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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 36DECEMBER 1996

The Big Bang and materialism

by George Tsoupros — University of Melbourne

I am not convinced that the recent two-part series of articles by Peter Symon on the relation between modern cosmology and ideology does justice to historical materialism in meeting the demands of present-day ideological struggle.

Despite his commendable effort to discredit the ideological offensive of mystics such as Paul Davies and John Gribbin, his analysis seems to be predicated on the same source of confusions which have enmeshed modern epistemologic thought (methods of thinking, theory of knowledge — Ed).

Being a theoretical physicist and an active researcher in the field of quantum cosmology myself, not only do I have a “first-hand” experience in those theories that Mr Symon labels as “creationist”, “idealist” and “incompatible with materialism” but, in addition, the more I explore their implications the more I come to appreciate their immense potential for an ultimate vindication of the dialectical materialist outlook.

The author of the two articles claims that recent observational discoveries “have undermined the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe”. Not so! They are simply indicative of a discrepancy between the theory itself and certain consolidated but quite arbitrary and external assumptions concerning the value of certain parameters in the theory.

The Big Bang itself is not a theory of creation. The singularity which describes the Big Bang has a very concrete mathematical meaning. It signifies the demise of the classical understanding of the behaviour of the universe.

In the context of such a behaviour and depending on a uniquely specified set of initial conditions, the universe — as a physical system — follows a unique pattern of evolution which is mathematically described by the theory of General Relativity.1

The fact that such behaviour has a beginning in time — which in addition, somehow, defines the beginning of time itself — does not at all imply that the universe itself has a beginning.

The universe is, ultimately, a quantum system2 manifesting, as such, a vast wealth of potentialities associated with its possible courses of evolution (trajectories). The quantum character of the Universe is particularly pronounced at its very early stages of evolution (shortly after the conventional moment of the Big Bang) where, on account of its microscopically small possible sizes, it defies the description of the classical theory of General Relativity.

The Big Bang singularity is, most emphatically, indicative of the necessity for a quantum description of the universe, one which combines the premise of Quantum Physics with Einstein’s theory of gravity (Quantum gravity) and, as such, inherently transcends the concept of the beginning of space and time and, consequently, of creation.

Such is also the case with the quantum concept of a “universe out of nothing” which the author claims to be incompatible with materialism. On this issue, the source of confusion is a problem of language.

The concept of “nothing” in quantum physics is certainly not the concept of “nothing” in every-day life. At the very worst, it signifies the limitations in our present understanding of quantum gravity.

I need only quote one of the major propounders of the “something out of nothing” theory when giving the physical interpretation of his theory’s pivotal equation:3

The instanton ... can be interpreted as describing the tunnelling ... from nothing, where by nothing I mean a state with no classical space-time. ... “Nothing” is the realm of unrestrained quantum gravity; it is a rather bizzare state in which all our basic notions of space, time, energy, entropy, etc. lose their meaning. This does not mean, however, that cosmic tunnelling cannot be described without complete understanding of quantum gravity ... .

The physical structure of that “nothing” is today the object of intense study, at the forefront of theoretical research.

In the category of popularised-science literature, Steven Hawking — the biggest, perhaps, authority in quantum cosmology today — is far more explicit on the philosophical implications of the something-out-of-nothing issue which he himself has formulated mathematically as a “no boundary” condition:

So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place then for a creator?4

From the above, it should be evident that modern cosmology manifests a potential for the complete vindication of a dialectical materialist outlook on nature.

Any attack on materialism is predicated on a tacit and purely imaginary metaphysical contradiction between two attributes of matter: Its manifestation and its potentialities.

This contradiction fails to grasp the dialectical relation between those two qualities as different attributes of one and the same thing and has been the basis of the dominant epistemological interpretation in physics since the early days of the wave-particle debate.

In much the same manner as it would typically contrast the (observable) material manifestation of a quantum particle against its potentialities, this contradiction would — in quantum cosmology — pose the potentialities inherent in all possible patterns through which a quantum universe can evolve “out of nothing” against that universe itself.

Such a stance, naturally provides the conceptual context between the actual universe (ie. The classical universe evolving at large-size scales) and the sole existence of potential patterns for evolution in the absence of an “actual universe” as small-size scales.5 It is a typical contradiction between “being” and “nothingness” and constitutes the basis for any positivist or idealist attack on dialectical materialism.

Just as well, it seems to provide the basis for any “materialist” objection to science! I fear, that in attempting to discredit the scientific theories of the Big Bang and the “out-of-nothing” no boundary condition, Peter Symon is — quite unwittingly and despite noble intentions — in line with the opponents of materialism.

To attack scientific theories rather than their ideologically influenced epistemological (method of approach — Editor) and philosophical interpretation is to provide potential grounds for further attacks against materialism and dialectics.

Beyond doubt, Paul Davies, John Gribbin and their like are well paid propagandists in the service of imperialism. Why is it, however, that their idealist propaganda and obscurantist twaddle falls on such fertile ground as far as the public is concerned? The issue is no longer one of concerted and orchestrated propaganda but one of ideology.

The reason for “humanity’s difficulty” to conceive of an infinite universe, does not simply lie in humanity’s finite span as Peter Symon suggests. It lies in the material conditions of humanity’s existence. It lies in alienation and the fetishism of commodity.

It is only too natural in a world where human beings do not control the conditions of their lives but are instead controlled by them, where human beings are subjected to the blind rule of the circumstances which they themselves have created through their historical activity, where human beings lose themselves in the course of their life activity for man to see his own existence and that of the world as a consequence, as the result of the action of alien powers.

This is, ultimately, the basis of all ideological influence on science and of the mysticism which tends to shroud modern cosmology. In quoting K. Marx on the issue of religious illusion, Peter Symon is — in his article certainly alluding to that basis. What his analysis fails to grasp is, in my opinion, the link between the idealist propaganda which he attempts to argue against and the material basis of the ideology which underpins it.

The spate of books in recent years “popularising” science in the direction of mysticism and the interest which they have generated is an aspect of the multi-faceted ideological attack which serves powerful corporate interests in an economic context where science-driven expanded production has created the conditions for and necessity of critical thinking as a prerequisite for an equally necessary socially expanded participation in decision making.

The interest, however, with which mystical and positivist interpretations are received from the public and scientific community respectively is indicative of a historical practice which is stifled in the present context of production relations.

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.6

The ideological dominance of positivism and mysticism today is indicative of a relation of forces severely unfavourable to the development of a revolutionary movement which would be the only force capable of dispelling all mysticism in social life through a rational understanding of the world. Modern science provides the potential for such an understanding.

Assailing its most advanced aspects in the name of materialism is poor service to that cause of rational understanding.

Alongside the efforts to build a labour movement in conditions of corporate economic dominance, the need for an advanced ideological offensive against the “post-modern” servants of economic rationalism in philosophy, is greater than ever.

  1. General Relativity explains the force of gravity in terms of the curvature of space-time and its based on the idea that all laws of science should be the same for all observers regardless of how they move. General Relativity is a classical theory in the sense that it predicts a unique trajectory in space-time for a moving object.
  2. The premises of Quantum Physics, specifically formulated for the description of microscopically small physical systems (such as subatomic particles) on the basis of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal, dictate that — contrary to the stated uniqueness of the classical behaviour which is itself associated with macroscopically large systems — the physical system manifests a variety of virtual, possible trajectories each realised with a certain predictable probaility. These virtual trajectories constitute the potentialities of the quantum system.
  3. A. Vilenkin Alexander, “The Birth of Inflationary Universes”, Physical Review D, volume 27, number 12 ,1983, p 2848
  4. S. Hawking, A Brief History Of Time, p 149
  5. According to the theory of Quantum Gravity as is presently understood, the conventional moment of the Big Bang corresponds at once to a vanishing size of the actual universe and to a vast wealth of potential patterns related to the emergence of the actual universe “out of nothing”.
  6. K. Marx Karl, Thesis on Feuerbach, number 3 (Marx-Engels Colected Works, Vol 5, p 5)

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