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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Fall-out from the Big Bang

by Tom Gill

The articles in the Australian Marxist Review (No. 36, December 1996) dealing with cosmology raise a number of philosophical questions which, I think, are worth following up.

Some of the criticism of Peter Symon’s article on the Big Bang is, I think, justified, in so far as a scientific theory has to be judged in the light of the evidence on which it is based and on its predictions and further experiments which test them.

To condemn a theory solely on philosophical grounds — or worse, because it runs counter to what we would like to be the case, or what one would expect, is irreconcilable with a materialist outlook. (Peter Symon does not quite go to this length.)

However, one cannot claim that a theory should be beyond philosophical criticism. Once subjects like the origin of the whole universe are brought in, we cannot avoid some philosophy. Also, once we think of time as something more than the “t” in our equations, we find ourselves in the realm of philosophy.

In the same way, if a theory involves something which is unobservable or unknowable in principle or which appears to be absurd, we have to look at the theory from a philosophical viewpoint.

These latter two features seem to me to be inherent in some way in the Big Bang theory, as presented by Paul Davies, even though some features of the theory will certainly survive.

I will refer to two striking examples of the rejection of a theory on “philosophical” grounds.

The best known of these is the Lysenko affair in the Soviet Union. Here, the facts of modern genetics were rejected in favour of completely erroneous ideas by philosophers who should have demanded the rigorous testing of Lysenko’s claims.

What seems almost unbelievable today is that the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (known as Lamarckian evolution) was given official support. Soviet genetics was destroyed for nearly a generation!

It is possible that the support given to Lysenko by the Party and Soviet Government was influenced to some extent by the fact that Engels, in his (unfinished) article, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, took Lamarckian evolution for granted. At the time when Engels wrote this article (1876), the Lamarckian theory was widely accepted by scientists, including Darwin.

Darwin’s work established natural selection as the factor which acted on natural variation to change or produce species of plants and animals which took place over millions of years.

The re-discovery around 1900 of Mendel’s laws of heredity (published ca 1866) was eventually followed by a better understanding of heredity and today the theory that evolution is the result of random mutations subject to the action of natural selection is no longer seriously questioned.

My second example is also taken from the Soviet Union, but in this case it was not centred on one individual like Lysenko.

Einstein’s [Special] Theory of Relativity (1905) was attacked by many Soviet philosophers and some scientists as being idealist. There is, of course, nothing in this theory which gives any support to an idealist philosophy and to claim this required the critic to be either ignorant of the theory or of philosophy.

But there is some excuse for those who were so misled. Unlike modern genetics, modern physics has been used to support idealist philosophy and religion to an extraordinary extent — as we have seen in the case of Paul Davies.

In addition to this, Einstein himself was, as he admits, greatly influenced in his youth by Ernst Mach.1 Later in his life, Einstein came much closer to a materialist position.

However, Einstein was a good scientist and his scientific work stands on its own feet, irrespective of his philosophy. The Theory of Relativity, which Einstein published in 1905, is now supported by a large amount of experimental evidence and at present cannot be seriously questioned — any more than modern quantum theory can be doubted simply because it has been used to support idealism.

More than one lesson can be learnt from the Soviet experience I have mentioned. Probably the most important is that neglect or distortion of our basic materialist philosophy can have serious practical results and this applies to bourgeois society as well as to a socialist one.

We can think of Marxist theory as having two main parts, one its materialist philosophy, the other its scientific component.

It is not quite as simple as that, however. Materialism is the real basis of our philosophy, and on the other hand the materialist conception of history is a science as is Marxist political economy.

But our materialism is dialectical materialism, so we should include dialectics under the heading of philosophy. On the other hand, materialist dialectics applies to all forms of motion and change, i.e. science, from subatomic particles to the history of human society or the evolution of the universe.

In conclusion we can say that dialectical materialism belongs to both science and philosophy.

The question must inevitably be asked: what part did the neglect of ideology play in the defeat of the Soviet Union? The first indications that serious problems had arisen, at least for those outside the socialist countries, was the appearance of articles and statements which, at best, represented the long discredited ideology of social democracy, for example, the doctrine of the convergence of capitalism and socialism and the abandonment of class struggle. (See, for example, Australian Marxist Review, June 1989, pp 39-42)

The deterioration in the Soviet Union, however, was well-advanced by 1989. We cannot attribute the events in Eastern Europe entirely to neglect or abandonment of Marxism, although this must have helped. A very elementary knowledge of Marxism should tell us that capitalism and socialism cannot be mixed for long and that private ownership of the means of production is incompatible with socialism.

I would like to conclude with a quotation from a lecture, given by R Palme Dutt2 at Moscow University in 1962 when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of History.

… the simplest rule-of-thumb test to judge the economy of a country is to enquire whether there is a Stock Exchange.

… in socialist countries there is no need of a Stock Exchange; the economy is not based on stocks and shares representing private ownership of the means of production; income is based on work done, or, in the case of social production, on need, not on private ownership.

  1. Ernst Mach was a philosopher and scientist whose name was the origin of the term Mach number (the ratio of a vehicle’s speed to the speed of sound) because of his work in aerodynamics. He was one of a number of scientists criticised by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-criticism. The essence of their philosophy was that scientific observations do not yield any knowledge about objective reality and that a scientific theory was not an attempt to describe or explain reality but merely a way to summarise the results of our experiments. Mach's ideas influenced many physicists apart from Einstein, the most prominent of whom was Neils Bohr who was the first to apply quantum theory to the atom. It is possible that Mach played a significant part in turning many scientists towards an idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  2. R Palme Dutt was the Editor of the English journal Labour Monthly for about 50 years. He was a brilliant Marxist theoretician and his monthly editorial notes provided a valuable commentary on current affairs and are still worth reading today. His best known and possibly his most important book was Fascism and Social Revolution (published in 1934) in which he describes and analyses the rise of fascism in Europe. The lectures referred to were published under the title Problems of Contemporary History (Lawrence and Wishart, 1963) and the quotation is from page 76 of this book.

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