces that govern this universe.

    As I understand it, Ted Grant’s objection to the Big Bang theory is also conceptual, not empirical. Without wishing to put words in his mouth, I understand the point to be something like – even if there was an initial explosion that explains the empirical data we can observe, or else will lead to a ‘Big Crunch’, this does not involve the beginning or end of the universe, and therefore to something ‘behind’ such a universe in the sense of a Creator. The universe is beyond time and space, it IS time and space, so therefore nothing can BE beyond it, unless you want to descend into mysticism and religion.

    With this understanding I find Pete Mason’s critique interesting, but also highly problematic too. Pete (who I am sure knows heaps more about this than me) is really annoyed about Ted and Alan’s dismissal of the Big Bang theory and wants defend science against what he sees as an abuse of ‘dialectics’ and a descent into dogmatism. I get that and can see only too well how RiR drives him mad enough to want to respond even after all this time.

    But…

    I have two questions to throw back at Pete –

    1. Is the Big Bang theory really so secure ? This is a purely scientific question and I claim no authority in this area but I do have an opinion that for the moment is highly sceptical.

    2. Does Marxism have ANYTHING to say on this issue, except to follow the evidence of empirical science ? This is how I read Pete’s objection to RiR and much of the discussion here, and it is an interesting issue, I think.

    Pete’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is that Marxism must follow and not attempt to impose ‘principles’ that determine the correctness or otherwise of a theory. This is hard to argue against, as I am sure Andy will agree armed as he is with material on Lysenko. But does this exhaust the matter ? Are we simply slaves to the ‘facts’ ? The discussion on the philosophy of science above bears witness to a realisation within the scientific community that this kind of answer is no answer at all, that the results of 20th science itself throw such an approach into serious question.

    In other words, while Pete is undoubtedly correct in his critique of RiR’s dogmatism, this does not exhaust the topic but only opens it up.

    The question therefore remains, where does Marxism fit into such discussions, what does it have to offer ? Maybe not what Alan Woods thinks it does, but what then ? This is something it is fair to ask of Pete (who is a Marxist after all), or so I think, at least.

  101. andy newman said,

    January 31, 2008 at 11:33 am

    In defence of marx.

    You can throw the rest of it away of you like, but the Thesis on Feuerbach is enough on its own to make him a giant to follow.

    Similarly the so far not-improved upon theory of the Labour theory of value.

  102. johng said,

    January 31, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Andy has made points about individuals. Chris Harman for one.

    there is indeed no theory independent access to the world, otherwise why would we need science?

    This has little to do with the question of whether science is to be judged on the basis of its relationship to an independently existing reality. If Andy knows of a theory independent way of assessing THAT question I’d be interested to see it.

    But saying ‘science is to be judged on the basis of its relationship to an independently existing reality’ whilst providing no even approximate guideline as to how such a relationship might be demonstrated or even detected is a bit like me muttering to myself ‘I am right, I am right’ as I type and imagining I’m proving something (it must be confessed I do do this).

    Perhaps Andy would like to abjudicate between quantum mechanics and relativity theory in a non-theoretical language. Be a marvelous excercise in bootstrapping I’d say. Perhaps as Wittgenstein put it he might enjoy buying several copies of the same newspaper to check that the stories they tell are true.

    Wilfred Sellars on the ‘myth of the given’ is an interesting demolition of the idea of a theory independent access to reality, incidently. And he was an analytical philosopher much taken with ‘that inverterate opponent of ‘the given” Hegel.

    Who might have had something important to say after all. Another non-scientist.

    Oh and I do defend science Andy. Just not like you do.

  103. johng said,

    January 31, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    This looks interesting (on the basis of a five second scan):

    http://jameshannam.com/Godsphilosophers.pdf

  104. johng said,

    January 31, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. ”

    This is exactly correct. the testimony to the truth approximity of the currently broadly accepted scientific theories is not in books, but in our ability to build bridges, skyscrapers, engines, cloned sheep, telephones and GM crops.

    Andy’s interpretation of Marx’s quote here seems to lead him into pragmatism. There are plenty of pragmatists about but very few who think that pragmatism magically gives you access to ‘the truth’, which Andy thinks is important but at the same time doesn’t think is important.

  105. johng said,

    January 31, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    This seems a better bet to me:

    The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?
    We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

    So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

    Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (221)

    Think “Scientific Tradition”, not as a body of texts or random discoveries but a set of practices and institutions which redefines itself in relationship to challenges and problems as they arise within the project itself (defined in relationship to what these practices and institutions aim at). As with Lakotos though the difficulty as well as the interest comes when we ask how this relates to discussions of the ‘Marxist tradition’.

  106. Prianikoff said,

    January 31, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    #100 Inter-District bloke wrote:

    ‘As I understand it, Ted Grant’s objection to the Big Bang theory is also conceptual, not empirical. Without wishing to put words in his mouth, I understand the point to be something like – even if there was an initial explosion that explains the empirical data we can observe, or else will lead to a ‘Big Crunch’, this does not involve the beginning or end of the universe, and therefore to something ‘behind’ such a universe in the sense of a Creator.’

    That’s where I think Grant was wrong, although for the right reasons.
    He just didn’t have the concepts necessary to deal with the logical problem.

    But even at the level of formal logic, his answer begs the question; why does lack of understanding *prove* the idea of an all-powerful intelligent designer, which is apparently outside all known material laws?

    All the evidence of science, especially from Evolution, says this isn’t what happened.

    The much more likely explanation that the observable universe emerged from the interaction of matter in motion.

    But it can’t have been endlessly in chaotic motion for an eternity, otherwise there is no explanation for stellar nuclearsynthesis, the ratio of hydrogen and helium observed in the galaxies, the cosmic microwave radiation, the absence of observed ‘Boltzmann Brains’, the observed acceleration of distant galaxies and numerous other observations that Lerner et al dispute.

    The solution to the problem is not to abandon scientific observation and rationalism, but to develop theories which explain how matter changes in a very high energy regime, such as that which existed in the first few nano-seconds of the ‘Big Bang’.

    Because there is no satisfactory theory of quantum gravity, there is no full explanation of the mechanism of the “big bang“.
    That’s a very difficult task to achieve, but it doesn’t require a very big leap of understanding because it’s already well-known that symmetry-breaking transformations of matter are quite commonplace in nature.
    Which is actually a very dialectical concept.

  107. Ken MacLeod said,

    January 31, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    ejh #99 and Andy #101 make good points. My remarks about Marxism were somewhat more bitter than they should have been. Perhaps a more sensible way to see the apparent inability of “Marxism” to distinguish between capitalism and socialism would be to read Maoism, Trotskyism, and ultra-leftism out of Marxism altogether.

  108. Andy said,

    January 31, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    JOhn #102 and #104

    You have read too many books. And understood too little of the world.

    “there is indeed no theory independent access to the world, otherwise why would we need science? This has little to do with the question of whether science is to be judged on the basis of its relationship to an independently existing reality. If Andy knows of a theory independent way of assessing THAT question I’d be interested to see it.”

    Take a mobile phone. Do you have any idea how much theory is embodied in it ? Triganometric maths for the modulation and demodulation, mathematical modeling of speech for the codec, advanced physics for the integrated circuit, advanced materials science, biochemistry for the plastics.

    Yet it works. We can experience it working with our animal senses, and we can affect reality using it. That is a theory independent validation of the theories. Not pragmatism, but Man “proving the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. ”

    Social science academics wanking over these question tend to look at big bang theory, and string theory and the outer reaches of established science. But there is a huge corpus of self reinforcing scientific theory relating to our practical ability to design and build the world we live in in all its huge complexity, and to validate our theoretical understanding by the fact that it works. t doesn’t just work for those of us who underestand the deus ex machina, it works for everyone, independent of subjective knowledge.

    It is not pragmatsm, but experimental validation to say that when the architect proves her design by building it in the real world, then she has validated the this-sidedness, the reality and power of her thinking – and in so doing the truth aproximity of the understanding of the broad corpus of established science.

    So how do we judge those theories incapable of direct experimental proof? Well we accept them more tentavively, but we look for consistency with other broadly accepted theories, predictive power and explanatory power. This is both theoretically and philospohically defensible and what we actually do.

    So JOhn, when you say: “Oh and I do defend science Andy. Just not like you do.”

    That is self evident as you are a social science academic and I am a practcing professional engineer, who makes and designs things that work in the real world, and my understanding of science is tested by people with their five senses, who can judge whether it works or not.

  109. Phil said,

    January 31, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I don’t think pragmatism is necessarily a dirty word – not if you spell it with a capital P, anyway. I think it’s possible to see large-P Pragmatism and scientific realism meeting in the middle: maybe we can’t know the true nature of the world which lies behind our sense impressions, but we can build up a body of knowledge as to how the world seems to behave – and we can make some pretty strong bets that it will continue to seem to behave in certain ways and not others. (And, of course, we know that we can because we know that we do.)

  110. Mezhrayontsi said,

    February 1, 2008 at 12:40 am

    106 Prianikoff – good comeback, although I don’t quite get your point on logic, could you run me through it again ?

    If the evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming then I will have to bow down before it, I am certainly in no position to challenge the experts. However the critiques of this theory that did catch my attention were never strictly scientific, but were more concerned with the boundaries of science. They included –

    The point above that a Big Bang or Big Crunch are not the beginning or end of the universe but only points in its history

    That there was a central conceptual flaw to the whole theory in that it rested on two mutually contradictory kinds of support – one the background radiation which is even across the universe, and on the other hand the ‘lumpy’ or uneven character of the universe we observe. The attempt to explain both types of phenomena through the same event – the Big Bang – is the source of all the problems with the theory as it stands.

    The refusal of the scientific community to recognise this basic flaw and even consider alternatives to the theory is a violation of the principles of scientific discourse that are the basis of this community

    That the reason for this commitment to the theory in spite of its problems was not a scientific one, but due to religious belief or institutional pressure

    If the evidence is overwhelming and the basic argument above incorrect, then the last two points fall with it. But if there is any substance to it then there is a justified suspicion that the current unanimity behind the Big Bang theory among scientists is not scientific, but a violation of the spirit of scientific inquiry.

    That’s the accusation anyway, as I understand it, and there is a minority current made of people like Eric Lerner who run with it. They make a similar kind of argument as do the ‘Dissidents’ over HIV/AIDS.

    I’m not qualified to judge on either, but I would be interested to hear from those who are on how they respond.

  111. Prianikoff said,

    February 1, 2008 at 7:01 am

    #110 Prianikoff – good comeback, although I don’t quite get your point on logic, could you run me through it again ?”

    It’s the “God of the Gaps” argument: If something has not yet been explained by scientific rationalism, it’s used to support religion.

    Some versions of BB/Inflation definitely are susceptible to that treatment and have been utilised by those seeking to reinforce religious ideology.
    Hawking and Guth have been courted by the Vatican and the Templeton Foundation offers prizes to scientists who it regards as reconciling science and religion e.g the British physicist John Barrow got one a couple of years ago.

    Grant & Woods were certainly right to point out this possibility. But I don’t accept that the consensus view is a ‘religious conspiracy’. If that were the case, why has evolutionary biology progressed so much this century?

    G&W were also right to point out the various revisions that have had to be made in BB theory in order to make it work, such as the ‘graceful exit’ problem
    But I’d see the balance of evidence is strongly in favour of the theory.

    If you haven’t seen it before, take a look at Ned Wright’s Cosmology tutorial on the web, which has a whole section on Lerner.
    I think the issue of the formation of large scale structure and why galaxies hold together is generally explained by dark matter, which recent experiments tend to confirm. Once a deeper understanding of sub-atomic particles is produced by the LHC, both ends of the story will start to come together.

    It’s also the case that there are increasing numbers of physicists who are developing ideas which combine fundamental theories of particles/waves with changes in topology of space-time.
    e.g. Veneziano Pre-Big Bang Scenario, Linde Eternal Inflation, Steinhardt & Turok Ekpyrotic/Cyclic model etc.
    From materialist first principles, matter and space are indistinguishable and can neither be created nor destroyed, just changed.

  112. ejh said,

    February 1, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Perhaps a more sensible way to see the apparent inability of “Marxism” to distinguish between capitalism and socialism would be to read Maoism, Trotskyism, and ultra-leftism out of Marxism altogether.

    I don’t think we can do that: and even if we did, other people wouldn’t. History requires a warts and all policy, I think, and the left has to own up to things without declaring itself either unwholesome or in need of constant rethinks (which tend to reflect the very desire for purification which are the problem in the first place).

    People can – and, regrettably, do – argue incessantly and interminably about whether such-and-such’s ideas truly represent what Marx really meant, to put some of these ideas inside the circle marked “correct” and others outside it. I doubt that this is very fruitful, unlike the ideas themselves.

  113. Mezhrayontsi said,

    February 1, 2008 at 8:40 am

    111 Prianikoff

    “God of the Gaps’ argument. Get your point now. Its interesting that the Catholic Church themselves define God as what science can’t explain, a good example of a dialectical unity of opposites they have created for themselves. Faith steps in where science is unable to go, so any advance in science serves to reduce the realm left for a God. Not a good strategy on their part I would suggest but definitely one they have been running with for some time.

    “But I don’t accept that the consensus view is a ‘religious conspiracy’”

    Fair enough, that would be a bit too crude. I think the argument is a little more sophisticated though, and bases itself on the way science (and academia too for that matter) works in practice today, how grants are allocated etc. Here I think Kuhn (mentioned in the discussion above) comes in to play, because one of the main things his theory explains is how that can happen – everyone accepts the paradigm and works within it, but the real progress in science is made when the paradigm is overthrown.

    I am told that when Kuhn’s book came out, not long after the ’68 upheavals, lots of people had a bumper sticker on display ‘Overthrow the Dominant Paradigm !’.

    I have bookmarked Ned Wright’s tutorial and will have a look

  114. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 10:28 am

    ejh

    I think you have a very good point here, I am sympathetic to where Ken’s peevishness is coming from. But a big dispuet about who are the “real” marxtists would be entirely scholastic.

    If I can be dogmatically indulgent again, if we go back to the thesis on Feuerbach, we should observe that doctrinal disputes about the nature of the soviet union based upon limited information and evidence and an incomplete understanding are merely scholastic. Particularly when they are used to hermetically seal of different “traditions” of marxism from cross contamination.

    Marxism is about politics, not scripture.

  115. chekov said,

    February 1, 2008 at 10:48 am

    “That there was a central conceptual flaw to the whole theory in that it rested on two mutually contradictory kinds of support – one the background radiation which is even across the universe, and on the other hand the ‘lumpy’ or uneven character of the universe we observe. The attempt to explain both types of phenomena through the same event – the Big Bang – is the source of all the problems with the theory as it stands.”
    That’s a bit inaccurate – the big bang is not an attempt to explain the lumpiness of the universe or the cosmic background radiation, it predates the discovery of this radiation and in fact explicitly predicted it. It was initially an attempt to explain the spectrum shift observed in stars and galaxies.

    “The refusal of the scientific community to recognise this basic flaw and even consider alternatives to the theory is a violation of the principles of scientific discourse that are the basis of this community”

    There are all sorts of ways in which the relative smoothness of the background ratdiation can be incorporated into the big bang theory, so it’s incorrect to talk about a ‘flaw’. The reason while it holds sway is because it is by far the most successful basic model at explaining the known evidence – it is consistent with the theory of general relativity and gives us a rough picture of the universe’s history right back to a few planck seconds after the event. The claim that the scientific community fails to even consider alternatives is altogether inaccurate – there are a whole load of alternatives out there, the problem being that none of them is as good a fit to the observations as the big bang theory which has, moreover, successfully predicted stuff like the existance of cosmic background radiation.

    The idea that theoretical physicists are drawn to this theory and closed to alternatives because of a general desire to allow god to fit into the picture is, to my mind, absurd. You will rarely find a group who are more concerned with eliminating the gaps into which god might fit. The big bang theory gives us an outline history of the entire universe all the way back, a history in which nothing supernatural is required. If you’re a devoted theist, it reduces the gap available to god to the almost non-existant. He released a ‘space-time’ bomb at the start of the universe and since then he’s done nothing – not exactly the sort of god that people actually believe in.

    You will also rarely find a group that is more willing to accept absolutely wacky and far out theories, as long as they support the evidence better. It is after all the discipline which produced quantum mechanics, a theory that dealt a really cruel blow to the idea of god (c.f. einstein’s objection: “god does not play dice”) while being so counter-intuitive that it’s impossible to really visualise. In the last few months, a new “Exceptionally simple theory of everything” and gained widespread publicity despite the fact that it was produced by an unemployed surfer-dude.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Exceptionally_Simple_Theory_of_Everything

    Anyway, I have to say that I think it’s really ludicrous to try to construct a criticism of Big Bang theory based upon your political position – a category error if ever there was one. If you don’t have an alternative model which better explains the observed data, you have no basis on which to criticise the model and to do that you need to know an awful lot about cosmology. It is also the case that the political and philosophical implications of the big bang history of the universe are pretty much zero.

    “They make a similar kind of argument as do the ‘Dissidents’ over HIV/AIDS.”

    The HIV/AIDS dissidents are, undoubtedly, total charlatans and essentially conspiranoids.

  116. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Andy,

    It is of course true, as some other social science wanker put it, that science has been doing rather well recently. But that is not equivilant to the statement that the theories that sustain it are true. Thus we did rather well with Newtonian Physics for quite a long time, and indeed still do. Newton’s account of the universe is however flatout false if Einstein’s account of the universe is true. Both theories have eminantly practical applications (as does quantum mechanics which contradicts both: television for example).

    The fact that a theory works is good grounds for accepting it. This is not the same thing as claiming it is true. You don’t have to be a social science wanker to understand this. Nor do you have to be a social science wanker to realise that these problems raise obvious questions about what is, after all, a fairly influential set of practices in our culture, which any reasonably socially engaged individual has a right to be interested in. Its why there is a debate in the first place. It is of course possible that I’ve read too many books and that this is the only reason I notice these things.

    One quick point on Kuhn and the old slogan ‘overthrow the dominant paradigm’. Whilst a good slogan I think its based on a misunderstanding (perhaps created by social science wankers). Normal Science and routine puzzle solving were for Kuhn important activities in science and his attack on the heroic normative model of the scientist as constantly engaged in revolutionary activities was not intended as an attack on science (at least not in anything of his work I’ve read). If research was being successfully carried out within a paradigm it would hardly be desirable to overthow it after all.

    What are called Scientific Revolutions tend to occur only in circumstances where existing paradigms are degenerating (and of course its also true that other factors can play a part too). There is a parrallel with Marx’s statement about actual revolutions come to think of it. But Kuhn is not in favour of Epistomological Gueverism. I think this just WAS an overly ideological reading of his text which is actually pretty Conservative with respect to any idea of challenging actually existing paradigms (ie he places a far higher bar to when such challenges should occur then someone like Popper would, and doesn’t see such challenges as playing nearly as important a role either in the history of science or in its actual practice that Popper does. As an Engineer I would expect Andy spends much of his time puzzle solving and doing ‘normal science’ and I would have expected him to like a philosopher who placed his kinds of activity at the centre of his definition of science as opposed to at the margins as Popper does).

    He wasn’t calling for science to be reformed or anything like that.

  117. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    John

    I look forward to your explanation of how television works by quantum machanics, but meanwhile:

    we did rather well with Newtonian Physics for quite a long time, and indeed still do. Newton’s account of the universe is however flatout false if Einstein’s account of the universe is true. Both theories have eminantly practical applications (as does quantum mechanics which contradicts both

    This is just nonsense, and the fact that you could write it shows that your grasp of the technical aspects of the debate is so weak it undermines anything else you have to say.

  118. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    It isn’t just nonsense. Its logically true. Newtonian physics and relatively theory pre-suppose entirely different models of how the universe actually is. Nevertheless both theories ‘work’ at different levels. Different folk explain this in different ways but its been the starting point for most of these discussions. I don’t know ‘how’ quantum mechanics is applied to how tv’s work but I know that it does. Something to do with the very small and I believe partly connected to the cathode ray tube, and also, strangely, I believe there are practical applications to do with refridgerators.

    If your pissed off you’ve only got yourself to blame. If you go around accusing people of being wankers don’t expect people not to respond.

  119. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Oh and Andy…

    You’ve read too many books thats your problem.

  120. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I have no idea what you are talking about John – I am not pissed off.

    Your statement that “Newton’s account of the universe is however flatout false if Einstein’s account of the universe is true”

    is simply not technically accurate. Nor is the lack of a unified theory, nor the fact that aspects of scientific theory are incompatible actually very difficult for either working scientists nor philospohers of sciece to cope with. I am unaware that these pose big problems for any scientists or scientific realists.I am surprised that you quote these as the areas where there is debate, becasue I don’t think there is. All it shows is we have incomplete knowldge, and that our theories are only truth approximate.

    No one has ever claimed that current scientific knowledge is complete, after all we still cannot explain gravity or the dual wave-particle nature of light, which are gaps in our knowledge obvious to a bright GCSE student.

    Much more chalenging is the relationship between current science, and formerly established and accepted theories that have been disproven. For example the caloric theory of thermodynamics; theories and models of optics involving ether, and Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field.

    Interstingly, there are very very few of these theories, and in most cases there has been a shift in interpretation that has allowed much of their rational to be reintrpeted in support of their successor theories.

  121. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Andy,

    The picture of the universe pre-supposed by Newton’s theory and that pre-supposed by Einstein’s theory are radically distinct. Are you suggesting they are not? I simply don’t understand what you are trying to say. In this case it has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘our knowledge being incomplete’ (which is the case with the absence of a grand unified theory: no one is attempting to argue that Newton’s theory is ‘true’ that I know of).

  122. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    They are radically distinct, but relativity doesn’t negate newtonian physics.

    No one seeks to argue that any scientific theory is “true”, just that they are broadly truth approximate, to an underlying phsyical reality that we only partially understand.

    Newtonian physics was truth approximate before its incomplete nature was demonstrated by Einsten, it reamined truth approxinate afterwards, but we understood its limitations better – if you want to understand physcis you still start with those equations.

    I think the trouble wth you fundamental idealism, is that you start with a similar sociological concept as Kuhn that science is a social construct shared among scientists, who develop consensuses. This may be a valid partial insight, but it under-weights that fact that scientists also have a planned and deliberate interaction with reality through experimentation. – and much of the experimental validation of science is theory independent.

  123. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    OK so now we’re no longer talking about truth and your just making silly and utterly baseless allegations about me being an idealist after the fashion of a dialectical and hysterical materialist. Science obviously is a social construct but this in no way precludes discussions about its relationship to reality (truth?) anymore then stating that Marx wrote a book means that what is said in a book has no relationship to ‘reality’.

    Are you trying to suggest that science isn’t a social construct and that scientists don’t develop concensus amongst themselves?

    Just peculiar.

  124. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Oh and one could of course argue that Aryuvedic medicine was an ‘incomplete’ version of modern medical science…if you really wanted to.

    On Newton I don’t think its possible to argue that his is just an ‘incomplete’ version of Relativity theory. Its a different theory.

  125. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Well John

    You come over to me as an idelaist when you describe science as a social construct, and science as just what scientists do.

    The theories that comprise science are broadly truth approximate. That is they correspond to an independently existing relaity that we can experience in validation of our theories.

    And when you say that “Newton’s account of the universe is however flatout false if Einstein’s account of the universe is true … … The picture of the universe pre-supposed by Newton’s theory and that pre-supposed by Einstein’s theory are radically distinct. … no one is attempting to argue that Newton’s theory is ‘true’ that I know of”

    that suggest to me that you essentially see these as competing sets of “ideas” that stand or fall by the social consensus they gather, as opposed to human and socially created conceptions of processes that correspond to that underlying reality.

    Newtonian physics remains true, because the equations still work. Relativity theory did not negate nor supersede Netonian phsyics, it transcended it. All that had to be discarded was the idea that Newtonian physics was sufficient.

    The underlying reality which is the arbiter of truth experienced by our senses by experimention and work can correspond to theories which are incomplete, and even partially inconsistent, because our human knowledge os only truth approximate – but that is not the same as saying our theories are just social constructs, or that their validity is based upon consensus.

  126. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    JOhn

    No one ever argues that justofies you writing “On Newton I don’t think its possible to argue that his is just an ‘incomplete’ version of Relativity theory. Its a different theory”

    why do you never engage straightforwardly with what other people are saying?

    Do you genuinely not understand what other people are saying, or are you twisting words?

    To be honest, I suspect that you knowledge of both the sceince and the philospophy is too superficial for us to be worth continuing.

  127. andy newman said,

    February 1, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    I will try one more time JOhn, But I am exasperated by your basic scientific illiteracy,, at the same time that you are seeking to argue about science.

    When i said:

    “Newtonian physics was truth approximate before its incomplete nature was demonstrated by Einsten, it reamined truth approxinate afterwards, but we understood its limitations better – if you want to understand physcis you still start with those equations.”

    This is not saying that it was an “‘incomplete’ version of Relativity theory.”

    Only a charlatan or someone intellectually disadvantaged would draw that conclusion.

    Newtonian physics was an incomplete understanding of the processes that operate in the independently existing physical world. Relativity theory is another incomplete understanding of the processes that operate in the independently existing physical world.

    Practical science often deals with theories that are both truth approximate but which are irreconcilable, -the wave-partical duality of light is a good example, and one much more accessible that the relationship between ballistics and relativity!

    But although at any one time our understanding is socially mediated, insofar as we are able to test through expereince against underlying reality we can judge that the broadly accepted scientific theories are truth approximate.

  128. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Perhaps Andy if it would help if you could explain how stating that science is a social construct is in any sense in contradiction with the sentiment that it represents an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world? I don’t understand why you think such beliefs would be in any neccessary opposition to each other.

    “but that is not the same as saying our theories are just social constructs, or that their validity is based upon consensus”.

    yes they are but they may be true or false, successful or unsuccessful, or indeed ‘partial’ (although exactly what being ‘partially true’ means is notoriously tricky and some would not accept this as a description of scientific theory).

    And whilst I do defend Hegel as a source of insight the notion that Newton’s theory is compatible with the reality of the universe described by Einstein is simply absurd.

    Handwaving waffle and a refusal to take real problems seriously.

  129. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Oh and the whole business about experiments providing a non-theoretical test of reality is just baffling. Experiments create artificial situations in labratories designed to tell us something about real situations. The relationship between the two is an achievement of theory. I’m sure that Andy knows this in practice (or at least I hope so if he is involved in design: it would be a bit disturbing if not).

    One danger with Kuhn is that he might be taken to posit an entirely contingent relationship between Newton’s theory and Einstein’s theory. This contingency cannot be avoided on the basis of attempts to make Newton’s universe and Einstein’s universe look similar, or to argue that the difficulty with Newton is that it was incompletely ‘true’. The non-contingent relationship is that the body of theory and practices that make up science generate problems, and the scientific tradition involves a constant attempt to address the problems and anomolies that arise from within that tradition.

    I think Lakotos has a better understanding then Kuhn of this problem and thats why I tend to prefer him.

  130. johng said,

    February 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    I was told a story by an academic who met Lakotos that he was reading Althusser with great enthusiasm despite his hatred of marxism and radical politics and all its works. He liked the Generalities I II and III stuff. I found this really hard to believe on all sorts of levels but the person who told me this story is pretty reliable. Genuinely wierd.

  131. Andy said,

    February 1, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    JOhn

    these constant asides, and faux bewilderment of yours

    “Genuinely wierd”, “is just baffling”, “Just peculiar.”

    I used to think it was an annoyiing affection, but when combined with your waffle over straw men, demolishing arguments that have never been put, and you failure to actually substantialy engage with the other persons argument, it does come over as a defence mechanism from you to imply your intellectual superiority, while using verbal pyrotechnics to avoid saying anything.

    Pol Pot had the wrong solution but he did correctly diagnose the degree of social usefulness of that sort of thinking.

    You dismiss “truth approximity” as “notoriously tricky and some would not accept this as a description of scientific theory”. But this really reveals that you have not been following the argument, and have no expereince of practical or theoretical science. The degree of confidence we have in a theory varies, for example some theories have very strong predictive power but don’t explain all the facts. That means we know we are on to something, but we don’t really understand what is going on.

    newton’s Weltanshauung was superseded by the revolution in theoretical physics a hundred years ago, but the corpus of work of newtonian physics retains its basic validity. If you want to calculate the trajectory of an aircraft today you don’t use relativity theory nor do you use quantum mechanics, you use laws drived from newton. Relativity theory is no more relevent to plotting the trajectry, than understanding the gastric system of the pilot. But no scientist or engineer would deny that pilot had a gastric system.

    There are theories that have actually been superceded by later explanation, such as the caloric theory, or ether, but these are in a different category.

    In particular when you write: “Experiments create artificial situations in labratories designed to tell us something about real situations. The relationship between the two is an achievement of theory. “

    This is very weak from you, because it implies you only see science as the frontier of our technical knowledge, rather than the vast corpus of work that has become deeply embedded into our daily culture. Every time you use your mobile phone or drive your car it is a vast experiment that the huge body of scientific understanding that goes into the technology works.

    And of course therefore it is theory independent. Designing a speech codec would require theorectical modelling of the frequency components of human speech through Fourier transforms, and then trigonometric manipulation for coding and decoding. the experimentaion will originally only involve the enginners in the lab, but how many people do you think daily test the codec used in GSM phones? Are their experiences of whether it works or not dependent upon their theoretical understanding? Or do they just make a phone call? Is this an achievent of theory or an achievment of practice?

    In that sense for you to describe science “as just what scientist do”, implies that you see science as an academic and not a practical discipline. Science is our socially aggregated understanding of how independently existing reality works – and the point of the scientific realist school of philospohy is to say that the body of knowledge in well established theories is essentially truth-approximate, as attested by the ability of human technological culture to reproduce itself.

    You ask:

    “Andy if it would help if you could explain how stating that science is a social construct is in any sense in contradiction with the sentiment that it represents an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world?”

    Well if there is no contradiction at all then the substantive content of saying it is a social construct is so trivial (in the mathematical sense) that you shouldn’t have mentioned it. (it is the gastric system of the pilot, when plotting the trajectory of the plane)

    So of course you are implying that the fact that it a social construct has a bearing on the degree to which the theories are capable of accurately understanding reality.

    The difference between us is that you describe science as ” representing an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world?” and you have likened science to literature.

    “representing an understanding of physical processes”

    well mediaeval alchemy represented “an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world.” Animist religious cults represent an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world. You are saying nothing.

    I say: modern science is broadly true. We have theory independent validation of much of it from our ability to collectively reproduce our technological society through human labour. And that stand on the theses on Feurebach. All your arguments are scholasticism and obscurantism.

  132. johng said,

    February 2, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Straw men?
    “If you want to calculate the trajectory of an aircraft today you don’t use relativity theory nor do you use quantum mechanics, you use laws drived from newton”

    I not only stated this its a premiss of my argument.

    “This is very weak from you, because it implies you only see science as the frontier of our technical knowledge” Blah, blah I stated exactly the opposite, but was simply here responding to your attempt to argue that the existence of experiments in some way offers us non-theoretical confirmation of theory. More widely though I don’t see how the fact that I use telephones or cars is relevent at all to the argument, and indeed, the term ‘scientific culture’ is misleading in this respect.

    “Are their experiences of whether it works or not dependent upon their theoretical understanding”

    Again whether something ‘works’ or not does not demonstrate whether the theory which allows it to work is ‘true’. Its just not the same thing. Scientific theories which have been rejected, falsified or whatever language you want to use often ‘worked’ for the purposes they were designed for. So, indeed, did certain other kinds of knowledge generated within religous and folk systems.

    “is our socially aggregated understanding of how independently existing reality works – and the point of the scientific realist school of philospohy is to say that the body of knowledge in well established theories is essentially truth-approximate, as attested by the ability of human technological culture to reproduce itself”

    ‘socially aggregated’ of course I agree with this (it is in fact what I’ve been arguing), but my point about what scientists ‘do’ was to demonstrate the materialism involved in pointing to the social aggregation of science, not to praise academics. But I am very unsure that everyone who uses a telephone is participating in science anymore then anyone who participates in a capitalist economy is a capitalist. As stated I also have serious reservations about the idea of a ‘scientific culture’ (I think we live in a fundementally irrational culture, I take science to have something to do with rationality, but I think its positioning in our culture and the justifications for this are irrational).

    “So of course you are implying that the fact that it a social construct has a bearing on the degree to which the theories are capable of accurately understanding reality”

    Indeed. Without social constructions I don’t think we would have any understanding of reality at all. The ideology I’m aiming at (and that I believe Kuhn was aiming at) was the ideology of the great genius boldly charting the future, a world of facts without social institutions, social relations or indeed any of the things which make any kind of knowledge possible. I hope thats clear now.

    “well mediaeval alchemy represented “an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world.” Animist religious cults represent an understanding of physical processes operating in an independently existing world. You are saying nothing”

    Actually YOU were the person who said it in your defence of realism I was merely quoting it. And indeed I would agree that this says nothing. Well actually a little more then nothing. One thing it says is that claims which equate realism and science are seriously faulty. Realist claims have indeed been made by animists and indeed different kinds of religous systems without therefore being science (and indeed many scientists rejected realism, indeed the main ideologies of science have done. Its also worth pointing out that the ground clearing which attempted to bring philosophy in line with science, was deeply hostile to realism as a metaphysical doctrine, as is much modern philosophy, because of, not in spite of, a ‘scientific culture’, which in my view is not to be equated with science).

    And of course the other thing it says is that modern science does not represent quite such a fundemental break from the past as is frequently presumed. Much of the groundwork for the 17th century scientific revolution were laid by debates amongst medieval scholastics (despite the later ground clearing operation). It is however an interesting example of how traditions mutate, and at a certain point, become something quite different.

    On ‘comparing science to literature’ (I simply said that both were human activities and that understanding the type of human activities they were, in neither case, was sufficiant for understanding what went on in them), its simply a misunderstanding on your part and a wish to have a post-modernist or ‘idealist’ strawman to tilt at.

    Also I think there is a desperate desire to paint all defenders of the SWP as heretics of one sort or another which I just find a bit tiresome really, and a demonstration that we do not in fact live in a scientific culture, and that even doing science does not guard you from the wider irrationality of the society we live in.

  133. johng said,

    February 2, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    …and the trouble for me with the notion of ‘truth proximate’ is both that it can apply to a range of human activities not just ‘science’ (and therefore fails to distinguish science from other kinds of activity, surely a remit for a doctrine attempting to defend the validity of science as against other kinds of activity) and that it is compatible with a range of different interpretations depending on the definition of truth.

    To me defences of science always rest on the construction of a coherent narrative about the history of science, in which building on past achievements as well as epistomological crisis can be seen as related to the problems and difficulties posed at successive stages for the best yet understandings we have. In such a way of seeing things past mistakes and failures become not embarressments but part of an on-going project, and the overcoming of mistakes and failures become part of the achievement of that project (science generates difficulties and problems the solution of which increase our knowledge).

    Taken togeather such an analyses both give us the tools within any particular tradition to determine what kinds of assertion give warrent, and, given the continuing flourishing of the tradition, make it very likely that we are making progress in our understanding of the world, or at the very least, that our tradition provides the neccessary tools to do so (there being no others).

    Its also true that each stage makes us see that history differently, which makes it very difficult (if not impossible) at any point in time to define exactly what we might mean by ‘proximate truth’ if this is seen purely in relationship to an indendently existing reality as opposed to what is warrentedly assertible in relationship to the particular scientific traditions in existence.

    Some kind of historical view of science as a project is neccessary to defend it from the attacks of irrationalists. I don’t think an argument about ‘proximate truth’ does this very well, partly because it can never be demonstrated with any assurence, and that progress within science might at any point demolish a particular example. Particularly strong theories (Darwin’s theory) are by now so well attested that it would probably take the collapse of the whole enterprise of science to make holding this belief irrational. This is not only unlikely (to put it mildly) but is also the strongest basis for arguing that a belief that Darwin’s theory is false rests on an irrational belief that a rival system to science might emerge which would explain everything better then science: there is no rational reason to believe this.

    I think this is a stronger argument then the suggestion that because a theory works it must in some sense be true (or rather I think the above is as close as anything I can think of as to what ‘true’ means).

  134. Mezhrayontsi said,

    February 6, 2008 at 12:50 am

    This thread has pretty much died but I would like to add a comment.

    Over the past few days I have gone away and done some reading. I won’t deny for a moment my comments above were based on almost total ignorance of cosmology, and even now I don’t pretend to claim any authority in this regard.

    However…

    First off, I have read Pete Mason’s reply to Reason in Revolt. I think Pete’s book is well written and he makes some telling arguments against Alan’s conception of dialectical materialism and reveals some serious shortcomings in RiR. As Pete’s aim is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as Alan’s dogmatism I am happy to let him have his point.

    In my view the problem is not between Pete or Alan’s understanding of Marxism, it is dialectical materialism itself. For the fact is it is not just science that has progressed over the past hundred years, so has philosophy, and diamat is simply untenable today on philosophical grounds.This is borne out by the fact that almost no one trained in philosophy defends it, even those like myself who come from a Marxist background.

    The reason for this is not the dialectic, Hegel remains and is widely acknowledged to be a key thinker of Modernity, it is ‘materialism’, or more precisely the opposition between materialism and idealism invented by Marxism, in particular the orthodox Marxism of the late 19th century. This opposition is based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of classical German Idealism and is totally false. In other words, there is simply no question as to which is correct, idealism or materialism, Hegel or Marx, no choice to be made.

    Furthermore, the materialism Marx spoke of in opposition to Hegel’s ‘Idealism’ is related to society, not nature, it was a historical materialism that looked to the development of the productive forces and the struggle between classes as the motor force of history, rather than the unfolding of the Idea or Spirit, which in Hegel’s version is the unfolding of the concept of Freedom. This is the only sense in which the opposition between the two has any content.

    To shift the terrain of this opposition onto science is to distort the nature of Marx’s materialism entirely. Lukacs made this point and argued the dialectic had nothing to do with science but was essential to an understanding of history and to revolutionary thinking.

    If Marxism has anything to contribute to science then it is not in a scientific sense, but as philosophy, as a critique of science as a social praxis under capitalism. Lukacs again makes this point (I reread History & Class Consciousness) when he says something like ‘Practice may well be the test of theory, but what is the test of practice ?’ Much of 20th century philosophy, including by Marxists such as Adorno and Marcuse, has attempted to address this question.

    Which brings me to the Big Bang.

    I am still not convinced, even though I have had a another look at the debate, including Ted Wright’s site.

    My objection to the Big Bang is philosophical (I am a philosopher not a scientist, have a PhD in philosophy, and have also both studied and taught the ‘Philosophy of Science’, not that this gives me any authority it just explains my approach)

    There are two main points of support for the Big Bang theory –

    1. It fits the evidence of observation, at least in four major respects
    2. There is no viable challenger that can make anything like the same claim

    This would seem to stitch the matter up.

    But…

    The problem with the Big Bang theory is not whether it is borne out by observation, but the WAY in which it does this. The theory does so by creating purely arbitrary concepts and assigning them mathematical values to make the equations add up. These include the cosmological constant, dark matter, dark energy and many others. On this basis the evidence CAN NOT FAIL TO FIT.

    But this also means that observation is not and can not be the test of the theory, which raises a serious question as to its scientific character

    For those familiar with the parallel, there is a close analogy here with Ptolemy’s epicycles, which for almost a century after Copernicus better fitted the observed movements of the planets, and in principle can fit any observable such movement. The acceptance of Copernicus’ theory was NEVER on the basis of observable evidence and COULD NOT be, given the nature of Ptolemy’s method. It was Kepler who finally nailed Ptolemy’s coffin mostly through the elegance of his solution.

    It also explains the absence of a viable alternative, for the fact is that to come up with an alternative it is necessary to reject some of the fundamental assumptions of modern cosmology, for example the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This would be a very radical step, with massive implications for physics and the entire way in which we understand our world. It could be done, and at some point probably will, but it is a huge leap to make and most likely well beyond the capabilities of any single individual.

    This brings me to the heart of the matter, as I see it, namely science as a social institution. If Marxism has anything to contribute, I would argue, then this contribution will consist of a credible critique of the way science works today, and how in doing so it violates the spirit of science itself.

    I find it ironic therefore, that the bulk of Marxists seem incapable of any radical critique of science, but in fact generally adopt an extremely conservative position within the debate.

    To overcome this I would recommend the following –

    1. Drop materialism as a reference point, it is entirely irrelevant to any significant current debate, anywhere, on anything

    2. Catch up with the range of critiques of Modern science and technology that have dominated philosophical discussion for the past 100 years

    3. Try and inject some radicalism into your thinking, in other words move out of the 19th century

    My apologies for the length of this post. This is probably not the place to continue the discussion, but it would be nice to do so somewhere. I’m open to suggestions.

  135. johng said,

    February 6, 2008 at 10:30 am

    But the Theses on Feurbach is clearly an attempt to overcome this opposition. And in some ways combining words like ‘Dialectic’ and ‘Materialism’ signals this (the one term drawn from 19th century idealism, the other term drawn from 18th century materialism). If the suggestion is that Marx was unaware of the banality of this opposition, this seems to fly in the face of what he wrote.

  136. Mezhrayontsi said,

    February 6, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    I wasn’t thinking of Marx himself but since you mention the Theses of Feuerbach I have them in front of me.

    I think we are both right. Marx reconciles the opposition between idealism and materialism through practice, and this practice is social. Marx criticises both empiricism, which senses an objective world but does not act on it, and idealism, which acts but only upon itself in thought and not on the world outside. (Thesis 1) The point then is to act within the world, to change it, not as individuals (Thesis 9), but as ‘socialised humanity’ (Thesis 10).

    Marx is taking issue with Feuerbach here, but his comments are generally understood as also directed against Hegel when he says in Thesis 1 ‘the active side… was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such’.

    This is unfair to Hegel, who has no trouble accommodating the labourer or craftsman who comes to know their world through labour and not simply through thinking. And even if this wasn’t Hegel’s own view it is an easy move to make. To pose the opposition in this way, as Marxism has done historically, is to make it trivial.

    Coming to science then, the guts of Marx’s position is therefore that science, as a social practice, is historical in nature, an expression of socialised humanity. Since our epoch remains a capitalist one, our understanding of science today must take this historical context into account.

    Engels echoes this in the same volume, where in ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy’ he even talks of a ‘historical conception of nature’ becoming possible in the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution (p. 25). Marx’s materialism is a historical materialism, the task is to make history.

    At the same time, however, Engels creates much of the problem, at least in my opinion, when he expresses his understanding of the above position as meaning the test of scientific knowledge is practice, ‘namely experiment and industry’ (p.19). This certainly reflects the spirit of his day, but that does not mean we have to accept it today, for it is quite possible to argue that this is a thoroughly bourgeois position.

    Engels gives the example of alizarin, a colouring agent. Lukacs responds directly to Engels in his History & Class Consciousness (p.132). The gist of Lukacs argument, which is a Hegelian one, is that the naive pursuit of science by scientists who believe they are chasing ‘the facts’ in their particular field without any awareness of the totality of social relations or historical context surrounding them makes up the most important feature of science under modern capitalism.

    Lukacs argues in fact that what ‘constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science’ is ‘the point of view of the totality’ (p.xx). This is not an empirical totality, but a point of view, a perspective, a standpoint. It is the consciousness of this totality that underlies the revolutionary nature of Marxism.

    I tend to agree with Lukacs, and think his comments are highly relevant to a discussion of the science involved in the theory of the Big Bang, and in fact many other fields of science.

    (references above are to the Peking edition of Engels on Ludwig Feuerbach – remember them !)

  137. prianikoff said,

    February 7, 2008 at 8:44 am

    #134 “..the materialism Marx spoke of in opposition to Hegel’s ‘Idealism’ is related to society, not nature”

    I’ve never accepted the idea that Engels distorted Marx’s ‘philosophical’ approach. (Marx wasn’t strictly a philosopher anyway)

    But even in his doctoral dissertation on “The Differences between the Natural Philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus”, there’s evidence that he supported the radical atomist view. Much later in his life he was clearly opposed to Plato’s idealism. In philosophical terms would place him in the camp of the materialists on all questions.

  138. johng said,

    February 7, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    There is quite a strong argument that Marx is thinking primarily neither of ‘society’ or ‘nature’ but of the proponents of ‘civil society’.

  139. Prianikoff said,

    February 7, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    If anyone wants to look at a definitive response to “Western Marxism”, which defends the view that Marx and Engels were entirely in agreement about dialectics and materialism, I’d recommend “In Defence of Engels” by George Novack.
    I have it in “Intercontinental Press” Vol 14 No 7 Feb 23 1976
    It may be on the Marxist Internet Archive too.

    I think he deals with almost every argument that’s come up here (other than relating to recent debates in physics and cosmology)

  140. Mezhrayontsi said,

    February 7, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    I always liked Novack’s writing and have a couple of his books on my shelf so I will happily have a look.

    It is a pretty well worn debate so I am not sure how useful it is to rehash it here.

    On science and the party, though, what do we all think then ? ie, if we consider ourselves Marxists and imagine we are in the same party for a moment, what line or approach if any would we take to controversies in science ? Would we have anything to say, would we just leave it to the scientists, would we stick to the political implications of different theories without evaluating them as science, would we attempt an ideological critique, would we have an agreed line or just leave it up to individuals ?

    Would be interested to gauge the spectrum of views here


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