Marxism and the Irrationalists

John Lewis


Fact or Fiction

The Philosophy of “As If”

THE philosophy of As If  [1] has its representatives and variations both on the continent and in this country. Professor Herbert Dingle in his recent book The Scientific Adventure argues that all the scientist can do is to “create a world picture that will interpret his sensory experience”; such a picture is not the discovery of scientific truth but a parable or symbol. Things happen as if  the explanation were so, but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it is, and any other supposition which might equally well account for the facts is just as true—or false. Professor Dingle pays theology the dubious compliment of saying that “the religious man has just as much justification for creating a world picture that will interpret his religious experience” and, one might add, just as little, for the argument really means that both science and religion are not true but fictitious.

Eddington means much the same thing when he says: “The mind has but regained from nature what mind has put into nature”, or as Vaihinger puts it: “The psyche envelops the thing perceived with categories which it has developed out of itself”.

This is simply a variant of that pragmatism which holds that science cannot get at reality but works with fictions, assumptions and hypotheses which bring order into the facts and help us to move about among them. We only know the facts themselves, we never reach the general law as itself a truth; all laws and theories are only concepts, constructs of the mind. Thus the theory of evolution is not true, it is not a fact; but fossils turn up and the limbs of animals are similarly patterned as if evolution had taken place. We can say no

1 Vaihinger, Philosophie des Als Ob.


more. Atoms and molecules do not exist but we have the scientific results which we should expect if they did. The moment we accept atoms, forces, laws and theories as real we are becoming metaphysical, we are passing beyond the facts. Reality consists of nothing but the observed events. To quote Jeans once more: “Science has left off trying to explain phenomena and resigns itself merely to describing them in the simplest way possible. It does not matter whether the mathematical formulae in use in dealing with light correspond to any thinkable ultimate reality, which is for ever beyond the comprehension of the human mind. We are driven to speak in terms of metaphors and parables”.

Do Theories merely summarise Facts?

Turning from an attempt to penetrate beyond the surface events to the structure of nature, empiricists like Ayer, following Mach, tell us that the sole purpose of theories is to summarise facts. “The most we can do is to elaborate a technique for predicting the course of our sensory experience”—not even, be it noted, the course of events in the material world, but merely what is likely to happen within the subjective world of our sensations. No light is thrown on the actual constitution and laws of physical systems; the most that science can achieve is to predict the course of future observations on the basis of such regularities as have been observed in the past.

Now one of the uses of a true theory is that it summarises facts, but it is not true because it summarises facts; that is one of the things you do with a theory because it is true.

This substitution of utility for truth is characteristic of pragmatism which although discredited today as a system has nevertheless deeply penetrated scientific thought. Like the philosophy of As If, it abandons all attempts to discover the nature of reality and merely asks of any formulation or theory how useful it is, not whether it is true—or worse still it changes the meaning of “truth” from correspondence with reality to utility. As Dewey puts it, the truth about scientific


theories lies in the fact that they help us to get things done. We are not to say that they are descriptive of objective physical processes and therefore they are effective in practice. Sheer effectiveness is their truth, or, shall we say, is a substitute for truth. As he puts it elsewhere, the truth which we formulate has no “antecedent reality”, it resides in the formulation in so far as it works. “It is not the proposition but the act of asserting it, one gathers, that is true or false. And it is true when it is the product of a competent inquiry and leads to the achievement of the goals to which that inquiry was directed.” [1]

Science and Pragmatism

Thus truth is no longer the correspondence of an idea with a pre-existent fact. Any belief that we have warrant to go on asserting is “true” even though such a warrant is something quite different from agreement with reality. It may be its utility in grafting new facts on to old, it may be because “it is profitable to our lives” or “expedient in almost any fashion”. It is in this sense that theories, constructs, hypotheses, even such “facts” as atoms, waves, cells and so forth are “true” or are accepted as working fictions.

What is so surprising about this philosophy of science is that it is so flatly contrary to the whole spirit of science. Plainly this is not the way that scientific work is done, even by some of those who advocate these views. It is the very opposite of science to accept a theory as true without real proof, merely because it is useful or pleasing, or even because it links new facts to old. The crazy epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy accounted for the curious wanderings of planets among the stars by doing that, but the theory was not true. When combustion was supposed to be the escape of a fiery substance, phlogiston, from the burning substance it was found that a burned metal weighed more than the metal before burning; the fact was that oxygen had combined with it, and so the oxide weighed more than the original metal; but the

1 Cornforth, In Defence of Philosophy.


theory that linked the new fact to the old conception was that phlogiston weighed less than nothing, so that when it escaped from the burning metal the resulting substance weighed more. It is not a sufficient test of a theory that it links up all the facts in a unified picture: false theories can do that as well as true. So far is science from accepting theories because of their merely “satisfying” qualities that scientific advance has been made precisely by excluding such beliefs and insisting on truth whether it satisfied or not.

Science clearly distinguishes useful fictions and truth. It may deliberately use one model without affirming its truth, and another accepting it as truth. Sir Oliver Lodge once wrote a book on electricity that was full of models, none of which claimed to be true, but were merely illustrative. On the other hand, modern text-books of chemistry contain diagrams or even photographs or coloured pictures of arrangements of billiard-ball-like objects which are not merely illustrative of the structure of molecules but really represent their structure.

The “ether” was advanced as a useful hypothesis, but no-one accepted it as true because it worked. Since it had been constructed to serve a special purpose, to be the medium through which light waves passed, and so on, it could not but work, having been framed for that purpose. To see whether it was true, experiments were devised. [1] These disproved its truth, but it continued to “work”! Clearly the truth is quite different from the utility of a theory and means that it corresponds to some actual existence previously unknown. The true explanation of the behaviour of light was found in Einstein’s Restricted Principle of Relativity in 1905. It would not have been found had utility been accepted as the criterion of a satisfactory theory instead of its truth. Utility may be based on a useful error and science is full of useful errors. Heat was for many years supposed to be a fluid—caloric. This theory was a most profitable one; it was completely adequate to existing knowledge and helped to establish the science of

1 The Michelson‑Morley experiments of 1887.


heat on a firm basis. It was not for a half a century that the theory had to be given up. Now if we can clearly distinguish between the utility of theory and its truth it is clear that there is another criterion at work than utility.

Is a Theory which Works necessarily True?

Behind this error, and behind the rather similar error that what is useful in summarising facts is as good as true because true theories do summarise facts, is a simple logical fallacy. Because a true theory works, it does not follow that every theory that works is true.

Consider the inference”

All truths are useful. Therefore all useful beliefs are true.

Now compare it with the following inference:

Every truthful man is to be trusted.

Therefore all trusted men are truthful.

Clearly these inferences are false. The true conclusion in each case is: Therefore some trusted men are truthful, and, therefore some useful beliefs are true.

One of the disastrous consequences of believing that utility is the test of or is equivalent to truth and that we cannot and need not compare a belief with reality to see whether it is true, is the extension of the theory into the world of religion, superstition even, and into politics. The fact that science itself is held to be based on nothing sounder than the utility of its beliefs gives people the assurance that any beliefs based on their utility are as securely based as science.

But to show that a belief is useful or helpful or encouraging does not do more than explain why it is believed. Thus people go on believing in spiritualism because it consoles them for the loss of their relatives. To believe in something because it is useful merely explains why false beliefs are believed. True beliefs are believed not because they are useful but because we have adequate ground for believing that they y correspond with reality.


Utility and Truth

There is another logical criticism of the “utility” theory. It is a fact that theories help us to summarise facts, that they are convenient and economical and so forth, but that does not mean that they are nothing more. If they are nothing more they are not true. Some concepts are nothing more, others are much more. If they are also true they are not a mere product of the need to summarise or picturise. In other words utility may be a character of truth without being its essence.

The fact is that scientific laws are not true because they are useful. They are useful because they are true, because they record in terms of thought a relation between objective facts. In scientific thinking we are conscious of reflecting upon something which exists independently of our subjective activity, which indeed puts itself into opposition in various ways to our will, something which is, in short, possessed of a nature of its own.

All these highly subjective theories of science end up by saying that we make truth in accordance with our needs. They surrender entirely the idea of a pre-existent world of matter with which we have to come to terms, substituting for it our sensations and experiences which we may order in any way convenient to us. There is a bit of truth in all error, and it is a fact that the knowledge of things is realised in connection with the satisfaction of our vital needs; but this does not imply that their reality is created by subjective activity and that they exist only in so far as they satisfy those needs. Things are what they are and act according to laws which are not forced by thought upon a flux of indeterminate sensations.

The Unity of the Relative and the Absolute

The unity of the relative and the absolute aspects of truth was splendidly put by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. “The relative limits of our approximation to the cognition of the objective, absolute truth are historically conditioned; but the existence of this truth is unconditioned, as well as the fact that we are continually approaching it . . .


In a word every ideology is historically conditioned, but it is unconditionally true that to every scientific truth . . . there corresponds an objective truth, something absolutely so in nature.” Elsewhere he says “ . . . absolute truth results from the sum-total of relative truths in the course of their development, . . . relative truths represent approximate reflections of an object which exists independent of humanity . . . these reflections continually approach the truth “. [1]

The World Controllable because Determinate

Pragmatism seems to regard the world as almost completely malleable. Human works and human will can mould it to the heart’s desire, can find in it, can assert about it whatever satisfies, reflects our yearnings, meets our needs. This is relativism with a vengeance. But the world is not plastic, it resents and thwarts us. This however is not to say that we cannot therefore control the material world. Quite the contrary, we can control it because it is determinate. The success of our theories presupposes a certain constancy of relations which we are unable to modify, a persistency in the conditions of the environment. In fact if thoughts were not the reflection of some order or system of stable relations inherent in the nature of things it would be worthless as an organ of life. As Bacon said, we modify the world up to a point if we submit obediently to it.

The pragmatic, “as if” type of theory, based on the mere utility of models, of laws summarising facts, of theories which are no more than mental fictions, really denies the basic fact that science does not order our sensations but enlarges our knowledge of nature and our practical control over it. “By rejecting the objectivity of scientific knowledge it obscures the significance of science as a weapon of enlightenment and progress.” [2] This “obscures the whole function of science and confuses the issues of the fight to realise the progressive potentialities of scientific knowledge”. [3]

1 Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

2 Comforth, “Logical Empiricism” in Philosophy for the Future.

3 Ibid.


It is clear that it also opens the door for the “deception of the people by supernatural, idealistic and anti-scientific illusions”. [1]

The science which discovers the actual constitution and laws of physical systems, serves the ends of increasing our all-round understanding of the universe and of increasing our power to use natural processes for our own ends.

Pragmatism as a Reaction against Dogmatism

There is, however, a partial truth in these theories that must not be overlooked. They were in part a reaction from a dogmatic rationalism which almost identified certain limited theories of science with reality, theories which were narrowly physical or biological and sought to comprehend the whole of existence in the categories of a single highly abstract and limited department of science. Against this a philosophical humanism pointed out that our theories were man-made, partial, influenced by our desires, and often left out of account the richness, variety and obscurity of life itself. All this is very true, but the answer is not scientific scepticism. Something may escape our theories, our systems are of necessity incomplete, but the laws which the scientist formulates, though they may not exactly describe the relations of things, or comprehend all aspects of the given reality, approximate ever more nearly thereto as they become increasingly true. If there is no absolutely certain experimental law, there are principles which have stood the test of facts better than others, and have shown us how to render the world of experience intelligible, so that we may regard them as being relatively more certain than others.

Pragmatism leads to Dogmatism

Pragmatism came forward as the reaction against dogmatism. It reflected a profound antipathy to pedantry, system, convention, dogmatic assertion of immutable principles. In point of fact pragmatism itself leads to dogmatism. No belief is more

1 Ibid.


tenaciously held or dogmatically asserted than one which we feel needs to be true. A recent theological controversy well illustrates this. A writer in the Christian Century says of a certain belief in the supernatural, “I saw that this must be either true or not true. If it be not true, then we have nothing but the confusion of naturalism. But if it be true—and it must be true if we are to have enduring hope—it can be true only as something revealed”.

It must be true if we are to have enduring hope: the cat is out of the bag. The foundation of all dogmatic belief is there expressed. It must be true because we want it to be true.

Even scientific hypotheses may be advanced on pragmatic grounds, without the necessary verification. Eddington and Whittaker are prepared to deduce the laws of nature from eternal truths” which can be “obtained in complete perfection here and now”. Milne has argued that we may arrive at truth by rational deduction from a general principle without recourse to experience and Eddington has argued that “there is nothing in the whole system of laws of physics that cannot be deduced unambiguously from epistemological considerations”. [1]

Eddington has divined that the whole system of nature is built round a number of the order 10 78 which he called the cosmical number. Its existence constitutes an “eternal a priori truth”. This involves a startling consequence. One of the numbers of the 10 78 group is what we may call roughly the number of particles in the universe. Now where are we? “We stand in awe,” says Professor Whittaker, “before the thought that the intellectual framework of nature is prior to nature herself, that it existed before the material universe began its history” [2]; and from this we proceed to argue that the existence of such “truths” “point to a God who is not bound up with the world, who is transcendent and subject to no limitation”.

See Listener, August 21st, 1952, and Dingle’s The Scientific Adventure.

2 Listener, August 21st, 1952.


It would be equally possible to begin with the hypothesis of the expanding universe and proceed to draw philosophical and metaphysical conclusions of the most daring kind from that.

In every case a hypothesis built on the most flimsy premises is put forward as something useful, and then a vast edifice of metaphysical and religious speculation is erected upon it. The untested assumptions of medievalism and the deductions therefrom are nothing to the dogmas which derive from the “utility” of unverified and unverifiable hypotheses.

“This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign among the schoolmen; who having sharp and strong wits . . . did out of no great quantity of matter, and infinite agitation of wit, spin out unto us these laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter . . . worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.” [1]

Do Atoms and Molecules Exist?

The pretensions of this pseudo-scientific philosophising are convincingly exposed by taking a few actual examples of their subjective treatment of scientific concepts, for it is only by keeping the argument on an abstract level that it retains any plausibility. Consider for instance the problem of the real existence of atoms and molecules. This has been regarded by Mach and by contemporary empiricists as no more than a mental construct which conveniently explains or renders intelligible certain facts or recorded observations. But every laboratory worker believes in the objective existence of atoms and molecules (which is quite a different thing, by the way, from saying exactly what an atom, for instance, is). Particles in suspension in a liquid can be graded from those which settle in a fine deposit to those that remain permanently in suspension

1 Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning.


and are invisible under the microscope; that they are there becomes apparent if they are illuminated by a cross beam of light as motes are rendered visible in a sunbeam, or they may be precipitated as a deposit by centrifugal force. A colloidal solution of gold behaves like this, showing a neat transition from the unobservable and hypothetical to the visible. The virus was invisible until photographed, but never seen directly, under the electron microscope. Yet invisibility is often, rather naively, taken as evidence of non-existence.

Interesting work has been done with fine films from 20 to 100 molecules thick in comparison with still finer films only one or two molecules thick. The difference in behaviour follows from what one would expect from actual molecules so arranged. The existence and behaviour of liquid crystals is explicable in terms of the behaviour of actual molecules. They can be broken up, but the molecules rejoin. We thus obtain a curious and exciting combination of liquid form and permanent shape. All living cells in the body contain such liquid crystals.

Radio-active isotopes which after passing into the body enter the structure of some of the proteins of the brain or muscles in a few minutes, replacing other atoms which step out, are actual entities giving manifest signs of their presence, not figments of the mind.

Even the electron is now established as a physical entity. Wilson’s cloud-chamber has shown that when ionisation is produced by X-rays or electrons in a gas with water-vapour present, cloud is formed about the ions (just as mist or raindrops are formed). This, followed by suitable measurements and calculations, made it certain that bodies much smaller than the smallest atom were present.

The television set, with its cathode ray tube, and the electron microscope have made the concrete existence of electrons quite plain to the most critical intelligence. A development of Wilson’s cloud-chamber method has made it possible to take camera pictures of the paths of alpha-particles, each of which is identical with the nucleus of a helium atom. Electrons are


deflected by the electro-magnet, a fact which is the basis of the electron microscope—another indication of the materiality of electrons. [1]

The molecular structure of crystals has been demonstrated by the diffraction effects of their lattice-like arrangement, on X-rays. Molecular structure and the arrangement of the molecules is the explanation of the different properties of materials such as glass, iron, cotton, silk, rayon and wool.

But we should not limit our attention to the sub-microscopic world. No scientific fact is directly known. It is impossible to separate the sequence of observations from the train of judgments, which follows, or to imagine observations that are not suggested and directed by existing knowledge. Fact and theory cannot be so easily divorced. Is the earth an oblate sphere with a radius of 6,370 kilometres or do we merely agree to act as if it were? Are the plant body and the animal body made up of cells? These things are indeed true, but these .are not facts open to immediate inspection.

What Mach wanted to eliminate, namely the atom, has proved the turning point of modern physics. Nor is it that the theory has merely proved useful in its consequences. The knowledge that matter consists of atoms is much more important than all the “consequences of the picture”. Progress has not followed the procedure of regarding atoms as fictions but taking them as real things to investigate. The fact that molecules do not break down into smaller portions of the same “stuff”, but into quite different substances, e.g. copper sulphate, a blue crystalline substance, into copper and sulphur and oxygen, and that an atom itself breaks down not into little bits of atoms but into something quite different from an atom, should not disturb anyone. Particles having determinate qualities of their own can make up bodies having quite different

1 Perhaps one cause of doubts as to the material existence of atoms and electrons is the confusion of materiality with solidity. Material reality is that which exists independently of mind. It is not necessarily solid. Light is material, but it is not solid. No-one today holds the billiard ball theory of the atom, but the electrical theory of the atom does not lessen its materiality.


special qualities. What is electricity at one level may be ordinary solid substance at another.

Science and Witchcraft

There is always the possibility of distinguishing between constructions which are knowledge, and constructions which are only plausible fictions. Our imaginary constructions cannot, beyond a certain point, be used to anticipate correctly the results of our actions; therefore they cannot be valid. When Professor Polanyi declares that it is impossible to find a satisfactory argument to persuade the Azande of the Southern Sudan that witchcraft is not responsible for the smelting of iron ore going wrong in a particular case, our reply is that witchcraft has not given the Azande steadily increasing control over the process of smelting as science has with us. The purely fictitious, however specious and pleasing, does not increase our control over nature, it prevents further advance. Professor Evans-Pritchard, the anthropologist, feels under no obligation to instruct the Azande [1] in the folly of witchcraft. On the contrary he feels that “it provides them with a philosophy of events which is intellectually satisfying” and that “what at first sight seems no more than an absurd superstition is discovered by anthropological investigation to be the integrative principle of a system of thought and morals and to have an important role in the social structure”. [2] How would Evans-Pritchard, feel, however, about calling in a witch doctor to deal with his wireless set or his car or cope with a difficult virus infection in his child?

I have no doubt that the aim of this undermining of science is not to harm science at all, though that may, be its effect. It is to demonstrate that science has no right to close the door to belief in the supernatural. It is to this conclusion that every argument leads. But it should be noted that it does not merely open the door to orthodox theological beliefs which may claim to be rational, but to any and every superstition,

1 Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.

2 Evans-Pritchard, Social Anthropology.


since they are all validated by the principle that whatever hypothesis is useful is as valid as any scientific theory. Professor Polanyi is quite explicit about it—you choose your system of beliefs, and what you choose is really a whole tradition, a closed system of assumptions and practices; this is what the Church is, and this is what science is. If you feel at liberty to profess your faith in the arbitrary and imaginatively constructed fictions of science, you are also at liberty to accept the dogmas, miracles and practices of the Church. Above all, he says, we must learn to abandon the critical obsession and acquire the capacity to hold beliefs.

One effect of such views is to remove social institutions from scientific enquiry, to limit science to finding ways and means to accomplish the ends settled by a society based firmly on uncriticised dogmas. Yet what is wanted is the application of scientific methods to society itself and its institutions, and to the task of establishing satisfactory ends. The former method leaves the most important things to decision by custom, prejudice and class interests and by tradition embodied in institutions which serve only minorities.

Only a clear understanding that science is capable of discovering the nature of reality, physical, psychological, economic, social and political, will give us the confidence to use and extend scientific methods, in preference to irrational beliefs, to obtain our understanding and control over nature and society.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Irrationalists. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 1955. Chapter 11: Fact or Fiction, pp. 110-123.

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