The opposition to the IS majority – known as the Non-Faction Faction (NFF)

Resolution from Greek EC

December 2018

The Greek section has been one of the sections that, apart from the Irish section, has found themselves in the epicenter of the crisis in the International.

It is a fact that the leadership of the Greek section, its EC and its IEC members, fought with determination against what we saw as a disproportionate attack by the IS majority on the leadership of the Irish section and the threat of a split in the International, based on weaknesses or mistakes of the Irish section which the IS unjustifiably characterized as “fundamental differences of principle” and as a breach with the working class orientation and Marxist analysis of the CWI.

The opposition to the IS majority – known as the Non-Faction Faction (NFF)

Setting the record straight

A response to the IS majority and platform statement – part 1

Irish NEC Majority

17 January 2019


The rapid escalation of the current dispute in the CWI is a source of huge concern for comrades internationally, both because of the content of some of the argumentation as well as concern as to where the dispute will lead.

The opposition to the IS majority – known as the Non-Faction Faction (NFF)

For a Serious and Constructive Debate in the CWI – for Principled Unity

Reply to ‘Working class Trotskyist’ faction platform

By DB (IS), TC (EC, USA), SB (IEC, Ireland).

January 2019

The platform of the recently formed international faction, made up of a minority of IEC members from 11 sections of the CWI, correctly states that recent developments in the International will “undoubtedly come as a big shock to comrades throughout the CWI”.

The opposition to the IS majority – known as the Non-Faction Faction (NFF)

Setting the record straight – part 2

Irish NEC Majority

February 2019

Election 2016 – what really happened

The IS Majority and the Faction mention the February 2016 General Election campaign. The accusations they make in relation to that are: 

  • The leading comrades in Ireland denied that there were issues/mistakes with the material produced during the election;
  • We only accepted that there were mistakes after a series of sharp discussions;
  • The mistakes reflected an opportunist trend in the leadership.
The opposition to the IS majority – known as the Non-Faction Faction (NFF)

The world at a crucial conjuncture: new phenomena, demands and tasks – the crisis in the CWI

Document of the opposition to the CWI International Secretariat majority

May 2019

A new phase in the internal struggle has opened up in the recent period. In March the IDWCTCWI faction split, followed by the departure of the Spanish section “Izquierda Revolucionaria” from the CWI. The leaderships of the Mexican, Venezuelan and Portuguese sections are urging their members to follow them. In mid-April, without any consultation with majority IEC members, the IS majority announced it wanted to overturn the unanimous decision of November 2018’s IEC to convene an IEC in August followed by a World Congress in January 2020, instead announcing its plan for an IEC meeting four months later. A majority of IEC members objected to this and insisted that the IEC be convened, as agreed, in August. In response, in what appears to be an accidentally leaked draft letter, which wrongly anticipated the outcome of a meeting held by the IEC majority comrades on 16 &17 April 2019, the faction announced that comrades who participate in an August IEC meeting, a large majority of IEC members, “are placing themselves outside the CWI and in a rival organisation”. This outrageous threat to expel the majority of IEC members and their sections by the minority is the most dramatic demonstration to date of the destructive path being followed by the faction, using methods completely alien to those earlier used in the CWI. It unfortunately confirms fundamental problems with the faction, that the majority of IEC comrades have pointed to in our recent statements.

Science and Marxism

End note and Bibliography

The two classic papers on cosmic background radiation are:

A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s
A.A. Penzias & R.W. Wilson
Astrophysical Journal 142: 419-421, July 1965

Cosmic Black-Body Radiation
R.H. Dicke et al.
Astrophysical Journal 142: 414-419, July, 1965


Where page numbers are given in the text, they refer to the pages in the particular editions of the publications listed here:


Aristotle, Physics,

Aristotle, On the Heavens,

Barrow, John D., The Infinite Book, Vintage, 2005

Big Bang: The four pillars of the Hot Big Bang model are discussed at the Cambridge university Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics:  ‘A Brief History of Observational Cosmology’ at

Calder, Nigel, Einstein’s Universe, the layman’s guide, Penguin/Pelican 1998

Copernicus, Nicolaus, On the revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, in On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking, Penguin, 2002.

Dicke, R.H. et al., Cosmic Black-Body Radiation, Astrophysical Journal 142: 414-419, July, 1965

Einstein, Albert, Relativity, Methuen, 1960

Einstein, On the electrodynamics of moving bodies (paper on special relativity, 1905), The Foundation of the general theory of relativity, (1916) and

Cosmological considerations on the general theory of relativity, (1917) are all in On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking, Penguin, 2002.

Engels, Frederich, Anti-Dühring, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969

Engels, Frederich, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow 1954, Lawrence and Wishart, 1955

Engels,Frederich, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, Marx and Engels Selected works in one volume

Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Marx and Engels Selected works in one volume.

Galileo, Dialogues Concerning Two Sciences is in print complete in a new collection, On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking, Penguin, 2002.

Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The relevant excerpt is currently at’s_ship

Gamow, George, Mr Tompkins in paperback, Cambridge University Press, 1965

Gleick, James, Issac Newton, Fourth Estate, 2003

Gould, Stephen Jay, Eight Little Piggies, Penguin, 1993

Gott, J. Richard, Time travel in Einstein’s universe, Phoenix, 2002

Greene, Brian, The Elegant Universe, Vintage, 2000

Greene, Brian, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Vintage, 2005

Gribbin, John, In search of the Big Bang, the life and death of the universe, Penguin, 1998

Hawking, Stephen W., A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, 1989

Hegel, GWF, Encyclopaedia  see:

Hegel, GWF, Science of Logic, Humanity Books/ Prometheus Books, 1998. The Science of Logic is on the internet at A google search on a phrase of Hegel’s quoted here, enclosed in double quotes, will often take you directly to the webpage, where a search of the page will take you to the passage in question.

Hoffmann, Banesh, Einstein, Granada / Paladin, 1982

Hoyle, Fred, Frontiers of astronomy, Signet, 1963

Janiak, Andrew, Newton as Philosopher, Cambridge University Press. 2008

Janiak, Andrew. (ed.), 2004, Newton: Philosophical Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic that can Present itself as a Science,

Khun, Thomas S, The structure of scientific revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 3rd edition, 1996

Lenin, Conspectus of Hegel’s Book, The Science of Logic, in his Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 38, p.85-242

Lewontin, Richard, It Ain’t Necessarily So,

Marx and Engels, Selected Works in one volume, Lawrence and Wishart, 1968

Newton, Issac, Principia, is in print complete in a new collection, On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking, Penguin, 2002.

Newton, Issac: See the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a discussion on Newton’s Views on Space, Time, and Motion:

Novack, George, The Origins of Materialism, Merit/Pathfinder Press, 1971

Penrose, Roger The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, Vintage, 2004

Penzias, A.A.  & R.W. Wilson, A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s, Astrophysical Journal 142: 419-421, July 1965

Plekhanov, Georgi, The development of the monist view of history, Moscow, 1956

Rees, Martin, Before the beginning, Our Universe and others, Touchstone, 1998

Singh, Simon, Big Bang, Harper Perennial, 2005. I recommend this book as an introduction to the subject.

Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, Allen Lane / Penguin (Hardback edition) 2007

Trotsky, Leon, Problems of Everyday Life, Pathfinder Press, 1994

Woods, Alan, and Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt, Wellred publications, London, 1995 (Alan Woods should not be confused with Allen W. Wood, who also writes on Karl Marx, and is a Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, USA)

Science and Marxism

The dialectic of the unity and interpenetration of opposites in science

As briefly mentioned earlier, Woods follows Eric Lerner’s general approach to the Big Bang. Lerner, adopting a popular style, argues that the Big Bang theory is full of holes. This is misleading. When pressed, Lerner makes clear he rejects the Big Bang theory because one or more of its predictions have from time to time failed – such as the original calculations of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation mentioned above.

Science according to Karl Popper

Lerner takes the position that: “When a theory makes clear predictions which are contradicted by observation it is falsified and has to be rejected.”  ( What Lerner expresses here is the well-known philosophy of the anti-Marxist, anti-dialectician Karl Popper. In broad terms, Popper said that if a single observation falsifies a scientific theory, the theory is wrong, and must be abandoned. He argued that if a science relies on theories that do not admit of falsification, or if a science simply modifies its claims to circumvent falsification, it can no longer be thought of as a science, but at best is no more than a “metaphysical research programme”, and at worst is no different to mysticism, like astrology.

In its original and popular form, Popper’s mode of falsification may be conceived in terms of a single experimental result, which is capable of producing data that can falsify the scientific theory under investigation. This idea has entered into our common sense notions of science, but is an inadequate and misleading depiction of the methodology of science.

While there are many celebrated examples of falsification – such as the Michelson and Morley null result which failed to prove the existence of the aether discussed above – closer historical examination of such examples shows that this oversimplifies the situation. In the case of the Michelson and Morley experiment, there were serious conceptual problems with the very idea of the aether. There were related problems of how James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism was linked to the physics of light. There was a period of crisis in physics. There were a whole series of experiments, each of increasing accuracy and ingenuity, before and after the celebrated Michelson and Morley experiment, and yet scientists were at a loss as to what exactly was wrong. It was the combined weight of these failures, together with the emergence of Einstein’s theory of relativity that finally overthrew the old Newtonian physics and the aether theory together.

Popper came to recognise that his original conception was inadequate, and modified his theory in various ways to circumvent criticism. Lerner uses the “naïve falsification” popularly associated with Popper’s theory to dismiss the current Big Bang theory, while some have used Popper’s theory to suggest that cosmology itself is not a science, arguing that it cannot, by its very nature, be falsified in the way Popper conceived.

But this only demonstrates that Popper’s theory of falsification was too narrow. In every field, including physics and especially cosmology, science advances on a broad front and requires evaluation, comparison and judgement of a wide range of evidence (often apparently conflicting) over time. For this reason, it is inappropriate to cast science into the mould of simple true/false laboratory tests. This is most clear in the sciences that are far removed from the experimental laboratory, such as the sciences which study evolution, archaeology, palaeontology, and so forth, but it applies in cosmology too.

Popper falsely argues that Marxism is not based on a scientific method since, he asserts, it has shown itself to be not falsifiable. Events, Popper argues, have provided evidence of the falseness of Marxism as a theory, and yet it has refused to die. Marxists argue that Popper and his followers display a profound lack of understanding of Marxist theory, if not a determined opposition to it. Popper concluded, at one point, that Darwinian evolution is not science. This is essentially because Darwinian evolution, a little like Marxism, does not generally avail itself of simple laboratory tests. Yet the truth is that no science reduces itself to the simple criterion Popper proposes, as the example of the temperature of the cosmic background radiation in the previous chapter, The Big Bang and mysticism in science shows.

Vulgar materialism and positivism

Popper’s theory of falsification fails its own test – it cannot be falsified. The theory is problematic since the falsifying observations themselves may turn out to be false. But these are merely technical objections. The truth is that complex phenomena such as scientific theories evolve in time, and any modern science is a complex result of historical development. By contrast, it is in the nature of what is termed positivist philosophy to attempt to reduce all things to simple facts, the atomic components, as it were, that make up the whole, rather than approaching things in a holistic manner. Although he refused the title, Popper was correctly seen as the representative of modern positivism in Britain. In their day Hegel and Marx were both hostile to all varieties of atomistic positivism, from the ancient Greek atomists to the positivists of their day.

Dialectics has always opposed this simplistic approach. The evaluation of scientific theories requires a comparative analysis of a wide range of observation and theories – all facets of the phenomenon. By comparison, Popper’s approach is reductionist: it tends to take the falsifying evidence in isolation (as Woods does in the cosmic background radiation temperature discrepancy) rather than examining the whole in its historical development. Some of the most prominent scientists have attested to the inadequacies of Popper’s approach, such as Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time and Roger Penrose in The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, a thousand-page book aimed at giving a comprehensive guide to the laws of physics, published in 2004. Penrose says Popper’s method is “too stringent a criterion, and definitely too idealistic a view of science in this modern world of ‘Big science’.” (The Road to Reality, p1,020)

Unfortunately, however, many scientists still pay lip service to Popper’s basic contention, even if in their daily practice they do not apply his method. Some, like the physicist Lee Smolin, appear to have an inconsistent or pragmatic outlook. Smolin demands that a theory is not only falsifiable, but also “confirmable” – something Popper denies is possible. Further, when Smolin discusses What is Science? he embraces the philosophy of Paul Feyerabend, a fierce critic of Popper. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, pxiii and p290)

Of course, any materialist, considering the Big Bang theory, would rightly object to the notion that something can come from nothing. But as we have said before, science assumes a substratum. Science continually uncovers as yet unknown physical processes. If something appears to spring from nothing, it indicates that there are limits to our scientific understanding, an understanding that does not encompass all aspects of reality. Marxists cannot take the crude approach exemplified by Reason in Revolt.

In fact, sometimes Woods takes a very crude approach to science: “In the last analysis, all human existence and activity is based on the laws of the motion of atoms.” (p60) This is not true in any sense, let alone in the last analysis. In the very simplest sense it omits gravity, photons of light and so forth. But it is an indication of the eclectic method of Woods that he then immediately proceeds to assert the opposite: “Nobody in their right mind would seek to explain the complex movements in human society in terms of atomic forces.” (p60) What does he mean then by “in the last analysis”? Cells, animals, species, consciousness, social organisation – most complex things cannot be reduced to the laws of the motion of atoms, “in the last analysis”.

Later, Woods applauds the ancient Greek atomists “who visualised the universe as being composed of only two things – the ‘atoms’ and the ‘void’. In essence, this view of the universe is correct.” (p145) It is not true in essence or in any other sense. It is the crudest, most ancient expression of the philosophy of positivism of which Popper is a descendent – the modern school properly began with Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century, and with which outlook Reason in Revolt is flawed. This time Woods does not stop to contradict himself, but leaves this crude reductionist position to stand. Marx and Engels rejected the philosophy of Comte and those who took up a similar position later in the century.

Dialectics and science

In any case, from a dialectical point of view, everything that changes has within it an interpenetration of opposites, as Engels puts it in Dialectics of Nature. This dialectic applies in the field of science, and certainly brings us nearer to a Marxist understanding of the nature of scientific theories. Some opposing, contradictory data is likely to be unaccounted for by any scientific model in any field, especially the more ambitious models.

In the “great dialectic between theory and data”, as the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called it, good scientific modelling attempts to find common ground in a riot of data. The Big Bang theory famously confronts a number of contradictions, the most important of which is how it came into being out of nothing. We have attempted to show that modern science is no stranger to the dialectic of coming into being, even if it does not consciously recognise this dialectic. But none of these contradictions yet seriously challenge the validity of the four pillars of experimental data that confirm the Big Bang theory. Instead, the contradictions lead to further developments and new conceptualisations of the universe and its contents, further experiments and discoveries.

As well as contradictions confronting scientific models themselves, there are also opposing political and social pressures on scientists to interpret their data in various ways. Take global warming. Enormous political pressures were placed by various elements of the ruling elite, particularly within George W Bush’s regime in the USA, on those scientists who defended the theory of global warming against the theory’s opponents, which included some of the large, powerful sections of the capitalist class that Bush represents, like major oil companies. This may now be beginning to change.

Yet the vast majority of genuine researchers in the field of global warming were prepared to oppose these political pressures. Why is this? There are divisions within the ruling class on the question of the environment, since some corporations fear a backlash arising from the failures of big business-led governments to counter global warming, among other concerns. This same pressure is no doubt felt within the scientific community, as well as being fed by it. Woods treats the scientific establishment as if it is monolithic, but it too suffers from the interpenetration of opposites. Scientific teams of researchers, at any rate, are in many cases skilled workers themselves, even if the grants, bursaries and investment in science are coming more and more under the thumb of the capitalist class at the present time.

In fact, contradictions in and between scientific theories and their data abound within science, as any practising scientist knows. We have shown how Newton was aware of contradictions in his own model of the universe, such as the problem of the collapse of the universe under its own gravity. There will always be data that is untamed, alternative interpretations, contradictory material. Some contradictions indicate the path down which a more advanced theory may one day be found, leading at a certain point to a revolutionary overturn of the old paradigm and the establishment of a new paradigm, which then largely dictates the outlook and direction of scientific research and its theoretical development over a whole period of time, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.

Thus the Newtonian paradigm of space and time was overthrown two centuries later by Einstein’s space-time paradigm and the Big Bang theory, resolving contradictions that had existed since Newton’s day. We cannot discuss the merits of Kuhn’s work here, but Kuhn is certainly right when he points out that a paradigm “need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted”. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p18)

Woods rather disdainfully writes that Kuhn’s philosophy of science “can be accepted as true” (p380), although in typical eclectic fashion in the preceding paragraphs he embraces some of the very ideas Kuhn was successfully refuting. Woods can hardly argue that Kuhn’s approach, which has elements of a dialectical outlook, informs Woods’ own approach to science in Reason in Revolt, since the opposite is true. There is no question that the accumulation of material evidence is critical to the advancement of science. But Woods’ approach is too simplistic.

Contradictions found in scientific theories, such as the Big Bang theory, might indicate the dying embers of an old, negated paradigm, or aspects of it preserved but represented in unrevised methods and outmoded supporting theories, outdated instruments operating at the far limits of their range, or techniques that are still far from adequate.

Hegel explains that in the course of human development the negation of old ideas (or paradigms) does not simply mean that human history is a meaningless process of endless errors. Something is always preserved in the course of the negation. Now this something might be a positive or a negative hangover (or a mixture of both), but it indicates, as Kuhn hastened to emphasise after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that there is a continuing development of a greater understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to those philosophers who deny any progress at all. There seems to be insufficient recognition of the nature of this dialectical process of new ideas coming into being in Reason in Revolt.

In the collection of essays, It Ain’t Necessarily So, the evolutionary biologist and social commentator, Richard Lewontin, puts it like this, beginning with an oblique reference to the same revolution that inspired Hegel:

As in politics, so in science, a genuine revolution is not an event but a process. A manifesto may be published, a reigning head may drop into a basket, but the accumulated contradictions of the past do not disappear in an instant. Nor do the supporters of the ancien régime. The new view of nature does indeed resolve many of the old problems, but it creates new ones of its own, new contradictions that are different from, but not necessarily any less deep than, the old. And waiting, just across the border, are intellectual somocistas, saying, “I told you so. What did you expect?” trying to convince us that the old way of looking at nature was correct after all. Of course, the old view of nature can never return, but rather new revolutions displace old ones. (Darwin’s Revolution, New York Review of Books, 16 June 1983. The Somocistas were reactionary landlord supporters of the US backed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza prior to the 1979 revolution.)

Only a complete theory would consistently explain everything – and no theory is ever complete because observations constantly reveal new phenomena that require new, higher levels of theoretical understanding. Woods, however, rejects the entire body of the modern science of cosmology, calling it creationism: “The Big Bang theory is really a creation myth,” complete with “its inseparable companion, the day of Final Judgement (the ‘Big Crunch’).” (p183) This accusation of a creation myth, made by Hoyle (who died in 2001), and other opponents of the Big Bang theory – at least until the discovery of the cosmic background radiation forty years ago – is regarded by scientists as simply casting aspersions. On its own it is not a scientific refutation. If Woods wishes to criticise the Big Bang, he must do so by thoroughly examining – in an informed and balanced way – the experimental evidence.

Idealist approach

In the chapter, The Theory of Knowledge, Woods elucidates the main reason why he feels there is mysticism in science: “… there has been no adequate philosophy which could help to point science in the right direction. The philosophy of science is in a mess.” (p381)

This is Woods’ justification for writing a book on a subject that he knows very little about: he is the philosopher bringing dialectics to the misguided or ignorant scientist. Reason in Revolt attempts to use philosophical reason to revolt against modern science, calling on the assistance of dialectics. As we have seen, Woods’ acquaintance with philosophy also appears to be sketchy.

Woods reiterates that “Einstein was partly responsible” for the supposed tendency to mysticism in science. (p381) Once again we must insist that this is not a materialist approach. It is not helped by a complaint of “prejudice against dialectics”. (p385) However true that may be, and however much it may hinder the rapid development of science, it is still no material barrier which could send science backwards, let alone so far back that at “no time in the history of science has mysticism been so rampant as now”. (p384)

As long ago as 1885, Engels concluded that “natural science has now advanced so far that it can no longer escape dialectical generalisation”. Twentieth century scientific theory, in particular quantum mechanics, in many ways soon proved this to be the case. Engels merely notes that the scientist can arrive at these generalisations “more easily if one approaches the dialectical character of these facts equipped with an understanding of the laws of dialectical thought.” (1885 preface to Anti-Dühring, pp19-20)

On the whole, however, Woods puts the causes of the supposed descent into mysticism of science down to philosophical mistakes. This is a very one-sided approach that has fallen into idealism. Hegel, the consummate idealist, would – indeed did – take the same position. Science, he said, was a “kind of witches’ circle in which… phenomena and phantoms run riot in indiscriminate company and enjoy equal rank with one another.” (Science of Logic, p461) Hegel was an idealist philosopher. Marx and Engels broke from that view.

So should Marxists defend the Big Bang theory? This question indicates a wrong approach to Marxist dialectics. We have tried to show that Marxism does not supply an a priori means of determining correct scientific theories – it cannot dictate by means of materialist dialectics which scientific theory is verifiable and which is not.

In general terms only a genuinely socialist society could re-establish workers’ confidence in the results of modern science, once science is no longer subject to the malign influence of big business agendas. In 1926, Trotsky wrote:

Although class interests have introduced and are still introducing false tendencies even into natural science, nevertheless this falsification process is restricted by the limits beyond which it begins directly to prevent the progress of technology. (Problems of Everyday Life, p287)

This is still true today. But scientific thought will only demonstrate truly “vast possibilities” once it is

… so to speak, nationalised, emancipated from the internecine wars of private property, no longer required to lend itself to bribery of individual proprietors, but intended to serve the economic development of the nation as a whole. (Problems of Everyday Life, p274)

Only then could we perhaps envisage the development of the social and political toolkit of Marxism into one which embraces and encourages independent scientific development (without any a priori judgements). Then, instead of perhaps in their ones and twos today, scientists as a body will be able to consciously apply dialectical considerations as an aid to their work.

But Trotsky issued the following warning:

Whenever any Marxist attempted to transmute the theory of Marx into a universal master key and ignore all other spheres of learning, Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] would rebuke him with the expressive phrase “Komchvanstvo” (“communist swagger”). (Problems of Everyday Life, p274)

Dialectics and the universe

Science has demonstrated the dialectics of the universe. Some ten to twenty billion years ago, so far as is most broadly accepted by science today, there was a sudden catastrophic dialectical transformation, and the universe we know came into existence – from what cause we do not know. Time and space are bound up with matter and energy, and are not exempt from the dialectics of nature. Time has not been ticking eternally, exempt from the transformations of quantity into quality first discovered by the ancient philosophers of Ionia, and which in modern times helped form the Marxist understanding of processes here on earth.

Woods supposes that time is exempt from this dialectical transformation. In arguing for an infinite universe, Woods steps from the path of materialism and science, and onto a path towards ‘metaphysics’. By metaphysics here we mean both a non-dialectical approach and an attempt to base a philosophy on a realm beyond the world of experience. The science of the Big Bang presents both a more material and a more dialectical view of the universe than that of Reason in Revolt. Woods dismisses the scientific evidence of the Big Bang without a proper consideration of that evidence. Is this dialectical materialism? Surely it is the opposite.

Some of the modern theories of the cosmos contain a rediscovery (not for the first time) by science of the dialectics of nature. The theory of cosmological phase changes or transitions helped scientists make definite predictions that have been experimentally proved, as Greene explains. He says “cosmological phase transitions have proven so potent” that many scientists feel that the concept of phase transitions will contribute to a unified theory of the cosmos. (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p268) They are used in theories of how the early universe developed. Phase transitions are an example of the dialectic of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa.

One thing is certain: an infinite universe can never be tested for or detected by a telescope, or any other instrument. The origin of the concept of an infinite universe is not to be found in nature but in the mind. It is an idea, and to argue that our universe is infinite in time and space in the twenty-first century is a move backwards to the epoch of the origins of Newtonian physics, and towards a philosophy of idealism.


At the beginning of this review, we suggested that Woods has a less than rounded-out grasp of science. He does not understand how water boils. He does not recognise Newton’s first law of motion, attributing it to Einstein’s relativity, and then attempts to discredit it. Had he chosen any other of Newton’s laws to discredit, he might have been correct, if only by chance, but he fell upon the one Newtonian law which remains fundamental to physics. Woods attempts to defend the Newtonian universe, yet no more recognises the fact than he does Newton’s laws.

But it was not Woods’ scientific pretensions that led us to review Reason in Revolt. Woods claimed, in his obituary to Ted Grant, that Reason in Revolt defends the fundamentals of Marxism. We strongly object. Woods supposes that dialectical materialism takes as axiomatic the Newtonian universe. He misrepresents 2,500 years of science and philosophy to support this mistake. He fails to grasp the dialectic between theory and experiment, and has little understanding of scientific method.

He calls on Hegel for support. Whereas Marx and Engels took Hegel’s dialectical idealism and stood it on its feet, creating what became known as dialectical materialism, Woods spins it around to get metaphysical idealism. He reverses Hegel’s rejection of the spurious infinite universe, embracing this undialectical ideal in the name of Marxism. Marx and Engels abandoned Hegel’s system and kept his dialectical method. Woods defends Newtonian absolute space and time, which Hegel incorporates into his Absolute Idea, and abandons Hegel’s dialectical method which contradicts it.

Woods misrepresents both Hegel and Engels. Engels explicitly praised Kant’s insight into the coming into being of our universe, yet Woods makes no mention of it. He attempts to turn Engels’ understanding of science into a timeless dogma, and ignores Engels’ dialectical method, which points clearly to the conclusion that our universe must have come into being and will pass away.

We have attempted to present an alternative to the reader, by discussing the historical development of ideas about the universe, which led eventually to the astounding and counter-intuitive theories of today: Einstein’s relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Big Bang. Marxism does not have the tools to evaluate these sciences independently of a full comprehension of the scientific evidence, incomplete as it always will be, purely on the strength of its philosophical method. Yet Woods supposes that dialectical materialism has some a priori ability to judge the correctness of a science, expressing an affinity for Popper, who thought that his method of falsification could do the same.

We have pointed to a more dialectical understanding of the nature of science, and briefly outlined the undoubtedly dialectical elements in modern scientific theories about the universe. Science will continue to develop and change, as will our understanding of the universe. In the last century, however, we have witnessed several remarkable revolutions in science, overturning centuries-old paradigms. Some may find them shocking and disturbing – just as shocking no doubt, as the ancient Ionians found the philosophy of Anaximander, who two-and-a-half millennia ago said the world had come into existence in a ball of fire and would eventually pass away. These revolutions, which have opened such vast, unexplored horizons – even of universes beyond our universe – must not tempt us into false notions of the infinite.

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.

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

Science and Marxism

Einstein and the end of Newtonian absolute space and time

By the end of the nineteenth century scientists were faced with a contradiction in physics that seemed to throw into question all of Newtonian physics, including Newton’s first law of motion, based on Galileo’s principle of relativity.

It was Einstein who successfully resolved these contradictions into an entirely new physics at the turn of the twentieth century, laying the basis for an entirely new cosmology.

One of the great questions of the late nineteenth century was what medium light waves travelled through. Termed aether, this medium was thought to be an absolute frame of reference, a medium that was stationary with respect to the universe. A large number of experiments were conducted to try to detect it.

Scientists thought that, if light was transmitted through the aether at a definite speed, as the earth moved in its elliptical orbit through the same medium, the speed of light from a particular source should appear to vary over the course of twelve months.

For instance, imagine a distant star that the earth happens to travel first towards and then away from as it orbits the sun each year. As the earth travels towards the star, meeting the starlight from the star, Newtonian physics supposes that the starlight will appear to be travelling faster than six months later, when the earth’s orbit takes it speeding away from the same starlight.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was a socialist and an opponent of nuclear armaments

The same measurement conducted as the earth rushed away from the starlight should find the speed of light to be slower, because the star light was catching up the earth – like the difference between a head-on collision and a bump from behind. The car speeds may be the same but the consequences of a head on collision are far worse. Newton’s theory suggests a difference of roughly sixty kilometres per second between these two measurements.

In 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted a famous experiment to detect the aether. But they failed to measure any difference in the speed of light travelling from any direction, irrespective of the motion of its source. Their ‘null result’ was shocking and unexpected. The aether did not appear to exist but, more importantly, the experiment confirmed what James Clerk Maxwell’s theories seemed to suggest: that light propagated at the same speed irrespective of any motion, either of the source or the measuring device.

Light appeared to break Galileo’s principle of relativity. It refused to obey Newtonian physics. The speed of light is invariant regardless of the motion of the observer or the light emitting source – for instance, light does not appear to us to go faster if it emerges from a star moving rapidly towards us or slower from a star receding from us. Light from a star is red-shifted if a star is moving away from us, and blue shifted if it is moving towards us, because the wavelength of the light is lengthened towards the red end of the spectrum or shortened towards the blue. The length of the light waves change, but the speed that the waves travel through space remains the same. The speed of light is not relative to the motion of any frame of reference. Light always appears to be going at the same speed to all observers – that is to say, to all measuring devices, all frames of reference.

The experiment, and many others like it since, established as objective fact this peculiarity of the motion of light, which simply did not fit in to the seemingly orderly and common sense Newtonian view of the world. Needless to say, Woods does not recognise this seminal failure of Newtonian physics.

As a result of many experimental results, but particularly the 1887 Michelson and Morley experiment which was far more accurate than any made before, Einstein commented:

Prominent theoretical physicists were therefore more inclined to reject [Galileo’s] principle of relativity, despite the fact that no empirical data had been found that were contradictory to this principle. (Relativity, p19)

In 1903, the physicist Hendrik Lorenz produced an equation, termed the Lorenz transformation, which offered a mathematical expression for measuring motion based on the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, taking this aberrant behaviour of light as its basis. The unusual result of this equation was that length shortens in the direction of motion and time slows too – a result Lorenz was not at all happy about. Einstein adopted the Lorenz transformation, but rejected the undetectable aether, for which there was no evidence.

By 1905 Einstein had pieced together the theory of relativity, which could explain the null result of Michelson-Morley. He was able to derive the Lorenz transformation equation directly from considerations based on rejecting two false assumptions made by Newtonian physics in relation to Galileo’s principle of relativity. For Newtonian science, motion was relative, but the motion of objects took place on a stage which was assumed to be comprised of absolute space and time. Einstein re-examined Galileo’s principle of relativity, and removed these assumptions.

Let us return to the train and the pedestrian of Einstein’s popular exposition of relativity, written in 1916. The train is one frame of reference, which is moving with respect to the other, the footpath on the embankment, where a pedestrian watches a stone fall from a window of the train.

We must note again in passing – what should by now be obvious to the reader – that the notion of an ‘observer’ (the pedestrian in this case), is a common technique used in scientific literature to communicate in accessible form the physics which, in scientific terms, may be expressed by a measurement taken from the stated system of coordinates (frame of reference), and so forth. There is no requirement for an actual observer – the truth of both Galileo’s results and those of Einstein remain valid even if no human being ever walked the earth. It is not necessary for Woods to sarcastically object: “Presumably, if there is no observer, there is no time!” (p215) The presumption is wrong and absurd.

Einstein’s considerations described here never wander from the objective to the subjective, from experimental evidence to speculative philosophy. Rather the opposite. The reader can check this by examining Einstein’s original 1905 paper, On The Electrodynamics Of Moving Bodies, at . This is the paper which proposed the theory that became known as the special theory of relativity.

Let us return to Einstein’s popular exposition. The passenger on the train drops a stone. Einstein points out that the train passenger and the pedestrian do not see the stone falling simultaneously. Here is the oversight of Galileo-Newtonian physics, inevitable in their day. Light must travel from the stone to the observers (or measuring instruments). Furthermore, the Michelson-Morley experiment had confirmed the peculiar nature of light’s propagation between the two frames of reference – the speed of light is constant and is not affected by the fact that the train is in motion.

Let us spend two paragraphs giving a slightly more detailed exposition of this question. In The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene provides an excellent example of Einstein’s crucial critique of Newtonian physics’ assumption of simultaneity, which reduces itself to this: imagine a light is switched on in the middle of a carriage of the train, at an equal distance between two passengers at either end of the carriage, one at the front, and one at the rear. The light strikes both passengers simultaneously, as measured by atomic clocks in the carriage, since the train carriage is their stationary frame of reference and light has an equal distance to travel. But the train is moving as viewed from the platform. Viewed or measured from the platform, the light appears to strike the passenger at the rear of the carriage first, because from the point of view of the platform, he is moving forwards towards the light.

Here is where the strange properties of light come in. Measured from the platform, the light has further to go to reach the passenger at the front of the carriage since the train is moving, again as measured from the frame of reference of the platform. And the speed of light remains constant no matter which frame of reference you are in (rather than having an additional speed as a result of the motion of the train, according to the observer on the station). Since the passenger at the front of the train has travelled further from the light, and the passenger at the rear has travelled towards the light, the distances the light has to travel, from the point of view of the platform, are different, and so it strikes the two passengers at different times. Simultaneous events in time in one frame of reference (the train) are not simultaneous with respect to a different frame of reference (the platform). Time and space are different on the moving train, as observed from the platform.

Newtonian assumption of absolute time exposed

After discussing this, in a key passage in his popular exposition of relativity, Einstein comments:

Now before the advent of theory of relativity it had always been tacitly assumed in physics that the statement of time had an absolute significance, i.e. that it is independent of the state of motion of the body of reference.  But we have just seen that this assumption is incompatible with the most natural definition of simultaneity; if we discard this assumption, then the conflict between the law of propagation of light in vacuo [in a vacuum] and [Galileo’s] principle of relativity disappears. (Relativity, p27)

The assumption of Newtonian physics that “time had an absolute significance”, which Einstein exposes as a false assumption, is precisely that which Woods ardently defends.

Woods attacks “the subjectivist interpretation of time, which makes it dependent on (‘relative to’) an observer. But time is an objective phenomenon, which is independent of any observer.” (p215) This muddled position consists firstly of an attack on a ‘straw man’: a misrepresentation of Einstein’s relativity as a form of subjective idealism – a misunderstanding which was all too common among popular commentators in the first half of the last century. Secondly, Woods’ comments are also a clear defence of absolute time, which has no material basis. Reason in Revolt is mired in a swamp of such mistakes and misapprehensions.

Time is objective, of course, but has no meaning independent of a specific frame of reference. The modern scientific concept of time is not the “product of a definite philosophical point of view, smuggled in under the banner of ‘relativity theory’.” (p215) Rather, the idea of absolute time is an ideal which originates with Newton’s belief in god, and which was hidden in the preconceptions of the measurement of motion dating back to René Descartes. Woods is incorrect to continue: “You see, for time to be ‘real’, it needs an observer, who can then interpret it from his or her point of view.” This has no bearing on relativity, and in any case bears no relation to the viewpoint of science of the last four centuries. It is a complete misunderstanding of scientific shorthand.

ScientistMotion UniverseInfinity
AristotleAbsoluteAbsoluteFiniteInfiniteDenied actual infinite
GalileoRelativeRelativeFinite (assumed)Infinite (assumed)Showed paradoxes of infinite
NewtonAbsoluteAbsoluteInfiniteInfiniteGod as infinite
EinsteinRelativeRelativeFinite*Finite*‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former’.
Table 4 schematic summary of Einstein’s outlook added to table three

Einstein showed that between the two frames of reference, the train and the embankment, the Lorenz transformation provided a set of equations that could relate them objectively to one another so that one could express the motion of the stone falling from the train as viewed from the embankment – in long-hand, as measured according to the frame of reference of the embankment – in a way consistent with all known physical observations, but with astonishing results.

In essence, Einstein began by returning to Galileo’s principle of relativity, but stripped of the idealist notions of time that Woods embraces. Then he entered into the equations the newly discovered enigmatic properties of the constant speed of light. The result was a new theoretical understanding of the physical nature of time and space.

While many aspects of Einstein’s special theory of relativity were soon proven, it was thirty-six years before the first experiment (1941) that measured ‘time dilation’, and sixty-six years before the definitive experiment (1971) which we discussed in the chapter, Galileo and the relativity of space. Einstein had shown that time on a moving train passes more slowly than time on the embankment, just as the Lorenz transformation seemed to imply. Einstein can assert that when measured from the embankment, “as a consequence of its motion the clock goes more slowly than at rest.” (Einstein, Relativity, p37)

The difference in the times measured in each case is so small that only if the motion of the train and clock was near to the speed of light would it be noticeable, without the aid of atomic clocks. This theory, along with the general theory of relativity, was proven experimentally in 1971 using atomic clocks on a passenger airplane. Further, the moving train appears to shorten slightly, as viewed from the embankment, since it was “shorter when in motion than at rest, and the more quickly it is moving, the shorter” it gets. (Einstein, Relativity, p35) Again, this shortening is completely beyond our experience (and so inevitably strikes us at first as a little absurd), since the train at normal speeds would shorten very considerably less than the width of an atom.

Einstein’s theory of relativity could reconcile all experimentally proven aspects of reality. Indeed, other forgotten anomalies (or contradictions) which could not be explained by Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time, such as the anomalous path of the planet Mercury, were later resolved by Einstein’s general theory of relativity which, as Woods admits, predicted Mercury’s path far more precisely on the basis of the new understanding of the warping of space-time.

The science of the atom bomb

The Lorenz transformation, adopted by Einstein, included the peculiar properties of light discovered by the Michelson-Morley experiment. In consequence, the speed of light, denoted by ‘c’ (or more precisely, the speed of light squared, c2), appears in Einstein’s equations.

Einstein followed his 1905 paper, which introduced special relativity, with a short paper in the same year that showed a formula could be derived from the equations of special relativity: the famous e = mc2 – “energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared”.

Since the speed of light is determined by a distance in space over a certain time, the equation shows the complete link between energy, mass and space and time. Breathtakingly, Greene emphasises: “The combined speed of any object’s motion through space and its motion through time is always precisely equal to the speed of light.” (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p49)

Woods correctly endorses Einstein’s e = mc2, but without understanding its derivation or implication.

To common sense the mass of an object never changes… Later this law was found to be incorrect. It was found that mass increases with velocity… The predictions of special relativity have been shown to correspond to the observed facts. (p152) 

Woods cannot avoid endorsing the formula that explains and gave rise to the atom bomb.

Motion through space-time affects mass-energy. The two are inextricably linked. Space and time, mass and energy, in our universe become an integral whole. It seems to follow that if the mass and energy of our universe have an origin, so does space-time, and one arrives back (on a higher level) at Aristotle’s discussion of the origins of the universe. For Aristotle, outside of the universe – where there is nothing, no universe, as reference – there is no space and time. And if the heavens are corruptible, and have come into being and will pass away, so will the space-time of our universe. (This is not to speak of causes, of a substratum from which the universe arose, but of the relationship between space-time and mass-energy in our existing universe.)  Of course, Aristotle, as we have said, thought that the heavens were unchanging and not corruptible.

But Woods cannot accept that time is relative to the observer, nor understand that this is an objective, not a subjective, fact of life, an aspect, for instance, of the everyday use of satellite navigational aids. He writes:

The question is whether the laws of nature, including time, are the same for everyone, regardless of the place in which they are and the speed at which they are moving. On this question, Einstein vacillated. At times, he seemed to accept it, but elsewhere he rejected it.


Einstein, under the influence of Ernst Mach, treated time as something subjective, which depended on the observer, at least in the beginning… (p168)

Neither statement is true.

Woods pours scorn on the application of Einstein’s relativity in modern science, calling it “subjective idealism”.

[The] empty abstraction Time, envisaged as an independent entity which is born and dies, and generally gets up to all kinds of tricks, along with its friend, Space, which arises and collapses and bends, a bit like a cosmic drunkard, and ends up swallowing hapless astronauts in black holes. (p216)

But this satire rebounds on Woods. He appears to contradict himself. He endorses e = mc2 despite the fact that it is derived from a theory that he rejects and ridicules. Woods asserts that “mass increases with velocity” yet rejects the concept of the relativity of space and time which underlies this discovery. Woods appears to be unaware of the physics. The careful reader of Reason in Revolt will discern that Woods sometimes attributes the relativity of time to Einstein’s later general theory of relativity, which he denigrates, and does not recognise that it is integral to Einstein’s special relativity, which Woods associates with the formula e = mc2.

Next: The Big Bang and mysticism in science

Science and Marxism

The infinite in mathematics

In the late nineteenth century the mathematician George Cantor dedicated his studies to the mathematical concepts of the infinite.

Woods says:

Thus, after Cantor, there can be no argument about the central place of the infinite in mathematics… Yet despite all the evidence, many modern mathematicians persist in denying the objectivity of infinity. (p358)

How can this perversity of modern mathematics be resolved? Why, if there was to be no argument about the objective existence of infinity, did argument persist “despite all the evidence”? And what evidence? The answer is to be found in discovering what Cantor actually showed. Cantor says that the infinite arises:

First when it is realised in the most complete form, in a fully independent other-worldly being, in Deo [in god] where I call it the Absolute… second when it occurs in the contingent, created world; third… as a mathematical magnitude…

I wish to make a sharp contrast between the Absolute and the transfinite, that is the actual infinities of the last two sorts, which are clearly limited, subject to further increase, and thus related to the finite. (Quoted by Barrow, The Infinite Book, p94)

In Cantor’s mathematics, only infinity in god coincides with Woods’ idea of the objectivity of infinity – an objectively existing infinite god. And indeed there was “no argument” about it.

Next: Einstein and the end of Newtonian absolute space and time