‘God’s last stand: Matter, God and the New Physics. An review essay of the popular books of cosmologist Paul Davies’, by Corinna Lotz and Gerry Gold
Frederick Engels opposed, especially in Anti-Dühring, the idea of a philosophy that stood above the sciences. He saw that the revolution in the theoretical natural sciences would bring the dialectical character of natural processes to the fore. He wrote: “That which still survives, independently of all earlier philosophy, is the science of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.” We now set out to show how the philosophical approach developed by Engels is both verified and enriched by the revolutionary advances of modern science.
Our paper seeks to outline directions for Marxists to develop dialectical logic in the light of work in the fields of quantum mechanics, astrophysics and consciousness studies. This work, in our opinion, is a prerequisite to counter contemporary critics of the materialist world outlook, such as Paul Davies.
This paper was presented to the American Philosophical Association’s annual conference in New York (December 1995), at a session devoted to the centenary of Frederick Engels organised by James Lawler, President of the Society for the Philosophical Study of Marxism.
It was first published in Socialist Future, Spring 1996 Vol.4 No. 4 and in Nature, Society and Thought, May 1996 Vol.9 No. 2.
Dear friends and colleagues, I’m posting up this paper which was written in 1995, to commemorate the centenary of Frederick Engels’ centenary. In it, Gerry Gold and I discuss some of the developments in science since Engels’ time. Clearly, many years have gone by and many areas of science have changed, but I thought it could stimulate some discussion about the issue of dialectics of nature which is currently a hot topic in a number of books and essays, in particular Kaan Kangal’s new book on Engels and the Dialectics of Nature. My own understanding has moved on considerably since 1995 but I believe that many new discoveries made since 1996 do affirm the importance of a dialectical approach, in particular advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity and the concept of the “embodied” mind. Thanks to anyone in advance for your thoughts.
Corinna Lotz, November 2020
Frederick Engels opposed, especially in Anti-Dühring, the idea of a philosophy that stood above the sciences. He saw that the revolution in the theoretical natural sciences would bring the dialectical character of natural processes to the fore.
“That which still survives, independently of all earlier philosophy, is the science of thought and its laws formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.” 1
We now set out to show how the philosophical approach developed by Engels is both verified and enriched by the revolutionary advances of modern science. Our paper seeks to outline directions for Marxists to develop dialectical logic in the light of work in the fields of quantum mechanics, astrophysics and consciousness studies. This work, in our opinion, is a prerequisite to counter contemporary critics of the materialist world outlook, such as Paul Davies.
Anglo-Australian scientist Davies is a key figure in the current debate about the relationship between science and religion. He was born in England and emigrated to Australia during the Thatcher years. Davies first made his name as a scientist working on time asymmetry, but is now best known for championing the idea that the most effective road to religious belief is through science.
Aged 48, Davies has written 17 books in the last 22 years, and since the early 1980s has produced almost one book a year discussing the relationship between modern science especially physics – and religion. His latest offering About Time discusses, among other things, what could have existed before the “Big Bang” which most cosmologists now believe gave rise to the Universe we now inhabit. In May 1995 Davies was awarded the $1 million Templeton prize for “progress” in religion. This 25 year old award is bigger than the Nobel Prize. Previous recipients include American mass evangelist Billy Graham and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The rise of Davies as the most prolific contemporary populariser of the convergence view of religion and science is not merely a British phenomenon. He is a leading exponent of an outlook which is a major influence on young people in society today, especially in the USA, Britain and Japan. They experience a powerful technology, derived from complex scientific theories dominating the world in which people live. This co-exists with the greatest uncertainty about individual survival, as well as life on the planet. Consumer society turns people into mere targets for selling products and services. Science and technology are made into scapegoats for capitalism’s destructiveness.
It is against this background that Davies and others find a response to ideas which give “soul” to an apparently pointless existence, and which offer a rationalisation for the idea that “life is a lottery”. 2 And although there are many in the scientific community who thoroughly oppose Davies’ use of science to give a “modern” justification for religious interpretations of concepts such as “free will” and indeterminacy, by and large they fall into the trap of a reductionist, mechanistic approach to science. In our view, it is only possible to come to grips with the often elusive and self-contradictory thrust of Davies’ arguments by adopting a dialectical approach to scientific reality first championed in the last century by Karl Marx’s lifetime collaborator Frederick Engels.
The German professor against whom Engels wrote his polemical book, Anti-Dühring, was a philosopher, economist and professor of mechanics who lived between 1833-1921. Eugen Dühring was active in the German Social Democratic party. Unlike Davies, he was not religious. But he was attacked by Engels for his attempt to impose his particular “system” on science, a system which whatever Dühring’s intentions – led back to a subjective, idealist, and thus potentially religious, concept of scientific reality. Engels’ work on Dühring was not simply a negative critique; it was, as Engels himself said, “an exposition of the dialectical method and the communist world outlook” of both himself and Marx. And as such it provides an invaluable framework within which to evaluate today’s Dührings.
In the spirit of Anti-Dühring, our criticism of Davies is not so much to attack the idea of religion, but to examine his ideas in so far as they reveal deeper currents within historical processes active in the ideological ferment of today’s world.
The mushrooming of popular and semi-technical books written by scientists about their own work is evidence of an internal need to theorise about it, to expand concepts and to relate to the social world outside science, not forgetting the very lucrative side of publishing! That they enjoy a considerable readership is testimony to the deep searching for “significant meaning” on behalf of large numbers of people as the end of the millennium approaches.
Davies’ misuse of science is in many respects a revival of the 19th century Roman Catholic doctrine of Neo- Thomism. 3 This recognises God as the prime cause of being and the foundation of all philosophical categories. In this, he follows in the tradition of those 1830s scientists recruited to write the various Bridgewater Treatises with the aim of showing the hand of God in the newly emerging sciences, such as geology and palaeontology. Religious interpretation of contemporary natural scientific theories holds a central place in Neo-Thomism.
After the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, certain propositions of contemporary philosophy were synthesised with the principles of 13th century Dominican scholar, St Thomas of Aquinas. Davies takes this process further, but with one important difference. Instead of incorporating existentialism and notions current in the 1960s, he is eclectically selecting half-baked ideas from the science of the 1980s and 1990s. The essential conclusion, however, is the same. “The process of history depends on supernatural forces, which govern every individual’s behaviour. By this any possibility of man’s active influence on world history is actually excluded,” as a study by GDR philosophers put it. 4
The current religious-mystical tendency, of which Davies is far from being the only exponent, includes the Reverend John Polkinghorne, John Gribbin, Sheldon Glashow, Russell Stannard, Marcello Gleiser, Karen Armstrong and Frank Tipler. All these people are prominent in fields including astronomy, physics, mathematics, biology, genetics, neuroscience and physical chemistry and the history of science and religion. This finds its opposite in a strong school of scientists who believe that science can penetrate every unknown area. They firmly oppose the injection of God as a substitute for an explanation for things that are hard to grasp.
While some might object to the notion that there exists a consciously “materialist school of thought”, many British and American scientists and a few philosophers too, take materialist positions, though not necessarily dialectical ones. These include Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Susan Greenfield, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, Lewis Wolpert, Roger Penrose, John Barrow, Gerald Edelman, Oliver Sacks, Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett. Within this group there is a spectrum of tendencies, from strong atheists such Peter Atkins, Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, to those who leave the question more open, tending to Laplace’s view that “they have no need for this hypothesis”.
In this situation, Engels’ writings, especially Anti-Dühring, can clarify the historical significance of today’s controversies within science and the questions of method which arise. To assess Davies and his opponents, the theoretical basis of materialist dialectics needs to be considered. In the form of a polemic against Dühring’s formal metaphysics, Engels sets out the essential principles of materialist dialectical logic. Underpinning his approach is the materialist outlook pioneered in close collaboration between Marx and Engels in the Holy Family of 1845 and other writings of the 1840s and 1850s, in the build -up to Capital.
Anti-Dühring, which was written between 1876 and 1878, popularised many of the ideas contained in Marx’s Capital and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Anti-Dühring, Engels concludes for the first time that Marx’s discovery of the materialist view of history and the theory of surplus value made scientific socialism possible. Engels’ book sums up the essential features of Marxist method, not simply in terms of political economy, but in relation to all scientific thought. He formulates and demonstrates the thesis that “the unity of the world consists in its materiality”.
Engels and dialectics
Engels’ great contribution to dialectics is his advancing of the intrinsically correct concepts of the Greek ancient philosophers about the nature of matter and motion. These are viewed as an indivisible unity and conflict of opposites. Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Above all, Engels, in line with Heraclitus and Hegel, shows that motion is existent objective contradiction.
Flowing from this is the understanding that all natural phenomena in their multiplicity are various forms of motion and the development of matter. Thus thought has come out of a long evolution of human beings, through history. The laws of dialectics, Engels writes, must be discovered in nature and abstracted from it.
Anti-Dühring explains the intrinsic contradiction within matter through its self-relationship with motion: “Motion is the mode of existence of matter.” He stresses the unquiet, restless side of universal movement, in which equilibrium and stability are relative to constant change. Space and time are understood as fundamental forms of all being.
Engels puts forward the fundamental dialectical laws as the unity and conflict of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa, and the law of negation of negation. Essential categories in dialectical logic are contradiction and negation, including negation of negation as a law of development of nature, history and thought.
These categories contain within themselves the self-related opposites of identity/difference, quantity/quality, necessity/chance, semblance/essence/appearance, freedom/necessity. Formal logic and dialectical logic are self-related opposites, expressing the movement of human cognition (including identity/difference).
In writing Dialectics of Nature, which he began before Anti-Dühring, Engels elaborated the integration and unification of dialectical laws which govern the totality of processes.
In opening, he writes: “The general nature of dialectics [is] to be developed as the science of inter- connections, in contrast to metaphysics.” This assertion is followed by a second requirement: “It is, therefore from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted. ” 5 This is a vital point, and one with which Davies profoundly disagrees. Writing in the popular science magazine New Scientist in an article designed to boost the sales of About Time, he says, approvingly: “In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argu e that the laws of physics are logically prior to the Universe they describe.” 6
For Marxists dialectical laws are to be discovered in and abstracted from all the unified processes in nature, society and thought, not imposed upon them in the manner of Dühring’s revival of earlier idealist world schematism.
Through the example of his own work, Engels demonstrates the need for a concrete knowledge of science. Engels’ contribution to the Marxist world outlook, and to the revolutionary politics in the First and Second Internationals, cannot be separated from his brilliant studies of natural sciences to demonstrate the operation of dialectics.
To emulate Engels today might seem an impossible proposition. The march of science might suggest that no single individual can have an integrated grasp of all scientific processes. To try to do so may seem a kind of Hegelian fantasy or like the dream concept of David Hilbert, the German mathematician.
But if we work with Engels’ concept that the dialectical laws are to be discovered from within nature, then nature can provide us with the answer to this problem. And it does, because contemporary science has seen not only great specialisation, but also the rise of new interdisciplinary research especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Engels’ definition of dialectics as the science of interconnections 7 provides a conceptual framework for this multiplicity within unity and unity within multiplicity. 8
In the notes and fragments for Dialectics of Nature Engels writes: “Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of opposites, and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature.” 9
A contemporary theory of materialist dialectics needs to elaborate a logic from the principles set out by Engels, which are not formally set out as a recipe, but rather spread through his writings. When he wrote Anti-Dühring between 1876-1878, the chain of discoveries which eventually led to the 20th century revolution in science was only just beginning.
The primacy of matter, the unity of nature, human society and thought are set out as the ground through which laws of dialectics perform. Engels shows concretely through the different sciences, the operation of the three general objective laws.
It is in the discoveries and progress of science that Marxists can expand their understanding of matter and its relation to mind, and human practice. The key issue is to go beyond the unscientific (in terms of history and philosophy) ideologisation of science by people such as Paul Davies and actually discover which aspects of contemporary science must be integrated into an advanced dialectics of nature.
“The Matter Myth”
In The Matter Myth 10 Davies, with co-author John Gribbin, proclaims that: “Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less “substance than we might believe”. Thus, because matter has been shown to be insubstantial, not lumpy, “the new physics has blown apart the central tenets of materialist doctrine”. (We have searched throughout Marx, Engels, Lenin and others but failed to find them asserting that matter has to be “lumpy” in the materialist view!)
In his popularisation of science, Davies implies that matter has somehow disappeared. Yet in his purely scientific writings, a totally different picture is painted. Physics, even the new physics, he has to admit, is about “the investigation of matter”. Davies is a little like someone who has had too much to drink but still takes care in crossing the road.
In the opening section of a scientific book called, The New Physics 11 which Davies edited, he outlines the new theories and discoveries of some of the world’s leading physicists, such as black holes, subatomic particles, novel materials and self-organising chemical reactions.
Despite his contempt for materialism and his self appointed role as God’s spokesperson, when he deals with natural processes, matter comes back to haunt him. He describes the universe as a law-governed whole, which can be understood by human thought.
“The physicist,” he writes, “believes that the laws of physics, plus a knowledge of the relevant boundary conditions, initial conditions and constraints, are sufficient to explain, in principle, every phenomenon in the universe. Thus the entire universe, from the smallest fragment of matter to the largest assemblage of galaxies, becomes the physicists’ domain – a vast natural laboratory for the interplay of lawful forces.”
No materialist, it would seem, could argue with this. It is hard to believe that Davies could come up with claims like “God is in the laws of physics” and that “these laws provide evidence of divine intelligence”. His road to mysticism, one might think, is due entirely to his eclectic method on the one side and on the lucrative aspect of it on the other. It is said that he made a personal decision to win the Templeton prize and wrote his books with that aim in mind.
The “interplay of lawful forces” in this century’s science operates, not in a linear fashion but through the movement of mutually exclusive opposites. Only this concept, which is the essence of dialectics, can explain the apparent paradox of quantum theory, in which light has both wave and particle properties, which are mutually exclusive in scientific observation and measurement.
The concepts of wave and particle themselves developed within the “Newtonian world view” which causes Davies so much heartache and which he conflates with materialism as a whole. A particle was a “lump” of matter, which could be viewed at rest to observe its static properties and then propelled into motion. Matter and its motion could be separated. Classically, the trajectory of such a particle could be envisaged by considering a series of “instantaneous” properties – position, momentum, energy which could be attached to the moving “lump”, which was reduced to a mathematical point. A wave was a periodic motion in some continuous medium, the medium being necessary to support such independent motion, but left unaffected by its passage.
But the discoveries of quantum mechanics showed that such a restricted notion of the world is inadequate for dealing with sub-atomic particles. Instead, as foreseen in Engels’ dialectical materialistic approach, matter and motion proved to be inseparable. According to Paul Dirac, whose Principles of Quantum Mechanics is a key book in setting out the form of the new physics, the quantum mechanical “state” or “wave function” of no motion is the state of no particle. The wave-particle dual nature of matter flows from this; the particle is not a lump of matter isolated from motion, but the very medium essential to the existence of the wave motion.
No movement from nothing
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a consequence of the “wave equations” used to describe the quantum mechanical particle. In its restriction to position and momentum – “you cannot know the position and momentum of a particle exactly at one and the same time” – the uncertainty principle both demonstrates the limitations of applying “classical” concepts derived from Newtonian particles to the subatomic level, while showing that quantisation defines minimum extensions to these wave particle entities. The lumpy point -like particle may have disappeared, but more subtle properties of matter are revealed.
Along with Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology is the arena in which Davies has chosen to “prove” the existence of God. He does this against the background of a huge extension of the scientific understanding of the universe.
In the 1960s observations made possible by modern instrumentation led to a range of discoveries about the large-scale structure of space-time, including the structure of black holes. This included the existence and structure of black holes as points in space-time where space-time curvature becomes infinite, defined as “singularities”. By 1970, British mathematician Roger Penrose joined with Hawking to put forward the possibility of a big-bang singularity.
In 1979 Soviet astrophysicists Zelidovich and Novikov confirmed with computer calculations that primordial black holes are the size of subatomic particles. This, Hawking explains in A Brief History of Time 12, makes them subject to quantum effects. By 1988, Hawking concluded: “If the universe is really self- contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end. It would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”
It is in reply to Hawking and others, who find no need for God, and indeed start to draw the conclusion that there is no place left for God, that Davies spun his web of religious mysticism with his book The Mind of God published in 1991. The day after he received his Templeton award on May 4, he wrote in the London Guardian: “Modern cosmology suggests that time itself came into existence with the big bang. There was simply “no before for a God, or anything else, to form in.” This sums up Davies’ “free lunch” pseudo-theory of cosmology.
Many cosmologists and physicists such as Sagan, Weinberg and Hawking (to name only a few) do not share this view. Hawking refers to the boundary conditions of space-time, which “implicitly assume that the universe is partially infinite, or that there are infinitely many universes”. “At the beginning of time,” he says, “there would have been a point of infinite density and infinite curvature of space time.” Davies himself describes the black hole singularity as infinite gravitational force and density of material. 13 Thus, quite the opposite of “nothing”, there was an infinite amount of energy and matter.
It is possible to fall into the trap of thinking that perhaps Davies is right about “creation from nothing”, because, he claims, “the quantum factor allows events to occur without causes in the subatomic world”. In the same breath Davies says: “Quantum gravity suggests we might get everything for nothing.” But this so- cal led “nothing” does after all contain “something”: an infinite amount of gravitational force! So why does Davies continually, in all of his many books, insist on “creation from nothing”? It seems he has allowed the views of St Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430A.D.) to override the arguments of today’s physics at this point.
But we cannot dismiss the argument too lightly. The idea that there can be movement from nothing requires examination from a dialectical standpoint. The problem of being and nothing does present a paradox. It was not by accident that the concept of motion is at the heart of both Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature. Contained within it is the problem of understanding the essence of any given movement.
The arising of any process or object, including the universe itself, is through its identity in the external world, which arises out of any given objective movement of contradiction. This identity of any given, randomly selected thing or event, reflects through sensation into the sentient subject. The identity contains, in itself its own difference, its opposite in the world beyond thought. Thus, we have being AND nothing. Relative to its negation into the subject through sensation, the original object ceases to exist, since that moment of time has disappeared. The transition from being to nothing is becoming, the first moment of coming into being, through external reflection into self.
The space-time singularity of the big bang is the initial moment of identity of the universe, described as infinite curvature of space-time, when space and time, matter and anti-matter are identical. But that addition of equal amounts of “plus” and “minus” which adds up to zero “nothing” – is not an “empty nothing”. The identity of the initial moment, the “before” of the big bang, contains its own difference within itself. This initially undetectable difference between the reactions of matter and anti-matter is currently the subject of intense scrutiny in the KTEV experiment at Fermilab near Chicago.
The movement from identity to difference, like that of being and nothing, involves the unity, conflict, interpenetration and transformation of opposites. It is law-governed. It is here that the asses’ ears of Davies’ metaphysics poke through. He can grasp all kinds of complex and paradoxical questions in physics, but the logical essence of movement entirely escapes him. Because he is opposedto contradiction as an objective logical category, Davies is forced to introduce a mystical fog at every point where the essence of movement appears.
Motion as contradiction
Engels’ dialectic, unlike the Kantian view, shows that what appears as a paradox is only an expression of the mind’s difficulty in apprehending movement. This is because: “Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of position can only come about through a body being at one and the same moment of time both in one place and in another place, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continuous origination and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is.” 14
In Davies’ shotgun marriage of religion and science, the material relation of opposites in nature cannot be developed. He discusses categories such as possibility and reality, chance and necessity, c ausality and interaction but makes them into fixed absolutes which arise as a result of differing objects or processes, instead of as a result of their own interaction – from internal self-relation.
His match-making constantly leads him into self-contradiction. He has to recognise the real opposites that exist in nature and its reflection in thought. But his trump card is always the mystification of the relation between the two. “It would be foolish,” he admits somewhat sheepishly, “to deny that many of the traditional religious ideas about God, man and the nature of the universe have been swept away by the new physics.”
The investigation of the world of micro particles and the exploration of outer space continuously reveals that the quantum laws of the micro also operate in the infinitely vast expanses of the universe.
Having confirmed that physics – even the “new” physics – is about “the investigation of matter”, Davies then suggests that there are “three ultimate frontiers of physics: the very small, the very large and the very complex”. Marking out the areas of the small, the large and the complex, Davies without knowing it, suggests a basis for the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. In the relationship between the very small and the very large, cosmology is today used as a giant laboratory for high energy particle physics.
Davies recognises that the discovery that the laws of the micro hold true for the macro is one of the most pleasing confluences of science: “it marries the very small with the very large.” The investigation of the world of micro particles which has taken place alongside exploration of outer space, has revealed that quantum laws of the micro operate in the infinitely vast expanses of the universe. Astronomers today use quantum theory in the study of the origins and structure of the universe. Conversely, in the world of nuclear and plasma physics and optics, knowledge of the quantum mechanical laws is necessary for research into the properties of matter.
What Davies describes as a “pleasing confluence” is in terms of dialectics a totally unconscious recognition of the essential unity of all matter in motion, and that the objective dialectical laws can be discovered at all levels of organisation. T his is in fact verified by the third division Davies suggests – the complex: the ability of matter to self -organise.
The astrophysicist looks through the telescope at events millions of years in the past, connected by the light and radiation emanating through the light-years between him/her and a distant star. In the same way all reception and processing of information by human beings, and all practical activity, takes place in the present as part of a space-time continuum. And, as David Finley, who works in the US National Radio Astronomy Laboratory, has said: “We are physically connected to stars because we contain the same elements – we are made of star stuff.”
Realisation of that fact led maverick astronomer Fred Hoyle to postulate a special state of the nucleus of the carbon atom, to overcome the difficulty of forming it through a process which required three helium nuclei
to combine simultaneously. Hoyle’s method was an object lesson in dialectical thinking, in approaching the past from the standpoint of understanding the requirements of the present. Hoyle reasoned that the existence of carbon based life- forms capable of thinking about life meant that it must be possible to form carbon by nuclear synthesis within the centre of stars.
The only way he could see this happening was if the carbon nucleus has a special state or “resonance” which enabled it to soak up the extra energy that three rather than just two – colliding helium nuclei would have at the temperatures which prevail deep in stellar interiors. Discovery of Hoyle’s carbon resonance won American physicist Willie Fowler and his team the Nobel Prize.
The Jupiter mission
Closer to home, in December 1995 the Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter, receiving information from a probe launched into the dense Jovian atmosphere. Although studying the giant planet as it exists today, space scientists involved in the project were particularly excited that they would also be examining material left over from the primordial nebula out of which the whole solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago.
One crucial question, in this instance, is the potential existence of a layer of water ice clouds beneath the normally visible layers of Jupiter – water being vital to the evolution of life on Earth, and – potentially elsewhere. According to some planetary scientists Jupiter holds the key to this question. It is supposed to have played the role of a great provider, throwing water in the form of comets into the path of the infant Earth after it had lost most of its original complement. (Nowadays, Jupiter plays a much more protective role, minimising the likelihood of life-threatening impacts between Earth and space debris.) The results of the Galileo probe’s descent into Jovian hell have turned out to be ambiguous, but, during the next couple of years, results from the main spacecraft should provide answers to just how the conditions for the development of the solar system and the life it supports were established.
These two examples both illustrate the way in which knowledge advances through understanding naturally dialectical processes in a dialectical way which enables the inner laws and processes to be revealed. In contrast, Davies adopts a teleological approach to such questions. Why is it that we can discover law s in nature? Because they were written into the Universe by some agency. Why does mathematics prove such a powerful tool, at least in the physical sciences? Because this agency has written the laws mathematically. And why can we understand nature in terms of mathematically describable laws? Because the said agency has designed an entire Universe so that we humans might evolve mathematical brains and discover it through its laws. And for want of a better word for this agency, God will do.
Self-organisation of matter
The discovery that chaos and chance are as inherent in nature as order and necessity, furthers the understanding of the essential unity and interconnectedness of all matter as self- related opposites with moments of discontinuity and leaps. Davies, who calls this “the liberation of matter”, claims that it destroys materialist philosophy, which he associates with “lumpy” matter.
But in reality the objective existence of chance and indeterminism have been discovered by scientists as an extension of earlier discoveries of the laws of thermodynamics. The study of the propensity of matter and energy to self-organise in non-linear systems has expanded into a new branch of physics, called the study of “far from equilibrium systems”. This science makes concrete the dialectical concept of self-movement through “the division of a unity into mutually exclusive opposites and their reciprocal relations.” 15 The origin of organic movement – life – is not through some external source, but through the internal contradictions within inorganic matter whereby matter begins to self-reproduce as in the formation of proteins. What it reveals is that the older concepts of organic and inorganic have become outdated, not because they were wrong, but because further study has revealed them to be not fixtures, but mutually transformable opposites.
The dialectical concept of negation provides an accurate description of this process: the “structure of the higher” contains in a new form, the properties of the lower. 16 The innate ability of matter to organise also helps to explain the formation of the first life on the planet, the transition of the inorganic to the organic.
The dialectical movement of negation – whereby the new simultaneously cancels out and preserves the old reveals that the structure of the higher and more complex contains (in a negated form) the properties of the lower.
From the standpoint of scientific method, we should note that the objective nature of chance and indeterminism and its relation to its opposite were discovered by scientists such as Ilya Prigogine as an extension of earlier discoveries of the laws of thermodynamics. It apparently contradicts the earlier understanding of thermodynamic law which produced the view that the universe is running down amid spiralling entropy. 17 But the emergence of “order out of chaos” arises because self-organising systems are parts within a whole, predicated on an environment which is outside them. Thus the “excess entropy” can be exported through the principle that energy is not destroyed, but transferred into another form.
What Prigogine demonstrated is the objective nature of chance and indeterminism as a necessary consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and a logically determined extension of those laws. This is despite the fact that self-organisation appears to contradict the earlier interpretation of these laws.
Necessity and chance
Edward N. Lorenz first demonstrated in 1961 that a system can be both deterministic and yet unpredictable, due to that system’s “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions”. While the interaction of chance and necessity in complex systems is different from quantum uncertainty, as a principle of movement and change through the unity and conflict of opposites it reveals the changes of different forms of matter through dialectically structured self-movement.
Not only does this prove the objective existence of “necessity and chance” as objectively existing contradictions in nature, but recent science has shown how the interaction of the opposites of chance and necessity is at work both deep within the structure of matter in the micro-particle world as well as in the formation of the universe.
The innate ability of matter to organise “out of disorder” also helps to explain the formation of the first life on the planet, the transition of the inorganic to the organic. But the emergence of “order out of chaos” arises because self-organising systems are parts within a whole, predicated on an environment which is outside them. Thus the “excess ent ropy” can be exported through the principle that energy is not destroyed, but transferred into another form. What Prigogine demonstrated is the objective nature of chance and indeterminism as a necessary consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and a logically determined extension of those laws. This is despite the fact that self-organisation appears to contradict the earlier interpretation of these laws.
Such problems are being studied in physical chemistry. It remains for Marxists to integrate them into a flexible concept of social and political processes, for example, the break-down of social formations such as the USSR. Does this mean that all the previous history suddenly vanishes, as some crude impressionists have suggested? Surely it shows the need for a more complex and dynamic understanding of the process of historical negation enriched by new concepts, such as Prigogine’s.
Davies hopes that there may yet be another outpost to refute his crude designation of materialism – the mysteries of the human mind. “The existence of mind,” he believes “as an abstract, holistic organisational pattern capable even of disembodiment, refutes the reductionist philosophy that we are all nothing but moving mounds of atoms.” Here again, Davies tries to separate matter from its properties, in the Neo- Thomist fashion.
Perhaps unfortunately for Davies, a new science of consciousness studies is rapidly moving into an area previously considered thought to be the reserve of those who believe in UFOs, ESP, table-knocking and “mind over matter”. Rather than being the province of those seeking an afterlife, or the supernatural, it has become a research area for some of the most rigorous scientific minds of the 1990s.
Current research in neuroscience is aided by new instrumentation such as positron emission tomography (PET), nuclear magnetic resonance (MRI) and magneto encephalography (MEG). Work by neurologists such as Susan Greenfield and Gerald Edelman now offers an astonishingly rich picture of the human brain. It is now generally agreed that there is no single area in the brain which gives rise to individual consciousness. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has learned much from Soviet psychologists Vygotsky and Luria, has proposed a theory of mind which is both materialist and dialectical. “It will have to be grounded in biological reality, in the anatomical and developmental and functional details of the nervous system; and also in the inner life or mental life of the living creature, the play of its sensations and feelings and drives and intentions, its perception of objects and people and situations, and, in higher creatures at least, the ability to think abstractly and to share through language and culture the consciousness of others.” 18
This is a beautif ul concretisation of the dialectical concept of how the universal finds its expression within the individual. Within the development of each individual mind is expressed not an abstract universal, but “a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual, the single”.19 Advances in knowledge of brain structure, however, have not simply produced a new theory of mind functioning. Sacks talks of a crisis in scientific understanding, arising from an “acute incompatibility between observations and existing theories”.
Gerald Edelman, who shared the Nobel prize in 1972 for his discovery of a selectional mechanism in the body’s immune system, after 1987 began to put forward the Theory of Neural Group Selection (TNGS), which can account for the rapid emergence of higher order consciousness in an astonishingly short space of time. Instead of the many millions of years usually needed for evolutionary change, brain development has evolved over only tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
This develops concretely Engels’ observation about the exponential growth of science and human knowledge. But more than that. The selection process suggested by Edelman involves the activity of perhaps 100 million primary neuronal units in the brain, each of which containing about 50 to 10,000 neurones, or nerve cells.
The properties of the neural microworld have shown an extraordinary capacity for adaptation in the human brain. The development of conscious thought involves “populations of nerve cells” whose special property of flexibility appears to be their non-specialisation. As Oxford neurologist Susan Greenfield explained in a lecture: “There is no magic ingredient for consciousness. It is not a particular quality but the quantity, and the structuring of the neural units which is crucial”. The consideration of how millions of undifferentiated units act in concert needs to be considered in relation to the movement of social classes, in particular the working class.
Experience in the TNGS theory, Sacks rightly says, “is not passive, a matter of ‘impressions’ or ‘sense data’ but active, and constructed by the organism from the start. Active experience ‘selects’ or ‘carves out’ a new, more complexly connected pattern of neuronal groups, a neuronal reflection of the individual experience of the child….”
Computing and Telecommunications
In the 100th year since the death of Frederick Engels, the necessity for “dialectics as the science of universal inter-connection” has begun to be realised on a world scale, most obviously in the technological realm, in the explosive growth of the Internet.
In his outline of the general plan for Dialectics of Nature, Engels sets out the main laws of dialectics: “Transformation of quantity and quality – mutual penetration of pol ar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes – development through contradiction or negation of negation – spiral form of development.”
In studying the development of the technologies which have made the Internet possible we enter theoretical and practical territory unavailable to Marx and Engels.
In seeking to overcome limitations in the deployment of computing and telecommunications, specialists in information sciences (a sub-division of the science of cognition) are obliged to take advantage of advances in all of the specialist branches of the natural sciences (of which information science is a servant). They study the nature of processes and objects in the most general terms, and, in particular, to develop an understanding of the subject-object relation, the essential contradiction in the dialectics of cognition.
The “philosophy” or “paradigm” of “object -orientation” (OO) is sweeping through all parts of the industry, superseding all earlier technical approaches. Bill Gates’ e ntry into the Internet market through Windows 95 is founded upon this highest form of software development. At the heart of OO (originally formulated in the 1950s in the SIMULA language) are included: the process of abstraction, the identification of an object through the properties it has which differentiate it from all others, the reciprocal relations of this object with itself and with all others, the events in the life of the object which change its state (cause-effect).
The development of computing and telecommunications technologies in a haphazard, chaotic, anarchistic fashion became a problem for a capitalism driven by company mergers and take-overs. The use of different and incompatible hardware architecture, computer languages, database management systems, communications protocols, but above all different but frequently undefined systems of concepts meant that data could not easily – or even at all – be transferred between hitherto stand-alone systems. This limited the potential to overcome the reduction of surplus-value arising from the introduction of machinery (which increases the ratio of constant to variable capital) through greater socialisation of production.
The era of the mainframe stand-alone computer was ending as the proliferation of stand-alone PCs was beginning. By the mid 1980s major corporations had begun to attempt to build networks linking all the computers operated by a single company. In the 1990s the more advanced thinkers began to see the benefits of linking in their suppliers and customers. The Internet originally developed as part of the US military and security communication system. Then it became a way of linking, predominantly, Computer Science Departments in Universities, mostly in the USA.
Just as the development of imperialism created the demand for new technologies and for more advanced forms of transportation and communication, so today the globalisation of the economy demands full exploitation of the communication media revolution.
Global communication establishes a tech nologically mediated collective practice of cognition which reveals the need for global standards establishing the scientific laws governing cognition as a social process. But the necessity for international standardisation offers two paths: co-operation, collaboration and collective action among all parties realisable in a socialist society, or in a continuing profit-driven capitalist society, subjugation to competition between companies, with Microsoft the front runner, and its owner already richer than most of the world’s countries.
In attempting to overcome the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, capitalism has had to encourage the scientific study of the process of cognition as the basis for a new division of labour and a further round of reduction in the amount of labour power necessary for the production of commodities. A new industrial revolution in the means of production affecting mental labour demands an objective analysis of the processes involving it analogous to that of physical labour (workstudy, Taylorism) which was necessary for the initial introduction of machinery into capitalist production. This study is well advanced in university departments and in a myriad of small companies, working on the exploitation of these maturing technologies.
Quanta and mind
Approaching the science of consciousness from another angle is mathematician Roger Penrose. He is concerned, like Sacks, with the development of theoretical frameworks which will take forward human understanding of the world. As a mathematician who made a major contribution to cosmological theory, he is looking for a way to integrate the theory of quantum mechanics and the classical Newtonian laws which explain cause and effect in the observable world. Penrose is trying to resolve the contradiction between these two law-governed systems through his deeper research into the functioning of the mind. He believes that microtubules within the brain may be an interface between the quantum and classical worlds.
In his view, the integration of the quantum mechanical world view with classical physics will give rise to another revolution in human perception of the physical world. This would truly involve a negation process, whereby the older concepts are not mechanically separated from the newer quantum mechanics, but rather, preserved and sublated.
Penrose’s theoretical challenge is a brilliant way of posing the problem of scientific method, especially for Marxists, since the laws of materialist dialectics hold true, as we have seen, in both the Newtonian world of classical physics and for quantum physics. The science of the future requires theories in which dialectics, instead of being revealed by the spontaneous process of scientific discovery, become a conscious instrument. Realising such a possibility requires a quantum leap for Marxists.
Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature: “The development of the sciences proceeded with giant strides, and it might be said, gained force in proportion to the square of the distance (in time) from its point of departure. It was as if the world were to be shown that henceforth, for the highest product of organic matter, the human mind, the law of motion holds good that is the reverse of that for inorganic matter.”
Human development in the 20th century has verified this observation to such an extent that it requires a qualitative leap in the science of dialectical logic.
Genuine scientific discovery itself is politically neutral. Scientists have little control over the social application of what they do. As Hawking has noted, criticising Wittgenstein, 20th century philosophers have failed to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.
In the spirit of Engels, dialectical logic has to incorporate, for example, the laws of quantum mechanics and their proof that the subject changes the object under consideration. The significance for Marxism here is that the activity of the subject under certain conditions is decisive.
A key issue for Marxists is the development of consciousness in the working class movement. It is all too easy to fall prey to impressions of passivity, indifference and apparent acceptance of bourgeois propaganda. Concepts emerging from the study of far-from-equilibrium systems can help us to understand how class society can undergo sudden changes whereby stability gives way to “chaos”. Recent events in France are a good example.
Davies’ viewpoint resurrects the fundamentalist absolutes of religion by dressing them up in scientific clothing. Post-modernism, and the convergence view, are polarities expressing the crisis within philosophy.
For Marx and Engels, the progress of science was a constant source of revolutionary optimism. We cannot apprehend the complexity and speed of movement of modern capitalist society without negating from science concepts which enable logic to represent the new world disorder.
The end of Stalinism has dealt a devastating blow to those who turned Marxism from a method of discovery into a prescriptive dogma. This process provides ideal conditions for Marxists in the former Soviet Union, the USA, Britain, Japan, Cuba and many other countries to produce a revolutionary development in materialist dialectics.
1. Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) Vol.25. p.26. Lawrence and Wishart. 1987.
2. From the December 1995 issue of the London University student newspaper: “Science is heading towards the necessity for people to believe. Faith is belief unaffected by evidence. ‘Theories of everything’ are akin to this idea because they too need belief, as they can no longer be verified by observation….It is claimed that science is the new religion.”
3. Neo-Thomism, as defined in The Dictionary of Philosophy, Progress 1984, English edn.1987.
4. Philosophical Problems in Physical Science, Ed.Hoerz et al, GDR, 1978. English ed. Marxist Educational Press, University of Minnesota, 1980.
5. MECW, Vol. 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.356.
6. Paul Davies, “The day time began”, New Scientist, 27 April, 1996, p34.
7. MECW, Vol 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.62.
8. Much of the material for this section is taken from MECW, Vol. 25.
9. MECW, Vol 25. Dialectics of Nature. p.492. Notes and Fragments.
10. The Matter Myth, P.Davies and J. Gribbin. Penguin. 1991.
11. The New Physics, ed P. Davies. CUP 1989.
12. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Stephen Hawking. Bantam 1988.
13. The Mind of God, P. Davies, p.49. Penguin 1992.
14. MECW. Anti-Dühring. Part 1: Philosophy, P.111. See also Lenin’s study of Hegel: “Something moves, not because it is here at one point of time and there at another, but because at one and the same point of time it is here and not here, and in this here both is and is not.” Both Hegel and Engels re-phrase Heraclitus famous fragment: “We step into the same stream and yet we do not; we are and we are not.” . Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.38, p140. Progress Publishers.
15. Lenin Vol.38 Op Cit p 360.
16. See On the Content and Correlation of the Concepts “Negation” and “Continuity”, V.A.Ignatiev. Yearbook of the Philosophical Society of the USSR for 1986. English translation in Marxist Monthly, July 1988.
17. The second law of thermodynamics states that heat cannot be transferred from a colder to a hotter body within a system without net changes occurring within other bodies within that system. (Collins, 1994).
18. Nature’s Imagination, Ed. John Cornwell. OUP 1995.
19. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p.99.