January 30, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Editors’ note: The following consists of major parts of an article written by Bob Avakian in response to a letter that was sent to him via RCP Publications. In addition to attacking communism, that letter also argued against the basic scientific viewpoint and method and insisted that atheism is just another form of religion. This article responds to a number of points in that letter while focusing on the fundamental difference between a scientific outlook and method—and more particularly the scientific outlook and method of communism—on the one hand and, on the other hand, a religious worldview which relies on “leaps of faith.” The article in its entirety can be found in Revolution #10, July 31, 2005, and is posted at revcom.us.
Not long ago I received a letter from someone who was provoked by hearing parts of my talk, “God Does Not Exist—We Need Liberation Without Gods,” that were played by Michael Slate on Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles.1 In that letter, there are many distortions....
But what I want to focus on here—because it is a very important point of distortion which not only characterizes this letter but is much more broadly promoted, particularly by religious fundamentalists, and is the source of considerable confusion and misunderstanding—is the insistence that communism (and atheism generally) is actually just another form of religion and that in fact not only communism but all scientific thinking involves just as much a “leap of faith” as does religion. In this article, I will discuss how this is completely wrong and will examine the crucial differences between religion and “leaps of faith,” on the one hand, and science and the scientific method—including communism, with its thorough, systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method—on the other hand.
This claim that communism (and more generally a scientific outlook and method) is just another form of religion is concentrated in the following from this letter:
“I hope you’re not offended that I call your atheism faith. I’m sure you realize atheism is a faith system too. And since you’ve pinned you’re [sic] hope on its truthfulness, we can call it your religion. How about that!? Bob Avakian is a religious man!
“You probably realize what most evolutionists don’t since no one was there to record the Big Bang, it too is just as much a leap of faith as the biblical version of creation. But no worries, you can always make your case stronger by stating forcefully, ‘Evolution is a fact!’”
The heart of the matter here—and what is fundamentally wrong in the viewpoint of the writer of this letter—is the attempt to distort what is involved in the application of a scientific method and approach, in the process of scientific investigation and analysis and in the drawing of scientifically based conclusions. More specifically, what is fundamentally wrong is the attempt to say that the actual leaps that are involved in arriving at rational knowledge of things—including through the application of the scientific method—somehow amount to the same thing as “leaps of faith” that are characteristic of religion. In fact, these are profoundly and radically different kinds of “leaps,” and digging into the difference will not only further expose the confusion and outright distortions and misrepresentations in this letter, and in the method of thinking of its author, but much more importantly can help clarify the fundamental difference between a scientific and a religious approach to reality and to changing—or not changing—reality, including human society.
As Mao Tsetung pointed out in his important philosophical works, such as “On Practice,” in the gaining (or accumulation) of knowledge by people, there are two basic stages: The first is the stage of perceptual knowledge, and the second stage is that of rational knowledge. And arriving at the second stage, of rational knowledge, not only involves and requires building on what is learned through the first (perceptual) stage but also making a leap in systematizing what is perceived: identifying the “patterns” in what is perceived and the essential character and basic identity of things that lie beyond the outward appearance of things. Getting into this further, and using some examples from “everyday life” can help illustrate this fundamental point. It can make more clear the fundamental difference between the actual acquiring of rational knowledge, through a leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, and a religious “leap of faith” which does not, and cannot, lead to rational knowledge.
As Mao also pointed out, when we first encounter anything, we see it in only a partial and scattered way, observing some of its features but not what “ties them together”—what is the essential character of something, which gives to that thing its identity as such—and how it is both different from and at the same time relates to other things. This is the stage of simply perceiving something, of perceptual knowledge. For example, many people who are not “into football” have commented that, in looking at a game of football (on television, for example) it just appears that a lot of very bulked‑up guys, wearing a lot of strange equipment, are running around and violently banging into and jumping in piles on each other! But, if you watch football for a while and persevere in attempting to grasp what is actually going on, you can begin to see the “patterns” involved, and the “rules” and “laws” that actually govern and give shape and identity to what is happening. Football fans are familiar with the basic nature and essential character of the game, with its “rules” and “laws,” and can readily offer all kinds of opinions and judgements about what is going on, based on an understanding of all this. But, of course, when such fans first started watching football themselves, they were not familiar with all this and it seemed to them, too, to be a bunch of random, arbitrary and “disjointed” activity. So what is involved in moving from that to an understanding of the nature of this game and its governing “rules” and “laws” is a matter of accumulating more and more perceptual knowledge and then making a leap, “putting this together” and systematizing it—analyzing it and making a synthesis of what is at the heart of it, what are the key “patterns” involved and what “ties it all together” and gives this game its character as “football.” Now, quite often this actual leap, from perceptual to rational knowledge, goes on largely unconsciously after a certain point—in many cases, the person involved is not aware of consciously making this leap to rational knowledge—but it is a real leap nonetheless and leads to a higher form of understanding, rational knowledge. (Whether it is worth it to engage in the process and effort of moving from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge with regard to football is, of course, something that is culturally and socially influenced, and also involves matters of personal preference within that context—and I will not offer any opinions or judgements about this, one way or the other, here!)
But let’s contrast this kind of leap—a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge of real things—to a “leap of faith.” Let us imagine someone saying, “I don’t have to watch football, or listen to explanations about it, I can come to understand it because ‘god will reveal it to me.’” That would be putting forward a “leap of faith” as the way to acquire knowledge of something (in this case football). But, in fact, this kind of “leap” will not lead to actual knowledge of real things, nor can it be tested by applying means and methods that relate to the actual world of real things—there is no way to test that person’s assertion that “god will reveal” this knowledge to them, there can be no evidence of this, outside of their own claim about it. But I certainly wouldn’t advise you to be guided by that kind of “knowledge,” supposedly arrived at through that kind of “leap of faith,” if you are going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to bet on football games!
Let’s take another example: a trial in which someone is accused of robbery. The prosecutor will try to present evidence (witness testimony and/or other evidence) which shows that the defendant was at the place where the robbery occurred, at the time it occurred, and perhaps that the defendant was found in possession of a weapon that is very much like (or even identical to) the weapon used in the robbery, and so on. On the other side, the defense may try to show (through witness testimony, etc.) that the defendant was somewhere else entirely at the time the robbery occurred, and/or that the weapon the defendant was found with is in fact a different weapon than the one used in the robbery, and so on. When the jury moves to render a verdict, they will be called on to make a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge—to “sift through” the testimony and other facts and get to the essence of what is shown by that evidence. Of course, the jury may do this poorly—they may be influenced by prejudices, particularly against the defendant, and/or they may simply make a mistake in their attempt to determine the “patterns” and the “essential reality” of what has been presented to them—but that does not change the fact that what is required, what they are called on to do, is precisely to make a leap from facts presented (testimony, etc.) to a conclusion about what those facts reveal that is essential about what is at issue (whether or not the defendant committed the robbery). Once again, what is involved is a leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge.
If, for example, the defense presents 10 witnesses, including people who have no relation to the defendant, who testify that, at the time the robbery was committed, they are certain that they saw the defendant in a different location entirely from where the robbery occurred—and especially if the prosecution is not able to “shake” those witnesses with regard to this testimony—then it is only logical to conclude that the defendant did not commit the robbery and must be found not guilty. But the important thing, in relation to the points being discussed here, is to recognize that what is involved in arriving at that verdict is “drawing a conclusion from the facts”—which again involves and requires an actual leap from perceptual knowledge (hearing the testimony) to rational knowledge (making the determination, drawing the conclusion, that the person could not have committed the robbery). That this is the only logical conclusion that could be drawn from the facts presented may tend to “blur” the fact that there is a leap involved—that reaching this conclusion requires going beyond the mere hearing of the facts to “putting the facts together” and grasping the essence of what those facts show. And it is important to emphasize that what is involved is precisely a logical conclusion—one that is arrived at by applying logical reasoning to enable the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge.
Again, let us contrast this with a “leap of faith.” If someone were sitting on the jury and they said, “I know that boy is guilty because ‘The Lord told me so’”—that would be the opposite of applying logic and reason: It would be a “leap of faith,” as opposed to the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge—a “leap of faith” that would fly in the face of the facts and of the logical process involved in making a radically different kind of leap: a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge. And I don’t think I have to make much of an argument that it would not be very desirable to have people on a jury who would be proceeding by making those kinds of “leaps of faith” and determining the fate of someone in that way.
Or, let’s take a final example from “everyday life.” If a small child observes traffic—and especially if what is involved in the flow of traffic, etc., is explained to the child by an adult—the child will come to see, before too long, that if they step out into moving traffic, they will be badly hurt, or even killed: they will have gone from seeing what at first appears to be the random movement of vehicles, without a definite “pattern” and character, to understanding what the “pattern” and the essential character of this movement of vehicles is, and when it is safe, and not safe, to cross the street. Here again what is involved is the kind of leap from perceptual to rational knowledge that we have seen illustrated in previous examples. But if the adult instructing the child were to tell them, “It is safe to walk out in front of the moving traffic, because ‘god will protect you’”—that would be, not a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but a “leap of faith” that flies in the face of reason and logic—and would almost certainly have terrible and tragic consequences.
And if this crucial difference between these two radically different kinds of leaps—the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, as opposed to a “leap of faith”—applies, and is of real importance, in “everyday life,” this is so in a concentrated way with regard to scientific knowledge: knowledge that is acquired and tested through the consistent and systematic application of the scientific method—in contrast with “leaps of faith.”
The scientific method involves carrying out investigations of reality, including through observation and experimentation, to accumulate facts which then are systematized into a theory which gets to what it is that these facts have in common, what patterns they reveal, and what is the essential character of what is involved. Then this theory is tested by applying it once more against the standard of what can be learned through further experimentation and observation proceeding according to this theory, to see if the results are consistently in line with what is predicted by this theory. If, in the application of this scientific method, results are obtained—things are observed or results produced through experiments, and so on—that contradict the theory; if, for example, things can be shown to happen which this theory predicts could not happen; then it must be concluded that the theory is wrong, or at least that it contains flaws (is wrong in some respects). If, however, after repeated testing, from a number of different directions and over a whole period of time, the results continue to be consistently in line with what is predicted by the theory—and no results or observations lead to facts which are in contradiction to the theory, or cannot be explained by it—then it can be concluded that this theory is correct. But, even in achieving the status of a generally accepted scientific theory, any particular theory must not only be subjected to repeated testing but it must also be subjected to review by other scientists, particularly those with knowledge and expertise in the particular field of science that the theory relates to; and if it “passes” that review—if none of these scientists can show that the theory is flawed, or simply wrong, if there are no results which can be shown to contradict the theory and its predictions about reality—then the theory will acquire general acceptance in the scientific community as a valid and true explanation of reality (or that part of reality that the theory deals with).
Now, it is true that the development of scientific theories generally involves the formulation of initial “conjectures” and “preliminary hypotheses” about things—in other words, in a sense scientists often make “informed guesses” about the way something in reality might be, even before they can provide proof of this. But, first of all, even these preliminary hypotheses are themselves based on previously accumulated, and verified, evidence about the way reality actually is—as opposed to “leaps of faith” and religious declarations about things, which we are simply expected to believe without any concrete evidence or the prospect of ever being able to obtain such evidence. Secondly, scientists take their preliminary hypotheses and systematically test them in the real world, and only on that basis are new scientific facts generated which can then contribute to the development of generally accepted scientific theories.
Of course, scientists can, do, and have made mistakes. This has happened not only with individual scientists but at times even with the scientific community in general and those who are regarded as “experts” and “authorities” in various fields of science. Scientists are after all human beings with limitations; they live in and are part of society, and they are influenced in various ways by the ideas which prevail in society at a given time. At the same time, as further knowledge is acquired—as further experimentation and observation goes on, not only in direct relation to a particular theory but in science, and indeed in the world at large—any particular theory will be subjected to continued testing and review, and it may turn out that new things that are learned call into question parts, or in some cases even all, of a particular theory, and then the theory will have to be modified or even completely discarded. But the crucial point is this: The scientific method provides the means for continuing to investigate reality and continuing to learn more about it, and on that basis to correct mistakes that are made.
The understanding of reality that is gained, through the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, becomes, in turn, the basis, the foundation, from which further perceptual knowledge that is accumulated is analyzed and synthesized to make further leaps of this kind (from perceptual to rational knowledge yet again...and then again...). So the acquiring of knowledge—by individuals and by society and humanity overall—is not a “one‑time” thing, but an ongoing process. This applies to “everyday life” and it applies in a concentrated way with regard to the conscious and systematic application of the scientific method. This relates to another point Mao emphasized: beyond the leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, there is a further leap—from rational knowledge to practice, in the course of which material reality is changed and further perceptual knowledge is gained, laying the foundation for a further leap to rational knowledge...and on...and on.
In opposition to this, a religious worldview—which insists on a reliance on faith and “leaps of faith” instead of investigation and analysis of the real world and the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge—such a religious worldview cannot lead to a true understanding of reality, and in fact is bound to lead away from such an understanding in fundamental ways. Of course, not all people who are religious are “scriptural literalists”—who insist on an acceptance of the Bible (or some other scripture of some other religion) as the declared word of a supposed all‑powerful and all‑knowing supernatural being and therefore the “absolute truth.” In fact, there are many religious people who accept a good deal of the conclusions of science, and there are more than a few who try to reconcile their belief in some kind of supernatural being with an acceptance of the scientific method and its results, as applied to the realm of material existence. At the same time, however, their religious viewpoint insists that there is some other realm, of non‑material existence, when in fact there is not; and there has never been and could not be evidence offered for the existence of this non‑material realm which could meet the test of scientific investigation. And it is a fact that even those who attempt to reconcile religious belief, of one kind or another, with a general acceptance of the scientific method and the results of applying this method, cannot consistently do so, because those religious beliefs are bound to conflict, at certain times and in certain ways, with the conclusions reached by the application of the scientific method.
Let’s return to a core argument of this letter, as expressed in the part I quoted above. Let’s take what has been said here—contrasting the scientific method with a religious worldview, and contrasting in particular the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge with “leaps of faith”—and apply this to examples the writer of this letter emphasizes: evolution and the Big Bang. It is a fact that evolution and the Big Bang have in common that they are scientific theories that provide explanation for fundamental aspects of the development of the known universe (the universe that is known to human beings) and of our earth and the living things, including human beings, on this earth. (In very basic terms, the Big Bang theory says that the universe, as we know it today, including our earth, originated with a cataclysmic [sudden and violent] explosion of matter billions of years ago.) At the same time, while there is substantial scientific evidence supporting the theory of the Big Bang, the theory of evolution is even more firmly established and has been confirmed by over 150 years of scientific testing and review, since the time that Charles Darwin first systematized the theory of evolution in the 19th century. This includes the understanding that human beings evolved out of a long succession of life-forms that have evolved over several billion years, and it includes clear evidence that human beings and the great apes are closely related biologically, and that in fact they shared common ancestor species from which they diverged along separate evolutionary paths only a few million years ago. The very important series The Science of Evolution, by Ardea Skybreak, which appeared in our Party’s newspaper (and which I understand will be published in the not-too-distant future as a book by Insight Press2), provides a thorough explanation of the theory of evolution and how it has been demonstrated—repeatedly, from many different directions, and by the application of the scientific method in many different fields—to be true; how continuing scientific investigation and summation, from many different fields of science (including genetics as well as the fossil record and many other “fields of scientific inquiry”) continue to validate and provide further evidence for evolution; how there has not ever been a single scientific discovery or verified fact which in any way would disprove evolution or call it into question; how, in sum, evolution is one of the most well-established and fundamental theories in all of science, one of the most fundamental components of a true understanding of reality. And The Science of Evolution also thoroughly exposes and refutes attempts by religious fundamentalists and some others to call evolution into question or to challenge its fundamental truths, through putting forward literal Biblical “Creationism” or “more sophisticated” distortions of reality, such as “Intelligent Design,” which is in fact another variant of “Creationism.”
With this in mind, let’s look at the claim by the writer of this letter that evolution, no less than the Big Bang, is “just as much a leap of faith as the biblical version of creation.” From all that has been said so far, it should be clear that this statement is utterly and completely false. Evolution has been shown to be true and has been continually further verified, by application of the scientific method—which, again, involves definite leaps from perceptual to rational knowledge but involves nothing of a “leap of faith.” In fact, “leaps of faith” are alien to, and are in direct conflict with and violation of, the scientific method—and if it can be shown that, as opposed to a logical leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, a scientific theory actually involved “a leap of faith” which by definition could not be substantiated, or even tested, by scientific methods, that theory would immediately be understood to be invalid according to the standards of science and the scientific method. There are no “leaps of faith” in the scientific method, and there is no “leap of faith” in the theory of evolution; its findings and the means by which they have been arrived at (and are continually being further verified and validated), are in direct opposition to “leaps of faith” and to the notion of an understanding of reality that relies on such “leaps of faith” and on “faith” as some kind of means for arriving at the truth about reality. Therefore, when I (and, more significantly for this discussion, the overwhelming, overwhelming majority of scientists in the field of biology and more generally people in the scientific community) declare, without hesitation, that “Evolution is a fact!”—this may annoy the writer of this letter and upset his religious prejudices, but that does not make it any less true that evolution is, indeed, a fact.
And by now it should also be clear what is fundamentally wrong with the comment by the writer of this letter that, “since no one was there to record the Big Bang, it too is just as much a leap of faith as the biblical version of creation.” While (at least to my understanding) the Big Bang, as a scientific theory, is not as well substantiated and verified as evolution—and while there is definitely much more to be learned about the origins and developments of the universe (or perhaps many different universes), and people in the field of physics (or other sciences) would be the first to say this—it is not at all the case that the theory of the Big Bang is just as much a matter of a “leap of religious faith” as the myth of biblical creation. First of all, the story of creation, as told in the book of Genesis in the Bible, is simply wrong—it is clearly contradicted by many scientifically established facts in many particular details and in its overall presentation—not the least of which is the fact that it can be shown, scientifically, that the earth is billions of years old, not a few thousand years old, that the earth revolves around the sun, and that many other forms of plant and animal species existed long before human beings first appeared on earth. In opposition to this biblical creation myth, while (again, to my understanding) the Big Bang theory has not been as thoroughly verified by scientific methods as evolution has, it is certainly not the case that the Big Bang theory is, at this point at least, contradicted, in its main features, by scientific understanding and by results arrived at through the scientific method—as, again, is definitely the case with the biblically based myth of creation.
It is of course true that no human being was around at the time of the Big Bang. But this does not invalidate the Big Bang theory or reduce it to “an article of faith” like the biblically based myth of creation. Human beings come to know many things about reality which we do not directly experience or witness. The Big Bang theory has in fact been formulated and developed through a process (which is ongoing) of proceeding from things that have already been clearly established and demonstrated, from many directions, to be true, and “putting these things together” to draw a conclusion about the larger reality that these things are part of. In other words, there is indeed a leap involved here—but, once again, it is not a “leap of faith,” or anything like it, but a leap from evidence to a conclusion about what the evidence shows to be true.
In short, in developing the Big Bang theory, scientists in the fields of astronomy and physics, and other fields, have proceeded from what they do know—what has been scientifically established and tested and verified—about the universe to draw further inferences and conclusions about the universe, including its origins. And at every stage in the development of this scientific theory (as in all scientific theories), these inferences and conclusions have to be, and are, subjected to further testing in reality before they can be raised to the level of a verified theory and gain general acceptance. The Big Bang theory is a work in progress, but it is not idle speculation: the very questions it poses and explores, the research it stimulates, and the concrete facts it has so far helped to uncover are based on previously accumulated scientific evidence about reality. And this once again marks a profound difference between the scientific method and “religious faith”—since the latter, by definition, does not draw its conclusions, or make its assertions, based on a scientific investigation of and summation of actual reality and cannot, by definition, be tested by scientific methods. In contrast to the biblical creation story of the origin of the universe, the fact is that the Big Bang theory is being continually subjected to further scientific “probing” and analysis. Even though it is true that no human being was present at the time that scientists have calculated that the Big Bang occurred (about 15 billion years ago) the development of new technology—including more powerful telescopes and related instruments, which can be sent into space to record things—has enabled scientists to learn much more about what happened at a time which was shortly after the time when the Big Bang is believed to have occurred, at a point in space far from where our earth now exists. (“Shortly” in this context means something like a billion years, which is not that great a time span in the context of the universe and its development. The reason that scientists are able, in this way, to “see far into the past” in the universe’s development has to do with the relation between time and space. Since things that are observed by human beings—directly or with the aid of telescopes and similar instruments—are “transmitted” to us through the medium of light, and at the speed of light, things that occurred long ago but also a long distance from the observer take a long time to reach the observer, even though the speed of light is very fast compared to other everyday movements we are familiar with. For example, if you are in a thunderstorm, you will see a lightning bolt before you hear the thunder connected with it, even though the two actually are part of one phenomenon and actually occurred at the same time. The reason you see the lightning first is that lightning travels at the speed of light, which is much faster than the speed of sound which brings the noise of the thunder.)
What scientists have learned through this “looking back in time,” getting ever closer to the time when the Big Bang is believed to have occurred, has tended to substantiate (to back up and further confirm) the Big Bang theory, even while it has raised new questions relating to all this. But once more the crucial fact here, in relation to what is raised by the writer of this letter—and, more importantly, in relation to fundamental questions concerning what is truth and how human beings arrive at knowledge of the truth, and test that knowledge—is that in no way does this increasing knowledge relating to the origins of the known universe have anything to do with the application of religious principles or “leaps of faith.” In fact, once again this increasing knowledge—arrived at through scientific methods and logical leaps from perceptual to rational knowledge that are consistent with and part of the scientific method—is in contradiction to, and refutes the biblically based myth of creation, further providing evidence that it is exactly that: a myth, invented several thousand years ago, by human beings who lacked knowledge of how the universe (as we know it), the earth, and the living things on the earth (including human beings) actually came into being.
Knowing about actual reality—and continually learning more about it—is vitally important for humanity and its future; it is vitally important not only for people in the sciences and the academic world but for the brutally oppressed and exploited people of the earth, who must and can be the backbone and driving force of a revolution to throw off and put an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression, throughout the globe—to be the emancipators not only of themselves but ultimately of all humanity. Confronting reality as it actually is—and as it is changing and developing—and understanding the underlying and driving forces in this, is crucial in order to play a decisive and leading role in bringing about this revolution and ushering in a whole new era in human history, which will shatter and remove forever not only the material chains—the economic, social and political shackles of exploitation and oppression—that enslave people in today’s world but also the mental chains, the ways of thinking and the culture, that correspond to and reinforce those material chains. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who founded the communist movement over 150 years ago, declared that the communist revolution, and its emancipating principles, methods, and aims, involves a “radical rupture” not only with the traditional property relations that enslave people, in one form or another, but also a radical rupture with all traditional ideas that reflect and reinforce those traditional property relations.
The struggle in the realm of epistemology—the theory of knowledge and how it is acquired by people, the theory of what is true and how people come to know the truth—is a crucial arena in the overall battle for the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited majority of humanity, and ultimately of humanity as a whole. Grasping the defining characteristics and the importance of the scientific method—and, most of all, the most consistent, systematic and comprehensive scientific approach to reality, the communist world outlook and method, which can embrace without replacing or suffocating the many fields of human knowledge and endeavor and can give expression to the richest process of learning about reality and transforming it in the interests of humanity—is of vital importance for this emancipatory struggle. Understanding the profound difference between the attempt to impose “faith-based” notions on reality and, in opposition to that, pursuing a scientific understanding of reality, including of religion and its origins and effects—understanding the radical difference between “leaps of faith” and the ongoing acquisition of knowledge through continual leaps from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge—this is a crucial part of carrying forward the struggle to achieve the two radical ruptures that mark the communist revolution as the leap to a whole new, liberating era in human history.
1. Audio files of the talk “God Does Not Exist—We Need Liberation Without Gods” are available online at bobavakian.net.
2. This series has now been published as a book: Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, Insight Press, 2006.