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Excerpts from Postmodernism and Latest Scientific Research

(A section of the paper on Challenges to Marxism Today)

Back in 1942, renowned physicist Erwin Schrodinger warned us against the tendency to forget that all science is bound up with human culture in general, beyond which context it is meaningless. The momentous discoveries of science, including the most complicated and esoteric ones, always find ways into the educated community and become part and parcel of the general world view (cited by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stengers in Order Out of Chaos, pp 18-19)

This is perhaps truer today than it was then. In the preceding section we noted the hallmarks of postmodernism: extreme relativism and skepticism or nihilism in epistemology, complete fragmentation and apathy in politics, and a highly ambivalent ‘everything goes’ attitude in socio-moral values. Curiously enough, these approaches can be shown to be supported by some of the latest finding in certain branches of natural science.

Lyotard had shown an awareness of this when he commented that in its postmodern condition science is concerned "with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterised by incomplete information, ‘fracta’, catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes..."

Is this really so?

Speculative Idealism Gets A New Lease of Life

Close on the heels of the discovery that matter can be well transformed into energy and vice versa, there was an idealist clamour that "matter has disappeared" (See Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism for a discussion). This time too, the above notions (discussed in the preceeding sub-section "Exassperating Observations and Hypotheses", which we do not carry here—Ed.) — quantum mechanics in particular — have generated a lot of ‘new theories’ in philosophy. Let us take two specimen:


(The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra1975)

In this highly popular trend-setter the author explores the close resemblance between ‘new physics’ and ancient oriental mysticism represented by Hinduism (Mayavad in particular), Buddhism, Taoism (an old Chinese trend which categorically rejected rational knowledge in favour of intuitive wisdom) etc. In a crucial passage he observes: "As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks’, but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational process, and the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of an objective description of nature is no longer valid. The Cartesian position between I and the world, between the observer and the observed, cannot be made when dealing with atomic matter. In atomic physics, we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves." (PP 71-72)

From observations like these, Capra seeks to ‘scientifically’ establish the "ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical to Atman, the reality within" — and similar other ideas.


Reality and the Physicist. Knowledge, Duration and the Quantum World by Bernard D’espagnat (1989)

Compared to the above, this is a serious scientific work by an eminent Parisian professor. The author rejects the "outdated" concept of "physical realism, according to which science... describes the real as it is in itself" he postulates "two realities":(a) "independent reality, which we call ‘the real’" and (b) "empirical reality", i.e., phenomenon experienced directly by us. The former is "veiled, that is to say, knowable only as far as some of its structures are concerned". In the latter case, however, there is "room for neither woolliness not ambiguity" — strict scientific rigour is quite in order here, and only here.

"... Scientific models", D’espagnat further observes, "...reveal to us, though in such an indistinct and uncertain manner that it would be better to say ‘they give us hints about’, certain structures of the real". Therefore, it cannot be maintained "that religion and myth are not themselves also ‘models’, giving us — in a manner equally indistinct and uncertain — access to other feature of the real. With regard to independent reality, the uncertainty is, I insist, just as great in both cases. On the other hand, ...only the scientific mode, to the exclusion of religion and myth, can give us access to empirical reality..."

Our Attitude

For all his labour Capra fails to show that quantum mechanics affirms such dominant themes of oriental religious philosophy as the real world being simply an illusion, or matter being a derivative of consciousness. When quantum mechanics postulates the limits of a certain mode of observation and highlights the essential interaction between the observer and the observed (between man and sub-atomic matter and by extension nature), what gets dissolved is the Cartesian compartmentalisation — not Marxism. Our philosophy insists that matter exists independently of human consciousness/knowledge, but fully recognises the relative limits of latter and underscores the said interaction. It rejects all dogmatism, all rigid demarcations and bases itself on an integral conception of man and nature.

That to some extent reality is veiled, and the advances in science not only extends the frontiers of knowledge but also, at times, reveals the complicated nature and insurmountable limits thereof — notions like these do not present any difficulties to the dialectical materialist. What is not acceptable in D’espagnat is his presentation of the bigger, veiled reality and everyday phenomenal reality as polar opposites: we believe the two domains always overlap and interpenetrate and the boundary between them is always shifting. And most objectionable is the extreme conclusion he reaches, namely that while science rules supreme in the realm of empirical reality, in the domain of independent reality it stands helplessly at par with forms of intuitive consciousness such as religion and myth. Ultimately the scientist surrenders to idealism, revealing once again the flabbiness of what Lenin used to call bourgeois professorial science.

Such idealist-speculative inferences notwithstanding, quantum mechanics as such does not contradict dialectical materialism. As Capra correctly notes, it is the Cartesian compartmentalisation which gets refuted, and which is no part of our worldview. Marxism has always insisted on the organic unity of man and nature and on a certain relativity of human knowledge. In Anti-Duhring, Engels offers a very lucid description of how absolute truths are not always to be found even in mathematics and how they get rarer as one moves from the exact sciences like physics and chemistry to the second group comprising biology, zoology, etc. to the third group consisting of social sciences. He concludes: "Truth and error ... have absolute validity only in an extremely limited field ... and if we attempt to apply it as absolutely valid outside that field we really find ourselves altogether beaten: both poles of the anti-thesis become transformed into their opposites, truth becomes error and error truth".

Engels also made it a point to state that all knowledge — the Marxist theory not excluded — "contains much more that in capable of being improved upon than that which cannot be improved upon, or is correct."

From consistent dialectics, however, a Marxist takes care not to slip into absolute relativism and agnosticism. As Lenin explained, "...to make relativism the basis of the theory of knowledge is inevitably to condemn oneself either to absolute skepticism, agnosticism and sophistry, or to subjectivism... The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels certainly does contain relativism, but is not reducible to relativism, that is, it recognises the relativity of our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional."

"Marx’s theory is an objective truth", Lenin went on to conclude, only in the sense "that by following the path of Marxian theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting it); but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but confusion and lies."

The contrast between the ‘orthodox’ Marxist and the ‘postmodern’ agnosticist here stands out in bold relief.

There is, however, at least one notion of quantum mechanics which seems to pose some genuine difficulties for physicists as well as Marxists. It states that before observation a system remains in an uncertain or indeterminate state, or in more than one states while it is the act of observation or measurement which attributes a definite state to it. This notion was— and still is — doggedly contested by a host of scientists from Albert Einstein to our contemporary Roger Penrose. As Einstein once explained (or complained) to poet Rabindranath, this notion dares to claim that if at a particular moment nobody is looking at the moon, it will pass into an indeterminate state, into a blurred picture, so to say, and will regain its known shape, location etc. as soon as someone looks up to it. The theme was presented in a scientifically more rigorous way by Erwin Schrondinger, who had been, ironically, a great contributor to quantum theory. Put a cat in a box, says he, and arrange an electronic device which may kill the cat at an unpredictable point in time. Inside the box, i.e., beyond our observation, the living cat will be facing death at any moment and will — according to quantum mechanics— exist in a partly dead, partly live state, or the one cat will turn into two cats: one dead, one live! As soon as we open the box and look in, our observation will turn the state of indefiniteness into one of definiteness: we will see either a live or a dead cat!

Incredible and ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s it , said Schrodinger, and Einstein congratulated him for this, "prettiest way" of refuting of quantum mechanics. In fairness to quantum mechanics, however, it must be said that here "observation" doesn’t necessarily have to be human: it may be interaction with any other instrument or simply any object. It is on this basis that present-day scientists like Stephen Hawking endorse quantum mechanics without any inhibition. What this version essentially means in general terms is that interaction between two objects radically changes the state of both or at least one of them and this much presents no philosophical difficulty for us. So far as details are concerned, however, it is advisable not to oversimplify matters and come up with a hurried defence of materialism and rejection of those ‘absurdities’ even before physicists settle their quantum controversy.

Now to conclude this section, let us look back on the quote from Lyotard supplied at the start. What he described is only one side of the coin — a very partial picture of science today. For science is not quantum mechanics alone. There are very many important branches where strict scientific rigour is very much in order and moreover, even in quantum mechanics uncertainty and probability are partly measurable quantities. This aspect Lyotard chooses to suppress. What he and postmodernists generally fail to note is that for all the new-found importance of divisibility, uncertainty and chaos, science is not liquidating itself. Quite to the contrary, simultaneous attempts to construct a grand unified theory — covering everything, all phenomena in the universe and subsuming all the partial theories of science — are going on in full vigour, with full participation also of quantum enthusiasts like Stephen Hawking. Modern or postmodern’ grand narratives are, after all not banished from science!

Science has thus taken quantum mechanics in its stride, and so should Marxist philosophy. Not only in regard to quantum mechanics, but to all the revolutionary advances in science. To do that we much first of all admit that those advances have rendered the currently available form and presentation of dialectical materialism, rather backdated and inadequate. To revise this form, to incorporate into its framework such breakthroughs as the latest discoveries in cosmology, the uncertainty principle, measurable randomness and so on — such is the responsibility resting on us, the present generation of Marxists across the world.

Humankind today faces a truly historic challenge. It has to form a broader worldview, a higher sense of reality by transcending the organically inherent tendency of our gray matter to try to conceive everything including the subatomic world in the image of the macroscopic world (both natural and social), of which it (the human brain) forms part and according to the rules of which it has been trained to function. The mostmodernists are responding to this task in their own way — and with great effect. If we are to recapture the intellectual-moral leadership of society, we must do it our way, on our grounds. Marxism, and Marxism alone, has the flexibility as well as the inspiration to grasp the dialectics of micro and macro, chance and necessity, chaos and order — and to use this balanced, dialectical knowledge in explaining-transforming the world.

Home > Liberation Main Page > Index September 1998 > ARTICLE