Dutch edition of Reason in Revolt out now - Preface

Dutch Reason in RevoltThe Dutch edition of Reason in Revolt is being launched today, October 18, at 19.00 hours at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and tomorrow, October 19 in Antwerp at 19.00 hours at the Cafe 'Den Bengel', Market 5, 2000 Antwerp, with Alan Woods speaking. For more information about the book click here. The book is also being launched in the Netherlands on October 20, at 19.30, at Stayokay Amsterdam Zeeburg, Timorplein 21, 1094CC Amsterdam, with Alan Woods speaking.

Preface to the Dutch edition

The publication of Reason in Revolt in 1995 was greeted by enthusiasm by many people, not only on the left, but by scientists and other people interested in philosophy and the latest scientific theories, such as chaos and complexity, which in many respects reflect a dialectical approach to nature. The latest discoveries of science have fundamentally modified the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps.

Since the book first appeared, there have been a number of spectacular advances in science – notably the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticised in Reason in Revolt. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists who want to reject Darwinism in favour of the first book of Genesis.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, which Darwin drew from careful observations of nature, cut the ground from under the idea that humans were the product of divine creation. This was a revolution in thinking that shattered the dominant belief of the day and caused uproar. The religious establishment was horrified. After all, if the story of creation could be doubted, so too could the existence of the creator.

This theory has been firmly established as a cornerstone of biology. Yet ever since its proposal, it has sustained wave after wave of attack. The latest onslaught of the creationists is the “theory” called intelligent design.

Evolution under attack

In the 18th century the American bourgeois revolution was fought under the flag of Reason. Most of the founding fathers were either atheists or free thinkers. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the decay of capitalism expresses itself in a general backsliding of thought and culture at all levels.

There is nothing new in this. Religion has always been hostile to science. The Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the state and forced Galileo to recant his scientific theories by the threat of torture. In the 18th century, Bishop Berkeley developed a whole philosophy in order to oppose the ideas of Isaac Newton, which he regarded as atheistic and materialistic. And naturally the Church viciously persecuted Charles Darwin for his views.

So-called intelligent design was invented in the late 1980s Phillip Johnson, a lawyer and born-again Christian.  Johnson began to develop a strategy to challenge Darwin by alleging that the evidence for natural selection was poor. His real motivation was his belief that by explaining the world only through material processes was inherently atheistic. If there was a god, science would never be able to discover Him.

Throughout the 90s, the ID movement took to disseminating articles, books and DVDs and organising conferences all over the world. The timing of the new onslaught against Darwin was not accidental. It coincides with the rise of the New Right, an amalgamation of right wing monetarists, born again Christians, anti-communists and assorted cranks and loonies in the USA.

What is astonishing, however, is the fact that the charlatan Johnson succeeded in recruiting scientists to his cause. These included biochemist Professor Michael Behe, mathematician Dr William Dembski, and philosopher of science Dr Stephen Meyer. These scientists developed the theory of intelligent design (ID) which claims that certain features of the natural world are best explained as the result of an intelligent being.

This movement had an impact on politics and education. George W. Bush advocated teaching both evolution and "Intelligent Design" in schools, "so people can know what the debate is about." This assumes that the theory of evolution and the creationist nonsense are on the same level.

Pressure was put on American schools to place intelligent design on the syllabus. In Dover, Pa., a school board required students to listen to a statement about Intelligent Design in a biology class — and parents mindful of the took the board to court to uphold the separation of church and state written into the American Constitution.

Creationism demolished

The late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if a truly intelligent designer were responsible for the panda, He would have provided a more useful tool than the stubby proto-thumb that pandas use to laboriously strip bamboo in order to eat it. One could multiply such examples at will.

Why, for instance, should humans be designed to walk upright when our skeletons are designed to move about on all fours?

As a result of this singularly unintelligent design, humans are the only animals to suffer from backache and female humans are the only ones to suffer agonies in childbirth. Of course, if one accepts what is written in the first book of Genesis, this was a punishment of the Almighty for Eve’s part in Original Sin. But the question must then be asked why this Intelligent Designer should place the Serpent and the Apple in the Garden of Eden in the first place.

If we accept the idea of intelligent design, it must be confessed that the Creator did not make a very good job of it. One recalls the words of Alfonso the Wise who said:” Had I been present when the Almighty made the Universe, I could have given Him some good advice.”

It is hard to see how an all-wise Creator could have made such a mess of things, creating a world in which hunger, disease, wars and death play such a prominent role – unless He really hated the world and the human race. But in that case, what we have before us is not so much a case of intelligent design, but rather unintelligent or malignant design.

The discoveries of the human genome have completely demolished this reactionary gibberish. Humans are not the unique creation of the Almighty, but the product of billions of years of evolution. We carry the living proof of this in our genes. We share our genes, not only with the apes and other mammals, but with the lowly fruit fly and bacteria, and with creatures even older and more primitive than bacteria. Our genetic makeup is a map of evolution and the clearest proof of it. But there are none so blind as those that will not see.

The Big Bang

However, there was one part of Reason in Revolt that was especially controversial – namely the section on cosmology, where we argued against the theory of the big bang. The standard model of the universe seemed to be so entrenched that it was apparently unassailable. The overwhelming majority accepted it uncritically. To call it into question was unthinkable.

This is not a new phenomenon in the history of science. In his remarkable book The Nature of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn explained the dialectical way in which science develops. At regular intervals scientists establish a paradigm that apparently explains everything. But at a certain point, small irregularities are found that contradict the accepted model. This eventually leads to its overthrow and replacement by a new model, which will itself eventually be surpassed.

The whole history of science is the history of humanity’s advance from ignorance to knowledge, from error to the truth. This is itself a dialectical process, where each generation arrives at a theory that explains many things. In this way, human knowledge penetrates deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Universe. And this process is never-ending.

The day will never dawn when humanity will be able to say: “We now understand everything”. The Universe is infinite, and so is the process of human understanding, which inevitably proceeds through a whole series of errors, or, more correctly, partial truths.

Dialectical materialism assumes that the Universe is infinite, eternal, and ever changing. This does not at all preclude the possibility of a big bang. Indeed, we have already argued that there have probably been many big bangs. But what it certainly does preclude is any question of matter (or energy, which is exactly the same thing) can be created out of nothing (as the big bang implies) or destroyed.

The Big Bang theory was an attempt to explain the history of the Universe on the basis of certain observed phenomena, in particular the fact that we can see the galaxies receding from each other. Because of this, most astronomers believe that these star groupings were closer together in the past. If we run the film backwards then all matter, space and time would have erupted from a point in a massive explosion, involving staggering amounts of energy.

In the most widely accepted cosmological model, called the inflationary model, the universe was born in an instantaneous creation of matter and energy. It is the modern equivalent of the old religious dogma of the creation of the world from nothing. The Big Bang is alleged to be the beginning of space, matter and time. As the universe has inflated since that event, matter and energy have spread out in clumps. The spreading could potentially continue forever.

The standard model presumes that the Big Bang is the beginning of space and time; that there was nothingness, and then suddenly out of nothingness there sprang space, time, matter, radiation and everything else. Questions about what happened "before" the Big Bang cannot really be asked because there is supposed to have been "no" before - since there was no time.

Since none of the known laws of physics could apply if we accept that matter, space and time did not exist, such a question would be meaningless. In this way, an absolute limitation is placed on the possibility of our understanding the Universe, thus leaving the door wide open for all kinds of mystical ideas – which have been pouring out in vast quantities in recent years.

Let us consider two sentences: “I do not know” and “I cannot know”. They are very different propositions! The first is obviously valid. There are very many things we do not know. But the history of science is the history of humankind’s progress from ignorance to knowledge (the word science comes from the Latin word meaning knowledge).

Once we accept that there is a limit to what we can know, we leave the door open to all kinds of religious mysticism and obscurantism. In the past it was religion that argued that there are certain corners of reality that are inaccessible to the human mind. These dark corners should better be left to religion and superstition. But the whole history of science answers this nonsense. What we do not know today we will know tomorrow. 

It is really a monstrous aberration that for the first time in 2,500 years it is the scientists (some of them, anyway) who argued that the Big Bang represented an impassable barrier for science. No wonder the Vatican was so eager to embrace this theory. It left the door wide open for the Ju-Ju Man.  As time has passed, however, the hypothesis has encountered many problems, casting doubt on its validity.

This model has gained widespread acceptance because it accounts for several important features we see in the Universe - such as why everything looks the same in all directions and the fact that the cosmos appears "flat" (parallel lines would never meet however long). When Reason in Revolt was published the theory appeared firmly entrenched and virtually unassailable. That was how things stood in 1995, but times change, and also scientific theories.

It is still the most widely accepted model only because no alternate has yet been found. But the fact that it is widely accepted does not make it correct. Scientific truth can never be established by consensus. If that were the case, no scientific advance would be possible, and we would still believe the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which after all served to explain many observed phenomena and enjoyed a very widespread consensus for hundreds of years.

Although the standard model has proved difficult to dislodge, over the past decade a growing number of scientists are becoming troubled about its contradictions and inconsistencies. The contradictions and deficiencies of the standard model are not small but glaring. The most obvious case is so-called “dark matter”, the existence of which is essential to the theory. Yet astronomers are unable to detect most of the matter in the universe.

There is an ever growing number of scientists are having second thoughts about the implications of the Big Bang theory. According to mathematical physicist Neil Turok, who teaches at Cambridge University, the Big Bang represents just one stage in an infinitely repeated cycle of universal expansion and contraction. Turok theorizes that neither time nor the universe has a beginning or end. He argues that there have been many Big Bangs, and there will be many more.

Turok has been attacked by the Vatican, which would seem to indicate he is probably on the right track. He won 2008's first annual TED Prize, awarded to the world's most innovative thinkers. Together with Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt he has published a book called Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang. I have not read the book and probably would not agree with everything in it, but it is certainly significant that a growing number of scientists are beginning to question the existing orthodoxy.

Even Sir Roger Penrose, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the theory ten years ago, has changed his mind about the Big Bang. He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on. One does not have to accept this idea to see what it means. Scientists can see that it is not possible to place a boundary on the universe, or to speak of a moment in which “time began” and all the other mystical nonsense that people have accepted as good coin for the last few decades.

We have argued consistently that the material universe has neither a beginning nor an end – it is infinite in both time and space. Matter (and energy, which is the same thing) can neither be created nor destroyed. The universe is infinite and eternal, with no beginning and no end. It is constantly in motion: changing, evolving, dying and being reborn. We can confidently predict that in the next couple of decades the dialectical view will be vindicated by the further march of science.

The dialectic of history

The most striking manifestation of dialectics is the crisis of capitalism itself. Dialectics are taking their revenge on the European bourgeoisie who have understood nothing, predicted nothing and are capable of solving nothing. Dialectics teaches us that sooner or later, things change into their opposite.

The old, stable, peaceful, prosperous Europe is dead, and with it the old peaceful, harmonious relations between the classes. The future of Europe will be one of years and decades of austerity, unemployment and falling living standards. That is a finished recipe for a revival of the class struggle everywhere.  It is true that most people have not yet grasped the seriousness of the crisis. Consciousness is lagging far behind events. But that also will change into its opposite.

I recently saw a programme on television in which a scientist, standing in a baseball stadium in San Francisco, pointed out that he was standing immediately above the San Andreas Fault. The cracks in the walls of the stadium bore eloquent testimony to this fact. “The problem we have is that the plates are moving too slowly,” he said, which seemed rather surprising.

Surely it would be an even bigger problem if they moved more quickly? But no.  The geologists have calculated the speed that the continents are moving. If the tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault are moving at a slower pace, at a certain point they will have to catch up with a bang, which means a cataclysmic earthquake.

It is just the same with society. Human consciousness in general is very conservative. Most people do not like change, especially sudden, violent change. They will cling to the things they know and have got used to: the ideas, religion, institutions, morality, leaders and parties. Routine, habit and customs all lie like a leaden weight on the shoulders of humanity. For all these reasons consciousness lags behind events.

That is true, but at certain periods great events force man and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. That is what a revolution is. Just as the tectonic plates, having moved too slowly, compensate by a violent earthquake, so the lagging of consciousness behind events is compensated by sudden changes in the psychology of the masses. We have seen this process recently in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and Greece.

Sadly, Ted Grant, my old friend, comrade and teacher will not see the publication of this Dutch translation nor did he see that of the second English edition. After a lifetime of tireless service to the cause of Marxism and the working class, he passed away at the ripe old age of 93.

Ted always had a passionate interest in Marxist theory, and philosophy in particular. He also followed all the developments of modern science very closely. In addition to the Financial Times and The Economist, he subscribed to The New Scientist, which he used to devour from cover to cover. He would often be infuriated by the mystical and idealist slant that some scientists gave to the discoveries of modern science. He would look up from the pages of his journal and shake his head in disbelief:

“These people confuse science with science fiction,” he would exclaim indignantly. There was one remark that struck me as particularly profound. He said that in the human mind, “matter has finally become conscious of itself”. A more beautiful way of expressing philosophical materialism would be difficult to imagine.

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that in the last years of his life Ted could see the tremendous interest in our ideas that has been expressed in many countries. This does not mean, of course, that philosophy—any philosophy—must dictate to science, as did the Church in the Middle Ages, or as the bureaucracy in Stalinist Russia. Science has its own methods of investigation, observation and experiment, and must follow these and these alone. But scientists necessarily approach their subject matter with certain assumptions, of which they are usually unaware. These assumptions invariably have a philosophical character. Behind every hypothesis there are always many assumptions, not all of them derived from science itself.

In writing Reason in Revolt, I was deeply impressed by the fact that the discoveries of modern science furnish us with many more examples of the truth of dialectics than the examples that were available to Engels in the 19th century. The method of Marxism provides one with all the basic tools needed to analyse and understand living reality. Dialectical materialism allows us to study reality, not as a series of dry, unconnected, senseless events or “facts”, but as a dynamic process, driven by its internal contradictions, ever changing and with an infinitely rich content. Marxism is much more than a political doctrine, or a theory of economics. It is the philosophy of the future.

The ideas of Marxism have never been more relevant and necessary than at this time. The advanced workers and youth of Belgium, the Netherlands and the whole of Europe will rediscover these ideas and reclaim them for themselves. That is the only guarantee for the success of the struggle for socialism.

London, July 22nd, 2011