U.S. and World Politics

Science, Philosophy and Marxist Dialectical Thinking

By John Blackburn

“Natural scientists may adopt whatever attitude they please, they are still under the domination of philosophy. It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad, fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.” —Engels1

In a recent correspondence with a well-educated friend, a scientist and a teacher, he referred to a philosophy course he had taken as an undergraduate as “One of the most painful times in my studies was when I took a module on philosophical models of the human mind. I thought it was shite. Pages and pages to say little or nothing.”

I can understand that reaction. I have encountered some such books and have even put myself through the torture of reading Althusser.2 It is wrong however to condemn all of philosophy for the failure of some teachers or incomprehensible books. Both should serve to stimulate interest, take students on a journey of exploration through the history of the development of philosophical ideas, showing how they have helped shape our world and the way we think. The teacher should be a guide who explains the meanings of the terminology and concepts that are particular to philosophy so that each student may study at their own pace and level of interest. (I used to regularly tell my students not to believe anything that I say—go check the matter out for yourself.)

When I first encountered Calculus, I found it incomprehensible so gave up. Marx has written that we all should study Calculus, “It is the mathematics of change,” so this omission was always at the back of my mind. Some years later when I was studying physical chemistry, which has many calculations, I realized that they were almost all Calculus and it was now making sense. Context can make all of the difference.

I also see parallels with people who say, “I don’t do politics.”

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues…” —George Orwell

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not our lives are governed by politics. We can choose to passively accept the political processes affecting us or become active participants. Similarly, with scientists. However, much they express contempt for politics and philosophy (referred to as Micky Mouse degrees) they influence our lives and our thinking profoundly.

Every scientist and teacher of science has the choice to ignore this fact or to understand and integrate this into their work.

Science teachers not only explain the laws of their science but introduce students to a new language and new concepts. Words do not always mean the same in the external world as they do to scientists. While each scientific discipline has its own language and infinite numbers of abbreviations and acronyms, all can be learned in time. Above all the teacher should stimulate the students’ interest so that they will use philosophy to help them develop a deeper understanding of their particular fields of study. For a few that will be philosophy itself. Thank goodness for the diversity of interests that individual humans have. Those with the most passion for their subject wish to share it and if we understand any subject, we should be able to explain it to anyone. Every academic field has its own history, jargon, terminology, concepts and traditions which apply to the sciences and philosophy. These are often a barrier to the outsider or newcomer, but it is the teacher’s job to make these accessible to every student, to make the subject interesting to all and to help those who are developing a deeper interest to follow their passion.

My friend’s experience with philosophy teaching is one case where “shooting the messenger” might be appropriate. Two-and-a-half-thousand-years of human intellectual endeavor whose purpose was to help us understand our world and our place in it should have been an exciting and uplifting experience or at least quite interesting. No, it was boring and incomprehensible and as the teacher was a paid public servant also reprehensible. We all know the names of many philosophers —Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Marx and others and though we may know little of their works, we are aware that their ideas have made a contribution to our cultural heritage that has been worth preserving, in some cases for millennia. Learning should never cause any student pain and to discourage them from an interest in philosophy for life. No teacher could argue that was a success.

Philosophy, literally, the love of knowledge, is essentially about trying to understand the true nature of the world. But more forcefully, philosophy demands “Why do you think that?”—a question that every scientist should put to themselves every day—not just scientists, everyone.

For Marxists, objective knowledge is the starting point for changing the world for the better.

I am writing this in September 2020 and what is true and what is truth are among the most important questions of today. Politicians’ lying has reached an industrial scale in the UK and in Trump’s USA. Statistics have always been doctored and facts manipulated by political careerists but at present it is genuinely true has become almost meaningless. We had politicians telling us recently that “We’ve had enough of experts” which is dangerous anti-intellectualism.

Truth used to be what is written in the Bible, for many it still is, as is the Quran for Muslims.

The first thing that philosophy did for humanity was to challenge these absolute controls religion had on knowledge and thinking.

“Truth is a process. From the subjective idea, man advances towards objective truth through practice (and technique).” —Lenin

For Marxists, the truth, though never absolute, is fundamental. We start work from the objective conditions we find, face their living realty and base all of our analysis, program and strategy on what we believe to be true.

Meaningless propaganda and deceit do not advance the class struggle of science in the slightest and have their own dynamic that leads only to disappointment and decay.

The Marxist outlook called dialectical materialism is the descendant of two-and-a-half-thousand-years of the progress in philosophy from its origins in ancient Asia Minor to the present day. While having its own particular viewpoint, Marxism always acknowledges the contributions of its antecedents, “it is built on the shoulders of giants” and contemporary philosophers who also seek genuine truths.

What have philosophers
done for us?

Above all, philosophers have paved the way for our modern secular, educated world by challenging the authority of the church and its sanctified texts. Philosophers have helped to free scientists from the constraints of the scholasticism imposed on them by the Bible and a few authorized ancients backed by the very real threat of punishment and death. The world Philip Pullman created in His Dark Materials would be like one where philosophy had not triumphed and where the religious authorities control all education and scientific research.

What Philosophers have given us

Epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. This branch of philosophy investigates how we obtain knowledge of the world. It challenges the tradition of obtaining knowledge from the classical scripts. Empiricism, which is the foundation stone of all modern science, is one of its progenies. Observation and experiment, recording and measuring are still the empirical means of obtaining knowledge today. Theories are put to the test and either confirmed or refuted in practice in the lab or in the real world.

Scientific theories and practices change over time, epistemology keeps abreast of these developments and attempts to provide more generalized conclusions from them.

Empiricists from Francis Bacon and Locke onwards fought and won the battle to remove god and superstition from the laboratory and all fields of scientific investigation which was a monumental achievement for humanity.

Epistemology, however, has shown that despite all the claims of absolute objectivity claimed by empiricists, they live in the real world and carry a lot of intellectual baggage and subjective bias into their scientific research. It is the criticism of philosophers that is among the agents that promote improvements in the methods of investigation and refinement of scientific theories.

Whether the researcher is aware of it or not, the 20th century philosopher Karl Popper has had a profound influence on scientific thinking particularly in the UK. Popper introduced the concept of “falsification” into the scientific lexicon and practice. For a theory to be genuinely scientific, Popper showed that it had to be capable of being “falsified” that is of being proven wrong. Theories that cannot be tested and falsified are not scientific and more akin to religious precepts. Popper went on to argue that real scientific progress occurs when established theories are proven wrong.

A contemporary of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the term and concept that scientists in their normal work operate within a paradigm. A paradigm sets the theoretical, technical and cultural framework that scientists operate in at a particular period. In time, data begins to accumulate that throws into question the established outlook. Eventually an intellectual crisis is reached when a new paradigm emerges that replaces its predecessor. This was what happened in the 20th century with the replacement of classical Newtonian physics by the new physics of Einstein and quantum mechanics.

A similar process is currently underway in evolutionary biology. The classical Darwinian model of steady, continuous evolutionary development in its contemporary form expressed as, “Climbing Mount Improbable,” is being challenged by the fossil and genetic evidence. This lead Stephen Jay Gould and his associates to develop the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” that is in tune with the actual paleontological evidence and contemporary genetic studies.

Although not universally accepted, punctuated equilibrium has been demonstrated in the evolution of land plants and more recently between Homo sapiens and our recently extinct relatives. This is the new paradigm that is challenging the established neo-Darwinian view in evolutionary biology.

In medical research the randomized double-blind trial is the latest and most objective method for obtaining correct information about a drug’s or a treatment’s effectiveness by eliminating the subjective experience of the patients and the bias of the clinicians treating them. It is a product of both empirical experience and epistemology which continually challenges established ideas and practices demanding that they account for themselves in a changing world. Today’s intellectual methods will most certainly be developed upon, and is paving the way for, even higher levels of scientific achievement.

From its early and clumsy beginnings, empiricism has been developed and refined through scientific practice and industry over recent centuries to become what we call the “scientific method” that underpins all of our methodology today. Put simply, epistemology says, “Show us your evidence and explain to us how you got it.”

Logic. Logic teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad thinking and how to construct valid arguments.

It asks every scientist—by what method did you arrive at that conclusion?

Laws of logic were first elucidated by Plato’s student Aristotle. A equals A, B equals B, these are known as the laws of identity. A does not equal B, is the law of non-identity. A thing cannot be A and B at the same time, is the law of the excluded middle. We use these laws of logic unconsciously all of the time. “This is a cup; this is a spoon. This cup is not a spoon.” We categorize everything in our world continuously. This is essential to negotiate our way in the world, to feed, survive and reproduce should we decide.

In science these laws may be less obvious, but they are operating in our minds all of the time and at all levels from the simple to the cosmological, “This is a pipette”—to cutting edge science— “That is a Higgs boson.” “This is a healthy cell,” or “That is a malignant cell.” “This is an X chromosome” and “It is not a Y chromosome.”

How simple, how mundane, but it took the genius of Aristotle to identify this as the principal foundation of our thinking. Once an intellectual action has been identified it can then be applied consciously and consistently just like the laws of science.

Aristotle also taught us the principles of syllogism—the logical presentation of a point of view or argument. (He would have called this dialectic.) All women are mortal, she is a woman, therefore she is mortal.

Marxism is dialectical materialism. Dialectics, the philosophy of change, has been at the heart of discussion since the beginning of philosophy. Marxism has adopted the laws of dialectical logic elucidated by Hegel and given them a materialist foundation. All scientific work from a simple lab report to a doctoral thesis must be consistent with the principles of logic that Aristotle first elucidated.

To be awarded a PhD, the candidate must not only show impeccable research but also impeccable logic and grammar.

When we first begin to talk, we unconsciously employ the rules of grammar of the language spoken around us. We generally put nouns and verbs in the appropriate place. But the tenses of verbs can be a problem. At school we learn to apply the principles of grammar consciously and systematically. This not only improves our ability to convey our ideas to others effectively, it also enables us to appreciate more fully what others are saying or writing, whether in a scientific report or a work of literature. Some people come so enthralled by the principles of grammar that they make its study their career. So too with the principles of logic.

By consciously applying the laws of logic to any work that scientists produce they will be consistent in collating and analyzing the data, presenting the conclusions, and addressing them in the context of the current paradigm of their field. Logic facilitates the communication of and correct understanding of scientific ideas not only by our scientist peers but by the people of the wider world who support our work.

For example were I to have a discussion with a cosmologist about the Big Bang and the evolution of the cosmos, the cosmologist would be able to explain at my level of comprehension what she understands to be the current state of knowledge in her field. In return I would be able to explain to her, her bee-sting allergy, or other immunological complaint using language that she too would understand. We both know that while we are from different spheres of study, we have a common scientific methodology so that we each know what each of us saying is as close to the truth as we are at present. (Popper called this verisimilitude.) I believe that I could also explain the most complex of immunological processes or conditions to any geneticist or member of the general public in terms that they could comprehend.

The people working in scientific fields have a wide spectrum of reasons and backgrounds. For some it is simply a nine-to-five-job that gives them the money to live while for others it is a lifetime’s obsession. There are atheists, Christians, Muslims and Jews, communists and conservatives working in science yet whatever their reasons or subjective beliefs, all are subject to the same scientific criteria and methodological principles while investigating, recording and reporting their findings. The constant analysis and criticism of theories by philosophers has made a significant contribution to scientific progress by identifying subjectivity, bias and inconsistent logic.

Contemporary science owns much to philosophy as it is built on the pillars of epistemology and logic. But equally scientific progress continues to be the life blood of philosophy—it is mutual co-evolution.

Philosophical rigor facilitates good scientific practice, analysis and presentation of conclusions. While science and its offspring industry continue to provide philosophers with a myriad of new developments and products that fuel discussion and challenge intellectual complacency in philosophy.

Metaphysics. Metaphysics is “seeking the answers to life, the universe and everything;”—literally meaning beyond physics. This branch of philosophy raises questions about the nature of the natural world from the atomic to the cosmological and our relation to it. It looks to all branches of human endeavor and seeks to find connections and generalizations.

Metaphysics asks the profound questions—what is the reality of the physical world, can we ever truly know it, is there a meaning to life, do we have a soul? Is there a god?

While the debates in this field of philosophy have little immediate interest to most scientists the evidence provided by science is used in the discussions around all of these issues. (In the works of Marx and Engels, the term metaphysics has a different meaning. To them it meant those who did not think dialectically.)

Ethics. Ethics, or moral philosophy seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, what we consider proper behavior, and what constitutes “the good life.” While these were personal matters for scientists until recently, ethical behavior has now become integral to scientific practice. Every scientific or medical research study that involves human or animal subjects now has to be submitted to the institution’s ethics committee for approval. Researchers now have to incorporate the organization’s ethical policies into any proposed project and have been forced to examine their own attitudes to human and animal subjects. All now have to assess the importance of their investigations and justify their contribution to society.

Aesthetics. Aesthetics deals with matters such as beauty, art and good taste. While this may be the sphere of philosophy least interesting to most scientists, most scientific meetings now award a prize for the best posters, so appreciation of art is combining with science.

At root is the fundamental matter of freedom of expression, which is essential for all scientists as well as artists. The individual’s right to question authority and express their own opinions in every sphere of human activity, including science, is paramount to a civilized society.

Philosophy is a skill that is learned like any other skill. It is an intellectual activity, but does not diminish the necessity of its study and practice. As with any subject, some people have a natural affinity while others may have a mathematical gift or a passion for beetles. All students start from relative ignorance and progress to a thorough understanding of a subject at different rates. Some need to do little revision while others need to study intensely and seek all sorts of memory aids when exams are involved.

The disparaging of philosophy in some academic quarters reflects the low importance that it has had in the British education system despite many of the great pioneers being British. It is an intellectual skill whose principles all students should have knowledge of and be exposed to as it encourages us, above all, to think critically. In France philosophy is a core subject in the Baccalauréat, the essential qualification for university entrance.

The modern scientist owes much to philosophers and to the ideas they have bequeathed us. From the earliest beginnings when Thales began to question the role of gods in human affairs, to the renaissance when the authority of the Catholic church over all human activities temporal and intellectual was challenged then overthrown, philosophers have been in the vanguard of intellectual freedom. There are many martyrs among them who put truth and the right to express their ideas publicly before their own life. It is no accident that Carl Sagan’s monumental work, Cosmos, A Personal Voyage, begins with a tribute not to a scientist but to the radical philosopher Giordano Bruno. He was martyred for refusing to conform to the dictates of the hierarchy of outmoded Catholic religion who in spite of the evidence, maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. The scientist Galileo capitulated and recanted, to be condemned to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Bruno, the philosopher, refused to renounce his views and after imprisonment was eventually burned at the stake in Rome on February 17, 1600.

“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” —C.L.R. James.

This could apply to many scientists, too. Philosophy puts all of our sciences in their historical, intellectual and social context providing a medium for a more comprehensive and universal appreciation of the work we do. Logic also teaches us how to think consistently, what questions to ask, how to address problems, how to approach an investigation, how to analyze information and how to convey our discoveries correctly to our peers and to broader society. These are carried out all of the time by scientists but how much more effective when we consciously use the tool that has been made to help us do this—logic.

Over the many years since leaving school I have lived through many awful lectures as a student and later during peer appraisal when I was a lecturer myself. I have witnessed the most interesting of subjects reduced to an excruciatingly long monotone. No topic of study should ever be painful for any student. The good teachers who know their subjects well can convey them to anyone in a language that they will understand. But like an angler is always throwing out bait, a teacher is fishing to identify the points that will capture each student’s attention and interest. Philosophy, if presented thoughtfully, sensitively and passionately, is and should be accessible to everyone, it is our common inheritance and, like the sciences ,a monumental tribute to human intellectual achievement.

Much of contemporary philosophical literature is written in language and terminology that is incomprehensible to most scientists. It is philosophers talking to other philosophers to the exclusion of everyone else. Thus, an intellectual rift has developed where different sides hold the others in contempt to some degree. This contains a germ of anti-intellectualism which is always reactionary.

Seekers after truth in whatever field are marching together with a common interest and objective. Knowledge and understanding of our universe and our place in it come from a multitude of sources and disciplines.

Scientists explore the workings of the material world including the biological operations of the human brain. Developments in science and technology are the fuel for philosophy which reciprocates, by analyzing and integrating these discoveries into an ever-relevant world view that should be comprehensible to the scientific community and all of society.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it” —Karl Marx

Marxism is the philosophy that addresses all of these matters and integrates the separate branches of philosophical tradition—epistemology, ethics and aesthetics through the logic of dialectical materialism. Marxism incorporates all of humanity’s achievements in a world historical perspective with a system of dialectical logic that is ever open to incorporating all that is new in every sphere of human experience and a guide in all fields of our activity.

But that is a story for another time.

1 Anti-Dûrhing

2 Louis Pierre Althusser was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École normale supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. Althusser was a longtime member—although sometimes a strong critic—of the French Communist Party.