Some Scattered Thoughts
‘Marxism’ vs ‘Science’–II*
Subhas Chandra Ganguly
*For full version of the write-up...
Another new angle surfacing in 20th century, from
elementary insight(s), related to the notions space and time, coming from Albert Einstein and known as 'Theory of Special Relativity', changed the earlier notion of observer-independent, (i.e. absolutely 'objective') character of, mass, time-interval and length associated with any object of observation. That is, observed magnitudes of these three attributes are dependent on the relative velocity between the observer and the observed. For example from observer's viewpoint mass, time interval and length (along the direction of motion) of the same object will change (in a way, amenable to formulation in mathematical language) with the change in the relative velocity between the, observer and the observed (i.e. object). But for any observer moving together with the observed all these attributes will remain the same. So, there is no sense in talking about any supposed 'actual' magnitude independent of the observer. There is none.
But this difference born out of difference in relative speed will be significant/large enough for detection by any human instrument only if this relative speed approaches that of light. Within the range of lower relative velocities in our daily life, including, say satellite movement, observed magnitudes will appear same and so assumption of these magnitudes being independent of observer (i.e. being 'objective' in absolute sense) works and considered a valid one.
But over time, gradual realization dawned on those, seeking to journey into the deeper reality of physical universe, that the story of 'uncertainty' and/or 'approximation' extends much further, is more general beyond any formulation as well as deeper-cum-wider, than in such specificities, (which, within a limit can be formulated), our nature of psyche/consciousness and its limitations being what they are.
In the few fragments (from many such) below are caught these perceptions of general nature—relating to the very character of all 'scientific knowledge'—from earlier mentioned travellers, involved with laying the foundation of 'modern science' through their elemental/initial insights17 related to the nature and the universe both at macro and micro level :
o Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hand, even hears the ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.
—EINSTEIN (The evolution of physics)
o The reality we can put into words is never reality itself. "We have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
— Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
o Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure but none absolutely certain.
— Richard_Feynman, Part 5 : "The World of One Physicist", "But Is It Art?"
o I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don't know anything about, but I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things...
—Richard_Feynman, During an interview in BBC's Horizon program (1981).
o The essential fact is simply that all the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathematical pictures... They are nothing more than pictures-fictions if you like, if by fiction you mean that science is not yet in contact with ultimate reality. Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is… the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality. To speak in terms of Plato's18 well-known simile... we are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light, and can only watch the shadows on the wall.
—James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009 Page-111, First published 1930 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009 Page-111)
o ...not only are we free to drop a long accepted principle when we think we have found something more convenient from the viewpoint of physical research, but that we are also free to re-adopt the rejected principle when we find we have made a mistake in laying it aside. This mistake may easily come to light with the discovery of new facts. A developing empirical science need not and must not be afraid of being taunted with a lack of consistency between its announcements at subsequent epochs.
—Erwin Schröidinger, Science And The Human Temperament, Page 93-94.
o The Cartesian paradigm was based on a belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge, which had been clearly stated by Descartes. In the new paradigm it is recognized that all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate. Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding. Scientists do not deal with truth (in the sense of a precise correspondence between the description and the described phenomena); they deal with limited and approximate description of reality. The most beautiful expression of this criterion I have found is one by Louis Pasteur: 'Science advances through tentative answer to a series of more and more subtle question which reach deeper and deeper into the essence of natural phenomena.'
—Fritjof Capra,19 The Future of the New Physics (Afterwards to the third edition), The Tao of Physics, Flemingo, 1991, p 366-367.
o The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious... To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties—this knowledge, this feeling... that is the core of the true religious20 sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.
—Albert Einstein, In a letter to Huffman and Dukas, 1946
Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, message of this light and shadow, whispering, thrilling, uncertain, approximate, provisional character of general nature beyond formulation of all the 'scientific' conclusions, reflecting the limitation of human psyche, were and are conspicuous by their absence at any stage of the process of traditional institutionalized or academic science education and so cannot reach majority of the 'science-minded' populace too. So, it is not surprising that that the 'science-based' assurance of delusional certainty with an air of superior wisdom carries special appeal to people both inside or outside the process. Also the same may perhaps sometimes satisfy almost an universal human urge, unknown to oneself, for an inner sense/centre of security, sometimes taking precedence even over outer sense of security. In other words, urge for such a humanly impossible all-inclusive21 wisdom, which, once possessed, will make everything "clear, absolutely clear" (English translation of the line "parishkaarr, ati parishkaar" from one verse, 'Hing ting chat', meaning 'fiddle faddle' by Rabindranath Tagore) is very widespread.
The tragic consequence of the sincere effort according to such delusional understanding in the arena of social activism, beyond just theoretical discourses have been sought to be presented earlier.22
It needs to be mentioned in this contest that interestingly enough, and perhaps somewhat surprising from the viewpoint of 'common sense', that in spite of inadequate, approximate uncertain nature of deeper insights in the arena of physical reality, there was considerable progress in terms of application of further inferences drawn from these elemental insights in predicting , within a tolerable range of possibility of error, natural events at both macro and micro level and of developing a wide range of technology, almost dazzling as compared to the earlier level of the same. Naturally enough, for majority of people, only this dazzle of technology is synonymous with and somewhat like victory banner of 'science'.
In analogy with this, it may apparently be felt that when such approximate/uncertain/provisional 'scientific' knowledge can be put to useful practice in physical non-human world, why not so in case of social change, presumably in desired directions. The principal factor, non-applicability of use of 'scientific method', rendering (according to the present perception of present note writer) such an expectation baseless has been explained above in the context of 'social reality'.
From above it follows that labelling any study of society as 'scientific' is obviously inappropriate and/or misleading, unless the meaning of the word 'scientific' is stretched beyond recognition.
This labelling gained currency indiscriminately in all fields of investigation, because, among many other possible contributing factors, of the felt compulsion to lend a kind of unwarranted pseudo-rigour to a field of human experience, where it is intrinsically impossible and nor is it required. And this is in response to the prejudice of 'scientific age' where every attempt to present any reality has to be labelled thus, so as to be considered worth going into. This is totally un-called for, which is still continuing in academic world.
In continuation of the above, once beyond the grip of the prejudice of the 'scientific age' the very term 'social sciences' (Alluded to earlier in footnote 14) seems to be a misnomer. The appropriate term would be simply 'social study', which, within the limits of human capacity [as it is now], is based on reality as perceived and not any the less valuable because of not being 'scientific'. Same is applicable to the practice of naming 'economic study' as 'economic science' and there are many such others, calling for changes of same kind.
The central theme of the present commentary relates to the particularly harmful effect of taking seriously (beyond a fantasy or delusion) and in terms of action the totally humanly impossible prediction with certainty about bringing about radical social change for the better, and heralding a paradise of totally unprecedented, unlimited and all round equality and wisdom, on the basis of the claim of the ideology being 'scientific'. Other issues touched on have come as co-laterals and/or corollaries.
But the commentary does not question the prerogative of the founders to express their own thoughts/perceptions/feelings, emerging out of their moving concern for the deprived in a particular region and at a particular period. At the same time, widely known character and widespread influence, in terms of both blind worship or blind hatred, of any such groups of thought, through both glorification and vilification need not discourage any one to raise sincere questions/doubts without malice about the same, even when the one was once a part of any one of these two camps.
Though perhaps may sound somewhat redundant, even then the present writer feels like pointing out that there is no reason to think that any pleading for inaction in face of different aspect of terrible social-economic-natural-spiritual oppression or disaster, issues forth from what has been sought to be communicated here. In such context, only this much can be said that depending on the circumstances, the efforts, movements—big and small, multi-directional, from different angles and viewpoints—that have been continuing across the planet along indefinite and serpentine path may perhaps move towards some desired change of human society. It perhaps deceives a little thought whether hoping more than that and looking of some all-answer-given ideology is same as running after some will-ò-the-wisp.
It is not surprising that the effect of this claim, by implication, to almost omniscience was not confined to regime change only but spread to cultural field as well, such as, history, literature and the like with almost explicit claim of cultural products moulded by or originating from such ideological stance being intrinsically far superior, accompanied sometimes with a condescending approval of some of the earlier products of earlier times, before the appearance of this ideology. This note does not seek to make any commentary on that.
But on a broader scale, not confined to this particular ideology alone, a wiser-than-thou mindset indiscriminately towards the cultural heritage of the past in the name of 'science' is quite widespread. It leads to self-chosen deprivation of oneself, based on profound ignorance, of the enriching parts which inevitably ancient culture, spread over millennia, of every region contains. Like the fanaticism in the name of some or other organized religious camp, who have got nothing to do with deeply human, enriching, all embracing best in the tradition called 'religion', the word 'science' over a long period has got associated with a kind of fanatic devotion purported to close all other doors of wisdom. This is not at all consistent, as is evident from the presented few above, with the understanding of at least those who laid the foundation of today's 'science'.
The term 'scientific temper' ('bijnan-manaskata' in Bengali), whatever that may mean, has acquired the connotation of some kind of a judgmental honorific and/or character certificate , to be bestowed on some and not on some other, according to understanding of any one claiming himself/herself to have that 'temper'.
[A note of gratitude : The above write-up and a Bengali version of it (published in 'Bijjan O Bigaankarmi'- BOB) were born at the urging of my friend Rabin (Chakraborty), after I shared with him, as with a few others, an earlier, almost spontaneous, brief note of mine on the same theme. In giving final shape to the earlier manuscripts, time to time exchanges with friends, including younger ones—the same Robin (Chak.), another Rabin (Majumdar) Amiya (Bhattacharya) [helped also in correcting inadvertent slips in the manuscript] Dilip (Chowdhury), Sudipta (Saraswati), Sumit (Ghosh), Bharati—acted as stimulants and were of considerable help in many ways, particularly in bringing greater clarity. I feel indebted to all of them, though responsibility is of course fully mine—SCG]
[A more elaborate version of the above write-up with same heading can be seen in current Frontier, website—http:/www.frontierweekly.com/index. html ; or directly at—http:/www.frontier weekly.com/views/apr-14/19-4-14-Marxism%20and%20Science.pdf]
1. Vide, 'Dialectics of Nature' by F Engels.
2. Here are some examples of such pooh-poohing tone : "...Mr Proudhon confuses ideas and things"... ; "...his total incomprehension of the historical development of mankind..."; "...This is something Mr Proudhon will never understand..."—in a letter (December 28, 1846) from Marx to a Russian literary critic and memoirist PaveI Vasilyevich Annenkov, relating to a book (Philosophie de la miser, meaning Philosophy of poverty) by Proudhon, his contemporary, known for latter's philosophical-historical views and 'Anarchist' stances.
3. 'Republic' by Plato (BC 428/427—348/347): Among the ideas contained in this treatise (presented in the form of dialogue) ,by this Greek philosopher, dating back to around 2500 years, is one of an ideal state based on justice, which is to be run by 'Philosopher King' , who, selected through a process of education run by state, will have no private property and little privacy. They will receive what they need from the city via taxation of the other classes, and they will live communally and have common messes. A gist of the treatise is available in the Link [http://www.iep.utm.edu/republic/)
4. Unsavoury inferences :
i) Conspicuous silence on the greatest (in known history) genocidal act of annihilation of the original inhabitants of continental America, starting from 'Discovery' (1492) of America by Columbus and continuing for next five hundred years till the time of founders, by the hordes of white attacker-cum-Occupier from Europe. The term 'discovery' is a racial one, when land 'discovered' was already a human habitation.
ii) Open utterance about " good side of slavery'' (of blacks brought hands and feet bound from the colonised Africa), for, "Slavery is... an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchal country." [excerpts from a letter, dated December 28, 1846, from Marx to Pavel Annenkov (a Russian literary critic and memoirist)]
iii) Both the above mentioned silence and its opposite, the loud eloquence seem to be reflective of blinkering effects of presumption of 'scientific' character of the ideology, which claims certain things, however inhuman, to be 'inevitable' in the march towards the supposed 'progress' of human society, the then North America with its slave-deployment, and genocidal acts being described as "most progressive nation'. Otherwise the interpretation would be a dehumanized racist one, which is not an acceptable proposition in case of the founders.
iv) It is notable that both the revoltingly inhuman practices above were concurrent with the Period of European 'renaissance', enjoying, but for some damned minority of critics/dissenters in US and outside, unalloyed adoration (irrespective of ideology) without any allusion to these genocide and slavery, as the ushering of new period of humanism.
5. It is well known that the French revolution, within a short period, ended in indiscriminant terror where along with the targeted former monarchic rulers and heirs, rival claimants to the legacy of the revolution too became victim of mutual, publicly and declaredly held slaughter in terms of thousands through infamous guillotine, an instrument of beheading,
6. Allusion here is not to those who were on the fringe but to those who were in the very midst of these social actions. Nor it is to those whose participation was confined primarily to verbal discourses alone.
Also, the situation, though highly painful, is likely to be qualitatively a little different for those for whom it was the 'power' (people's synonymous with party's as well as, partly and unknowingly, personal) and/or implied philanthropic dimension of the social action on behalf of the deprived—and not the basic philosophical aspect of the same—appeared most alluring part of the whole affair.
7. And, leaders of many other 'revolution' taking place later, also pontificated along the same line.
8. One explicit and so rare, arguing for courting death by others is a piece of writing, very well known and popular among the followers, by the supreme leader of another 'successful revolution', wherein death for the 'cause of the people' has been depicted to be as light as the wings of a bird, in contrast to the death on behalf of 'enemies of the people', being as heavy as some mountain (named explicitly) of that country. But it must be added that this panegyric to death, singing 'hallelujah' in advance to those, likely to be killed with additional assurance to posthumous honorific of being 'martyrs', in the name of one 'cause' or the other is not confined to any particular camp of 'cause' as is evident from the wide use of the term 'martyrdom', which calls for separate discussion, may be under such like subject-heading as, 'Against Martyrdom'.
These comments do not relate to phenomena of someone deciding on one's own to take the risk of life and losing it at the end. Nor do these comments are relevant to deaths during a spontaneous upheaval—fundamentally different from organized actions with clearly known potentially of injury or death—which is comparable to natural disaster like cyclone, earthquake and the like, which are beyond control of anybody.
However outrageous it may sound, glorification (in place of unallowed mourning) of and incitement to death and its polar opposite viz celebration and incitement to greed (by corporate advertisement) may sometimes seem to someone as two sides of the same coin—both are against celebration of life.
And, by tradition, in all the countless tomes of scholarly work, related to the organized violence and upheavals under the umbrella of such (and other) ideology, the reality of death of the participants is mentioned/discussed, if at all, just as if, like the hair-splitting analysis of various related social/cultural/political issues it is an abstract theoretical problem but, unlike other issues, is of incidental importance.
9. Innumerable and widely quoted accounts born out of guided tours of charmed foreign visitors invited by these extremely publicity conscious regimes, contain enough depictions related to these aspects.
10. Toynbee [(April 14, 1889—October 22, 1975)] was interested in the seeming repetition of patterns in history and, later, in the origins of civilisation. ...In his Study of History Toynbee, British historian describes the rise and decline of 23 civilisations. His over-arching analysis was the place of moral and religious challenge, and response to such challenge, as the reason for the robustness or decline of a civilisation. He described parallel life cycles of growth, dissolute "time of troubles," a universal state, and a final collapse leading to a new genesis.
11. It does not need any ideological stance to notice that, given the compulsory requirement inbuilt (without saying so) into the very electoral system of such regimes of huge expenses for the very participation in electoral battle in such regimes, (as for example in India), but for some rare and exceptional conditions, no political party without powerful financial backing can come to power. Main source of such finance, cutting across the political divide, cannot be the tiny subscriptions raised from among the populace whose favour through ballot box is sought. Such backing can come only from financially extremely powerful quarters, constituting a dammed minority of the potential voters. Notwithstanding rivalry among themselves around their own self-interests and in the ultimate analysis it is some or other among these quarters who, remaining in the background, shape the basic orientation (not every details) of state policies. A known example of possible fate that may await any party trying to change this basic orientation (rarest of the rare event) is the suicide committed (surrounded by armed forces around the presidential residence), by Salvador Allende, the then president of Chille on 11 September, 1973.
12. Here, in India armed clashes among various self-claimed 'Marxist' groups, led even to death.
13. Among others, Engels' 'Socialism, Utopian and Scientific', where he is contrasting the 'Utopian socialism' of earlier proponents (Charles Fourier & Saint Simon of France, Robert Owen of England), of socialism, thinking/trying for workers' welfare, according to their own ideas to Marx-Engle's 'scientific socialism' is an eloquent testimony to this mind-set. Point here is not about extent of feasibility or otherwise of these other ideas in terms of practice, but about relating these issues to notion(s) of 'science'.
It is a reasonable hypothesis that the current practice of higher academic studies of society being termed 'Social Sciences' instead of being simply called 'Social Studies' owe its origin to the analogous historical tradition of this 'scientific socialism'. Why this practice seems, to the present note writer unwarranted has been sought to be put in main body of this note.
14. Worth of such possible insights may not axiomatically become any the less solely for that reason. Unless affected by the malady of having an a priori superior air of science, there cannot be any blind, a prior denial that there may be different methods, generating enriching insights/wisdom in various sense, appropriate for such fields of human quest where scientific methods are not available. Only to call such insights 'scientific' would be misleading or delusional.
15. If looked in a little different way what has been termed as 'limitations' may also be termed as 'freedom' in the sense that role of language is many a time same as in poems where use of language in many a case is not so much for describing the perceived reality per se as to give a hint about the same.
16. These words, as Fritjof Capra, in his book 'The Tao of Physics' (Flemingo, 1991) points out, "seems to echo the words of the "Upanishad", an ancient Indian text related to experience/perception of spiritual world :
It moves. It moves not.
It is far, and It is near.
It is within all this,
And It is outside of all this
17. Elemental scientific insights—The insights, numbering few, from which the later insights ,—constituting the overwhelmingly major part of the body/store of 'scientific' knowledge—arrived at through inference, begin to emerge gradually and over time. Some examples of such elemental scientific insights of later period : 'Quantum Mechanics', 'Theory of Relativity- Special and General'.
18. Plato's Cave, or the Parable of the Cave—is an allegory presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work The Republic to illustrate "our nature in its education and want of education" (514a). It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and Plato's mentor Socrates [469 to 399 BC] ...Plato [430 to 347 BC]... has Socrates [put to death, earlier for his heretic views, by Athenian state of the time, through self-administered poison] describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato's Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.
But apparently, as the fragments indicate, latest realization of the 'freed' 'prisoners', i.e., 'scientists', (appearing on 1900 A.C), themselves is that their own vision is also incapable of going beyond 'shadows'.
19. As one of the able interpreters of the thoughts grown out of the perception of the foundation layers, Kritjof Capra's above mentioned book(Tao of Physics) and some more were of considerable help in shedding light on many a quarry and doubt of the present writer, accumulated over a long period and so he feels deeply indebted to him. The present writer came in contact with many a perception of the foundation layers through his (along with many others) books.
20. Allusion to 'religion' in this last fragment, while has got nothing to do with organized religion per se under different labels (e,g., Christian, Hindu, Muslim etc.), it at the same time conveys a notion, that is very different from (if not contrary to) the notion/connotation relating to 'religion', that is found in 'Marxism' with its billion times quoted (particularly the last sentence) maxim "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". But, for the present, this issue is not being touched on here. Four articles by Einstein on 'Religion and Science' is available from the Link : (http : www.sacred-texts.com/ a or/einstein/einsci.htm).
21. Even though it may appear a little redundant, the present writer feels an urge to mention that due to his own ignorance, he has no definite feeling, perception or opinion about validity or otherwise of any claimed, branch of possible wisdom without the label of 'science' and having no claim to 'all-inclusive' character, which can make prediction within allowable range of deviation in any specific field of observation. So, there is not the least attempt here to say anything whatsoever about such claimed wisdom, satisfying anyone's need of same nature, as mentioned in the paragraph associated with this footnote, in such possible field(s).
22. Another possible contributing factor—with apology for this passing diversion—in courting such ideology, or any other is an implicit call for going beyond ongoing life (family, society, formal academic life, and the like), felt to be narrow, empty, petty, meaningless, as if taking a 'new birth', and touching something, which, for sure, can lend a sense of meaning, depth to that same life.
Vol. 47, No. 42, Apr 26 - May 2, 2015