Friday, June 23, 2017

The Supernatural in Science

I don't want to overstate the idea that science fiction writers are progressives of the materialistic or atheistic type. To believe in earnest that human beings are nothing more than a soup of chemicals or bags of animated meat would seem to make art almost impossible, and any attempt at art by a person holding such a belief could hardly be received with any sympathy by readers. There has to be a ghost in the machine. Love, sadness, and all other human feelings must be treated as more than mere material forces if you expect anyone to read and like what you write. (It seems to me that atheists must postulate the existence of a chemical soul: everything human beings feel might be real and valid at a chemical level; it simply lacks spirit.) I also don't want to give the impression that writers of fantasy, weird fiction, etc., are deaf to the siren song of materialism, atheism, or Scientism. They obviously are not. But, again, how much heart can there be in the work of an author who believes in nothing? And who would read such a thing with any pleasure or hope of being uplifted or carried away, at least for a moment, from our troubling, mundane, quotidian existence?

Like I said, I'm reading To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). The book is an exploration of "the revolutionary tradition in Europe and the rise of socialism" (the blurb on the cover). Wilson expresses some admiration for Marx, specifically for the workings of his mind and Marx's written expression of his ideas. However, Wilson also points out weaknesses and flaws found therein. Here are long excerpts from a longer passage beginning on page 194:
The Dialectic then is a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind. "I hate all the gods," Marx had said in his youth; but he had also projected himself into the character of the resolute seaman who carried the authority of the gods in his breast and in one of his early Rheinische Zeitung articles on the freedom of the press, he declares that the writer must "in his way adopt the principles of the preacher of religion, adopt the principle, 'Obey God rather than man,' in relation to those human beings among whom he himself is confined by his human desires and needs." (1)
Karl Marx had identified his own will with the antithesis of the dialectical process. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world," he had written in his Theses on Feuerbach. "Our business is to change it." The will had always tended in German philosophy to play the role of a superhuman force; and this will had been salvaged by Marx and incorporated in Dialectical Materialism . . . .
For an active and purposeful man like Lenin it may be an added source of strength to have the conviction that history is with him, that he is certain of achieving his goal. The Dialectic so simplifies the whole picture: it seems to concentrate the complexities of society into an obvious protagonist and antagonist; it gives the confidence not only that the upshot of the struggle will certainly be successful, but that it will resolve all such struggles forever. . . . (2)
But conversion to the belief in a divine power does not have always an energizing effect. It was in vain that Marx tried to bar out Providence: "History does nothing," he had insisted in The Holy Family . . . . "History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends." But as long as he keeps talking as if the proletariat were the chosen instrument of the Dialectic, as if victory were predetermined, (3) he does assume an extra-human power. . . . "History is the judge; its executioner, the proletarian" [Marx wrote]. There is then a higher tribunal for which the working class is only the hangman. There is a non-personal entity called "History" which accomplishes things on its own hook and which will make the human story come out right, no matter what you or your opponent may do. The doctrine of salvation by works, as the history of Christianity shows, is liable to pass all too readily into the doctrine of salvation by grace. All too naturally, by identifying himself with the antithesis of the Dialectic, that is, by professing a religious faith, the Marxist puts himself into the state of mind of a man going upstairs on an escalator. The Marxist Will, which once resolved to change the world, has been transformed into the invisible power which supplies the motive force to run the escalator . . . .
Karl Marx, with his rigorous morality and his international point of view, had tried to harness the primitive German Will to a movement which should lead all humanity to prosperity, happiness and freedom. But insofar as this movement involves, under the disguise of the Dialectic, a semi-divine principle of History, to which it is possible to shift the human responsibility for thinking, for deciding, for acting--and we are living at the present time [ca. 1940] in a period of decadence of Marxism--it lends itself to the repressions of the tyrant. The parent stream of the old German Will, which stayed at home and remained patriotic, became canalized as the philosophy of German imperialism and ultimately of the Nazi movement. Both the Russian and the German branches threw out all that had been good in Christianity along with all that had been bad. The demiurge of German idealism was never a God of love, nor did it recognize human imperfection: it did not recommend humility for oneself or charity towards one's fellows. Karl Marx, with his Old Testament sternness, did nothing to humanize its workings. He desired that humanity should be united and happy; but he put that off till the achievement of the synthesis, and for the present he did not believe in human brotherhood. He was closer than he could ever have imagined to that imperialistic Germany he detested. After all, the German Nazis, too--also, the agents of an historical mission--believe that humanity will be happy and united when it is all Aryan and all submissive to Hitler.
That's a lot to read, I know. The point is that even Karl Marx, a giant of materialism and a fierce atheist--"I hate all the gods," he wrote--seems to have believed in a non-material force, even a god, called "History" which guides human affairs. (We can all be readily forgiven if we profess our non-belief in this Marxist god.) And if Marx the materialist and atheist believed with a paradoxically religious intensity in a non-material force, what science fiction writer of the past or present can stand against him? I will restate my point: anyone who writes from the point of view of the strict materialist, atheist, or believer in Scientism will run up against limits. He will, in that case, have two options: first, to adhere to his faith and come away baffled by the non-material nature of human beings and human existence, or second, to give in and admit, however silently or implicitly, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. The first choice is likely to result in the author's failure as an artist. The results of the second are less sure, but they may lead that author to some success as a human being.

(1) Note the arrogance: the writer--presumably Marx himself--does not live on earth as a human being. He is in fact "confined" here among human beings and is presumably a superior being of some kind or other. Wilson acknowledges as much a few pages later: "Instinctively Marx thinks of himself as being set above their [men's] world." (p. 209)
(2) This is the same language used by our most recent former president, the assertion that certain people and ideas are "on the wrong side of history"--that history is a force that cannot be directed away from inevitable and irreversible outcomes. I should point out here that Bill Maher, an outspoken atheist, recognizes that former president as one of his co-religionists. I'll trust Mr. Maher's judgment. If there's such a thing as gaydar among atheists, he is likely to possess it. I should also point out that the goal of Marxism is an ultimate and unchanging society: complete stasis where there can be no further revolution, just as in the assertion made by one of the characters in Zamyatin's We.
(3) We should remember here that Friedrich Engels, Marx's close associate and collaborator, was the son of a staunch Calvinist.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Interesting remarks on Marx the man.

    By coincidence, I read a couple of essays by science fiction critic Brian Stableford a few months ago.

    In one, he talked about how many science fiction concepts (telepathy, possession, gestalt minds, body switching) are predicated on the notion of a ghost in the machine.

    In another essay, he looked at why Marx and science fiction fail in their attempts to prophecy a future. Amongst other things, they don't account for human agency or that their prophecies may inspire actions to avoid their depicted societies.

    1. Marzaat,

      Thanks for your supporting comments. I have had some doubt that I have been writing about a real problem, i.e., that science fiction authors tend towards materialism but that, in order to write something that might be considered art, must work through an encounter with the non-material. The essays you reference here would seem to support my thoughts. Do you have titles for these essays by Brian Stableford?


  2. "The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction" and "Marxism, Science Fiction and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts".

    Both are available in the collection Opening Minds which I did a few blog posts on recently.