Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 14)

Robert Steigerwald

Some Final Remarks

In examining the importance to materialist philosophy of the natural science theories discussed here, I have tried to seek out aspects that they have in common and any connection among them, to see if they possess something like an “inner logic.”

These theories and hypotheses all examine occurrences outside and independent of our consciousness. Deliberately or not, the theorists working on these questions assume materialist positions. All of them not only examine the motion, but also developments of the respective spheres of objects. But the development processes on one level proceed to those on another, higher one. So we are not dealing with a collection of examples of development, but with a system of development that reaches from the “big bang” to the origin and evolution of living matter. This is a confirmation of the thesis that all spheres of objective reality are exposed to motion and development: in the words of Engels in the 1870s, “motion is the mode of existence of matter” (1987, 55). This objective reality forms a coherent entity. In it we find dynamic relations, in which the elements change, having their own motions. We find this, starting with the smallest elements of matter up to the farthest and biggest cosmic objects, and also in their internal structure. Some common characteristics appear that occur again and again within these dynamic processes, from motion of a physical nature to systems of social life. Therefore it is possible to point out these common characteristics from the totality of theories and hypotheses analyzing these spheres, and in this way approach a more profound understanding of the real processes of matter.

If the objective common characteristics of the developmental processes are characterized as objective dialectics, the theoretical generalizations should be called subjective dialectics. Thus it would be philosophy for the purpose of intellectual grasping, generalizing, and interpreting the knowledge that the specialized sciences have ascertained about their objects.

All these processes result from the relationships between different forces that as a rule are complementary as well as mutually exclusive, The theories of self-organization, of autopoiesis, of catastrophes

(free from their exaggerations and unjust overstatements), the new view of biological evolution—in brief, the transition from the primacy of outer effective factors to the inner ones—are not only significant steps for the explanation of new occurrences, but also for the clarification of their origin, a result of the activity of internal contrary forces or conditions, which again means that we find a genuine dialectic of problems and answers.

The two aspects of the second law of thermodynamics, the hypothesis of a universe oscillating between expansion and contraction, the efforts to comprehend the nature of subatomic particles with conceptions like that of complementarity, the contradictory relation of dynamic and stochastic laws, and also the contradiction between relativity and quantum theory, cannot be appropriately combined with philosophies of a nondialectical and nonmaterialist kind. We find further developmental stages of dialectical contradictions in the internal relations of forces in galaxies, the planetary system, and the structure of atoms, all of which have their inner coherence guaranteed by the entity of forces contradictory to each other. The discussed theories and hypotheses, in their own special fields, give answers to the question about why and in what way the emergence of the new takes place (without something new emerging there is no development), and about which laws lead in a particular direction (without this there would no development). They substantiate the possibility and the necessity of suddenly occurring innovations. They show that evolution takes place even within the most seemingly motionless parts of nature.

As a rule, the steps for the development of the new and the direction of development that follow from the theories and hypotheses are connected with suddenly occurring breaks, phase changes, etc. The emergence of the new includes breaking with the former as well as keeping linked to it, the latter already results from the conservation laws. If during the emergence of the new a breaking of symmetries occurs in some sector, the conservation laws produce a compensation in another sector. The relation between these two processes is to be examined. Prigogine’s interpretation that self-organization is not possible without the export of entropy can be used as an example.

If at a bifurcation point during a process of self-organization, a break with the former state takes place, the transition from a continuous to a discontinuous mode of observation with an appropriate mathematics becomes necessary. If we assume that nowhere do we find plain continuity and stability, that everything is in motion, and that motion itself after all takes place in a quantized mode, the mathematical method must integrate breaks and discontinuity. We find such mathematics in the conception of fractals. The conceptions of self-organization, the conceptions that assign a determining role to the activity of inner factors instead of outer, are new scientific affirmations of the old dialectical theses, as well as the conceptions of the general connection of all things and appearances. That the clarification of life’s origin supplies materialism with strong arguments is certainly obvious.

As a whole, the position of practical negation of any postulated human cognitive limits, which also characterizes the new science, as well as the application of the criterion of practice as the ultimate instrument of verification (and the intensive application of induction), all confirm materialism.

This should not be interpreted to suggest that the new scientific theories and hypotheses would not bear new and difficult problems for materialism. The dialectical aspects that have been discussed indeed include such problems. Possibly another theoretical approach will come that makes the wave-particle dualism appear in an entirely new light. New surprising discoveries cannot be excluded from problems concerning determinism. The concept of law must be adapted to the new results of research, not only in natural science, but also in the social sciences. Here also new dialectical aspects are to he seen. On the one hand, they can be seen in those views that only retrospectively speak of laws, because in regard to the future everything seems to be open—as chaos theory might suggest. On the other hand, they can be seen in the conceptions of Haken and Thom, according to which structures, forms, etc. exist that also have effects on future developments, so that processes are not totally undetermined.

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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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