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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 37APRIL 1997

Big Bangs and other Fantasies

by Erna Bennett

Peter Symon has done well to raise the Big Bang discussion once again. As he rightly points out, this is a debate which raises other matters at least equal in importance to — dare we say more important than? — theories about the universe, and obliges us to consider not only, not even principally, the still unresolved question of its “origin”, but also the much more immediate question of scientific truth, and what we mean when we speak of it.

For the present and the foreseeable future — barring some unexpected advance in cosmology — we are not likely to see any major breakthrough in our quest for an understanding of the real nature of the universe around us. But it is possible, and imperative, that we clarify our notions of scientific truth, for these have relevance not only to cosmology but also to our understanding of ourselves, of the nature of our society, and of the interacting social and historical processes that mould it.

Creationists continue to snatch at the seductive attractions offered by the big bang theory to postulate the birth of space and time in a sort of stop-watch start from matter infinitely dense, infinitely small and infinitely hot, poised ponderously and invisibly in what we can only describe as a non-state of timelessness and nothingness. The inexplicable mystery of such a notion evidently satisfies desire for obscurantism. It also provides a satisfactory barrier to any rational objection since it is not rational. What better evidence that cosmology, unlike biological science, is still waiting for its Darwin to appear on the scene?

Until he or she does, cosmology lies at the mercy of untestable speculation (dressed though it may be in the garb of exquisite mathematical theorising assisted by the occasional “singularities” in which natural laws no longer — need no longer! — apply) rather than testable hypotheses.

According to this kind of speculation, the red shift can only mean one thing; likewise, the nature of the micro-wave background radiation in space is sufficient demonstration, apparently, that the “singularity” of the big bang really did take place between ten and twenty billion years ago.

When we think of the stimulating and liberating impact on the biological sciences of the theory of natural selection brought to it by Darwin, Wallace and other experimentalists whose work subsequently provided the foundations of genetics, it is clear that cosmology is still waiting its own liberation. But in the meantime it and the big bang theory have been adapted by the church and those same deeply entrenched conservatives who fought so fiercely, and for so long, against the changes wrought in biology during its liberation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Who are we mere mortals to enter into discussions on the many refined details of the cosmology debate? But we do claim the right to ask if natural laws can legitimately be suspended in so summary a fashion in favour of “singularities” when the failure of speculation to find any support from observational or experimental evidence spoils what might be an otherwise pleasingly complete picture of the universe?

Might not natural laws themselves undergo evolutionary change over the immense periods of time we are discussing? Might not radiation age, and so reveal “run-down” characteristics? And simply because all the galaxies can be shown to be receding (if the premisses of the red shift are accepted), must it be assumed that they are all receding from a single (invisible, infinitely small, infinitely heavy, infinitely hot) spot (or non-spot)? Should not direction of the movement of galaxies be at least as important as their speed? What if they are like ships, passing in the night in different directions?

And if some of the most recently discovered radiation sources are really so far away, and so far back in time as to suggest we are looking at some of the immediate consequences of the “big bang”, before the universe had expanded to the extent that is surmised today, then why is their radiation coming to us from “away out there” and not from somewhere behind us?

Such questions may be too naive to deserve answers. But the fact that these and many other questions can be asked, and still remain unanswered, prompts us to ask, “what do we mean when we speak of the search for truth?”. What, indeed, is truth?

And here we come immediately into collision with the nature, not of the world, but of world-views, of philosophies.

Marxists see the world as matter involved in an evolutionary process in which the whole is constantly changing, as a river remains the same river though it is constantly changing, is different.

The universe is not merely an expression of certain absolute, unevolving, and unchanging relationships defined and fixed by incontrovertible truths and permanent authority, as bourgeois, non-historical views of the world would have us see it.

In a society as heavily loaded with profound contradictions as bourgeois society, absolute truths are comforting. They serve to reassure any who may be assailed by doubt that all is well, and there is no cause for worry; in the bourgeois scheme of things doubt is the last thing its theorists and supporters welcome.

It is a far cry from this to the Marxist idea of truth which, in fact, corresponds precisely to what is generally known as scientific truth.

Here the words of Hyman Levy serve better than mine to explain the nature of scientific truth:

Truth is the summation of man’s experience at any given moment, it is a lantern which illumines his next few steps, past truth becomes incomplete as a greater truth replaces it; it is an instrument for the creation and working out of a human purpose, becoming sharper and more effective as that purpose itself becomes clearer and as the reading of natural processes becomes more and more accurate.1

At this moment in the history of scientific research into the nature of the universe, our reading of natural processes can hardly be considered to be very accurate. Granted, the degree of technical sophistication that has been attained is often such as to cause the breath to catch and, in spite of a much-desired need for more sceptical attitudes, we tend to prefer pictures that seem to be complete and dislike those that are not. And so the tendency or the desire to believe in current cosmological theories is part of the desire for a complete picture.

But how can we, much less the cosmologists, expect a complete picture, in spite of all the elegant equations and analyses, when cosmologists themselves have noted that stars, planets, galaxies, even black holes, quasars and the whole caboodle — in short, the total of observable matter in the universe — do not constitute as much as ten per cent of the whole of matter? The calculation of cosmologists show a shortfall of more than 90 per cent between what they can see or demonstrate to exist and what really does exist — a shortfall which would put any accountant behind bars for a sizable term.

If more than 90 per cent of the universe really consists of intergalactic “cold, dark matter” which has not yet been seen or demonstrated, nor its properties known nor postulated, how can truth be regarded as anything more than the summation of incomplete human knowledge so far?

Refinement will undoubtedly come as our “reading of natural processes becomes more accurate”. Until then, however, present pictures of the universe can be no more than a first essay in understanding.

We may well conclude by asking ourselves, since contemporary bourgeois scientific theory evidently can so easily be led up the garden path by such flimsy and incomplete evidence into postulating “singularities” and other like fantasies in which natural laws no longer apply, is it any wonder that bourgeois attempts to explain, much less solve, the more immediate and down-to-earth socio-economic problems of today’s society are so absurdly and tragically inadequate?

  1. Levy, H. (1938) A Philosophy for a Modern Man, Gollancz, London. p.281

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