J. T. Murphy

Book Reviews

Review of The New Background of Science and The Outlook of Science

Source: The Aldelphi, October 1933, Vol. 7, No. 1
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The New Background of Science
By Sir James Jeans
(Cambridge University Press)
7s. 6d.

The Outlook of Science
By R. L. Worrall, M.B., Ch.M.
(John Bale, Sons & Danielson)
8s. 6d.

The philosophical outlook of scientists is receiving increasing attention in these days when masses of people are being shaken out of their old ruts of thought by the crisis in world capitalism. Just as people in increasing numbers are searching for a way out of the social crisis so they are searching for a new philosophical outlook. The old gods are dead and many of the scientists, including Sir James Jeans, are striving to give us new onces.

Sir James’ creation is not a very substantial one. It is even more insubstantial than the “gaseous vertebrate” which the Bishops paraded before the British public in answer to the onslaught of Huxley in the Nineteenth Century. They at least created a god, however nebulous, in the image of man. But Twentieth Century scientists as represented by Sir James Jeans have dismissed all the anthropomorphic gods, even the “gaseous vertebrates” and substituted a mathematical formula. In this Sir James has retreated from the position he outlined in his book Astronomy and Cosmogony, where he mentioned the possibility of the “Universe as a thought in the mind of the Creator.”

Stripped of all trimmings and scientific circumlocution, his new book is nothing more than an attempt to restate the position of the philosophical idealists at the head of whom still remains Bishop Berkeley.

After traversing over many of the new discoveries of the physicists, and quoting many other scientists who are in the same: philosophical quandary as himself, he sums up his position as follows:—

Broadly speaking, the two conjectures are those of the idealist and realist—or, if we prefer, the mentalist and the materialist—views of nature. So far the pendulum shows no signs of swinging back, and the law and order which we find in the universe are most easily described—and also, I think, most easily explained—in the language of idealism. Thus, subject to the reservations already mentioned, we may say that present-day science is favourable to idealism. In brief, idealism has always maintained that, as the beginning of the road by which we explain nature is mental, the chances are that the end also will be mental. To this, present day science adds that, at the farthest point she has so far reached, much and possibly all that was not mental has disappeared, and nothing new has come that is not mental. Yet who shall say what we may find awaiting us round the next corner.

This of course is a mixture of philosophical idealism and agnosticism. Professor Jeans makes the mind the “beginning” and the “end” of the road and thus promptly raises the old, old question of the objective existence of the universe outside man’s thinking of it. It has been answered a million times by the practical experience of man, who, if he attempted to run the world on the principle that a thing exists simply because he thinks it does, or that a thing does not exist because he has not thought about it, would find his casualty list enormous beyond measure. Perhaps it is because there has been so much muddle-headedness that the casualty list is so great already.

Everybody knows, and none better than the scientists, that there was a time when man the inquirer did not exist and could not exist. Doubters on this point can test it out at leisure with the geologists, anthropologists, and biologists. The same study will also make it abundantly clear that the mind is the functioning of a highly developed substance, namely the brain, and without it nobody could think about the universe and its marvels.

The “thinking man” may have begun the inquiry, but he is by no means the “beginning of the road”; and things did not begin in his mind. Man himself stands at the head of a long, long road to which neither Professor Jeans nor anybody else can find a beginning or an end.

But Professor Jeans, who, like all the idealists, is forever seeking finality, and, never finding it, turns in upon his own imagination, doubting all things, even his own formulæ, and wonders if some material brick will come whizzing “round the next corner” to destroy his vain imaginings.

All this is on a par with the hectic jubilation of those who hail the “shattering of the atom” as once and for all settling the materialists and letting in the supernatural “Creator” again. Yet the one thing which no scientist, or even the common man, can escape, is the materiality of the universe. Shatter the atom, gentlemen, and what do you discover? Smaller particles moving at a greater velocity than was ever dreamed of. Particles of what? Of nothing? Absurd.

But such experiments do not shatter the foundations of dialectical materialism. They certainly raise awkward questions for the mechanical physicists and those materialists who are still mechanists. Perpetually seeking finality, the finite atom, the finite universe, finite space, they ramble along with formal arguments about relativity, ever hankering after “what lies beyond” the limits of their own creation and seeking explanations of their “indeterminates” and “unknowables.” The dissatisfaction which follows makes them seek to fill up the gap with a new god, even if such a god be, only a mathematical formula.

Professor Jeans’ book is nothing more than a mirror of the confusion amongst the scientists. Fortunately, Dr. Worrall has given us a book of an entirely different character. The Outlook of Science is a critical examination of the philosophical theories of scientists, including Sir James Jeans, by a thoroughly well equipped dialectical materialist. His book is to be welcomed as, I think, the first of its kind by an English writer.

He shows that all the practical work of science is essentially materialist and that the confusion arises when the scientists mix their science with philosophical idealism. The struggle now proceeding against this confusion is the new form of the old struggle between science and religion. Dr. Worrall says:

The defence of idealism and religion by various scientists is certainly not entirely new, but the form of the conflict between science and religion has changed. The Church has been forced into silence by the facts of science, but the attempts to undermine the foundations of science are going on within scientific circles. The more highly placed the scientist, the more apt is he (with notable exceptions) to embrace idealism, theology, mysticism and the supernatural. This applies particularly to England, and there are, of course, sociological reasons for it. Certain journalists play the part of bellringers to those scientists who have assumed metaphysical “authority.” (p. 14.)

Idealism is the philosophical basis of religion. Religion has its social origin in the struggle of man against the supremacy of nature. Man is a social animal. Religion is therefore a social product, the “moan of the oppressed creature,” the faith of ignorance, dependent upon revelation instead of facts and reason, the weapon of authority, the instrument of class oppression, “the opium of the people.” Hence the role of philosophical idealism is essentially reactionary, seeking to decry the scientific method of testing the validity of theories by action, to give credence and authority to the Church, the ally of the State, the instrument of the ruling class in society.

Dr. Worrall renders good service to the cause of scientific truth and revolutionary socialism by taking to task the British school of philosophical idealists amongst the scientists and ably expounding the case for dialectical materialism.