Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences (page 9)

Robert Steigerwald

Moreover, even in the earliest stages of human life we find forms of mental anticipation of results of self‑activity, some kind of simulation of the action before it is carried out, in order to establish what kind of results are to be expected. This is complemented by the observation of the behavior of other organisms, for instance, parents. All this leads to a collection of knowledge for success, which again limits the principal multiplicity of the environment for the organism in question. This results in a direction to the gathering of knowledge, successful knowledge, which means an approach to “representation,” to reflection of the environment within the organism. In the case of human beings a principally new situation arises. Their self‑activity is action in, and shaping of, the environment. With this, the mere gathering of experiences turns into the recognition of causality, of essential correlations (a post hoc [after this] turns into propter hoc [because of this]). This is the basis of law-governed cognition. It all takes place in a social connection. It is bound up with speech, which creates an entirely new form of transmission, social transmission, based on language passed on through education. All this makes possible not merely a reflection theory that was already an enormous philosophical achievement at the time of Democritus, but a reflection theory that is appropriate to today’s level of knowledge.

Construction of terms and philosophical constructivism

I have already mentioned the extensive interest in the conception of philosophical constructivism, and also have touched on some of its versions. One aspect that I neglected is the effect of the “Copernican revolution” initiated by Kant. Until then, epistemology assumed that our perception is directly of the object; Kant replied that we only “constitute” the object by means of certain mental instruments that we possess a priori—ideas of space and time, causality, categories, and so on—which implies that we do not perceive the object in its objective being. This view implies that all our perceptional efforts in principle cannot be detached from mental constructions like terms, models, hypotheses, and theories.

If we correctly combine this with the thesis that perception, as well as any other kind of human activity, is practical activity and arises only in connection with practice, we come to the conclusion that our cognition is actually a form of construing reality, and not merely its illustration or reflection.

This cannot be the objective reality that exists outside of consciousness and independently of it, because the way to it on the basis of this conception remains a secret.

As a consequence of this ambiguous basic concept, self-deception cannot always be excluded if, while using the word life or reality one thinks of something material, and while using the word “practice,” one thinks of material, productive practice. In any case, social reality in historical materialism means something else. It means material and social production by humans in their exchange with the world of nature outside themselves.

Followers of constructivism reply to Marxists, in part justly, that they would equate with objective reality those instruments of thought, such as terms, models, and theories, that we create for research to “constitute” the “objects” of research.

I think that we have to hold a serious theoretical debate on this. For if it were not true that we are dealing with the dialectics of subject and object when we place instruments between us and objective reality, we would end up with either a totally subjective idealism or a mechanical materialism.

A starting point for such discussion is the insights that are shared with Marxist philosophy: all our material or mental activities are bound with means of a material or mental character that we place between ourselves and the objects of our actions. In our mental activity, we deal with terms, models, hypotheses, and theories. We create them in order to make the things we want to act upon easier or even possible to deal with, to make them comprehensible, to make them free from disturbing additions,

that is, under idealized conditions to make them ready for being investigated by us, for example, by experiment. Thus everything we do involves the construction of material or mental tools. This construing and this dependence of our knowledge on such construing is acknowledged by these other schools. The only problem is that they remain in this sector. The reason often given for this is the so-called epistemological paradox. According to this paradox, when a comparison is made between a nonmental material thing and its mental representation, we are never able to leave the mental sector, so that we are never able to prove that the thing and the illustration correspond to each other. In the best case, the entirety of such mental constructions is recognized as determined by our culture, by our “lifeworld,” by the “lifeworld conditions.” But this leads to many questions: What are, in this case, life, culture, lifeworld, and lifeworld reality? Where do they come from? How did they become the way they are? What is the basis of their origin and their development? Varying a famous question from Kant, we could ask: What do the conditions for the possibility of such construing consist of? This is the point at which the principal philosophical analysis, the basic clarification, would have to begin.

Some philosophical problems arising from developments in physics

In the dispute between materialism and idealism (in its theoretical and anthropomorphic religious appearance), if I see it correctly, three major questions occur. At least two of these questions have found important new answers, which undermine the basic positions of idealism. I am referring to (1) the question of the finiteness or infiniteness of the universe in time and space, (2) the origin of life, and (3) the origin of the mind.

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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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