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Materialism and the Contemporary Natural Sciences

Robert Steigerwald

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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.

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Notes


1. Reference to a German poem by Christian Morgensternm “Die unmögliche Tatsache” (The Impossible Fact) in which a man named Palmström is run over and killed while improperly crossing an intersection. Upon contemplating the circumstances of his death, he reasons that the car that ran him over should not have legally been there. He then concludes that he is not dead because “what must not be, cannot be.”—Ed.


2. Translation of quotations from non-English sources in the Reference List were made by the translator.


3. In the discussion that follows, I do not deal with differences in the kinds of models or the difference between material and theoretical models.


4. The author is referring here to the historically dominant variety of critical realism in Europe, which is akin to a form of neo-Thomism. See Hörz, Röseberg, et al. 1980, 165-77).

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