Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 10)

Robert Steigerwald

If we consider the recent results of science, idealism has lost ground, to express it cautiously. Also in regard to the question of the derivation of the mental from the nonmental, important new research material has been gathered, even if this question has not been entirely solved; yet we also must ask if a complete solution will really be possible. The work of the Argentinian materialist philosopher Mario Bunge on the mind-body problem contains, in my opinion, essential plausible results (1980).

Whether this state of affairs is helpful for materialism depends on whether philosophy can really be divided into the two fundamental lines: materialism and idealism. There are only a few exceptions that are excluded from this division, because they presuppose in a dualistic manner two basic kinds of objects, one material and the other mental. But even here we find within the concretely worked-out system tendencies in which one or the other of these dominate, so that we indeed are not permitted to characterize such a system as clearly either materialism or idealism, but still see that within the system one or other of the two fundamental lines triumphs. Lenin, referring to certain parts of Hegel’s great Logic, once noted that this most idealistic work can in large parts be read like a materialist work. And Kant’s epistemology is, as Lenin also noted, materialist with the assumption of the thing-in-itself, but idealistic in its conditions for the possibility of establishing what it is?

The developments in natural science described here have led to extensive and fundamental philosophical debates. The theory of relativity led to questioning of classical mechanics, and its treatment of space and time. Far-reaching effects came from quantum theory. The development of and debates over quantum theory are of great philosophical importance in many ways. The mechanistic-materialist view of the world that most scientists had accepted unconsciously or consciously, and the classical physics coupled with it, were in contradiction to the new physical discoveries. The evolution theories of thermodynamics and biology seemed to demonstrate a basic contradiction between living and inanimate matter.

The Reality Problem

Developments in biology also led to fundamental philosophical discussions. Controversial conceptional discussions in philosophy followed these scientific developments.

Natural processes, and nature itself, seem unproblematic to the so-called normal faculty of cognition in the sense that nature, with the laws and forces governing it, in its spatial and temporal existence, is accessible to cognition. On this basis, a more or less conclusive and scientifically founded view of the world arose in correspondence with the assumptions of classical physics. Only at its extremes—down “below” in the microuniverse, and up “high” or “outward” in the universe—did it need further development, further perfection. Our common sense, using ordinary language, seemed adequate to give us a description of this world in a coherent way. This so-called normal attitude toward perceiving nature presupposes that our ability of cognition directly interacts with nature and directly procures knowledge about nature for us.

This is not the case. Before World War I, when scientists tried to get on the track of the atom, many important conditions were lacking for the fulfillment of this task. Rutherford knew that within the atom there must be a nucleus and electrons. Therefore he tried to approach the unknown by imagining that the atom could be formed similar to the solar system. Instead of the atom, which was not yet accessible to him, he used as a model[iii] what was already known in order to consider what was unknown. In subsequent work with this model, in improving it, in the attempt to remove incompatibilities between the model and the actual atom, scientists used not only current knowledge of the atom, but went far beyond what we began with, by assuming quantum physics at the outset. The new world picture built up in this way also had to be most accurate scientifically to serve highly specialized fields. (Strictly speaking, this took place in part earlier; one can go back to the previous work in mathematics by Riemann.) This was more accurate and specialized than what we deal with in everyday language. In the microphysical world,

we encounter objects that we describe partly with concepts from the macrophysical world, so that the question of the interconnection between both domains arises. These microphysical objects, however, have a real existence even though they have properties that cannot be described in terms of macrophysical concepts.

On 12 March 1895, Engels wrote a letter to Conrad Schmidt in which he discussed the relation of knowledge of the world in terms of concepts created by us to the objective reality itself. Engels wrote in part:

The reproaches you make against the law of value apply to all concepts, regarded from the standpoint of reality. The identity of thought and being, to express myself in Hegelian fashion, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. But although a concept has the essential nature of a concept and cannot therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it must first be abstracted, it is still something more than a fiction, unless you are going to declare all the results of thought fictions because reality has to go a long way round before it corresponds to them, and even then only corresponds to them with asymptotic approximation . . . .

Or are the concepts which prevail in the natural sciences fictions because they by no means always coincide with reality? From the moment we accept the theory of evolution all our concepts of organic life correspond only approximately to reality. Otherwise there would be no change: on the day when concepts and reality completely coincide in the organic world development comes to an end. The concept fish includes a life in water and breathing through gills: how are you going to get from fish to amphibian without breaking through this concept? And it has been broken through. (1942, 527, 530)

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Notes


1. Reference to a German poem by Christian Morgensternm “Die unmögliche Tatsache” (The Impossible Fact) in which a man named Palmström is run over and killed while improperly crossing an intersection. Upon contemplating the circumstances of his death, he reasons that the car that ran him over should not have legally been there. He then concludes that he is not dead because “what must not be, cannot be.”—Ed.


2. Translation of quotations from non-English sources in the Reference List were made by the translator.


3. In the discussion that follows, I do not deal with differences in the kinds of models or the difference between material and theoretical models.


4. The author is referring here to the historically dominant variety of critical realism in Europe, which is akin to a form of neo-Thomism. See Hörz, Röseberg, et al. 1980, 165-77).


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