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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 36DECEMBER 1996

A response to criticism on materialism and the Big Bang

by Peter Symon

I made a mistake in attributing the Big Bang theory of the universe solely to those who adhere to a supernatural creation and who approach nature from a philosophical point of view which is opposed to materialism. Furthermore, conclusions were drawn on the basis of materialism alone whereas it is necessary to substantiate assertions with scientific fact.

The criticism of my first two articles by Rafael Pla-Lopez of the University of Valencia (Spain) and George Tsoupros of Melbourne University have both made important points.

George Tsoupros writes: “To attack scientific theories rather than their ideologically influenced epistemological and philosophical interpretation is to provide potential grounds for further attacks against materialism and dialectics.”

George writes: “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.”

Rafael Pla-Lopez says: “The theory of the Big Bang does not imply the existence of God ... the existence of a beginning of the world is a scientific question which can be scientifically argued. If it implied the existence of God, this existence could be scientifically proved.”

Despite the fact that the Big Bang theory is by no means yet proven and my own reservation, voiced in my first articles, that “Materialism for its part, does not rule out the possibility of huge cosmic events, including ‘big bangs’ but rejects both the super-natural and ‘something out of nothing’ explanations”— the general points of their criticisms are accepted.

I think that the main point to be learnt is that every theory has to be proven in practice. Theory and practice must be linked in one unity. Neither a supernatural creation nor the Big Bang theory, which is supported by many scientists, can be repudiated or sustained by simply asserting philosophical arguments. As Rafael Pla-Lopez says — “it is a scientific question”.

But what is this science that enables us to understand and interpret the world in all its magnitude and complexity? Karl Marx was upholding the scientific method when he wrote: “Truth includes not only the result but also the path to it. The investigation of truth must itself be true; true investigation is developed truth, the dispersed elements of which are brought together in the results.”1

The problem for many, such as myself, who are not physicists, mathematicians or cosmologists, is that the presentation of the Big Bang theory is presented in the mass media and much supposedly scientific literature (such as the books of Paul Davies) in the context of a super-natural creation.

Furthermore, Paul Davies and John Gribbin use the big bang theory to launch a substantial denunciation of materialism as I attempted to present in my first two articles.

It also seems to be a major element in the book by Stephen Hawking, A Short History of Time quoted by George Tsoupros and referred to extensively in the article by Tim Wheeler.

I find Stephen Hawking far more speculative on the question of creation than is suggested by the quotation given by George Tsoupros in his article. He quotes Hawking concluding some observations by writing: “What place then for a creator?”

In the same book Hawking also writes: “One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand ... The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.”2

And again: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”3

The first part of the paragraph already quoted by George Tsoupros says: “The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe. With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started — it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off”.

Then follow the sentences already quoted by George Tsoupros: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely 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

It may be that Stephen Hawking is as Rafael Pla-Lopez suggests, “explicitly atheist” but the above quotations seem to be rather equivocal and speculative.

To do justice to Stephen Hawking he also writes, in recounting his visit to the Vatican: “I was glad then that he [the Pope — PS] did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference — the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.”5

What is required, in my opinion, is a forthright substantiation of materialism on the basis of scientific research and dialectical materialism in the manner argued by such great scientists and philosophers as Marx and Engels.

Do we have any modern-day counterparts of JBS Haldane and JD Bernal referred to in the article of Tim Wheeler?

The fact that the scientific research of the physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians can, in effect, be hijacked by the propagandists of a supernatural creation in the popular media is a commentary on their initiative and flexibility. On the other hand, the work of upholding and elaborating dialectical materialism in the public domain seems to be lagging.

The battle between idealist and materialist philosophies has been going on for millennia and is, therefore, not of recent origin. This great contest is, I think, being slowly won by the scientists (who as Rafael suggests are mostly “spontaneous materialists”) and the materialists who now have at their disposal the powerful searchlight of dialectical materialism.

We cannot, therefore, allow Paul Davies’ brazen declaration: “Materialism is dead”, to go unchallenged.

Rafael Pla-Lopez says that one must “distinguish between scientists and ideologists who interpret these results”, and “that the general discussion about the Big Bang should be made in the field of scientific research, without philosophical prejudices and without mixing this scientific debate with the philosophical debate between materialism and idealism.”

This seems to suggest a separation of general science and philosophy, perhaps even a warning sign — “Philosophers keep out!” Yet Rafael himself suggests a connection between science and materialism when he writes that most scientists are “spontaneous materialists”.

Dialectical materialism was developed and substantiated by the scientific developments of the last several centuries. This interconnection was elaborated by Engels in “Herr Duhring’s Revolution in Science” (usually referred to as “Anti-Duhring”) and in his “Dialectics of Nature”.

Tracing the historical development of science Engels writes:

In order to understand these details [of the world around us - PS], we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc ... But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.6

Modern materialism embraces the more recent discoveries of natural science, according to which nature also has its history in time ...7

Philosophical principles consequently provide the final supplement required by the sciences in order to become a uniform system by which nature and human life can be explained.8

Of course, the search for knowledge and truth must proceed by the investigation of material reality. It is a task, however, that can never be completed for the very good and fundamental reason that the constant motion of things produces new relationships, conditions, forces, influences, contradictions, etc in an infinite variety.

Only the materiality (in all its forms) of the world around us, its constant change and its interconnectedness remain constants.

These are philosophical principles or generalisations which have been derived by a myriad of scientific investigations of the world around us.

George Tsoupros in his critique makes the point “that ‘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.”

I agree with this assertion. Humankind’s ideas, analysis, interpretation of the universe, that is, humankind’s philosophy, is rooted in material life which includes many, many factors, including the experience of the life/death cycle of all things.

George continues:

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.

I would add that “modern science” (unless it is also intended to include dialectical materialism and its propagation) will not, on its own, push back the current resurgence of mysticism and the flexibility of a Pope who is now prepared to admit evolution but within a supernatural context.

Scientific knowledge and achievement has never been greater nor more rapid, yet it is in this situation that an escape to mysticism, obscurantism and various religious cults is widespread.

Is it that scientific achievements for many are beyond comprehension are destabilising and frightening? If so, it suggests the need for a science which can be understood and be seen as a friendly science. Unfortunately, much science is used against humanity — and that not only goes for nuclear weapons.

An offensive by scientists in all fields and the revolutionary organisations of the labour movement, using both the achievements of modern science and the enlightenment brought by dialectical materialism, provides the means to push back the mystic tide.

There are no grounds for pessimism despite the setbacks for Marxism and revolutionary movements in the last period. If one takes an historical view of things the steady progress of humanity can clearly be seen.

On the other hand, capitalism is beset by contradictions and crisis in all fields — economic, political, social and ideological.

It continues to create its own gravediggers while scientific advances and the truth of dialectical materialism undermine it ideologically. Mysticism is being pushed more and more to the outer boundaries by the advance of knowledge.

The conditions are steadily maturing which will allow humankind to take the step that Engels foresaw — the step from barbarism to civilisation — or put another way, “humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”.

  1. Marx Karl, Comments on the latest Prussian Censorship Instructions
  2. Hawkin Stephen, A Short History of Time, p 129
  3. Ibid p 134
  4. Ibid p 149
  5. Ibid p 122
  6. Marx Karl, Engels Friedrich, Colected Works, Vol 25, p 22
  7. Ibid p 25
  8. Ibid p 33
  9. Ibid p 270

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