Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Recent times have seen a growing chorus of attacks on science, the scientific method, materialism and rationalism--from environmentalists, feminists, sociologists, philosophers, social democrats, New Age believers, and others. A leading US feminist, for example, argues that 'science today serves primarily regressive social tendencies'. These 'new irrationalists' believe that many of the problems of our world are caused by the ethos of science. It is argued that science is at the forefront of a new imperialism, imposing its mechanistic, unfeeling, white, male, Western ways upon the world. The results include environmental destruction, militarisation, and the ruination of pre-existing communities.
Latterly there has also been an increase in the level of religious fundamentalism and mysticism around the world. We saw a 'born again' US president for most of the 1980s, for example, and popular newspapers and magazines now contain a panoply of mystical advice columns. At the same time we have witnessed a growth in sales of popular science books--but most of these books try to link science with mysticism. For instance, arguing that modern science proves that 'we are meant to be here', or that it really reflects eternal truths of Buddhism. Furthermore, in universities and schools today, outside science subjects, it has become common practice to teach that science is 'just another story', just one of a number of alternative ways of seeing the world, and that there is no such thing as scientific truth or objective reality any more.
There are two main reasons for the rise of this new irrationalism. One is related to the fact that capitalism uses science as an ideology. The ruling class tries to disguise its role by pretending that political choices are the neutral outcomes of 'expert' advice. It also tries to use science to claim that inequalities are inevitable--due, for example, to individual genetic differences.
Many people on the left, appalled by the continuing destruction, waste and oppression in our world, blame this on science, seeing it as part of the ideology which is used to justify the existing order. In blaming the technology used to inflict much of the damage, they attack the science used to make the technology.
In addition, reformist groups worldwide have been utterly incapable of offering any alternative to market capitalism, and socialist ideas have not been promoted on a large scale. This is essentially the reason why the new irrationalism has grown. Socialism is based upon materialism, and the idea of understanding the nature of the world through experience in it. In this it has much in common with the empiricism of science. When the forces of socialism are weak, critics of science have more influence.
Science is of course an activity very much affected by the society which supports it--and many of its critics quite correctly detail this. However, science is different from other activities in that it studies the real material world. In general, discoveries which are made, and tested by repeated experiments, then remain in that context as truth about the real world--like the theory of evolution, Newton's laws of motion, or the double helix form of DNA. Such truths remain independent of the nature of the people who discover them. They are not in themselves sexist or racist for example, although of course technologies based upon these truths are often used in oppressive ways.
Furthermore, modern science is not finding 'God', nor is it chaotic or indeterministic. On the contrary, science has never been more successful in explaining features of the material world than it is today, and new discoveries are continually building on the success of the old. Religious or mystical 'explanations' of phenomena have no predictive power whatsoever, and are quite useless practically--even priests build their churches using the principles of mechanics, in preference to relying upon divine inspiration. Science works--it enables one to make machines or invent processes which do their jobs reliably. This is of course why capitalism supports science--military and industrial competition constantly prompts technological innovation. Whilst this has resulted in the invention of dangerous and destructive technologies, it has also made possible the means of feeding the world's population.
Science is not innately destructive or prejudiced, nor does it have anything in common with mysticism--the ideas of the new irrationalists are simply wrong. Furthermore, a widespread mistrust of science and materialism would carry two dangers with it. One is that people will cease to believe that the rational application of technology is the way to provide the world's population with basic needs. This would be disastrous--for a start, without modern technology most of the current world population would simply starve, and the rest would be reduced to agricultural beasts.
The other danger is that it weakens the left. All round the world we see an alarming growth of fascist parties and right wing religious fundamentalist movements. The ideology of these groups is anti-materialist, ahistorical and anti-rationalist. Part of the fight against fascism and reaction in general is the affirmation of science and materialism against superstition and bigotry. We on the left must clearly argue that the materialism and empiricism that science embodies is critical to socialism, and that the technology which we can create with science will be essential to ensure a decent life for the human race. Science and materialism are critical to the defence of the ideals and possibilities of socialism; on the other side there are plenty of warnings of what could fill the vacuum created by their absence.
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