Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 12)

Robert Steigerwald

Internal realism—and we must ask if it deserves this name since, after all, it reduces reality to the world of our thoughts!—allows in the best case, a hypothetical outside world, but denies its perceptibility, as Kant does with his epistemology.

Human beings have a direct access to nature, namely the nature of their own bodies, since they themselves are also part of nature. Elementary life activity takes place by direct and indirect material exchange with nature and within nature. Human access to nature is possible on the basis of those physical and intellectual tools created by humans. These tools are used only to accomplish the purpose intended. The activity aims at, or corresponds to, that part of nature that is supposed to be influenced by the mediating tools. To express it another way: In the course of humanity’s historical and social processes, “references” have congealed and are thus saved. The intellectual tools indeed do not exist outside of consciousness. Thus they differ from the material ones, but still represent something objectified in the sphere of the mental. Thanks to speech and societal processes, consciousness includes the accumulated “references” of nature. In a mediated way we therefore possess knowledge of nature itself. These intellectual means enable us to transmit such knowledge, so that it is proper to distinguish, but not to tear apart, the work of the natural sciences and epistemology. This process of acquiring knowledge always occurs in a social context. There is no production “in itself”—it is always socially determined production. Therefore the material and intellectual tools are always socially influenced. As a consequence, work in the natural sciences includes its models, idealizations, and so on; it is influenced by society. Insofar as social influences necessarily contain a connection to group interests, work in the natural sciences has roots in nonscientific conditions, which, at the same time provide the orientation for scientific work. Also by reason of this, a strict division between natural and social sciences cannot be maintained. From all this it follows that we can receive deeper knowledge about nature “in itself” not only through philosophy, but also through the work of natural sciences.

The Problem of Law

The history of physics and its influence of philosophy has led to a better understanding of determinism, in which cause and law are the same. With great success, this understanding allowed the assumption that a body could be idealized as a point and that its states of motion could be described exactly if its position and momentum at a given time were known. With this information, it would also be possible to calculate precisely the further course of motion of this moving body.

The understanding of causality became identical with this comprehension of natural laws. This corresponded to our experiences billions of times, and led in our consciousness to the opinion that there was a necessary causal connection between these conditions, so that an interruption of this causality (by chance) seemed impossible. This kind of causality, this inevitable necessary connection between cause and effect, was considered by Kant as a necessity of thought. The consequence for philosophy and the natural sciences was the assumption that causality was exactly the same as cause and effect. From this it would be possible to derive an exact prediction of the behavior of objects. In the nineteenth century, Engels, following Hegel, already had commented with mockery on the mechanistic character of this kind of causality conception. Lenin, following Hegel, writes that cause and effect “are merely moments of universal reciprocal dependence of universal connection” of events, “merely links in the chain of development of matter,” and that this “interconnection” is “only one-sidedly, fragmentarily, and incompletely expressed by causality” (1961, 159). When physics advanced to the microphysical sphere, problems arose. In the case of large objects, it makes sense to treat such an object for certain purposes like a point. But in reality they are not isolated, indivisible, individual objects, but complexes of objects, of atoms and molecules, for instance.

Among them correlations exist; they form systems, entities, and the laws resulting from this are not observed if this complex object is only seen as a single point.

This was changed when the observation of the interior of such a system began. But difficulties arose from the circumstance that the correlations of the elements of such a system again were dealt with only by shifting the former way of thinking into the interior of the system: so the elements now appeared as indistinguishable, similar individuals correlated to each other as in classical physics.

Even before the new problems arose in physics, we were forced to treat wave phenomena within the framework of corpuscular classical mechanics. Then wave mechanics was born. So two kinds of mechanics coexisted, corpuscular mechanics and wave mechanics. But the microphysical objects display both wave and corpuscular qualities. They are not identical “points.” Their behavior as a whole is influenced by chance. Therefore another kind of law is necessary.

Laws are a special case of universal interaction. Interaction makes the derivation of laws possible. The conceptions of causality and law thus developed historically. The conception of law in classical physics is based on strict continuity: the link between the causing force and resulting effect cannot be interrupted at any point. But Planck’s quantum of action cannot be arbitrarily small, which does not allow continuity in microphysical processes, so that we find “quantum leaps,” that is, interruptions of continuity in these processes. The conditions for classical causality therefore do not exist here. Strictly seen, all physical occurrences are based on such quantized foundations. Objective reality, after all, possesses a quantized nature, with all its consequences, especially the consequence of uncertainty. So here a conception of law is necessary other than that in macrophysics.

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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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