By Kumar David –
[Part I of this series was published on 11 March, 2018]
Psychology yes; but does avant-garde physics have a bearing? – Modern Science, Materialism and Society
This is the second of a two-part essay on Marxism and science. In Part 1 last week, I focussed on Darwin’s and Marx’s common methodology and concluded that the latter was as much science as natural selection. Darwin too left many questions unanswered, most important, the mechanism of inheritance. The gap was closed when genetics arrived. Furthermore, statistical mathematics made quantitative reasoning possible. Natural selection plus genetics now goes by the name Neo-Darwinism and is pretty much the most proven theory in science today. The emergence of ecology located natural selection within a larger framework and turned it into a holistic systems-theory. Other advances in natural science are in medicine, genetic-engineering and climatology but these are more applications oriented and do not fall within the epistemological focus of this essay.
Apart from psychology and crowd psychology which have obvious relevance to sociology, one would have to be extremely careful before suggesting that twentieth century physics (relativity, uncertainty and chaos theory) have had an impact on political-economy, sociology or Marxism. It is true that, in a loose way, people do mention one or the other as illustrative of this or that socio-political theory or religious philosophy, but this is just analogy and illustration. I have been warned by my ever-vigilant tormentor Dr Gamini Kulatunga as follows:
“You need to go slowly and tread softly as most readers will have wrong ideas about what these terms mean. The common understanding of chaos is utter randomness, uncertainty has the same connotation. Relativity is mistaken for ‘everything goes’. We are used to reductionism to explain complex systems by diminishing them into simple parts or laws. Chaos arises from small changes in the initial conditions but there is order, and uncertainty arises from emergent properties of complex systems. All these have a higher order which is a beyond the common grasp”.
The relevance of mass psychology to socio-politics, however, is more direct. Freud’s lexicon is embedded in our everyday vocabulary – the unconscious, ego, repression, libido and neurosis. He founded psychoanalysis to explain behaviour and treat mental illness and thus opened an immensely controversial can of worms; latter-day psychologists question some of his theories. Relevant to this essay is mass political culture; collective psychological factors that influence group behaviour, for example race, religion, colour and language. The earliest study of mass psychology predates Freud; Scottish journalist Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). Mackay says the crusades reflect mania in the Middle Ages and economic bubbles Mississippi Company, South Sea Company and Tulip Bubble fall into the same category.
‘Group hysteria’ transmits collective illusions through a population as rumours, fears and threats. Freud saw order even in this disorder, there was “reason” in the crowd’s madness — the arousal felt in being part of a crowd is real. Recall Nietzsche’s remark “Insanity in individuals is rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule” and Carl Jung’s “The masses are a breeding ground for psychic epidemics”. In 2010 Lawrie Reznek asserted “Whole communities can be deluded and driven to madness”. We in Sri Lanka have witnessed it often; for example, the 1983 riots and the recent anti-Muslim pogroms which exhibit maniacal mass psychosis while at the same time social media is filled with vituperation and hatred. Overseas the world saw many-sided genocide in former Yugoslavia a few years ago and right now genocide of Rohingyas in Burma.
Political analysts including Marxists have learnt the importance of understanding crowd pathology and collective psychological disorder, not least in dealing with fascism. The refusal of the German Socialist and Communist Parties to heed Trotsky’s desperate pleas to understand inter-war German fascism and unite to stop it by every means possible, contributed to the Nazi rise to power. The rise of neo-populism, to which topic this column will return on 1 April, underlines the importance of taking account of mass political psychology in these times.
Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist, is known for his writings on ideology. The titles of his books indicate their scope: One Dimensional Man, Eros and Civilisation, Reason and Revolution. Other important figures were Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Eric Fromm and the so-called Frankfurt School in general. None of them, to the best of my knowledge were working scientists but deserve mention under the general rubric of this essay. Of current relevance is the Annual Review of Critical Psychology (2010) devoted to Marxism and Psychology. This introductory quote is intriguing.
“In the wake of the near total collapse of the global financial system, we are witnessing activists, scholars, and practitioners who have begun to reflect on the relationship between certain academic disciplines and dominant economic and political structures. Yet for those working within the discipline of psychology, the connection is anything but transparent. What are we to make of an article on the front page of the American Psychological Association website that, at the height of the global recession, urged psychologists to brace for recession depression?”
Modern physics and socio-political theory
The first question is whether quantum mechanics is materialist. Einstein was the loser in the debate against the Copenhagen School about the nature of physical reality. The issues: Wave-Particle Duality (quantum objects are waves and particles at the same time), Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (it is impossible to simultaneously measure with exactitude the position and velocity of a quantum object) and a very funny thing called Quantum Entanglement (if you do something to one member of a quantum pair, its companion, even if far away, is affected instantaneously – information seems to travel faster than light). Einstein, of deterministic bent, called this “spooky” and was never reconciled to the end of his life. Hard materialists hope that one day, a new theory will reveal a deeper reality behind subatomic particles, in the same way as the discovery of electromagnetic radiation explained the nature of rainbows.
Quantum Social Science, a book by Andrei Khrennikov and Emmanuel Haven [Cambridge University Press, 2013] seeks to apply the logic of quantum theory to social systems. Written by experts, it attempts to apply quantum principles to decision-making, inter alia, in finance, economics etc. Some may find the book informative but few will find its prescriptions persuasive.
What of mathematical chaos theory? Chaos arises from small changes but there is order in the unfolding. Ambiguity is an expression of emergent properties of complex systems and has a higher order pattern. Chaos in mathematics is a fusion of disorder and order, as it is in society. Thus, I see no conflict with materialism.
The pseudo-subjective observer
You have no doubt heard of a great puzzle in the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), of certain quantum phenomena, attributed to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and opposed by Einstein. CI says that certain phenomena remain undecided until a conscious observer intervenes and looks at it. It is crucial that readers grasp what is being said. It is not being said that the state of affairs inside a box, for example, is not known till we look inside – Einstein would have been quite happy with that. What is being said is something bizarre.
Let me make it schoolboy-simple. CI says that, say a quantum-cat*, inside a box can’t make up its mind what it wants to be (black or white, dead or alive) until a conscious observer takes a peek into the box. Let me repeat. It is not that we don’t know the status inside the box till we look. No, CI says that the state inside the box doesn’t itself know what it wants to be until someone looks. Things are suspended in uncertainty with a certain probability of going this way or that. Reality can’t “make up its mind” and decides what to be only when someone looks at it! The state of the system falls into place (the quantum-cat becomes dead or alive) only when an observer peeks. (*I use ‘cat’ because of a yarn known as Schrodinger’s Cat used by quantum physicists to explain this enigma).
To keep it schoolboy-simple let me do a reductio-ad-absurdum. After palaeontologists discovered and dated their bones (fossils), we reckoned that dinosaurs existed 60 million years ago – Einstein will be happy with that. But a CI-palaeontologist would say that it was the discovery of fossils that made dinosaurs exist 60 million years ago and that whether fossils would exist in the past was mathematically probabilistic. Sounds nuts, but it is this indeterminateness that has driven some to assert that quantum phenomena are subjective, not objective, and that therefore quantum physics is not materialistic.
That individual quantum events are probabilistic, not deterministic, is not open to dispute. But here’s the funny thing; it is not subjective, it is pseudo-subjective. What I mean is if you change the observer he/she will not report different findings. The results will be the same whoever the observer; all observers are the same. In the subjective world, Vellupillai Prabaharan and Gunadasa Amerasekara claim quite different things about the same observation. That’s what we mean by subjective. But both Quantum-VP and Quantum-GA will report exactly the same conclusion about an observation though neither would know beforehand what it would be.
Therefore, CI is pseudo-subjective; it is independent of the specific observer. Indeed, at an aggregate level (millions of repetitions), nothing in physics is as precisely deterministic as quantum. This is why quantum-based gadgets are utterly reliable; optical devices, LED products, chips, integrated circuits, and all the paraphernalia of modern digital technology. The utter predictability at the macro level of a physics based on probability at the micro level is, epistemologically, hard to digest.
Thus, the question whether the subatomic world is probabilistic is irrelevant for macro-technology, society and political-economy. Quantum entanglement is irrelevant to the materialist interpretation of the macro universe. Do you recall this? “Whether objective truth can be attributed to human activity is not an abstract but a practical question. Man must prove the truth and ‘this-sidedness’ of reality in practice. The dispute over reality or non-reality in history, sociology and political-economy, isolated from practice, is scholastic”. (Abbreviated).
Wave-Particle Duality, Uncertainty Principle, and Quantum Entanglement do not disturb the materialist conception of society, human history, geology or the world of nature, one jot.