Science and Marxism

The Big Bang and mysticism in science

Woods claims that, “At no time in the history of science has mysticism been so rampant as now.” (p384) He darkly asserts that “determined attempts” are being made to “drag science backwards” (p381) and that the supposed subjectivism in Einstein’s relativity “beyond doubt, exercised the most harmful influence upon modern science”. (p167)  “To blur the distinction between science and mysticism is to put the clock back 400 years,” he warns. (p199) Woods argues that the temple shrine in this citadel of mysticism is the Big Bang theory.

Woods claims that, “At no time in the history of science has mysticism been so rampant as now.” (p384) He darkly asserts that “determined attempts” are being made to “drag science backwards” (p381) and that the supposed subjectivism in Einstein’s relativity “beyond doubt, exercised the most harmful influence upon modern science”. (p167)  “To blur the distinction between science and mysticism is to put the clock back 400 years,” he warns. (p199) Woods argues that the temple shrine in this citadel of mysticism is the Big Bang theory.

Has science been set back 400 years? These are absurd claims. Most scientists are not practising mystics but in many respects salaried workers, of whose work Woods approves and disapproves arbitrarily. “Fortunately,” says Woods, “it is possible to work out quite accurately the amount of matter in the observable universe. It is about one atom for every ten cubic metre of space.” (p191)

How is it possible? Who did the science? Who should be credited? Why give merit to this cosmological observation and yet deride current cosmology as a whole? The reliability of such results are interdependent on the current state of cosmological theories in general – estimates of the number of atoms in the universe are not the result of some isolated Herculean counting exercise carried out by an unknown, but an integral part of the current theories of the universe. Yet Woods rejects this general cosmological framework, which he says is “frequently bordering on mysticism”. (p183)

The Big Bang

What are Woods’ objections to the science of the Big Bang itself? The Big Bang theory rests on four pillars of evidence. This is how the University of Cambridge’s cosmology website outlines them:

1. Expansion of the universe

2. Origin of the cosmic background radiation

3. Nucleosynthesis of the light elements

4. Formation of galaxies and large-scale structure


The Big Bang theory is the only theory which provides a consistent explanation for the observed universe: firstly, of course, its expansion, and secondly, the ancient cosmic background radiation, to which we will return. 

Thirdly, it explains why there existed light elements, mainly hydrogen and helium, before there were any stars in our universe. Stars formed from these light elements. The processes which take place during the life and death of stars produces all the other elements which go to make up the chemistry of the universe (the elements of the periodic table, such as oxygen, carbon, silicon, iron, calcium, and so on). But they do not manufacture hydrogen, they only consume it, and the quantity of helium produced by a star is less than it consumes.

Fourthly, alongside a full account of the relative abundance of the light elements that make up the universe, the Big Bang theory is able to account in general terms for the formation of galaxies and other large-scale structures of the universe.

The Big Bang therefore for the first time gives the universe a history in time. It further elegantly solved the centuries-old paradoxes that had puzzled scientists, such as that of the universe collapsing in on itself through gravitational attraction, and Olbers’ paradox, which we discussed in the chapter, Newton: belief and contradiction. It accurately predicts the abundance of elements: why there is so much hydrogen, created together with helium in the Big Bang, and the current proportion of the heavier atoms, created in the stars during the period since the Big Bang. (The calculation of the abundance of these elements has even more credibility because they were first made by a team led by Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the Big Bang theory.)

However, the piece of evidence that brought the Big Bang theory into mainstream cosmology was the accidental discovery of the last distant echoes of the Big Bang epoch: the cosmic background radiation.

The cosmic background radiation discovery

Woods objects that Big Bang theorists “move the goalposts” (p222), continually shifting the theories associated with the Big Bang universe around to fit the latest sets of data. It is true that experimental data often provides unpleasant surprises for researchers, and that theories have to be re-examined in the light of new discoveries. But Woods argues that this continual readjustment of theory in the light of new facts shows that the Big Bang theory is not science, but mysticism. In this, Woods follows Eric J Lerner, author of The Big Bang Never Happened, who is well known for his attacks on the Big Bang ‘orthodoxy’. Lerner’s tribute to the remarkable scientist Hannes Alfven is reproduced by permission on the opening pages of Reason in Revolt (but omitted in the second edition), and he is quoted as an authority throughout, particularly in the chapter on the Big Bang.

Lerner believes that the scientific establishment bureaucratically defends orthodox theories to the exclusion of competing theories. This is an important point but Lerner views it in an entirely one-sided manner. It is ironic that the Big Bang theory is precisely one that was derided fifty years ago, but has become a mainstream theory, perhaps in particular as a result of the discovery of the cosmic background radiation.

Lerner and Woods make out that the bias in science towards the established orthodoxy is a shocking new phenomenon. But it has always been so. As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn remarked in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the establishment of paradigms (Aristotle’s universe, Newton’s universe, Einstein’s universe, the Big Bang universe) directs research to a particular ground, so to speak, establishing what then becomes normal science.

In the field of astronomy, Kuhn adds, the establishment of paradigms goes back thousands of years: “Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive to its basic commitments.” But he points out: “Nevertheless, so long as those commitments retain an element of the arbitrary, the very nature of normal research ensures that novelty shall not be suppressed for very long.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p5) The discovery of the cosmic background radiation was just such an “element of the arbitrary”.

It is revealing to briefly study one instance of this supposed shifting of the goalposts that Woods pursues through the pages of Reason in Revolt. Before the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, theorists realised that if the Big Bang had taken place, there would be a faint afterglow of the original fireball, and were able to calculate the circumstances of the release of this cosmic background radiation. If found, they realised, it would be convincing evidence of the Big Bang theory. The actual discovery of the cosmic background radiation was one of those serendipitous scientific accidents which makes an excellent narrative, and is often found popular books on cosmology.

Woods describes how the temperature of the cosmic background radiation was differently estimated a number of times before it was discovered. The first attempt at an estimation of the temperature was by George Gamow and Ralph Alpher a quarter of a century before it was observed experimentally.

When the cosmic background radiation was discovered, purely by accident, by two young radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, in 1965, it was found to be at a much lower temperature than predicted. They measured a temperature of 3.5 degrees above absolute zero – absolute zero is minus 273 degrees centigrade – very cold indeed! Penzias and Wilson were perplexed by the radiation whose source was a mystery to them. Contemporary Big Bang theorists Robert Dicke and James Peebles, working at that very time not many miles away, had estimated the temperature to be in the region of 35 degrees above absolute zero.

Woods goes so far as to hint that Dicke subsequently made false claims about the accuracy of his original predictions. (p 187)  This lack of agreement of original theory and data in relation to temperature is Woods’ main argument to discredit the Big Bang origins of the cosmic background radiation. In reality, the early estimates were based on more approximate data, and as new data came in from bigger telescopes, more accurate estimates could be made. When Gamow and Alpher made their original prediction, they used the very approximate value for the rate of expansion of the universe calculated by Hubble in the 1930s.

It is true that there was still a discrepancy between the predicted temperature and the experimental result. But Woods fails to mention any of the other numerous factors of the radiation identified by the radio astronomers Penzias and Wilson, which coincided with the general theoretical conception of the cosmic background radiation model being developed by Big Bang theorists Dicke and Peebles at that time. In technical terms, Dicke and Peebles theorised that the radiation must be black-body radiation, it must be isotropic, unpolarised, have a certain range of temperatures, and a certain range of wavelengths.[1] A further explanation of these concepts would take us a little beyond our remit. Suffice to say that the nature of this radiation was unique and quite specifically determined and identified. All of this meant that when the two teams of scientists, Penzias and Wilson, and Dicke and Peebles, finally learnt about each other’s work, they instantly recognised what they had found, despite the temperature discrepancy.

In 1965, the two teams collaborated on publishing scientific papers announcing the discovery, in the same issue of Astrophysical Journal. The paper of Penzias and Wilson modestly concentrated on a detailed description of the radiation they had discovered, for which they won the Nobel prize. Dicke and Peebles, (who had intended to set up an experiment to detect this very radiation, until they were beaten to it by Penzias and Wilson) concentrated on just what this discovery meant. The papers are available on the internet (see endnote).

Let us take a brief look at the paper, Cosmic Black-Body Radiation, by Dicke, Peebles, Roll and Wilkinson. (Astrophysical Journal 142: pp414-419, July 1965)

One curiosity the paper reveals is that Dicke and Peebles were working on a cyclical Big Bang model, the type of model of the universe which, in the 2002 preface to Reason in Revolt, Woods falsely says is consistent with dialectical materialism, because it assumes the universe is infinite in time. (We touched on this in the chapter, Engels on materialism, the infinite and cosmology). This was a common Big Bang model until the time of the discovery of the cosmic background radiation.

Dicke and Peebles worked out the early temperature of the hot dense origins of the universe using the current temperature of the cosmic background radiation newly discovered and determined by Penzias and Wilson. They wrote that during the “highly contracted phase of the universe” a temperature in excess of ten billion degrees “is strongly implied by a present temperature of 3.5° Kelvin for black-body radiation”. (Astrophysical Journal 142, p416)

3.5° Kelvin is the temperature that Penzias and Wilson measured. From Penzias and Wilson’s measurement Dicke and Peebles found that there was support for the calculations of the relative abundance of the light elements (mainly hydrogen and helium) made by Hoyle and others, emanating from a hot dense origin of the universe – another of the four pillars of the Big Bang theory, alongside the cosmic background radiation itself. This is compelling evidence for the Big Bang.

A third deduction in their paper relates to the number of atoms per “cubic metre of space” calculation for which Woods gives a figure without recognising its derivation. The authors of the paper somewhat ruefully recognised that, based on the experimental evidence discovered by Penzias and Wilson, the average number of atoms in each cubic metre of space (the density of the universe) was far too low for their own model, the cyclical Big Bang model, to be possible.

The universe appears to be ‘open’, fated to continue expanding indefinitely, they reluctantly concluded. Their cyclical model, they wrote, required the lower limit of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation to be no lower than thirty degrees above absolute zero, with an upper limit of forty degrees, except under some rather speculative circumstances. At a frigid 3.5 degrees, they wrote, this spelt trouble for their ‘closed’ universe concept which cycles through big bangs and big crunches.

All these considerations show that Woods’ objections to the discrepancies of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation do not in any way invalidate the general nature of the discovery, as he implies. However, the apparent low density (the ‘missing matter’ problem) of the universe is still a question for major study in cosmology.

ScientistMotion UniverseInfinity
AristotleAbsoluteAbsoluteFiniteInfiniteDenied actual infinite
Showed paradoxes of infinite
NewtonAbsoluteAbsoluteInfiniteInfiniteGod as infinite
TodayRelativeRelativeOur universe is finite in time and space.
Beyond our universe nothing is known.
In general, scientists regard infinities,
which arise in calculations,
as indicating an error.
Table 5: the situation today

There is no headlong rush to mysticism in these four pillars of the Big Bang theory, which adhere entirely to the material evidence, as opposed to the occult of Newton’s universal gravitation. In fact, it is Woods who abandons a materialist approach in order to explain the origins of this supposed mysticism. He argues that subjective idealism, Einstein’s supposed “philosophical mistake”, has had the most “harmful influence upon modern science”. (p167) And he cites the autobiography of the virulently anti-Marxist philosopher Karl Popper to back him up. According to Popper, Einstein confided his “mistake” to him, Woods informs us. Woods takes this as good coin:

All the nonsense about “the observer” as a determining factor was not an essential part of the theory, but merely the reflection of a philosophical mistake, as Einstein frankly confirmed. (p167)

What Woods terms “nonsense” is in fact a straw man resurrected by him based on past philosophical misinterpretations of Einstein. It is astonishing to see Woods quoting Popper uncritically. Popper’s works and followers are saturated with an active hostility to dialectics and Marxism. Popper’s works are harmful to science and the philosophy of science. (This is discussed in the following chapter.)

It is not a materialist approach to attribute to a “philosophical mistake” the emergence of a supposed “mysticism” more rampant than at any other time in the history of science. This appears to be more of an idealist approach: to seek to explain developments in human society primarily through the development or influence of philosophical ideas, mistaken or otherwise, rather than to look for their material basis.

Creation of matter

Woods often argues against the coming into being of our universe in the following way:

From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, it is arrant nonsense to talk about the ‘beginning of time’ or the ‘creation of matter’. Time, space, and motion are the mode of existence of matter, which can neither be created nor destroyed. (p198-9)

Woods bases his argument essentially on the law of the conservation of mass and energy, which basically says that the total amount of mass and energy of a system must be conserved. He says, “there is one law which knows no exception in nature – the law of the conservation of energy”. (p108)

Let us disregard for a moment that some scientists suspect there are small breaches in this law at the quantum level over very short periods of time. The law of conservation of mass and energy appears to apply generally within the confines of our universe, the physics of our four dimensional space-time. But suppose that there is a substratum which underpins space-time, perhaps a world from which our four dimensional space-time is an emergent property, the tip of an iceberg, a qualitative change in special circumstances. Suppose that in other circumstances quite a different configuration of physics emerges from this primeval flux? This is, of course, speculative.

But let’s look at the matter historically. Hermann Helmholtz is often considered to be the first to formulate a law of conservation of force in 1847, although others, including Descartes, had proposed similar theories. He later said: “If we are fully acquainted with a natural law, we must also demand that it should operate without exception.” Engels, who quotes Helmholtz here (Dialectics of Nature,pp108-9), ridicules the fact that Helmholtz goes on to admit that we “objectivise laws which in the first place embrace only a limited series of natural processes, the conditions for which are still rather complicated”. In other words, Engels explains, Helmholtz admits that while scientists may demand that a law is applicable without exception in nature they are often far from understanding it, let alone proving its eternal validity. Historically, it can be seen that our understanding of physical laws is contingent on our understanding of physical processes, and that laws come into being and pass away in revolutions in physics which render the old laws inapplicable. Thus, in the nineteenth century, the laws of conservation of energy, or more strictly of mass-energy, replaced the law of conservation of ‘vis viva’ or ‘living force’ proposed by Leibniz around the period 1876-89.

It may be objected that the conservation of mass and energy is common sense – things do not pop up out of nowhere. This appears to be the way questions are often treated in Reason in Revolt: statements are made that, it is assumed, simply require no justification, no evidence, as if one should rely on common sense. But we are not talking about our everyday experience, but the extreme limits of nature and our scientific knowledge.

The second problem with Woods’ approach is much simpler: it simply does not follow from the law of conservation of mass and energy that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only that the total mass and energy of a system must be conserved. 

In other words, the law of conservation of mass and energy does not contradict the dialectic of coming into being and passing away, whether at the subatomic, quantum level, or at the cosmic level, so long as energy and mass are conserved overall. It is speculated that our universe is comprised of opposites so that, for instance, all the mass and energy of the universe is exactly equal to its opposite, gravity, so that they cancel out. In this way, it is speculated, the law of conservation of mass and energy was not broken when all the matter and energy of our universe emerged in the Big Bang, along with its negation, gravity.

Woods ascribes to matter and energy indestructible and uncreated properties, which he wrongly believes follows from the law of the conservation of energy. Interestingly, Engels says this on the question of the law of conservation of energy:

Whereas only ten years ago the great basic law of motion, then recently discovered, was as yet conceived merely as a law of the conservation of energy, as the mere expression of the indestructibility and uncreatability of motion, that is, merely in its quantitative aspect, this narrow negative conception is being more and more supplanted by the positive idea of the transformation of energy, in which for the first time the qualitative content of the process comes into its own, and the last vestige of an extramundane creator [e.g. Newton’s god] is obliterated. (1885 Preface, Anti-Dühring, p18)

In our view, Engels would have embraced the ideas of Einstein, of the transformation of mass into energy and vice versa. Engels placed great emphasis on the discoveries of the transformation of different forms of energy – heat, light, mechanical motion. He was thrilled at the discovery of the conservation of energy only because of its recognition of these transformations. The conservation, the indestructibility and uncreatability of motion, Engels sees as a narrow negative conception, “the last vestige of an extramundane creator”, which is being “supplanted” by concepts of the transformation of energy.

Nineteenth century mechanical conceptions were found to be inadequate by the beginning of the twentieth century. Quantum mechanics, one of the most successful of modern scientific theories, shows that if a particle with positive energy comes into being out of nothing (i.e. from some as yet unidentified substratum), a particle with negative energy also comes into being. Matter and energy are thus conserved while at the same time the narrow negative conception of the conservation of mass and energy is lost. No wonder, then, that physicists were not completely unprepared for a rather larger version of this quantum creation and destruction of matter in the Big Bang, only given that there was sufficient evidence, a smoking gun, which was provided by the cosmic background radiation.

Woods, on the other hand, precisely stresses the narrow, negative conception of merely the conservation of energy and mass, in order to justify his undialectical concept of an infinite universe, which is beyond material proof.

Woods suggests that dialectical materialism has a special privileged way of determining scientific questions in advance of any evidence. In truth, Woods is merely regurgitating the efforts of nineteenth century physics that were summed up in the first law of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy – and giving it his endorsement.

[1] Radiation takes the form of ‘black-body radiation’ if a primordial fireball like the Big Bang radiated it before there was any other radiation in existence. Stars radiate into almost empty space, and emit almost perfect black body radiation as far as astronomy is concerned. But the detected cosmic background radiation is much closer to a perfect black body, immediately suggesting a more primordial origin. Crudely speaking, black-body radiation is radiation which is characteristic of the radiating system only, that is, it shows no indication of having any radiation incident upon it, as it were, from other radiating bodies.

Next: The dialectic of the unity and interpenetration of opposites in science