Right now, there are still tens of thousands of Australians trying to get home from other countries. These are people based overseas who were told to shelter in place if they felt safe all the way back in March 2020, who have since decided that they would like to come home and yet are still waiting in a never-ending queue to return to Australia.
It’s shocking that they’re having to wait; though, at least to many of us, the idea that they’re trying to get home at least makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to come back to Australia right now? This country has handled the coronavirus pandemic more successfully than almost any other on the planet – at least, if you count success in terms of pure case numbers.
So yes, obviously if you lived in the USA or in the UK, in mainland Europe or in the sub-continent, you would be desperate to return home right now. That’s not news.
What is news, however, and what is far more interesting to me, is that for all the Australians trying to get home right now, there are many, many more who aren’t. Plenty of people have assessed the situation, seen the success Australia has had in controlling case numbers and keeping life relatively normal and still thought: nup. Not for me.
Last week, UK-based Australian journalist Kate Guest wrote a fascinating story in the Guardian about just that, about Australian expats who have elected not to return home during the pandemic, who have decided to stick it out in their new homes in France, in England, in Uganda, in Thailand. They’ve stayed for careers, they’ve stayed for family, and they’ve stayed because they just don’t like a lot of the things that current-day Australia represents, even when it’s largely virus-free.
And I have to say that so much of what was said by those expats rings true to me. I say this, too, as someone who did decide to come home to Australia as soon as the pandemic began, leaving my base in continental Europe, and as someone who – despite fancying myself as some sort of high-flying citizen of the world – does plan to call Australia home for the long-term future.
There’s a lot that I love about this place, and that suits me perfectly. But… Australia is not perfect. And that’s news. It’s also something that’s so much easier to see when you spend some time living in another country.
First problem: the anger that a simple statement like the one above will inevitably provoke. Australians are a brittle bunch, hypersensitive to any criticism, quick to shout down any dissent, quick to tell those who complain that if they don’t like it, they should leave.
We pride ourselves on our freedom of speech here, on the fact you can say anything you want – that is, unless you say the wrong thing, particularly if you’re black or Muslim, and then you will be mercilessly chased down and forced into hiding.
Still, that’s probably only a small part of what is keeping many expats from returning – though Australia’s shift to the political right is mentioned in Guest’s story. There’s talk of climate change in there, and our embarrassing lack of political will to do anything about it, plus our treatment of refugees that much of the rest of the world thinks is appalling.
Those things are important to me. But what’s also important is lifestyle, which, again, Australians tend to think we have the best of with our sun and surf and laidback attitude – but that’s all a matter of perspective.
If you want to live a socially connected life, a life of face-to-face contact with family and friends and even strangers, in a socially connected city with a dynamic culture and a strong sense of history and identity, then I’m sorry, but Australia is probably not for you.
Here we value space over social life, the desire for our personal quarter-acre trumping any chance of having a café and a bar and a few shops on every city block, the sort of places where people can congregate and socialise multiple times daily. Australians cities are designed to sprawl, so we can all have our castles, so we can all dig holes.
Australia isn’t particularly culturally rich. It’s just not. It’s lovely and it’s safe and it’s stable, and it’s the ideal place to have a family and live out your later years. But consider life in Spain, in Italy, in Japan, in India, in Vietnam, in Brazil, and there’s just no comparison.
Culture oozes from the pores of those countries, rites and traditions, festivals and carnivals, music, art, theatre, food that you’re surrounded by at every moment. Australia can’t compete with that.
There’s also the psyche of Australians. We fancy ourselves as devil-may-care larrikins but really we’re slavish rule-followers, meekly accepting draconian laws, grudgingly paying whopping fines for the smallest infractions because we love our safe, orderly society, we like to know what’s going to happen today, we like to be sure everyone will stick to the rules.
There’s a blokey, boofhead culture in Australia that I don’t always love, and that I can see would discourage many expats from coming back. Check out the ads on commercial TV here: Australians are far more comfortable with the beer-drinking everyman than they are with any other characteristic trope.
And yet – here I am. I have the astonishing and unearned privilege of being able to choose where in the world I would like to live, and I’ve chosen Australia.
However, plenty of people have not, even in the worst global crisis to affect many of us in our lifetimes. Still, they stay away. And that, to me, is news.
Australians woke on Thursday to an unfolding coup attempt in the United States. One by one, leaders from across the world condemned what was happening in the US Capitol and called for peace. From Ireland, to Greece, even Boris Johnson in Britain, governments expressed their horror and dismay.
Our own government took a little longer to react. We shouldn’t pretend we don’t know why.
There is a lot of blame to go around for what is unfolding in the United States. Aided and abetted by extremists in the White House and in Congress, and white supremacists across the nation, Trump is orchestrating nothing short of an attempted authoritarian takeover of what we have been taught to believe is the greatest democracy on earth and the guardian of peace in our world.
But some of that blame also lies here, with us.
The Australian government’s relationship with Donald Trump got off to a rocky start. But once Scott Morrison assumed the leadership, Australia went all in with the man trying to steal the presidency.
In September 2019, Morrison told President Trump that “Australia will never be accused of indifference in our friendship to the United States”. He was right.
Morrison made those remarks at a rare state dinner hosted in his honour in Washington, DC. He was one of very few world leaders to receive such a prestigious invitation from the President. It came to him when it did because the Trump administration, with so few friends in the world, knew that the Australian Prime Minister would provide the President and his administration with valuable international credibility and support, and the photo op that he wanted. And that is what he got.
Australia’s former ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, was widely praised for his diplomatic skill in facilitating the invitation and for how close he had managed to get to Trump. And while Hockey played golf with the President, Australian parliamentarians gleefully wore MAGA hats and appeared on conservative television, expressing their unqualified support for the white supremacist in the White House and spreading his misleading theories. There was no rebuke from their leader.
The links between the Australian government and our right-wing media ecosystem are clear. While Sky News monetised and spread American conspiracy theories, Hockey went on Australian radio to say that Biden’s margin in Washington DC, for example, was “hard to believe”, and MP George Christensen posted on Facebook about “Democrat vote fraud”.
Elsewhere, leaders from across the world called on Donald Trump to concede defeat and ensure a peaceful transition of power. Asked to comment, Scott Morrison said only that American democracy was “great” and dismissed calls for him to say something meaningful as “divisive”. Called on at the time to condemn members of his own government for spouting conspiracies, he said nothing.
A few weeks later, Morrison was awarded a Legion of Merit for his trouble. The Prime Minister was “honoured” to receive the award that recognised how he had “strengthened the partnership between the United States and Australia”.
Australians cannot avoid the truth of our complicity. Morrison’s warm friendship with the President, our conservative media ecosystem’s promulgation of American conspiracy theories and giving a platform to US white supremacists – all of it helped Trump and the fascism he encouraged and unleashed. That can’t just be put back in the box.
Yesterday, Trump supporters flew Confederate flags in the Capitol. Even during the Civil War, that symbol of white supremacy didn’t make it to Washington, DC. But it has been held up, in similar fashion, by Australian soldiers serving alongside Americans in Afghanistan.
Australians are told that having such a close relationship with the United States is essential to the maintenance of our national security. But what kind of security is this? And what damage has it done to our relationship with the incoming Biden administration? There was never any security or strategic justification for the closeness of the Trump administration and our own government. The only reason for it was ideological.
It is only through an honest reckoning with that ideological closeness, and with our complicity in Trumpism, that Australians might be able to re-consider our place in the world. We did not have a binary choice between subservience to an anti-democratic white supremacist and abandoning the alliance. There were – and still are – other options.
Once, an American President assured us that the United States only wanted to make “the world safe for democracy”. Perhaps we should try to think about making our world safe from America.
Thank you very much for your generous comment. What I particularly liked and is for me ‘the guts’ of Corinna’s and Gerry Gold’s essay is that two people who understand dialectics and write very clearly on it are not only calling for a major development of dialectics but, in the same essay, refer to ‘a new science of consciousness studies…rapidly moving into an area previously thought to be the reserve of those who believe in UFOs, ESP, table-knocking and “mind over matter”’.
I understand from this that not only are they calling for a development based on science of what we already know of dialectical laws and logic (a knowledge tested in practice), but they hold that that research should be undertaken in any area that could contribute to that development. It is to this that I responded.
Neoplatonism – a school that was always open to development – was an amalgam of Greek philosophy and a development on it, starting with Plotinus. Hegel wrote that Neoplatonism established ‘the ideal realm’ and that Alexandrian Neoplatonism incorporated all earlier forms of Greek philosophy within it and was the consummation of Greek philosophy and the greatest flowering of philosophy to the decline of the Roman Empire (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, vol. I, Trans., Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 202).
In my view, there are two ways of thinking dialectically, which are intertwined in The Enneads – using concepts consciously and intuitively, subconsciously (I used both ways of thinking towards this reply – hence the slight delay). Plotinus did not clearly distinguish them. Hegel, as a Neoplatonist, subscribed both to patriarchal and intuitive reason, and, living after a long history of development within Neoplatonism, took Neoplatonism to its consummation.
Marx took only one halfof this current further (that of conscious reason and conceptual analysis) standing it on its material feet. He rejected the other half (that of intuition and subconscious reason) as idealist mysticism. He did this both because he was not a Neoplatonist and because of the domination in the West of patriarchal reason (‘The Man of Reason’). This is why I emphasise that what Plotinus initiated was not just Neoplatonism, but more importantly, a continuum.
To recognise this continuum and the place of Marxism on it is, I think, crucial to a further development of that current in its entirety, now dialectical materialism.
With regard to ‘mind’: my understanding of all scientific studies regarding our thoughts, speech and actions is that they are directed towards those parts of the physical body responsible for them (brain, muscles etc.), not to a ‘mind’. I definitely do not accept that there is a ‘mind’ or are ‘minds’. As Lenin wrote ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’
Control: The Man of Reason (patriarchal) – words are used like bricks in a wall.
No control: Intuition (‘feminine’) – (from a movie the name of which I don’t remember) – a young American Indian policeman couldn’t make headway towards solving a crime, so he sought the advice of an Indian wise man living in a trailer park in the desert. The old man said ‘Let’s go for a drive’, so they drove along the highway into the desert. The old man said ‘Stop the car and get out.’ Puzzled, the young Indian did so. The old man asked ‘What do you see?’ to which the young man, slowly looking around him, replied ‘Nothing.’ The old man then asked ‘What about the grass there, moving in the breeze?’, ‘What about that bird up on high?’, ‘What about the shadows of the clouds moving slowly?’, ‘What about the shades of blue in the mountains?’…
‘Certainly Democritus said that though the mind thought ill of the senses because in themselves they did not reflect reality, yet it took its evidence from them…(the dictum of Democritus was) that phenomena are a window on the unseen. Through them, if we do not stop there, we can become aware of the nature of the invisible realities.
A man that looks on glasse
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe
And then the heav’n espie’
W.K.C.Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 464.
I enjoyed reading ‘God’s Last Stand’ by Corinna Lotz and Gerry Gold (both, I presume, Marxists) and I particularly appreciated their call for the development of materialist dialectics. They first presented this essay in 1995 and I should note that Lotz has stated recently that her ‘own understanding has moved on considerably’ since then, as many discoveries have been made in science, particularly in the area of neuroplasticity and, to use Lotz’s expression, ‘the “embodied” mind’. Their writing on a difficult subject – dialectics – is clear and consistent, with good examples.
What do they call for?
Lotz and Gold call not merely for Marxists to develop ‘a contemporary theory of materialist dialectics’ but for that development to be ‘revolutionary’, a ‘quantum leap’ reflecting revolutionary advances in modern science, such as quantum mechanics, astrophysics and consciousness studies, and particularly to counter critics of the materialist world view such as Paul Davies – as Engels countered Dühring in Anti-Dühring (and, I add, Lenin later countered subjective idealism in Materialism and Empirio-criticism).
Further, giving added urgency to their call, not only have advances in knowledge of brain structure produced a new ‘theory of mind functioning’, they write that Oliver Sacks talked of a crisis in scientific understanding, arising from an ‘“acute incompatibility between observations and existing theories.”’
While I strongly agree with their call for the development of dialectics and praise them for that, it is peculiar that a call for a ‘revolutionary’ development by Marxists – why only Marxists? – should be coming from Marxists, all of whom should be familiar with dialectics – with what is only revolutionary, and nothing but revolutionary. The first lesson of dialectics, like time and tide, is that its engine, contradiction, with its own laws, waits for no one. The call by Lotz and Gold is a very strong criticism of present Marxists generally.
Lotz and Gold write ‘The end of Stalinism has dealt a devastating blow to those who turned Marxism from a method of discovery into a prescriptive dogma’ but make no mention of the relationship between dialectics and socialist revolution, writing only of those in science. They write ‘A key issue for Marxists is the development of consciousness in the working class movement.’. The key issue for Marxists, as I understand, is socialist revolution, for which a developed consciousness in the working class is essential. In a conversation last year, on Youtube, in which Lotz discusses democracy, she not once spoke of ‘socialism’ or ‘revolution.’ Lotz and Gold look forward to how new concepts emerging from scientific developments might be applied to our understanding of class relations, ‘to represent a new world order’ but make no mention of how this new world order is to be achieved.
In response to Lotz and Gold asking ‘Does (the breakdown of the Soviet Union) mean that all the previous history suddenly vanishes, as some crude impressionists have suggested? Surely it shows the need for a more complex and dynamic understanding of the process of historical negation enriched by new concepts, such as Prigogine’s’, I quote Engels worthy words on the production requirements for socialism
‘Since the historical appearance of the capitalist mode of production, the appropriation by society of all the means of production has often been dreamed of, more or less vaguely, by individuals, as well as by sects, as the ideal of the future. But it could become possible, could become a historical necessity, only when the actual conditions for its realisation were there. Like every other social advance, it becomes practicable, not by men understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions. The separation of society into an exploiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary consequence of the deficient and restricted development of production in former times. So long as the total social labour only yields a produce which but slightly exceeds that barely necessary for the existence of all; so long therefore, as labour engages all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society – so long, of necessity, this society is divided into classes.’1
It is a matter of not only developing dialectical logic but also of applying what has already been developed, correctly.
For Lotz, Gold and Stephen Hawking to refer to such a fool as Wittgenstein (Heraclitus without the Heraclitus) – so beloved by and useful to time-serving academic philosophers on behalf of their capitalist masters – to exemplify that ‘20th century philosophers have failed to keep up with the advance of scientific theories’ fails utterly to support what should be a claim extremely easy to illustrate.
Why I am not a Marxist
I am not a Marxist in the same sense that I do not subscribe primarily only to the particular work of Plotinus or Proclus or Cusanus or Hegel. I do subscribe to the philosophical current initiatedby Plotinus, that was always open to development, and has been taken, so far, furthest by Marx in dialectical materialism. Just as Hegel is not recognised specifically as the consummate Neoplatonist, which I have argued in my thesis ‘Hegel the Consummate Neoplatonist’2 – a small but growing number – including Marx3 and Engels4 – refer to him merely as a ‘mystic’ or to his philosophy as ‘mysticism’ – so Marxism and dialectical materialism are not recognised as part of this continuum.
To subscribe only to the extent that any of the above originated (in the case of Plotinus) or developed that current in philosophy is to imply there is a limit on a philosophy which seeks to reflect that which has no limit and one absolute – change. There was a long history of development within Neoplatonism prior to Marx, culminating in Hegel’s objective (‘absolute’) idealism (with Hegel, Neoplatonism had, in a sense, gone full-circle), without which Marx could not have taken the next, logical step, incorporating it into materialism, taking materialism from mechanical to dialectical. Engels not only acknowledged developments within idealism and materialism but wrote that materialism, too, must change its form.5 With the ever-deepening of our knowledge of the world, dialectical materialism, too, will in turn develop beyond Marxism, into new, presently unimaginable forms.
Much is made by Marxists – and a false line of separation deliberately created – of Marx’s standing Hegel’s philosophy ‘right way up’, on material feet, but this current was always about the unity of the ‘world’ in motion, and development within the ‘world’ through contradiction. What is necessary is to take that current further, not as an ’ist’ or a ‘ian’, but as one who embraces its core of driving contradiction, unending motion and ceaseless change.
To be able to do as Lotz and Gold think is necessary would require recognising the place of Marxism on the continuum initiated by Plotinus – a recognition that Engels not merely failed to have, but emphatically rejected – they quote him both in the blurb to their essay and, in Italics, in the essay itself: ‘That which still survives, independently of all earlier philosophy, is the science of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics.’ The way forward is to recognise and acknowledge this continuum and then to both look at the strengths, flaws and weaknesses in what has been carried over into Marxism from mysticism and to reflect our deepening knowledge of the world in the development of dialectical logic and practice.
Neoplatonism and dialectical materialism
) the world:
The impact of Neoplatonism (the primary form of Western mysticism) is everywhere in Western culture, particularly (as should be expected) in the area of artistic creativity. Its vitalism informed – and informs – a break from all scholastic pedantry.
While Marx’s famous ‘inversion’ of Hegel’s philosophy represented a rejection of philosophical idealism, Marx did not reject but absorb into materialism the fruits of its long developmental heritage in idealism, culminating in Hegel’s philosophy – a necessary prior development that prepared the groundfor, that enabled that logical next step.
Hegel’s ‘point of departure’ that Engels referred to in his Dialectics of Nature 6 was that of Plotinus. Armstrong wrote
The material universe for Plotinus is a living, organic whole, the best possible image of the living unity-in-diversity of the World of Forms in Intellect. It is held together in every part by a universal sympathy and harmony, in which external evil and suffering take their place as necessary elements in the great pattern, the great dance of the universe…Matter then is responsible for the evil and imperfection of the material world; but that world is good and necessary, the best possible image of the world of spirit on the material level, where it is necessary that it should express itself for the completion of the whole. It has not the goodness of its archetype, but it has the goodness of the best possible image.7
It was Plotinus who, in arguing for the beauty and worth of the earth and everything on it set the philosophical basis for the Neoplatonists’ keeninterest in the world, which Cusanus exemplified brilliantly in Book II of De docta ignorantia and which, later, Hegel exemplified in the second book of his Encyclopaedia.
Lotz and Gold wrote of ‘the essential unity and interconnectedness of all matter’. So did Plotinus. His second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle is the universe of Spirit, the unity-in-multiplicity of Divine Mind and of all ‘minds’. Everything that is in the sensory universe – including ‘matter’, now immutable – is in this universe, but mutually inclusive, far more alive and eternal.
The same failure to recognise the achievements of Plotinus in Cassirer’s praise for Cusanus8 Engels made in his praise for Hegel
For the first time the whole world…is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development9
Hegel, as did Cusanus, drew on Plotinus
Let us then apprehend in our thought this visible universe, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact all be seen inside a transparent sphere. Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the god who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, with all the gods within him, he who is one and all, and each god is all the gods coming together into one; they are different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are all one; or rather, the one god is all; for he does not fail if all become what he is; they are all together and each one again apart in a position without separation (my italics), possessing no perceptible shape – for if they did, one would be in one place and one in another, and each would no longer be all in himself…nor is each whole like a power cut up which is as large as the measure of its parts. But this, the [intelligible] All, is universal power, extending to infinityand powerful to infinity (my italics); and that god is so great that his parts have become infinite (my italics)…’ 10
Lotz and Gold draw on a staple from mysticism (in the part is the whole), writing ’This is a beautiful concretisation of the dialectical concept of how the universal finds its expression within the individual. Within the development of each individual mind is expressed not an abstract universal, but “a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual, the single”. Plotinus wrote in his tractate ‘Nature, Contemplation, and the One’, translated by Creuzer in 1805
(In) the true and first universe (of Intellect)…each part is not cut off from the whole; but the whole life of it and the whole intellect lives and thinks all together in one, and makes the part the whole and all bound in friendship with itself, since one part is not separated from another and has not become merely other, estranged from the rest; and, therefore, one does not wrong another, even if they are opposites. 11
Lotz and Gold wrote ‘the movement of mutually exclusive opposites…is the essence of dialectics’. This essence derives from TheEnneads in which it is the means of return to unity with God.
They wrote ‘Engels’ great contribution to dialectics is his advancing of the intrinsically correct concepts of the Greek ancient philosophers about the nature of matter and motion. These are viewed as an indivisible unity and conflict of opposites.’ Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring ‘dialectics has so far been fairly closely investigated by only two thinkers, Aristotle and Hegel.’12 Engels was completely incorrect – other than Hegel’s philosophy, Marx and Engels were ignorant of (due to no interest in) Neoplatonism.13
To exemplify both the extent of Engels’ error in making this assertion and the keen interest and pleasure the Neoplatonists took in contradiction – the engine, as Lotz and Gold write, of dialectics – and how superior the Neoplatonists were to Aristotle in this regard (on whom they also drew very significantly), Cusanus can speak for them:
NICHOLAS: I laud your remarks. And I add that also in another manner Aristotle closed off to himself a way for viewing the truth. For, as we mentioned earlier, he denied that there is a Substance of substance or a Beginning of beginning. Thus, he would also have denied that there is a Contradiction of contradiction. But had anyone asked him whether he saw contradiction in contradictories, he would have replied, truly, that he did. Suppose he were thereupon asked: “If that which you see in contradictories you see antecedently (just as you see a cause antecedently to its effect), then do you not see contradiction without contradiction?” Assuredly, he could not have denied that this is so. For just as he saw that the contradiction in contradictories is contradiction of the contradictories, so prior to the contradictories he would have seen Contradiction before the expressed contradiction (even as the theologian Dionysius saw God to be, without opposition, the Oppositeness of opposites; for prior to [there being any] opposites it is not the case that anything is opposed to oppositeness). But even though the Philosopher failed in first philosophy, or mental philosophy, nevertheless in rational and moral [philosophy] he wrote many things very worthy of complete praise. Since these things do not belong to the present speculation, let it suffice that we have made the preceding remarks about Aristotle.14
) subject and object:
Lotz and Gold wrote of the subject/object relation – ‘the essential contradiction in the dialectics of cognition’. The development in The Enneads, too, is based on this relation. Noting the ‘strange phenomenon’ of a distinction in one self, Plotinus continued
Unless there is something beyond bare unity, there can be no vision: vision must converge with a visible object. …in so far as there is action, there is diversity. If there be no distinctions, what is there to do, what direction in which to move? An agent must either act upon the extern or be a multiple and so able to act upon itself: making no advance towards anything other than itself, it is motionless, and where it could know only blank fixity it can know nothing.15
Not only must there be diversity but that diversity must be identity as well
The intellective power, therefore, when occupied with the intellectual act, must be in a state of duality, whether one of the two elements stand actually outside or both lie within: the intellectual act will always comport diversity as well as the necessary identity16
In describing Hegel’s method, Magee unintentionally summarised the Neoplatonic position
when the subject wishes to know itself, it must split itself into a subjective side, which knows, and an objective side, which is known.17
Areas of potential development
Lenin began ‘On the Question of Dialectics’ ‘The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts…is the essence…of dialectics.’18 This is what I advocate regarding ‘dialectical materialism’ itself. What are its contradictory parts, the cognition of which, through testing in practice, can enable further development? The Neoplatonic heritage of dialectical materialism should be acknowledged and then fully examined, both refining or, if found wanting, rejecting any elements that detract from the development of dialectics.
What is ‘reason’? Philosophers have the least understanding of the practice they most pride themselves on. Is it simply a chain of conscious, linguistic thought leading to a conclusion? The leading Marxists all dismissed mysticism (although its method is the philosophical core of their epistemology – now there’s a contradiction for anyone interested!…). Lenin, with his aptitude for energetic language, referred to it as ‘the very antechamber of fideism’.19 Lotz and Gold make a clear distinction between ‘reason’ and mysticism. They write of Davies’ ‘road to mysticism…due entirely to his eclectic method’ of his ‘mystical fog’, and ‘web of religious mysticism’. They discount the central importance of mysticism to Marxism and dialectical materialism.
Marxist logic not only derives from Neoplatonism, more generally, it is rooted in Western thought with its limitations – great emphasis is placed on patriarchal language and concepts (clearly defined – i.e. bounded and limited, and therefore potential vehicles for control, no matter how useful to knowledge), and Western supremacism (other cultures and modes of thinking are disparaged), of which Hegel, the renowned master of ‘Reason’ is a fine example
Negroes are to be regarded as a race of children…The Mongols…spread like monstrous locust swarms over other countries and then…sink back again into the thoughtless indifference and dull inertia which preceded this outburst. …(the Chinese) have no compunction in exposing or simply destroying their infants.
It is in the Caucasian race that mind first attains to absolute unity with itself. ..and in doing so creates world-history.
The principle of the European mind is, therefore, self-conscious Reason…In Europe, therefore, there prevails this infinite thirst for knowledge which is alien to other races. …the European mind…subdues the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world.20
The time is long overdue for the Man of Reason with his narrow, patriarchal dualisms that Lloyd and particularly Plumwood exposed so well to be got rid of. I am not aware that Marxists enquire regarding possible forms of reason (different from the consciousness studies Lotz and Gold referred to) which do not function conceptually.
Engels wrote that for Hegel, ‘only dialectical thinking is reasonable’ – i.e. ‘reason’ that ‘presupposes investigation of the nature of concepts themselves…’21 Yet of Hegel, to whom concepts were so important, Engels wrote that he had absolutely nothing to say about the ultimate concept in his conceptual system – Absolute Idea.22 Engels also believed that dialectical thought required the investigation of concepts.
Dialectical reasoning can take two forms – it can be done both consciously (using language) and subconsciously (using intuition). It is not necessary to have definite, conscious thought in order to reason dialectically. A profound contradiction in The Enneads on the relationship between ‘reason’ and intuition remained, though much more thoroughly worked out, in Hegel’s philosophy. On the one hand he wrote that to reason we require language and concepts, on the other, as a Neoplatonist, he justified intuition. Marx ‘solved’ that ‘problem’ by simply raising the banner of ‘science’ and ignoring intuition and the reality of sub-conscious dialectical reason. The only dialectical reason for him and Engels is conscious and conceptual.
In his Philosophy of Mind Hegel wrote that the body is only the ‘mind’s’ first appearance, while language is its perfect expression.23 In his Science of Logic he wrote ‘The forms of thought are, in the first instance, displayed and stored in human language.’24 He believed we cannot think without words (although he also wrote, very interestingly, we are thinking all the time, including in sleep25) and that words give our thoughts their highest and truest existence which only becomes definite when we objectify them
(The existence of words) is absolutely necessary to our thoughts. We only know our thoughts, only have definite, actual thoughts, when we give them the form of objectivity.26
For Hegel, along this path, what cannot be expressed in language has no reality. But the path beginning with intuition can cater for both conscious and sub-conscious dialectical reason and Hegel wrote about this excellently.
I contend that reason can be done subconsciously, dialectically, and one can consciously observe that process. Intuition is itself dialectical, non-linguistic, rich, wholistic, fluid and instantaneous. It is tied more deeply than conscious reason to our emotions. What the concept represents has been dismissed as ‘the feminine’. Both Plotinus and Hegel believed an intuition to be the unity of subject and object, in a dialectical relationship. Both Plotinus and Hegel distinguished between ‘mindless’ (sensuous consciousness) and ’mindful’ (thinking religiously) intuition. Plotinus correctly wrote that ‘we are continuously intuitive but we are not unbrokenly aware.’27 Hegel echoed this, writing ‘Mindless intuition is merely sensuous consciousness which remains external to the object.’28
Of ‘mindful’ intuition Hegel wrote that it
apprehends the genuine substance of the object. ……It is, therefore, rightly insisted on that in all branches of science, and particularly also in philosophy, one should speak from an intuitive grasp of the subject-matter.29
This process begins with a Neoplatonic unity of thinking in which there is no distinction (which Hegel calls ‘immediate intuition’) then, inspired ‘with wonder and awe’ by the object, the philosopher engages in cognising it, stripping away ‘the inessentials of the external and contingent,’ employing ‘the pure thinking of Reason which comprehends its object…(possessing) a perfectly determinate, true intuition.’ This is the Neoplatonic process of emanation and return – from unity to distinction between subject and its object in the process of the latter’s cognition, to unity again in the source, but now made ‘true (my italics) intuition.’30
Hegel wrote intuition forms only the substantial form into which (my italics) (the) completely developed cognition concentrates itself again. In immediate intuition, it is true that I have the entire object before me; but not until my cognition of the object developed in all its aspects (my italics) has returned into the form of simple (my italics) intuition does it confront my intelligence as an articulated, systematic totality.
Recognise that intuition and this process are material and based in praxis and you have excellent philosophy – I have an intuition, I think about it conceptually as thoroughly as possible, testing it and my reasoning about it – and conclude the process having cognised that intuition in its fullness (having reasoned conceptually to a conclusion on the basis of practice what arose from my sub-consciousness).
Weeks wrote about Kepler (who referred to Cusanus as ‘divine’ in his Mysterium Cosmographicum published in 1596 and 1621)
Johannes Kepler regarded his initial intuition concerning the structure of the solar system to be a divine revelation of the divine plan of creation. Hence, his intuition can justifiably be called mystical. But in pursuing this intuition, he proceeded as a scientist and mathematician, not as a mystic.31
To pursue an intuition conceptually and dialectically is one path, but the other, which the Neoplatonists valued most is subconscious and far more creative. Magee discussed Hegel’s method for this, which he described as mytho-poetic circumscription (which method echoed the inspired poetic style of Plotinus in his Enneads, so beautifully translated by Stephen MacKenna)
Hegel rejects propositional thought, which would define the Absolute, and instead ‘talks around’ or ‘thinks around’ the Absolute, revealing at each point some aspect or part of it. The totality of Hegel’s philosophical speech is the Truth, the Absolute itself.32
Just as concepts (particularly the hypostases themselves) were stepping-stones to be ‘thought around’ for Plotinus and the Neoplatonists prior to Hegel, from and to spiritual unity with their highest concept the One-Absolute, so Hegel, following particularly Plotinus, Proclus and Cusanus used his concepts in the same way from and to spiritual unity with his God/One/Absolute. What makes Hegel’s philosophy ‘mythical’ is his overlay of the Christian myth across his Neoplatonism.
Inevitably Hegel employed the devices of poetry including images, metaphors and symbols – myth, in Christian form, being the most important of them – Christian mythology provided Hegel with images, metaphors and symbolism.
Hegel’s argument is borne by the dense mystical tapestry he wove using concepts as focal or anchor points. He wrote that speculative thinking (which concept he noted the Neoplatonists equated with ‘mystical’33) is from one point of view akin to the poetic imagination and he used words and concepts to create a rationalised feeling for the Absolute, rather than to attain a literal cognition of it. In his philosophy, God comes to know himself Neoplatonically – most importantly, he does so dialectically.
While Plotinus did think that intuition is the immediate unity of subject with its object, with that unity, as for Hegel, comes knowledge. Plotinus equated intuition with knowledge and that knowledge, held with the highest degree of Neoplatonic consciousness, is attained after a complex process of dialectical thinking – along either path.
Having had an intuition, I can leave it to its own subconscious processes. For it to work, I must not interrupt (attempt to control) it although I can sense and feel its development, which can continue during ‘sleep’ (what is ‘sleep’?), leading to a conclusion. Who hasn’t woken to the ‘Eureka!’ moment they couldn’t achieve with conscious reason – precisely because it is restricted to concepts, allowing no space for trotting chairs and fluttering wings.34
) a review of the relationship between Neoplatonism and dialectical materialism:
>> (In addition to the points I have discussed through this essay) Get rid of everything already in dialectical logic that undermines it and contradicts ‘matter’ (objective reality), e.g ‘mind’ – a concept which Lotz and Gold used (‘the functioning of the mind’, ‘a theory of mind which is both materialist and dialectical’) as did Marx, Engels and Lenin. To write of ‘mind’ together with materialism is a contradiction in terms. ‘Mind’ is a Trojan horse for philosophical idealism into materialism (‘mind of God’ etc., etc.). I can show you a brain. Who can show me a mind?
>> While contradiction and negation is the developmental pathway for the Neoplatonist and Marxist, does the goal of the former – ‘the greatest activity in the greatest stillness’ (unity with the One) have a parallel in any way with ‘classless’ communism (need I acknowledge the concept is not Neoplatonic?)?
Hegel’s Absolute Idea is understood to ‘contain’ all the preceding categories, as, in effect, Absolute’s definition. Such a claim, even though it is putting Hegel’s view, should be exposed – as Engels did (describing it as the reactionary aspect of Hegel’s philosophy). From one of the greatest dialecticians, it is the attempt to impose a final definition on aprocess which iswithout end, and in which such a concept and definition has no part. The same provisional and inadequate definition of the Absolute by the categories in their dialectical development should apply no less to ‘Absolute Idea.’’ ‘Communism’ carries the same overtones of finality, of an ultimate unity.
>> the application of new concepts resulting from scientific developments (Lotz and Gold give examples of this). Research should go on re- unacknowledged forms of (potential) reason (intuition, dreaming, guided dreaming) and brain functions regarded as ‘below’ (‘more primitive than’) conscious reason. For Marxists in particular, what should be of primary importance, advocate the necessity of socialist revolution and its relevance to all the above.
In conclusion: I agree with Lotz and Gold’s words ‘The key issue is to go beyond the unscientific…and actually discover…(what) must be integrated into an advanced dialectics of nature.’
1. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (henceforth cited as A-D), Progress, Moscow, 1975, 333-334
2. Engels wrote in the rough draft of the ‘Introduction’ for his Anti-Dühring ‘The Hegelian system was the last and most consummate form of philosophy, in so far as the latter is represented as a special science superior to every other. All philosophy collapsed with this system.’ Frederick Engels, A-D op. cit., 34, note. On Engels’ latter point, my position is that when one thinks of philosophy as the posing of the most disruptive questions (as I curiously heard an academic philosopher define it once), there will never be an end to philosophy or the need for it.
3. ‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.’, Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873.
4. Engels wrote of ‘the same laws which similarly form the thread running through the history of the development of human thought and gradually rise to consciousness in thinking man; the laws which Hegel first developed in all-embracing but mystic form, and which we made it one of our aims to strip of this mystic form and to bring clearly before the mind in their complete simplicity and universality.’, A-D op.cit,, 1885 Preface, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/preface.htm#c1
5. ‘just as idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, it has to change its form’ Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (henceforth cited as LF), 1886. Lenin quoted these words in his Materialism: ‘Engels says explicitly that “with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science [“not to speak of the history of mankind”], materialism has to change its form” (Ludwig Feuerbach, German edition, p. 19), Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (henceforth cited as MaE), Progress, Moscow, 1977, 232
6. ‘…Hegel’s point of departure: that spirit, mind, the idea, is primary and that the real world is only a copy of the idea.’, Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (henceforth cited as DoN), Progress, Moscow, 1976, 47.
7. A.H.Armstrong in Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, William Heinemann, London, 1966-1988, vol. I, xxiv
8. ‘From these methodological premises Cusanus arrives at the essential principles of a new cosmology. …the earth may no longer be considered something base or detestable within nature. Rather, it is a noble star…we can see clearly why, from Cusanus’ viewpoint, the new orientation in astronomy that led to the supersession of the geocentric vision of the world was only the result and the expression of a totally new intellectual orientation. This intimate connection between the two was already visible in the formulation of his basic cosmological ideas in De docta ignorantia. It is useless to seek a physical central point for the world. Just as it has no sharply delineated geometric form but rather extends spatially into the indeterminate, so it also has no locally determined centre. Thus, if the question of its central point can be asked at all, it can no longer be answered by physics but by metaphysics.’ Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, Trans., Mario Domandi, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1963, 27. Cusanus explored and brought out through clarification and metaphysical application what was already in Neoplatonic theory. In doing so he made very important contributions to its development and to later science, for example writing in De docta ignorantia ‘the world-machine will have its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere,’ – long before Hawking, of whom Lotz and Gold wrote ‘By 1988, Hawking concluded: “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?”’ These contributions were crucial to Hegel’s furthest development of Neoplatonism within idealism.
13. Lenin dismissed the writing of the Neoplatonists as ‘a mass of thin porridge ladled out about God…’, although he contradicted himself with an important reference to Philo on Heraclitus, exemplifying the Neoplatonists’ interest in contradiction, in the first words of his famous ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, Collected Works, Vol. 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress, 1972, 303, 359
14. Nicholas of Cusa, De Li Non Aliud (‘On God as Not-Other’), 1461-2, in Nicholas of Cusa on God as Not-other, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1999, 1108-1166, 89, 1150
15. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), Trans. Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, V.3.10
17. Glenn Alexander Magee,The Hegel Dictionary, Continuum, London, 2010., 69-70
18. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38 op. cit., 359
19. Lenin, MaE, op, cit., 62
20. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830, henceforth cited as PoM), Trans., William Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, 42-45; ‘Europe, forms the consciousness, the rational part, of the earth, the balance of rivers and valleys and mountains – whose centre is Germany. The division of the world into continents is therefore not contingent, not a convenience; on the contrary, the differences are essential,’ G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, Part Two of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Trans., A.V.Miller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2004, 285; ‘No philosophy in the proper sense (can be found in the Oriental world)…spirit does not arise in the Orient…In the West we are on the proper soil of philosophy,’ Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 89, 91
21. Engels, DoN, op.cit., 222-223
22. ‘In his Logic, he can make this end a beginning again, since here the point of the conclusion, the absolute idea — which is only absolute insofar as he has absolutely nothing to say about it – “alienates”, that is, transforms, itself into nature and comes to itself again later in the mind, that is, in thought and in history.’, Frederick Engels, LF, op.cit., Part I: Hegel, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/ 1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch01.htm
23. Hegel, PoM, op. cit., 147
24. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 31
25. ‘it is also inadequate to…(say) vaguely that it is only in the waking state that man thinks. For thought in general is so much inherent in the nature of man that he is always thinking, even in sleep. In every form of mind, in feeling, intuition, as in picture-thinking, thought remains the basis.’ Hegel, PoM, op. cit., 69
26. Hegel, PoM, op. cit., 221
27. ‘we are continuously intuitive (my italics) but we are not unbrokenly aware: the reason is that the recipient in us receives from both sides, absorbing not merely intellections but also sense-perceptions.’, Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., IV.3.30
28. Hegel, PoM, op. cit., 199
30. Ibid., 200
31. Andrew Weeks, German Mysticism – From Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1993, 8
32. Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, 95
33. ‘The expression ‘mystical’ does in fact occur frequently in the Neoplatonists, for whom (word in Greek) means none other than ‘to consider speculatively’. The religious mysteries too are secrets to the abstract understanding, and it is only for rational, speculative thinking that they are object or content.’, Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume II: Greek Philosophy, Trans., Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2011, 345. Plotinus founded the Western speculative school of philosophy that provided a ‘rational’ account of the mystical, of which school Hegel was its consummate graduate.
34. ‘…The whole night was beset by wings of some sort, and I kept on the go all the time, with my hands and arms protecting my head from these wings. And then – a chair. Not one of our modern chairs but of an ancient style, and wooden. With a horselike gait (right foreleg and left hindleg, left foreleg and right hindleg) this chair trotted up to my bed and climbed up on it; it was uncomfortable, painful – and I loved that wooden chair.
It is amazing: is it really impossible to contrive any remedy against this dreaming disease that would cure it or make it rational – perhaps even put it to some use?’, Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, (1920) Trans., Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Penguin, London, 1984, 126
‘God’s last stand: Matter, God and the New Physics. An review essay of the popular books of cosmologist Paul Davies’, by Corinna Lotz and Gerry Gold
Frederick Engels opposed, especially in Anti-Dühring, the idea of a philosophy that stood above the sciences. He saw that the revolution in the theoretical natural sciences would bring the dialectical character of natural processes to the fore. He wrote: “That which still survives, independently of all earlier philosophy, is the science of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.” We now set out to show how the philosophical approach developed by Engels is both verified and enriched by the revolutionary advances of modern science.
Our paper seeks to outline directions for Marxists to develop dialectical logic in the light of work in the fields of quantum mechanics, astrophysics and consciousness studies. This work, in our opinion, is a prerequisite to counter contemporary critics of the materialist world outlook, such as Paul Davies.
This paper was presented to the American Philosophical Association’s annual conference in New York (December 1995), at a session devoted to the centenary of Frederick Engels organised by James Lawler, President of the Society for the Philosophical Study of Marxism.
It was first published in Socialist Future, Spring 1996 Vol.4 No. 4 and in Nature, Society and Thought, May 1996 Vol.9 No. 2.
Dear friends and colleagues, I’m posting up this paper which was written in 1995, to commemorate the centenary of Frederick Engels’ centenary. In it, Gerry Gold and I discuss some of the developments in science since Engels’ time. Clearly, many years have gone by and many areas of science have changed, but I thought it could stimulate some discussion about the issue of dialectics of nature which is currently a hot topic in a number of books and essays, in particular Kaan Kangal’s new book on Engels and the Dialectics of Nature. My own understanding has moved on considerably since 1995 but I believe that many new discoveries made since 1996 do affirm the importance of a dialectical approach, in particular advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity and the concept of the “embodied” mind. Thanks to anyone in advance for your thoughts.
Corinna Lotz, November 2020
Frederick Engels opposed, especially in Anti-Dühring, the idea of a philosophy that stood above the sciences. He saw that the revolution in the theoretical natural sciences would bring the dialectical character of natural processes to the fore.
“That which still survives, independently of all earlier philosophy, is the science of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.” 1
We now set out to show how the philosophical approach developed by Engels is both verified and enriched by the revolutionary advances of modern science. Our paper seeks to outline directions for Marxists to develop dialectical logic in the light of work in the fields of quantum mechanics, astrophysics and consciousness studies. This work, in our opinion, is a prerequisite to counter contemporary critics of the materialist world outlook, such as Paul Davies.
Anglo-Australian scientist Davies is a key figure in the current debate about the relationship between science and religion. He was born in England and emigrated to Australia during the Thatcher years. Davies first made his name as a scientist working on time asymmetry, but is now best known for championing the idea that the most effective road to religious belief is through science.
Aged 48, Davies has written 17 books in the last 22 years, and since the early 1980s has produced almost one book a year discussing the relationship between modern science especially physics – and religion. His latest offering About Time discusses, among other things, what could have existed before the “Big Bang” which most cosmologists now believe gave rise to the Universe we now inhabit. In May 1995 Davies was awarded the $1 million Templeton prize for “progress” in religion. This 25 year old award is bigger than the Nobel Prize. Previous recipients include American mass evangelist Billy Graham and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The rise of Davies as the most prolific contemporary populariser of the convergence view of religion and science is not merely a British phenomenon. He is a leading exponent of an outlook which is a major influence on young people in society today, especially in the USA, Britain and Japan. They experience a powerful technology, derived from complex scientific theories dominating the world in which people live. This co-exists with the greatest uncertainty about individual survival, as well as life on the planet. Consumer society turns people into mere targets for selling products and services. Science and technology are made into scapegoats for capitalism’s destructiveness.
It is against this background that Davies and others find a response to ideas which give “soul” to an apparently pointless existence, and which offer a rationalisation for the idea that “life is a lottery”. 2 And although there are many in the scientific community who thoroughly oppose Davies’ use of science to give a “modern” justification for religious interpretations of concepts such as “free will” and indeterminacy, by and large they fall into the trap of a reductionist, mechanistic approach to science. In our view, it is only possible to come to grips with the often elusive and self-contradictory thrust of Davies’ arguments by adopting a dialectical approach to scientific reality first championed in the last century by Karl Marx’s lifetime collaborator Frederick Engels.
The German professor against whom Engels wrote his polemical book, Anti-Dühring, was a philosopher, economist and professor of mechanics who lived between 1833-1921. Eugen Dühring was active in the German Social Democratic party. Unlike Davies, he was not religious. But he was attacked by Engels for his attempt to impose his particular “system” on science, a system which whatever Dühring’s intentions – led back to a subjective, idealist, and thus potentially religious, concept of scientific reality. Engels’ work on Dühring was not simply a negative critique; it was, as Engels himself said, “an exposition of the dialectical method and the communist world outlook” of both himself and Marx. And as such it provides an invaluable framework within which to evaluate today’s Dührings.
In the spirit of Anti-Dühring, our criticism of Davies is not so much to attack the idea of religion, but to examine his ideas in so far as they reveal deeper currents within historical processes active in the ideological ferment of today’s world.
The mushrooming of popular and semi-technical books written by scientists about their own work is evidence of an internal need to theorise about it, to expand concepts and to relate to the social world outside science, not forgetting the very lucrative side of publishing! That they enjoy a considerable readership is testimony to the deep searching for “significant meaning” on behalf of large numbers of people as the end of the millennium approaches.
Davies’ misuse of science is in many respects a revival of the 19th century Roman Catholic doctrine of Neo- Thomism. 3 This recognises God as the prime cause of being and the foundation of all philosophical categories. In this, he follows in the tradition of those 1830s scientists recruited to write the various Bridgewater Treatises with the aim of showing the hand of God in the newly emerging sciences, such as geology and palaeontology. Religious interpretation of contemporary natural scientific theories holds a central place in Neo-Thomism.
After the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, certain propositions of contemporary philosophy were synthesised with the principles of 13th century Dominican scholar, St Thomas of Aquinas. Davies takes this process further, but with one important difference. Instead of incorporating existentialism and notions current in the 1960s, he is eclectically selecting half-baked ideas from the science of the 1980s and 1990s. The essential conclusion, however, is the same. “The process of history depends on supernatural forces, which govern every individual’s behaviour. By this any possibility of man’s active influence on world history is actually excluded,” as a study by GDR philosophers put it. 4
The current religious-mystical tendency, of which Davies is far from being the only exponent, includes the Reverend John Polkinghorne, John Gribbin, Sheldon Glashow, Russell Stannard, Marcello Gleiser, Karen Armstrong and Frank Tipler. All these people are prominent in fields including astronomy, physics, mathematics, biology, genetics, neuroscience and physical chemistry and the history of science and religion. This finds its opposite in a strong school of scientists who believe that science can penetrate every unknown area. They firmly oppose the injection of God as a substitute for an explanation for things that are hard to grasp.
While some might object to the notion that there exists a consciously “materialist school of thought”, many British and American scientists and a few philosophers too, take materialist positions, though not necessarily dialectical ones. These include Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Susan Greenfield, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, Lewis Wolpert, Roger Penrose, John Barrow, Gerald Edelman, Oliver Sacks, Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett. Within this group there is a spectrum of tendencies, from strong atheists such Peter Atkins, Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, to those who leave the question more open, tending to Laplace’s view that “they have no need for this hypothesis”.
In this situation, Engels’ writings, especially Anti-Dühring, can clarify the historical significance of today’s controversies within science and the questions of method which arise. To assess Davies and his opponents, the theoretical basis of materialist dialectics needs to be considered. In the form of a polemic against Dühring’s formal metaphysics, Engels sets out the essential principles of materialist dialectical logic. Underpinning his approach is the materialist outlook pioneered in close collaboration between Marx and Engels in the Holy Family of 1845 and other writings of the 1840s and 1850s, in the build -up to Capital.
Anti-Dühring, which was written between 1876 and 1878, popularised many of the ideas contained in Marx’s Capital and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Anti-Dühring, Engels concludes for the first time that Marx’s discovery of the materialist view of history and the theory of surplus value made scientific socialism possible. Engels’ book sums up the essential features of Marxist method, not simply in terms of political economy, but in relation to all scientific thought. He formulates and demonstrates the thesis that “the unity of the world consists in its materiality”.
Engels and dialectics
Engels’ great contribution to dialectics is his advancing of the intrinsically correct concepts of the Greek ancient philosophers about the nature of matter and motion. These are viewed as an indivisible unity and conflict of opposites. Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Above all, Engels, in line with Heraclitus and Hegel, shows that motion is existent objective contradiction.
Flowing from this is the understanding that all natural phenomena in their multiplicity are various forms of motion and the development of matter. Thus thought has come out of a long evolution of human beings, through history. The laws of dialectics, Engels writes, must be discovered in nature and abstracted from it.
Anti-Dühring explains the intrinsic contradiction within matter through its self-relationship with motion: “Motion is the mode of existence of matter.” He stresses the unquiet, restless side of universal movement, in which equilibrium and stability are relative to constant change. Space and time are understood as fundamental forms of all being.
Engels puts forward the fundamental dialectical laws as the unity and conflict of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa, and the law of negation of negation. Essential categories in dialectical logic are contradiction and negation, including negation of negation as a law of development of nature, history and thought.
These categories contain within themselves the self-related opposites of identity/difference, quantity/quality, necessity/chance, semblance/essence/appearance, freedom/necessity. Formal logic and dialectical logic are self-related opposites, expressing the movement of human cognition (including identity/difference).
In writing Dialectics of Nature, which he began before Anti-Dühring, Engels elaborated the integration and unification of dialectical laws which govern the totality of processes.
In opening, he writes: “The general nature of dialectics [is] to be developed as the science of inter- connections, in contrast to metaphysics.” This assertion is followed by a second requirement: “It is, therefore from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. ” 5 This is a vital point, and one with which Davies profoundly disagrees. Writing in the popular science magazine New Scientist in an article designed to boost the sales of About Time, he says, approvingly: “In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argu e that the laws of physics are logically prior to the Universe they describe.” 6
For Marxists dialectical laws are to be discovered in and abstracted from all the unified processes in nature, society and thought, not imposed upon them in the manner of Dühring’s revival of earlier idealist world schematism.
Through the example of his own work, Engels demonstrates the need for a concrete knowledge of science. Engels’ contribution to the Marxist world outlook, and to the revolutionary politics in the First and Second Internationals, cannot be separated from his brilliant studies of natural sciences to demonstrate the operation of dialectics.
To emulate Engels today might seem an impossible proposition. The march of science might suggest that no single individual can have an integrated grasp of all scientific processes. To try to do so may seem a kind of Hegelian fantasy or like the dream concept of David Hilbert, the German mathematician.
But if we work with Engels’ concept that the dialectical laws are to be discovered from within nature, then nature can provide us with the answer to this problem. And it does, because contemporary science has seen not only great specialisation, but also the rise of new interdisciplinary research especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Engels’ definition of dialectics as the science of interconnections 7 provides a conceptual framework for this multiplicity within unity and unity within multiplicity. 8
In the notes and fragments for Dialectics of Nature Engels writes: “Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of opposites, and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature.” 9
A contemporary theory of materialist dialectics needs to elaborate a logic from the principles set out by Engels, which are not formally set out as a recipe, but rather spread through his writings. When he wrote Anti-Dühring between 1876-1878, the chain of discoveries which eventually led to the 20th century revolution in science was only just beginning.
The primacy of matter, the unity of nature, human society and thought are set out as the ground through which laws of dialectics perform. Engels shows concretely through the different sciences, the operation of the three general objective laws.
It is in the discoveries and progress of science that Marxists can expand their understanding of matter and its relation to mind, and human practice. The key issue is to go beyond the unscientific (in terms of history and philosophy) ideologisation of science by people such as Paul Davies and actually discover which aspects of contemporary science must be integrated into an advanced dialectics of nature.
“The Matter Myth”
In The Matter Myth 10 Davies, with co-author John Gribbin, proclaims that: “Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less “substance than we might believe”. Thus, because matter has been shown to be insubstantial, not lumpy, “the new physics has blown apart the central tenets of materialist doctrine”. (We have searched throughout Marx, Engels, Lenin and others but failed to find them asserting that matter has to be “lumpy” in the materialist view!)
In his popularisation of science, Davies implies that matter has somehow disappeared. Yet in his purely scientific writings, a totally different picture is painted. Physics, even the new physics, he has to admit, is about “the investigation of matter”. Davies is a little like someone who has had too much to drink but still takes care in crossing the road.
In the opening section of a scientific book called, The New Physics 11 which Davies edited, he outlines the new theories and discoveries of some of the world’s leading physicists, such as black holes, subatomic particles, novel materials and self-organising chemical reactions.
Despite his contempt for materialism and his self appointed role as God’s spokesperson, when he deals with natural processes, matter comes back to haunt him. He describes the universe as a law-governed whole, which can be understood by human thought.
“The physicist,” he writes, “believes that the laws of physics, plus a knowledge of the relevant boundary conditions, initial conditions and constraints, are sufficient to explain, in principle, every phenomenon in the universe. Thus the entire universe, from the smallest fragment of matter to the largest assemblage of galaxies, becomes the physicists’ domain – a vast natural laboratory for the interplay of lawful forces.”
No materialist, it would seem, could argue with this. It is hard to believe that Davies could come up with claims like “God is in the laws of physics” and that “these laws provide evidence of divine intelligence”. His road to mysticism, one might think, is due entirely to his eclectic method on the one side and on the lucrative aspect of it on the other. It is said that he made a personal decision to win the Templeton prize and wrote his books with that aim in mind.
The “interplay of lawful forces” in this century’s science operates, not in a linear fashion but through the movement of mutually exclusive opposites. Only this concept, which is the essence of dialectics, can explain the apparent paradox of quantum theory, in which light has both wave and particle properties, which are mutually exclusive in scientific observation and measurement.
The concepts of wave and particle themselves developed within the “Newtonian world view” which causes Davies so much heartache and which he conflates with materialism as a whole. A particle was a “lump” of matter, which could be viewed at rest to observe its static properties and then propelled into motion. Matter and its motion could be separated. Classically, the trajectory of such a particle could be envisaged by considering a series of “instantaneous” properties – position, momentum, energy which could be attached to the moving “lump”, which was reduced to a mathematical point. A wave was a periodic motion in some continuous medium, the medium being necessary to support such independent motion, but left unaffected by its passage.
But the discoveries of quantum mechanics showed that such a restricted notion of the world is inadequate for dealing with sub-atomic particles. Instead, as foreseen in Engels’ dialectical materialistic approach, matter and motion proved to be inseparable. According to Paul Dirac, whose Principles of Quantum Mechanics is a key book in setting out the form of the new physics, the quantum mechanical “state” or “wave function” of no motion is the state of no particle. The wave-particle dual nature of matter flows from this; the particle is not a lump of matter isolated from motion, but the very medium essential to the existence of the wave motion.
No movement from nothing
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a consequence of the “wave equations” used to describe the quantum mechanical particle. In its restriction to position and momentum – “you cannot know the position and momentum of a particle exactly at one and the same time” – the uncertainty principle both demonstrates the limitations of applying “classical” concepts derived from Newtonian particles to the subatomic level, while showing that quantisation defines minimum extensions to these wave particle entities. The lumpy point -like particle may have disappeared, but more subtle properties of matter are revealed.
Along with Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology is the arena in which Davies has chosen to “prove” the existence of God. He does this against the background of a huge extension of the scientific understanding of the universe.
In the 1960s observations made possible by modern instrumentation led to a range of discoveries about the large-scale structure of space-time, including the structure of black holes. This included the existence and structure of black holes as points in space-time where space-time curvature becomes infinite, defined as “singularities”. By 1970, British mathematician Roger Penrose joined with Hawking to put forward the possibility of a big-bang singularity.
In 1979 Soviet astrophysicists Zelidovich and Novikov confirmed with computer calculations that primordial black holes are the size of subatomic particles. This, Hawking explains in A Brief History of Time 12, makes them subject to quantum effects. By 1988, Hawking concluded: “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?”
It is in reply to Hawking and others, who find no need for God, and indeed start to draw the conclusion that there is no place left for God, that Davies spun his web of religious mysticism with his book The Mind of God published in 1991. The day after he received his Templeton award on May 4, he wrote in the London Guardian: “Modern cosmology suggests that time itself came into existence with the big bang. There was simply “no before for a God, or anything else, to form in.” This sums up Davies’ “free lunch” pseudo-theory of cosmology.
Many cosmologists and physicists such as Sagan, Weinberg and Hawking (to name only a few) do not share this view. Hawking refers to the boundary conditions of space-time, which “implicitly assume that the universe is partially infinite, or that there are infinitely many universes”. “At the beginning of time,” he says, “there would have been a point of infinite density and infinite curvature of space time.” Davies himself describes the black hole singularity as infinite gravitational force and density of material. 13 Thus, quite the opposite of “nothing”, there was an infinite amount of energy and matter.
It is possible to fall into the trap of thinking that perhaps Davies is right about “creation from nothing”, because, he claims, “the quantum factor allows events to occur without causes in the subatomic world”. In the same breath Davies says: “Quantum gravity suggests we might get everything for nothing.” But this so- cal led “nothing” does after all contain “something”: an infinite amount of gravitational force! So why does Davies continually, in all of his many books, insist on “creation from nothing”? It seems he has allowed the views of St Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430A.D.) to override the arguments of today’s physics at this point.
But we cannot dismiss the argument too lightly. The idea that there can be movement from nothing requires examination from a dialectical standpoint. The problem of being and nothing does present a paradox. It was not by accident that the concept of motion is at the heart of both Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature. Contained within it is the problem of understanding the essence of any given movement.
The arising of any process or object, including the universe itself, is through its identity in the external world, which arises out of any given objective movement of contradiction. This identity of any given, randomly selected thing or event, reflects through sensation into the sentient subject. The identity contains, in itself its own difference, its opposite in the world beyond thought. Thus, we have being AND nothing. Relative to its negation into the subject through sensation, the original object ceases to exist, since that moment of time has disappeared. The transition from being to nothing is becoming, the first moment of coming into being, through external reflection into self.
The space-time singularity of the big bang is the initial moment of identity of the universe, described as infinite curvature of space-time, when space and time, matter and anti-matter are identical. But that addition of equal amounts of “plus” and “minus” which adds up to zero “nothing” – is not an “empty nothing”. The identity of the initial moment, the “before” of the big bang, contains its own difference within itself. This initially undetectable difference between the reactions of matter and anti-matter is currently the subject of intense scrutiny in the KTEV experiment at Fermilab near Chicago.
The movement from identity to difference, like that of being and nothing, involves the unity, conflict, interpenetration and transformation of opposites. It is law-governed. It is here that the asses’ ears of Davies’ metaphysics poke through. He can grasp all kinds of complex and paradoxical questions in physics, but the logical essence of movement entirely escapes him. Because he is opposedto contradiction as an objective logical category, Davies is forced to introduce a mystical fog at every point where the essence of movement appears.
Motion as contradiction
Engels’ dialectic, unlike the Kantian view, shows that what appears as a paradox is only an expression of the mind’s difficulty in apprehending movement. This is because: “Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of position can only come about through a body being at one and the same moment of time both in one place and in another place, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continuous origination and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is.” 14
In Davies’ shotgun marriage of religion and science, the material relation of opposites in nature cannot be developed. He discusses categories such as possibility and reality, chance and necessity, c ausality and interaction but makes them into fixed absolutes which arise as a result of differing objects or processes, instead of as a result of their own interaction – from internal self-relation.
His match-making constantly leads him into self-contradiction. He has to recognise the real opposites that exist in nature and its reflection in thought. But his trump card is always the mystification of the relation between the two. “It would be foolish,” he admits somewhat sheepishly, “to deny that many of the traditional religious ideas about God, man and the nature of the universe have been swept away by the new physics.”
The investigation of the world of micro particles and the exploration of outer space continuously reveals that the quantum laws of the micro also operate in the infinitely vast expanses of the universe.
Having confirmed that physics – even the “new” physics – is about “the investigation of matter”, Davies then suggests that there are “three ultimate frontiers of physics: the very small, the very large and the very complex”. Marking out the areas of the small, the large and the complex, Davies without knowing it, suggests a basis for the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. In the relationship between the very small and the very large, cosmology is today used as a giant laboratory for high energy particle physics.
Davies recognises that the discovery that the laws of the micro hold true for the macro is one of the most pleasing confluences of science: “it marries the very small with the very large.” The investigation of the world of micro particles which has taken place alongside exploration of outer space, has revealed that quantum laws of the micro operate in the infinitely vast expanses of the universe. Astronomers today use quantum theory in the study of the origins and structure of the universe. Conversely, in the world of nuclear and plasma physics and optics, knowledge of the quantum mechanical laws is necessary for research into the properties of matter.
What Davies describes as a “pleasing confluence” is in terms of dialectics a totally unconscious recognition of the essential unity of all matter in motion, and that the objective dialectical laws can be discovered at all levels of organisation. T his is in fact verified by the third division Davies suggests – the complex: the ability of matter to self -organise.
The astrophysicist looks through the telescope at events millions of years in the past, connected by the light and radiation emanating through the light-years between him/her and a distant star. In the same way all reception and processing of information by human beings, and all practical activity, takes place in the present as part of a space-time continuum. And, as David Finley, who works in the US National Radio Astronomy Laboratory, has said: “We are physically connected to stars because we contain the same elements – we are made of star stuff.”
Realisation of that fact led maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle to postulate a special state of the nucleus of the carbon atom, to overcome the difficulty of forming it through a process which required three helium nuclei to combine simultaneously. Hoyle’s method was an object lesson in dialectical thinking, in approaching the past from the standpoint of understanding the requirements of the present. Hoyle reasoned that the existence of carbon based life- forms capable of thinking about life meant that it must be possible to form carbon by nuclear synthesis within the centre of stars.
The only way he could see this happening was if the carbon nucleus has a special state or “resonance” which enabled it to soak up the extra energy that three rather than just two – colliding helium nuclei would have at the temperatures which prevail deep in stellar interiors. Discovery of Hoyle’s carbon resonance won American physicist Willie Fowler and his team the Nobel Prize.
The Jupiter mission
Closer to home, in December 1995 the Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter, receiving information from a probe launched into the dense Jovian atmosphere. Although studying the giant planet as it exists today, space scientists involved in the project were particularly excited that they would also be examining material left over from the primordial nebula out of which the whole solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago.
One crucial question, in this instance, is the potential existence of a layer of water ice clouds beneath the normally visible layers of Jupiter – water being vital to the evolution of life on Earth, and – potentially elsewhere. According to some planetary scientists Jupiter holds the key to this question. It is supposed to have played the role of a great provider, throwing water in the form of comets into the path of the infant Earth after it had lost most of its original complement. (Nowadays, Jupiter plays a much more protective role, minimising the likelihood of life-threatening impacts between Earth and space debris.) The results of the Galileo probe’s descent into Jovian hell have turned out to be ambiguous, but, during the next couple of years, results from the main spacecraft should provide answers to just how the conditions for the development of the solar system and the life it supports were established.
These two examples both illustrate the way in which knowledge advances through understanding naturally dialectical processes in a dialectical way which enables the inner laws and processes to be revealed. In contrast, Davies adopts a teleological approach to such questions. Why is it that we can discover law s in nature? Because they were written into the Universe by some agency. Why does mathematics prove such a powerful tool, at least in the physical sciences? Because this agency has written the laws mathematically. And why can we understand nature in terms of mathematically describable laws? Because the said agency has designed an entire Universe so that we humans might evolve mathematical brains and discover it through its laws. And for want of a better word for this agency, God will do.
Self-organisation of matter
The discovery that chaos and chance are as inherent in nature as order and necessity, furthers the understanding of the essential unity and interconnectedness of all matter as self- related opposites with moments of discontinuity and leaps. Davies, who calls this “the liberation of matter”, claims that it destroys materialist philosophy, which he associates with “lumpy” matter.
But in reality the objective existence of chance and indeterminism have been discovered by scientists as an extension of earlier discoveries of the laws of thermodynamics. The study of the propensity of matter and energy to self-organise in non-linear systems has expanded into a new branch of physics, called the study of “far from equilibrium systems”. This science makes concrete the dialectical concept of self-movement through “the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relations.” 15 The origin of organic movement – life – is not through some external source, but through the internal contradictions within inorganic matter whereby matter begins to self-reproduce as in the formation of proteins. What it reveals is that the older concepts of organic and inorganic have become outdated, not because they were wrong, but because further study has revealed them to be not fixtures, but mutually transformable opposites.
The dialectical concept of negation provides an accurate description of this process: the “structure of the higher” contains in a new form, the properties of the lower. 16 The innate ability of matter to organise also helps to explain the formation of the first life on the planet, the transition of the inorganic to the organic.
The dialectical movement of negation – whereby the new simultaneously cancels out and preserves the old reveals that the structure of the higher and more complex contains (in a negated form) the properties of the lower.
From the standpoint of scientific method, we should note that the objective nature of chance and indeterminism and its relation to its opposite were discovered by scientists such as Ilya Prigogine as an extension of earlier discoveries of the laws of thermodynamics. It apparently contradicts the earlier understanding of thermodynamic law which produced the view that the universe is running down amid spiralling entropy. 17 But the emergence of “order out of chaos” arises because self-organising systems are parts within a whole, predicated on an environment which is outside them. Thus the “excess entropy” can be exported through the principle that energy is not destroyed, but transferred into another form.
What Prigogine demonstrated is the objective nature of chance and indeterminism as a necessary consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and a logically determined extension of those laws. This is despite the fact that self-organisation appears to contradict the earlier interpretation of these laws.
Necessity and chance
Edward N. Lorenz first demonstrated in 1961 that a system can be both deterministic and yet unpredictable, due to that system’s “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions”. While the interaction of chance and necessity in complex systems is different from quantum uncertainty, as a principle of movement and change through the unity and conflict of opposites it reveals the changes of different forms of matter through dialectically structured self-movement.
Not only does this prove the objective existence of “necessity and chance” as objectively existing contradictions in nature, but recent science has shown how the interaction of the opposites of chance and necessity is at work both deep within the structure of matter in the micro-particle world as well as in the formation of the universe.
The innate ability of matter to organise “out of disorder” also helps to explain the formation of the first life on the planet, the transition of the inorganic to the organic. But the emergence of “order out of chaos” arises because self-organising systems are parts within a whole, predicated on an environment which is outside them. Thus the “excess ent ropy” can be exported through the principle that energy is not destroyed, but transferred into another form. What Prigogine demonstrated is the objective nature of chance and indeterminism as a necessary consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and a logically determined extension of those laws. This is despite the fact that self-organisation appears to contradict the earlier interpretation of these laws.
Such problems are being studied in physical chemistry. It remains for Marxists to integrate them into a flexible concept of social and political processes, for example, the break-down of social formations such as the USSR. Does this mean that all the previous history suddenly vanishes, as some crude impressionists have suggested? Surely it shows the need for a more complex and dynamic understanding of the process of historical negation enriched by new concepts, such as Prigogine’s.
Davies hopes that there may yet be another outpost to refute his crude designation of materialism – the mysteries of the human mind. “The existence of mind,” he believes “as an abstract, holistic organisational pattern capable even of disembodiment, refutes the reductionist philosophy that we are all nothing but moving mounds of atoms.” Here again, Davies tries to separate matter from its properties, in the Neo- Thomist fashion.
Perhaps unfortunately for Davies, a new science of consciousness studies is rapidly moving into an area previously considered thought to be the reserve of those who believe in UFOs, ESP, table-knocking and “mind over matter”. Rather than being the province of those seeking an afterlife, or the supernatural, it has become a research area for some of the most rigorous scientific minds of the 1990s.
Current research in neuroscience is aided by new instrumentation such as positron emission tomography (PET), nuclear magnetic resonance (MRI) and magneto encephalography (MEG). Work by neurologists such as Susan Greenfield and Gerald Edelman now offers an astonishingly rich picture of the human brain. It is now generally agreed that there is no single area in the brain which gives rise to individual consciousness. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has learned much from Soviet psychologists Vygotsky and Luria, has proposed a theory of mind which is both materialist and dialectical. “It will have to be grounded in biological reality, in the anatomical and developmental and functional details of the nervous system; and also in the inner life or mental life of the living creature, the play of its sensations and feelings and drives and intentions, its perception of objects and people and situations, and, in higher creatures at least, the ability to think abstractly and to share through language and culture the consciousness of others.” 18
This is a beautif ul concretisation of the dialectical concept of how the universal finds its expression within the individual. Within the development of each individual mind is expressed not an abstract universal, but “a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual, the single”.19 Advances in knowledge of brain structure, however, have not simply produced a new theory of mind functioning. Sacks talks of a crisis in scientific understanding, arising from an “acute incompatibility between observations and existing theories”.
Gerald Edelman, who shared the Nobel prize in 1972 for his discovery of a selectional mechanism in the body’s immune system, after 1987 began to put forward the Theory of Neural Group Selection (TNGS), which can account for the rapid emergence of higher order consciousness in an astonishingly short space of time. Instead of the many millions of years usually needed for evolutionary change, brain development has evolved over only tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
This develops concretely Engels’ observation about the exponential growth of science and human knowledge. But more than that. The selection process suggested by Edelman involves the activity of perhaps 100 million primary neuronal units in the brain, each of which containing about 50 to 10,000 neurones, or nerve cells.
The properties of the neural microworld have shown an extraordinary capacity for adaptation in the human brain. The development of conscious thought involves “populations of nerve cells” whose special property of flexibility appears to be their non-specialisation. As Oxford neurologist Susan Greenfield explained in a lecture: “There is no magic ingredient for consciousness. It is not a particular quality but the quantity, and the structuring of the neural units which is crucial”. The consideration of how millions of undifferentiated units act in concert needs to be considered in relation to the movement of social classes, in particular the working class.
Experience in the TNGS theory, Sacks rightly says, “is not passive, a matter of ‘impressions’ or ‘sense data’ but active, and constructed by the organism from the start. Active experience ‘selects’ or ‘carves out’ a new, more complexly connected pattern of neuronal groups, a neuronal reflection of the individual experience of the child….”
Computing and Telecommunications
In the 100th year since the death of Frederick Engels, the necessity for “dialectics as the science of universal inter-connection” has begun to be realised on a world scale, most obviously in the technological realm, in the explosive growth of the Internet.
In his outline of the general plan for Dialectics of Nature, Engels sets out the main laws of dialectics: “Transformation of quantity and quality – mutual penetration of pol ar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes – development through contradiction or negation of negation – spiral form of development.”
In studying the development of the technologies which have made the Internet possible we enter theoretical and practical territory unavailable to Marx and Engels.
In seeking to overcome limitations in the deployment of computing and telecommunications, specialists in information sciences (a sub-division of the science of cognition) are obliged to take advantage of advances in all of the specialist branches of the natural sciences (of which information science is a servant). They study the nature of processes and objects in the most general terms, and, in particular, to develop an understanding of the subject-object relation, the essential contradiction in the dialectics of cognition.
The “philosophy” or “paradigm” of “object -orientation” (OO) is sweeping through all parts of the industry, superseding all earlier technical approaches. Bill Gates’ e ntry into the Internet market through Windows 95 is founded upon this highest form of software development. At the heart of OO (originally formulated in the 1950s in the SIMULA language) are included: the process of abstraction, the identification of an object through the properties it has which differentiate it from all others, the reciprocal relations of this object with itself and with all others, the events in the life of the object which change its state (cause-effect).
The development of computing and telecommunications technologies in a haphazard, chaotic, anarchistic fashion became a problem for a capitalism driven by company mergers and take-overs. The use of different and incompatible hardware architecture, computer languages, database management systems, communications protocols, but above all different but frequently undefined systems of concepts meant that data could not easily – or even at all – be transferred between hitherto stand-alone systems. This limited the potential to overcome the reduction of surplus-value arising from the introduction of machinery (which increases the ratio of constant to variable capital) through greater socialisation of production.
The era of the mainframe stand-alone computer was ending as the proliferation of stand-alone PCs was beginning. By the mid 1980s major corporations had begun to attempt to build networks linking all the computers operated by a single company. In the 1990s the more advanced thinkers began to see the benefits of linking in their suppliers and customers. The Internet originally developed as part of the US military and security communication system. Then it became a way of linking, predominantly, Computer Science Departments in Universities, mostly in the USA.
Just as the development of imperialism created the demand for new technologies and for more advanced forms of transportation and communication, so today the globalisation of the economy demands full exploitation of the communication media revolution.
Global communication establishes a tech nologically mediated collective practice of cognition which reveals the need for global standards establishing the scientific laws governing cognition as a social process. But the necessity for international standardisation offers two paths: co-operation, collaboration and collective action among all parties realisable in a socialist society, or in a continuing profit-driven capitalist society, subjugation to competition between companies, with Microsoft the front runner, and its owner already richer than most of the world’s countries.
In attempting to overcome the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, capitalism has had to encourage the scientific study of the process of cognition as the basis for a new division of labour and a further round of reduction in the amount of labour power necessary for the production of commodities. A new industrial revolution in the means of production affecting mental labour demands an objective analysis of the processes involving it analogous to that of physical labour (workstudy, Taylorism) which was necessary for the initial introduction of machinery into capitalist production. This study is well advanced in university departments and in a myriad of small companies, working on the exploitation of these maturing technologies.
Quanta and mind
Approaching the science of consciousness from another angle is mathematician Roger Penrose. He is concerned, like Sacks, with the development of theoretical frameworks which will take forward human understanding of the world. As a mathematician who made a major contribution to cosmological theory, he is looking for a way to integrate the theory of quantum mechanics and the classical Newtonian laws which explain cause and effect in the observable world. Penrose is trying to resolve the contradiction between these two law-governed systems through his deeper research into the functioning of the mind. He believes that microtubules within the brain may be an interface between the quantum and classical worlds.
In his view, the integration of the quantum mechanical world view with classical physics will give rise to another revolution in human perception of the physical world. This would truly involve a negation process, whereby the older concepts are not mechanically separated from the newer quantum mechanics, but rather, preserved and sublated.
Penrose’s theoretical challenge is a brilliant way of posing the problem of scientific method, especially for Marxists, since the laws of materialist dialectics hold true, as we have seen, in both the Newtonian world of classical physics and for quantum physics. The science of the future requires theories in which dialectics, instead of being revealed by the spontaneous process of scientific discovery, become a conscious instrument. Realising such a possibility requires a quantum leap for Marxists.
Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature: “The development of the sciences proceeded with giant strides, and it might be said, gained force in proportion to the square of the distance (in time) from its point of departure. It was as if the world were to be shown that henceforth, for the highest product of organic matter, the human mind, the law of motion holds good that is the reverse of that for inorganic matter.”
Human development in the 20th century has verified this observation to such an extent that it requires a qualitative leap in the science of dialectical logic.
Genuine scientific discovery itself is politically neutral. Scientists have little control over the social application of what they do. As Hawking has noted, criticising Wittgenstein, 20th century philosophers have failed to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.
In the spirit of Engels, dialectical logic has to incorporate, for example, the laws of quantum mechanics and their proof that the subject changes the object under consideration. The significance for Marxism here is that the activity of the subject under certain conditions is decisive.
A key issue for Marxists is the development of consciousness in the working class movement. It is all too easy to fall prey to impressions of passivity, indifference and apparent acceptance of bourgeois propaganda. Concepts emerging from the study of far-from-equilibrium systems can help us to understand how class society can undergo sudden changes whereby stability gives way to “chaos”. Recent events in France are a good example.
Davies’ viewpoint resurrects the fundamentalist absolutes of religion by dressing them up in scientific clothing. Post-modernism, and the convergence view, are polarities expressing the crisis within philosophy.
For Marx and Engels, the progress of science was a constant source of revolutionary optimism. We cannot apprehend the complexity and speed of movement of modern capitalist society without negating from science concepts which enable logic to represent the new world disorder.
The end of Stalinism has dealt a devastating blow to those who turned Marxism from a method of discovery into a prescriptive dogma. This process provides ideal conditions for Marxists in the former Soviet Union, the USA, Britain, Japan, Cuba and many other countries to produce a revolutionary development in materialist dialectics.
1. Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) Vol.25. p.26. Lawrence and Wishart. 1987.
2. From the December 1995 issue of the London University student newspaper: “Science is heading towards the necessity for people to believe. Faith is belief unaffected by evidence. ‘Theories of everything’ are akin to this idea because they too need belief, as they can no longer be verified by observation….It is claimed that science is the new religion.”
3. Neo-Thomism, as defined in The Dictionary of Philosophy, Progress 1984, English edn.1987.
4. Philosophical Problems in Physical Science, Ed.Hoerz et al, GDR, 1978. English ed. Marxist Educational Press, University of Minnesota, 1980.
5. MECW, Vol. 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.356. 6. Paul Davies, “The day time began”, New Scientist, 27 April, 1996, p34. 7. MECW, Vol 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.62. 8. Much of the material for this section is taken from MECW, Vol. 25. 9. MECW, Vol 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.492. Notes and Fragments. 10. The Matter Myth, P.Davies and J. Gribbin. Penguin. 1991. 11. The New Physics, ed P. Davies. CUP 1989. 12. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Stephen Hawking. Bantam 1988.
13. The Mind of God, P. Davies, p.49. Penguin 1992.
14. MECW. Anti-Dühring. Part 1: Philosophy, P.111. See also Lenin’s study of Hegel: “Something moves, not because it is here at one point of time and there at another, but because at one and the same point of time it is here and not here, and in this here both is and is not.” Both Hegel and Engels re-phrase Heraclitus famous fragment: “We step into the same stream and yet we do not; we are and we are not.” . Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.38, p140. Progress Publishers.
15. Lenin Vol.38 Op Cit p 360.
16. See On the Content and Correlation of the Concepts “Negation” and “Continuity”, V.A.Ignatiev. Yearbook of the Philosophical Society of the USSR for 1986. English translation in Marxist Monthly, July 1988.
17. The second law of thermodynamics states that heat cannot be transferred from a colder to a hotter body within a system without net changes occurring within other bodies within that system. (Collins, 1994).
18. Nature’s Imagination, Ed. John Cornwell. OUP 1995.