Harold Walsby: Atoms and Ideology

The widespread publicity recently given to the atom, as a consequence of public interest in the epoch-making event of the employment of sub-atomic energy as a weapon of war, is naturally devoted only to the direct and more spectacular issues and aspects of the atom’s nature. There is, however, another aspect of the subject – referred to neither in the popular press nor in the esoteric scientific journals – which, although in fact and not very spectacular, is nevertheless important, in so far as it touches upon the practical question of the social control of this vast new source of physical power.

This other aspect is the effect of the atom upon our mode of thought or way of thinking. By this I do not mean merely – or even primarily – the sudden mental shock or impact of the news of the first use of time atomic bomb upon the nations and peoples of the world.  That is an effect which, although important and profound in its way, is something of a more temporary and emotional nature for the vast majority. I refer also, and more especially, to the enduring effect upon thinking brought about by man’s knowledge and understanding of the atom, and of its place and significance in the universal scheme of things.

Although nobody has ever seen an atom, the atomic idea has exerted, ever since the time of the ancient Greeks, and perhaps even before, a great influence upon the thinking and outlook of an intellectual section of practically every civilised community, particularly the more scientific section. This influence upon the outlook of a a comparatively few people may at first be thought of as not very important. But when we consider the enormous extent to which modern civilisation increasingly depends upon science, and realise also that it is this outlook which, in the words of Professor I. B. S. Haldane, “has enabled a few thousand men and a few dozen women to create the science on which modern civilisation rests,” then we shall begin to see, on the one hand, how important are the effects of outlooks, or ideologies – even of a few people – on our way of life, and on the other hand, how significant a part in that way of life is played, in this rather indirect manner, by the atom itself.

When the ancient Greek, Democritus (more than 4,00 B.C.) put forward his Atomic Philosophy, he taught that all the qualities of matter, and all life, growth, sensation and thought, were the result of the combinations, arrangements and movements of innumerable, invisibly tiny, hard, indivisible particles or atoms. In other words, he conceived the prime realities o the universe to be material, concrete-like atoms and the “void,” or space, in which they existed and moved. All else was more or less, to some degree, illusory. Thus, his outlook was what we now call “materialist,” and indeed, is fundamentally the same – that is to say, in its basic assumptions – as the outlook sometimes known as “modern materialism.” Actually, there are several varieties of materialism and the outlook of Democritus probably corresponds more to that kind called “mechanistic materialism.” Some of the foremost scientific minds have been dominated by this mechanistic-materialist outlook, notably during the 19th Century, and quite at number of “scientifically-minded” people today (not necessarily scientists) are predominantly under its influence. The outlook is of enormous value in dealing with and in understanding the nature of gross, mechanical matter, and its behaviour as we constantly experience it in our daily lives – eg. in industry. The study of ideological development shows, indeed, that the outlook is a necessary stage in the growth of the scientific attitude, and that it is a modified form of an earlier outlook in which the universe is divided into two opposite and contradictory aspects: one, material, mechanistic and deterministic, and the other, spiritual, mental and indeterministic.

This latter dualistic outlook, also a necessary stage in ideological and intellectual development, is characteristic ol a greater number of people than is mechanistic materialism, and historically, was eminently represented, for instance, in René Descartes’ philosophy of psycho-physical parallelism, in which he regarded mind and matter as belonging to two separate worlds, and conceived animals e.g. – somewhat similarly to the mechanistic materialist – as belonging wholly to the material world and as merely physical-mechanical automata.

The ideological transition from this dualistic outlook to mechanistic materialism is accomplished mainly hy an act or process of repression (renunciation) of one side – the indeterministic, spiritual or mental side – of the dualism; the repressive process can be crudely described as an unconsciously motivated act of forgetting or repudiation, and is similar to the process of repression which plays so great a part in abnormal psychology and psychoanalysis, and similar also to the process of inhibition, one of the basic concepts of reflexology (more precisely, to a particular kind of inhibition, the process of “extinction.”

When we trace the ideological development of intellect further back to its earlier stages we still find this repressive process at work.  And the further we go hack, as it were, beyond the dualistic outlook we have just described, the more do we find the indeterministic or “spiritualistic” assumption – which formed part of the dualistic out-look – playing a dominant role in the intellect; at the same time, we find the role of the objective, deterministic assumption becoming progressively less; and, together with this trend, we also find the two aspects becoming more and more fused, or rather, confused – that is to say, they become less and less independent and distinct from one another until, when we arrive at the earliest stage, we find they form, or give rise to, a primitive kind of monism of a somewhat idealistic, or solipsist, character. We can thus trace the ideological development of the mind back to the stage of animism, and even beyond that, no animatism. These two early and closely related stages in the ideological evolution of man are recapitulated in the intellectual growth of each individual human being (very much like the biological recapitulation in the individual of the earlier organic stages of the race) and can be found represented in modern children and adult primitive people (not necessarily savages). And, just as only a comparatively few animals (human beings e.g.) of the animal kingdom recapitulate the higher stages of organic evolution, so also, only a comparatively few people – those who develo into the higher stages of ideological evolution-recapitulate the higher ideological stages of man’s mental development.

The indeterministic assumption referred to above, appears to be inborn (it corresponds with or approximates to the psycho-ananalyst’s concept of pre-natal or intra-uterine omnipotence, and also to the innate “liberty reflex” of the reflexologist, Pavlov) and forms, together with the earliest experiences of frustration, the primal material upon which the repressive process – which begins probably before birth – operates. We find, in brief, that the repressive process – the mainspring, as it were, of ideological development – results from the conflict between the indeterministic assumption (of the egoistic or instinctual impulses of the individual) and actual experience. The resolution of this original conflict, or rather, at this early phase, the partial resolution of it-for the whole of ideological development may be regarded as a succession of stages in its resolution – by means of repression, is accompanied by the mental projection of indeterminism into the objective world. It is well known and has many times been said, for instance, that the primitive savage, or the infant, projects his own personality into his surroundings, is environment. Thus, by handing over, so to speak, some of its own “omnipotence” (indeterminism, self-determinism or independence) in the form of thought, feeling, desire etc. (in a word, subjectivity) to the surrounding material objects, the primitive mind is able to “account” for the mysterious way in which its own selfish desires are frustrated – the way in which, in other words, it is itself determined – at every turn by its environment.

It is in this curious paradoxical manner, that the seed is sown of the deterministic assumption, which, by means of further unconscious repressive action, passes through a succession of developing phases and eventually blossoms forth, first in the dualistic ideology described above – in which the indeterministic world of spirit or mind is separated from the deterministic world of matter – and then, when the indeterministic assumption is wholly repressed from consciousness, in the mechanistic-materialist ideology. The famous statement of the 18th Century French mathematician, Laplace, is a good example of this materialist outlook (note reference to the atom):

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any instant knew all the forces of nature and the positions of all the entities composing it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, and condensed into a single formula the movements of the largest bodies and the lightest atoms: nothing, for such an intellect, would be uncertain. The future as well as the past would be present to its eyes.

Mechanistic materialism, then, we see, by means of repression, eliminates indeterminism from die universe as a reality, and with it goes the reality of mind or subjectivity: reality becomes exclusively objective; illusion, unreality, exclusive y subjective. Repression, as Freud pointed out, has the power to construct a symptom; and, just as the primitive mind becomes obsessed with the world of matter (repression of determinism, i.e., of frustration-experience) so in a similar manner, the mechanistic-materialist mind (by repression of the indeterministic assumption) becomes obsessed with the world of the mind (the subjective aspect of things). He usually becomes obsessed with anti-God and anti-religious ideas, and repetitively and tirelessly asserts that mind or consciousness has no existence. In Laplace’s statement, for example, we note that the intellect is considered as somehow apart from, as not belonging to, the universe.

This tendency still largely permeates the scientific mentality today. As Professor Whitehead says (quoted with approval by McDougall): “Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of Nature.” And C. K. Ogden writes: “The most mysterious thing in the universe to man is at present himself, his own mind and nature… Nowadays his tendency is to conceive himself as far as possible in terms of his knowledge of the outer world.” This tendency or attitude, while suitable or dealing with gross, mechanical matter and its behaviour, is disastrous when carried over into psychology and the social sciences, which involve the study of human being and their behaviour, thought, feeling etc., both individually and in the group. Fortunately, further ideological development – though in practice confined to fewer persons – considerably modifies this mechanistic outlook. Nevertheless, for the next two stages, at least, the developing mind still retains its materialist character, i.e., is still strongly identified with the basic ideological assumptions of materialism. These more advanced stages are represented by the other varieties of materialism I have referred to above. lt is convenient to distinguish these two main types, or stages, as monistic or evolutionary materialism and dialectical or revolutionary materialism.

We have mentioned earlier that the repressive process operates upon two conflicting aspects of experience, the one having a biological or internal source, as it were, and the other, an external source: i.e., on the one hand, the indeterministic assumption, or feeling of being indetermined (of being free or self-determined) and, on the other hand the hard experience of being frustrated, of being determined by one’s intractable environment. But, on closer investigation of the ideological development, we find that the repressive process does not operate with equal intensity on these two factors; we find, in fact, as the ideological growth proceeds, that there is a change of emphasis, a gradual transference of intensity from the one factor to the other until a critical point is reached, when retransference occurs to restore gradually the former ratio. ln the earlier stages the emphasis of repression is upon the external factor – the frustration-experience; this diminishes towards the middle stage (mechanistic materialism) as the repression of the internal factor – the indeterministic assumption – intensifies; but, once this critical point (complete repression of indeterminism) is passed, the repression of this internal factor gradually weakens, and the emphasis increasingly falls on the frustration-experience once again. (See diagram.)

Schematic Diagram of Ideological Development

For the purpose of clarity the repressive process, which operates upon the conflicting component-factors (of self-determinism and determinism) is divided into two separate parts.  The depth of the black area at any point indicates the relative strength of the repressive process at that point.  The hard and fast lines shown in the diagram are not to be taken literally – in actual practice they are shaded out.  It should be stressed that this diagram refers only to the typical qualitative or vertical development of intellect and entirely ignores quantitative or horizontal development.

Thus, at every stage in the ideological grow of intellect, there is also a return to consciousness of repressed material; but, because of the changing emphasis of the repressive process, this returned material changes in character. Towards the middle stage the returning material is largely composed of the repressed frustration experience – the repression on which weakens as mechanistic materialism is approached; and, by the return of this material to consciousness, the intellect comes to accept the physical and logically necessary limitations imposed by its environment – in short, the intellect comes to “understand” its material environment. In the later stages of development, however (i.e., beginning in the latter phases of materialist ideology, after the complete repression of indeterminism in mechanistic materialism) as the repression of indeterminism grows weaker and that of frustration-experience grows stronger, the returning material increasingly takes the form of the indeterministic or self-deterministic aspect of the universe.

Now, it is interesting to note tn this connection, that modem physicists, in studying and experimenting with the structure of the atom’s interior, find the rigid, exclusively deterministic assumptions of mechanistic materialism incompatible with their scientific experience and results of their researches. The now famous Principle of Indeterminacy, discovered and introduced by Heisenberg in comparatively recent times, was in fact based on the results of sub-atomic research.

But, to continue. When, as we have stated above, the primitive mind of the savage or infant, consequent upon repression, projects indeterminism into the outer world, the simple truth is that he is not altogether and absolutely incorrect. Though he credits surrounding objects, animate and inanimate, more or less indiscriminately with thought, emotion, desire etc. – in other words, with self-determinism – the act remains that in a minority of cases (e.g. human beings) he is right.

Yet we have seen that it is this self-determinism which is wholly and completely repressed – eliminated from the universe – by the mechanistic materialist. It is beyond this stage, as the repression of self-determinism grows weaker in the further development of materialism that there occurs a partial return to consciousness of the self-deterministic assumption: e.g., in revolutionary or dialectical materialism, in the form of the ” dialectic ” principle. At the same time, the centre of obsessive interest (of the mechanistic materialist) gradually shifts from the mind or consciousness, as such, to human society and human social thinking, to man’s social consciousness. Thus the frustration experience, which for the primitive intellect related mainly to the material environment, now shifts, for the scientific intellectual, to the human, social environment. And, just because the returning material is but a partial return, and because of the increasing strength of the repression of frustration-experience, the later phases of materialism can only partially solve or understand the problem of human society and human social consciousness. For it is this very human social consciousness which frustrate the scientific intellectual and the realisation of his concept of a scientific, self-determined society.

Again, as with the savage or infantile intellect, mental projection occurs with this scientific materialist intellect. In the same way that the primitive mind, as a result of repression, projects its subjectivity (emotion, desire, etc.) into its material environment, so the scientific materialist intellect is compelled no project its own objectivity (i.e., rationality) into its human social environment, into human social consciousness; he is forced to assume, in other words, that the mass of people are becoming objective, scientific, rational and materialist, as a mass, as a whole. But, just as the primitive mind is right in a minority of cases only, so too, is the scientific materialist intellect right in only a minority of cases.

Thus, in basing his ideas of achieving a scientifically controlled society upon an unconsciously motivating assumption – the mass-rationality assumption – the scientific intellectual is wasting much of his political time and energy. It is this assumption (with its associated repressed material) which today largely befogs the minds of those scientists – and others – who are striving for a society in which sub-atomic energy is no longer used for the destruction of man, but for his benefit and well-being.

from The New Age of Atomics 1, October 1946