Revolution #83, March 25, 2007
"A Leap of Faith" and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods
Part 3: The Big Bang, Evolution, and Revolution
Revolution #032, January 29, 2006, posted at revcom.us
This is the final part of a 3-part series. Part 1, "Religion Is Religion, Communism Is Scientific," appeared in Revolution #28. Part 2, "The Leap from Perceptual to Rational Knowledge," appeared in issue #31. This series was originally published in Revolution #10 as one article, available online at revcom.us/a/010/avakian-leap-faith-leap-rationale.htm.
The article was written by Bob Avakian in response to a letter that was sent to him that attacked communism and argued against the scientific viewpoint and method, insisting that atheism is just another form of religion. Chairman Avakian addresses a number of points in that letter but focuses on the fundamental difference between a communist and scientific outlook and method on the one hand and, on the other hand, a religious worldview which relies on "leaps of faith."
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Let's return to a core argument of this letter, as expressed in the part I quoted above.1 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 Press), 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.