Interview with Ben Campbell on Marxism’s relationship to science (archive 2012)

Ben Campbell is a Ph.D. student in computational neuroscience, and a Marxist.  He is a frequent contributor to The North Star and a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society.


C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways:  I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?

Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.

The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”

So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.

Soviet-era chart of the brain: Where intuition resides

Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.

So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”

Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.

C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?

B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.

As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.

Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:

“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”

Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.

If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?

In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.

This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.

Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.

C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?

B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc.  A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.

However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.

Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.

Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”

Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!

Soviet-era chart on the relationship of materialism to various other philosophical forms

C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?

B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).

Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.

C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?

 B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.

The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.

While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.

As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.

As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.

Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.

I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.

 C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on?  I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.

 B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.

So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.

This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.

 C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers?  Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example? 

 B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.

While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices.

The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.


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