Steven Weinberg’s Attack on Philosophy

Weinberg’s polemics on positivism are to be found in a chapter of his Dreams of a Final Theory characteristically entitled “Against philosophy”. He polemicizes there against philosophy in general, making some negative judgments on eminent thinkers of the era of bourgeois progress and on Marxism. His observations are one-sided, to say the least, but deserve attention as being representative of weaknesses shared by many leading physicists, such as their inadequate acquaintance with philosophy, which prevent them from assimilating progressive thought and Marxism. We shall comment them briefly in this final part.

Weinberg is a physicist interested in the philosophical foundations of science and an extremely serious thinker, so it cannot be considered that his opposition to philosophy stems from arbitrary bias. The real cause of his polemics lies in the fact that he does not find anything useful in contemporary works devoted to the philosophy of science. The biggest part of his criticism is directed against positivist and subjectivist theorists like Kun, Feyerabend, Wittgenstein, and against supporters of positivism between the natural scientists such as Mach. Weinberg tells how their study drove him away from philosophy, on which he originally harbored a keen interest:

A knowledge of philosophy does not seem to be of use to physicists… After a few years’ infatuation with philosophy as an undergraduate I became disenchanted. The insights of the philosophers I studied seemed murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling successes of physics and mathematics. From time to time since then I have tried to read current work on the philosophy of science. Some of it I found to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound obscurity with profundity. Some of it was good reading and even witty, like the writings of Wittgenstein and Paul Feyerabend. But only rarely did it seem to me to have anything to do with the work of science as I knew it… I do not aim here to play the role of a philosopher, but rather that of a specimen, an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy.1

This is an honest, enlightening confession. Weinberg is right in his criticisms of philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Feyerabend who confuse the problems of science from the standpoint of modern scholastic bourgeois ideology. However, by uncritically generalizing these polemics against various currents and thinkers of the past, he reaches an entirely negative assessment of all philosophy.

Here again he starts from some correct observations on the mechanistic nature of the 18th century’s materialism and the arbitrary elements of the philosophies of the same period. He brilliantly exposes Kant’s mistakes like a priorism and his idealistic conception of space and time, opposing the view of modern physics:

Kant taught that space and time are not part of external reality but are rather preexisting structures in our minds that allow us to relate objects and events. To a Kantian the most shocking thing about Einstein’s theories was that they demoted space and time to the status of ordinary aspects of the physical universe, aspects that could be affected by motion (in special relativity) or gravitation (in general relativity).1

Inaccuracies occur when he passes to the philosophical currents of the past, of which he has adequate knowledge only regarding their scientific side. Weinberg acknowledges the atomistic materialist philosophy as the most progressive one in antiquity, but he includes it in the tradition of “mechanism”:

Take… the venerable doctrine of “mechanism”, the idea that nature operates through pushes and pulls of material particles or fluids. In the ancient world no doctrine could have been more progressive. Ever since the pre-Socratic philosophers Democritus and Leucippus began to speculate about atoms, the idea that natural phenomena have mechanical causes has stood in opposition to popular beliefs in gods and demons. The Hellenistic cult leader Epicurus brought a mechanical worldview into his creed specifically as an antidote to belief in the Olympian gods.1

This may be right for Democritus, but it is certainly not right for Epicurus, who proposed the spontaneous deviation of atoms from the straight line. The summing up of histories in QED is nothing but a scientific demonstration of that brilliant insight of Epicurus.

Weinberg argues further that the ancient tradition of mechanism was incorporated in classical physics through Descartes, playing here too an initially progressive role:

When Rene Descartes set out in the 1630s on his great attempt to understand the world in rational terms, it was natural that he should describe physical forces like gravitation in a mechanical way, in terms of vortices in a material fluid filling all space. The “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes had a powerful influence on Newton… because it provided an example of the sort of mechanical theory that could make sense out of nature. Mechanism reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, with the brilliant explanation of chemistry and heat in terms of atoms». Nevertheless, he continues, the mechanistic view began to obstruct scientific progress already in the 17th to 18th century. Newton’s theory of gravitation contained a significant non-mechanistic element, the idea of action at a distance, which found resistance in philosophical circles and only in the 18th century was accepted. ‘To be sure, this was partly due to the influence of philosophers like Voltaire and Kant. But here again the service of philosophy was a negative one; it helped only to free science from the constraints of philosophy itself.’1

frontIn fact, this is only half-true. Newton’s theory of gravity did have the interesting aspect mentioned by Weinberg, but conceived it within a mechanistic frame: empty space, direct action at a distance, the acceptance of a static view of matter, and so on. On the other hand, the great philosophers of the time like Descartes, Leibniz and Kant, had a direct contribution to the natural sciences and generalized its view in their natural philosophy. To the extent they perceived it as an autonomous work of reason, they generalized, it is true, not only the achievements but also the limitations of science in their times, which they tended to turn into a barrier for the human mind. They, however, had a sense of these limitations and in their best moments pointed the way for overcoming them through a relational conception of matter, force and movement. Weinberg would certainly be surprised to learn that Kant went beyond the Newtonian concepts, anticipating in many respects the foundations of relativity and modern cosmology.2 His criticism only captures one side, that of the barriers put by philosophy chiefly because of its idealistic starting point, missing the forward leading, dialectical side of its impact.

Passing to Marxism, Weinberg states further that “In the nineteenth century the heroic tradition of mechanism was incorporated, unhappily, into the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels and their followers.1

We have already seen3 that this estimate has some justification with respect to Engels. It also holds true for a number of eminent Marxists of the Second International like Kautsky, who had a fatalistic view of the transition to socialism (later turned into a caricature by Stalinism) and did not leave even Plekhanov untouched. What really happened was that some Marxists incorporated in their viewpoint elements of the earlier, mechanistic materialism, investing them with a dialectical terminology. However, the main line of development of Marxism, passing from Lenin to Trotsky, Bukharin, Gramsci and Lukacs, systematically delimited itself against these foreign mechanistic elements. This effort yielded significant results, although it was initially focused on areas of the superstructure like ideology and art, which do not directly interest natural scientists.

Weinberg’s criticism combines an element of astuteness, in identifying the problems, with an element of misunderstanding and misstatement due to insufficient knowledge of the subject. He complements it with an erroneous assessment of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism:

Lenin, in exile in 1908, wrote a turgid book about materialism, and, although for him it was mostly a device by which to attack other revolutionaries, odds and ends of his commentary were made holy writ by his followers, and for a while dialectical materialism stood in the way of the acceptance of general relativity in the Soviet Union. As late as 1961 the distinguished Russian physicist Vladimir Fock felt compelled to defend himself from the charge that he had strayed from philosophical orthodoxy. The preface to his treatise ‘The Theory of Space, Time, and Gravitation’ contains the remarkable statement, “The philosophical side of our views on the theory of space, time and gravitation was formed under the influence of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, in particular, under the influence of Lenin’s materialism and empirical criticism.4

The first thing coming to mind here is that the “other revolutionaries” whom Lenin attacked were the Russians followers of Mach, whose idealist philosophy Weinberg himself severely criticizes as harmful to natural science. These Machists like Bogdanov, Bazarov and others, argued that reality is a set of sensations which stand in inseparable connection with the subject and that the concepts of natural science, like the atom, etc., are just working hypotheses without any objective truth. Some of them openly attempted to reconcile on this basis Marxism with religion. Countering them, Lenin defended the objectivity of scientific theories as successive approximations to the laws of nature and the incompatibility of science and religion. The amazing thing is that many of Lenin’s arguments so completely coincide with those brought by Weinberg against Mach and Kant, that if he read them without knowing they come from Lenin he would almost certainly praise them as identical with his own views.

It is also incorrect that Materialism and Empirio-criticism was chiefly directed against the Russian Machists. Lenin presented in it first the basic philosophical positions, idealism (objective and subjective), agnosticism and materialism, with reference to their main representatives in the era of ascending bourgeois ideology. And he proceeded to show that idealistic and agnostic tendencies had prevailed in reactionary bourgeois philosophy of his time, waging a polemic against its sophisms and errors that mislead the confused Machists. In this sense, the Russian Machists’ positions served Lenin more as a stimulus, while the true goal of his book was to wage a war against the main reactionary tendencies and currents of bourgeois philosophy.

Certainly, Lenin’s polemics were later turned by dogmatism to slogans for persecuting science. Fock was imprisoned for a short time. However, as serious researchers of the history of science in the USSR have shown, Fock was a conscious dialectical materialist. His declarations concerning the positive impact Materialism and Empirio-criticism, which he had read in 1932, had on him, were honest and he resented about the book being forced by the Stalinist regime as a police type catechicm.5

We will not insist on other issues raised by Weinberg. Some of them are better dealt, as we shall see, by Michio Kaku.6 However, it is not difficult to understand how Weinberg is led to such one-sided judgments. He says that his scientific work left him little room for other interests and it is clear that his knowledge of progressive bourgeois philosophy and Marxism is from second hand. In Feyerabend, whom he has read, for example, one will find totally false references to Marx and Lenin, like his effort to support his irrationalistic position that science does not require any method referring to their concept of uneven development.7 The opinion every scientist will form from such references regarding Marx and Lenin, if he does not investigate further, will not be flattering at all. But even if someone does search and falls on books such as the one by Woods and Grant,8 he will rightly conclude that Marxism is an outdated theory which is opposed to science.

Yet the truth is that all this is nonsense garbed with Marxist terminology, which does not affect the validity of Marxism, for the same reason that the validity of quantum mechanics is not harmed by the New Age Gurus preaching various quantum soups and telepathies.

In this regard, Weinberg’s questionable philosophic views commented here do not in any way diminish the value of his materialistic and atheistic arguments. Instead, they emphasize it further, as the necessary outcome of a conscientious involvement with natural science, which leads to these conclusions even without a perfect understanding of the underlying philosophical problems. How close the great physicists stand to the dialectical worldview without even realizing it and the necessity of acquiring a deeper and more correct philosophical viewpoint is a further conclusion.

  • The present contribution is a subchapter of Kefalis’ recently published book, The Great Natural Scientists, ed. Topos, Athens 2015. The book evaluates the work and ideas of 23 great natural scientists like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Hawking, Weinberg, Witten, Dawkins, etc., from the standpoint of Marxist dialectics.
    1. Here and later quotations are from the chapter “Against philosophy” of Dreams of a Final Theory, as it appears online. [] [] [] [] []
    2. See our discussion of Kant in Ch. Kefalis, The Great Natural Scientists, ed. Topos, Athens 2015, p.154-169. []
    3. On the simplistic elements in Engels’s understanding of dialectics, see Ch. Kefalis, ibid, p. 39-42. []
    4. Weinberg, ibid. Weinberg does not give a source regarding Fock’s quoted statement. It is quite certain that Fock did not refer to “the influence of Lenin’s materialism and [of] empirical criticism”, but to “the influence of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism”. Obviously, Weinberg’s source misread Fock’s statement, but it is indicative of Weinberg’s lack of acquaintance with Lenin’s work that he did not spot the mistake. []
    5. An informative source on Fock’s real views is L. R. Graham, “Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism”, Slavic Review, 3, September 1966, pp. 381-410. On the importance attributed by Fock to Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism, see G. Gorelik, “Vladimir Fock. Philosophy of gravity and gravity of philosophy”: “We know from A. D. Aleksandrov’s testimony (Aleksandrov 1988, 1989) that Fock read Lenin’s book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1932 and found in it something interesting and important for him (and he regretted that this book was inculcated in a “police” way)”. []
    6. On Michio Kaku’s views regarding Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism, see Kefalis, ibid, p. 260-261. []
    7. See P. Feyerabend, “Against method. Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge”. []
    8. Regarding the falsification of dialectics by A. Woods and T. Grant in their Reason in Revolt, and also by their followers, see Kefalis, ibid, p. 31-38, 204-208, etc. []
    Christos Kefalis is a Greek Marxist, editor of the journal Marxist Thought. Read other articles by Christos.