1920s >> 1922 >> no-213-may-1922

Letter: Socialism, “Matter” and Ghosts.

 

The Editors, SOCIALIST STANDARD.

Dear Sirs,

I regret that Mr. Sala should be under the impression that I think he is an uninformed person. I am quite sure that, where Socialism is concerned, he is not so.

I did think the articles to which I referred in my letter in the “S.S.” of February unnecessary, because the ordinary working man is not distracted from pondering on his economic condition by philosophy or psychical research, nor do these subjects “bluff” him. To him, they are but faint and far off voices. It would be more to the purpose to attack football, racing, cinemas and beer.

However, if you are going to give us, occasionally, articles on the subjects in question, for heaven’s sake give us something better than piffle. I agree with Mr. Sala that these matters should not be outside our interests.

In the December “S.S.” Mr. Sala seemed very cocksure about “matter.” My simple questions have dissipated his dogmatism. He now recognises that “matter” per se is unthinkable. (“S.S.,” February.) I agree. It is merely “a point of view.” As Bergson says, “A frozen snapshot of mobility.”

I am disappointed that Mr. Sala fights shy of my second question. The fact is, we can think of force alone as the cause of our sensations. Dead, inactive “matter” or “substance,” if there were such, we could never, by any possibility, know ; since, by the definition, it could never act upon us, and produce sensation. That which acts, of course, is force. We are compelled to think that sensation is evoked by efficient power, which is not still and inert, but is forceful, active and alive. Apart from sensation, thus produced, we have no knowledge of the universe whatsoever.

Berkeley calls this power which effects sensation in us, Spirit; Schopenhauer calls it Will; Spencer calls it Force. But it is manifest to a student of philosophy that these thinkers are referring to one and the same reality—a reality totally different from the naive, self-contradictory, common-sense illusion of “material substance.”

The author of “Ghosts ” is, clearly, uninformed on the subject upon which he has the temerity to write. To refer to the findings of men trained in the scientific method as “senility” does not reveal the honest scrutiniser of facts.

Yours fraternally,

GEO. T. FOSTER

REPLY.

Comrades,

I will deal with Mr. Foster’s last point first.

Although, personally, I fully endorse all that the author of “Ghosts” says in his article, yet, as its authorship does not concern me, I can only refer to Mr. Foster’s criticism of what appears over my own name.

There are quite a lot of people who think our articles are unnecessary ; in fact would like to see them suppressed altogether, for the simple reason that we tell the truth in too straight a fashion. We prostitute neither our pens nor our intellects. What we have to say is based on a scientific foundation, and is solely in the interests of the working class. It may be true—I hope it is—that “the ordinary (!) working man is not distracted from his economic condition by philosophy or psychical research.” He would be distracted indeed were he to meddle with this stuff. Mr. Foster’s observation that these subjects do not bluff the workers is superfluous. I never said they did. The notion is absurd. But that individuals in the name of Science do bluff the workers needs no proving : it is apparent to any intelligent observer. An instance was the one quoted in the December issue, where the existence of a “Creator” and a “Soul” were implied in a publication claiming to embody the latest scientific discoveries and which was intended for the consumption of the general public.

As sensation is only produced by material objects, and as the terms “God” and “Soul” appear, when tested by the light of science, to be outside the domain of human knowledge, my intellect cannot apprehend them. In my humble way I believed that before we could even think there must be some material to be thought of, that thought itself was a mode of material activity. Mr. Foster calls it being “cocksure” and wants something better than this “piffle.” He states that his “simple” questions have dissipated my dogmatism. If so, he has succeeded in dissipating something which wasn’t there. My criticism was essentially scientific. Science and dogma are incompatible; there is no dogmatic science.

I certainly said that matter per se was unthinkable. So it is. One cannot conceive of matter apart from energy. But Mr. Foster’s statement that I “now” recognise this implies that I didn’t know it before. He assumes too much.

It is reported that, according to experiments made by Sir Wm. Ramsay, energy has been transformed into matter, but it is quite positive that without the assistance of material agencies the experiment could not have been made under artificial conditions. Present-day Physics require us to dismiss “matter” in its ultimate sense as an obsolete hypothesis, and to replace it by “energy” with its capacity for entering into various combinations.

But what does it mean? Simply this: that what we call “matter” is built up of electrical charges containing vast stores of energy, so that it might appear that matter and energy are really one and the same thing. Reduced to terms of electricity, the question remains—What is electricity? So far science does not profess to know. But Mr. Foster does—it is “merely a point of view” !

Having disposed of matter in this way, he goes on to say that force alone is the cause of our sensations. If by “force” Mr. Foster meant “energy,” then I would be with him in his conception of how sensation is evoked. But he appears to rule both matter and energy out altogether. That is why I “fought shy” of his question. As it stood it was simply unintelligible to me. As I pointed out in my last letter, “force” has no physical existence. Apart from that, I may be permitted to point out that we of the Socialist Party fight shy of no proposition or criticism, whether coming from Mr. Foster or anyone else ; the only condition being that it is in an understandable form.

For ordinary convenience scientists are obliged to use the term “matter” whatever its “ultimate” nature may be. But Mr. Foster believes there is a “reality” somewhere beyond this : something totally different to the “common-sense illusion of material substance.” If there is something else which is neither matter nor energy and yet is reality, it wants proving. I am afraid that if I, in my present capacity as Extension Lecturer in Geology, were to tell my audiences that the “matter” I was attempting to describe had no real existence, but that what did exist was some indefinable something totally unrelated to the material substance they only imagined they were conscious of, I should be chased off the premises.

To sum the matter up, what do Mr. Foster’s statements amount to?

Matter has no existence—to say it exists is to be dogmatic. The paper upon which I am writing does not exist—it is purely imagination. What does exist is “reality” —but a different reality to the reality which we call matter and which is made apparent to our senses by energy. Berkeley called it Spirit; Schopenhauer called it Will; Spencer called it Force; Mr. Foster calls it Reality; some call it God. But it really doesn’t matter: they all mean the same thing !

To me it appears to be a difference in the methods employed in the interpretation of phenomena—on the one hand the scientific, on the other the one employed by students of bourgeois philosophy.

Under capitalism, the majority of men do not derive their opinions from scientific truth ; scientific truth itself is often distorted to accommodate men’s opinions. This truckling to ignorance, to which scientists almost without exception lend themselves, reveals their dependence on the vagaries of the ruling class, who are their paymasters, and who, in the last resort, determine what views shall, or shall not, be propagated. At the present time a Bill is before the legislature of Kentucky forbidding the use in schools of text books in which the doctrine of evolution is taught. Under a scientific system of society this would not happen. It is precisely that for which we are working. The present system is completely reactionary so far as the welfare of the majority of mankind is concerned.

They are steeped in ignorance, we know, and it is intended by those in power to keep them there. So far only the Socialists have undertaken the task of enlightening them on their true position in the universe. Those “faint and far off voices” shall be brought nearer, so that the much maligned proletariat can examine their meaning. What there is in science they will, before very long, appropriate, providing it coincides with their interests. There is sufficient already to guide the Socialist on his course of redeeming mankind from the misery and slavery in which it has toiled and existed to this day. It is to a system of freedom based upon the scientific principles enunciated by Karl Marx that we look forward, rather than the “never-ending, eternal weight of glory” of Sir Oliver Lodge. This will be accomplished, not on the lines suggested by Mr. Foster of attacking the evils of a system, but the more scientific method of removing the causes.

I have treated this at some length in order to show Mr. Foster, and others like him, that, as scientific Socialists, we have no use for their metaphysical nonsense, and that, although members of the “ordinary” working class, we are not the “duds” they think we are.

Yours fraternally,

TOM SALA

(Socialist Standard, May 1922)

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