Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why Did Engels Write Anti-Dühring?

Thomas Riggins

In the 1870s the German professor Eugen Dühring joined the German Social Democratic Party. He made a lot of friends and began interpreting socialism along lines that were new and different and which he thought were more in accord with modern science. Engels' German comrades asked him for clarification on some of these new views as Dühring was starting to collect a following. Engels, however, was busy doing other things. But after three years of requests he decided to write the book ANTI-DÜHRING: HERR EUGEN DÜHRING'S REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE. This book became one of the most important of the so-called Marxist "classics" and is a basic foundational document for the understanding of DIAMAT (Dialectical Materialism).

In this article I will make some comments on the prefaces to the work (there are three for the three German editions made in Engels' lifetime) before going on to review the First Part of the work, that devoted to philosophy, to try and situate it in our time at the beginning of the 21st century.

Engels tells us that Anti-Dühring is an extension of the world view first developed by Marx in his book THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY, then extended by the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and DAS KAPITAL. To make sure that this solo flight would properly represent their joint philosophy, Engels read aloud the whole manuscript to Marx and the latter even wrote a chapter for the book (chapter ten of part two). I note this because many people today try to divorce the thought of Marx from that of Engels and maintain that Anti-Dühring is a deviation from Marx's philosophical views which were more sophisticated than those of Engels.

In order to write the book, Engels first took eight years to review the math and natural sciences of his day. The reason he did this was to convince himself that the laws of the materialist dialectic of motion which he and Marx had detected at work in history and in the evolution of human consciousness, were equally at work in Nature. These laws were first developed by the German philosopher G.W.F. HEGEL but, Engels says, in a "mystic form." Once stripped of this form, Marx and Engels were able to apply the dialectical method to both the natural and historical sciences.

Engels was aware that the charge might be made that the dialectic was being forced upon Nature from the outside and that the "facts" were being forced into the straight jacket of the theory. This serious charge is still made today by the bourgeois opponents of Marxism. Engels however says that he did all he could to avoid this: "to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectic into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it."

Engels lived in a time of rapid scientific advance towards the end of the 19th century. Only a few years before he wrote the second preface to his book, he says, the LAW OF THE CONSERVATION OF ENERGY was propounded ("the great basic law of motion") but it was put forth NOT qualitatively but only quantitatively as the "indestructibility and uncreatabilty of

But now (1885-- the time of the second preface) Engels sees a more dialectical approach as scientists are beginning to discuss THE TRANSFORMATION OF ENERGY which when fully understood will remove "the last vestige of an extra mundane creator." A mere ten years after Engel's death (1895) Einstein published his famous equation E=mc2.

Engels says we still see rigid barriers in Nature-- the wave vs particle theory of light had not yet bloomed into quantum physics-- but had he lived I don't think Engels would have been thrown off by such seeming contradictions. Contradiction is the essence of dialectics. He writes that: "The recognition that these antagonisms and distinctions, though to be found in nature, are only of relative validity, and that on the other hand their imagined rigidity and absolute validity have been introduced into nature only by our reflective minds-- this recognition is the kernel of the dialectical conception of nature."

So, the purpose of the book is to reaffirm the scientific nature of Diamat, to exclude the erroneous accretions of Herr Dühring, and to demonstrate that modern science, including Diamat, is the result of a long tradition of philosophical development whose two poles (as we shall see) include Aristotle and Hegel.

Engels thinks that science must "assimilate the results of the development of philosophy during the past two and half thousand years" to avoid basing itself on some bogus world view [as the Nazi movement later did] and to also get rid of its metaphysical (i.e., mechanistic and non-dialectical) baggage which is "its inheritance from English empiricism."

In the next article I will look at the two part introduction to Anti-Dühring.
[Anti-Düring I]

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Superstition Marches On

Thomas Riggins

Jonathan Benthall has an article called "Beyond Belief: In Spite of Science and Secularism, Religions are Gaining Strength -- But Are They Offering More Than a 'Storm-Shutter' or a New Global Market?" [TLS 12-11-2009]. Under the heading "Philosophy of Religion" (although there is little philosophy involved) he reviews five recent books on religion [Michael King: POSTSECULARISM, Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK, Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD, and Michael Jackson, THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND]. From what I could glean from the review none of the books seem interesting nor deep and, unless one is already predisposed to be sympathetic to superstition and its baneful grip on the human spirit, not worth the time and effort to read. Here are some impressions from Benthall's review.

Mike King: POSTSECULARISM: THE HIDDEN CHALLENGE TO EXTREMISM, 324pp. This is, among other things, an attack on Richard Dawkins, whose militant attack on Theism is still upsetting people. King says Dawkins wants to "arrogate to science what is the proper domain of a quite different human impulse-- the poetic and mystical." He accepts the "non-overlapping magisteria" supported by Steven Jay Gould, adding a third, as Bentall points out, of the arts. These domains are "autonomous with regard to science." He goes on to reject,the reviewer quotes him, "the monoculture of the mind" reflected by the fundamentalists of both religion and scientists-- "ultra-scientism" as Benthall puts it. Well, all I can say is that science wants to explain what is really going on in our world and what ever "poetic and mystical" views turn you on are fine but it is a delusional superstition to think that is the way to world understanding. Astrology is certainly "autonomous' with regard to Astronomy but let us not dignify it as a "non-overlapping magesterium." Religion was a pre-scientific way of looking at the world. Today it simply a tool by which the exploited are more easily controlled by their masters. Once the exploited catch on, if ever-- its doesn't look so good that they will-- it's all over.

Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: REELECTIONS ON THE GOD DEBATE 185pp (Yale). Benthall tells us that Eagleton is turned off by the "doctrinal ferocity" of atheists such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens whom he lumps together as "Ditchkins." Eagleton himself rejects the version of God as a vengeful proponent of hell fire and brimstone and thinks that the message of Jesus has been betrayed by the mainstream interpretation of the Christian churches. He is sympathetic to a left Christianity based on a concept of Original Sin that results in a "tragic humanism." But how can you base anything on the fairy tale of "Original Sin?" Benthall says Eagleton finds it "scandalous" that opponents of religion such as Dawkins and Hitchens" can just dismiss the "work of religiously committed people over centuries in alleviating suffering, working for peace and standing up to dictators." Well perhaps it's not so scandalous when you reflect on the fact that compared to the religiously committed who over centuries inflicted suffering, worked for war and blindly followed dictators-- the number of people Eagleton is referring to is a drop in the bucket. As Bertrand Russell said, first religion does a great deal of harm and then a little good. I don't think we need spend much time on this type of jejune apologetic.

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK: HOW THE GLOBAL RISE OF FAITH IS CHANGING THE WORLD. The first author is an editor (and a Catholic) the second a senior staff member (and an atheist) at THE ECONOMIST, a major organ of bourgeois propaganda and misinformation. Benthall says the thrust of this book is to oppose the "standard view" that religion in the US is "exceptionally elevated" as opposed to Europe and other developed countries "with the drift away from the churches" and that this is the trend of history. "Elevated" is a strange word to use, I think, to describe the primitive nativistic and quite ridiculous beliefs of most American Christians. Everyone who studies the philosophy of religion grants that the US is full of undereducated, unsophisticated, antiscientific, homophobic, racist Bible thumpers to a greater degree than other industrialized areas of the world. That this is "elevated religiosity" is debatable. The authors see, with the exception of Europe, the world trending in the American direction with the rapid growth of religious sects and cults (not their terminology) in the neocolonial world and in China. They are confident that China will become a Christian country. The Chinese "middle class" is better educated than its American counterpart so I doubt this will happen. As we continue to exploit and destroy the neocolonial world, religion can be expected to grow and prosper in this area as it is the sigh of the oppressed after all. Our authors understand this as Benthall writes they hold that, "People take cover from the 'hurricane of capitalism' under the canopy of religion." Since THE ECONOMIST supported Bush's imperialist oil grabbing invasion of Iraq, our authors well know what the "hurricane of capitalism" is capable of.

Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD: FINDINGS FROM THE SOVIET EXPERIMENT IN SECULARIZATION, 264pp (U 0f Ca Press). Using only English language sources, Froese sets out to test the six propositions he thinks are at the basis of the Soviet attitudes toward religion. The six are as follows, according to Benthall's review. 1) Religion is a primitive illusion. 2) Religious rites and values are more important than the gods. 3) Religious leaders are functions of state power. 4) Religious behavior is mostly based on rational choice (!?) [I really doubt the Soviets believed religion was both a primitive illusion AND involved rational choice. Froese puts this one in because he will propose a "market model" for religion later on in his book and most bourgeois thinkers believe markets are the result of "rational choice" such as spending more than you have.] 5) Religion is only concerned with the supernatural. [Another dubious Froese proposition attributed to the Soviets, who were well aware of the social, political, and economic roles that religion concerns itself with.] 6) Religion is subject to market forces the same as businesses are. Benthall says the author has "a personal leaning towards the market model" --i.e., 6) and this, in my opinion, is why he thinks the Soviets believed 4) as well. This whole scheme is cooked up out of Froese's brain. He wonders why the Soviets did not just co-op the Russian Orthodox Church, as the Tzars had, and use it to further the aims of the state. "Froese wonders, Benthall writes, "why Soviet propagandists spent so much effort in creating a substitute religion [i.e., Atheism ] when they could have co-opted an existing one [Orthodoxy] more easily." Froese thinks the Soviet leaders were all like Putin. It does not occur to him that the Bolsheviks sincerely thought religion was a mental poison that imprisons the minds of the masses and makes them slaves and stupid at the same time. The free human beings of the future would be free of the God Delusion.

Michael Jackson [no, not THAT Michael Jackson], THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND: RELATEDNESS, RELIGIOSITY, AND THE REAL. This book will claim a little more of our attention as, unlike the twaddle before, there is some real thinking going on here. The author is a social anthropologist influenced by phenomenology. Benthall quotes him on a need for a modern understanding of religion. Jackson writes, "We need to approach religiosity without a theological vocabulary, repudiate the notion of religion as a sui generis phenomenon, and distance ourselves from the assumption of a necessary relationship between espoused belief and subjective experience." He thinks religion is search for "what matters". Well, this would give it a broader extension than it now has. He thinks that religion develops at the extreme limits of human experience when we arrive at "those critical situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, the limits of our strength...."

"It would seem," Jackson writes, "that for all human beings, regardless of their world views, it is in border situations when they are sorely tested ... that they are most susceptible to those epiphanies, breakthroughs, conversions, and revelations that are sometimes associated with the divine [?? what is the 'divine'?- that's theological vocabulary ] and sometimes simply taken as evidence of the finitude, uncertainty, and thrownness of human existence." This is, of course, an echo of the EXISTENZ philosophy of Karl Jaspers and his notion of "limit-situations." It is also, like Jasper's philosophy, a form of anti-scientific irrationalism. Here is Benthall: "For him [i.e., Jackson], a given interpretive vocabulary is at its most disputable when it appears to privilege one way of representing reality by depreciating others." Taken literally this would mean that the scientific method, the only way so far that we have arrived at propositions that have universal applicability, would be on a par with metaphysical speculations and religious intuitions. Benthall thinks that Jackson's way of looking at the world could lead to "spiritual principles compatible with modern science" and concludes that Jackson's way of looking at religion could result in "a shared 'religious' sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace." Yet again with the "marketplace." This "shared 'religious' sensibility" already exists in the form secular humanism based on the scientific outlook-- a form of Deism without the deity-- and we do not need to go whoring after new gods. Secular humanism + Marxism should do the trick.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Poor Nations Cause Failure of Climate Talks

Thomas Riggins

The above headline sums up the New York Times view of the failure to strike a serious deal at the Copenhagen UN climate change talks ("Poor and Emerging States Stall Climate Negotiations" by John M.Broder, NYT 12-17-2009).Here is Broder's first sentence:"If the United Nations climate talks here[Copenhagen]are entering their final two days in virtual deadlock, it is in large measure because of delays and diversions created by a group of poor and emerging nations intent on making their dissatisfaction clear." This is the US Bush/Obama view exactly. Its not the rich imperialist nations who won't give an inch in their right to pollute and flood out the neocolonial world that is responsible for the deadlock.

The NYT may not like Hugo Chavez, but what he said was dead on: "The rich are destroying the planet. Perhaps they think they're going off to another one after they've destroyed this one."

The article doesn't even mention that the best President Obushma's climate team could come up with was a goal of, in effect, reducing US CO2 pollution to 4% of 1990 levels-- the rest of the industrial world agreed to at least 20%. The US is seen as the NUMBER ONE saboteur of these climate talks by most of the countries attending.The reason? Like every US Government, that of the Obushma administration is in the pocket of monopoly capitalism and especially serving the interests of the oil cartels.

Our friend in the White House has turned out to be the Man Who Came To Dinner. For what really is going on in Copenhagen check out online articles at Political Affairs and the People's World as well as the interviews and videos at Democracy Now

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Thomas Riggins

The philosopher Galen Strawson has recently published a 448 page book entitled SELVES: AN ESSAY IN REVISIONARY METAPHYSICS. This article is based on Thomas Nagel's review in the London Review of Books 5 November 2009 ["The I in Me"].

Nagel tells us this a book of "shameless metaphysics" [in the good sense] in which GS argues that there are such things as "selves" [you probably think you have one] but they "are not human beings" [we'll see about that]. GS is not some kind of wild idealist. He refers to himself as a materialist and so thinks if you have a self it could NOT "exist apart from your central nervous system." Well. Marxists would agree with that. There is a catch, however. All your experiences are brain events and for "orthodox" materialists brain events, and hence experiences, are events that take place in the physical world. But GS doesn't think that our experiences can be properly explained by an appeal to the properties of the material world.

This does NOT mean there is some other non physical world involved. It means that the material world is of greater extension than the world described by physics. "This means,' Nagel writes, "that the conscious brain has a mental character that is not revealed by the physical sciences , including neurophysiology." Pretty strong stuff. Maybe we should say "not YET revealed", etc. But let's see where GS is going.

Here is the direction of the argument according to Nagel. GS begins with phenomenology ( the subjective feeling of experience of the self) and moves to metaphysics (the objective nature of the self itself). We are told the "results are radical and unexpected." Consciousness is the experience of a subject. A subject is for GS a SINGLE mental thing. If there is a "self" it is a "subject as a single mental thing" which GS calls a SESMET. Your sesmet in the form of "I" thinks of itself as persisting through time as a single entity.

GS thinks this may be an incorrect thing to think and asks how the "I" as a sesmet can persist through discontinuities of consciousness. The human being that you are is the host of fleeting sesmets but there is really no underlying "I" which belongs to all of them. So there are a series of "selves" in the human being-- when you go to sleep and are unconscious one sesmet ceases and a new one comes into being when you regain consciousness-- a new "I"-- which due to the memory storing capacity of the brain links the new sesmet with some memory content stored from the the previous sesmet or "I"-- the feeling you have of a persistent "I" existing in the past and having a future is an illusion-- maya!

GS goes so far as to say that when he remembers today what "he" did yesterday he has no sense that it is the same "I" today as was the "I" of yesterday. Nagel thinks this very strange and suggests that GS has a very atypical conception of himself. Nagel quotes GS as follows:

"The episode of consciousness is certainly apprehended from the inside, and so I take it for granted that it is mine, if I care to reflect: I take it for granted that it is an episode of consciousness of the human being that I am. But there is no sense, affective or otherwise that it was consciousness on my* part.' [Nagel explains: The asterisk indicates the use of 'my' to refer to the subject of present consciousness.] "My past in mine* in the sense," GS continues, "that it belongs to me,* but I don't [ should the "I" have an asterisk?--tr ] feel that I* was there in the past."

GS again: "When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case-- that I am-- a single subject of experience-- a person-- with long-term diachronic continuity. But when I consider myself as an inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am-- that the thing that I most essentially am is-- continually completely new."

Nagel is not the only one to not be able to feel this way about his own "I". To think, as GS says in the following, "that there simply isn't any 'I' or self that goes on through (let alone beyond) the waking day, even though there's obviously and vividly an 'I' or self at any given time"-- is to think about the "I" quite differently, I think, than most of humanity. But that is his phenomenology and will lead, as Nagel says, to an "equally strange metaphysics."

Since we experience the "self'" both DIACHRONICALLY [a technical term philosophers like to use meaning through time or historically] and SYNCHRONICALLY [at a particular instant in time] all we know about the self arises from experience. Without experiences, no self. A thing is experienced only insofar as its properties are experienced. In fact, a thing and its properties are indistinguishable.

Warning-- thin ice ahead. Nagel: "Further, this thing cannot be distinguished from its properties, and those properties are exhausted by the experience, which is in turn identical with the experience's contents." Is this really materialism? Subjects have experiences and if the thing's properties are exhausted by the subject's experiences this does not leave the possibility of a thing having an existence or property independent of the subject and that smells, I think, of idealism.

In any case, Nagel says that the foregoing discussion of the self and its experiences means that at any given time the "self" is just an episode or unity of a given set of existing experiences-- a sesmet. This is why there is a synchronically, but no diachronically, existing "I". But since GS also supports MATERIALISM the self must be a brain process, or as he says in his book, "a synergy of neural activity which is either a part of or (somehow) identical with the synergy that constitutes the experience as a whole."

As a sequence of sesmets the self of one moment is not the self of the next. The human being has a new self with every consciously aware brain process episode's set of experiences for any given moment in time, but has no diachronic existence. GS says, that Materialists "take the mind-- the mind-brain-- to have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being that provides all the ontic depth anyone could possibly want." By "ontic depth" [from ontology, the science of being] he means the feeling we have of a persistent being of a diachronic "I", that is myself and has memories and past experiences belonging to it even when not consciously present at every given moment.

Does all this sound like a lot of complicated play on words? Why not just say the feeling we have of a "self" is the I's awareness of its present consciousness PLUS what it remembers of past experiences. Brain processes give rise to consciousness and also store memories which can be recalled at different times. Why postulate and try and prove that we have zillions of fleeting selves (sesmets) rather than basically just one? Why multiply entities needlessly?

GS replies: "Philosophy, like science, aims to say how things are in reality, and conflict with ordinary thought and language is no more an objection to a philosophical theory than a scientific one." But science is based on experimentation with regards to the physical world and not speculation with regard to metaphysical theories. By analogy a religious person could say: "Religion aims to say how things are in reality also, so religious ideas that conflict with ordinary thought and language should not be objected to anymore than scientific theories that do the same."

When I said above GS's materialism gave off a whiff of idealism I had this in mind; this opening his conception of philosophy gives to idealist theories. A well founded materialism closes the door on religious speculation, it does not leave a crack open for the irrationalists to squeeze through. Bertrand Russell, the philosophical fore barer of GS as well as Nagel, defined philosophy as the no man's land between science (what we do know) and religion (what we don't know) and this is the territory that GS's theory of the self inhabits.

Nagel does not think GS has made his case in any event, but highly recommends the book both for the high level of philosophical argumentation it contains as well as the wealth of information on the opinions of other philosophers and the answers that they have come up with regarding the mind and the nature of the self. "SELVES is a work of profound philosophical reflection," Nagel writes, and he credits GS with being a philosopher of "imagination and audacity" as well as of "intellectual power and exemplary integrity."