Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 2)

Robert Steigerwald

When philosophers work, of course, they do not measure, weigh, calculate, and experiment with objective things. Their business is to prove our mental tools of production. But are there characteristics that the thinking-tools of the specialized sciences possess that are generally applicable to each scientific act of ºcognition? The question seeks in the process of cognition the general, which transcends each of the special kinds of perception or research—the conception of laws or the principle of causality, for instance. Then the question is about the relationship of such means to the reality to which they refer, even about this reality itself, and the means for investigation that are applied in the specialized sciences, and if these means can also be generalized, for instance, in the concept of practice. While using these mental tools, philosophers may also experiment with thoughts as natural science does (just think of Einstein’s thought-experiments on the general theory of relativity). But this is an entirely different way of establishing the mental tools from that which is needed in analytical philosophy. And all this leads to the question of whether an overall objective reality and general patterns of development exist. If so, they would then be genuine objects of philosophy. In other words: If philosophy thinks about matter, space, time, quality, and quantity, it reflects first of all objective connections. To be able to do so, to perceive the generalizable in the results of the specialized sciences, philosophy must make an effort to stay in close contact with the sciences if it itself is to be scientific.

Materialism and relativity theory

The special theory of relativity is based on the fact that the speed of light is the limit for the speed of material systems, Moreover, the speed of light is the same regardless of the relative motion of the source of light toward or away from the system. The relative speed of two independently moving objects, when calculated by adding or subtracting the speeds of each in some coordinate system, depending on whether they are approaching,

or receding from each other, becomes increasingly invalid as the speeds take on values closer to the speed of light. This is only possible if in a process of acceleration approaching the speed of light, the space-time conditions of the moving system change in such a way that the division of distance by time approaches the value of the speed of light. This again signifies that absolute space and time do not exist independently of a material frame of reference. In his general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein established that the properties of space and time are both necessarily connected with the distribution of matter.

In his studies of the dialectics of nature, Engels had already defended the view, held before him by Feuerbach, that space and time were inseparable qualities of matter (he used the word “matter,” not “mass”). So this actually must not shock materialists. It was the conclusion that was shocking—that mass, space, and time alter in connection with processes of motion.

But of course Engels could not discuss the far-reaching results that derive from the relativity theory. In 1908 Lenin, even though he discussed works close to the theory of relativity, like those of Poincaré, referred only to the variability of mass with speed (1962, 260)—one of the results of Einstein’s 1905 paper on the special theory of relativity—and concluded that this was not a problem for the dialectical-materialist concept of matter.

From Einstein’s theory of special relativity, another conclusion follows: that the speed of light, as a limiting speed of moving objects, can only be understood from what is changing in a system, that is, from the energy of mass in motion. When the speed of an object increases, its mass also increases. As a result, successive incremental increases in speed require successively greater incremental increases in the energy added to the moving object. As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases without limit so that an infinite amount of energy—an impossibility—would be needed to reach the speed of light.

Dialectical materialists have often misunderstood this, because they have confused the relationship among mass, energy, and matter— that is to say, qualitative attributes of matter with matter itself! Mass and energy are not modes of matter but attributes (or properties) of matter, since there is no mode of existence of matter that does not have both mass and energy associated with it.

Energy and mass are often treated as interchangeable with each other because of their proportional quantitative relationship in Einstein’s formula E = mc2. Energy is the measure of the capacity of a physical system to undergo change from one mode of existence to matter another (Marquit 1980, 83). Mass is related to the inertial property of matter—that is, mass is a measure of the resistance of a material object to a change in velocity (Newton 1:2).

The proportionality of mass and energy was important for the utilization of nuclear energy. It is mentioned here because it is another confirmation of the special theory of relativity. It was confirmed as a proof through practice that spoke and still speaks in favor of this theory.

At this point, the relationship between the general and the specific must be considered. Comprehension of matter in general must be distinguished from the concrete knowledge we gain from physical, chemical, biological, and social matter in certain historical contexts. A term used in natural sciences to signify what is known at the time about matter is the specific. This knowledge was, of course, different in the last century from today. To use an analogy: The universe and those ideas we have of it in certain historical periods are to be distinguished. Where do I see the analogy to the special (and also to the general) theory of relativity? Consistent materialist thinking says that the universe neither has been created nor will it dissolve into nothing. How can terms that refer to something measurable—as do the terms space and time—be applied to something that in principle is not measurable? Or else someone first must show me how to measure the infinite!

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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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