After discussing dialectics, Woods moves on to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Big Bang theory, the origin of life, of mind and matter, and other universal matters. Reason in Revolt attempts to discuss ‘life, the universe and everything’. The jacket cover asks whether this “encounter” between Marxist philosophy and science will “provide the basis for a new and exciting breakthrough in the methodology of science?”
Woods attempts to make philosophical judgements about scientific ideas based on what he believes to be the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. But as Hegel, to whom Woods often appeals in Reason in Revolt, wrote nearly two centuries ago, “Truth is concrete”. Hegel explains that without a concrete grasp of the subject under study, no clarity can be found. Following Hegel, many other Marxists – Vladimir Lenin in particular – have emphasised that truth is always concrete.
Reason in Revolt’s representation of dialectics is rigid and abstract. Lenin’s first “element” of dialectics (of which we find no mention in Reason in Revolt) is that every thing must be considered “in its relations and in its development”. (Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel's Book, The Science of Logic, Collected Works, volume 38, pp221-2) By comparison, Woods approaches scientific theories too narrowly, and with insufficient knowledge or consideration of their overall historical development.
Woods tells us: “Decades ago, Ted Grant, using the method of dialectical materialism, showed the unsoundness… of the big bang theory.” (p189) Woods argues: “From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, it is arrant nonsense to talk about the ‘beginning of time,’ or the ‘creation of matter’.” (pps198-9) 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. This is a misunderstanding of dialectical materialism, a misrepresentation of the method of Marx and Engels and of the materialist dialectics they developed.
In our discussion of cosmology, unlike that of Woods, 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. Science is, in any case, always incomplete. The solving of apparent contradictions which perturb scientific theories is the life-blood of scientific endeavour. A minority of scientists do not accept the current theories about the origins of the universe. The Big Bang theory itself began as no more than a curiosity supported by a minority – presenting a solution to Einstein’s equations which appeared to fit the observational evidence, but which had little support.
Nevertheless, beginning with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation – the ‘fossil evidence’ of the Big Bang – in 1965, there has developed a very broad degree of agreement with ‘four pillars’ of evidence for a hot dense origin to our universe. We intend to demonstrate the historical path along which mainstream science passed until it reached that astonishing cosmological viewpoint – the Big Bang theory of the universe – which Woods incorrectly believes to be incompatible with the philosophy of Marxism. We intend to test Woods’ grasp of the subject, his methods, and the criticisms he makes.
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Reason in Revolt accuses modern physics of a retreat into “mysticism”, a “mediaeval view”, and is appalled at the “Creation Myth” of the Big Bang theory. Yet it is Woods who retreats to the standpoint of Newton, a standpoint which was overthrown a hundred years ago, as it came increasingly into conflict with scientific experiments. In fact, Newton himself was aware of contradictions in his theories of the universe. He admitted he had no idea, for example, on what basis gravity, his greatest discovery, perpetrated its mysterious instantaneous ‘action at a distance’ – the effect that binds planets in the vastness of space to their orbits round the sun.
Reason in Revolt claims: “Dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite.” (p189) We will attempt to refute this claim. Viewed historically, it was Newton who argued that god is infinite and that therefore space and time must be infinite. Newton was also concerned that his ‘universal gravitation’ should have caused all the stars in the universe to have attracted each other – they should have all fallen into “one great spherical mass”. Newton’s solution was to summon the hand of god to set an infinite universe in perfect balance. Newton’s infinite universe, as embraced by Woods, is essentially a product of religious ideology. The physicist Brian Greene says: “Experimenters never measure an infinite amount of anything. Dials never spin round to infinity.” (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p335) Infinity is a key concept in the history of philosophy and science, and anyone serious about the subject must be clear on the issues involved. This is no quibble over terminology but a crucial discussion of ideas.
In the fourth century BCE,1 the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle drew a distinction between ‘potential’ infinity, where, for instance, any number, no matter how big, can always be increased by adding more numbers, and what he called “actual infinity”. He pointed out that a potentially infinite series of numbers never reaches actual infinity and, in fact, never leaves the finite. The ‘actual’ infinite, Aristotle argued, does not exist.
Despite his references to Aristotle, Woods makes no direct mention of this seminal and essentially materialist position. Of course, the study of the concept of infinity has developed over the millennia. But as the physicist Lee Smolin recently wrote, in nature, “we have yet to encounter anything measurable that has an infinite value”. Infinities which occur in scientific theories are not likely to be reflecting natural phenomena but errors or limits within the theory itself. Infinites in scientific theories are most likely to be “the way that nature punishes impudent theorists”. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p5)
Woods takes the opposite view. The universe, he repeats, “as Nicolas of Cusa and others thought, is infinite” (p184) and, “The universe has existed for all time.” (p199) Woods claims support from Hegel and Engels but we will show that Woods has turned some of their central views upside down.
Einstein’s elegant general theory of relativity, published in 1916, solved the mysterious ‘action at a distance’ of gravity which so puzzled Newton. Einstein showed that gravity and motion are “intimately related to each other and to the geometry of space and time”. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p4) In 1929, Hubble famously discovered that the universe was rapidly expanding. This strongly inferred that the universe had issued from a hot dense origin and this expansion presented a real solution to Einstein’s equations.
In this way twentieth century science removed from cosmology the paradoxes arising from Newtonian notions of infinite time and space. It removed the need for the “divine first impulse”. Far from leading to ‘creationism’, once very tangible evidence of the Big Bang arrived in the form of the discovery of cosmic background radiation, science soon began investigating what we here term the material ‘substratum’ from which the universe emerged in the Big Bang.
Of course, these new discoveries have not eliminated contradictions from science – there is always a dialectical interplay between theory and data. Our understanding of the universe will continue to advance and change. As we write, particle physicists are nervously awaiting the first results from the Large Hadron Collider, the latest and most powerful particle collider, now expected to be operational in early 2008. Many guess the findings will cause upsets and pose new challenges to the current attempts to unify quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity – one of the great unsolved problems of physics.
Yet Woods scorns Einstein’s general relativity. He describes it as “mediaeval”. Yet, to take one example, the pinpoint accuracy of GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation is achieved by continually
recalculating the satellite data using Einstein’s equations. Without Einstein’s theory, GPS navigation would be less accurate by tens of metres. Woods desires to defend the “fundamental ideas” of Marxism by endorsing the fundamental concepts of the Newtonian universe – in the name of dialectical materialism, moreover. Woods says science has been set back “400 years”, yet he wishes to set the clock back to the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687.
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Woods neither properly represents nor understands the last century of discoveries that have so completely changed the scientific conception of the universe. He misunderstands both dialectical materialism and its approach to science. In his obituary to Ted Grant, Woods claims that Reason in Revolt defends “the fundamental ideas of the movement”. This review argues that, on the contrary, Reason in Revolt misrepresents the fundamental ideas of the movement. Grant, who died in July 2006, undoubtedly contributed much to Marxist thought, but he was not a scientist. With the appearance in the summer of 2007 of a second English edition of Reason in Revolt we felt it necessary to attempt to set things to rights. (Page references are to the first edition.) We wish, in the course of this discussion, to defend the genuine ideas of Marxism and suggest that Marxism takes quite a different approach to modern science.
In addition to our scientific survey of the last few centuries of revolutions in cosmology, we will argue that Engels was essentially antagonistic to the idea that our universe is infinite. Almost a hundred years before the Big Bang theory was accepted, Engels discussed both the birth and the death of our universe. We find no mention of this in Reason in Revolt. Woods confidently predicts that the infinite universe contains only “galaxies and more galaxies stretching out to infinity”. (Preface to the 2001 Spanish edition of Reason in Revolt) But Engels refers the reader to Hegel who says that such predictions are merely a “tedious” repetition of known phenomena (in this case galaxies), which never leaves the finite. Support for an infinite universe in this form is a failure of imagination, rather than its triumph.
For two-and-a-half millennia, many philosophers have supported the view that infinity is an imaginary concept which has no actual existence. Hegel arrived at a dialectical proposition which can be expressed like this: you can always imagine an unending series of galaxies following one after another, but in concrete reality, at a certain point, quantity turns into quality and a new phenomenon emerges. Whatever existed before is
negated. From this point of view there may be many galaxies undiscovered, or many universes beyond our own – it is speculation – but at some point, some other property will arise that ends the tedious repetition, whether of galaxies or universes, the conception of which is beyond our current scientific horizons.
A comment on the preface to the second English edition of Reason in Revolt
On May 2007 the publication of a second English edition of Reason in Revolt was announced. In the Preface to the new edition, Woods tells us that when Ted Grant and he were writing Reason in Revolt in 1995:
“… we were still unsure about the existence of black holes.”
Preface to the second edition of Reason in Revolt
Ted Grant was scathing about the science of black holes, at least until 1990. While Reason in Revolt takes a more equivocal stance in part, Woods was certain, in 1995, that the modern physics of the black hole was quite wrong. Woods says:
“Singularities, black holes where time stands still, multiverses… These senseless and arbitrary speculations are the best proof that the theoretical framework of modern physics is in need of a complete overhaul.”
Reason in Revolt, p174
Now Woods appears to unreservedly embrace the science of “black holes where time stands still”. In the 2007 preface to the second edition he states:
“They are present at the centre of every galaxy and serve to hold galaxies together, giving them the cohesion without which life, and ourselves, would be impossible. Thus, what appeared to be the most destructive force in the universe turns out to have colossal creative powers. The dialectical conception of the unity of opposites thus received powerful confirmation from a most unexpected source!”
Preface to the second edition of Reason in Revolt
Yet black holes are not proven. They “remain largely theoretical” and even problematic, as the New Scientist pointed out its recent cover story, ‘The
Truth About Black Holes’. (6 October 2007) Woods’ original scathing condemnation of the modern science of black holes has been replaced by a contrary position which just as surely misrepresents modern science. Black holes are not by any means known to be – or even generally regarded to be – at the centre of “every” galaxy. Black holes are thought to be at the centre of a certain type of galaxy (including our own), at least in most cases, according to a study which Woods came across and misreports in the preface to the 2001 Spanish edition of Reason in Revolt.
Reason in Revolt reaches the pinnacle of its ridicule of modern science in its condemnation of the modern science of black holes and the Big Bang theory. Yet there is no direct mention of this in the 2007 preface. Instead, Woods comments on the correct method by which to apply dialectical materialism. Woods quotes Engels, who criticises the idealism of Hegel. Engels says:
“The mistake lies in the fact that [the laws of dialectics] are foisted on
nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them.”
Dialectics of Nature, Chapter 2
Does not Woods make the same type of mistake? Does not Woods attempt to foist on cosmology what he believes are the laws of dialectical materialism? Reviewing, with complete incomprehension, the modern science of the Big Bang in relation to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Woods cries, “Here the study of philosophy becomes indispensable.” (p216) Reason in Revolt tells us that science has regressed to:
“…the world of the Creation Myth (the ‘Big bang’), complete
with its inseparable companion, the Day of the final
Judgement (the ‘big crunch’).”
Reason in Revolt, p183
Yet only seven years later, in the 2002 USA edition of Reason in Revolt, Woods offers his support to a mainstream re-working of the old speculative cyclical Big Bang theory, complete with its infinite Big Bangs and Big Crunches.
BCE – “Before the Common Era”, a secular alternative term for BC, “Before Christ”