Sunday, June 08, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 18 ]
Thomas Riggins


The fact that old concepts of matter no longer apply in the new physics has led many to conclude that "matter has disappeared." The Russian Machist "Marxist" Valentinov, for example, says, "The statement that the scientific explanation of the world can find a firm foundation 'ONLY in materialism' is nothing but a fiction, and what is more, an absurd fiction." Lenin says Valentinov shows a "virgin innocence" of the nature of materialism and doesn't realize our knowledge of matter is "penetrating deeper." Hmmmm.

The notion that "matter disappears" (it becomes energy, electricity, etc.) "means that," Lenin says, "the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears...." Marxists (materialists) are not arguing with physical scientists about how physical reality appears to us-- i.e., about new PROPERTIES of matter-- but about the SOURCE of our knowledge about it. It is an epistemological problem that divides materialists from idealists. "For," Lenin writes, "the SOLE 'property' of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of BEING AN OBJECTIVE REALITY, or existing outside the mind."

What is "the error of Machism in general"? It does not understand the basis of materialism and does not differentiate metaphysical from dialectical materialism. Changes is our scientific understanding of the world is not a problem for diamat! Lenin, for example, uses the "ether" as an example of something existing independently of the human mind and reproaches the idealists for thinking it only a mind dependent convention. But the science of your day may not be the science of tomorrow. The "ether" turned out to be a construction of the human mind.

So Lenin was wrong, but his real claim, that "dialectical materialism insists on the approximate, relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties," is not wrong, and so, where it matters, Lenin was right.

The people who really got it wrong were Bogdanov (in 1899) and Valentinov and Yushkevich with "their ignorance of dialectics" and their talk about "the immutable essence of things" and "substance". If they had understood Engels they never would have discoursed on physics in that way. Any particular physical theory of reality is subject to revision. The unchanging requirement for diamat, Lenin says, is the "unconditional recognition of nature's EXISTENCE outside the mind and perception of man...." Matter has far from disappeared.


To the idealists of Lenin's day there was no problem with talking about "motion" after they had eliminated "matter" from their systems. The idealists still "think" there is motion going on-- the motion of the succession of their "sensations." But, Lenin says, the "concept matter expresses nothing more than the objective reality which is given us in sensation. Therefore, to divorce motion from matter is equivalent to divorcing thought from objective reality, or to divorcing my sensations from the external world-- in a word, it is to go over to idealism."

The purpose of this argument is not to refute idealism but to show that the Russian Machist "Marxists", Bogdanov et al, are closet idealists. In order to establish this Lenin once again analyzes the philosophy of energetics as propounded by Ostwald ("Lectures on Natural Philosophy," Leipzig, 1902). But first, recall that for diamat matter and motion are inseparable-- you can't have one without the other, and that Bogdanov, before he was influenced by Mach was following Ostwald's "energetics.

One of Lenin's favorite words is "muddle", which he uses to describe many of the idealist positions he discusses in MEC. Here is why energetics is a "muddle." Ostwald writes, "That all external events may be presented as processes between energies can be most simply explained if our mental processes are themselves energetic and impose this property of theirs on all external phenomena." This is, as Lenin, points out, a form of Kantianism: external reality reflects our mind rather than vice versa.

Ostwald is trying to subsume "mind" and "matter" under energy. But this is just playing with words. "Motion" also for him is a form of energy and in his system, then, we have everything reduced to energy and thus we have motion without matter. But as a scientist, Ostwald mostly talks about MATERIAL motion not "mental processes." When Marxists criticize Ostwald it is for deviations away from material motion, for idealists the criticism is just the opposite.

Here is Bogdanov in "Empirio-monism": Ostwald, "every now and again converts 'energy' from a pure symbol of correlations between the facts of experience into the SUBSTANCE of experience, into the 'world stuff'." Bogdanov and the other Russian Machists are deeply rooted in the idealist philosophy and, whatever may be their political convictions, they are far from Marxism in their philosophical understanding of the world.


In order to explain the two trends in physics Lenin will have one representative of each present his own case. The first will be the physicist Arthur W. Rucker [1848-1915] representing natural science, the second will be the philosopher James Ward [1843- 1925] representing epistemology.

Rucker says, "The question at issue is whether the hypotheses which are at the base of the scientific theories now most generally excepted [1901--tr] are to be regarded as accurate descriptions of the constitution of the universe around us, or merely as convenient fictions." This latter viewpoint is the position of Bogdanov, Yushkevich, and the Russian Machists.

Now, Rucker admits that this latter method is able to achieve "great scientific successes", but he does not think that "it is the last word of science in the struggle for truth." So, Rucker asks, "Can we argue back from the phenomenon displayed by matter to the constitution of matter itself ... whether we have any reason to believe that the sketch which science has already drawn is to some extent a copy, and not a mere diagram of the truth?"

After discussing atoms, the ether, and electrons Rucker prefers the copy theory. Lenin says, "The gist of his position is this: The theory of physics is a copy (becoming ever more exact) of objective reality. The world is matter in motion, our knowledge of which grows ever more profound."

This may an argument over words. How can the Ptolemaic geo-centric universe of Dante, or even the Copernican universe, which still uses epicycles, be a "copy" of the universe as it is as opposed to a symbolic representation? Physicists today (2008) don't know what the universe is really like.* Seventy four per cent of it is composed of something called "dark energy" and they have no idea what that is, so how can their descriptions be a "copy" of anything?

It should be enough, for materialism, to hold that whatever is out there has been around before there were any humans (even before there was the Earth) and so it exists in objective reality independent of the human mind (i.e., the cerebral cortex of human brains).

Now for the other school, represented by James Ward ("Naturalism and Agnosticism", 1906). Ward says both members of his school (such as Gustav Kirchhoff [1824-1887] and Poincare) and those who think like Rucker practice physics in the same way (use "the same methods of verification"). "But the one believes that it is getting nearer to the ultimate reality and leaving mere appearances behind it; the other believes that it is only substituting a generalised descriptive scheme that is intellectually manageable, for the complexity of concrete facts.... In either view the value of physics as systematic knowledge ABOUT things is unaffected; its possibilities of future extension and of practicable application are in either case the same." So why all the commotion? It is because the "speculative difference" is so great that it is important to know which is correct. Now it would seem to me that two theories with the same practical application are the same theory on a deeper level.

Be that as it may, Lenin takes Ward's words very seriously as he sees in them an opening for religion. Lenin maintains that materialism recognizes the objective reality of the entities reflected in theory and Ward doesn't "regarding theory as only a systematisation of experience...." In Ward's case he ends up deducing spiritualism from his philosophy ["the real world is an aggregate of interacting 'spirits' or monads"--Great Soviet Encyclopedia]. So Lenin has a point.

This is also a contemporary problem for people who want to reconcile science and religion. Either science is telling us something about ultimate reality (and religion is just an illusion) or it isn't. Ward thought all scientific truth was relative and "tentative" and thus, to quote Lenin, "it cannot reflect reality." Lenin says this is the price paid in capitalist countries for the "cohabitation" of theology and science. Science goes its way but leaves epistemology to the philosophers and theologians.

At least this is true for "cultured fideism", it does not apply to the yahoo fundamentalism of backwoods Protestantism which denies evolution and, like Mike Hukabee, thinks the world is 6000 years old! Lenin, on the other hand, maintains, as a fundamental principle of diamat, that the only proper epistemology for science is materialism and this rules out religious superstition all together.

Now it is time for an interesting metaphysical speculation. Ward writes that materialism is dependent upon the hard solid indestructible atom and since we now know the atom IS destructible, materialism must fall by the wayside. Lenin responds by saying, "The destructibility of the atom, its inexhaustibility, the mutability of all forms of matter and its motion, have always been the strong hold of dialectical materialism. All boundaries in nature are conditional, relative, movable, and express the gradual approximation of our mind towards knowledge of matter. But this does not in anyway prove that nature, matter itself is a symbol, a conventional sign, i.e., the product of our mind."

Granted that Lenin is correct about "matter itself"-- what about our THEORIES about the nature of matter and the universe? Are they not the product of our mind? Are they "copies" even "photographic copies" of "matter itself" or are they conventional and often far from the truth of what "matter itself" really is "in itself" versus what it is "for us" at any particular time? Does Kant still have a right to a hearing? IF the nature of really turns out to be based on string theory how can the atomic models of Lenin's day be a copy? An approximate copy is not a copy. Ponderous pondering indeed.

Next week we will begin with Section 5: "The Two Trends In Modern Physics, And German Idealism."

* Cf. The New York Times Science Section for 6-3-2008: "Dark, Perhaps Forever: The Universe Unexplained" by Dennis Overbye.

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