Science and Dogma: The Marxist Perspective

An introduction to the Marxian approach to science and ideology.

Submitted by oscarsophos on August 13, 2014

Whatever the importance of politics to Marxists, a theory which hopes to encompass the totality of social development must also come to some understanding of other manifestations of social life, and among the most important of these is science. This is all the better for Marxism, which is such a theory, as its stated goal is to give expression to the struggle of the working class against capital; which, if it is to be successful, must develop the producers’ capacities for critical and scientific thought. As the twenty-first century begins to produce conditions of class struggle and revolution, the abstract relevance of science to the communist movement takes on increasing immediacy; and yet has been obscured by historical development up to today.

On the one hand postmodernism, with its strong rejection of the ultimate validity of any scientific investigation, has come to be closely associated with Leftism in recent decades; a development deeply destructive to the working class revolutionary movement. Complementing the doctrine of postmodernism is the widespread identification, due to the long-time degeneration of its politically active incarnation into an especially repulsive instrument of exploitation, of Marxism with dogmatism. It is therefore incumbent upon socialists, in the interest of revolutionary goals, to clarify the genuine Marxian perspective on science and ideology.

There is certainly no sense in attempting to approach the problem from the viewpoint of the ‘orthodox’ Marxism, since this term has been so abused and widely applied that it has lost most of its meaning. Furthermore, as the essay itself makes clear, to speak of an orthodox version of a scientific theory is to miss the point completely. What is necessary is to apply the principles that went into the construction of Marx’s theories to the question of the relationship among Marxism, science and dogma, and the elements that compose them.

Science has been both denigrated and credited for qualities it has never possessed. Science, like all things, does not exist in the abstract but has its own history, which is only one aspect of the general history of the societies that produced it. Science in its fully-developed manifestation only came into existence in the past several hundred years; its history, however, stretches back much further than the achievements of Galileo and Newton. And even though it was Roger Bacon who elaborated the scientific method--a systematisation of the process by which ideas are formed, tested, and refined--nevertheless the fundamental goal of acquiring knowledge had taken on a broadly scientific character preceding this elucidation. It might be thought that Aristotle--not only a philosopher but perhaps the first true biologist--and Aritosthenes could be pinpointed as the progenitors of science in the sense it is familiar to us today. But for the purpose of abstract survey, the term science can be divorced from its specific modern connotation and applied to one of two modes of thought present throughout history; though this is not to imply that the scientific endeavors of the modern world are equivalent to the investigations of pre-modern individuals in any but the most general sense, yet the formation and testing of explicit hypotheses in a formal way is only the perfection of a process of learning implicit in our needs as advanced social creatures.

Though in the popular presentation the progress of science as a human endeavor is merely a function of the great minds which have come into existence to revolutionise one or another field of study, heroes are as fictional in this realm as in fables. It is obvious that, whatever the outstanding qualities of many of the thinkers, inventors, and experimenters known to us today, the insights obtained through their work have nothing to do with them as such, but only with the reality they have investigated. General Relativity, in other words, has nothing to do with the brain of Albert Einstein in itself, and exists in precisely the same relation to any intellect which takes on the quest of discovery. It is in fact utterly false to believe that any theory, concept, discovery is ever linked strictly to only one name, for upon closer inspection, every scientific endeavor has built upon the achievements of those who have come before, prompted by and seeking to correct what was incomplete and fell short.

If science is thus an inherently critical and collaborative venture, dogma is the manifestation of absolutist rule in the mind. Like science, dogma is not a constant, but has had manifold incarnations corresponding with the actions of real men and women in various epochs of history. The authority of dogma is not reason, as in science, but merely authority as such; and its only reason is the corporeal authority of its proponents. Such ideology, however much it pretends to make sense of the world--or rather to fit the world into its preconceived categories--upon closer inspection is always revealed to have started not with the material it purportedly illuminates but with the interests of specific groups within the social structure.

All discoveries to date have only confirmed that reality is infinitely deep and rich, and that no pronouncement from authority could perfectly and eternally encompass its full content. Conversation with reality, that is the ongoing process of forming hypotheses and testing them against the observable facts, is the only way to arrive at truth. The thirst for truth is a congenital characteristic of our species, and we must never accept that the book of truth has been forever closed on the order of anyone claiming to be above the task of scientific investigation. ‘There is,’ in the words of Karl Marx, ‘no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining the luminous summits’ (Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I - 1872 Preface).

Just as the a musician plays not for the abstract concept of music but for the engagement with the concrete musical material through his playing or writing, so our desire for truth is not for a final and absolute dogma, but for the living act of bringing our mental concepts closer to the fluctuating phenomena of nature. This rests upon theorizing.

Theory, as a term, has been if anything even more misunderstood than science; if only because the latter has been. In the bewildering complexity of the occurrences around us, our minds require a way to comprehend these processes in a way which fits with its own limited abilities. Theory is the mechanism by which we attempt to bridge this gap. Theory assigns labels to the things that we witness, and posits causal connections between the categories it has fabricated. Theory is a mental shorthand, a conceptual tool to manage with an economy of thought the multiplicity of observations which flood our senses; an approximation in the mind of real processes. A theory which demonstrates itself empirically we accept as true.

But while there is something definite occurring in the world that we observe, truth in the mind is always relative. As the mind is separated from the external, it must refine its perceived truth through observation and reasoning. Therefore, any claim to absolute and eternal truth is meaningless. Gaining truth--in the proper sense of the word, which recognises always in truth a grain of untruth--is a process of active engagement with and exploration of the world’s substance, not the invention of dogmas, which only translate the social necessities of the day into ostensibly eternal truths.

Dogma--ideology--has no special predilection for any specific form. It appears as religion, political programs, and even under the guise of Marxism. Though one suspects the idea had never occurred to Marx, in the time since his death both his name and what are claimed to be his ideas have been deified as revealed truths. To the extent that this is done with any convincingness--if not still mystification--it is with regard to the so-called ‘philosophy’ of dialectical materialism. What Marx had seen as a grounding for science and--even more importantly--a weapon in the fight to overthrow exploitative social relations which restrict the free expansion of individuals' minds, has been devolved into merely another ideological template of reality; the only purpose of which could be to obfuscate the real nature of social relations. Marx himself made his condemnation of such speculative philosophy as the starting point of his development of Historical Materialism:

Where speculation ends – in real life – there real, positive science begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men. Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men. Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever (Karl Marx, Critique of the German Ideology).

All that we can really say about the dead subject of traditional philosophy, from the point of view of science, is that the universe is in constant change and flux, that for this reason its various parts become differentiated from one another and interact, and that this is the basis of all phenomena both human and natural. If Hegel believed that the unfolding of history was the thought-process of God lived out by the human beings who constituted Him--the all-encompassing divine Spirit coming to know itself--Marx correctly maintained that his own materialist outlook righted this doctrine which stood reality on its head. Marx’s view foreshadowed that of the most insightful scientists, as Carl Sagan demonstrated when he told a nation of television viewers that ‘the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself’ (Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, 06:04). It is in this sense alone that a materialist ‘dialectic’ does in fact exist. The abstract categories Marx inherited from the dialectical system of his mentor Hegel, invented to comprehend this process--quality and quantity, form and content, matter and motion--are acceptable such as they are, but offer nothing specific enough to be dubbed knowledge. Those supposed Marxists who fetishise them, whatever their professed ‘materialism,’ are nonetheless in the thrall of a metaphysic.

The grand metaphysical systems invented by philosophers, as an attempt at the comprehensive evaluation of all creation, all share in common--as they must, endeavoring literally to go ‘beyond the physical’--the divorce of the mind from the corporeal world. This is in agreement with the impressions of most people, who, even if they believe their consciousness to be a product of their brains, can't precisely formulate the relation between the two. Even in many scientifically-minded people, therefore, there is still a vestige of religious thought, which sees an unbridgeable divide between body and soul.

To dispel this impression, besides bringing consistency to our worldview, can lay the foundation for a deeper investigation into science and thought. Should we think that only the physical is material, that only the tangible is real, then consciousness is indeed an enigma, and we could rightly think of it what Einstein thought of physics' ‘natural laws’: that it must somehow embody God. But it is not only the ink on the page which is real, but also the words themselves and their meaning in the mind. Consciousness is directly created and determined by the brain, but in the sense that consciousness is the process of the brain's operation, as walking arises from the movement of the legs. Consciousness is every bit as real as a table, a song, or a shaft of light. But even though both mind and light are products of other sources, we may nevertheless deal with their own independent existence. Light comes to earth from the sun (among other sources), but when it is reflected off a mirror we find it prudent to study it as light as such, not as a particulate manifestation of an extraterrestrial nuclear furnace. The same holds true for consciousness: it cannot escape its determining factors, yet it is as real and vibrant as every other aspect of the universe. This view, rather simple, might be more commonplace were it not for the confounding influence of metaphysical and ideological systems which turn reality on its head--the influence of dogma.

The inversion of truth by dogma should not be taken to mean that the latter is illogical. Logic in itself is nothing but a tool, distinct from a hammer or differential calculus primarily by its form. It is unique, however, in that its potential scope of application is practically infinite, unlike any other human implements. But like all tools, logic's utility is limited by how it is used. For the purposes of science, logic is only as good as the categories constructed for it. It may be that the most outlandish systems of thought are internally consistent given the categories they have invented--and many of them are--but this brings them no closer to veracity.

This can be more easily seen by establishing clearly the character of logic. Logic is at bottom the act of predication--of assigning attributes to things. All statements take this form. This act allows for the inclusion of one subject within another larger category, so that a dog can be understood to an animal, as is a bluebird. Finally, the contrasting of separate statements can draw out further connections which had not before been apparent; thus is causality established in the mind. And while animals plainly possess some reasoning faculty--likely comparable to our own subconsciousness--there can be no doubt that logic is the property solely of human beings. As opposed to what is inevitably the most amorphous imagery of thought to which animals are confined, logic is made possible by a sharpness and clarity in cognition rendered by language; an observation also made by Marx in connection with his formative separation from dogma:

…man also possesses 'consciousness,' but, even so, not inherent, not 'pure' consciousness. From the start the 'spirit' is afflicted with the curse of being ‘burdened’ with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men (Marx, The German Ideology).

Language, by allowing us to group together the atoms of thought derived from sense-perception into definitely constructed and delimited terms can be the medium by which logic may exist and be expressed. Logic, in turn, though each language may construct its own unique terms, offers a basis for the commonality and translatability of all languages; as it is through the predication of impressions--all derived from the senses--upon one another that all terms and languages are constructed.

At the same time, language, as Marx noted, testifies to an innate degree of sociality unique to human beings. It is at once both our medium for communication and also the internal tool with which we group, arrange and manipulate thoughts; simultaneously providing the form and content of both our internal and external discourse--so that the consciousness of one is directly made the consciousness of others. Language, not only a silent complement of logic within the mind, is by nature a means to share the mind’s content with clarity and precision. It offers, in other words, a common denominator between individual minds.

The operation of language as a mechanism simultaneously of thought and communication indicates the general pattern of human interpersonal relations. Thinkers both religious and secular have spent the years since the emergence of civilisation attempting to devise an ideal code of conduct, of morality. Each people and epoch, however, had its own estimation of the rights and duties of various classes of persons, flowing from the structure and necessities of each given society. As a result, what is virtue to some is sin for others. This confusion has led in the modern world to two responses. The first is to reject the belief in any morality at all, and to maintain that all moral standards are mere opinions without objective basis. The other is to search for a universal, underlying principle of conduct so broad it could be accepted by nearly everyone. The ‘Golden Rule’ says that one should simply not do unto others what one doesn't wish done to oneself.

The first response is perhaps closer to the truth than the second, as in fact all the speculative thinkers have been operating on faulty assumptions. This is no surprise, for in any given place and time the stipulated moral principles are not actually existing metaphysical realities, but only a part of the greater social consciousness arising out of specific class relations. Thus in the ancient Near East, ‘an eye for an eye’ was considered justice when two free men were involved, but the injury of a slave could be set right only with payment of a fine. As incomprehensible as this antiquated standard is to us today, the Golden Rule in turn is only even conceptually applicable in a society of social equality. As such, even if it could theoretically be the guiding dictum of social interaction, it certainly never has been.

Like love and justice, morality is an idea, without existence outside of the human brain. This should not be thought to imply, as it does to the ‘moral relativists’ who have correctly discerned the illusory nature of morality, that there is no reason to not trample on others in pursuit of self-interest--genuine self-interest, in fact, inevitably includes the interests of others. All people possess the inborn ability, by the interpretation of signals both implicit and explicit, to sense and experience the internal world of others--the faculty of empathy. Empathy in some form is common to many creatures, but with humans it takes on new dimensions. Morality--a concept given metaphysical proportions and intended to act as a guide to real human relations--is nothing but these relations inverted in the lens of dogma as dictated by given historical conditions. A special code of conduct apart from real interaction finds its negation in the true nature of our desires, which are not as the speculative thinkers had myopically supposed them to be. Our self-interest includes our ability to not only experience with others but also to incorporate their experiences into our own, and so the well-being of each becomes entangled with the well-being of others. As we form ourselves in large part by absorbing our environment, which includes our fellows, each of us is partly others. Unrestrained human conduct, therefore, in itself does not contradict the harmonious goals of those moral codes which would hold it in check.

But even if this is always the case to some degree, this innate pattern of interaction has been disturbed for as long as class society has existed. The social relations of exploitation, the existence of property and the family whose purpose was to preserve it, engendered the subversion of the empathetic faculty. To ensure his existence--inseparable from his privilege and property--the master must beat his slave and drown his adulterous wife, and teach his son to do the same.

The faculties of logic, language, and empathy--having come into existence as special attributes of our species--are inseparably bound, so that the existence of one implies the existence of the others. Science, manifestly an application of the first two, is moreover a social endeavor; and indeed the tools it uses imply the involvement of empathy in the heart of the scientific process. Dogma, though it pretends to be the truth received by the mind from itself or some divine counterpart, cannot escape the external reality that offers the material of all thought. Nor can that which is supposed to be above the imperfection of scientific inquiry escape its only possible form of comprehension––language––which is really only a medium for both organizing knowledge of the real world and communicating it. Knowledge is not so much a thing in itself as a phenomenon, existing only in the living process of its acquisition and accumulation. But while with snakes and spiders this is an empty and solitary process, human beings have shown that further development of clarity and precision beyond that point requires a social effort. Despite the apparent lack of connection between them, empathy and science are closely related, for without the former the latter would be impossible. Likewise, it is the suspension of empathy by exploitative social relations which leads to the perversion of logic and the triumph of dogma.



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Submitted by oscarsophos on August 13, 2014