Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences

Robert Steigerwald

If the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905 left a deep depression among revolutionary intellectuals and caused some of them to flee from materialism into the arms of religion and idealism, it is hardly surprising that the much more disastrous and important defeat of European socialism is accompanied by similar manifestations. Some recognizable symptoms of theoretical decay occurred in advance of this defeat; although they were not the primary reason for the catastrophe, they must be counted among its many causes. I refer here not only to what began under Gorbachev, but also to the theoretical dogmatism that had built up over a long period and that later characterized the political immobility of the Brezhnev era

In the Gorbachev era, a concept was introduced that gave up essential parts of historical materialism, Marxist political economy, and the theory of scientific socialism. If humankind in general takes the place of specific classes, if policy can be founded on a universal human morality, if all this can be realized because capitalism in its inner nature has become peaceable and therefore the future of the human species lies in the coexistence of the two systems, if the necessity no longer exists for overcoming capitalism by socialism, then the Marxist analysis of capitalism is wrong. In that case, morality and the political will of the leading forces and classes become dominant in policy over the material basis. That is the end of Marxist historical and social theory.

Once again a fundamental debate on materialism is taking place, especially in Marxist philosophy. This theory is often questioned against the background of new scientific hypotheses, theories, and perceptions, and this new intellectual material is undoubtedly a challenge for Marxist philosophy. (The challenge is today even greater, in actuality, for nonmaterialist philosophical schools and tendencies.) Engels noted in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy that materialism must change its form with each epoch-making discovery in the sphere of the natural sciences (1990, 369). Since then, many epoch-making discoveries, hypotheses, and theories have emerged that individually and collectively demand the development of materialist philosophy. In 1908, Lenin produced a first treatise on this matter with Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1962).

I suggest at least the following such new facts of natural science:

  • The special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity.
  • Quantum theory and quantum mechanics.
  • The group of self-organization theories (including the theories of chaos, catastrophe, and synergy).
  • The theory of self-reproducing prebiotic giant molecules.
  • New efforts to clarify the mechanisms of biological evolution.
  • New works of organism theory resulting from this evolution research.
  • Important new neuroscientific research (or information) on the mind and the brain.

The discussion of the new problems for materialism assumes once again an answer to an old question: How in general must we understand the relationship between philosophy and the specialized sciences? Shall we follow so-called analytical philosophy, which says that the specialized sciences are competent for the researching of real facts and that philosophy here can find no object? Philosophy is then reduced to analyzing the language we use to pursue science. (Logical examinations may be also be included.)

Or shall we follow the widely acclaimed constructivist philosophy? It analyzes our means of gaining knowledge—that is, terms, models, patterns, and theories that serve our understanding of the world. Very different versions are to be noted, such as that of Hugo Dingler (1952). Dingler first derives geometry from the manual and technical production of planes, etc., and then concludes that such operations can only be possible because of the existence of ideas behind the production, with the result that this version of constructivism becomes idealism. In a second version, radical constructivism, our mental instruments of production have no connection to the extramental—which necessarily leads to solipsism.

Yet another version follows Husserl, and locates the origin of our intellectual tools in the “life-world,” or “life-world reality.” These are empty phrases; we must ask, what is meant by “life-world,” and from what is it derived? Again another version accepts the materiality of the tools of gaining knowledge and recognizes that consciousness is technologically determined. Here the transition to a materialist position seems possible. Finally we have to ask, what is the object of philosophy, how does it differ from the specialized sciences, and what do philosophers do when they work—that is, philosophize?

If Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, C. F. von Weizsäcker, Haken, Eigen, Prigogine, and others—as scientists— deal with subjects traditionally belonging to philosophy; and if they treat them as philosophical subjects (especially Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg), this reveals the existence of an object of philosophy not taken care of by the analytical or constructivist approach.

Of course, philosophy must endeavor to use clean tools of work, clear instruments of thinking, and in this regard can learn from analytical and constructivist philosophy. The tools of exact thinking cannot be equated with the objective reality to which they refer. But also the opposite error must be avoided: We cannot ignore that they not only are a product of the subject, that is, our construction, but that within them occurs the connection of the subjective with the objective; only then do they gain the power of reality. Philosophy (“thinking about thinking,” as Hegel called it) transcends the analysis of the subjective side of the process of perception, and deals with the subjective side in its connection with the object.

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! Measuring only works in relationship to something concrete that we extract from the infinite and use as a ruler. But is it not obvious that in relation to the infinite, every quantified size is trifling? It is a paradox to speak of space and time involving the infinite. For both terms derive from the concrete state of the universe we live in. They are something specific, not to be identified with the general they belong to. We can see this already when, to be able to speak about the infinite, we need the denial of space and time We can only speak of them by smuggling their negation into the comprehension of them. This often happens unconsciously: infinite or endless means not ending. As some philosophers and physicists at the turn of the century subordinated the general—matter—to the specific—the changing forms of mass, energy, elements—”matter” suddenly got “lost.” Theoretical physicists who do research on problems of cosmology say that space and time had their origin in a “big bang.” Materialists take offense at this, because in a way it ends with the thesis that God created the world out of nothing.

But is this logical? When physicists speak about what they know about their object of research and say they are talking about matter, they substitute their concrete knowledge of aspects of matter for matter itself (as suggested above).

Now I once again come back to the subject of space and time. Space and time, as they exist in the “known” universe (including the way we are built into them) actually do have their origin in the “big bang.” But just as the present state of the universe “known” to us began with the “big bang” hypothesis (I deal here only with the general hypothesis, not its many different versions), but not the universe “in itself,” thus also our ideas of space and time have their beginning with this “big bang.” But this is only the concrete appearance of matter. Matter itself includes more, is even more general than the “known” universe and conceptions of time and space acting within it. As far as I can see, we have not yet have created terms for this, unless we are satisfied with the negative definition un-ending or not-ending.

In any case, we must not destroy the relationship of the specific and the general by subordinating the latter to the former. All those who believe that space and time exist “in themselves,” that these are not simply the terms used for their concrete appearance in the universe known to us today but had their origin in the “big bang,” also make the mistake of confusing the general with the specific.

This leads us to the general theory of relativity. The special theory of relativity does not deal with gravity. It is known, however, that inertia and gravity act on moving bodies: If a car brakes, inertia keeps moving it forward—we all know the problem. So when analyzing processes of motion, one cannot ignore the effects of inertia and gravity. Einstein assumed that gravity and inertia are identical. Without mass, neither gravity nor inertia exists. Whether changes of a moving system depend on one or the other of the two forces (which are identical anyway) cannot be distinguished, and in any case both are due to the mass present.

The general theory of relativity led to a new cosmological theory, which I refer to here only insofar as it is essential for the present purpose. Shortly after formulating his general theory of relativity, Einstein concluded that the universe was finite in size. In 1917 he introduced a “cosmological constant” into his equations to ensure that the size of the universe was static. In 1922 a Soviet mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, made a correction to Einstein’s work (Einstein at first resisted but then subsequently acknowledged his error) and showed that according to the corrected theory, the universe was expanding. Friedmann laid the basis for what proved to be three models of such states of motion. The first says that the universe is expanding with sufficient energy that gravity cannot brake this process. If we follow the second model, expansion under the effect of gravity at a certain point comes to a halt, and a process of contraction begins. The third model assumes that the rate of expansion gradually slows down to zero without reversing. Which of these models is true presently cannot be said with full certainty, but four discoveries, each made independently of one another, presently support the assumption that the universe is in a process of indefinite expansion. These are: the Doppler red-shift of cosmic objects, discovered by Hubble; the distribution of elements in the universe; background radiation in the universe, which is kind of a thunder of the big bang; and, recently, the temporal sequence of the appearance of elements in the universe.

This hypothesis of expansion allows us to calculate backward to the time when the known mass of the universe was concentrated into a space of unimaginably small size, the pressures and temperatures of this cosmos-soup finally producing the big bang that initiated the process from which the present state of our universe is derived.

Some consequences and problems merit discussion here.

The idea that the universe, though expanding, has a definite size, is associated with the concept of the curvature of space—that is, space that closes upon itself. This quite contrary to our intuitive notions of geometry as reflected in Euclidean geometry.

It follows from both Euclidean geometry and from Einstein’s general theory of relativity that a “straight” line is the shortest distance between two points. It is also the case in Einstein’s theory that a beam of light traces out a “straight” (more precisely, a geodesic) line. But if mass attracts other masses, and a beam of light on its way from the sun to earth passes close to a planet, the beam will be slightly deflected by the gravity of the planet, and will bend away from its original path. And since the whole universe is filled with mass, we find these deflections everywhere, affecting the qualities of space and time. This has caused much controversy about the sense in which we can consider Euclidean geometry valid. Some consider it as mere idealization and assume the real geometry of the universe to be quite different because of its curvature. Others point out that physics as a measuring science cannot renounce this geometry.

Discussions about the geometrical consequences of the general theory of relativity deal especially with the thesis of the curvature of the universe. If the universe is curved, in analogy to the curvature of the surface of a sphere, what then exists outside this curved space? Perhaps in answering this question in the future, we shall encounter the problem of the general and the specific. At the present time we can answer that the question implies an error in conception. It applies the idea of Euclidean (a so-called flat) three-dimensional space to a geometry that is not Euclidean. There is no inside or outside any more than there is an inside or outside along the circumference of a circle or an inside or an outside on the very surface of a sphere. If there were two-dimensional creatures living only on a two-dimensional surface such that of a sphere, they could not imagine an inside or outside—that is, the existence of something not entirely within their two-dimensional space. So the question is without meaning.

At the time of the explosion, the matter of the universe was squeezed into such a tiny space that relativity theory, which does not deal with infinitely small quantities, cannot be applied to yield the properties of space and time. In a certain sense, it loses its validity, and for the exploration of this state of the universe the second of the two fundamental physical theories of the twentieth century must be applied, namely, quantum theory. Quantum theory deals with the states of the microworld, so that its laws are also valid in this state of matter.

Let us consider some things about the “big bang.” Some followers of materialism proceed with the method of Palmström,[i] that what must not be, cannot be—because theologians and idealists interpret the big bang as the beginning of the world, as a creation by God, and therefore as evidence of God. Pope Pius XI, in particular, involved himself with this. Some materialists, seeing the theologians’ and idealists’ interpretation of the big bang as contradictory to materialism, simply deny that the big bang occurred and are eagerly receptive to arguments that negate it.

But looking at it philosophically, we see that if the big bang really did occur, it does not necessarily imply anything concerning the creation of world by God. It only implies that in the process of development of the universe, qualitative changes took place, and that the big bang was one of them.

Any other conception would contradict the universality of causality. Philosophers of nature who are no followers of dialectical materialism see this in the same way, Barnulf Kanitscheider, a philosopher at the University of Giessen, opposing the idea of the world’s creation out of nothing, writes:

Nothing, if we are allowed to use this monster of a term, is no real object that could be brought into any lawful connection with physical matter. No “something” can be connected with “nothing.” The ontological reason for this is simple. Negative things do not exist, to no thing belongs an antithing, nor to the complete system an antisystem; there is no object named “nothing” opposite the universe. Since from a conceptual fiction nothing can originate, the conception of origin already has semantically changed if the new object has not originated in a former physical state. (Kanitscheider 1981, 449)[ii]

Mario Bunge calls the thesis of the reasonless origin of things pure magic (Kanitscheider 1981, 449). Again Kanitscheider: “It makes no sense to imagine that natural laws can be pulled out of the world like whalebones out of a corset, and then to watch, how the lawless matter is tumbling down” (467).

To conclude from the necessity of an origin for each single thing or phenomenon the necessity of an origin for the whole is a faulty application of causality for two reasons: First, it is true that each member of a club must have had a mother, but it is not correct to conclude from this that the club must also have had a mother. In this example the whole is perceived as a mechanical addition of its parts and is treated the same way as its parts. Second, it is not reasonable to assume that the world needs an origin (supposedly God) for its existence. but that God himself needs no origin. You cannot apply the essence of an argument, causality, and at the same time ignore it.

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.

Theories of self-organization

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. 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.

There is no need for a miracle, for a divine, supernatural act to explain biological development. The only possibility of avoiding this conclusion would be the statement that the laws ruling it have been created together with the world by an extrahuman force. But then reasonable arguments for the possibility and necessity of this extranatural power must be found, and that cannot be established by scientific means.

The question then arises: Does this conception of evolution not also imply the impossibility of predicting the future development of social systems, since at such a bifurcation point the system staggers, fluctuates, tries to replace the old order by a new one, but with no certainty about what will be chosen? Does this not disprove the materialist historical conception that socialism is the system that follows capitalism? This question alone is challenge enough for materialism in historical and social theory.

Wherever the materialist historical conception is viewed as a theory of an unalterable, mechanical sequence of several social systems, that at bifurcation points only a predetermined, one-dimensional process could develop, then this theory has been made into a monster, deserving the criticism it receives. Hawking correctly warns against the arbitrary application of natural laws to society: “One has to keep the investigation of the fundamental laws of science and the study of human behavior in separate compartments” (1993, 136). Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel laureate in physics (creator of quark theory), referring to the terms chaos and energy field, writes that such conceptions of modern theories and hypotheses of natural sciences have turned originally “useful concepts into meaningless clichés” (1994, 27).

I also wish to recall the consequences of trying to transfer perceptions from biological evolution theory, especially Darwin’s, to society. It is true that theories that contradict fundamental physical laws cannot be correct. Higher forms of systems that have undergone evolutionary development such as biological and social systems have in common the tendency to reproduce themselves. Self-organization is an especially high level of development, possible only if in such a system changes do occur (for example, mutations in biological systems), otherwise the systems would stagnate. These changes are the material of evolution, leading to a competition among viable systems. In this competition, the systems that survive are those that are best able to adapt to the conditions in which they exist.

Yet important differences exist, as has been pointed out by Ebeling:

  1. The “testing” of different principles for the activity of nonhuman living organisms is not subject to the moments of consciousness that occur among humans in a social context as they seek ways for optimal satisfaction of certain needs.
  2. In the social sphere, technical or social variations or mutations begin in the mental sphere with thought experiments that can be combined with real experiments. This we do not find in prehuman evolution.
  3. In the social sphere, the selection among possibilities of development already begins during a stage in which actions are planned on the basis of values that follow from theoretical and ethical standards, unlike biological systems (the simulation of chances of survival of prebiotic or primitive biotic systems follows other norms).
  4. These valuations in the social sphere utilize collective knowledge, which today increasingly has a worldwide nature, with the result that on the one hand, development is accelerated, while on the other isolation causes great harm to the isolated system (1990, 671ff.

With this background, let us look at what happened in 1989 and the following years. Was there a multiplicity of choices for the systems that were collapsing? Was it really impossible to foresee what would follow the breakdown?

Despite somewhat different conditions and despite differences in the quality of the leading persons in most of the state systems that collapsed, the question of property became the pivotal factor, so that the former socialist ideological-political superstructure was destroyed and replaced with a capitalist one. At the bifurcation point that was arrived at in the social sphere, not only did unforeseeable processes take place, but class forces encountered each other in a struggle for their interests, as is projected in the materialist conception of history and the theory of scientific socialism.

It should be mentioned, finally, that theories of self-organization do not at all maintain that, in principle, the way would be open in any direction at a bifurcation point. If they said this, all self-organization conceptions would fail in regard to one principal question. The abstract mathematically defined possibilities to synthesize living substances from the available atomic materials are so many that the time since the big bang would not have been sufficient to try them all. These abstract possibilities, however, are limited for mathematical reasons.

The transition from prebiotic to biotic macromolecules

The source of the origin of life is also an old controversy between materialism and idealism. It is no wonder that among natural scientists, materialists have tried repeatedly to solve this problem. And indeed, the materialist position has essentially been substantiated by Manfred Eigen’s discovery of macromolecules with the ability to store the information necessary for their self-reproduction. Thus they possess the basic qualities of living matter. Eigen was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discoveries. In the chemical development of the earth, two groups of chemical substances provided the essential combination for the origin of life. One were the nucleic acids that were the precusors to RNA (ribonucleic acid), and the other the amino acids that could be catalyzed into proteins (chains of amino acids) by the RNA. The chemical and physical properties nucleic acids and proteins are rather well-understood. It is generally believed that the further development of RNA led to the formation of the self-reproducing molecule of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The elaboration of DNA and the processes associated with it have earned several Nobel Prizes. Although we do not yet have all the answers to questions about the origin of self-reproducing molecules, the principle issue of the way living matter arises from nonliving has been clarified.

Reproduction, in which DNA, RNA and proteins are involved, is complex and is an example of the interdependence of many processes. Natural biochemical and biophysical laws are the basis of these processes, but the ways in which reproduction takes place and the resulting new organisms are related to the evolutionary and individual history of the organisms involved. These processes are worthy of a dialectical-materialist analysis that could prove important in the further development of the philosophy.

The process of biological development

Living matter obviously has a great potential for change, the characteristic of all matter. In the adjustment of the organism to continuous changes within itself and in the environment in which it lives, the changes that promote the integrity of the organism are likely to persist and result in structural and functional changes of the organism that may affect the reproductive process on all levels, including the biochemical, that is, genes and proteins, so that offspring are also changed in relation to the characteristics of the environment. These changes in the genes and proteins are also affected in the new individual by the environment in which it lives, so that those changes may or may not remain active. In all the integrative effects of changes within and outside the organism, the activity of the organism is potent in the processes of change and persistence in the species. Changes in genetic material favorable for the organism’s interaction with its environment are carried forward genetically and thereby remain available for subsequent activities. This means that organisms undergo a kind of learning process. They are thus the subjects and objects of evolution. They remain within environments that offer them favorable conditions, which implies a sort of recognition of such conditions, in contradiction to the autopoiesis conception.

The Darwinist view of survival of the fittest has been entrenched as indubitable knowledge, as was the case in an earlier time when the overturning of the Ptolemaic system by Copernicus collided with mass consciousness as well. New thinking about the evolutionary process has questioned whether natural selection is the only fundamental process in evolution. Developmental processes as focal points in the process of speciation, the activity of the individual organism, and the concept of epigenesis as incorporating environmental as well as developmental histories of change have been stressed by a number of investigators. The positing of a mechanical materialist dichotomy between genetic (sometimes termed “evolutionary”) factors and environmental factors is decried by many, but the persistence of a genetic-determinist view is evident. “Pure environmentalism” and “pure hereditarianism” are denied, but the search for genetic bases for complex human behavior is supported financially by genomic programs. Neither the materiality of the environment nor of the organism are being challenged by the aforementioned reference to a kind of learning process. Only another subject-object relationship is being elaborated, or more accurately, the internal conditions of the organism are seen as determined. This is only part of the old dialectical thesis that development arises from the inner contradictory moments. The dialectical thesis also sees development as arising from external contradictory moments.

Important new neuroscientific research on the mind and the brain

Neuroscience has been able to show that our sense organs transmit chemical/electrical signals to the brain, not pictures or copies of environmental stimuli. The dominant view is that the brain is autonomous, responding to the environment on the basis of its internal processes and according to them only. The brain “makes” the environment. I am speaking about the conceptions of Maturanas, Varelas, von Foersters, and others.

They start with the thesis that cognition is a biological activity and has to be treated as such. This is based on the assumption (first made in 1826 by Johannes Müller, not by the above scientists) that the specific quality of our sense organs is that they act on our perception. Müller had already combined this with a Kantian interpretation, saying that we therefore are unable to perceive the world outside of us in its objective being; autopoietics tells us the same thing. In Greek auto means self and poiein means to make; autopoietic systems thus are systems created by themselves.

The findings of neuroscience are new requisites for the reflection theory of knowledge. It is necessary to examine the results of their research in which it is clear that the nervous system responds in organized ways to the experiences of the organism as it acts in its environment, as for example, when a human does problem solving, or focuses on one or another set of visual stimuli.

Must materialism fail because of criticism of reflection theory? It would be foolish to combat the material discovered through research on the brain. But it is another thing to deal with conclusions drawn from the facts of the natural sciences to the field of epistemology.

Of course, the special qualities of our sense organs influence our perception. But cognition is not only based on the passive reflection of environmental stimuli. It is also a result of our activity within our environment. Activity and perception must not be torn apart. Reflections during activity are basic to the adjustment of the organism to changes in the environment as a result of its activity. The organism “evaluates” the sensual information and makes changes in its activity to conform to the new information. The processes of integrating the reflections and the changes in the environment and the organism’s activity have evolved from those of unicellular (acellular) organisms in which the response to the environment is transitory and not integrated for later experiences and behavior, as in the amoeba, to the highly organized and integrated activity of the nervous system in humans.

I cannot with the best of will understand how the new brain physiology can sink into solipsism in relation to cognition.

Let us look at our own experience. Touching a hot stove brings a quick withdrawal from its surface. This takes place at first independently of our will and with knowledge of the possible ensuing pain and damage it becomes an established pattern. The laws that govern such activity are the same for all organisms: the intensity of the stimulus brings about a withdrawal. When the organism is organized with a nervous system that can integrate immediate and past experience and plan future activities, the activity of withdrawal becomes elaborated in new patterns.

Something other than the biophysical and biochemical laws were operative here, and they should not be forgotten or neglected in our attempts to understand organismic activity. Individuals do not react to the environment passively; they are active in it. Recognizing the differences in the level of complexity and developmental patterns, we see that each organism is continuously adjusting to internal and external changes. By studying those similarities and differences among organisms we may arrive at law-governed behavior.

There is a relationship between the sensual and the rational stages of human behavior. The path does not only run from the senses to the inner world of the brain, but also vice versa. We only perceive when our sensual perception already contains rational moments. The inner world of our brain is more and more taken out of its total isolation. We do not perceive as isolated beings. We are participants in a collective experience. And we observe what others do, beginning with the first moments of our life, asking ourselves why they do it, why this way and not another way, trying it ourselves, trying this and then something else, and we keep learning, learning, and learning. One can say that there is no behavior that is not theory-laden because of this social/societal experience.

The brain that has the capacity for rational activity evolved as a function of the millenia of hominid experience with members of its own species, with the animals and the environment in which they lived. However, the organization, the neural structures and functions that develop in any individual are unique and reflect the biochemical history of the specific parents and of the life lived by the individual. Studies based on the relationship between the material base of organismic structure and function and the material base of the social/societal processes that bring about the development of the individual are difficult to obtain. If the studies of this relationship are not based on dialectical and historical materialism, they swindle us, and contradict reality. We cannot fall back on Fichte’s words, “The worse for the facts,” but the facts will instruct us in a painful way about incorrect inferences of the products of the activity of our brain.

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.

Indeed a direct path to objective reality is impossible for us. We always put material or mental instruments of production between reality and ourselves. Not all representatives of this conception want to do without “reality,” even if they have cut off the direct way to it. They build it up again in their consciousness and call this a conception of internal realism. Some use a spongy word that seems to be a term without being one. They speak of Lebenswelt (“lifeworld” or “lifeworld reality,” or simply just “life” or “reality”). 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.

If we consider the recent results of science, idealism has lost ground, to express it cautiously. Also in regard to the question of the derivation of the mental from the nonmental, important new research material has been gathered, even if this question has not been entirely solved; yet we also must ask if a complete solution will really be possible. The work of the Argentinian materialist philosopher Mario Bunge on the mind-body problem contains, in my opinion, essential plausible results (1980).

Whether this state of affairs is helpful for materialism depends on whether philosophy can really be divided into the two fundamental lines: materialism and idealism. There are only a few exceptions that are excluded from this division, because they presuppose in a dualistic manner two basic kinds of objects, one material and the other mental. But even here we find within the concretely worked-out system tendencies in which one or the other of these dominate, so that we indeed are not permitted to characterize such a system as clearly either materialism or idealism, but still see that within the system one or other of the two fundamental lines triumphs. Lenin, referring to certain parts of Hegel’s great Logic, once noted that this most idealistic work can in large parts be read like a materialist work. And Kant’s epistemology is, as Lenin also noted, materialist with the assumption of the thing-in-itself, but idealistic in its conditions for the possibility of establishing what it is?

The developments in natural science described here have led to extensive and fundamental philosophical debates. The theory of relativity led to questioning of classical mechanics, and its treatment of space and time. Far-reaching effects came from quantum theory. The development of and debates over quantum theory are of great philosophical importance in many ways. The mechanistic-materialist view of the world that most scientists had accepted unconsciously or consciously, and the classical physics coupled with it, were in contradiction to the new physical discoveries. The evolution theories of thermodynamics and biology seemed to demonstrate a basic contradiction between living and inanimate matter. Developments in biology also led to fundamental philosophical discussions. Controversial conceptional discussions in philosophy followed these scientific developments.

The Reality Problem

Natural processes, and nature itself, seem unproblematic to the so-called normal faculty of cognition in the sense that nature, with the laws and forces governing it, in its spatial and temporal existence, is accessible to cognition. On this basis, a more or less conclusive and scientifically founded view of the world arose in correspondence with the assumptions of classical physics. Only at its extremes—down “below” in the microuniverse, and up “high” or “outward” in the universe—did it need further development, further perfection. Our common sense, using ordinary language, seemed adequate to give us a description of this world in a coherent way. This so-called normal attitude toward perceiving nature presupposes that our ability of cognition directly interacts with nature and directly procures knowledge about nature for us.

This is not the case. Before World War I, when scientists tried to get on the track of the atom, many important conditions were lacking for the fulfillment of this task. Rutherford knew that within the atom there must be a nucleus and electrons. Therefore he tried to approach the unknown by imagining that the atom could be formed similar to the solar system. Instead of the atom, which was not yet accessible to him, he used as a model[iii] what was already known in order to consider what was unknown. In subsequent work with this model, in improving it, in the attempt to remove incompatibilities between the model and the actual atom, scientists used not only current knowledge of the atom, but went far beyond what we began with, by assuming quantum physics at the outset. The new world picture built up in this way also had to be most accurate scientifically to serve highly specialized fields. (Strictly speaking, this took place in part earlier; one can go back to the previous work in mathematics by Riemann.) This was more accurate and specialized than what we deal with in everyday language. In the microphysical world, we encounter objects that we describe partly with concepts from the macrophysical world, so that the question of the interconnection between both domains arises. These microphysical objects, however, have a real existence even though they have properties that cannot be described in terms of macrophysical concepts.

On 12 March 1895, Engels wrote a letter to Conrad Schmidt in which he discussed the relation of knowledge of the world in terms of concepts created by us to the objective reality itself. Engels wrote in part:

The reproaches you make against the law of value apply to all concepts, regarded from the standpoint of reality. The identity of thought and being, to express myself in Hegelian fashion, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. But although a concept has the essential nature of a concept and cannot therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it must first be abstracted, it is still something more than a fiction, unless you are going to declare all the results of thought fictions because reality has to go a long way round before it corresponds to them, and even then only corresponds to them with asymptotic approximation . . . .

Or are the concepts which prevail in the natural sciences fictions because they by no means always coincide with reality? From the moment we accept the theory of evolution all our concepts of organic life correspond only approximately to reality. Otherwise there would be no change: on the day when concepts and reality completely coincide in the organic world development comes to an end. The concept fish includes a life in water and breathing through gills: how are you going to get from fish to amphibian without breaking through this concept? And it has been broken through. (1942, 527, 530)

In material production, we place instruments between ourselves and nature. From Hegel comes the designation of these instruments as means, as the means between us and nature, as our mediated effect on nature. Analogous with this is the widely used concept of means of thought. For example, Brownian motion or the splitting of the atom can be simulated by means of models in order to understand them better, to approach the real object in this way. Yet the atoms are not only split in the model, but also in reality. We can use models in experiments. In some fields we are only able to work with models. But the real object of microphysics is the microobject, even if it can only be examined by means of models. The statement that something is a model does not yet define its epistemological nature. The model is inserted between subject and object; it is elaborated; the results of this elaboration are then transcribed. The question is how far can this procedure be carried on. The essence of an object of cognition is not embraced by the model. The question is to what extent are the means of cognition and the object of cognition related to each other, to what extent is knowledge gained, do the model and the modeled object correspond to each other? Models are supposed to mediate between our knowledge and nature, to help us in the same way as in material production, to come to new “products,” new knowledge, in intellectual production.

This actually does not mean that we do not know anything about nature itself; that we cannot come to know it. The problem of reality is posed. Of course it could not be posed if the models of which are speaking were like that, for example, of a miniature railway that originally corresponded to a real railway, but only in miniature. But this miniature railway just models the known, copying it as exactly as possible. The previously mentioned models of science indeed are also constructed in analogy to known things, but do not copy the object to which they refer, since it is not yet known with the same precision (except for some unusual cases). The task here is to provide an increasingly exact understanding of something still unknown. On the other hand, would it be possible argue the matter if the problem of reality were a closed book, or only a closed book?

Thus the problem of reality exists in two aspects, since there is no thought that is detached from reality and since we do not know with certainty if our thinking corresponds to reality.

Two major groups of philosophical positions should be mentioned, a realist one and a positivist one. The difference between them concerns the understanding of the real itself. For the group of positivism, the real consists of what we consider as the observed (of course, by experimental investigation using scientific/technical apparatuses), whereas realism assumes that not only what is observed exists, but that there is, or can be, something more essential than that.

In both groups we find variations. Within realism. we find variations concerning the question of what should be considered real. For materialism, it is not possible that material nature is arises from the immaterial, since it exists independently of our consciousness. For critical realism, the real is ultimately dependent on spirit (from God, or an objective, absolute idea; thus it is an objective idealism).[iv] For internal realism the real is the material of our mental processes, which amounts to a subjective idealism.

Within positivism we find varying positions about what the observed elements consist of. After all, they always are attributed to the epistemological subject. Within so-called Machism (empirio-criticism), they are understood as sense data; in the versions of linguistic analysis, as subjectively judged forms of speech; in logical empiricism, as logical structures detached from the real.

The question discussed up to this point primarily concerns whether outside the world of our thoughts, another world still exists and what is it like. Moreover, we have the question about what mental activities are needed to open up this world to our cognition. We are concerned here with the epistemological question, in distinction to the ontological one.

Reality forced the makers of models, the scientists, to change their model if they wanted to find out what was real, and during the history of science, again and again, models that had come into contradiction with reality have had to be abandoned or modified. But how could something have a compelling effect if it did not exist? Thus we are dealing with model builders, models, and reality in a three-sided relationship, with correlations among them, with the activity produced by the constructor and mediated by the model aimed at reality. The constructor, mediated by the model, meets with the resistance of reality and is thus forced to change the model in order to gain more exact knowledge about reality. As a result, a model having proved to be useful cannot be entirely free from the correspondence, the resemblance, the copy, the representation of what has been modeled, that is, reality. Thus it contains the subjective as well as the objective.

Several positions also emerge in regard to the subject and the process of cognition. Here too, we can divide them into two major groups, one which affirms cognition and one which (in varying degrees) denies cognition.

We cannot say that every kind of realism includes the affirmation of cognition. Critical realism can accept cognition only within certain boundaries, because the objective spiritual being creating reality principally remains inaccessible to cognition, and in the best case can be characterized by a series of negations (as not mortal or immortal, for instance), thus indefinable.

Internal realism—and we must ask if it deserves this name since, after all, it reduces reality to the world of our thoughts!—allows in the best case, a hypothetical outside world, but denies its perceptibility, as Kant does with his epistemology.

Human beings have a direct access to nature, namely the nature of their own bodies, since they themselves are also part of nature. Elementary life activity takes place by direct and indirect material exchange with nature and within nature. Human access to nature is possible on the basis of those physical and intellectual tools created by humans. These tools are used only to accomplish the purpose intended. The activity aims at, or corresponds to, that part of nature that is supposed to be influenced by the mediating tools. To express it another way: In the course of humanity’s historical and social processes, “references” have congealed and are thus saved. The intellectual tools indeed do not exist outside of consciousness. Thus they differ from the material ones, but still represent something objectified in the sphere of the mental. Thanks to speech and societal processes, consciousness includes the accumulated “references” of nature. In a mediated way we therefore possess knowledge of nature itself. These intellectual means enable us to transmit such knowledge, so that it is proper to distinguish, but not to tear apart, the work of the natural sciences and epistemology. This process of acquiring knowledge always occurs in a social context. There is no production “in itself”—it is always socially determined production. Therefore the material and intellectual tools are always socially influenced. As a consequence, work in the natural sciences includes its models, idealizations, and so on; it is influenced by society. Insofar as social influences necessarily contain a connection to group interests, work in the natural sciences has roots in nonscientific conditions, which, at the same time provide the orientation for scientific work. Also by reason of this, a strict division between natural and social sciences cannot be maintained. From all this it follows that we can receive deeper knowledge about nature “in itself” not only through philosophy, but also through the work of natural sciences.

The Problem of Law

The history of physics and its influence of philosophy has led to a better understanding of determinism, in which cause and law are the same. With great success, this understanding allowed the assumption that a body could be idealized as a point and that its states of motion could be described exactly if its position and momentum at a given time were known. With this information, it would also be possible to calculate precisely the further course of motion of this moving body.

The understanding of causality became identical with this comprehension of natural laws. This corresponded to our experiences billions of times, and led in our consciousness to the opinion that there was a necessary causal connection between these conditions, so that an interruption of this causality (by chance) seemed impossible. This kind of causality, this inevitable necessary connection between cause and effect, was considered by Kant as a necessity of thought. The consequence for philosophy and the natural sciences was the assumption that causality was exactly the same as cause and effect. From this it would be possible to derive an exact prediction of the behavior of objects. In the nineteenth century, Engels, following Hegel, already had commented with mockery on the mechanistic character of this kind of causality conception. Lenin, following Hegel, writes that cause and effect “are merely moments of universal reciprocal dependence of universal connection” of events, “merely links in the chain of development of matter,” and that this “interconnection” is “only one-sidedly, fragmentarily, and incompletely expressed by causality” (1961, 159). When physics advanced to the microphysical sphere, problems arose. In the case of large objects, it makes sense to treat such an object for certain purposes like a point. But in reality they are not isolated, indivisible, individual objects, but complexes of objects, of atoms and molecules, for instance. Among them correlations exist; they form systems, entities, and the laws resulting from this are not observed if this complex object is only seen as a single point.

This was changed when the observation of the interior of such a system began. But difficulties arose from the circumstance that the correlations of the elements of such a system again were dealt with only by shifting the former way of thinking into the interior of the system: so the elements now appeared as indistinguishable, similar individuals correlated to each other as in classical physics.

Even before the new problems arose in physics, we were forced to treat wave phenomena within the framework of corpuscular classical mechanics. Then wave mechanics was born. So two kinds of mechanics coexisted, corpuscular mechanics and wave mechanics. But the microphysical objects display both wave and corpuscular qualities. They are not identical “points.” Their behavior as a whole is influenced by chance. Therefore another kind of law is necessary.

Laws are a special case of universal interaction. Interaction makes the derivation of laws possible. The conceptions of causality and law thus developed historically. The conception of law in classical physics is based on strict continuity: the link between the causing force and resulting effect cannot be interrupted at any point. But Planck’s quantum of action cannot be arbitrarily small, which does not allow continuity in microphysical processes, so that we find “quantum leaps,” that is, interruptions of continuity in these processes. The conditions for classical causality therefore do not exist here. Strictly seen, all physical occurrences are based on such quantized foundations. Objective reality, after all, possesses a quantized nature, with all its consequences, especially the consequence of uncertainty. So here a conception of law is necessary other than that in macrophysics.

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.

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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