Marxism and Science & Technology

In this project, we use the historical materialist outlook as a starting point, but want to dig deeper. Following critically Marx and Engels and their hope for a scientific socialism, we want to better understand the intricacies of models and theories and their applicability and capacity for forecasting. A central feature is a critical analysis of the highly abstract and mathematical theories of the natural sciences, their contingencies and successes.

We live in a highly technology driven world. Since the industrial revolution the relationship between the urbanised working class and the soil has been lost. Entering a Dutch super market we know that the square object on a blue plastic dish is Fish, on a yellow one it is Chicken and on a Green one it is called biological meat. If the shapes are round, they are called Burgers, of which we now also have Vega types, which anyway are biological contrary to experiments with synthetic meat. If we travel from place A to B we look at our GPS and ‘know’ how to drive and how long the journey will take. Every idea of distance, location and environment is gone. Any sense of direction is lost. Map reading becomes an old fashioned craft. The abstraction from the real world on which we live, from a representation onto a physical map, to an abstract map based on Global Positioning Satellites circling the earth. We know where we are, provided we define this as a geometrical place.

Science and technology are human endeavours which elevate humankind from hunter and gathering societies to the civilisation we experience. In this historical process we are confronted with two main interrelated tendencies.  

First of all, the human capability to, mainly inductively, invent models and theories to describe the world and subsequently use it to our well-being. 

Secondly, we face how those models, theories and contraptions influence and shape our civilisation, thinking and define the space in which we can act. 

The most famous example of the first kind is the heliocentric model of our planetary system, also known as the Copernican model. Ordinally, humankind perceived the earth as the centre of the universe. Not an unerasable idea if we look around. For centuries this, so–called Ptolemaic model, was hegemonic and the model was constantly improved by astronomers. The change over to the heliocentric model was not an immediate step. On the contrary, after its launch in the mid 16th century, it took about a century before it was an accepted model. This was not only because the new model immediately did not spit out better data for navigation, but also the whole hegemonic culture was against the idea.

In the King James Bible (first published in 1611), First Chronicles 16:30 states that “the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.” Psalm 104:5 says, “[the Lord] Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.” Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” And the great reformer of the Christian faith Martin Luther wrote:

“There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth” 

A change in modelling our world, in changing theories makes deep inroads into the (religious) perceptions of who we are and where we live.

The examples of the 2nd kind are very visible today’s everyday life, exemplified in our almost complete dependence of scientific models and technologies in daily life.  We speak in metaphors of mechanical computation devices, believe that the world, including life, is composed out of information and believe that reasoning is a binary operation.

Within the  Marxist tradition we know Historical Materialism as the science of understanding how we arrived here from where we came. How the social economic developments brake or enhance novel ideas and subsequently induce technologies. This field is of the utmost importance for analyses of our cultural development. But, and this is an important understanding, where we came from and why, does not mean we can extrapolate this trajectory. In fact in this type of research we stand with our back to the future and hope (on sometimes reasonable grounds) that we can make prognoses, such as: the Capitalist mode of production will crash and we have to take a sharp conscious turn to another mode of production.

In this project, we use the historical materialist outlook as a starting point, but want to dig deeper. Following critically Marx and Engels and their hope for a scientific socialism, we want to better understand the intricacies of models and theories and their applicability and capacity for forecasting. A central feature is a critical analysis of the highly abstract and mathematical theories of the natural sciences, their contingencies and successes. This analysis must become input for a critical evaluation of the often uncritical borrowing of the methods of the natural sciences in other contexts, such as sociology, the humanities, and economy. After all the sciences of non-living matter, even if their mathematical representations looks prohibitively abstract, are in principle much easier than the complicated environment of living and thinking matter. For all practical purposes, the formal models of the natural sciences can be extremely useful in tackling social problems, and nothing should be worse than not appreciating that. The quest is: to what extent is this possible and to what extent are such applications safe, in terms of keeping the human social factor alive against technocratic implementations and forecasts.  Even stronger, are we able to develop models and theory based on human culture and society, that reciprocally might induce progress in the natural sciences? A prime, and unfortunately single, example is the development of elementary statistics that proved its value in the cholera 1854 outbreak in London and became an essential research field in itself. 

Contact person: Joost Kircz

Further information in the Paper you can find here.

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