How to be a scientific progressive intellectual

This short piece is addressed to people in their 20s or early 30s who want to use their intellectual skills to create a better world.

Intellectual work is the production and development of ideas. In modern society there are millions of people doing intellectual labour but we would not say that they were all intellectuals. Much of the intellectual work done in the world today is tied directly to the technical needs of the economy and in consequence it makes little impact outside of a specialised field. The term intellectual is usually reserved for those who publicly discuss a broader range of ideas: the methodology of a whole discipline, the interaction between disciplines, or the impact of ideas on society as a whole. They will be engaged in public debate about ideas, through writing and speaking.

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A scientific intellectual can be understood in two senses. In one sense it can refer to professional scientists who engage in public intellectual debate outside their field: people like Noam Chomsky or Richard Dawkins. The other sense is intellectuals who are committed to the values of science and back that up by a broad scientific understanding.

A Marxist intellectual obviously means one who is influenced by the ideas of Marx. Some, but not all Marxists are also scientific intellectuals. All Marxist intellectuals have a commitment to his famous aphorism that where the philosophers had only interpreted the world, the task should be to change it. Some Marxist intellectual apply this principle directly to politics, involving themselves in public political polemics. Others apply it to the field of culture and engage in trying to change social values. What they all share is a humanitarian commitment to changing the world in the interests of the poor and oppressed majority of our race.

To change something it helps a lot to understand how it works. As a young man Marx declared that the aim should be to change the world. This led him both into politics and into a sustained intellectual effort to understand the emerging capitalist world of the 1850s. He spent the rest of his life in research because he knew that without a scientific understand of how that world worked, it would be impossible to change it.

During his life he developed the first a comprehensive theory of how society operated and evolved - what he called the materialist theory of history. Alongside this he also took up a particular philosophical standpoint, one which, after his death was termed dialectical materialism.
In the big task of changing the world, the role of scientific research was to provide the objective knowledge that would allow the world to be changed in a conscious deliberate and long term way. The role of philosophy was to clear the ground for that research.

So, do you want to get involved in this?

Realise that if you do, it will be a life changing experience. You will acquire something precious, a purpose in life. You will become part of a huge historical project. One that has been underway now for a century and a half; has already changed the world beyond recognition; has swept away kings and empires; has brought immense advances in human and social rights and modernised half a continent. But it is a project that is far from finished, and one that will not be finished in your lifetime. In some countries you expose yourself to real danger by embarking on this project - but you already know that. The decision is yours.

Are you cut out for it?

Are you patient enough and clever enough?

There is no denying that you have to be clever to be an intellectual. But by deliberately training yourself to become an intellectual you will become cleverer. Intellectual work strengthens and develops the brain just as physical work does with your muscles. Patience too, comes with practice.

You may be young student. You may be mature student who knows the world of work. You may be an activist who has not been to college. It does not matter. Most of the learning you will have to do will not come from the formal education system but from self study, or in unofficial study circles that you help organise.

The process of intellectual production

Work with tools is very characteristic of us humans. Crows and apes know the rudiments of tools, but no other species can match us in their use. Human work, according to Marx involves three things: the worker, the instrument of labour and the object of labour or raw material on which they work. In handicraft production the instruments are simple hand held tools, but with the industrial revolution they become what he called 'self acting' or what we now call automatic machines. An automatic machine not only replaces human energy, it also encodes in its mechanism something equivalent to control function that was previously provided by the human brain.

Intellectual work seems at first sight to be very different. But it is not.

Prior to the computer revolution all 'intellectual' work was done by people. Nowadays many things that were once considered intellectual tasks such as solving equations, playing chess, organising filing systems can be done by computers.

The same three elements are present in intellectual work. You have the intellectual worker of course. But you also have conceptual tools and intellectual raw material. For example, before computers were invented the term Computor, meant a human being whose job it was to do calculations by paper and pencil. They had as conceptual tools the rules of arithmetic, the addition and multiplication tables etc. Their intellectual raw materials were the numbers that they were given to work on.

That is a simple example, but in any intellectual work the same three elements are present: a worker, a problem to be worked on, and a set of conceptual tools that they use. This key insight was what enabled Alan Turing to come up with the idea of the universal computer, a machine which could do any information processing task that humans can do. We are now used to the idea of software tools which enhance our ability to process and analyse data. There are also computer programmes which produce other programmes. The human brain has the same power to use ideas to work on other ideas and produce new ones. This recursive ability is at the root of the universality of human intelligence.

The philosopher Althusser pointed out that you could use Marx's own analysis of labour to recursively analyse Marx's own work. If we do this we can learn something about what is involved in the formation of a radical scientific intellectual.

Marx was a German who, as a student studied in the rigorous Hegelian school that was the then dominant influence in German academic philosophy. He was undoubtedly astonishingly clever, but there were many others in the 19th century German middle class who were of similar natural intelligence and who went on to make brilliant contributions to natural science or mathematics. It was the build up of a revolutionary crisis in Europe during the 1840s that converted a middle class student into a sympathiser with radical workers who called themselves communists. There were others of his educated class who were similarly activated by the situation, Lassalle for example went on to play leading role in the German worker's movement. But none of them had the lasting impact that Marx did. His Hegelian philosophical training in abstract thought gave him an unusual ability to use his brain recursively use ideas to transform ideas. His patience, a willingness to spend years in unpaid study in the British Museum library allowed that mental power to be put to work, transforming the raw material of Classical Political Economy into a new theory that explained capitalism from the standpoint of those at the bottom of the social pyramid.

Three things were needed:
  1. A moral and humanitarian commitment to the standpoint of the oppressed - the driving force.
  2. A training in abstract thought - the tools.
  3. An engagement with the classical economists, the then most advanced thought in the area - the raw material.
Scientific theories are frequently discovered independently. In Marx's day, Wallace and Darwin independently discovered the laws of evolution. If Marx had not been born, similar theories to his would have been developed by somebody else, so the particular combination of Hegelian philosophy and communism was an accident of history. Had the discoverer of historical materialism been a young French scholar, trained perhaps in advanced mathematics before he came to read political economy, then the language and mode of expression would have differed, as they did between Wallace and Darwin, but essentially the same ideas would have been discovered.

For those of you wanting to train yourselves to do similar work, the key thing is to train mind with some form of advanced abstract thought. Philosophy is particularly useful for this since it trains you in using ideas to examine other abstract ideas. But it would probably be a mistake to spend a lot of time studying Hegel nowadays. Have a look at him if you want, but his fame now is almost entirely second hand. People are only interested in Hegel because Marx - a far more significant thinker originally studied Hegel.

The disadvantage of setting out now to train yourself in Hegel, is that since philosophers carry out no independent scientific investigation, they are limited in their own raw material to working with the scientific knowledge and concepts available in their day. Since Hegel's day, mathematics and science has generated a vast number of new ideas. One would be hard put to identify any 20th century advance in science that was preconditioned by its discoverer having used Hegel's ideas. So it is better to read more recent philosophy. But don't stop there. A good modern philosopher, and of course it is better to study materialist ones, will have a good grasp of the key results of 20th century science. It is worth while trying to get a grasp of some of these concepts at first hand. You should have at least some idea of a broad range of 19th and 20th century science.

Why?

On the one hand reading stuff like this trains your mind, but it also provides you with what are potentially transferable concepts. The more different sources of abstract concepts you have, the more you will be able to achieve. Where possible read work by the original discovers. It is easy to Darwin in the original, Einstein's little book on relativity for example gives a good explanation of the ideas to an intelligent general reader. Other things that will train your mind would be a familiarity with the discoveries of Gödel and Turing, the basic concepts of the quantum theory, the modern synthesis in evolutionary theory, modern ideas in network theory and complex systems theory.

When engaging with scientific theories you can at first read a popular account, but it is a big help if you can go on from this stage to get at least a basic grasp of the mathematical formulation of the theories. Nothing trains the mind in abstract thought so much as mathematics. The more maths you understand, the better will be your ability to perform an abstract analysis of problems.
If you have not done so already should go on in parallel with a reading of Marx. If you are going to read him seriously, you must at least have read volume 1 of Capital.

The aims of intellectual work

Intellectual work should take two main forms:
  1. Research which produces new knowledge.
  2. Polemic and education which attempts to explain that knowledge and to displace previous erroneous ideas in the field.
In one sense research is 'better' than polemic since it advances human understanding. But polemic is necessary, new scientific discoveries never replace the old ideas unless the new ideas are fought for. Both are a key parts of the process of intellectual advance. An intellectual should be able to cycle between the two phases of developing new ideas and defending the new ideas. At the start of your intellectual career it can be better to start out with polemic. You will have read of some new research advance which has already convinced you. Engage with the views of the opposing camp. Polemic gets you to the roots of a dispute. It trains you with the need to engage with the ideas of opponents. But if you are going to engage in polemic try and do it with significant figures on the other side, people of some intellectual stature. Read them in the original not in second hand form before you go into print attacking them.

But if you stay at the level of polemic, you will be an intellectual but not a scientific intellectual. As a scientist you have to discover things that were not known before.

The procedure of intellectual work

Research starts with a question.
What is happening?
Why is something happening?
Is it really true that?
Without a question you are not researching, you are just studying.

You try to answer the question by looking at what has already been written. If the answer in the literature is satisfactory, then you may conclude that there is no need for further research.
Why might the contemporary answers to your question be inadequate?
  • You may be able easily to see flaws in the arguments or anomalies in the data used in the existing theories.
  • You may find that nobody has ever thought of asking quite the question you asked before.
Typically you should then proceed to a critique of the weaknesses of the existing theories, and in the light of this critique you should try and sharpen your question.

You must then carry out some initial empirical investigation. It is so often the case that once you turn to empirical data you find that what you had previously imagined to be true, turns out to be false, or that what you had thought would be important, turns out to be secondary. Unless you move on to empirical investigation what your theory amounts to no more than a story. A story whose telling may make it seem plausible, but one who's truth you can not honestly assess until you confront it with facts.

Having got some results from your empirical research, you are then in a position to essay an answer to your original research question. You may be in a position to try to explain your empirical data, or perhaps the observations you already have are inexplicable without more data, in which case you must return to empirical investigations.

Once a definite explanation or hypothesis has been formulated you are in the situation to perform a crucial experiment. A crucial experiment involves making investigations that will discriminate between two theories. In the natural sciences the experiment involves experiment using apparatus etc. In social science it involves making observations or collecting particular statistical information. You have to ask: if the old ideas is right, what would I expect to see when I investigate this particular circumstance that would be different if my new ideas are correct?

You have to have a definite question in mind like this or you will end up gathering statistical data blindly, with no definite aim.

Once you have performed the experiment you will either find:
  1. That you were wrong, the old theory explains things adequately.
  2. That you were right, reality has features that your new theory predicted but which should not occur according to the old theory.
  3. More probably, you will find the neither theory seems quite right. Your data contains anomalies from the standpoint of both the old theory and the new theory.
Obviously you will be hoping for the second outcome. But you must be willing to recognise that you are mistaken if you get the first. If you get the third, then you have to start thinking hard and formulate a new theory that is compatible with what you have observed. This new theory may take the form of an elaboration or modification of what you had initially proposed.

In that case be careful.

You may have made an ad hoc assumption that explains the particular observations you have just made. The philosopher and mathematician Leibniz observed that if you have a graph formed by splatting dots in a random order on a sheet of graph paper, it is always possible to construct some mathematical formula that will pass through all the data points. But this formula is very unlikely to reveal an underlying law of the system you are observing because, in order to fit all the data points, it will be over complicated.General laws tend to be simple when they are true. To guard against this you should ideally make a second series of observations to see whether your additional assumptions still hold up.

Remember that in science a simple theory that explains the bulk of the data in many many cases, is better than a complex one that works perfectly in one case, but whose results are not reproducible.

The role of collective work

Scientific work is typically a collective endeavor. Individuals, however clever their insights, can never do as much as a community of collaborating researchers. Having many people working on a problem allows different insights to be applied. It also makes it possible to collect far more data than one person working on their own. If you have collaborators, they may help you spot mistakes before you make a fool of yourself in public with them. Different people have different specialised abilities which can be applied to the research task in hand. Four people working together for a couple of months can often produce more than one person working for 8 months. On the other hand, if your research team is too big, you will waste time in explaining/communicating with each other, or put off doing things yourself in the hope that one of the other people in the team will do it.

Those observations apply to any collective research.

If you are doing research as a Marxist intellectual today, you have the initial problem of how do you constitute your research group?

Mainstream scientific research works by people applying to governments or philanthropic foundations for funds to do research. The research leader then hires younger researchers to do work under his or her direction. You are not likely to be able to do this. The things you want to investigate are not likely to appeal to the government.

Instead the work has to be done voluntarily. You have to form a community of interest with a shared theoretical training when they start the work. In the old days this was typically done by forming collective study circles for mutual education, and then going on from there to do real research as a group.

Today we have the possibility of forming research groups that are spread across the world using the internet. Whichever way you form your work team remember that it is necessary to have a structured research programme. You must have questions you are investigating, you have to have tentative theories and you need work collecting data. Finally you will then have to engage, perhaps for years, in work of popularisation and persuasion before any new theories you have established are widely accepted.

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