Bibliographic Briefs for Natural Scientists

Comment on the literature of science and philosophy from Marxist point of view. Contributions welcomed.

On the Reasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics

Herbert J. Bernstein and Anthony V. Phillips 1981 Fiber Bundles and Quantum Theory. Scientific American July.

Some mathematicians are delighted and others disturbed by the unplanned, indeed unintended, physical applications of some of the most abstract, recently developed mathematical structures. Recent issues of The American Mathematical Monthly have featured articles which grope for an explanation of "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics." A good, short explanation in the dialetical materialist (scientific) sense concludes the article by Bernstein and Phillips:

"We believe the current usefulness and physical significance of such mathematical concepts is no accident. Neither mathematicians nor physicists are insulated from their cultural and physical milieu, and the ideas and perceptions of workers in each discipline are influenced by the other discipline. Moreover, mathematicians and physicists unavoidably share unspoken assumptions about the everyday world and the logic by means of which the world is projected onto abstract science. Indeed, they share a passionate commitment to such rational work. What seems most marvelous is not what has been called the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematical concepts in physics, or the fecundity of physical intuition as a source of new mathematics. Rather one must admire the success of the the common intellectual approach of mathematicians and physicists in creating a rich, coherent and powerful image of the physical universe" [Beatrice Lumpkin].

Dialectical logic survives again

M. Mark Mussachia 1977 On Contradiction in Dialectical Materialism. Science and Society 41: 257‑280; and discussion 42: 185‑198; 1978.

Bourgeois philosophers, unable to explain the emergence of new knowledge that contradicts the old, tend to abandon the concept of truth. They often speak of the creative process as an "irrational act" because it involves free association of information and ideas without benefit of formal logic. Because of political and cultural prejudice, they reject the concept of a dialectical form of logic at play in creative mental processes, a higher form of logic than the classical form taken by the scholastics from Aristotle. Mussachia brings this bourgeois prejudice in spades to the problem of contradiction, but he wraps his arguments in Marxist terminology.

His paper develops a mechanistic argument in which human thought processes are restricted to the laws of classical formal logic (including its law of non‑contradiction or excluded middle). Mussachia assures us that "Aristotle proposed these as the most general rules implicit in the way we think of things," that "most modern philosophers" agree with Aristotle, and that "formal logical operations are rooted in the activity of the mind‑body system." Later, in an aside, he admits: "Real logical contradictions" do occur because of "the complex, dynamic nature of the world." But he has nothing to say about the creative thought processes by which we humans are able to cope with a contradictory world where truth can turn into its opposite, nothing to say about the form of logic which deals with interpenetrating relationships and qualitative transformations.

Instead, Mussachia informs us that Marx, Engels and Lenin "lacked a clear understanding of logic" and bequeathed to us "the burdensome ambiguity in their Hegelian concepts." To help us throw off this burden, he gives us some tricky definitions that misinterpret what the founders of Marxism said on logic. For example, Mussachia develops his main argument on the basis of a distinction between "objective" and "subjective" contradictions. Though he attributes this distinction to Lenin, no basis for his key definition is found in the two references he cites. In the first, Lenin remarks on Hegel's distinction between objective "dialectics of cognition" versus self‑conscious "subjective, sophistic dialectics" which fail to "unite the opposites" (Philosophical Notebooks 279f.). In the second reference, Lenin discusses the pervading confusion of objective logic with subjective logic in Aristotle's Metaphysics, pointing out that Aristotle's logic is objectively "an inquiry, a searching, an approach to the logic of Hegel" (ibid. 367‑369). In both cases, Lenin clearly refers to the objective role of dialectical logic in thought processes, independent of consciousness. Mussachia's interpretation is exactly the opposite. As Lenin said of the scholastic philosophers, we can say of Mussachia: he takes "what was dead in Aristotle, but not what was living" (ibid. 367).

In essence, Mussachia uses rigid formal logic as the standard by which to judge the higher level of logic required to deal with the untamed semantic content of the real world, accompanying his revisionism with nasty words about "Papists of the left" who might not agree with him. This is an old technique for attacking materialist dialectics (cf. Sidney Hook, Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy 1940). Whether the misrepresentation of Marxist logic is conscious or not seems irrelevant. It comes out just as venemous from one posing as a "friend."

[See Mussachia's response in issue #5.]

Through the Prism of History

M. King Hubbert 1963 Are We Retrogressing in Science? Science 139: 884‑890.

A prophetic critique of institutionalized science as we know it in these United States . . . the transition of the university from an educational to a research institution and the careless retreat from the teaching of fundamentals ... the rise of academic opportunism and the professional entrepeneur . . . the relationship of specialization to the rise of authoritarianism in scientific knowledge. These problems of science under capitalism have grown exponentially in the decades since this paper was written.

Arthur Clegg 1979 Craftsmen and the Origin of Science. Science and Society 43: 186­201, with discussion 44: 86, 480‑481; 1980.

The materialist thesis is that the modern scientific method and the concept of intellectual freedom both derive from the practices developed in late medieval and early renaissance workshops rather than in the academic halls ("we do not know that even Roger Bacon actually experimented. His mere advocacy of experiment was enough for the order to imprison him!"). In a rejoinder to criticism from Robert G. Colodny, Clegg concedes that European craftsmen did not solve the problem of inertia but "by their success, forced some of the more intelligent academics to adopt both their methods and their philosophy." A timely and stimulating reminder than in general technology precedes and provides the basis for science.

Y. Schienin 1978 Science Policy: Problems and Trends. Cloth 330 pages. Progress (Moscow). $5.00.

Describes the emergence and development of science policy in the USSR. Examines the interaction of science and politics in the context of the 20th‑century scientific and technological revolution, the relationships of man and organization in science and technology, the structures and function of the science centers and institute network. An analysis of the Soviet system of science planning and organization compares the 60‑year Soviet experience to that of the USA and other countries. [Hyman R. Cohen.]

P.L. Kapitza 1979 Plasma and the controlled thermonuclear reaction (Nobel lecture). Reviews of Modem Physics 51: 417-423.

When the tokamak was announced in the 1960s, scientists in the west at first refused to believe the performance figures on this Soviet breakthrough toward practical fusion power. Now, the U.S. and western Europe are cheerfully building ever larger tokamaks and even designing what "hopefully" will be a practical power plant, thought it is well known that the theoretical basis for this hope is quite weak. Now comes Peter Kapitza, the physicist repeatedly headlined as being under "house arrest" in the Soviet Union, telling why he thinks the pulsed‑operation principle of the tokamak makes it unfeasible, outlining his research program for continuously‑heated plasma as the basis of a simpler, more efficient reactor, and discussing candidly the unsolved theoretical problems. Will this become another "unbelievable" breakthrough? PS: Kapitza also discusses the unresolved safety problems of fission power.

Reductionism comes in many guises

Richard C. Lewontin 1981 Sleight of Hand. The Sciences July, pp. 23‑26.

This is a review essay on Genes, Mind and Culture, a book by Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson that is possibly the most pretentious effort yet to make human society fit the Procrustean bed of Wilson's mechanistic sociobiology. The first author, a physicist, no doubt provided the rationale for the absurd model of human cultural development in which imaginary genetic units, "culturgens," determine culture change by stochastic interaction with one another. Lewontin here renders yeoman service in the struggle against vulgarization of both biology and sociology by providing an historical context for biological reductionism that goes back to Descartes' Discourses, to show the historically­conditioned nature of models.

The real value of Lewontin's dialectical and historical analysis emerges when it is compared to a Popperian critique of the same book (Science 213: 749‑751; 1981) that shows the non­falsifiable nature of the theory presented but is unable to go any more deeply into the philosophical problems. Also instructive is comparison with the diffuse review by Richard Dawkins of a comparable book on genes and culture (Nature 290: 345‑346; 1981) wherein the ethological approach of Konrad Lorenz proves to be much more sympathetic than critical of sociobiology.

H. Soodak and A. Iberall 1978 Homeokinetics: A Physical Science for Complex Systems. Science 201: 579‑582.

Two physicists baldly propose a "physical basis for reductionism" that provides another horrible example of how far astray scientists can be led by mechanistic thinking. As in the case of sociobiology (see Lewontin, above), construction of a model involves shallow analysis, deceptive use of terms, and a backward‑looking ideology. In this case, animal memory and even human societies are supposed to function as "thermodynamic engines" in which "the individual atomisms have many internal degrees of freedom." This approach is justified by positivist statements such as "Physical law provides the only constraint to reality" (thus removing all constraint on the interpretation of mathematical equations which necessarily reflect only partial aspects of reality). While the authors concede that many will find their proposal "philosophically offensive," it is presented so cleverly that it seduced one Marxist reader who was already sold on the concept of so‑called statistical causality (debated in this issue of Science and Nature).

G. Marmo and B. Vitale 1980 Quality, Form and Globality: An Assessment of Its Catastrophe Theory. Fundamenta Scientiae 1: 35‑54.

A thoughtful study of catastrophe theory, indicating its power for yielding insight on some problems of physics and biology while also pointing out the potential pitfalls that make it dangerous, especially in reductionist application to social problems. The technical assumptions (limitations of the model) tend to be progressively forgotten so that artificial and inappropriate results come to be treated as natural and universal reflections of reality.

Questions of a Useful Outlook

Marx W. Wartofsky 1080 The Critique of Pure Reason II: Sin, Science, and Society. Science, Technology, & Human Values 6 (33): 5‑23.

Examining questions of what the "metasciences" (philosophy, history, and sociology of science) "can and should" do about social issues related to science, Wartofsky resolutely ignores the existent Marxist theory on such questions. In this way he is able to find the need for a "normative theory of what the proper autonomous and undistorted role of the sciences is," since the metasciences now function as apologists "for state policy, dominant ideologies, or class interest . . . whether in advanced capitalistic societies, like the U.S., or in purportedly socialist countries, like the U.S.S.R." His final conclusion is that the proper function of the metasciences is that of critically examining the internal processes of science and its external interactions with the rest of society ("What shows itself as deficient rationality, or irrationality, then becomes the object of criticism."). Asking whether such critical applications of the metasciences make any real difference in the practice of science, he can find nothing more "than a slight ripple in the pond of ongoing research," thus evenhandedly ignoring both the insidious effects that science has suffered from bourgeois thought (pragmatism, positivism, and so forth) and the potential value of the dialectical materialist mode of thought, As one penetrates beneath the scholarly pyrotechnics, it becomes clear that Wartofsky is concerned only with the philosopher as a professional sideline critic, and has no concept of the partnership proposed by Lenin, to help scientists themselves clarify their working philosophy, that which actually guides scientific practice from day to day.

[See Wartofsky's response in issue #5.]

Working Papers on Marxism and Science, Winter 1981. A new journal published by the Science Task Force of New York Marxist School (PO Box 419, NYC 10014).

With so many philosophical problems of science confronting us, a new journal in this field can only be welcomed. In this comment on Working Papers, the standard for judging will be the same as that applied to papers appearing in Science and Nature, that is, how does it help demonstrate the usefulness of the Marxist outlook for the practitioner of science? On this basis Vicente Navarro (Work, Ideology and Science: The Case of Medicine) seems the outstanding contribution, especially where he shows the linkage between positivist philosophy and the use of statistical methods to obscure the causes of work‑related disease ("causality was supposed to be explained by association of immediately observable phenomena").

While one may not agree with all of Navarro's formulations, his paper is highly stimulating. The same may be said of the papers by Eli Messinger (An Introduction to Soviet Psychology), discussing the work of Vygotsky and Luria; the late Arthur Felberbaum (In Defense of Engels), exposing Social‑Democratic distortions; and Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose (Metaphor in Orbit), defending scientific materialism and the materiality of science against the attack of idealist authors in Radical Science Journal.

Richard Levins (Class Science and Scientific Truth) is more problematic. Under the slogan that "all science is class science," he criticizes a paper by Soviet science historian Bonifati Kedrov (Regarding the Laws of the Development of Science), also printed in the same issue. While recognizing that Kedrov deals with questions of organizing science to serve Soviet needs, Levins is highly critical of the paper because it omits class considerations. Levins does not take into account that Kedrov restricted his discussion to natural science which, to a great extent, belongs to what has been called the gold fund of human knowledge, i.e., knowledge that remains useful no matter what changes occur in the social superstructure. Nor does Levins allow for the fact that the Soviet Union has no internal capitalist class and only some fast‑vanishing middle‑class elements in the social structure. For meaningful discussion, socialist problems must be discussed in the light of the qualitatively new set of contradictions governing the development of science just as in other social processes. Kedrov should be criticized on the basis of how he deals with that set of contradictions; we should not expect him to help resolve our own situation.

Least useful by far is the contribution of Jim Becker (Economic Formation and the Formation of Economics), a candid and blatant rewriting of basic Marxist political economy. Making "apologies to any remaining biblical Marxists," he interposes "administrative classes" between capitalists and workers, and thereafter concerns himself exclusively with what he defines as "class struggle" between dominant and exploited branches of petty bourgeois administrative elements. Though Becker is properly concerned with the real conflicts of interest that occur within a scientific discipline, he does not acknowledge their historical significance as reflections of the larger struggle between opposing class forces in the Marxist sense. Such middle‑class blindness to reality is only too typical of scientists who do not relate their professional problems to the greater problems of society. Without the social consciousness that leads to alignment with labor and working people, scientists are foredoomed to the classical fate of the petit bourgeois-‑to become irrelevant if not tools of reaction.

One general comment on Working Papers concerns a tendency of some authors to ignore the socialist content of the Soviet scene or the historical processes taking place there. An instance is a Felberbaum statement ("Mechanical materialism as exemplified by the Second International and the Third International after Lenin, is the ideology of false disciples of Marx.") which implies an absence of ideological struggle or philosophical development within the Soviet Union. The philosophical literature shows that this is not true. There are problems, of course. Concerning philosophy of science, for example, one U.S. scientist has remarked: "The truth is that I find Soviet scientists too much like American scientists." But this may simply reflect the freedom of thought enjoyed by Soviet scientists. One suspects that the Soviet state gives priority to scientific output over the philosophical interpretations of scientists. And there has certainly been plenty of bourgeois ideology embedded in the international literature to which Soviet scientists have free access. Though mechanist and even idealist tendencies are there, they are far from dominant and the philosophical controversies are quite lively (cf. Loren R. Graham, Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union).

Another book for useful insight on processes of change within the Soviet Union is Giuseppe Boffia's Inside the Krushchev Era (Marzani & Munsell 1959). As Moscow correspondent for L'Unita del Popolo from 1953 to 1958, Boffa provides a first‑hand account of what happened after the exposure of Stalin's distortion, the struggles that took place and the changes that were made to decentralize power and unleash the creative powers of the Soviet people. Come to think of it, this book deserves reprinting now to answer the questions of a new generation.

SOURCE: "Bibliographic Briefs for Natural Scientists," Science and Nature, no. 4, (1981), pp. 77-81.

Note: Talkington's negative reviews of Mussachia and Wartofsky show off his ignorance, clouded reasoning, and dogmatism. See their responses in the subsequent issue. Arthur Felberbaum, who came out of the Trotskyist tradition, was involved in the founding of the New York Marxist School. Talkington's Stalinist review of Working Papers on Marxism and Science shows off his typical slavishness to the USSR. —RD

Letters to the Editor, issue #5

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 10 March 2007

Site ©1999-2007 Ralph Dumain