Marxism and the Natural Sciences

To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
February 21, 2015
RE: The Trotskyist IMT vs. cosmology

Marxism and Science
by Pete Brown, Communist Voice Organization

Marxism is a science and is supportive of modern science. Young Marx said "the point is not to understand the world, but to change it." But to change the world you have to understand it, not only the present but also the past. And you have to understand the mechanisms of change. To change the world politically requires understanding basic mechanisms of the physical and biological as well as the political realms. To get people to understand the need to confront global warming, for example, we need to be able to explain some geologic, chemical and biological facts, as well as understanding how political change can occur. Marxists, focused on the future development of humanity, have always been interested in keeping up with the latest developments in natural science.

The International Marxist Tendency is an originally British group that publishes historical and theoretical articles. Their website In Defense of Marxism (url: Marxist.com) purports to address a variety of issues, among them physics and cosmology. (1) One of their main writers is Adam Booth, who founded a Marxist study circle at Cambridge and has written extensively on economics and scientific issues. (2) Booth's series of articles on cosmology appeared on the IMT website beginning on November, 17, 2014. Entitled "The Crisis of Cosmology", this series is a broadside attack on present-day cosmology and an attempt to substitute Marxist-sounding rhetoric for science. This is a completely mistaken approach to how Marxists should approach science and scientific debates.

Marx and Engels were materialists who enthusiastically but critically accepted the core of the natural science of their day. They embraced the latest scientific achievements and promoted the advances made by Darwin and Morgan among others. Booth tries to put himself in the Marxist tradition by criticizing contemporary cosmology and doing so with the help of quotations from Engels. But in the process he puts himself at odds with the scientific attitude of Marx and Engels. If contemporary cosmology were a pseudo-science and its practitioners nothing but charlatans, Booth would have a point. It's all very well to criticize some wild speculation, but today's cosmologists have actually discovered new, important facts about the universe, facts ignored by Booth.

Creationists and Beginningists

Throughout his series of articles, Booth sneeringly compares cosmologists to creationists who believe that the universe had a beginning via creation by a supernatural god. This is a rotten way of arguing, but it's endemic with Booth. You don't accomplish anything, logically, by casting aspersions, but Booth hopes that by doing so he'll be able to accomplish indirectly what he couldn't do directly. The fact is, scientific cosmologists do not write papers about the mechanisms of creation, how some god created the natural world. What they are doing, instead, is trying to trace the history of the universe to its beginnings and give naturalistic explanations for this history. In its approach and method, scientific cosmology is directly opposed to religious creationism. Cosmologists do not quote scripture to try and prove their theories, nor do they try to establish ritual or enforce moral laws according to their theories.

There's no doubt some cosmologists are "beginningists", that is, they believe that the universe had a definite beginning 13.8 billion years ago in a big bang. That is the scientific orthodoxy accepted today. But there's considerable debate about exactly what was involved in the big bang, and there is ongoing research devoted to how that event unfolded, whether it involved "inflation" or not. And some cosmologists try to go further and look beyond the big bang, to what happened "before" it (if events prior to the movement of physical particles in space and time can be called "before"); so they wouldn't properly be called "beginningists." Nonetheless, one thing is clear:  just because someone is a beginningist does not make him a creationist.

That doesn't mean there are no religious people among cosmologists. There probably are people who work at scientific cosmology during the week and go to church on Sunday, worshipping a creationist god, and see some connection between the two. And some religions, e.g. the Catholic Church, try to make use of scientific cosmology, asserting that the establishment of big bang theory somehow proves or supports their creationist myth. Well, that is their business as they try to keep their religion relevant to the modern world. But the fact that the Church eventually accepted the heliocentric theory of the solar system did not invalidate that theory. It doesn't mean that anyone who accepts heliocentrism is an agent of the Vatican trying to subvert physical science.

Some of the more careful cosmologists shy away from absolute beginningism and only talk about what they know for sure. For example, Steven Weinberg in his 1977 book The First Three Minutes" pushes things back to within seconds of the big bang but doesn't try to go beyond that. Weinberg explains how particle physics explains what happened in the early universe, how particles eventually combined into atoms and eventually gave rise to the elements we know today. This is a good example of how research in one field (particle physics concerning ultra-small things) can be used to explain events in another, entirely different field (the universe as a whole, the ultra-big). But Weinberg does not try to speculate about what happened before that, about exactly what the big bang was or what set it off. He's careful not to speculate about absolute beginnings; nonetheless, because he accepts some basic tenets of big bang theory, he would be called a "creationist" by Booth. This is an anti-scientific way of acting that has nothing in common with Marxism.

Booth In the Dark

Booth likes to ridicule cosmologists for talking about dark matter and dark energy. But the scientific community has accumulated considerable evidence for these things in recent years.  As to dark matter, the motion of stars and galaxies tells us what kind of gravitational fields they exert on neighboring bodies, and measurements of these indicate there are massive gravitational fields around galaxies that far exceed what could be generated by the total mass of ordinary matter contained in those galaxies. There must be something else there, inside or around the galaxies, which has mass and exerts gravitational force. Easy methods of detection -- light from glowing objects or reflections -- don't detect this kind of matter, so it's reasonable to call this "dark" matter. But just because it's dark doesn't mean it's not there.

Booth says this kind of matter has not actually been detected, but this is just throwing away our knowledge of gravity, mass, estimates of mass density, etc. It's not like these estimates could be slightly off, and correcting those mistakes could wipe out any theories of dark matter. No, scientists agree that the vast majority of matter in the universe is actually of this "dark" kind. Booth is wrong to say there's no empirical evidence for dark matter; actually there is plenty of evidence, it's just not the direct visual kind of evidence. Efforts are underway to gather other, more direct evidence available on Earth, but it's difficult given that dark matter is relatively inert and does not interact easily with the more familiar (to us) ordinary (baryonic) matter.

As to dark energy, this is a newer and more controversial issue in cosmology which has come about due to measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe. That the universe is expanding was pretty well established in the 1920s and 30s, but its rate of expansion was unknown and was a hot topic of research and guesswork into the 1990s. In his 1977 book -- and also in the updated version of 1993 -- Steven Weinberg argues against any dark energy, asserting that the universe's expansion is due only to the original big bang. Weinberg thought gravity would act as a braking force eventually slowing this expansion and perhaps leading to a future "big crunch" of the universe. Or, he said, if the rate of expansion was fast enough and the matter in the universe somewhat less dense than otherwise, the universe would keep expanding forever, with all stars and galaxies eventually drifting far apart from one another.

So the universe's rate of expansion was an interesting and controversial topic. In the late 1990s developments in astrophysics made it possible to measure this rate more precisely, and this resulted in a surprising discovery: the rate of expansion is actually increasing! The universe is not only expanding, its expansion is accelerating over time. The braking force exerted by gravity is becoming weaker as the universe ages.

Many cosmologists, accepting this fact, have theorized that there must be some other kind of previously unknown, anti-gravity force driving expansion forward and accelerating it. They call this "dark energy." Admittedly not much is known about it, and admittedly there are some rather far-out theories floating around cosmology circles that try to explain what this energy is and where it comes from. (Other dimensions? Other universes that interact with ours?) But even if you blow off all these theories as speculative nonsense, as Booth does, you're still faced with facts and the need to explain the universe's accelerating expansion. Booth doesn't try to explain it -- he doesn't even mention it. He's only concerned with heaping ridicule on cosmologists. But ridicule doesn't get rid of facts.

It should be noted that this situation is not unique to contemporary cosmology. Oftentimes scientists don't have ultimate answers to mysterious forces and originating events, but that doesn't stop them from measuring effects and theorizing about what gives rise to them. Newton had no idea what gravity was or how it originated, but that didn't stop him and others from measuring the effects of gravity -- the speed at which balls roll down an inclined plane, for example, and how that speed accelerates; and similarly with planets revolving around the sun. Newton's theorizing was ridiculed by critics like the idealist Bishop Berkeley, and Newton himself was bothered by the fact that his theory implied action at a distance -- gravity acting simultaneously with no intervening medium. But there it is, he said, that's how my theory works. It did fit the facts and provided a satisfactory explanatory theory for over 150 years.

Similarly with dark matter and dark energy. We don't know exactly what they are or where they came from. But we can measure some of their effects and can theorize about what produces those effects. Some of those theories, admittedly, are more reasonable than others. But admitting that doesn't mean dismissing the facts or getting cynical about any cosmology.

Ignoring Facts ...

Booth doesn't concern himself with facts. Whether the universe is expanding or contracting doesn't concern him, and he doesn't bother trying to find any theory to explain anything. He's only interested in ridiculing scientists and even mathematicians, who, he says, "have sought to banish infinity at every step" (a ridiculous statement if there ever was one).  Booth dismisses the exciting new developments in cosmology in toto, saying nothing has advanced in the last few decades. This isn't surprising coming from someone who ignores the discovery of accelerated expansion of the universe, who never mentions black holes (which are relativistic singularities somewhat similar in that way to the big bang), and who -- unbelievably -- never mentions the cosmic microwave background, which is generally taken to be solid empirical proof for the big bang. Recognition of the microwave background is not a new or controversial theory of speculative cosmologists; it was discovered half a century ago and since then has been generally accepted as leftover radiation from the big bang. Booth doesn't bother trying to explain away these facts; he just ignores them.

... While Spouting "Infinity"

Booth dismisses modern cosmology with the magic word "infinity" which he repeats ad nauseam and quotes Engels for his authority. Because Engels, 135 years ago, made some statements about the universe being infinite, Booth feels justified in ridiculing cosmologists of today and dismissing commonly known facts. This is just the kind of anti-scientific, anti-materialist attitude that would have horrified Marx and Engels.

In the 1870s Engels wrote Anti-Duhring against the scientific pretensions of Herr Eugen Duhring. Besides erecting his own version of economics, Duhring also pretended to answer questions about science and in particular cosmology. He postulated that the universe began in an original self-identical, unchanging state of pure being without change, from which the universe that we know was derived somehow. Engels correctly ridiculed this as Hegelian idealism and insisted on the contemporary Newtonian conception of the universe. As he said: "Eternity in time, infinity in space, signify from the start ... that there is no end in any direction, neither forwards nor backwards, upwards or downwards, to the right or to the left. This infinity is something quite different from that of an infinite series, for the latter always starts from one, with a first term." (Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, Part I. Philosophy, V. Natural Philosophy. Time and Space, p. 61 of the Chinese edition (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976))

Booth takes such quotes from Engels as a refutation of modern cosmology which traces the universe back to a "first term", the big bang. He goes so far as to accuse cosmologists of postulating an original state of pure being or stasis, Being without Change, as Duhring did. This is a classic red herring, as cosmologists do not postulate any such thing. Relativity theory seems to imply that the big bang came out of (or was) a singularity, a state beyond the reach of presently known physical laws, an infinitely small, infinitely dense, infinitely hot, infinitely energetic state. What to make of that, exactly, is hard to fathom, which is why Weinberg (among others) doesn't even try. A satisfactory answer will have to await further research, further discoveries, and probably some radical readjustments to contemporary relativity and quantum theory. This is admitted by everyone, especially by cosmologists who try to answer what came "before" the big bang or what set it off.

Engels accepted his day's Newtonian conception of the universe, a universe that was eternal and infinite in all directions, spatially and temporally. But this conception changed with the advent of relativity theory and discovery of the expanding universe. These discoveries ushered in the era of modern cosmology, which attempts to construct a history of the universe beginning as far back as possible and predicting the future as far as possible. This history does not remain satisfied with Newtonian conceptions but uses the latest advances in quantum theory, particle physics and astrophysics to expand our knowledge of how the universe has changed. Ridiculing this attempt by cosmologists is not the way to assist science, nor does it reflect credit on Marxism.

Notes

(1) IMT was founded by Ted Grant and his followers after their break with the Committee for a Workers International in the early 1990s. Their website is edited by Alan Woods. Originally called Militant Tendency, this Trotskyist group had "entryism" as their strategy for infiltrating the Labour Party, but they were eventually tracked down and expelled from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. Grant continued to insist on "entryism" even while many of his former colleagues split off and formed other groups.  Spreading from Britain to other countries, IMT has attracted significant groups in Venezuela, Brazil and Greece, where two of its members were elected to the central committee of Syriza at its founding congress in July 2013. Like other Trotskyist groups, IMT has been beset by many splits, for example by its Iranian comrades angrily splitting from IMT's support for Hugo Chavez and his closeness to Iran. In the U.S., IMT supporters do not support entryism into the Democratic Party but support a Labor Party based on the trade unions.

(2) Adam Booth founded an IMT group at Cambridge University which has become fairly strong there by supporting the fight against austerity. Booth writes against Keynesianism and reformism as well as articles on scientific topics.  <>


To subscribe to the DWV list or send in comments, write to mail@communistvoice.org. For a description of what the DWV list is, see http://www.communistvoice.org/DWV_email_list.html.


Back to main page, how to order CV, write us!

 

Posted on February 24, 2015.
http://www.communistvoice.org
e-mail: mail@communistvoice.org