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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 37APRIL 1997

Time and Teleology; Order in the Universe

by Eddie Clynes

(Teleology: the doctrine or theory that all things or processes were designed to fulfil a purpose)

The debate in the previous AMR on the Big Bang theory, creation and materialism is welcome. It provides opportunities for Marxists to engage in philosophical discussion, with the main aim, as I see it, to substantiate the dialectical-materialist world outlook.

Of course, as Kenneth Neill Cameron points out in his Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science (quoted by Tim Wheeler), “there has been almost no follow up to the work of Marxist scientists like J D Bernal and J S B Haldane ... ”. Marxists who also have a solid grounding in particular sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology are often best placed to substantiate dialectical materialism, but as the AMR debate shows, there is room enough for scientists, philosophers and those with a claim to both titles.

Contrary to Rafael Pla-Lopez’s opinion, we must mix the scientific debate with the philosophical debate, otherwise the boundaries between materialism and idealism are ignored and we unwittingly put forward idealist propositions.

Rafael Pla-Lopez assures us “the existence of a beginning of the world is a scientific question.” If “God” exists, “this existence could be scientifically proved.”

Posing the question in this manner has already overstepped the bounds of materialism. It has already admitted the possibility of an ultimate building block or ultimate “force” in the “world” (universe).

Rafael seems to concede the possibility. After all in his article he says “the Big Bang is in the mainstream of cosmological science … which could imply a sad situation for philosophical materialism.”

Dialectical materialism relies on the infinite complexity and infinite divisibility of matter.

If change (motion) is to be conceived as qualitative change resulting from quantitative changes arising from contradictions within matter, then allowing for an ultimate (indivisible) unit of matter, or opening the door to a first impulse defy dialectical materialism.

Along with the “beginning of the world”, Rafael also speaks of the “beginning of time” and equates the age of “the whole universe” (my emphasis — EC) with the age of the Big Bang.

Finite time is a common conception in this debate. So is the separation of time from material existence.

George Tsoupros describes the Big Bang as “the demise of the classical behaviour of the universe”. At the same time he states “the fact that the classical behaviour has a beginning in time — which in addition, somehow, defines the beginning of time itself — does not at all imply the universe itself has a beginning.”

What type of universe is being posited, which disposes of time? Is it a universe where the laws of physics — including conservation — don’t apply?

In my understanding of Marxism, time and space are not abstract concepts in the sense of having an existence divorced from matter, and vice-versa!

As materialists, we cannot conceive of any existence — a universe, any object, a photon — which does not, of necessity, imply time and space are also part of this existence.

The existence of matter presupposes the interaction of its elements and hence, change. Changes occur sequentially and have a certain duration. It is on this basis that the notion of time arises.

If we accept Lenin’s definition that “matter is a philosophical category designating the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them”1, then we must accept time as an objective phenomena, independent of human consciousness.

The fact that time is also eternal (infinite) follows from the absolute existence of matter (according to the laws of conservation).

Rafael Pla-Lopez’s and George Tsoupros’ references to “time” (“the beginning of time” etc.) seem to me (from a common sense point of view) to violate materialism.

Paul Davies, however, is definitely on the side of idealism.

In an article entitled The Future of God2 Davies credits the Big Bang with the origin of the entire universe, but discounts the need for a first cause to have initiated the Big Bang.

Davies argues such an impulse is a cause and the Big Bang the effect. Cause and effect require time to exist, but time itself was created as part of the Big Bang.

Einstein showed time is part of the physical universe says Davies, closely interwoven with space and matter (a materialist position) but Einstein required any explanation of the origin of the whole universe to explain how time came into existence (a lapse into idealism).

According to Davies, the Big Bang theory does this, showing how space, time and matter originate from nothing, spontaneously.

Davies quotes Stephen Hawking to demonstrate that the question “What happened before the Big Bang?” is meaningless. Time did not exist before the Big Bang, because there was no “before”.

George Tsoupros’ quote from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time “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?” seems to contradict Davies’ interpretation of Hawking.

But the Big Bang is not the only occasion on which to introduce a god. Paul Davies is, no doubt, a sophisticated preacher and it’s instructive to be aware of the detail of his arguments.

The Future of God begins by rejecting God, specifically a “God-of-the-gaps”, a god invoked to explain phenomena which have (as yet) no scientific explanation.

Davies assures us he’s a scientist and scientists reject miracles and the supernatural. “After all,” he says, “it’s the job of science to explain the world by natural causes.” So far, so good.

But Davies’ defence of scientific method is short-lived. He soon opens the back door for a deity.

Where did the “law-like order in nature” come from, marvels Davies. “The laws of physics marvellously permit the universe to create itself,” he says, adding “This would not be possible with any old laws.”

Another remarkable property of the universe is the “self-organising and self-complexifying power of the laws of physics.”

The complexity of biological systems — especially life evolving from single cells to humans — is marvelled at. The laws of nature do seem to ensure that life and consciousness of some form will emerge, “somewhere and somewhen” in the evolving universe, Davies assures us.

A third special feature of the laws of science is the “astonishing fact that human beings have the intellectual ability to make sense of the world through scientific investigation.” This, says Davies, “hints at a deep link between the human mental realm and the underlying abstract world of mathematical laws that govern the universe.”

This “ingeniously ordered universe” can be simply taken as given or it can be seen as “a manifestation of something deeper and more significant,” says Davies, inviting the reader into the trap.

Forever the scientist, Davies assures us science “cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deeper meaning; it can only offer circumstantial evidence. Each of us must decide for ourselves.”

According to Davies, proof of a god will only be gained by “taking account of the scientific world view, not by fleeing from it.”

Teleological arguments (seeing imparted order and purpose in the universe) are always seductive.

The world is truly amazing. Many systems and processes work with efficiency, rationality and beauty. There’s also much chaos in the universe.

To understand biological phenomena, to pick just one area, we need to examine its history, its development. Darwin’s theory of natural selection reveals the mechanisms for such development of living organisms and systems.

What we observe today is the result of millions of years of refinement, millions of years of favourably adapted organisms surviving and proliferating and unfavourably adapted ones dying out.

In time, the essential processes in the development of life on earth will be discovered and reproduced. It will be, as Peter Symon states, “another nail in the coffin of the tenacious supernatural ‘creationists’.”

There is no way of proving that order, beauty and rationality observed in nature reflects the work of a creator. It’s not a scientifically testable proposition. It’s metaphysical speculation, idealism.

I think that is why Paul Davies feels logically compelled to persuade us that, although “most scientists take the rational intelligibility of the universe for granted”, scientists really need “an element of faith”!!

  1. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism LCW Vol. 14, Ch. 2, sect. 4.
  2. Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1996.

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