Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Wartime Conference on Science, Philosophy, Religion and Democracy

March 12, 2017

I found a copy of the 1942 book, Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium, over a decade ago now in a secondhand bookshop in Totnes in Devon. As the above title page states, this comes from a conference on science, philosophy and religion and their relation to the democratic way of life, held in New York in 1942. The conference was held at Columbia University and was the successor to the first symposium, held a year earlier. The book was a collection of papers by leading members of the above disciplines, edited by Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein. These were intended to show how these areas of research and experience supported democracy against the advance of the totalitarian regimes in Europe.

The volume has the following contents

I Democracy’s Challenge to the Scientist, by Caryl P. Haskins;
II Democracy and the Natural Science, Karl F. Herzfeld;
III Some Comments on Science and Faith, Hudson Hoagland;
IV The Comparative Study of Culture of the Purposive Cultivation of Democratic Values, by Margaret Mead;
V The Basis for Faith in Democracy, Max Schoen.
VI Pragmatism, Religion and Education, John L. Childs;
VII Liberal Education and Democracy;
VIII A Philosophy of Democratic Defense, Charles Hartshorne;
IX The Role of Law in a Democracy, Frank E. Horack, Jr.
X Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy;
XI, Empiricism, Religion and Democracy, Charles W. Morris;
XII Philosophical Implications of the Prevalent Conception of Democracy;
XIII The Spiritual Basis of Democracy, by the Princeton Group;
XIV Thomism and Democracy, by Yves R. Simon.
XV Democracy and the Rights of Man, Paul Weiss.
XVI The Stake of Art in the Present Crisis, George Boas.
XVIII An Approach to the Study of History, William G. Constable;
XIX Literature and the Present Crisis, Joseph Wood Krutch.
XX How Long is the Emergency, Mark Van Doren.
XXI Democratic Culture in the Light of Modern Poetry.
XXII Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism, Ben Zion Bokser.
XXIII Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments, Millar Burrows;
XXIV Christianity and Democracy from the Point of View of Systematic Christian Theology, Nels F.S. Ferre;
XXV Philosophical Foundations of Religion and Democracy, Willliam O’Meara;
XXVI The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy, Albert C. Outler.

There is also a section of addresses. These are

I The Faith and Philosophy of Democratic Government, A.A. Berle, Jr.
II The Function of Law in a Democratic Society, Charles E. Clark.
III The Artist and the Democratic Way of Life, Walter Pach.
IV Democracy in Our Times, M.L. Wilson.
V The Religious Background of Democratic Ideas, Simon Greenberg, Clarence Mannion, Luther A. Weigle.

I’ve dug it out again as I believe very strongly that this symposium and its wisdom is needed again with the current stagnation of democracy and the rise of Trump in America, UKIP in Britain and the parties of the extreme right in Europe. The basis of democracy in the West has been gradually undermined over the last 30-odd years, ever since the election of Thatcher and Reagan. Successive governments in Britain and America have been determined to work for the benefit of rich, corporate paymasters against the poor and middle class. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth upwards, as welfare services have been slashed and outsourced, industries privatised and closed down, and public utilities sold off. As wages have stagnated, the corporate elite have seen their pay grossly inflated. Their taxes have been cut, while those for the poor have actually been increased.

As a result of this concentration on the demands of corporate political donors, recent studies by Harvard University and the Economist have concluded that America is no longer a full democracy. It is a ‘flawed democracy’, or even oligarchy.

At the same time governments in Britain and America have also supported the massive expansion of the surveillance state under the pretext of countering terrorism. At the same time, the rights of workers to strike, and ordinary people to protest, have been curtailed. David Cameron’s Tory administration tried to introduce a series of reforms to block street demonstrations and protests under the guise of preventing residents for suffering the nuisance caused by them.

We also have Tory and Republican administrations that insist that only their view of history should be taught in schools. Michael Gove a few years ago made a ridiculous speech complaining about the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War taught in schools, while the educational authorities in Arizona withdrew studies of slavery and the civil rights movement from the school syllabus. Instead, pupils in that state were to be taught the speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Donald Trump’s administration is overtly anti-immigration, particularly of Latinos and Muslims. It includes members of the Alt Right, like Steve Bannon and Curtis Ellis, who hold bitterly racist views. Many of Trump’s supporters are White supremacists and Nazis. UKIP and Brexit in Britain have also led to an increase in racism and racist violence against ethnic minorities. At the same time, these movements have also promoted hatred towards gays and the transgendered. And similar movements are attempting to take power or increase their gains across Europe, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, the Alternative Fuer Deutschland in Germany, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Jobbik in Hungary, and other extreme right-wing parties in Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia.

Democracy, tolerance, pluralism and the rights of the poor are under threat. The threat in America and western Europe isn’t as overt and violent as it was when the Fascists seized power from the 1920s onwards. But it is there, and desperately needs to be resisted.

Observations on the Suicide of Jacqueline Harris

November 26, 2013

Like very many other people, I was saddened and angered to read Johnny Void’s and Tom Pride’s posts on the death of Jacqueline Harris. This lady took her own life after ATOS found her fit for work, despite her multiple disabilities and the great pain she suffered from them. This poor woman, like me, came from Bristol. I’ve also had a run-in with ATOS. Here are a few more of my observations and comments on the case. I intend to write a much deeper article attacking the pseudo-scientific nature of the ATOS assessment form later.

I don’t know if there are any other ATOS centres in Bristol, but there’s one at Flowers Hill in Brislington. This is a suburb of Bristol, which contains a mixture of light industrial buildings and former warehouses along with residential homes, and some of the most historic buildings in Bristol. It has Arnos Vale cemetery, dating from the 19th century. The funeral monuments there are impressive, with one of the most striking the tomb of Rajah Rammohan Roy, an Indian reformer and one of the founders of his country’s independence movement. He was married to the daughter of Bristol Unitarian minister, and preached in her father’s chapel. I believe there is an annual visit to his grave every year by members of the City’s Indian community. Other monuments include the Black Castle, an 18th century factory in the shape of a castle, made from black stone. There is also a 19th century mental hospital. Established by those guardians of peace and humanity, the Quakers, this was pioneering in its day for the humane treatment given to the inmates. It possessed extensive grounds and gardens for the patients’ enjoyment, as it was found that this greatly assisted their healing and recovery.

If I recall correctly, the ATOS offices are in a complex of buildings just down from a DIY centre and other stores. ATOS share the site with a complex of buildings, which include an NHS administration and a driving test centre.

When you go for an assessment, bring someone into the interview with you, or record it. It has been my experience that ATOS will lie and try and falsify your answers. You need to keep some kind of record of the interview, and that other person will remember or pick up on things that you may not notice or forget. Similarly, when going through the form it is very wise to photocopy it after you have filled it out, so you have a record of your answers there.

This poor woman’s suicide, along with so many others, raises the following points and questions.

Firstly, ATOS have tried to distance themselves from the tragedy. They state that they have no part in any decision on benefits. This is disingenuous. While the decision to end someone’s claim is taken by the DWP, rather than ATOS, ATOS clearly have the contract for the development and administration of their tests on the express knowledge that those, who fail it will lose their invalidity or disability entitlement. With this in mind, they cannot justly deny responsibility for the loss of benefits from those they judge fit to work.

In view of the number of people, who have committed suicide after ATOS declared them fit for work, it should be asked what training ATOS gives its personnel to deal with extremely distressed or suicidal interviewees. Johnny Void and the other left-wing bloggers have carried stories reporting that some Job Centres are training their staff to deal with such emergencies. I myself have seen a stack of cards for the Samaritans on the desk of one of the interview staff at the Job Centre Plus in Eagle House, St Stephen’s Street in Bristol. Are there similar items stocked by staff at ATOS? If not, why not?

Seventy-five per cent of ATOS decisions that someone is fit for work have been overturned on appeal. This suggests that either the ATOS assessors are criminally negligent when administering the tests, or that they are under pressure to falsify results to get a negative decision which will please their paymasters in the DWP. I said before that it has been my own experience that ATOS will lie in order to be able to turn down your claim. There have been revelations of secret quotas for benefit sanctions within the DWP and Job Centres, along with bonuses and gifts awarded to staff, who have the most number of claimants disallowed. Is there are a similar system operating within ATOS? What pressure are its staff under to declare someone fit for work? Are they also given financial incentives and gifts, like Easter Eggs, for so doing?

What policies and procedures does ATOS have to protect the vulnerable adults they interview? We have had reports of people with severe mobility problems forced to take their assessment in centres, which are some distance from where they or their lifts may park, or else on the upper floors of buildings. Does ATOS consider this acceptable? The ATOS form itself is heavily biased towards physical disability. It and its administrators therefore appear to have little experience or awareness of mental health issues. What procedures have been put in place to safeguard people with schizophrenia or disorders, like depression during the interview and afterwards? Shouldn’t their fitness for work or otherwise be assessed by a trained, objective psychiatrist or psychologist?

Johnny Void and the others have also reported that many of the employees administering the test are not doctors, but nursing staff. This is unacceptable. However, the medical qualifications of ATOS’ assessors are, in my experience, superfluous and irrelevant. They do not examine you themselves under their own initiative, but simply ask you the questions on the form. Presumably medical staff are employed in case a physical examination, such as to confirm some of the claims made by the interviewee, is necessary. Mostly I think it’s just to provide a pseudo-professional medical gloss to the proceedings.

The interviewing staff do at least have some medical qualifications. What are the medical qualifications of the decision-makers? Are they doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists? Or is that an entirely risible question, and they are really just another bunch of faceless bureaucrats? Again, from the procedure it seems that no proper medical experience is required or needed. All the decision makers do is go through the form, tot up the answers and then declare a person fit, even if that person is in a coma or possibly dead. This is no exaggeration. These things have happened. If the decision makers are medical personnel, have any of them expressed reservations or criticisms about the tests? Or resigned? What mechanisms are in place to assure that any criticisms or complaints they have about the test are passed on and accepted?

The ATOS assessment has also led to violations of British disability law, and contravenes the Hippocratic Oath. This was for centuries taken by British and European doctors. It has now been discarded, but is, I believe, still held in great respect by parts of the profession. At its heart is the stipulation that the doctor should ‘first do no harm’. Clearly this lies at the heart of all medical practice. If you can’t cure something, then for heaven’s sake don’t make it worse. But ATOS does make it worse. Clearly the individuals who have suffered heart attacks due to the stress of their assessment, or mentally ill people who’ve taken their own lives, have been made worse by the procedure. Private Eye a few years ago ran a story about one woman, who had already frequently attempted suicide. Tragically, she succeeded after ATOS told her she was fit for work, and no longer eligible for benefits. ATOS broke the law. According to the Eye, it is explicitly against the law to force the mentally ill to undergo such tests if this will exacerbate their condition. Has ATOS ever been prosecuted for one of these incidents? Were staff disciplined for such legal and medical negligence? What procedures were set in place to stop this ever occurring again?

Well, it seems to me that the answer is obviously none, but the question still needs to be asked.

Ordinary doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can be sued for malpractice. They have medical insurance to provide for this, and practice under the knowledge that they are responsible for the care of the patients and may be sued and convicted if they abuse or criminally neglect this sacred trust. The Coalition are considering passing legislation that will further criminalise and inflict severe penalties for negligent hospital staff. The question must be raised here of whether similar procedures are in place to discipline and try ATOS staff generally – the interviewers and decision makers – for similar negligence and malpractice in or through the administration of the test, quite apart from the horrific incidents mentioned above.

These are a few of the questions I feel still need to be answered. I believe strongly that the ATOS assessment form and process does not constitute proper, valid medical practice but a form of pseudo-medical bureaucratic quackery to provide a professional gloss to what is at heart an entirely bureaucratic procedure. Science is meant to be objective. According to Popper, the essence of science is falsification: the experimenter arranges his tests not to prove a theory, but to disprove it. If this occurs, new theories must be devised, and further experiments conducted. This is how science has progressed, and it has resulted in astounding advances in nearly all areas of endeavour, including biology and medicine. The ATOS test is the exact opposite of this. It has been devised and administered according to a narrowly and ideologically driven pre-conceived notion of what constitutes ‘fitness for work’, regardless of the personal needs and abilities of the individual to whom it is administered. It has been expressly designed to get as many people off benefit as possible according to the Neo-Liberal imperative of reducing government spending (but only on the poor). In this, it is strongly reminiscent of other pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific fads, such as monkey glands, the removal of vestigial organs in order to make us more evolved, and the Stalinist ‘proletarian’ science of Lysenkoism. The only proper solution to this is to have ATOS shut down immediately, its wretched assessment permanently expunged from responsible, ethical medical practice. Oh yes, and the prosecution of Thierry Breton and his minions for culpable negligence and serious malpractice.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Move Parliament out of London

October 19, 2013

From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us

-16th Century beggars’ prayer.

Last week The Economist recommended that the government cease trying to revive declining northern towns and leave them to die. The main example of such a town, where further intervention was deemed to be useless, was Hull, but the magazine also mentioned a number of others, including Burnley. The Economist is the magazine of capitalist economic orthodoxy in this country. Its stance is consistently Neo-Liberal, and the policies it has always demanded are those of welfare cuts and the privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down. It has loudly supported the IMF’s recommendations of these policies to the developing world. Some left-wing magazines and organisation like Lobster have pointed out that the IMF’s policies effectively constitute American economic imperialism, citing the IMF’s proposals to several South and Meso-American nations. These were not only told to privatise their countries’ state assets, but to sell them to American multinationals so that they could be more efficiently managed.

The Economist’s advice that economically hit northern towns should be ‘closed down’ also reflects the almost exclusive concentration of the metropolitan establishment class on London and south-east, and their complete disinterest and indeed active hostility to everything beyond Birmingham. This possibly excludes the Scots Highlands, where they can go grouse shooting. It was revealed a little while ago that back in the 1980s one of Thatcher’s cabinet – I forgotten which one – recommended a similar policy towards Liverpool. Recent economic analyses have shown that London and the south-east have become increasingly prosperous, and have a higher quality of life, while that of the North has significantly declined. The London Olympics saw several extensive and prestigious construction projects set up in the Docklands area of London, intended both to build the infrastructure needed for the Olympics and promote the capital to the rest of the world. It’s also been predicted that the high-speed rail link proposed by the Coalition would not benefit Britain’s other cities, but would lead to their further decline as jobs and capital went to London. A report today estimated that 50 cities and regions, including Bristol, Cardiff, Aberdeen and Cambridge would £200 million + through the rail link. The Economist’s article also demonstrates the political class’ comprehensive lack of interest in manufacturing. From Mrs Thatcher onwards, successive administrations have favoured the financial sector, centred on the City of London. Lobster has run several articles over the years showing how the financial sector’s prosperity was bought at the expense of manufacturing industry. Despite claims that banking and financial industry would take over from manufacturing as the largest employer, and boost the British economy, this has not occurred. The manufacturing has indeed contracted, but still employs far more than banking, insurance and the rest of the financial sector. The financial sector, however, as we’ve seen, has enjoyed massively exorbitant profits. The Economist claims to represent the interests and attitudes of the financial class, and so its attitude tellingly reveals the neglectful and contemptuous attitude of the metropolitan financial elite towards the troubled economic conditions of industrial towns outside the capital.

Coupled with this is a condescending attitude that sees London exclusively as the centre of English arts and culture, while the provinces, particularly the North, represent its complete lack. They’re either full of clod-hopping yokels, or unwashed plebs from the factories. Several prominent Right-wingers have also made sneering or dismissive comments about the North and its fate. The art critic and contrarian, Brian Sewell, commented a few years ago that ‘all those dreadful Northern mill towns ought to be demolished’. Transatlantic Conservatism has also felt the need to adopt a defensive attitude towards such comments. The American Conservative, Mark Steyn, on his website declared that criticism of London was simply anti-London bias, but didn’t tell you why people were so critical of the metropolis or its fortunes. This situation isn’t new. At several times British history, London’s rising prosperity was marked by decline and poverty in the rest of the country. In the 17th century there was a recession, with many English ports suffering a sharp economic decline as London expanded to take 75 per cent of the country’s trade. The regional ports managed to survive by concentrating on local, coastal trade rather than international commerce, until trade revived later in the century.

It’s also unfair on the North and its cultural achievements. The North rightfully has a reputation for the excellence of its museum collections. The region’s museums tended to be founded by philanthropic and civic-minded industrialists, keen to show their public spirit and their interest in promoting culture. I can remember hearing from the director of one of the museum’s here in Bristol two decades ago in the 1990s how he was shocked by the state of the City’s museum when he came down here from one of the northern towns. It wasn’t of the same standard he was used to back home. What made this all the more surprising was that Bristol had a reputation for having a very good museum. Now I like Bristol Museum, and have always been fascinated by its collections and displays, including, naturally, those on archaeology. My point here isn’t to denigrate Bristol, but simply show just how high a standard there was in those of the industrial north. Liverpool City Museum and art gallery in particular has a very high reputation. In fact, Liverpool is a case in point in showing the very high standard of provincial culture in the 19th century, and its importance to Britain’s economic, technological and imperial dominance. Liverpool was a major centre in scientific advance and experiment through its philosophical and literary society, and its magazine. This tends to be forgotten, overshadowed as it has been by the city’s terrible decline in the 20th century and its setting for shows dealing with working-class hardship like Boys from the Black Stuff and the comedy, Bread. Nevertheless, its cultural achievements are real, quite apart from modern pop sensations like the Beatles, Cilla Black, Macca and comedians like Jimmy Tarbuck. The town also launched thousands of young engineers and inventors with the Meccano construction sets, while Hornby railways delighted model railway enthusiasts up and down the length of Britain. These two toys have been celebrated in a series of programmes exploring local history, like Coast. Hornby, the inventor of both Meccano and the model railway that bore his name, was duly celebrated by the science broadcaster, Adam Hart-Davis, as one of his Local Heroes.

And Liverpool is certainly not the only city north of London with a proud history. Think of Manchester. This was one of Britain’s major industrial centres, and the original hometown of the Guardian, before it moved to London. It was a major centre of the political debates and controversies that raged during the 19th century, with the Guardian under Feargus O’Connor the major voice of working class radicalism. It was in industrial towns like Manchester that working class culture emerged. Books like The Civilisation of the Crowd show how mass popular culture arose and developed in the 19th century, as people from working-class communities attempted to educate themselves and enjoy music. They formed choirs and brass bands. Working men, who worked long hours used their few spare hours to copy sheet music to sing or play with their fellows. The various mechanics institutes up and down the country were institutions, in which the working class attempted to educate itself and where contemporary issues were discussed. It’s an aspect of industrial, working class culture that needs to be remembered and celebrated, and which does show how strong and vibrant local culture could be in industrial towns outside London.

Back in the 1990s the magazine, Anxiety Culture, suggested a way of breaking this exclusive concentration on London and the interests of the metropolitan elite to the neglect of those in the provinces. This magazine was a small press publication, with a minuscule circulation, which mixed social and political criticism with Forteana and the esoteric, by which I mean alternative spirituality, like Gnosticism, rather than anything Tory prudes think should be banned from the internet, but don’t know quite what. In one of their articles they noted that when a politician said that ‘we should think the unthinkable’, they meant doing more of what they were already doing: cutting down on welfare benefits and hitting the poor. They recommended instead the adoption of a truly radical policy:

Move parliament out of London.

They listed a number of reasons for such a genuinely radical move. Firstly, it’s only been since the 18th century that parliament has been permanently fixed in London. Before then it often sat where the king was at the time. At various points in history it was at Winchester near the Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings’ treasury. It was in York during Edward I’s campaign against the Scots. In short, while parliament has mostly been resident in London, it hasn’t always been there, and so there is no absolutely compelling reason why it should remain so.

Secondly, London’s expensive. The sheer expensive of living in the capital was always so great that civil servants’ pay including ‘London weighting’ to bring it up to the amount they’d really need to live on in the capital, which was always higher than in the rest of the country. The same was true for other workers and employees. As we’ve seen, these inequalities are growing even more massive under the Tories, and there is talk of a demographic cleansing as poorer families are forced to move out of some of the most expensive boroughs in the capital. MPs and the very rich may now afford to live in luxury accommodation in the metropolis, but I wonder how long it will be before the capital’s infrastructure breaks down because so many of its workers simply cannot afford to live there. The government has declared that it is keen on cutting expenses, and public sector employees’ salaries have been particularly hard hit. The government could therefore solve a lot of its problems – such as those of expense, and the cost in time and money of negotiating the heavy London traffic – by relocating elsewhere.

Birmingham would be an excellent place to start. This has most of what London has to offer, including excellent universities and entertainment centres, such as the NEC, but would be much cheaper. Or York. During the Middle Ages, this was England’s Second City. It’s an historic town, with a history going back to the Romans. The excavations at Coppergate made York one of the major British sites for the archaeology of the Vikings. It also has an excellent university. One could also recommend Durham. When I was growing up in the 1980s, Durham University was considered the third best in the country, following Oxbridge. Manchester too would be an outstanding site for parliament. Apart from its historic associations with working class politics, it has also been a major centre of British scientific research and innovation. Fred Hoyle, the astronomer and maverick cosmologist, came from that fair city. While he was persistently wrong in supporting the steady-state theory against the Big Bang, he was one of Britain’s major astronomers and physicists, and Manchester University does have a very strong tradition of scientific research and innovation. British politicians are also keen to show that they are now tolerant with an inclusive attitude towards gays. Manchester’s Canal Street is one of the main centres of gay nightlife. If parliament really wanted to show how tolerant it was of those in same-sex relationship, it would make sense for it to move to Manchester.

Furthermore, relocating parliament to the north should have the effect of reinvigorating some of these cities and the north generally. The influx of civil servants and highly paid officials and ministers would stimulate the local economy. It would also break the myopic assumption that there is nothing of any value outside London. If the government and its servants continued to feel the same way, then they would have the option of actually passing reforms to improve their new homes by providing better road and rail links, improving local education, building or better funding theatres, orchestras and opera companies, investing in local businesses to support both the governmental infrastructure, but also to provide suitable work for themselves and their children, when they retire from the Civil Service. In short, moving parliament out of London to the midlands or the North would massively regenerate those part of England.

It won’t happen, because the current financial, political and business elite are very much tied to the metropolis as the absolute centre of English life and culture. They won’t want to leave its theatres, art galleries and museums, or move away from nearby sporting venues, like Ascot. They would find the idea of moving out of London absolutely unthinkable. But perhaps, as Anxiety Culture suggested twenty years ago, it is time that these ideas were thought, rather than the banal and all-too often ruminated policies of cutting benefits and penalising the poor.

Popper and Xenophon on Science, the Gods, and the impossibility of Certain Knowledge

October 12, 2013

Bryan Magee, in his book on the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, notes that one of Popper favourite statements on the nature of science was from the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Xenophon. Xenophon wrote

‘The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.’

It’s a truly sceptical statement. Xenophon believed that the gods purposely did not reveal all knowledge to humanity, deliberately leaving it to humanity to find things out for themselves, in order that they could have a deeper understanding of the cosmos. However, human knowledge is, in the last analysis, ‘a web of guesses’. They are actually attempts by the human intellect to understand the universe, but not true knowledge itself. In fact the nature of the universe is such that people wouldn’t understand the truth about the universe, even if they were accidentally to stumble upon it.

The astronomer John Barrow said something similar in his book, Theories of Everything. Barrow was arguing against the view of Stephen Hawking, and repeated in the popular press and science journals, that we could have a final ‘theory of everything’. He argued that the nature of the universe was so complex, and some of the events that created the modern cosmos, such as the symmetry-breaking in which the original superforce broke up into the separate forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, were so random, that a theory of everything would be so general that it would actually explain nothing. Or else it would be so complex, that it would need another theory to explain it in turn, and so not actually be a final theory of everything. And so despite the claims of Stephen Hawking, the final truth about the universe, expressed into the kind of equation you put on a T-shirt, like the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer ‘What’s 6 x 9? 42’ in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will remain forever elusive.


Bryan Magee, Popper (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1975) p. 28.

Leonardo’s Rivals

September 22, 2013

One of the most interesting series on television was a documentary the BBC screened a little while ago about Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions. It mixed drama and explanation and opinion from a variety of historians and scholars to trace the life and scientific exploration and discoveries of one of the very greatest geniuses of the Renaissance. It was fascinating viewing, particularly when they tried out da Vinci’s design for a diving suit in the canals of Venice. Da Vinci was truly a polymath, responsible for a number of amazing inventions well before his time, such as the caterpillar track and helicopter. I don’t believe, however, that Leonardo was quite the isolated figure as is the common impression of him. There were other engineers at the time working on some of the same problems.

Jean Gimpel, in his The Medieval Machine, traces some of da Vinci’s ideas back to the thirteenth century French engineer and inventor, Villard de Honnecourt. This has been challenged, and other historians have science have rejected the suggestion that he influenced da Vinci. Nevertheless, it appears that de Honnecourt and da Vinci did work on some of the same problems, even if de Honnecourt never developed his ideas to the same extent that da Vinci did his. In the 14th century another, unknown engineer, began to consider an alternative method of propulsion for ships. There’s an illustration from a manuscript of 1436 of a paddle-ship, whose wheels are turned by the oxen on board.

Madieval Paddle Ship

During the fifteenth century a number of Italian engineers attempted to design something like the modern car. Around 1410, Giovanni da Fontana produced the design below for a ‘self-driving’ carriage, operated by hand.

Medieval Car

The car designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini was powered by four capstans, each serving one of the vehicle’s wheels. It even had a steering wheel. Di Giorgio Martini called his vehicle an automobile, which is probably the earliest use of the term to describe something like the modern car.

Medieval Automobile

Roberto Valturio, who died in 1484, designed a carriage that would be driven by the wind. Mounted on each side of the car’s frame were two windmills, each with four incline sails. These turned another, large will, which communicated the power to the two wheels underneath it.

Renaissance Sail Car

In Germany, Konrad Kyeser invented a double crane, while di Giorgio Martini created a device for lifting columns. De Kyeser also invented a diving suit. Two types of these suits are shown in one of his illustrations dating to 1400. One of the suits is from a design of the fourth century Roman scholar, Vegecius. This is simply a helmet and a leather tube, through which the diver breathed, leading to a floating bladder on the surface. This type of diving suit may have already been in use long before. In 1240 Roger Bacon stated that there were ‘instruments which men could use to walk on the bed of the sea or of rivers without endangering themselves’. The other diving suit drawn by Kyeser showed a helmet with two glass holes for the eyes, fixed to a tabard belted on the wearer. This is the first known representation of a body suit. In 1582 another German engineer, Peter Morice, or Moritz, installed a tide mill near London. This operated a force pump with enough power to supply the city of London.

Unfortunately, you rarely hear about these other, fascinating medieval and Renaissance inventions. Perhaps this may change with the increasing influence in Cyberpunk science fiction, which fantastically explores the scientific possibilities of the Victorian period. Possibly this type of SF may encourage others to look even further back in time, to the forgotten inventions and inventors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The role-playing game, Ars Magica is already set in the Middle Ages, and is based both on the world of medieval magic and their scientific worldview. Many of its players are historians of medieval science at universities. Perhaps in time knowledge of these inventions and achievements won’t be limited to the relatively small number of people, who play RPGs, and these engineers and inventors will at last receive the recognition they deserve from the wider public.


Great Inventions through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991.

Sigvard Strandh, Machines: An Illustrated History (Nordbok 1979).

Science Britannia and the Need for a Programme on Medieval Science

September 22, 2013

Last week, the Beeb started a new series on the history of science, Science Britannia, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesdays at 8.00 pm. Fronted by Professor Brian Cox, now Britain’s answer to Carl Sagan, the series traces the development of British science and the personalities of the scientists involved from the mid-18th century. The name, Science Britannia, seems to come from the various music documentary series the Beeb has screened over recent years, such as Jazz Britannia, and one on caricature, political satire, the Music Hall and burlesque, Rude Britannia. Now any series on the history of science is to be welcomed, though my problem with such series is that they are always set in the Renaissance or later. In this case, I suspect the series has been influenced in its selection of the date at which to begin by Jenny Uglow’s, The Lunar Men. This was about the 18th century society of natural philosophers – the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 19th century – of which Erasmus Darwin was a member. He published his own theory of evolution fifty years before that of his better-known grandson, Charles. On this Wednesday programme Cox does go back to Isaac Newton in the 17th century, to examine his psychology, as well as that of later pioneering British scientists.

I do have one criticism of these series, however. They largely ignore the amazing scientific and technological advances that went on during the Middle Ages. Historians of medieval science, such as James Hallam in his book, God’s Philosophers, and A.C. Crombie in his two volume history of medieval science, have demonstrated that there was no Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries in the sense that these ideas were a radical break with medieval science. They weren’t. Instead, they had their roots very much in the investigations and examination of nature of medieval natural philosophers even as they rejected their Aristotelianism. Roger Bartlet, in his programme on the medieval worldview, has demonstrated that the Middle Ages were not anti-science and that the mixture of science and faith made perfect sense to them, even if it now seems irrational to us. For example, I made a list of about 20 innovations that appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were
Adoption for the purpose of preventing the deaths of unwanted children, Council of Vaison, 442.

Linguistics: Priscian, 6th century.

Floating Mills, Belisarius, 537.

Orphanage, St. Maguebodus, c. 581.

Electrotherapy, Paul of Aegina, 7th century.

Tide Mills, Adriatic and England, 11th century.

Armour plated warships, Scandinavia, 11th century.

Lottery, Italy, 12th century

Harness, Europe, c. 1150.

Spectacles, Armati or Spina, c. 1280.

Pencil – silver or black lead used for drawing, 14th century.

High Explosive Marine Shell, Netherlands, c. 1370, or Venice 1376.

Movable type, Laurens Janszoon, alias Coster, 1423,

Oil painting, H and J Van Eyck, 1420,

Diving Suit, Kyeser, c. 1400.

Double crane, Konrad Kyeser, early 15th century.

Screw, 15th century Europe.

Arquebus, Spain, c. 1450, first used at Battle of Moret, 1476.

Hypothermia, France, c. 1495.

Air gun, Marin Bourgeois, 1498.


Great Inventions Through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991).

This is only a short list. There have been whole encyclopaedias written on medieval science and technology.

I think one reason why such as programme has not been broadcast is because it conflicts with the received wisdom about the Middle Ages, and the aggressively atheist views of some of the media own scientific darlings. Since the Renaissance, and particularly since the 19th century, the Middle Ages have been viewed as an age of superstition, in which the Church actively discouraged and persecuted science and scientists. This wasn’t the case, but the idea is still promoted very strongly. One of those, who continues to do this, is Richard Dawkins, who is now known as an atheist propagandist almost as much for his work as a biologists and science writer. Very many of the science programmes screened on British television, whether BBC or Channel 4, included Dawkins as an expert. He is a popular speaker at literary and science festivals, even though his views on the relationship between science and faith and the history of science are completely wrong. Nevertheless, it agrees with the historical prejudices of his audience and the media. James Hallam said that he found it difficult to find a publisher for his book, God’s Philosophers, but its demonstration that people of faith – Christian priests, monks and laymen – could do great science in the Age of Faith – directly contradicted the popular view of the period. One publisher explicitly told him that they weren’t going to be publish the book because they were an atheist. Censorship and bigotry is by no means the sole province of the religious.

Unfortunately, the current institutional structure of the BBC and its commissioning process appears to make this extremely difficult to correct, at least for those outside of the television industry. A year or so ago I was so incensed at the repeat of the media’s prejudice against medieval science, that I considered writing to the BBC to propose a series on it to correct it. I ended up giving up altogether. If you go to the relevant pages on this, you’ll find that while the BBC will accept scripts and suggestions from outside the industry for drama, fiction and comedy, all factual content must be developed with a production company before they will consider it. What this means is that unless you are already a media insider, you have absolutely no chance of getting your idea for a factual series developed for TV.

I hope, however, that the Beeb’s view of medieval science will change, and that we can expect a series on it sometime soon. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions, how I can approach the Beeb or another TV channel or production company to get such a series made, please let me know. It’s about time we did something to challenge this fashionable atheist myth.

Albrecht von Haller: 18th Century Scientist, Poet, Novelist and Church Planter

June 11, 2013

I’ve mentioned the great s18th century Swiss scientist and anatomist, Albrech von Haller, several times on this blog. Von Haller came from Berne in Switzerland, and was a pupil of the great Dutch scientist and doctor, Boerhaave. He was a student at the universities of Tubingen and Leyden. After graduating, he moved to London and Paris before finally accepting a post of Gottingen University, which had only recently been founded. He simulataneously occupied the chairs of anatomy, botany and medicine there for 17 years. It was under his management that Gottingen university managed to become one of the leading centres for medical research and teaching in Germany, so that it was compared to Leyden in the Netherlands. While at Gottingen he wrote 13,000 scientific papers. He also established botanical gardens, wrote a flora of Switzerland, and the first textbook solely devoted to physiology. This was in turn greatly expanded into the eight-volume edition published in 1757. This has led some historians of medicine to see von Haller as the founder of modern physiology. He also wrote novels and poetry. He was a man of deep religious faith. He founded churches, and his best-known poem, Die Alpen (The Alps) of 1729, considers God’s glory in the grandeur of the Swiss mountains. He was an evangelical Protestant with inclinations towards Pietism, but could also be strongly rationalist, so that he has been described as ‘thinking like a rationalist, and believing like a sincere Christian’. Clearly von Haller was a man of deep faith and a scientific and literary genius, who managed to combine literature, science and a deep commitment to Christianity in his career.

Ronald Ross: Christian Doctor who Discovered that Mosquitoes caused Malaria

June 6, 2013

One of the great medical discoveries has been that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, and specifically the microscopic parasite they carry. Before this discovery in the 19th century, it was believed that malaria was caused by bad air caused by rotting or filthy material. Hence the name of the disease, mala aria. The doctor who finally discovered that malaria was spread by mosquitoes was Ronald Ross, who was also a man of devout Christian faith. He went out as a young doctor in the Indian Army to find the parasite’s vector – the disease’s carrier – in the late 19th century. He worked, examining samples of mosquitoes for the parasite. Finally, on 2oth August 1897 he found the parasite in the stomach tissues of the anopheles mosquito. He had in fact nearly finished his research for the evening, and had frustrated by his apparent lack of success. His identification of the parasite in that mosquito made its identification as the disease’s vector certain. Ross was keenly aware how much this would improve the lives of millions of people in the future. He therefore wrote a series of verses praising the Lord for the discovery in a letter home to his wife.

Sadly, malaria is still responsible for millions of deaths throughout the world, and there are real concerns about the emergence of strains that are resistant to the current drugs. Nevertheless, it is doctors and researchers like Dr. Ross, whether they are Christians are not, who have saved many lives that would otherwise have been lost to the disease, and who are our best hope for combating it in the future.

The Strange World of Clockwork Robots

June 6, 2013

I find most of the material on TV now remarkable only for how uninteresting I find it. But occasionally on eof the TV companies puts on a little gem. One of these was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4 last Monday night at 9 pm. Presented by Professor Simon Schaffer, it was a history of European automato in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schaffer’s an historian of science, who has appeared on a number of other shows on the history of science. In this programme he discussed the way the development of clockwork in the Middle Ages had produced automata, little robots that were used in the most magnificent clocks. He showed the vast medieval clock in Berne in Switzerland with its numerous figurines. He then went to the palace of one the Austrian bishops, who had a Protestant clockmaker construct an entire clockwork town, complete with animals being slaughtered, artisans busy at their trades and all overseen by aristocrats, who themselves scarcely seemed to move. Schaffer noted this represented the ideal social hierarchy of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop was supported in his wealthy by profits from the salt mines. The miners themselves were radical, and mostly Protestants. This had resulted in a crackdown by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Protestant mineworkers were banished. The clockmaker himself was forced to work under armed guard because of his sympathies.

Vaucanson’s Replicant Fluteplayer

The programme then moved on Jacques Vaucanson, whose works were surely more like clockwork replicants than simple authomata. Vaucanson was deeply impressed with the technology that lay behind these great robotic marvels. He believed that it would be possible to use it to create an artificial human being. So he spent his evenings studying human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in order to replicate them more accurately in his art. His greatest creation was a mechanical flute player, which actually player the flute. A set of bellows acted as lungs, to blow air into the instrument, while the figure’s hands moved to cover and uncover the holes. It was even covered with real skin. This mechanical marvel disappeared sometime in the 19th century in eastern Europe, and no-one knows where it is, or even if it still exists.

The Writing Boy of Jacquet Droz

Then there was Jacquet Droz, one of whose automata was a little boy that actually wrote. Schaffer explained that the key technological component of these automata was the cam, a wheel that moved the other pins and lever in the machines. The shape of the wheel governed the movement of the other levers, working the machines’ limbs. They thus acted as a kind of mechanical memory, storing the instructions for the automata’s movements. The great complicated automata, such as Vaucanson’s flute player and Droz’s writer, had a number of them stacked one on top the other within the machines in a column. This column rose and fell as each camn was selected in turn to govern its part of the machine’s complex movements. The writing boy was particularly impressive as it physically wrote out on paper, ‘I am Jacquet Droz’ in French. It also drew a dog, and indeed, by changing the letters arranged in a wheel at the base of the figure, you could programme it to write anything you chose. Schaffer concluded that it was the distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

Poor Watchmakers and the Automaton as Revolutionary Symbol of Aristocratic Class Oppression

These marvels were able to be produced through the intensive labour of poorly paid watchsmiths. These occupied particular areas of towns, such as Clerkenwell in London. There would be six or seven of them gathered around a table, working by candlelight to make a single component, such as an arm for the escapement mechanism. Schaffer noted that the technology began to acquire revolutionary implications. In the decades before the French Revolution, artisans and the working class began to claim equality with their lords and masters. These mechanical marvels were made for an exclusive audience of aristocrats. Jacquet Droz charged deliberately high prices so that only the upper crust could view them, and put up notices stating that servants would not be allowed in. The French Revolutionaries in their turn claimed that the king and the aristocracy were simply automata themselves, dressed in expensively lace. It was a dehumanising description that allowed them to send their monarch to the guillotine.

Automata, the Eccentric Monsieur Merlin, and the Export Trade with China

Over the Channel in England, automata were seen as a way of winning the export battle with China. Europeans craved expensive Chinese goods, such as porcelaine and tea. Frustratingly, the Chinese were completely uninterested with anything Europe had to offer, with the exception of automata. The British entrepreneur James Cox thus set to work making them for export to China. His greatest employee was a Belgian emigre called Merlin. Merlin was highly eccentric. When he appeared in public, it was dressed as a bar maid, serving drinks, while playing the violin rolling around on roller skates, which he had also invented. He wasn’t always able to stop. In one incident, recorded in the papers, he collided with a £40,000 mirror, which he smashed to ribbons. Merlin’s greatest creation was a mechanical swan. Glass rods mimicked the actions of water. Between them sawm little mechanical fish. When activated, the swan moved its head, bent down, and took and ate one of the fish.

Schaffer concluded the programme by comparing the storage of information on the automata’s cam systems, with the reproduction of speech on vinyl records, playing the programme out to a suitable piece of music.

Contemporary Automata, Musical Robots, and Automata as Inspiration for Dr. Who Monsters.

It was a fascinating programme. There have been a number of exhibitions of automata in recent years. You can find footage of them, including Jacquet Droz’s writing boy and Merlin’s swan on Youtube. The tradition of musical robots has also been taken up by Compressorhead. This is a genuinely all robot band, which I believe come from Germany. As robots, they naturally play Heavy Metal. You can find footage of them playing Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Several of the automata clearly inspired some of the monsters in Dr. Who. Clockwork androids featured in a David Tennant episode, where the good doctor had to defend Madame Pompadour from being turned into spare parts for a stranded spaceship far in the future. The programme also featured the chess-playing Turk. This was an elaborate hoax. It was supposedly a mechanical figure of a Turk that played chess. It toured Europe, beating just about all the chess masters it played against. That was until its secret was revealed. The cabinet beneath the figure was actually large enough to hold a full-sized man, who moved the arms of the figure above him. He could even follow the game by looking upwards. There was a nod to this in a recent Dr. Who episode. Penned by the mighty Neil Gaiman, this had a hollowed-out cyberman that played chess, secretly worked by a dwarf. The dwarf was played by Warwick Davis, now showing that you can have a career after appearing as an Ewok.

Automata and the Industrial Revolution

Schaffer also noted that the automata may also have served as inspiration for the mechanised looms of the industrial revolution. In a meeting with his fellow factory masters, Joseph Arkwright had wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to produce mechanical arms to work the looms similar to the mechanical arms of the automata. Surveying the merchanical arms on the industrial looms, Schaffer wondered if it wasn’t too far-fetched to see the similarity between them and those of the automata.

M. Merlin and the Artist as Eccentric, Then and Now

The programme also showed how old the relationship between art and personal eccentricity had been. Since Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and the Surrealists artists have been linked to outrageous behaviour. So outrageous at times, that George Orwell felt compelled to attack the special treatment with which artists are indulged for attitudes and behaviour that would be condemned as completely unacceptable amongst Joe Public in his article, ‘Benefit of Clergy’. M. Merlin’s bizarre appearance and behaviour clearly qualifies him for inclusion with the other, contemporary masters of the bizarre and shocking, such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the Chapman Brothers, and some of the other winners of the Turner Prize. One of these also dresses in female attire. This part of the programme shows that art has always contained more than element of showmanship, and that artists have been shocking, scandalising and entertaining the public with bizarre displays of personal behaviour since the 18th century, if not long before. It didn’t just emerge with the Surrealists and the Situationists in the ’20s and 60’s.

Schaffer did get something wrong, however. He seemed to suggest that clockwork first emerged in order to regulate town life. They didn’t. They emerged to regulate the times of prayer of the church, so that even villages had clocks. These also could possess automata. One of the devices portrayed in the notebook of the great thirteenth century architect and engineer, Villard de Honnecourt, is for a clockwork angel that revolved to face the sun. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the prehistory of modern robotics. Unfortunately it was placed on BBC 4, which the Beeb seems to see as dumping ground for all the intellectual stuff it should produce as a publicly funded broadcaster, but which don’t actually bring the ratings its bosses crave. It should, however, be available on BBC iplayer. Some of the programmes first shown on BBC 4 are repeated on BBC 2. I hope that’s the case, as this fine programme deserves a wider audience.

See below for a piece from Youtube of Jacquet Droz’s automata, including the writing boy.

And here’s the awesome Compressorhead. Is it just me, or do they really look like the robots Art Robot Kevin O’Neill used to draw in the Robusters and ABC Warriors strips in 2000 AD.

Lenin: Atheist Propaganda Official Soviet Policy

May 31, 2013

Lenin and The Official Publication of Soviet Militant Atheism: Necessity of Including Non-Communist Atheists

This is further to my post yesterday, in which I explained that atheism was a vital part of Communist ideology, citing Marx and Engels. In his article ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, published in the March, 1922 issue of Trotsky’s journal, Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), Lenin advocated the establishment of atheist materialism and propaganda as a vital part of Soviet ideology. He praised the above magazine, for including both Communists and Non-Communist materialists. ‘This statement says that not all those gathered round the journal Pod Znamen Marksizma are Communists but that they are all consistent materialists. I think that this alliance of Communists and Non-Communists is absolutely essential and correctly defines the purposes of the journal … Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction. … This also applies to the defence of materialism and Marxism’.

‘At any rate, in Russia we still have – and shall undoubtedly have for a fairly long time to come – materialists from the non-communist camp, and it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherent of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society’. Lenin furthermore said of the magazine that ‘such a journal must be a militant atheist organ. We have departments, or at least state institutions, which are in charge of this work. But the work is being carried on with extreme apathy and very unsatisfactorily, and is apparently suffering from the general conditions of our truly Russian (even though Soviet) bureaucratic ways. It is therefore highly essential that in addition to the work of these state institutions, and in order to improve and infuse life into that work, a journal which sets out to propagandise militant materialism must carry on untiring atheist propganda and an untiring atheist fight. The literature on the subject in all languages should be carefully followed and everything at all valuable in this sphere should be translated, or at least reviewed’.

Communists Should Publish Atheist Propaganda

Lenin then cited Engels’ recommendation that Communists should translate and republish the militant atheist literature of the eighteenth for mass distribution amongst the people. This should be done in abridged editions omitting material that was unscientific and ‘naive’, and including brief postscripts pointing out the progress in the scientific criticism of religion since the eighteenth century. This material should not be purely Marxist. ‘These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them from the varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth’. He then stated that this material was more suitable than the dry material of Marxism.

He considered one of the journal’s tasks should be atheist propaganda, particularly using material showing the connection between the modern bourgeoisie and religious institutions and propaganda, particular in America, where the connection between the boureoisie and religion was not obvious:

Pod Znamen Marksizma, which set out to be an organ of militant materialism, should devote much of its space to atheist propaganda, to reviews of the literature on the subject and to correcting the immense shortcomings of our governmental work in this field. It is particularly important to utilise books and pamphlets which contain many concrete facts and comparisons showing how the class interests and the class organisations of the modern bourgeoisie are connected with the organisation of religious institutions and religious propaganda.

All material relating to the United States of America, where the official, state connection between religion and capital is less manifest, is extremely important’.

Communists to Ally with Militant Atheist Scientists

He also recommended that the Communists should also ally themselves with those scientists, who inclined towards materialism and were willing to spread it:

‘In addition to the alliance with consistent materialist who do not belong to the Communist Party, of no less and perhaps even of more important for the work which militant materialism should perform is an alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.’

Communist Atheism Threatened by Non-Communist Atheists and Science

For all that Lenin advocated an alliance with non-Communist atheist materialists, particularly scientists, he felt threatened by those atheists, that were, in his view, insufficiently hostile to religion. He inveighed against these as the ‘ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie, as ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’. He attacked an atheist account of Christianity’s origins by a Russian scientist, Professor R.Y. Wipper, because Wipper declared that he was above extremes of both idealism and materialism. He similarly attacked a book by the German author, Arthur Drews, which tried to make the case that Christ didn’t exist, because Drews wished for a revived, purified religion that would withstand ‘the daily growing naturalist torrent’. He was particularly afraid of contemporary philosophical trends towards religion that were based on the investigation of radioactivity – the discovery of radium – and particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity. ‘It should be remembered that the shap upheaval which modern natural science is undergoing ery often gives rise to reactionary philosophical schools and minor schools, trends and minor trends. Unless, therefore, the problems raised by the recent revolution in natural science are followed, and unless natural scientists are enlisted in the work of a philosophical journal, militant materialism can be neither militant nor materialism’. He believed that the interest caused by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and other scientific developments since the late 19th century were leading the world’s people to atheism. This movement towards atheist materialism could only be politically and philosophically secure if it was firmly based in Marxist philosophy, particularly the Hegelian dialectic.

Communist Atheism and Science to be Based on Marxist Dialectic

‘For our attitude towrads this phenomenon to be a politically conscious one, it must be realised that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the borgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. In order to hold his own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish, the natural scientist must be a modern materialist, a conscious adherent of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., he must be a dialectal materialist…In my opinion, the ediotrs and contributors of Pod Znamenem Marsksizma should be a kind of “Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics”. Modern natural scientists (if they known how to seek, if we learn to help them) will find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science and which make the intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion “stumble” into reaction’.

Communist Atheism Highly Ideological, Soviet Science Explicitly Atheist, Communist Politicisation of Science Retarded Scientific Progress

Lenin’s demand for Marxist atheism to appeal to scientists partly explains why a number of scientists did join the Communist party, such as J.B.S. Haldane. It also shows that the Marxist conception of atheism felt itself to be highly vulnerable to developments in natural science that appeared to contradict a pure materialism. Furthermore, the highly politicised, ideological form of atheism that formed the core of Marxism was to be imported into science itself. Now the proponents of Intelligent Design theory have maintained that atheism and materialism have corrupted science. While this is generally highly contentious, nevertheless it was true of Soviet Science. Soviet Science was supposed to be informed and based on Marxist materialism. As a result, it was highly politicised. The Soviet Union could produce some superb scientists, such as the rocket pioneer Sergei Korolyev. Yet it could also viciously persecute those individuals whose scientific views did not find official favour, with the result that in many areas Soviet Science was remarkably backwards. They remained behind in computer technology, for example, because Stalin’s scientific advisor believed it was a pseudo-science. It is therefore very clear that for Lenin, Marxism was a kind of militant atheism to be promoted as the only true atheism, and that Marxist atheist materialism was to form a vital part of the Soviet scientific enterprise.


V.I. Lenin, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’, in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968) 653-60.