Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 5)

Robert Steigerwald

An analysis of the cosmological and astrophysical materials leads to the conclusion that an explanation of the world needs no God or any other creator, that there is no indication of a state of nothing having preceded the existence of our universe. As Hawking writes,

One could say: “The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.” The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It should just BE. (1996, 175)

Philosophically this signifies a confirmation of the fundamental positions of materialism.

Quantum theory

Quantum theory, initiated by Planck and further developed by Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, tells us that subatomic particles exhibit both corpuscular and wave-like properties. These two qualities exclude one another—that is, they can never manifest themselves simultaneously in the same experiment. These characteristics remain puzzling even today.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle couples the precision with which the position of a particle is determined with a spread in the momentum of the particle. The greater the precision to which the positions of particles are localized, the greater the spread of the momenta. It is impossible, therefore, to impart to a particle simultaneously an exact position and an exact momentum. Statements can only be made about collections of such microobjects, and for this purpose a special mathematical theory of motion, quantum mechanics, is necessary for the microworld.

Wave-corpuscle dualism and the uncertainty principle, briefly described here, lead to philosophical problems. Exact physical experiments have proved that microobjects behave both like waves and like particles, qualities that in macrophysics cannot be possessed by one and the same object. But the dialectical contrariety of microobjects can only exist if both qualities occur together in the same object at the same time in the same experimental setup. This has never been observed, For a long time, wave-particle dualism was not viewed as a problem by dialectical materialists, since it seemed to prove the contradictory character of microobjects. The uncertainty principle was more troublesome since the spread in observed values of identical physical setups appeared to undermine determinism. Quantum mechanics, in contradistinction to Newtonian physics, was often taken as proof that events on the subatomic level do not occur objectively and independently of the observer, but are bound to the act of observing. This was a widely shared opinion during the first period of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, but was later seen in relative terms by Bohr and Heisenberg. Max Born’s remark that “the motion of particles follows probability laws, but probability itself develops according to causality” (Born 1969, 239) disproves the agnostic pseudoconsequences of quantum mechanics in a way that is acceptable to materialists. We shall return to this question later in this article.

The thermodynamic theory of evolution says that in all processes involving energy conversion, part of the energy is devaluated, which takes place physically as a change from molecular order to molecular disorder, a process also described as an increase of entropy, entropy being a measure of this disorder.

Theories of self-organization

We are therefore dealing with a continuing process of degradation of energy to an increasingly greater degree of disorder and disorganization. This thermodynamic evolution theory contradicts the fact that biological evolution is not associated with an increase in disorder and disorganization. The biological evolution theory seems to contradict basic natural laws and therefore could be considered as a breakdown of natural law that could only be explained by the intervention of a supernatural power.

This apparent contradiction was solved some years ago by the theory of self-organization pioneered by Ilya Prigogine, a physical chemist and Nobel Prize laureate.

If a molecular system is undergoing changes while in a state that is far from equilibrium, it can display two tendencies as it moves toward equilibrium. First, just as an automobile engine exhausts gas to the atmosphere, the molecular system can release unordered energy to its environment, resulting in an overall increase in entropy. The energy fluctuations within the system can encounter bifurcation points, at which paths open for the formation of more highly ordered structures, the formation of which entails energy release to the environment outside the system. The stability of ordered structures arises because the energy required to disturb them has already been dispersed to the environment and is no longer readily available. This process leaves open the possibility of the formation of another, still higher level of organizational structure. In this way, the contradiction between the two theories of evolutionary development is resolved, both strictly following natural 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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