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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 36DECEMBER 1996

The War Against Materialism

(Part II)

by Peter Symon — General Secretary Communist Party of Australia

Professor Paul Davies and John Gribbin in their book, The Matter Myth, continually distort materialism in their war against it. They would give their readers the impression that there have been no advances since Newton’s admittedly “mechanical materialism”.

How could it have been otherwise. Newton lived 1642-1727 and his theories (which continue to be used in mechanics today) accorded with the then existing knowledge. It is rather cheap of Davies and Gribbin to lambast Newton’s theories and with them materialism while ignoring the great advances in materialist philosophy since Newton’s time.

Materialists recognise that matter exists together with motion which is a fundamental characteristic of all matter. There is no matter without motion and no motion without matter. The world around us is, therefore, subject to constant change. Space and time are also essential qualities of matter.

Infinite variety

Matter appears in an infinite variety of forms and structures (solid, as particles, in a wave form) and all matter is interconnected. While the forms of matter change constantly it can be neither created nor destroyed and is infinite. Matter may be either organic (taking on the characteristic of life) or inorganic.

In the “The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy” it states: “Matter is all the infinite multiplicity of different objects and systems that exist and move in space and time, that possess an inexhaustible diversity of qualities...”1

Those who want to belittle materialism always separate mind and matter by disconnecting one from the other or by asserting the predominance of mind over matter.

George Gilder, already referred to speaks of the “overthrow of matter” and declares that the “powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things...”2

Matter that thinks

But materialists say: “Even the most abstract ideas and concepts, not to mention sensations and perceptions, are the result of the activity of a material organ — the human brain – reflecting the properties of material objects.”3

The mind is “matter that thinks”. Thoughts and ideas do not have any independent, separate existence from matter. Thinking is one of the forms of matter in motion.

Idealist philosophers, on the other hand, stand things on their head. Bishop Berkeley (1685 - 1753), a prominent theologian and philosopher of his time wrote: “For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things, without any relation to their being perceived, that is to me perfectly unintelligible.”

Put more simply, this amounts to saying that all objects exist in the mind of the beholder and “to be” means simply “to be perceived”. When they are not perceived they do not exist.

Billions of years

Scientists are able to demonstrate that matter has existed for billions of years, yet the emergence of human beings with the capacity of consciousness is a relatively recent development on planet Earth.

Millions and millions of years in the development of the material world elapsed before a life form arose with the capacity of thinking. It arose from the development of matter and is inseparably bound up with it.

Davies and his supporters constantly attempt to portray materialism as a philosophy which has no place for ideas. This is false.

Materialism does not underestimate the enormous capacity of the human brain to think, to expand knowledge, to create, to rationalise and reflect, and so on. As a result of this capacity, humans are able to determine their actions, build machines, conduct scientific research, dam rivers and in many other ways alter (influence) surrounding Nature — often for the worse as it turns out.

Truth

Davies and Gribbin have something to say about truth and reality but again resort to exaggeration to undermine a scientific approach.

They write: “These deep divisions within the scientific community, concerning the nature of reality, point up the shakiness of any claim that science deals with the whole truth.”4 We are not aware that any responsible scientist has ever made a claim to be able to deliver the “whole truth”, if by that is meant a complete knowledge of all things in the universe. Materialists certainly make no such claim.

They believe that all things are “knowable” and that there are those things which are complete in themselves, are unconditional and immutable.

For example, the concept of matter in motion is not conditioned and not limited by anything. It is eternal and inexhaustible. In that sense it is an “absolute truth”.

Relative truth

But within and related to that concept is the constant motion and change in the forms of matter which constitute an inexhaustible number of “relative truths”. Constant change renders that which is true today is only transient. Tomorrow it will have changed.

Nature

Another aspect to emerge from Paul Davies writings is the idea that homo-sapiens has some superior place in nature. Nature is to be “hijacked” says Paul Davies.

Others have claimed that it is man’s role to “conquer” nature. This confrontationist approach to nature is leading humankind to create on earth such problems as will make life on this planet untenable if continued.

Would the extinction of homo-sapiens bring an end to Nature or to planet earth, to our galaxy or to the millions of other galaxies and other possible forms of life “out there”? Of course not!

Nature did not come to an end when the dinosaurs became extinct. Humankind, in blind arrogance and imagined “power over nature&rdquo:, could just as easily suffer the same fate.

Materialism maintains that humankind is an integral part of Nature and does not stand above or outside it.

Frederick Engels makes the point:

At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.5

Lumps of matter

The authors of The Matter Myth assert that materialism sees only “lumps of matter”, and that “increasing numbers of scientists are coming to recognise the limitations of the materialistic view of nature, and to appreciate that there is more to the world than cogs in a gigantic machine”.6

It is not possible to estimate whether an increasing number of scientists are being taken in by one or another of the creationist theories, but what is known is that in their daily work, scientists invariably apply objective materialist concepts and dialectical methods in their scientific endeavours.

They make experiments based on the material world around them whether in medical research, using the laws of physics to fly into space, chemistry, cosmology or other fields.

Grandeur of nature

In their research many are enthralled by the grandeur, infinite diversity, colour and creativeness of the material world and do not make any use of a supernatural agent to provide an explanation of the process being investigated or to make it interesting and exciting.

David Attenburgh does not need any god or supernatural force to explain the enthralling complexity, adaptability and sparkle of the real world about us.

Waves and particles

As scientific research has deepened it has been found that matter is not merely solid. Supposed solids can be broken down and may have wave like properties. The atom was not the total picture. It could be split into many parts. Matter could be both a “solid” particle or a “wave”. We talk about light “waves”, radio “waves”, etc.

Davies and Gribbin draw upon these characteristics to bolster their assault on materialism. They write:

... theorists often refer to abstract entities called “virtual” particles. These ephemeral objects come into existence out of nothing, and almost immediately fade away again ... So to what extent can they be said really to exist? Might virtual particles be merely a convenient aid to the theorist’s intuition — a simple way to describe processes that are otherwise unimaginable in terms of familiar concepts — rather than real objects?7

Newton’s deterministic machine was replaced by a shadowy and paradoxical conjunction of waves and particles, governed by the laws of chance rather than the rigid rules of causality.8

Materialism does not pose the “solid” against the “particle and wave” as Davies and Gribbin seem to do. They are recognised by materialists as different forms of matter as any reference to a book on materialism would show.

Miraculous ways

The fact that something may have “far less substance than we might believe” or behaves in “miraculous ways”, that there are many things as yet unknown or not thought possible, or that matter takes on a variety of forms in its constant motion (including a “wave” form) does not lead to a conclusion that these phenomena are not material and that something can be created out of “nothing” or disappears into “nothing”.

It simply means that our current knowledge is inadequate.

Evolution or creationism

Paul Davies persists in his speculation of some supernatural “design”. In his book, The Cosmic Blueprint, he writes:

Consider, for example, intricate organs such as the eye and ear. The component parts of these organs are so specifically interdependent it is hard to believe that they have arisen separately and gradually by a sequence of independent accidents. After all half an eye would in fact be utterly useless.9

It is more realistic to argue that only those components of living matter survive which work and assist the body concerned to survive — to eat, build, reproduce and develop. Any characteristic which is retrograde leads to the death and elimination of that organism. That which survives has been “honed” over millions of years.

In writing about the evolution of species Engels wrote in the Introduction to The Dialectics of Nature:

Thousands of years may have passed before the conditions arose in which the next advance could take place and this formless protein produce the first cell by formation of nucleus and cell membrane.

... from the first animals were developed, essentially by further differentiation, the numerous classes, orders, families, genera, and species of animals; and finally mammals, the form in which the nervous system attains its fullest development; and among these again finally, that mammal in which nature attains consciousness of itself — man.

Man too arises by differentiation. Not only individually, by differentiation from a single egg cell to the most complicated organism that nature produces — but also historically.

When after thousands of years of struggle the differentiation of hand from foot, and erect gait, were finally established, man became distinct from the ape and the basis was laid for the development of articulate speech and the mighty development of the brain ...10

It was not the hand of god which first developed life forms out of the primeval slime. It was the consequence of extremely complex developments and the “self-organising” capacity of matter in motion.

Primeval mud

Today’s experimenters are trying to recreate “primeval mud” and the conditions which gave birth to life forms. What will our “creationists” have to say when life forms have been created in this way in a laboratory? It will be yet another nail in the coffin of the tenacious supernatural “creationists” in just the same way as the most recent discoveries concerning the age of some galaxies have undermined the big bang theory of the creation of the universe.

But why should a capable scientist have to resort to such supernatural explanations?

When Napoleon asked French scientist, mathematician and astronomer, Pierre de Laplace, why God did not appear in his “System of the World” he answered: “Sir, I have had no reason to employ that hypothesis”.11

Illusions

On the question of religious illusion, Karl Marx wrote as long ago as 1844: “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”12

Surely, Paul Davies has no need of illusions?

But just in case Paul Davies is unrepentant he will have a second chance: “... we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.”13

Mark Twain

Let the last word be that of Mark Twain. Tom Gill in a letter in The Skeptic (Winter 1995, p 59) quotes Mark Twain:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is, I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age, and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

  1. The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Progress Publishers, p 75
  2. Paul Davies & John Gribbin, The Matter Myth, Penguin, London, 1991, p 9
  3. The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, p 72
  4. The Matter Myth, p 22
  5. Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25, p 461 (written about 1883)
  6. The Matter Myth, p 3
  7. Ibid, p 14
  8. Ibid, p 8
  9. Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, Penguin, p 111
  10. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25, pp 329-330
  11. Ibid, Vol 25, p 480
  12. Ibid, Vol 3, p 176
  13. Ibid, Vol 25, p 335

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