Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 11)

Robert Steigerwald

In material production, we place instruments between ourselves and nature. From Hegel comes the designation of these instruments as means, as the means between us and nature, as our mediated effect on nature. Analogous with this is the widely used concept of means of thought. For example, Brownian motion or the splitting of the atom can be simulated by means of models in order to understand them better, to approach the real object in this way. Yet the atoms are not only split in the model, but also in reality. We can use models in experiments. In some fields we are only able to work with models. But the real object of microphysics is the microobject, even if it can only be examined by means of models. The statement that something is a model does not yet define its epistemological nature. The model is inserted between subject and object; it is elaborated; the results of this elaboration are then transcribed. The question is how far can this procedure be carried on. The essence of an object of cognition is not embraced by the model. The question is to what extent are the means of cognition and the object of cognition related to each other, to what extent is knowledge gained, do the model and the modeled object correspond to each other? Models are supposed to mediate between our knowledge and nature, to help us in the same way as in material production, to come to new “products,” new knowledge, in intellectual production.

This actually does not mean that we do not know anything about nature itself; that we cannot come to know it. The problem of reality is posed. Of course it could not be posed if the models of which are speaking were like that, for example, of a miniature railway that originally corresponded to a real railway, but only in miniature. But this miniature railway just models the known, copying it as exactly as possible. The previously mentioned models of science indeed are also constructed in analogy to known things, but do not copy the object to which they refer, since it is not yet known with the same precision (except for some unusual cases)./p>

The task here is to provide an increasingly exact understanding of something still unknown. On the other hand, would it be possible argue the matter if the problem of reality were a closed book, or only a closed book?

Thus the problem of reality exists in two aspects, since there is no thought that is detached from reality and since we do not know with certainty if our thinking corresponds to reality.

Two major groups of philosophical positions should be mentioned, a realist one and a positivist one. The difference between them concerns the understanding of the real itself. For the group of positivism, the real consists of what we consider as the observed (of course, by experimental investigation using scientific/technical apparatuses), whereas realism assumes that not only what is observed exists, but that there is, or can be, something more essential than that.

In both groups we find variations. Within realism. we find variations concerning the question of what should be considered real. For materialism, it is not possible that material nature is arises from the immaterial, since it exists independently of our consciousness. For critical realism, the real is ultimately dependent on spirit (from God, or an objective, absolute idea; thus it is an objective idealism).[iv] For internal realism the real is the material of our mental processes, which amounts to a subjective idealism.

Within positivism we find varying positions about what the observed elements consist of. After all, they always are attributed to the epistemological subject. Within so-called Machism (empirio-criticism), they are understood as sense data; in the versions of linguistic analysis, as subjectively judged forms of speech; in logical empiricism, as logical structures detached from the real.

The question discussed up to this point primarily concerns whether outside the world of our thoughts, another world still exists and what is it like. Moreover, we have the question about what mental activities are needed to open up this world to our cognition. We are concerned here with the epistemological question, in distinction to the ontological one.

Reality forced the makers of models, the scientists, to change their model if they wanted to find out what was real, and during the history of science, again and again, models that had come into contradiction with reality have had to be abandoned or modified. But how could something have a compelling effect if it did not exist? Thus we are dealing with model builders, models, and reality in a three-sided relationship, with correlations among them, with the activity produced by the constructor and mediated by the model aimed at reality. The constructor, mediated by the model, meets with the resistance of reality and is thus forced to change the model in order to gain more exact knowledge about reality. As a result, a model having proved to be useful cannot be entirely free from the correspondence, the resemblance, the copy, the representation of what has been modeled, that is, reality. Thus it contains the subjective as well as the objective.

Several positions also emerge in regard to the subject and the process of cognition. Here too, we can divide them into two major groups, one which affirms cognition and one which (in varying degrees) denies cognition.

We cannot say that every kind of realism includes the affirmation of cognition. Critical realism can accept cognition only within certain boundaries, because the objective spiritual being creating reality principally remains inaccessible to cognition, and in the best case can be characterized by a series of negations (as not mortal or immortal, for instance), thus indefinable.

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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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