Scientific revolution and materialist philosophy: part one

In this two-part article, Ben Curry explains the development of scientific thought from a Marxist perspective. In part one, Ben introduces the dialectical materialist outlook, explains how it applies to the natural world and demonstrates how the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome laid the foundations for modern science.

Over the hundreds of thousands of years that anatomically modern human beings have existed, the development of society has followed an unmistakable upward curve. From the simplest stone axe to the harnessing of fire; from the development of irrigation, of cities, writing, mathematics, philosophy, science and modern industry: the trend is unmistakable. Human beings have brought one natural force after another under their control. Phenomena which yesterday were shrouded in mystery and would have terrified grown adults, today form the mundane subjects of school textbooks.

However, what is not recorded in today’s textbooks is the fitful and often violent character which the struggle for scientific knowledge often took on. The result can be a haughty attitude to science – that “we” know better and couldn’t repeat the mistakes of past, unenlightened generations. However, whilst the general curve of human development is an upward one, it is a curve broken by periods of stagnation and collapse; it bursts forward only to retreat and then move forward again.

What the textbooks also fail to convey is the uninterrupted philosophical struggle that has accompanied the development of science since its beginnings. This struggle takes place principally between what Engels described as the “two great camps” in philosophy: idealism and materialism. On the one hand there are “those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other,” which we term idealism and on the other there are those “who regarded nature as primary, [belonging] to the various schools of materialism.” [1]

It ought to be clear already from Engels’ succinct definition that a materialist outlook is a basic assumption that underlies all genuine science.

Engels statue Image fhwrdhEngels: "a materialist outlook is a basic assumption that underlies all genuine science" / Image: fhwrdh

In the last analysis, these struggles in the realm of philosophy, which have accompanied civilisation from its inception, have reflected real struggles going on in the physical world, principally between social classes. In its prime, the bourgeoisie often fought against feudalism under the banner of a militant materialism. In this struggle the natural sciences were – as we shall see – a key component of the materialist view and a weapon wielded by the revolutionary class in its ascent.

Two-and-a-half-centuries ago, however, the capitalist system remained full of vigour and bourgeois intellectuals submitted everything – including their own system – to scientific enquiry. The day when capitalism might enter into decay and begin to disintegrate was a distant future, if it was perceived at all. Today, matters stand very differently: the capitalist system is in terminal decline and a new class is challenging the bourgeoisie for supremacy: the modern proletariat. Nowadays the bourgeoisie supports all manifestations of religion and mysticism, seeking to divert the attention of the masses upward, away from their earthly problems, towards the heavens. To quote the words of Joseph Dietzgen Sr., of which Lenin was so fond: the modern philosophers are little more than the “graduated flunkeys of clericalism”.

In its struggle, the modern proletariat has even more need of a philosophy than the bourgeoisie did in its day. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the working class clearly understanding its historical role and setting itself the task of seizing power without having first liberated itself from the prejudices, ignorance and mysticism propagated by the capitalist class and having acquired an independent philosophical position.

This philosophy, as we shall see, cannot be the old ‘mechanical’ materialism of the 17th-18th century, which accompanied the Scientific Revolution and, under the banner of which, the rising bourgeoisie fought feudalism and the Church. Rather, in the modern period the only consistent materialism, which fully accords with the latest developments in science, is dialectical materialism, the defence of which ought to concern both revolutionaries and scientists alike.

What is dialectical materialism?

Before we can really explore the relationship between dialectical materialism and philosophy in general, and the natural sciences in particular, we must of course begin by explaining what we mean by dialectics. A wonderful aphorism from the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, sums up the essence of dialectics: “everything both is and is not; for everything flows.”

At first sight this statement seems completely absurd. For instance, a piece of furniture such as the wooden table on which my computer rests as I type these words very much ‘is’; and it can hardly be said to ‘flow’. Dialectics does not deny the existence of stasis and equilibrium in nature – if it did it would be a trivial thing indeed to refute dialectics. On the contrary, it merely asserts that all stasis and equilibrium is relative and has its limits; and that such ‘stasis’ conceals actual motion. The role of science is to discover the limits and the relativity of such equilibria, as well as to reveal the motion which goes on hidden under our nose. Heraclitus illustrated this point – of how motion is inherent in nature – with the example of the taut strings of a lyre. Whilst they appear still and unmoving, appearances are deceptive. There is actually a great deal of ‘motion’ (recognised under the term ‘potential energy’ in modern physics) contained in the tension of the strings.

If we return to the example of the table that I have before me: on closer examination we would find it in a constant process of change. It is constantly absorbing moisture from the air; each time a weight is placed on it, microscopic stresses and fractures open up; under the microscope fungi and other tiny organisms will be found to be breaking it down. It is constantly in a process of unobserved change.

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite Image public domainHeraclitus: “everything both is and is not; for everything flows” / Image: public domain

Notwithstanding any decision to replace it before it reaches its natural lifespan as a table, the accumulation of such imperceptible changes will one day reach a qualitative turning point and it will collapse. Let us suppose that a year from now a leg falls off the table and it is replaced by another wooden leg. We would then be well within our rights to ask: “is this the same table?” There is no simple answer to this question. As Heraclitus discovered millennia ago: it simultaneously is and yet is not the same table. In the same way I both am and am not the same person from one moment to the next – my cells are constantly being replenished and broken down by natural biological processes. Eventually every particle in my body will be replaced with others and whilst in a very real sense I will no longer be the ‘same’ person; yet there is continuity.

We might ask further, what is the table? The answer to that question at first glance seems obvious: it is made of electrons, protons and neutrons. These make up atoms, which bind together to make cellulose molecules. These cellulose molecules in life would have made up the walls of the cells which, over many cells, would give a tree its bulk properties and which in death give it the bulk properties of a table able to support my books, computer and anything else I place on it. Indeed, this is a perfectly accurate bottom-up description of this piece of furniture.

However, it might rightly be objected that this is not at all what the table is. Rather, it was first conceived in the mind of an engineer or carpenter, who occupies a certain position in a socio-economic system, with the whole of society being organised in such a way that this person is fed and clothed and trained to manufacture tables. He or she then sources wood down a potentially very complex supply chain. Now, in this example, had the tree that makes up this table died from a fungal infection early on in its life; or had the tree next to it been felled and passed up the supply chain, this would have been – for all intents and purposes – an identical table. And yet, every single atom that constitutes it would have been different!

Here we have an equally valid top-down description of the very same table, which is entirely in contradiction with our first description. Which of these two given descriptions is then correct? Both descriptions are of course entirely valid and yet contradictory. In one instance we start with this particular table as we observe it concretely; in the other our starting point is the human concept of a table and a historically accumulated cultural knowledge of resistant materials, which formed the basis of carving out this particular piece of furniture. The former deals with the table as a whole as constituted by many parts. The latter considers it as a part in a greater whole. In the former we consider these atoms as they are arranged before us; in the latter we consider the particular arrangement of atoms as purely accidental.

Such contradictions are inherent in nature: between the concrete and the abstract; the general and particular; the part and the whole; and the accidental and the necessary. Yet there is a clear unity between these apparent opposites. The essence of dialectical materialism is to consider things not in a one-sided manner but precisely in their contradictions and considered as processes in motion.

Dialectical materialism then can be considered to be a form of logic, a system of ordering and understanding the world. ‘Formal’, or Aristotelian logic applies itself to static categories. A thing either ‘is’ or ‘is not’; it is either ‘alive’ or ’dead’; it is either ‘A’ or ‘not A’. Dialectics on the other hand does not deny the reality of these categories but – to use an analogy by Trotsky – views them somewhat like the individual stitches in a piece of knitting. Each stitch appears to be whole and independent from the stitches alongside it, but in actual fact they form a continuous tapestry.

However, the laws and categories that take their shape in the realm of human consciousness are not independent from the material world and as such the ‘laws’ of dialectical materialism are also immanent in nature. As Trotsky explained in his philosophical notebooks: to consider that one set of laws apply to human consciousness and an entirely different set of laws exist for nature – as some ‘Marxists’ have asserted in the past – is to consider the world dualistically rather than materialistically. As Marxists, and therefore as materialists, for us, all that exists is matter in motion. Consciousness is itself but one of the emergent phenomena of nature.

The transformation of quantity into quality

The fact is, scientists work on the basis of dialectical logic, consciously or unconsciously, on a daily basis. This is fully revealed when we unwrap the simple propositions of this philosophical outlook. Trotsky described the “fundamental law” of dialectical materialism as being the conversion of quantity into quality. [2] All scientists implicitly accept the fundamental tenet of materialist philosophy in their daily activity: all that exists is matter in motion. Everyone will agree that such matter can be described, in all its fundamental characteristics, in terms of its quantitative material relationships: relative position, relative velocity, relative direction and orientation, inertia and mass, etc., etc. My physical whereabouts cannot, for example, be expressed in ‘absolute’ terms. I am 5km North-East of Central London or I am 3m away from my office door.

When we regard the same phenomenon of nature qualitatively – in terms of colour, texture, appearance, behaviour, etc. – we are of course considering the exact same nature. At all times and in all places quantity expresses itself through quality. Quality too is entirely relative and can only express the interrelationships of matter in motion; expressing the similarity or opposition of a thing to some other thing. Qualitatively, the distance to Central London feels a long way away… relative to my office door for instance.

However, as we have already discussed, dialectics considers things in their motion and through their transformations. If I were to take a bus journey to Central London, several kilometers later the city centre would be qualitatively very much nearby! When Marxists speak of the transformation of quantity into quality, what is meant is no more than this. An accumulation of quantitative changes, which may not at first appear to change the quality of a thing, can eventually utterly transform it. Quantitative changes in nature drive the transformation of one quality into another.  When we consider that qualities are necessarily couched in terms of similarities and oppositions, what we are referring to is the transformation of things into their qualitative opposites.

Dialectics in science and society

Explained in relation to a piece of furniture or a bus journey, dialectics seems like common sense! One might then ask: what relevance do such obvious insights have for revolutionaries or for modern science? As the saying goes: common sense is not so common – we will all have come across undialectical interpretations of the world in our daily lives. All socialists will, for instance, have come across that most common of objections against socialism: the ‘human nature’ argument. So deeply has this social prejudice sunk into society that the form of this argument barely changes wherever we are on the globe: socialism might be good in theory but it can never work in practice because of human nature. Human beings are just naturally greedy!

What is not explicitly expressed in these few words is the profoundly undialectical view of ‘human nature’ that they imply. Such a view is rarely consciously formulated and is almost always unconsciously absorbed from the surrounding society. The argument goes: because we see greed, war, slavery and oppression around us in society (i.e. this society: capitalism), this must correspond to our own, innate human nature. If human nature is a static and unchanging thing, then socialists might as well admit defeat. If human society as a whole expresses these aspects, then they must be nothing more than the mechanical expression of our own greed, our war-like predilections, and our inherent tendency to enslave and oppress those around us.

Phenotype Image Daniel FriedmanSome bourgeois scientists attempt to explain historically developed social phenomenon in terms of our biological characteristics. According to such a worldview, greed is nothing more than an expression of a naturally ‘greedy’ phenotype / Image: Daniel Friedman

The whole is no longer considered as anything more than the mechanical expression of its parts and all historical consideration of human nature is abandoned in favour of a changeless, static ‘human nature’. This undialectical world outlook clearly serves a class interest: the interests of the capitalist class.

Furthermore, such a social prejudice is not only a comment about society – it is also a comment about science; about our biology; and indeed it has its scientific theorists. Eminent scientists, such as E. O. Wilson, and entire fields, such as ‘sociobiology’ and ‘evolutionary psychology’, attempt to explain complex and historically developed social phenomenon in terms of our biological characteristics. According to such a worldview, greed in social relations is nothing more than an expression of a naturally ‘greedy’ phenotype, which is itself nothing more than an expression of ‘selfish’ genes, solely concerned with reproducing themselves.

Such a philosophical outlook flows naturally from the class interests of the bourgeoisie: it is preached from newspapers, pulpits and classrooms and it finds its way also into science. As we shall see, science itself is just one more battleground – and by no means the least important one – in which opposing philosophical ideas contend with each other and, behind them, different class outlooks and interests.

The birth of science

When looking at the relationship between philosophy and science, history can really be said to begin with the Ancient Greeks. What do we mean by this? Of course philosophy and science – and indeed dialectics – have a history of sorts that goes back much further than Ancient Greek society. Elements of dialectics can be found in Taoist and Hindu philosophy. Indeed, a tremendous accumulation of human culture and scientific knowledge in every field from mathematics to chemistry underpinned the very possibility of Greek civilisation. However, in all traditions previous to the Ancient Greeks, philosophy and science remained tied up with religion and mysticism.

It is not until human beings began to explain the world without recourse to external or mystical influence, that we can say that genuine philosophy and science, or natural philosophy, can be said to begin.

Bust of Epicurus Image DudvaAmong the most remarkable discoveries of ancient philosophy were the atomistic theories developed by Democritus and Epicurus (pictured) / Image: Dudva

With the Ancient Greeks, advances in science and philosophy achieved an unparalleled flourishing. Among the most remarkable discoveries were the atomistic theories first developed by Democritus and Epicurus. Without access to modern particle accelerators or cloud chambers, these giants of early scientific thought were forced to base themselves on the scantest hints of the real workings of the world, and no small amount of guesswork. The modern scientist can’t help but read the writings of the likes of Lucretius, the atomist poet of ancient Rome, without admiring his childlike naivety and simplicity. Yet, for all the naivety of Lucretius and others, these writings contain a glint of sheer brilliance.

Anaximander, another remarkable figure, developed a theory of biological evolution thousands of years before Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Without access to the plethora of specimens that such a voyage afforded; he merely had at hand foetuses in various stages of development and some very creative guesswork. From this scant evidence he correctly concluded that human beings had not always had the form that they currently have and that their origins could probably be traced to fish or amphibian-like creatures.

Whilst often invalidated in their particulars, many of the discoveries of the Ancient Greeks were, at least in their general conclusions, not surpassed until the Renaissance, if at all. Yet what is remarkable in all these cases is how little such discoveries were able to benefit from developments in the technical level of society, such as modern advances in technique furnish us today with more and more powerful telescopes, microscopes and other apparatuses. Furthermore, the discoveries of these thinkers did little in turn to develop the productive forces of society.

Of course, in the final analysis the developments of Ancient Greek philosophy and science were wholly tied to the socio-economic system upon which Ancient Greek society rested: the slave system. Indeed, without the labour of the slaves to feed, clothe and house them, there would have been no Epicurus, no Aristotle and no Lucretius. Science, philosophy and much theoretical thought was, for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and to a great extent remains, the property of a small, privileged, ruling class. This class is inclined to elevate its own role in society, to denigrate and look down upon manual labour, and to forget its own dependence on the latter.

Nevertheless, to recognise the bare fact that the development of science depends in the last analysis on developments in wider society and the economic relations of men and women, is not to deny that it can develop within limits according to its own, independent dialectic.

[1] Engels, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy”.

[2] Trotsky, Notebooks 1933-1935, Columbia University Press, p88.