Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 13)

Robert Steigerwald

The objects of macrophysics are ensembles of microobjects. So the macrophysical laws after all must have roots in microphysical reality. They are borderline cases of microphysical laws just as Euclid’s geometry is a borderline case of the geometry necessary in relativity theory. We can neglect this in common practice because microphysical effects do not simply sum up, but are partially equalized in processes involving innumerable microparticles, so that laws become possible for the macrosystem that are not just a summary of the laws of the particles entering into it. At the same time, the peculiarities of microphysics contain the possibility of the accidental. Accident is an objective correlation between different occurrences, a correlation that does not result from the essential inner conditions of the occurrences. Accident itself is not without a cause. So it is not absolutely accidental. Otherwise it would not be possible to determine the quantity of Planck’s quantum of action h; it would be an absolutely accidental quantity on one day, and another on the next day! But accident includes different possibilities, and each of them has its own necessities.

In face of the multitude of particles forming a complete system, multiple interactions and correlations can develop that are not necessarily connected with the total system. In self-organization processes, accident is even a determining factor for the development of the system. At those turning‑points of the system (the bifurcation‑points), where the system is faced with different possibilities for its further development, the direction of development will be decided by a process arising from its inner conditions, which, in reference to the total system, nevertheless must be considered as accidental. In this way accident creates necessity.

In discussing questions concerning the problem of law, we met different types of laws, especially those that act differently in the macrophysical and microphysical spheres. The macrophysical laws represent strictly continuous relations between objects and causing forces, and are called dynamic laws (from dynamis, meaning force). They allow only one possibility of how a law is realized. They do not involve accident. Their corpuscular “point” character is conveyed by treatment of the objects as individual objects, whereas the laws of microphysics act in a collective way.

This is demonstrated by a special quality of the microphysical laws: they have a statistical character. Statistical laws in microphysics have a different nature from laws in classical physics. And they have a totally different character from the classical causal laws. A complicated dialectics of accident and law can be found here. I shall demonstrate this with an example that does not deal with the type of probability used by quantum theory, but gives an idea of the set of problems encountered. If we throw dice thousands of times, we find that each of the faces with one to six dots occurs about a sixth of the time. We can predict this statistically, but not the result of a single throw. And if we repeat the throwing of dice some thousands of times, we can also predict the relative frequency of the results, but not the result of a single toss at a given time; we also cannot assume that a second series of throws would reproduce the same sequence of individual throws.

We find statistical characteristics in both classical and quantum physics, but in different ways, so that we are speaking about a primary and secondary form of statistics. The difference is as follows: In classical physics (for instance in thermodynamics), statistics is used because of the multitude of objects involved (such as molecules of a gas). Single particles can no longer be considered as being in a clearly arranged order, so that in principle, we cannot examine their individual behavior. In quantum physics, the uncertainty principle rules out our even considering this possibility.

The statistical laws of microphysics indeed must regulate the behavior of the particles/waves forming the system, and therefore: they must require a necessary, reproducible, essential (in regard to the behavior of system as a whole) connection (dynamic aspect); they must require that the behavior of the individual particles/waves have a random character (stochastic aspect); they must require that the randomness in the behavior of a single particle/wave reflect certain probabilities, which means that the randomness is subject to the laws of probability and is not causeless, not miraculous (probabilistic aspect).

Full acquaintance with the newly discovered laws of the statistical kind was not without its difficulties, since it seemed that it opened the door to agnosticism by its thesis of limited faculty for human cognition. But this is not logical. If we realize that in nature laws exist that force us to change from the causality conception of macrophysics, not to conceptions of noncausality, but to another form of causality, then we are not dealing with agnosticism, but with the possibility of cognition!

Limits in human cognitive abilities are not the reason for applying stochastic laws; neither are these laws just to be accepted temporarily until they can be replaced by classical causal laws. The difficulty is that the old conception of law is linked to a certain interpretation of causality. If it turns out that in the microphysical sphere such simple causality does not exist, the pattern of classical laws itself comes into question (in this sphere). Then it is not possible—on the basis of the laws of nature and not because of limits in human cognitive faculty—to make compelling predictions by means of stochastic laws that refer to a particular case of subatomic behavior. It belongs to the essence of stochastic laws that also the improbable can take place, so that our knowledge of stochastic laws may become more and more exact, without, however, allowing compelling simple causal explanations of the older kind.

It is obvious that this new conception of causality and laws can also have consequences for social laws.

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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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