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International Socialism, Spring 1989


Duncan Blackie

Revolution in science


From International Socialism 2 : 42, Spring 1989, pp. 115–136.
Transcribed by Martin Empson.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A Brief History of Time, from the big bang to black holes
by Stephen W. Hawking
Bantam Press 1988, £14.95


Strange, it may seem, for a socialist journal to review a book on physics. Stranger still that it should give particular attention to one ‘about God ... or perhaps the absence of God.’ [1] A Brief History of Time attempts to popularise (there is only one equation in the whole book) ideas that very small numbers of professional physicists have really grasped and that even fewer have understood. It must already be one of the most widely read scientific books of recent years, at the top of the bestseller lists for months on end.

The ideas in Hawking’s book may seem to concern matters that are at best irrelevant for socialists, at worst downright reactionary. Workers manage to go on strike without worrying about whether the speed of light is constant. Socialists have successfully led workers struggles without even an inkling of quantum physics. However, socialists can’t stay aloof from questions about the natural world indefinitely. Past interpretations of the natural world have developed into challenges to the very basis of revolutionary socialist ideas and both Engels and Lenin devoted considerable efforts to combating such challenges. [2] And, in attempting to study a fusion of physics and theology, Hawking is no maverick. He stands in the mainstream tradition of modern physicists. Paul Davies, for example, an immensely popular writer, is paid public money to teach university physics, which he sees as a ‘surer path to God than religion.’ [3] Hawking is a sceptical agnostic, but he feels compelled to worry about God because those are the terms of debate. [4]

The aim of this article is not to challenge, nor even to attempt to explain clearly the astonishing picture of the fundamental laws of nature revealed by modern physics. (Hawking himself provides one of the clearest explanations to date). But I do want briefly to review the state of modern physics, explain why it is that the subject has caused such controversy through the course of the twentieth century, and what it means for the relationship between class society and scientific understanding. A full treatment of any of these is well beyond the scope of this article, but I do hope to use some of the issues raised by Hawking’s book to sketch them in rough outline.

What’s all the fuss about?

>These are exciting times in physics. Grand Unified Theories are on the verge of bringing together all the basic forces in the universe for the first time. These developments have not only revealed a bewildering array of fundamental particles, they have also started to provide a possible answer to one of the key questions in twentieth century physics. The breakthrough which Hawking describes – and for which he has been partly responsible – concerns, ‘two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics,’ which he says, ‘are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.’ [5]

These two theories have formed the bedrock of modern physics. Unfortunately, until recently they have proved to be inconsistent. Very crudely, general relativity concerns itself with long distances, large masses and very high velocities. Quantum mechanics describes the very small scale behaviour of elementary particles. As long as you merely want to study the behaviour of planets, or to study particles, then the incompatibility of the theories matters little. They are kept safely away from each other at opposite ends of the spectrum.

However, Hawking wants to know how the universe starts and finishes, if at all. Here the two theories clash. If the universe started out from a ‘big bang’ or is destined to finish in a ‘big crunch’, then the laws of general relativity which govern the large scale workings of the universe will, at these points, break down and the quantum laws take over. The solution Hawking and others have now arrived at is to integrate the two theories into ‘quantum relativity’, or ‘quantum gravity’. But this requires the abandonment of what was previously thought one of the great certainties of the universe.

The solution requires the use of string theory, in which the universe is not described by three similar dimensions, plus a different one: time. Einstein has already shown that it was essential to break the special division between the first three dimensions and the fourth. This might seem confusing enough, but string theory requires 10 dimensions, according to most of its backers, others say it might even require up to 26. Let’s be clear here. We are not talking about using ten or 26 dimensions as mere accounting tools, such as mathematicians might do with ‘imaginary’ numbers. We are talking of the real universe really having many more dimensions than we are accustomed to noticing, not a trick by which humans can understand the universe. How come we don’t notice that there are 10 (or more) dimensions? According to Hawking,

The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into space of very small size, something like a million millionth of an inch. This is so small that we just don’t notice it; we see only one time and three space dimensions, in which space time is fairly flat. [6]

So to all intents and purposes, the universe is once more approximately four dimensional under ‘normal’ conditions.

The fusion of general relativity and quantum mechanics provides some more astonishing results. Black holes, for example, are defined under general relativity precisely by the fact that nothing, not even light, can escape them. Yet when quantum mechanics is added in, there is nothing to stop the random emission of photons and particles from a black hole. More fundamentally, quantum gravity gives us a strong clue about the major preoccupation of modern physics: what is the origin of the universe? According to Hawking,

in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space time, there are only two possible ways the universe can behave: either it has existed for an infinite time, or else it had a beginning at a singularity at some finite time in the past. [7] (A singularity is a point in which matter has been compressed with infinite density into an infinitesimal size.)

For decades the orthodoxy was that the universe was created out of a big bang. This seems at first to be an eminently materialist explanation. Yet it still begs the question: if the universe were effectively dead at time zero (this is what would be implied by a singularity) then wouldn’t an external force be required to trigger the big bang, no matter how small this force may be? ‘At the big bang and other singularities,’ says Hawking, ‘all the laws would have broken down, so God would still have had complete freedom to choose what happened and how the universe began.’ [8] A Brief History of Time gives quite a different answer:

When we combine quantum mechanics with general relativity, there seems to be a new possibility that did not arise before: that space and time together might form a finite, four-dimensional space without singularities or boundaries ... But if the universe is completely self-contained, with no singularities or boundaries, and completely described by a unified theory, that has profound implications for the role of God as Creator. [9]

In other words, Hawking’s conclusion is that it is actually meaningless to talk about a start or an end to the universe. The old conundrum of whether the universe extends back infinitely in time, or must at some point have had a beginning, is destroyed. This may all sound very interesting, but why should we be astonished that God has been cut out of an explanation of the universe anyway? Solving this problem hardly requires the great advances of modern physics. Engels, for example, insisted over 100 years ago that there was no beginning to the universe on the eminently sensible grounds that any other solution would require divine intervention. [10] Yet Hawking’s book has been met with, alternately, controversy and boggle-eyed amazement in the hands of reviewers who want to plug it as a zany space adventure. Its real interest, however, lies not in this or that result, although these are important, but because it highlights the great dilemma of modern physics.

Despite the great advances this century, there has been a crisis at the very heart of modern physics resulting from the lack of a thoroughgoing, consistent materialism. Consequently, the very successes of theoretical physics have caused successive crises for physics itself. The two best examples of this are the fate of the two major theories which form the basis of Hawking’s work, general relativity and quantum mechanics.

The controversy in twentieth century physics

For over two hundred years one scientific work held canonical status, Newton’s Principia. It was the first attempt at a systematic understanding of the universe. And, despite the fact that Newton remained a firm believer in an Absolute God, his theories have thoroughly materialist implications. The motion of bodies, according to Newton’s system, are understood as a result of their past history of interactions with other bodies, governed by a set of simple laws. This view of the world was connected with the development of class society. It was, according to Hobsbawm

An understanding of the universe in the image of the architect or engineer: a building as yet unfinished, but whose completion would not be very long delayed; a building based on the ‘the facts’, held together by the firm framework of causes and determining effects and ‘the laws of nature’ and constructed with the reliable tools of reason and scientific method; a construction of the intellect, but one which also expressed in an ever more accurate approximation, the objective realities of the cosmos.
In the minds of the triumphant bourgeois world the giant static mechanism of the universe inherited from the seventeenth century, but since amplified by extension into new fields, produced not only permanence and predictability, but also transformation. It produced evolution (which could be easily identified with secular ‘progress’ at least in human affairs). It was this model of the universe and the human mind’s way of understanding it which now broke down. [11]

But while this system lasted it seemed that ever more complex systems could be understood by a simple accretion of such knowledge. This could give backing to materialism, but it could also lead to an extremely rigid determinism. Perhaps the strongest statement of this came from Pierre Simonde Laplace:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intelligence which at a given moment knows all the forces that animate nature, and the respective positions of the beings that compose it, and further possessing the scope to analyse these data, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the least atom: for such an intelligence nothing would be uncertain, and past and future alike would be before its eyes. [12]

There are two reasons why this determinism does not succeed in ruling out an overarching idealism with which Newton would have been quite happy. Hawking spots one of them but misses the other, to which we shall return later. Hawking says,

Laplace’s determinism was incomplete in two ways. It did not say how the laws should be chosen and it did not specify the initial configuration of the universe. These were left to God. God would choose how the universe began and what laws it obeyed, but he would not intervene in the universe once it had started. In effect, God was confined to the areas that nineteenth-century science did not understand. [13]

By the 1880s this simple mechanical model of physics came under threat as new techniques were needed to overcome the limitations of the old. Thermodynamics, for example, relies not on a step by step accumulation of knowledge about the behaviour of individual molecules in a fluid, but by a ‘holistic’ description of the net effect of the probable behaviour of a large number of molecules. [14] However, It was the development of the two great cornerstones of modern physics that created the greatest crises for the Newtonian orthodoxy. The year 1905 saw the launching of both quantum physics and special relativity, among Einstein’s three major papers of that year. [15]

Firstly, special relativity. The cue was a crisis thrown up by the development of electromagnetic field theory. According to Maxwell’s theories, electromagnetic waves (such as light) would need to travel at constant velocity relative to any observer. [16] Therefore the idea that some medium existed, even in space, which provided an absolute frame of reference or a steady medium for waves and particles alike was developed: the ether. Again, this was quite in tune with Newton who had insisted on an absolute frame of reference. But subsequent experiment, which tried agonizingly to find evidence of an ether through which the earth moved, or which was dragged along by the earth, proved to be useless.

Einstein’s theory, which he said was, ‘an amazingly simple summary and generalisation of hypotheses which previously have been independent of one another,’ simply got rid of the ether altogether. He was extremely modest about his achievement, saying it was ‘not at all a question of a revolutionary act, but of a natural development of a line which can be pursued through centuries.’ Yet it had massive implications both in terms of direct results and for the physicists’ world view.

By dispelling the ether, Einstein showed that the velocity of a body relative to others had a crucial impact on its observed behaviour. From this flow the propositions that nothing can travel faster than light, that mass is interchangeable with energy (for example a photon has mass, from which the famous E= MC² and that time can be distorted according to the velocity with which a body is moving. These theories and others that followed are essential to modern physics. Without them, for example, the moonshots would have missed. [17]

Without special relativity, the impasse created by the clash between conventional mechanics and electro-magnetic theory would have led to a massive crisis in the very basis of physics. Einstein’s work was therefore indispensable in salvaging any hope of a materialist understanding of the world.

But even with special relativity, physics was thrown into crisis. ‘Space and time’, said Bertrand Russell in 1914. ‘have ceased to be for relativity physics, part of the bare bones of the world are now admitted to be constructions.’ [18] Gerald Holton argues that to achieve the breakthrough,

One needed only to abandon the notion of the absolute frame of reference and, with it, the ether. But without these, the familiar landscape changed suddenly, drastically, and in every detail. Physics was left without its old hope, already partly and sometimes gratifyingly fulfilled, namely to explain all phenomena by means of one consistent, mechanistic theory. [19]

In other words, once physics had, of necessity, left the safe anchorage of Newton’s system, it entered an ideological battlefield in which many anti-scientific ideas were fighting for its allegiance.


The emerging crisis in physics had already given birth to a new hero who had almost come to match the stature of Newton by the time Einstein published his papers. In the 1880s the neo-Kantians, Ernst Mach and his followers, had called for physicists ‘to consider anew the ultimate principles of all physical reasoning, notably the scope and validity of the Newtonian laws of motion and of the conceptions of force and action, of absolute and relative motion’. [20] In the introduction to his major work, the Science of Mechanics, published in 1883, Mach said, ‘... its intention is ... an anti-metaphysical one’. [21]

But the method by which he hoped to expel metaphysics from science could not hope to succeed. In the end he only achieved its resurrection. One of his followers, Moritz Schlick said,

Mach held that we can and must take these sensations and complexes of sensation to be the sole contents of those testimonies, and, therefore that there is no need to assume in addition an unknown reality hidden behind the sensations. With that the existence of der Dinge an sich (thing in itself) is removed as an unjustified and unnecessary assumption. A body, a physical object, is nothing else than a complex, a more or less firm (we would say invariant) pattern of sensations ... [22]

This developing crisis perhaps found its clearest expression in mathematics. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out:

Some time in the middle of the nineteenth Century the progress of mathematical thought began to generate not only (as had been done earlier) results which conflicted with the real world as apprehended by the senses, such as non-Euclidean geometry, but results which appeared shocking even to mathematicians ... What Bourbaki calls ‘the pathology of mathematics’ began ... but the most dramatic and ‘impossible’ development was perhaps the exploration of infinite magnitudes by Cantor, which produced a world in which the intuitive concepts of ‘greater’ and ‘smaller’ no longer applied and the rules of arithmetic no longer gave their expected results. It was an exciting advance, a new mathematical ‘paradise’ to use Hilbert’s phrase, from which the avant garde of mathematicians refused to be expelled.
One solution – subsequently followed by the majority of mathematicians – was to emancipate mathematics from any correspondence with the real world, and to turn it into the elaboration of postulates, any postulates, which required only to be precisely defined and linked by the need not to be contradictory ... Its foundations were reformulated by rigorously excluding any appeal to intuition. [23]

In practical terms these developments had limited impact on the actual development of scientific understanding. Nevertheless, these ideas had a profound effect on the young physicists of the time. According to Einstein, ‘even those that think of themselves as Mach’s opponents hardly know how much of Mach’s views they have, as it were, imbibed with their mother’s milk’. [24] Mach’s appeal lay in seeming to offer a radical alternative to the spent force of mechanical materialism. Mach’s ideas even found their way into the ranks of the Bolshevik Party. Bogdanov, for example, took up the theories in his book Empiriomonism, published in 1904, the hundredth anniversary of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s death. Kant’s renewed popularity was a result of his view that:

hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to the objects ... Therefore let us for once attempt to see whether we cannot reach a solution to the tasks of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our knowledge.

Kant’s theory of knowledge assumed an unbridgeable separation of mind and reality. During the period of vicious reaction which followed the failure of the 1905 revolution many of Bogdanov’s fellow travellers started to draw the logical conclusion. Bogdanov belonged to a circle of talented, young Bolsheviks politically influenced by modern western thought. They detested the backward Russian conditions and eagerly lapped up western cultural and scientific developments. But their impatience also represented the ultra-left of the Russian movement. When the class struggle dipped and reaction set in they were the first to abandon the belief that the working class was capable of changing the world. In finding an intellectual justification for this move, they drew, among other things on their interpretation of the new physics.

Lunacharsky, for example, spoke in favour of Fideism, a doctrine which substitutes faith for knowledge. [25] He used religious metaphors and spoke of ‘God seeking’ and ‘God building.’ Although Bogdanov himself did not go this far, he did believe that the revolution in physics meant we couldn’t hope to understand what lay beyond our sensations. There was a political parallel. In the period of reaction many could find no way to pierce the surface appearance of the Tsarist autocracy’s iron rule. Lenin took up cudgels against the Kantian interpretation of the new physics in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. [26]

Yet if many were prepared to claim Einstein’s breakthrough as their own, and Einstein was certainly no anti-Machist, he was not in favour of the conclusions they drew. He found it ‘peculiarly ironical that many people believe that in the theory of relativity, one may find support for the anti rationalist tendency of our day.’ Later Einstein came consciously to break from Machism, but even in the first two decades of the century the doctrine was of little use to him. It stressed the need to base results on direct experience. But Einstein never saw the mass of a photon or the distortion of space time. The breakthroughs were now being made in precisely those areas where experience could hope to provide few, if any, clues.

Einstein’s ambivalent relationship to Machism is shown more clearly with the development of general relativity. The rounded theory of relativity did not come until Einstein published his paper on General Relativity in 1915. Now he said, developing on a theme of the earlier work, that time is distorted not just by velocity, but also by mass. Taking the path of light and its velocity to be the only reliable constant in the universe, he came to the conclusion that light would be bent by the presence of massive objects. But it was not the light itself that should be thought of as bent, rather, the very dimensions of space-time.

Again, the explanation is best provided by Einstein himself [27], but its logical derivation is astonishingly simple, almost appearing as a sleight of hand. He notes that just as acceleration will distort the perceived path of a beam of light, and acceleration is caused by gravity among other things, then so too is the path of light distorted by gravity. The picture of Einstein the Machist, breaks down. General relativity was based on practically no observed results. It only succeeded in solving one anomaly, the ‘precession’ of Mercury. It was only in 1919 that the effect of the sun’s mass in bending light was experimentally confirmed.

Not everyone loved the idea, but many did. Some just went completely over the top and applied general relativity in quite unwarranted instances. For instance, in 1916, one of Einstein’s friends, the ‘Machian-Marxist’ Friedrich Adler pleaded relativity in his defence after he shot the Austrian Prime minister. Idealists were particularly attracted to the implication that through relativity Einstein had given some special status to the observer. The ‘real world’, they imagined, could finally now be the construction of an individual mind.

But the real relationship between development of Einstein’s theory and his loyalty to Mach was complex. Mach had followed Berkeley in insisting that centrifugal force was produced by motion relative to the stars. This was weak physics in the seventeenth century. When Mach took it up it had no more experimental or theoretical justification, but he liked it anyway. Then he went further, saying ‘it does not matter if we think of the Earth as turning round on its axis or at rest while the fixed stars rotate around it.’ The bulge at the earth’s equator, for example, could be explained as easily by the stars spinning around the earth as by the earth spinning on its axis. This extreme form of relativism was enthusiastically taken up by Einstein, who dubbed ‘Mach’s Principle’ the idea that what mattered was in interaction of all bodies in relation to all others. Although Mach intensely detested general relativity, Einstein explicitly set out to incorporate a mathematical version of Mach’s principle in his theory. Strangely enough, as it seemed at the time, Mach’s principle could only be included in a particular type of universe, a closed one with no beginning or end.

Whether Einstein was correct or not was a subject for intense debate for decades. The equations with which Einstein constructed his theory were not solved by him. He only knew that, if there was a solution, then his theory was correct. A solution vindicating Einstein has only been found much more recently. [28] Now, it seems, according to Hawking’s universe, Einstein was right and the universe does indeed correspond to Mach’s principle.

Yet those that did solve the problem in the 1950s and 1960s had no particular concern to salvage this element of Machism. In reality Einstein’s theories were developed through neither a mere ordering of observed ‘facts’, nor through appealing to the deity of Mach’s Principle, but through a creative synthesis of the totality of an understanding of the natural world. Much later Einstein wrote:

I see his weakness in this, that he more or less believed science to consist in a mere ordering of empirical material; that is to say, he did not recognise the freely constructive element in formation of concepts. In a way he thought that theories arise through discoveries and not through inventions. He even went so far that he regarded ‘sensations’ not only as material which had to be investigated, but, as it were, as the building blocks of the real world; thereby he believed, he could overcome the difference between psychology and physics. If he had drawn the full consequences, he would have had to reject not only atomism but also the idea of a physical reality. [29]

The physicists of the turn of the century found Mach useful as a break with the mechanistic past, but that was all. ‘It cannot give birth to anything living, it can only exterminate harmful vermin’ [30], in Einstein’s words.

Science and society, 1: Weimar and causality

The revolution in physics brought about by the success of Einstein’s relativity pales in comparison with what was to follow. Relativity is essentially an adaptation of the old physics and still contains Newtonian mechanics within itself as a special case. The adoption of the theory and its implications caused bitter debate, but it was possible to accept relativity and still cling to an old nineteenth century determinism. Indeed, in some respects, determinism was now saved and strengthened.

The same can not be said for the development of quantum mechanics, which really does represent the break between the classical and the ‘new’ physics (so called even 60 years on). The basis for the ideas had been born, like special relativity in 1905. Einstein was again looking for a solution to a fundamental problem, this time raised by Max Planck.

He wanted to explain why it appeared that radiation emitted from a body had infinite energy. Einstein came up with the explanation that electromagnetic radiation, instead of being released as a continuum of energy, as was previously thought, was in fact emitted in small discrete packets, known as ‘quanta’. And as a result of the behaviour of these quanta, light came to be regarded as having particle like characteristics as well as wave-like characteristics.

The 1905 theory was only the beginning. Quantum mechanics as a rounded theory was not developed until the 1920s and was not systematised until Paul Dirac’s equations of 1930. One side of the revolution required a recasting of understanding of small scale physics. But more explosive for the outlook of physicists was the discovery that two more former ‘certainties’ were at an end. Under general relativity, as with Newtonian physics, the position and momentum of a particle can, theoretically at least, be given with infinite accuracy. But, according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, this can never be. There is a systematic limitation to the accuracy of such knowledge. Either you can know where an electron is, or how it is moving, but not both absolutely. [31] Secondly, the behaviour of particles is unpredictable. No one can tell when a radioactive particle will decay, for example. Whereas the use of probability and statistics was a convenient tool in late nineteenth century thermodynamics, short circuiting the need for impossibly complex mechanical systems, they now became the closest possible means for describing the state of a system. Absolute determination of anything is at an end.

This proposition is best summed up by the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment. In this a cat is locked in a box with a radioactive source and a vial of poison. The source may decay, crack the vial and kill the cat. Or it may not. But once the box is sealed, there’s absolutely no way of knowing what has happened. We could statistically predict that the cat has a one third chance, for example, of being dead. But this tells us nothing. The cat is either dead or alive, not one third dead. As a result of these developments Schrödinger formally abandoned causality in 1922 and soon many others followed him in embracing the new physics. They weren’t necessarily at ease with its implications, however. Schrödinger said, ‘If all this damned quantum jumping were really to stay, I should be sorry I ever got involved with quantum theory.’ [32] And Bohr thought, ‘anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.’ [33]

And although Einstein was instrumental in founding the science, he was never happy with the results. He found it, ‘quite intolerable that an electron should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction.’ [34] ‘God doesn’t play dice,’ he said. Yet quantum mechanics has been immensely successful and underlies virtually all of modern Science and technology, from transistors, integrated circuits to modern chemistry and biology.

Quantum mechanics represented the greatest revolution in physics for over 250 years. In the space of a few short years the whole orthodoxy was turned on its head as most of the great physicists of the time accepted all or part of it. Because of this, the nature of the revolution has been the subject of much debate. It provides a classic test case of the relationship between developments in the natural sciences and those of class society.

One of the most influential contributions is Paul Forman’s 1971 essay, Weimar culture, causality and quantum theory, 1918–27: adaptation by German physicists and mathematicians to a hostile intellectual environment. [35] In it he argues:

The result is ... overwhelming evidence that in the years after the end of the First World War but before the development of an acausal quantum mechanics, under the influence of ‘currents of thought’ large numbers of Germans physicists, for reasons only incidentally related to developments in their own discipline, distanced themselves from, or explicitly repudiated, causality in physics.

Max Jammer [36] has also argued

that certain philosophical ideas of the late nineteenth century not only provided the intellectual climate for, but contributed decisively to the formation of the new conception of the modern quantum theory.

The argument is that a particular conjunction of circumstances in society (Weimar Germany) had a crucial impact on the development of physics. Forman argues that,

in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat the dominant intellectual tendency in the ·Weimar academic world was a neo-romantic, existentialist ‘philosophy of life,’ revelling in crises and characterised by antagonism towards analytic rationality generally, and toward the existing sciences and their technical implication particularly. Implicitly or explicitly, the scientist was the whipping boy of the incessant exhortation to spiritual renewal, while the concept – or the mere word – ‘causality’ symbolised all that was odious in the scientific enterprise. [37]

In other words this anti-scientific culture could force its way into the labs and have a massive influence on physicists’ work. Of course this is partially true, scientists are influenced by the intellectual milieu in which they work, not totally cut off from it. However, Forman and Jammer’s thesis, appealing as it may seem, is unfortunately not completely backed by the facts.

For a start, the concept of causality, as we have seen, had come under fire for decades previous to Germany’s defeat in the war. Philosopher Bertrand Russell had argued that the concept of causality was obsolete before World War One. John Hendry argues

By the Weimar period, the concept of causality had long been a talking point in physics, and with the development of quantum theory it had already come under fairly strong internal pressure. The essential element of discreteness manifest in Planck’s radiation law had promoted Jeans in 1910 and Poincaré in 1912 to ask whether differential equations were still the proper tool for physics. [38]

Moreover, the new physics was not accepted by everyone. Einstein, in Germany through all this period and among the most outward looking of the milieu, was unhappy with the implications of quantum mechanics. He laboured for the last three decades of his life to excise the Uncertainty Principle. One explanation for this anomaly is that Einstein was an old fuddy duddy, unable to keep up with the new whizz kids such as Schrödinger and Heisenberg. This really won’t do. The situation was much more complex. Both Pauli and Eddington wanted to see a change in physics’ concepts, but were more or less in Einstein’s camp in wanting to save the special status of the particle and with it causality. But Pauli also agreed with Bohr on the need for a change in concepts of space and time. Pauli, in turn had a big influence on both Heisenberg and Max Born, Einstein’s close friend. As Hendry says,

Any attempt, therefore to polarise German quantum physics in terms of causality is therefore inevitable somewhat artificial. [39]

Thus groups of physicists can’t be reduced to a static collection of people, all moving uniformly to one theoretical conclusion. Hendry concludes:

Physicists were influenced by the crisis consciousness of post-war Europe and by the attitudes characteristic of the Weimar milieu, on the other hand, Forman’s work has also demonstrated the dangers of a purely external treatment and the poverty of any naive social reductionism. [40]

To understand how and why these great revolutions in physics came about, and the relative importance of natural and social influences we need to look more generally at the position of science under capitalism.

Science and society 2: The new metaphysics

At the height of the revolution in quantum mechanics Max Born got quite carried away and declared to a group of visitors at his university, ‘Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.’ Judging from many of the reviews of Hawking’s book it would seem that his theories contain similar implications. A slightly more modest assessment of his work comes from John Gribben who concludes:

‘Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Hawking has already indicated an end, not to physics but to metaphysics. It is now possible to give a good scientific answer to the question ‘Where do we come from?’ without invoking God or special boundary conditions for the Universe at the moment of creation. [41]

Before we return to our original problem – the persistence of metaphysics in natural sciences – we should say in passing that the ‘God’ in Einstein or Hawking, as in Newton, is not an all powerful being that rules over our day to day existence. Their universes are ordered entities in which conscious human activity has a large role to play. But a supernatural rationale is still required in the last analysis. As we have seen, this uncertain materialism represents the mainstream modern scientific tradition. Why should such a metaphysical epistemology still be rampant among physicists? Does it matter anyway? To answer these questions we need to look at the relationship between capitalism and science.

The level of scientific understanding is linked to the mode of production in any given society, but not uniquely determined by it. Natural science is part of the superstructure of society, but a particularly special part. Science is not merely dragged along according to the needs of a given level of economic development. As with the other elements of the superstructure of society, a much more complex, dialectical relationship exists between science, technology and the forces of production. (Leonardo da Vinci, for example, designed a helicopter, on paper that is, even though there could have been no possible need of one in the sixteenth century.) Indeed, it is also quite easy to see that scientific developments act themselves organically to change the forces of production. Moreover, the natural sciences are distinguished from the social in that they have a far greater degree of autonomy from simple class determination, for the simple reason that they engage things beyond the orbit of human activity. Human activity can change the face of the planet. We can even create new atoms in physics laboratories, but we can’t change the fundamental laws which govern their behaviour. Despite these qualifications science is closely affected by class society. How?

The application of science is relatively straight forward. Science and technology on their own are neither the saviour nor the bogey of society. Both fabulous vaccines and terrible weapons of destruction are designed by science under capitalism. Without the enormous increase in productivity brought by technological development, the construction of a socialist society would be quite unthinkable. But this potential to mobilise these resources on a consistent basis lies unused. Vastly more resources are poured into methods of mass destruction than in trying to feed people, for example. This much is straightforward, the stock in trade of any socialist. But what about the development of scientific theory?

Here we ought to dispose of a myth. Science is not, as many imagine it, an inferior discipline which only consists in the ordering of facts. All working scientists have to use theories and research programmes in order to make any sense of experimental results. In this respect, the ideology of scientists influences, to an extent, their practice. But again more qualification is needed. It is very easy to overestimate this influence. [42] In his time Einstein was attacked as both a rampant idealist and then deified as a ‘spontaneous dialectician’ by the Stalinists, according to the needs of the moment.

This error is also reproduced by the modern writers of radical science, who tend to place great emphasis on the stated views of scientists and the milieu in which they work, rather on the science itself. The example of Weimar Germany and the development of quantum mechanics shows the dangers of such an approach. It is undoubtedly true that the culture of the time made some scientists more amenable to the destruction of causality, but it was not the crucial factor. The discovery of discrete emissions and the consequences thereof had an enormously greater impact. But the construction of scientists’ research programmes, which have fundamental effects on the interpretation of their results, are not immune from ideology in class society.

To say what affect such ideology has we need to start by looking at how understanding in general develops under bourgeois society. If there is a significant parallel between the form of class society and scientific theory it is not in terms of this or that results but in the nature of the dominant system of knowledge. Firstly, capitalism provides immensely fertile ground for fruitful scientific work: There is, for the first time in history, the possibility of humans ruling the world as they wish. The bourgeoisie needs at least some scientific understanding of the physical world in order to rule it. The accumulation of capital requires technical innovation and scientific understanding, whereas the continued political role of capital requires the systematic mystification of the social world. The bourgeoisie needs knowledge of the physical world, but not of the social world. However, there, are fundamental impediments to that understanding being developed fully. As Lukacs says:

... on the one hand capitalism is the first system of production able to achieve a total economic penetration of society, and this implies in theory that the bourgeoisie should be able to progress from this central point to the possession of an (imputed) class consciousness of the whole system of production.

But, he continues,

On the other hand, the position held by the capitalist class and the interests which determine its actions ensure that it will be unable to control its own system of production, even in theory. [43]

There are good reasons for this. The simplest is that the truth is systematically mystified in the eyes of those people who might otherwise draw dangerous conclusions. Newton, writing soon after the English Revolution had the confidence of a new bourgeoisie, proud of its revolutionary role. Today the bourgeoisie, a class which came to power through revolution and which depends for its survival upon the constant revolutionising of the means of production, is more scared of new revolutions than it is proud of its own. It denies that change is central to the world’s dynamic. Instead it seeks to elevate stability and the status quo. History for example, is seen as a chaotic, endless power struggle or as an ordering of dates and figures rather than as a process of class struggle. If it ever was a dynamic process, then it was in times past.

There is also a more profound reason why the bourgeoisie should be incapable of finding the truth. It is by definition the most powerful class in society, yet even it can’t tame the anarchy of its own system. Each individual capitalist confronts the market as something he has had a part in developing, and yet he can only experience it passively. Lukacs again:

Man in capitalist society confronts a reality ‘made’ by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself ... even while ‘acting’ he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events. [44]

This occluded bourgeois viewpoint means that economics is ‘understood’ not by a delving into the essence of the extraction of profits from workers, but merely from the surface appearances of indices such as inflation of interest rates. Each individual capitalist, for example, sees the rate of return on capital as the key index, so it is hardly surprising that this is then elevated to the motor of production in bourgeois economics. Unfortunately this confuses rather than clarifies the real workings of the economy. This position of both power and impotence and the wish to deny the revolutionary, ever changing nature of the world, has a profound impact on the accepted method of understanding both society and nature.

In the case of the natural sciences, the political stakes in most areas of study are not nearly so great as they are in history or economics, for example. And it is certainly not the case that the great physicists have all been conscious fighters for the ruling class. On the contrary, many considered themselves socialists. But – as I hope to show – the general approach to understanding in bourgeois society nevertheless exacts a cost in the natural sciences.

In Hegel, the bourgeoisie comes closest to understanding the dialectical, complex, changing nature of the world, but he despairs of finding a subject that is capable of transforming it in a conscious fashion. In place of the working class, Hegel can only afford that role to either God, or more practically, the existing Prussian state. Nevertheless, because of the interrelatedness of his system he was able to dispense with Kant’s desperate final resort to insisting that only the constructions of the mind can be considered real.

Nearly two centuries on the degeneration is indeed stark. Right-wing scholars, for example, deny that even the bourgeoisie ever carried out revolutions. In natural science the search to understand phenomena as part of a complex, ever changing totality has been bedevilled by the division of science into various fields each with special methods only applicable to them. Lukacs says, the aim of philosophy is now:

the understanding of the phenomena of isolated, highly specialised areas by means of abstract rational special systems, perfectly adapted to them and without making the attempt to achieve a unified mastery of the whole realm of the knowable. (Indeed any such attempt is dismissed as ‘unscientific’) ... But it must not be forgotten that ... the origin of the special sciences with their complete independence of one another both in method and subject matter entails the recognition that this problem [the search for an overall understanding of the world] is insoluble. And the fact that the sciences are ‘exact’ is due precisely to this circumstance. [45]

The dominant method in British universities, for example, consists in either just attempting to look at facts, or of using theories which are considered valid or invalid according to the extent to which they match the facts. This method works for relatively simple phenomenon, but as a given method is adopted for the interpretation of a given class of data and its translation into theory, it tends to become ossified. But when it comes to dealing with different, more complex systems, when radically new ‘forms of data need radically different means of interpretation, then science is often thrown into crisis – as we have seen with thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, and now, of course, quantum gravity.

Another example of the limits of this categorisation might be the misappropriation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. You can’t fully understand evolution simply from the stand point of the relations between atoms in a chromosome. A much broader scientific picture is needed. However, the way that evolution is understood is not as part of a totality of phenomena, but firmly within the confines of the ‘rules of biology’. The crisis comes when attempts are made to generalise beyond the long term development of species to the running of human societies. To do so correctly would require the incorporation of other factors such as the role of human consciousness. If this is done, then you very rapidly come to the conclusion, as Darwin did, that the law of survival of the fittest just doesn’t fit in modern societies. Where the transition beyond the long term development of non-human species has been made without looking at these wider factors, it has only lead to pseudoscience like sociobiology, the very opposite of what Darwin’s theory is all about.

Without the broader, dialectical approach, crises lead either to an attempt to continue to interpret the new system according to an outdated mechanical method, or by a desperate resort to mysticism. Rigid thought is always thrown into a state of confusion by upsetting what were previously taken to be the certainties. From this rigidity there arises numerous tensions between the fixed categories of understanding the changing nature of the object of study. Yet these crises and mistakes persist because of the way that scientific thought is organised. Such crises can have three outcomes. One is to try to break down the rigidities of modern science, to develop a method which will fit the complexity and totality of the real world. Another is to merely ‘play safe’ and stick as closely as possible to ‘observed’ facts. The third is to abandon materialism and seek an explanation for the crisis in some divine intervention.

In reality, most scientists have ended up going for a combination of the latter two. Mathematics for example, went through a fundamental crisis in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then it was assumed that mathematics was merely an easily understandable ‘copy’ of the real world. Yet as developments in mathematics defied a simple spacial understanding this view came under threat. As a result many continued to develop their mathematics but now regarded it as entirely the construct of the human mind, with no dynamic relationship to the outside world.

Or, during the general crisis in science at the turn of the century, scientists sought a way out of their dilemma by cutting the links between individual results and a broader world view. As Eric Hobsbawm says:

On the one hand they proposed a reconstruction of science on a ruthlessly empiricist and even phenomenalist basis, on the other a rigorous formalisation and axiomatisation of the bases of science. This eliminated speculation about the relations between the ‘real world’ and our interpretations of it, i.e. about the ‘truth’ as distinct from the internal consistency and usefulness of propositions, without interfering with the actual practice of science. Scientific theories, as Henri Poincaré said flatly, were ‘neither true nor false’ but merely useful. [46]

By and large science manages to carry on despite the heads of scientists being filled with the most unspeakable garbage. Davies, for example, thinks ‘the commonsense view of the world, in terms of objects that really exist “out there” independently of our observations, totally collapses in the face of the quantum factor.’ [47]

But, as we have seen with Einstein, there develops a yawning gap between actual scientific practice and scientists’ commitment to a wider ideology. This gap, in turn, gives rise to the continual reconstruction of a metaphysical view of the universe. Machism is the clearest example of this weakness translated into principle. As Lenin noted, ‘Phenomenology à la Mach and co. inevitably become idealism’. [48] Lenin made a simple demand when he said, ‘The sole property of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.’ [49] and yet it is one that has eluded many of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century.

Hawking’s book is an astonishing case in point. It’s grasp of a partial (although admittedly very sophisticated) understanding of nature makes for a very inspiring read. Yet his understanding remains partial, for it carries all the baggage of bourgeois thought along with it. The building of a socialist society would not reveal overnight all the innermost workings of nature, but is could at least set us on the way to clearing away much of the ideological debris that stands between us and an understanding of the natural world.


1. A Brief History of Time, S. Hawking (London 1988).

2. See Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocritism or Engels, Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring.

3. God and the New Physics, p. ix, Paul Davies (Penguin 1983).

4. He first unveiled his theory at a meeting in 1981 in the Vatican, after which they had an audience with the Pope, who ‘told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang Itself because that was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God.’ See Hawking, p. 116.

5. Hawking, p. 11.

6. Hawking, p. 163.

7. Hawking, pp. 135–6.

8. Hawking, p. 173.

9. Hawking, pp. 173–4.

10. ‘The absolutely unchanging, especially when it has been in this state for eternity, cannot possibly get out of such a state by itself and pass over into a state of motion and change. An initial impulse must have therefore come from outside, from outside: an impulse which set it in motion. But as everyone knows, the initial impulse is only another expression for God.’ Engels in Anti-Dühring, p. 65.

11. Age of Empire, Hobsbawm, p. 244.

12. Philosophy and the New Physics, p. 138, Powers, Methuen 1985.

13. Quoted in Hawking, p. 172.

14. According to a rigid interpretation of the dominant mechanical method the pressure, say, of a gas is determined by the number and velocity of molecules hitting a surface in unit time. But calculating such a quantity on the basis of information about each molecule is clearly all but impossible. Firstly: there are a lot of molecules to take into consideration. Secondly, the information on even one of the molecules can’t easily be found. Instead the net effect of a large number of molecules is deduced from adding together their probable average momenta (which is an extremely accurate procedure for studies such as this).

15. He also churned out a paper on brownian motion for which he later won the Noble prize.

16. We have jumped a few stages here, none of which are simple, but here’s the important parts as the argument unfolded: James Maxwell systematised the basic understanding of the behaviour of what became known as electromagnetic waves. By providing a series of equations which quantitatively described the variations in electric and magnetic fields, and their interaction, he predicted that electromagnetic radiation could propagate in a vacuum, and that they would do so at 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light.

This may sound dull now, but at the time no one knew that light was an electromagnetic wave. Nor could they entertain the idea of a wave propagating in a vacuum. The solution physicists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century came up with (including Maxwell) was to deduce that there was in fact an ‘ether’ through which the waves moved.

Maxwell himself wrote in, A dynamic theory of the Electromagnetic field, Philosophical Transactions, p. 155 (1865):

‘We have therefore some reason to believe, from the phenomena of light and heat, that there is an aethereal medium filling space and permeating bodies, capable of being set in motion and of transmitting that motion from one part to another, and of communicating that motion to gross matter so as to heat it and affect it in various ways.’

17. The best explanation of these ideas is provided by Einstein himself in his short book, Relativity.

18. Hobsbawm, p. 243.

19. Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, p. 307, Harvard 1973.

20. J.T. Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century, VI, p. 199, Dover (New York 1965), quoted in Darwin to Einstein, Historical Studies in Science and Belief, p. 236, Colin Chant and John Fauvel (Open University, 1980).

21. Chant and Fauvel, p. 231.

22. Ernst Mach, der Philosoph, Quoted in Holton, p. 222.

23. Hobsbawm, p. 245.

24. Albert Einstein, Ernst Mach, in Physikalische Zeitschrift 17 (1916), pp. 101–4, quoted in Holton, p. 222.

25. See Lenin, vol. 1., p. 187–91, T. Cliff.

26. Not one of his greatest works. Lenin, hammers away to turn the world of Kant and Bogdanov upside down. They said reality is the creation of mind. Lenin insisted it was the other way round. but in doing so omitted to stress how conscious human activity can in turn alter the physical world. Empiriocriticism is a blunderbuss of a book politically, although it does display an acute sensitivity to the most recent developments in natural sciences.

27. Relativity, Einstein.

28. See In Search of the Big Bang, p. 105, John Gribben (Corgi, 1986).

29. Chant and Fauvel, p. 245.

30. Holton, p. 240.

31. This uncertainty arises as everything now has a discrete mass and momentum. In order to observe the behaviour of a particle it is necessary for a photon of light to be bounced off it.

But the photon itself has momentum, therefore it interferes with the momentum of the particle it is designed to measure, invalidating the measurement. A photon of high frequency will give an accurate position for the particle, but as it has high energy, will disrupt its momentum to a great extent. A low frequency photon, on the other hand will more accurately preserve the momentum of the particle, but give a less accurate description of its position.

32. Philosophy and the new physics, p. 130.

33. Davies, p. 100.

34. Chant and Fauvel, eds, p. 313.

35. Chant and Fauvel, p. 267.

36. Jammer, The Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics, NY (McGraw Hill 1966), pp. 166–7) (Emphasis added)

37. Chant and Fauvel, p. 303.

38. Chant and Fauvel, p. 308.

39. In Chant and Fauvel, pp. 310–1.

40. Chant and Fauvel, p. 317.

41. Gribben, p. 392. Produced prior to the publication of Brief History of Time, but after Hawking’s work had been published in academic form.

42. The dangers merely of reading off from the dominant ideology of society to science is shown most spectacularly in the hands of the Stalinists. For example, after Eddington pointed out that the universe tends towards greater disorganisation as time goes on, which is a well established idea with excellent backing in theory and experimental evidence, he received the reply: ‘To us Marxist-Leninists it is obvious that this physical theory merely reflects the general tendency in bourgeois ideology, which interprets the approaching and inevitable end of the capitalist system as the approach of anarchy.’ See, for this and further examples, Science at the Crossroads, ed. Bukharin.

43. History and Class Consciousness, p. 62, Merlin 1983.

44. Lukacs, p. 135.

45. Lukacs, pp. 119–20.

46. Hobsbawm, p. 257.

47. Davies, p. 107.

48. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, p. 276.

49. Lenin, Materialism and Emperiocriticism, p. 241.

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