From New International, Vol. I No. 5, December 1934, pp. 137–138.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Outlook Of Science
by R.L. Worrall
192 pp. London. John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, Ltd. 8s 6d.
The war, and the years after, taught the enemies of materialism that the repeated citation of excerpts from the works of Bishop Berkeley, and those of a few other philosophers of varied accomplishment and repute in the sphere of the ghastly and godly, would not serve to stem the rapidly growing influence of the teachers of dialectic materialism. Surprising and annoying as it was to them, the fact remained that the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge had ceased to have the ring of authority, the feel of impersonal solidity that it at one time commanded.
In contrast to the growing realization in the mind of the thinking man that “the naive realism of any healthy person” – as Lenin expressed it in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism – was, in the final analysis, the correct basis upon which to erect a philosophical structure, Berkeley’s reiterated admonition to the select faithful that “there is not any other substance than spirit” sounded hollow and philosophically tubercular. The old idealism was routed. The question was: How to restore its essence in a changed form? The alarm went forth and from all directions defenders flocked to the idealist standard, bringing with them new colors, altered patterns and a brightly novel terminology. They came from the schools of divinity – the eternal reserve officers’ training corps of idealism – and from the philosophy departments of the lay colleges. Realistic, practical merchants went forth from their materialistic counting-houses to write – in the evenings (enough is enough!) – their compact, leather-bound tracts in defense of a world of spirit. But finally, from the laboratories came the personnel to man the heavy batteries of neo-idealism. Subtle, experienced, men of accomplishment in the world of matter, these men were well qualified to reform the routed forces of idealism and lead a strategic flank attack on conquering materialism. The day of the forthright Berkeley was over. The clever manoeuvre of ambiguity must replace the tactic of head-on assertion.
Worrall has, in The Outlook of Science, brilliantly turned the spotlight of materialism into the most secret hiding-places of the disguised neo-idealists and he has brought their occupants to the surface, blinking with surprise and embarrassment. Because, Worrall has, for instance, taken the trouble of searching out the definition which Russell gives to electron and proton, traced it out through pages and books of ambiguous verboseness, he has finally succeeded in arriving at the nub of Russell’s philosophy – and puncturing the extended bubble of his “realism”.
Russell probably represented the most artful of the idealistic dodgers. If the Bishop of Cloyne said outrightly in 1710 “As to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that is to me perfectly unintelligible”, in 1927 Bertrand Russell, with a scientific gleam in his eye, smuggled into his Analysis of Matter: “What the physiologist sees when he examines a brain is in the physiologist, not in the brain he is examining.”
Action on the part of the neo-idealists started with a rather weak shot, Science and Human Progress by that old discoverer of ectoplasm Oliver Lodge. Even his cohorts averted their eyes when Lodge blubbered:
“Not only the heavens, but the earth; not only the flowers, mountains, sunsets, but every pebble, every grain of dust, the beautiful structure of every atom, proclaim the glory of the Being who planned and understood it all.”
Milord Lodge was admittedly the Salvation Army Band of idealism. If not for the fact that Worrall successfully deals in similar style with the more skilled of his opponents one might be tempted to lift an eyebrow at this forceful child-beating. As it is, the criticism of Lodge’s ‘‘religious ideas under the cloak of ‘science’” serves to preface the winning attack on the writings of Jeans, product of the same philosophy. Sir James, who speaks dreamily and pleasantly of innumerable monkeys pounding innumerable typewriters to produce innumerable books, refuses to leave himself open in the manner of his ideological old man. Let Lodge cross himself in public if he will, none of that for Jeans. He prefers to suggest, after a fair-to-middlin’ sophisticated argument, that “this brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of the creator”. Worrall however regards no argument as too worthless for refutation. He grabs Jeans by the rear and traces out the argument:
“Neglecting the mountain of absurdities which are involved in the conception of a ‘Creator’, the question may be asked: if the universe is ‘a thought in the mind of the creator’, then must not the ‘Creator’ have a brain to think with?”
But we must cease dallying with the subalterns while the generals wait. After all, those most to be feared are the disguised idealists, the metaphysicians in the scientific garb with the scientific-sounding chatter. Worrall wastes little time pondering the majesty of those he attacks. Rotten reasoning and antiquated philosophy are both putrid whether casually spoken by a high school history teacher or neatly formulated on vellum by Bertrand, Earl Russell.
In a masterly fashion Worrall, using the works of the sage, outlines the essentially idealistic character of Russell’s thinking. “Electrons and protons,” says the self-styled neo-realist, “... are not the stuff of the physical world: they are elaborate logical structures composed of events.” This is slightly obscure and the unwary may pass it by as realism. Worrall searches and finds, however, the Earl saying: “As to what the events are that compose the physical world, they are, in the first place, percepts ...” And percepts? Why percepts are purely mental! So, to have Worrall summarize:
“Russell plunges into the mire of subjective idealism: electrons are composed of ‘events’, which are, in the first place, percepts, which are mental phenomena!”
The lion’s realistic roar echoes as an idealistic squeak.
Eddington, the astronomer-prestidigitator is the really slippery one though. The Eddingtonian tactic is first to enchant the reader by his playfulness, his refined nonsense, his references to common things and then suddenly to leap to metaphysical obscurity with the reader in an hypnotic condition and holding on tight. Thus the versatile astronomer is not above quoting Jabberwocky to illustrate a point.
“The slithy toves
serves to demonstrate that “the description of the processes [atomic] must be taken with a grain of salt. The tossing up of the electron is a conventional way of depicting a particular change of state of the atom which cannot really be associated with movements in space as macroscopically conceived. Something unknown is doing we don’t know what ...” Worrall comments:
“What is the significance of this playfulness! It is that in the process of play the support which atomic theory gives to materialism is denied ... Actually, in presenting its ideas in the form of mathematical formulae physics gains in exactitude, that is, its theories approximate more closely to objective reality.”
Eddington with his disarming nonsense causes one to believe “that it is only numbers which rescue physicists from entire ignorance”. This of course is in line with his philosophy which “is a mixture of subjective idealism and agnosticism”.
Professor Whitehead, with a confused and difficult terminology all his own, is a more difficult man to corner. As Worrall aptly puts it, he reminds one of that “blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there”. The fact however that Whitehead considers the material atomic components as abstractions is sufficiently damning when it is borne in mind that the great majority of physicists consider these “to be concrete entities existing quite independently of any mental process”.
So, in superb logical sequence, R.L. Worrall shows the idealistic nature behind the thought of Lodge, Jeans, Russell, Eddington, Haldane, etc., etc. Nor does he hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from his thesis:
“If philosophy is only a question of putting one’s thoughts in order, or if philosophy is simply random speculation, then why have such definite, enduring and bitter controversies broken out?
“The answer to this involves the relations between philosophy, religion and science. Religion is a factor of the relation, and religion is the concern of the Church – and the Church is the ally of the State – and the State is the instrument of the ruling class in society ...”
In all ages idealism has been the bed-mate, if not the exo-skeleton, of religion. Conversely, to quote Bishop Berkeley, “How great a friend material substance has been to atheists in all ages were needless to relate.”
The scientists, philosophers who are allied with the class holding power, who occupy the well-paid chairs in their universities, who are carefully attended to in their endowed institutions, and whose writings are eagerly accepted by the publishing houses of capitalism cannot be expected to further the ends of materialism: they refuse to undermine the palace in which they live. That task must be accomplished from the outside. By thoroughly analyzing and criticizing the nature of that philosophy, in all its veiled manifestations, which supports this edifice, R.L. Worrall has written an important and valuable book.
Last updated on 26 February 2016