Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: Science and the Supernatural - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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3.: Science and the Supernatural - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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© 1962 by H. B. Acton. The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by H.B. Acton’s estate. It is reproduced here by permission and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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Science and the Supernatural
We must now briefly consider the Marxist view that nature stands in need of no supernatural Creator, but is itself the source of everything, including men and minds. According to Marxists, theism is a form of idealism, since idealism is the view that matter depends on spirit, and theism is the view that matter and created minds depend on a divine spirit that gave them being. Now although Marxists have not, as far as I am aware, examined the arguments for the existence of God in any detail, I think it is fairly clear that when they hold that nature is not a creation of spirit but its source, they base their view on the assumption that the empirical sciences reveal nothing of the existence and operations of God but show that mind is dependent on certain types of physical organism which have arisen comparatively late in the evolution of the world. Thus they hold (i) that the only way of finding out about what exists is by experience and the methods of the empirical sciences, and (ii) that the empirical sciences do not reveal a supernatural cause of nature. In addition, however, they hold (iii) that the scientific study of man and his situation shows how the illusory belief in God’s existence has arisen. Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach argues as if Feuerbach’s account of the origin of belief in God, and Tylor’s animistic theory of religion, were sufficient to show that belief in God is untenable. But in themselves “anthropological” and psychological accounts of how men come to believe in God do not disprove the existence of God. For such accounts may be regarded as descriptions of the natural origins of belief in God which supplement but do not disturb the metaphysical proofs of natural theology. It might be argued both that man “projects” his conception of an ideal man, and that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are singly or collectively successful. Engels, however, like Marx and Feuerbach, regarded the traditional arguments for the existence of God as speculative thinking, so that their rejection of speculative philosophy—today generally called metaphysics—was a fortiori a rejection of natural theology. On their view, that is, the methods of the empirical sciences are the only effective ones for exploring the world. Thus Marxist atheism is a consequence of Marxist positivism, and the central and decisive thesis of the Marxist philosophy is the denial of all forms of speculative philosophy in favor of the methods of the empirical sciences. This is a feature of Marxism which, in a world where the natural sciences are so obviously influential, has emphasized its accord with the spirit of the time. Positivism is the orthodoxy of a technological age, and the positivistic component of Marxism is sufficient to recommend it to a very wide public.
Must we then accept the view that the empirical sciences do not reveal a supernatural cause of nature? Such a cause would have to be either one of the objects studied in those sciences or else a hypothesis which they rendered more or less probable. It would be agreed by all parties that no such being is among the observed objects of the empirical sciences, as are trees, rocks, and stars. These are objects of the common sense world, and stand in need of no scientific argumentation in order to be accepted as parts of the real world. Objects such as genes and electrons do not appear in the common sense world of trees, rocks, and stars, and are only believed to exist as the result of complex though convincing argumentation. A supernatural first cause, however, does not figure among such objects either, for it would be more recondite than they, and their source no less than the source of the things in the world of everyday common sense. If, therefore, a supernatural cause of nature were to enter into the considerations of men of science, it could only be as a rather desperate hypothesis reluctantly employed to account for some very general feature of the world. It is idle, I suggest, to speculate further on this aspect of the matter, since it is only within the context of detailed scientific enquiry that such a hypothesis could take on definite shape. On the face of it, however, it appears less improbable that some form of theistic hypothesis involving creation might be called for in the cosmological enquiries of astronomers than elsewhere. To call such a hypothesis “theistic” is, perhaps, going too far, since it is most unlikely that a hypothesis framed in such circumstances would point to a being with the personal and moral characteristics usually attributed to God. Indeed, the more the hypothesis was bound up with specifically scientific conceptions (e.g., electrons or nebulae), the less connection it would have with such conceptions as benevolence or forgiveness.
It is very important to notice that being empirical is not necessarily the same thing as being scientific. An argument or notion may be based on experience, and have all the authority that such a basis can lend, and yet not form part of any recognized empirical science. This is the case with most of the notions and arguments of everyday life. A large part of our empirical knowledge is in terms of the common objects we live among, the objects of human concern, whether natural, such as trees and hills, or artificial, such as houses and roads. Now whereas some of the arguments of natural theology are highly technical, and employ unusual terms such as “necessary” and “contingent,” others are empirical, i.e., based on experience, but do not fall within the ambit of any empirical science. The Argument from Design and the various Arguments from Moral Experience are of this nature. In the former the argument is from alleged similarities between the results of human workmanship on the one hand, and the structure of the physical world, or of parts of it not fashioned by human beings, on the other. In the latter, the moral beliefs of men are taken as data. In neither case is there any need, in formulating the argument, to refer to objects or conceptions that are specifically “scientific,” although some people have thought that the Argument from Design can be strengthened by so doing. Thus, the general, positivistic rejection of speculative philosophy or metaphysics on the ground that it is an attempt to conjure conclusions about matters of fact from baseless premises, does nothing, in itself, to shake the strength of such empirically based arguments. The arguments in question may not be satisfactory, but they are not idle or senseless, and can claim to be empirical in spite of not forming part of any of the empirical sciences.
Granted that astronomy or some other natural science might conceivably need to make use of the hypothesis of an extra-natural cause of nature, and granted also that empirical arguments that do not form part of any special science might conceivably lead to theistic conclusions, we may still ask the further question: “Could there conceivably be a science of the supernatural comparable with the natural sciences in its objectivity and predictive power?” It is certainly the lack of such a science that leads many people to consider that theological enquiry is not worth the trouble of attention. They think that if anything could be found out about such matters, agreed findings would already have been reached and methods found of making predictions. The prophet would be believed if he correctly foretold the results of horse races, and when he protests that God is not interested in horse races, the doubters feel that a winning sequence would nevertheless increase their faith. The whole topic is rendered particularly obscure because of the implications of our vocabulary. Very largely as a result of the growth of science and the spread of the positivistic outlook, the expressions “science” and “the supernatural” tend to be regarded as mutually exclusive, so that the phrase “science of the supernatural” comes very near to being self-contradictory. This is because we tend to regard as part of nature whatever is discovered by the methods of the natural sciences. Thus we tend to regard “psychical research” as the attempt to bring to light hitherto insufficiently confirmed natural occurrences rather than as the search for the supernatural. This may be an effect of using playing-cards and statistical techniques in the study of telepathy and precognition. If the occurrence of such things were established by these methods, and if the conditions of their occurrence could be ascertained, we should be inclined to say that our knowledge of nature had thereby been extended. It would be as if a magician’s formula were after all found to work, not only once and for some specific occasion, but always under given conditions. Magic verified would become science, in accordance with Frazer’s dictum: “Magic is a false system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”
If this were all, however, we should have to say that a science of the supernatural could only be understood as a science of what is unusual and particularly difficult to verify. But clearly we should not say this, for it is only certain sorts of unusual or latent things that would be regarded as supernatural. Positrons, for example, were difficult to discover, and manatees are rare, but neither is a class of supernatural being. To be classed as supernatural a being would have to be some sort of mind, not embodied in a normal manner, and capable of effecting changes in the natural world by means not available to humans or animals. Thus a supernatural being would be a disembodied or abnormally embodied personal being whose modes of operation in the physical world were not confined to the human or animal ones. If it were to be established that human beings can foresee the future, know telepathically, and move distant objects by merely willing to do so, then manifestations of these powers would only be called supernatural if they were the work of disembodied spirits, or of unnaturally embodied ones, such as talking trees. If a man were to dream of his dead father, to feel himself impelled to write an automatic script, and to find that this script, in his father’s characteristic style, enabled him to discover some matter that only his father could have known, it would be evidence, though not conclusive evidence, that his father’s mind had survived bodily death. If all the inhabitants of the British Isles woke up one morning recollecting an identical dream, and if the dream were to the effect that, unless they all refrained from drinking water until midday, Mount Snowdon would be split in half at midday precisely; and if some people were widely known to have drunk water before midday, and if Mount Snowdon was observed to split in half at midday precisely, this would be pretty strong evidence for the existence of a powerful being capable of communicating a threat or warning and of carrying out a spectacular task without the normal means. If such striking things happened from time to time, so as to render improbable any suggestion of coincidence, then we should feel there were strong grounds for believing in the existence of a powerful supernatural being. In a society where a great deal is known of the normal operations of nature, the type of event that would be taken as evidence for the supernatural would have to be extremely peculiar. It would weaken the force of the “miracle,” for example, if Mount Snowdon split in two in the course of a severe earthquake, for then, in mid-twentieth-century England, natural causes would be widely presumed. Further, the prophecies or warnings would have to be in unmistakable terms. A disembodied superhuman being would have to adopt different methods to manifest itself in Detroit from those that would suffice in Calcutta or Killarney. Again, inasmuch as supernatural beings would be minds, our knowledge of them would have to be of the same general nature as our knowledge of human minds, for unless there were some analogy from the behavior of human minds, we should have no ground whatever for belief in disembodied minds. Thus, if there were to be a science of the supernatural, it would have to be analogous to the sciences of mind rather than to the natural sciences. The contrast between the social sciences and the natural sciences is not, of course, the same contrast as that between the supernatural and the natural, but it would be a complete misconception of what is possible to condemn theology for not being like the natural sciences. Furthermore, as it is obvious that it is the more mechanical and habitual aspects of human behavior that are amenable to experimental-scientific treatment, so a science of the supernatural would be more readily built up as a science of any subhuman supernatural there might be than of superhuman beings with high moral or aesthetic capabilities. If psychical researchers ever came to investigate spirit messages of a high intellectual, moral, or aesthetic value, psychical research would be becoming experimental theology.
We are now in a position to deal briefly with Lenin’s view, already mentioned in Chapter I, Section 2, that “the electrical theory of matter” is perfectly compatible with materialism and does nothing to render it unacceptable. Lenin had in mind philosophers and physicists who, when it had been shown that the basis of the physical world is not atoms moving in space but something describable rather in terms of waves and energy, concluded that “matter” has disappeared and that materialism is therefore false. According to Lenin, all this is beside the point. For on his view, “the sole ‘property’ of matter—with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up—is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside our mind.”12 Indeed, Lenin considers that the electro-magnetic theory of matter gives greater support to dialectical materialism than does the atomic theory.13 Lenin’s phrasing here is loose and unguarded, for it would imply that whatever was discovered by use of the scientific methods must be material, that “matter” just means “whatever has objective reality—whatever can be established as really existing.” It would follow that if ghosts were verified by fully satisfactory tests, then they would be material things, and that human minds are necessarily material because we have unassailable evidence that they exist. I think that there is a certain impetus in our language toward using the word “matter” in this very wide sense, so as to regard as material anything that common sense and the natural sciences accept as real. This impetus is due to the fundamental character of physics in the hierarchy of the natural sciences, and to the constant success that has resulted from extending physical and chemical conceptions into the biological realm. The tendency may be seen in the following remark of Engels: “The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggling phrases, but by a long and protracted development of philosophy and natural science.”14 To use the word “material” as equivalent to “real” or “objective,” however, is to invite all sorts of confusion. In particular, it tends to blind us to the extraordinary difference there is between intelligent and purely mechanical or inanimate behavior. The main reason why the electro-magnetic theory of matter does not disprove materialism is that the behavior of electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., while not reducible to that of solid atoms in empty space, is still not, as far as can be judged, the manifestation of mind or soul. Scientific research could only lead to the “dissolution of matter” in any non-tautological and interesting sense of the word, by showing some form of intelligence at work in things. Natural science could only reveal the supernatural by becoming a moral science too. And as the very notions involved in accurate discussion of the sub-atomic world are so very remote from such conceptions as “person,” “will,” “purpose,” etc., it is not very likely that signs of intelligence and purpose will be found in that quarter. For our notions of mind and spirit are, as I have already indicated, framed in terms of the common-sense world of people, trees, and mountains, not in terms of recondite physical conceptions.
[12. ]M. and E-C, p. 317.
[13. ]“Modern physics is in travail; it is giving birth to dialectical materialism.” Ibid., p. 365.
[14. ]Anti-Dühring, p. 53.