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Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism
26/12/2010 Marxism, materialism and particle

physics Pete Mason, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) The following article is based on a talk given by Pete Mason during the 2010 CWI Summer School, held in Belgium, last July. In a personal contribution, Pete looks at quantum mechanics and its place in the history of science. Pete examines the debates amongst scientists, such as Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, surrounding quantum mechanics, and the contribution of Marxists, including Engels and Lenin, on aspects of dialectical materialism and science.

Atoms and their history in science
Quantum mechanics is the study of energy and atoms, of the very smallest particles. The discovery of the atom, 2,500 years ago, was just one of the astonishing achievements of the ancient Greeks who lived in Ionia, in great cities on the coast of present-day Turkey. Another was a materialist dialectic. How did the Ionian philosophers, who were merchants and explorers living a hundred years or more before the famous Athenian philosophers such Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, arrive at the

conclusion that the world was made of atoms? Above all, they observed nature. These philosophers tended to run into trouble with the authorities for denying the gods and looking for material explanations for things – they were materialists. They asked how the stone statues could be worn over time, or how two different coloured liquids mix together – surely, these things must be made up of tiny particles, too small for the eye to see, which wear off statues and mix together. The ancient Ionian city-state of Miletus experienced revolutions for two generations. The aristocracy were overthrown by the rising merchant class and a succession of revolutions followed. Power passed between the masses – the ―demos‖ (―people‖) – and the ―people of property‖. ―At first the people prevailed and, after they had thrown the rich out, they assembled… the fugitives on the threshing-floors, and had oxen trample on them and destroyed them in the most terrible manner. Thereupon the rich, again getting control, tarred and burned to death all whom they could get hold of…‖ (Athenaios, quoted by C J EmlynJones, The Ionians and Hellenism, p. 31)

Dialectics: Nothing is fixed
In another amazing achievement, the philosophers of this time developed

what Socrates later called his ‗dialectics‘. Naturally reflecting the upheavals in society around them, they believed that nothing was fixed – all things that come into being must pass away. Their philosophy embraced the entire sweep of nature and society as one organic whole, perhaps reflecting the way a genuine social revolution sweeps everything into its turmoil, leaving nothing untouched. Dialectics is a holistic philosophy which always considers things in their relations and their development, as Lenin said. Anaximander of Miletus argued that the world came into being in a ball of fire and that people evolved from fishes. It took science 2500 years to reveal the kernel of truth in these observations – the theory of the big bang origins of the universe and the theory of evolution. The ancient Ionian philosophers were the first to study the world using a materialist dialectic, a dialectic which insisted that all things were in the course of development. This development emerged from internal conflict, a war of opposing forces within all things, a ―unity of opposites‖ as Lenin called it, an ―interpenetration of opposites‖ as Engels termed it. These warring opposites were what drove the eternal flux of change. Dialectics is a philosophy born of revolution. Gold and silver coins were minted in Ionia, perhaps the first western coins in history. The Marxist archaeologist, Vere Gordon Childe (1892 –1957), observed that the Ionian philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, who are considered the founders of the ancient Greek theory

Perhaps Parmenides did not want his laws to be broken by revolution – he and his famous pupil. at the same time. the constituent parts are unchanging. argued that movement was impossible. Parmenides argued that ―thought and being are the same‖. Only an idealist could reach such an absurd conclusion. Zeno. is the ‗One‘. This is how they solved the philosophical riddle. timeless. unchanging plenums. just as the new currency resolved wealth into discontinuous particles – coins. rather than a materialist who distinguishes thought from being. a single spherical plenum.of atoms. All that exists. in extreme opposition to the Ionian dialectics. Parmenides and Zeno had laid down a challenge to the Ionian philosophers – to explain the nature of change. they opened the way for a new . Democritus and Leucippus suggested that rather than the world consisting of one single unchanging plenum. p 215) Opposing the philosophy of dialectics was a wealthy Greek lawmaker and philosopher who lived in Italy. revealing himself to be an idealist. indivisible. or atoms (the word ‗atom‘ comes from the Greek word ‗uncuttable‘). Then the world could undergo infinite change while. uniform and unchanging. He denied all change. But.‖ (Vere Gordon Childe. in doing so. ―set out to resolve external nature into discrete indivisible bits or particles (atoms). perhaps the world is entirely composed of tiny. What Happened in History. he claimed.

‖ (Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism in George Novack. Polemics in Marxist Philosophy. As Trotsky wrote in 1906 in Results and Prospects. Unity of opposites In reality. the atom is not unchanging. 309) For this reason. abandoning any notion of the interpenetration of opposites. This outlook forms the basis of the philosophy of positivism. forces and relations in history. myopic. Marxism does not approach sciences such as quantum mechanics as if it must consist of fixed formulas which must be either . But quantum mechanics reveals a more complex and challenging aspect of the subatomic world. but analysis of social relations.philosophy which rejected dialectics for a mechanical. such as between the positive nucleus and the negative electron cloud around it. individual. reductionist outlook which mistakenly examines things entirely in isolation. The materialist dialectic exposes the shortcomings of all fixed formulas. whose contradictions as they develop expose the shortcomings of all fixed formulas. It is a unity of opposites in various simple ways. ‗Marxism is above all a method of analysis – not analysis of texts. and disregarding the wider relations and development. and these opposing forces cement the building blocks of the natural world. the Marxist George Novack writes: ―The materialist dialectic is based upon the existence of conflicting movements. p.

Nor does it insist that the processes that quantum mechanics has discovered conform to dialectical formulas or laws. Dialectics of Nature. But Novack is wrong when he insists that Marxism teaches that all natural processes must ―conform‖ to the various dialectical laws (ibid p.‖ (Engels. the concept of distinct positions [in space] and times breaks down‖ because of Albert Einstein‘s relativity and ―the notoriously spooky connections between . which ―acts as if it appears in two places at once‖. commenting ―Indeed. the width of a human hair. 83) Why should dialectics have fixed formulas to which nature should conform? Quantum mechanics The June 2010 Scientific American carries a feature entitled. and not deducted from them. quantum leaps. ‗Does time really exist?‘ and carries a news item on a ‗Quantum Microphone‘. On the contrary.true for all time or false. Another news item in the same issue quotes a theoretical physicist at Oxford university: ―The idea of points of space-time as being primary objects is artificial‖. 161). Quantum mechanics demonstrates stunning examples of dialectical transformations. p. Engels explains the mistake of the idealist philosophers such as GWF Hegel: ―The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought. a type of ―quantum weirdness‖ previously only seen at the molecular level. which we will not have time to discuss.

Materialism and idealism There are various definitions of ‗materialism‘ in philosophy. Marxists have a unique definition. I hope to give some insight into how scientists have begun to voice the claims made in the Scientific American about space and time. and thought is secondary. Engels wrote that ―those who regard Nature as primary. For Marxists. the material world is primary. The correct Marxist approach towards science is very important.‖ People find much of what is reported about quantum mechanics quite bizarre. materialism can be described as the philosophy that the world exists independently of the human mind. In rejecting the claims of the Marxist trends that criticise quantum mechanics. in this context. Various Marxist trends take the view that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics is not materialist.quantum particles. July 1898) . including objectivity and causality. Even Einstein argued that quantum mechanics lacks what he called ―elements of reality‖. (Quoted by Georgi Plekhanov in Bernstein and Materialism. How quantum ‗weirdness‘ is based on genuine research. I hope to open a discussion on where Marxists stand on these questions. They wonder whether scientists have lost all touch with reality. belong to the various schools of materialism‖. Ultimately.

Discussing the ancient Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras. Hegel writes. for instance. This is fundamentally a materialist outlook. The German idealist philosopher GWF Hegel. idealism argues that there can be a thinking mind – whether it be the mind of a god or of humans – before (or instead of) the existence of the material world. that the essence of the world is to be defined as thought. Another essential example of a materialist outlook comes from Einstein himself: "The elements of physical reality cannot be determined by a priori philosophical considerations. one of the leading French particle physicists. Podolsky and Rosen. but must be found by an appeal to the results of experiments and measurements". (Can QuantumMechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Einstein. Bernard d‘Espagnat. In so doing he laid the foundation for an intellectual view of the the principle of the world. says that the world is nothing but thought.Defending quantum mechanics against a raft of philosophers. describing the idea of a reality which exists prior to and independent of the existence of thinking beings. argues for what he calls ―mindindependent reality‖. the pure form of which must be logic. ―Anaxagoras is praised as the man who first declared that Nous – thought .‖ . 15 May 1935) By contrast. Physical Review.

The dialectics of the ancient Greeks was developed further by the German Idealists philosophers. allowing the dialectician to make judgements and criticisms on scientific matters. section § 54) Anaxagoras. He also developed a theory of atoms. arguing that everything in the world was made of ―seeds‖. as we have shown. thorough. Science of Logic. Dialectical materialism is not a magic philosophical key which unlocks the mysteries of science. Marxist trends An understanding of Marxism does not provide a short-cut to understanding science. To understand a science enough to make meaningful criticisms of it. particularly Communist Party trends. a Greek Ionian philosopher living from about 500 to 428 BCE. a concrete. it arose from very definite material circumstances.(Hegel. which Nous or Mind first set in its various revolutions ―from a small beginning‖. On the contrary. Yet various trends within the Marxist tradition. have attacked quantum mechanics and Einstein‘s theory of . and a materialist dialectic was developed by Marx and Engels just before the Europeanwide revolutions of 1848. and indeed exhaustive understanding of the science in question is required. particularly Hegel. to the drumbeat of the French Revolution of 1789. rejected the gods of the ancient Greeks and developed a theory of an expanding universe.

on the other hand. and lapses. These attacks continue today. Elsewhere Kumar uses the term ‗subjective idealism‘ to describe the philosophy of quantum mechanics. Denmark. instead. This is a basic premise of the Marxist philosophy of materialism. only the mind and mental objects. We will come to Kumar‘s most recent claims shortly. the interpretation put on quantum mechanics was and remains a subjective one.relativity. to Princeton. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (who won the Nobel prize for founding quantum mechanics) about the nature of reality at the quantum level. ‗Realism‘ is the philosophy which holds that the world exists independently of us. In 2008. it often . the view that there is no objective reality. which they believe is not materialist. most particle physicists reject these accusations. ‗Solipsism‘. is the view that the only thing we can know for sure is the existence of our own mind – that everything else is unknowable. Kumar had written: ―From Copenhagen. Of course. the UK writer and journalist Manjit Kumar wrote a widely reviewed study on the debate between Einstein. Kumar argues that the way quantum mechanics is usually interpreted lacks what he terms ‗realism‘. New Jersey. even our own bodies. into ‗solipsism‘. But previously in 1995. Indeed.

Lenin believed. In 1908. 118. (Woods and Grant.lapses into outright solipsism. 168) Lenin It is no coincidence that both trends attack Ernst Mach. p. whose philosophy and physics. argued: ―The subjective idealist nature of Heisenberg‘s method is quite explicit‖. In 1995. 81) Kumar asserts that this all comes down to the outlook of the influential nineteenth century Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. Woods asserts. Ted Grant and Alan Woods. Reason in Revolt. Lenin. were subjective idealist. p. the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) makes similar mistaken accusations against quantum mechanics. treated time as something subjective‖. Lenin launched a sustained attack on Ernst Mach. lapsing into solipsism. Both the Communist Party and Trotskyists trends which criticise modern science misunderstand Lenin‘s Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Materialism and Empirio-criticism. p. by Gillott and Kumar. Within the Trotskyist tradition. comprehensively answered the subjective idealism of quantum mechanics in his book. and takes a similar swipe at Ernst Mach. under the influence of Ernst Mach. Lenin was forced to write a book about Mach. and that ―Einstein. the most popular representative of the philosophy of . IMT leaders.‖ (Science and the Retreat from Reason.

Lenin writes. Lenin‘s Materialism and Empiriocriticism was used by Stalin‘s henchmen to launch a devastating attack against USSR scientists in the 1950s. The Russian revolution of 1905 had led to defeat. But Lenin has been completely misinterpreted by the Communist Party commentators. over the heads of the Bolshevik leaders (for the most part). could hardly aim his response directly at the Bolshevik leaders in Russia – which would inflict a terrible blow to the Bolshevik leadership. devastating volleys at Ernst Mach.empirio-criticism at the time. and written with great urgency (Lenin was in a great hurry to abort the errors of the Bolshevik party in Russia) and not without errors. living in exile and visiting the same radical café that Einstein had earlier frequented. and sharpen our understanding of what dialectical materialism means for Marxists. his bullets cracking round their ears. nevertheless we can still learn from it the correct Marxist approach to the sciences. They called physicists who supported Einstein‘s relativity and . But while much of the book is only of historical interest today. Lenin. and by 1908 leading Bolsheviks like Bogdanov and Lunacharsky had participated in a ―veritable campaign against the philosophy of Marxism‖. because the leading Bolsheviks in Russia had abandoned dialectical materialism for Mach‘s crude positivist philosophy. So he fired angry. fellow travellers and the IMT.

In 1905. and subjective idealists. Einstein‘s papers launched quantum mechanics and relativity. since many physicists and philosophers of the time were themselves expressing an idealist viewpoint. For instance. opening sentence) Philipp Frank. They used phrases from Lenin‘s Materialism and Empirio Criticism without understanding Lenin‘s meaning or method.‖ (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. So let‘s put the record straight.quantum mechanics. thereby making Lenin appear to have attacked the science of his day. Lenin peers through the idealist distortions of the period and specifically says that Einstein‘s relativity is a materialist model of reality. Einstein was writing groundbreaking papers while an amateur scientist working at the Swiss patent office. ―Machists‖. Lenin‘s insight is astonishing. particularly after Mach and Einstein showed that space and time are relative. Lenin writes: ―Anyone in the least acquainted with philosophical literature must know that scarcely a single contemporary professor of philosophy (or of theology) can be found who is not directly or indirectly engaged in refuting materialism. It appears that neither Stalin‘s henchmen nor Ted Grant and Alan Woods were aware of this fact. the Vienna physicists . solipsists. the year of the revolution in Russia.

most easily explained—in the language of idealism. I think. Modern Science and its Philosophy. p.‘ ‗the end of the hostility of science towards the spirit. Cambridge University Press. subject to the reservations already mentioned. we may say that present-day science is favourable to idealism. p. The New Background of Science. Thus.‘ ‗the reconciliation between religion and science. 127) James Jeans and Arthur Eddington can be described as the founders of British cosmology before the second world war. correctly pointed out a decade or so later that: ―Many scholars have a deep dislike for mechanistic physics and… derive a malicious pleasure from every difficulty that the latter encountered… one can hardly open a periodical or book dealing with the development of our general scientific ideas without meeting such expressions as ‗the end of the age of Galileo.‖ (James Jeans. In the section of Materialism and . 296) On his speaking tours. Eddington associated relativity and quantum mechanics with personal religious experience and religious mysticism. Jeans wrote: ―… the law and order which we find in the universe are most easily described—and also.and founder of the (mistaken) philosophical school of logical positivism.‘‖ (Is There a Trend Today Towards Idealism in Physics? Frank.‘ ‗the failure of mechanistic physics.

‖ (Lenin. close to the speed of light. is materialism. 253) While today. Rey does not name Einstein. Scientific models Einstein questioned the way quantum mechanics was understood or interpreted. The recognition of theory as a copy. p. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. This quote unmistakably describes key aspects of Einstein‘s theory of relativity. still an obscure clerk who only resigned from the Swiss patent office in 1909. This has made quantum mechanics a legitimate subject for discussion among scientists and philosophers for the last eighty years. Lenin comments: ―But however much both Rey and the physicists of whom he speaks abjure materialism. scientists would use the term ‗model‘ rather than ‗copy‘. which shows that at very high velocities.Empirio-Criticism entitled Has Matter Disappeared. a model of ] real motions of moderate velocity. as an approximate copy of objective reality. mass increases and space and time are warped. It forms the subject of Manjit . Lenin correctly identified as materialist a theory that was to revolutionise physics and lead to the atom bomb. it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of [i. Lenin gives a long quote from the French philosopher Abel Rey.e. while the new physics is a copy of real motions of enormous velocity.

There will be a new model of reality at the atomic level at some point. physicists today would answer ―No‖. Quantum: Einstein. what can science tell us about reality? Science certainly does not proceed gradually and steadily towards revealing the exact nature of reality. Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality. as was once thought. if not all. (Physical Review. Einstein felt that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics lacked what he called ―elements of reality‖. Can QuantumMechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? written with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. But this philosophy can be traced . each new model negating the previous model. which (among other things) states that science tells us nothing about reality at all. Postmodernist philosophers therefore challenge the validity of all scientific models. Most. but merely reflects the various political and cultural trends of the day. 15 May 1935) Einstein asked whether or not quantum mechanics was the final word on the subject. In his paper.What then is the value of the current quantum mechanical model? If one model merely replaces another. Post-modernist philosophy arose in the 1980s as an essentially rightwing philosophy.Kumar‘s 2008 book. But this immediately provokes the common question .

relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties. Science tends to be funnelled within well-established scientific theories or ‗paradigms‘ until a scientific revolution overturns our views of the natural world. through the philosophies of post-structuralism and structuralism to the US physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Instead. Kuhn showed that science advances through scientific revolutions which break through the essentially conservative restraints of culture and society. he wrote. Lenin wrote: ―But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate. describing the clash of opposites within science and the scientific community. ―one pursues attainable relative . But Marxism has always understood the approximate nature of scientific models and rejected the idea of a final truth.‖ Engels stated over 100 years ago that ―absolute truth‖ is unobtainable by philosophy or any other means. written in 1962. This new world-view completely destroys the old paradigm.back. Kuhn‘s concrete historical study presented a new dialectical understanding of the nature of the development of scientific models. Back in 1908. It was Kuhn who overthrew the idea that science advances gradually and smoothly towards some kind of final truth in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Does the negation of one system by another mean that there has been nothing but a meaningless cycle of different philosophical (or scientific) systems? "If that was the case. Hegel explains that elements of the old negated ideas are ―preserved in the later: but subordinated and submerged‖.truths along the path of the [natural] sciences‖ Almost two hundred years ago. In science. the usual. so that scientists can manipulate nature ever more precisely. but they are far more powerful at predicting what nature will do under definite circumstances.‖ Hegel considers scientific development as merely part of this history of philosophy. Scientific interpretations (such as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. producing the vast and often destructive leaps science has made over many decades. the refutation of every system which time has brought forth. most saddening. Models . Hegel addressed what he called ―the true meaning of a much misunderstood phenomenon in the history of philosophy — the refutation of one system by another. displaying. para 86) But this is not so. of all studies. the history of philosophy [including science] would be. as it does. most commonly used interpretation for the last half century or so) arise to help with scientific predictions." (Part One of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic. successful new theories may be very different to the old ones they have overthrown.

(e. capitalists and capitalist countries need scientists who successfully understand nature to the extent that they can develop new products. and as Engels said. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. p. solipsism or subjective idealism. How ever much capitalism distorts the functioning and usefulness of science. 153).may be approximate and temporary in the great scheme of things. p. common and non-technical sense). former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher once mistakenly declared. What is absent in modern philosophical discussions of science is the understanding of the role of capitalism. This is precisely because post-modernism in its various forms arose to deny the validity of scientific Marxist descriptions of historical processes as well as the prevailing social democratic concepts of society – ―there is no such thing as society‖. they discover relative truths. In this way science does not and cannot tend towards mysticism. but they nevertheless can be said to reflect reality (using the term ‗reflect‘ in a natural. scientists are instinctively materialist. Metaphysical and . so that their capitalist owners and capitalist nations can compete more successfully. Not the ultimate reality. As Lenin repeatedly says. but instead. despite what any philosopher or scientist says. must always tend towards a materialist approach.g. just a reflection of reality. 147.

but rather the simplistic. ―as if by magic. As Kumar explains. two founders of quantum mechanics. Bohr and Heisenberg realised that their discoveries meant the need for a new interpretation of reality. shall we surrender to radical idealism?‖ But the point is. not dialectical materialism. ―Having vanquished materialism thanks to physics. 452) Kumar sides with Einstein because quantum mechanics appears to defy materialism. Lenin . reappear in another without ever being anywhere in between‖.dialectical materialism Einstein made a major contribution to the development of quantum mechanics through his paper on quantum leaps in 1905. Kumar is not defending genuine dialectical materialism. It was like a tree disappearing in London and suddenly reappearing in Paris or New York. p. for which he won the Nobel prize. (Bernard D‘Espagnat. Kumar defends what Lenin termed ―metaphysical‖ materialism. In fact. Bernard d‘Espagnat says. In the 1930s. he answers No. 19th century interpretation of materialism which Heisenberg rejects. On Physics and Philosophy. Heisenberg argues that quantum mechanics had ―led physicists far away from the simplistic materialist views that prevailed in the natural sciences of the 19th century‖. an electron can appear to be in one place in an atom and then. Einstein began a famous debate with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

So what method did Lenin use. In other words. Materialism and EmpirioCriticism. which led to him to correctly assess Einstein‘s theory? Lenin argued that the latest scientific discoveries have not refuted dialectical materialism at all.said: ―The recognition of immutable elements. ―of the immutable substance of things. Lenin wrote: ―Engels says explicitly that ‗with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science … materialism has to change its form‘. materialism. Lenin showed this. what it means to recognise a scientific theory as materialist must change as science develops. Chapter Five. Materialism (as opposed to dialectical materialism) may take various forms.e. by recognising that for the philosophy of dialectical materialism. i. anti-dialectical. is not materialism. section ―Matter has disappeared‖ p. .‖ (Lenin. but dialectical materialism is free from any particular epoch‘s scientific fixations.. not by defending what Heisenberg called the simplistic 19th century‘s materialist views. but metaphysical. over the centuries. but by revising them. as upheld by various scientists and philosophers. 249) Kumar defends an abstract philosophy of metaphysical materialism against modern scientific theory.‖ and so forth.

science appeared to overturn the way the material world was conceived. a revision of his natural-philosophical [i. but ―approximate‖ and ―relative‖. scientific] propositions is not only not ―revisionism‖. But in Lenin‘s day. 239) Lenin therefore revised what had previously been considered to be the basic tenets of materialism for Marxists. also. In the . Lenin threw out all of Engels‘ purely scientific materialist statements (his natural-philosophical propositions). Chapter Five. but. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. In the famous Schrödinger‘s cat thought experiment. the cat is both alive and dead until it is observed. And in point of fact. an observation particularly insufficient after Einstein showed that mass and energy could be transformed one into the other. What was left was simply a return to Engels‘ assertion that ―those who regard Nature as primary. p. belong to the various schools of materialism‖ – an insistence that dialectical materialism recognises that the facets of a simple scientific.e. Today.Hence a revision of the ―form‖ of Engels‘ materialism. on the contrary. such as ‗matter in motion‘. quantum mechanics seems to challenge our most basic assumptions about things like space and time – about things appearing to be in two places at once.‖ (Lenin. in the accepted meaning of the term. materialist outlook of a particular epoch are never fixed for all time. is an essential requirement of Marxism.

against whom Lenin directed his book. namely. Preface) The error the Bolshevik leaders made was outlined by Engels in a comment in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: ―Feuerbach lumps together . materialism ..‘‖ (Lenin. p. to argue that Engels‘ views had become ―antiquated‖.‖ The Bolshevik leaders under attack were mistaking materialism as expressed by Engels at a ―definite historical stage‖ for Marxist . Materialism and Empiriocriticism. 241) This led the Bolshevik leaders. Engels‘ dialectics is ―mysticism‖. Mass disappears. We are faced.. says Poincare. The foundations of mechanics are undermined.. (Lenin. with the ruins of the old principles of physics.. They believed ―materialism thus appears to be refuted by … the ‗modern theory of knowledge‖. and the special form in which this world outlook was expressed at a definite historical stage. ‗a general debacle of principles. Newton‘s principle.chapter entitled ―The Crisis in Modern Physics‖ Lenin writes: ―The entire mass of the electrons… proves to be totally and exclusively electrodynamic in its origin. the equality of action and reaction. is undermined. in the eighteenth century. Lenin reports. and so on. Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Moreover.

light. convertible into one another according to definite laws. and so proved post factum along physical lines Descartes‘ principle that the quantity of motion present in the world is constant. With that the special physical energies. like astronomy before it. In Dialectics of Nature.‖ (Engels. heat. The fortuitousness of the existence of a number of physical energies was abolished from science by the proof of their interconnections and transitions. What they lacked was a dialectical approach to materialism. Dialectics of Nature. were resolved into variously differentiated forms of the motion of matter. “Matter in motion” or "Energy" A late twentieth century example of the same error can be found in the ossified use of Engels‘ phrase ―matter in motion‖ in the works of writers such as George Novack. mechanical energy. Introduction) . had arrived at a result that necessarily pointed to the eternal cycle of matter in motion as the ultimate reality. indeed even so-called chemical energy. the as it were immutable "species" of physics. Engels celebrated the recent discoveries in science that broke down supposedly timeless and unchanging physical appearances into a flux of transformations: ―…physical energy. become transformed into one another under definite conditions without any loss of energy occurring. Physics. electricity magnetism.materialism.

Einstein showed that matter can be transformed into energy. The momentarily fashionable term. And of course. scientific history is re-written to emphasise the paths taken to the current scientific theories. This debate over matter in motion tends to be obscured because. For instance. as Thomas Kuhn explained. Science moves on.wikipedia. in his excellent condemnation of the Hungarian philosopher George Lukács. science leant to quantify ―energy‖ in Momentum is matter in motion. Engels abandoned the Dialectics of Nature manuscript unfinished. During the years that Engels was composing Dialectics of Nature. replacing the ―special physical energies‖ Engels refers to. ―matter in motion‖ was dropped by commentators and the scientific community. such as momentum. at best.‖ (http://en. ―It was argued for some years whether energy was a substance (the caloric) or merely a physical quantity. subsequently. relegating those that have been abandoned to the footnotes. This was particularly through the work of James Joule and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) which gave us the joule and the kelvin. Novack writes: ―The dialectical method of Marxism is not .This is a scientific assessment rooted in the now forgotten physics of the mid-19th century. Yet we find the distinctly out-of-date term ‗matter in motion‘ in common use in some Marxist literature almost a century later.

‖ (p. 142. it‘s how we like to think… mathematical models are always approximations to physical reality. Taming the infinite: The story of Mathematics from the first numbers to chaos theory. p. but which have been subsequently challenged by sciences such as quantum mechanics. ―the recognition of objective law in nature and the recognition that this law is reflected with approximate fidelity in the mind of man is materialism. Lenin attacks Ernst Mach over the question of causality.present … as a logical instrument for analysing matter in motion in the physical.‖ (Lukács as a Marxist philosopher in George Novack. 198) . if not almost universal. at the time of Lenin. physical laws are human attempts to approximate our formulas to reality. writing. p. but that‘s just a technique.‖ (Ian Stewart . the mathematician Ian Stewart writes: ―We use formulas to model physical reality. In his latest book. social and intellectual realms. Reality is not now thought to be ultimately reducible to any laws. "Objective law in nature"? Lenin also assumed certain basic concepts that at the time were materialist. my emphasis) It is ironic that Novack does not recognise his ―metaphysical‖ materialism. for instance. Rather. Polemics in Marxist Philosophy. 142) But the revolutionary development of quantum mechanics and chaos theory ensured that science no longer can speak of ―objective law in nature‖ common.

are defining reality in terms of what exists at the atomic level. p. 307) Today. as a whole.Causality is part of Lenin‘s materialist outlook. is partly arguing here that all apparently causal laws in nature are in fact human attempts to impose approximate laws on nature. are only exploring this issue at this stage). One could argue that scientists (who. We will look at this shortly. ―you can read that time and space are categories of our minds. ―if any . Polemics in Marxist Philosophy. Lenin attacks Mach for arguing.‖ Einstein also felt that the quantum mechanics lacks an element of reality because it appears to deny causality. that they result from the requirements of our thinking. 10) Time and space do not exist at the atomic level in the same way they do for us. ―In nature. whereas reality is what we experience ourselves. in fact. As Trotsky writes. Mach. philosophical books.‖ (Leon Trotsky on Dialectical Materialism in George Novack. which is correct. Trotsky‘s materialist outlook includes definite statements about space and time which are currently being questioned by scientists. Trotsky points out that in certain idealist. and that nothing corresponds to them in reality. there is neither cause nor effect. you can read something which sounds similar (but is not the same) in the June 2010 edition of Scientific American: ―The idea of points of space-time as being primary objects is artificial‖ (Scientific American. June 2010. p.

instead of arriving in time to catch the nine p. as some kind of ―emergent property of whatever the basic ingredients of the world are‖ as the Scientific American article. which is real enough also – but do not expect to see life in individual atoms of carbon. Why define reality only by what we humans commonly experience? Scientists do not deny that time and space emerge so that we can experience them. 42) They do not assert. Another emergent property is life. shortly. ―Is Time an Illusion‖ puts it. What this all means is that when we approach quantum mechanics. though every living thing is composed entirely of atoms of carbon and other inorganic material. (Scientific American. we cannot simply insist that it bases itself on the old materialist presuppositions of the past. time and space do not exist in some real sense at the atomic level. we examine Einstein‘s qualms about missing ―elements of reality‖. as idealists do.‖ But this becomes merely an anthropomorphic view if. And when. he would see the tail of the departing train and would be convinced by his own eyes that time and space are inseparable from material reality.idealist philosopher. June 2010. as we shall shortly see. we shall see that these essentially out-dated materialist concerns have indeed been thrown into question. should turn up two minutes late.m. that nothing corresponds to time and space in reality. p. . train.

But nothing .Lenin’s theory of knowledge Just as Lenin insisted it is a essential requirement of Marxism to revise Engels‘ scientific propositions. However. Several chapters of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism deal with the theory of knowledge – what do we really know about the world? Since. These attempts fail. Equally. therefore I am‖. Lenin is correct to attack Mach‘s philosophical approach. like Mach. just as we fail to detect life at the level of the atom. devoid of philosophical presuppositions. Positivists. Unfortunately. the more sophisticated attempts of the logical positivists failed. is what Descartes had already stated: ―I think. which is the antithesis of the dialectical approach. science seems to throw everything we thought we knew into question. this subject pops up a lot in philosophy. try to make sense of the world by starting with the individual‘s sensations and hope to build from there a coherent view of the world. with every great scientific revolution. so it is our duty very briefly to revise Lenin‘s Materialism and EmpirioCriticism where required. Lenin was misled by the belief that the term ―relative to the observer‖ meant ―subjective‖. All that can really be discovered by this classical philosophical method. This means that his attacks on Ernst Mach on the question of space and time are incorrect. an almost universal misunderstanding at the time.

for instance. As Lenin correctly argues.g. silently. Wittgenstein gave up philosophy to train as a primary school teacher. in Materialism and EmpirioCriticism. He writes.more. . the chapter on Feuerbach in the German Ideology) and had not yet studied Hegel closely. Ludwig Wittgenstein. the grandly named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. he who understands me finally recognises them as nonsensical … Whereof one cannot speak. ―The first premise of the theory of knowledge undoubtedly is that the source of our knowledge is sensation. (He returned to philosophy later in life. who heavily influenced the school of logical positivism. thereof one must be silent. Lenin did not have access to Marx and Engels‘ early writings. refuting his former views. (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. (e. concluded his seminal work.) Writing in 1908. we breathe. this leads nowhere but the standpoint of solipsism. For this reason. with the words: ―My propositions are elucidatory in this way.‖ And.‖ But contrast this with his treatment of Feuerbach: ―Feuerbach makes the sum-total of human practice the basis of the theory of knowledge… Before we perceive. we cannot exist without air. when positivism was (once again) an exciting new fashion. Lenin makes too many concessions to the positivist approach he is criticising. food and drink.

who is asking the question and why? What is the significance of the language in which it is being asked? Philosophers and theologians who ask philosophical questions about what we can know about the world (epistemology) arise only once humankind has raised productivity high enough to sustain scholars. 128) Lenin quotes Feuerbach: ―Does this mean then that we must deal with questions of food and drink when examining the problem of the ideality or reality of the world?— exclaims the indignant idealist. Marxists do not examine the sensations involved and work from the individual.p. . in what historical context did this question arise? What is the context of the question. given the latest quantum mechanical discoveries. instead. we can know that anything outside of our immediate sensations really exists. only to practice materialism with all one‘s heart and soul in the rudest form at the table d‘hôte. How vile! What an offence against good manners soundly to trounce materialism in the scientific sense from the chair of philosophy and the pulpit of theology. but we ask. should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge.‖ Lenin summarises thus: ―The standpoint of life.‖ (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. of practice. pp. 128-9) When the philosopher asks how.

develops historically in communities who carry its shared meanings.administrators and clerics. the historical materialist method insists that we start from the ―origin and development of knowledge‖ as Lenin later surmised. all-embracing philosophy which always examines things in their relations and development and does not allow the philosopher to rule out of order the context in which a question is being asked. A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism. Rather than starting from the individual. Lenin writes that the theory of knowledge ―must regard its subject matter historically‖: . for publication in one of Russia‘s most popular encyclopaedias. Lenin turned to Hegel‘s Science of Logic after the devastating defeat the international Marxist movement suffered when the Social Democratic parties decided to support their own capitalist class in the first world war (1914-1918). as the later Wittgenstein showed. Questions about epistemology can only arise in certain concrete circumstances. The language in which the question is expressed. In 1914. Language has no strictly logical structure – it is a shared heritage. It was then that Lenin wrote Karl Marx. it is impermissible to consider things in isolation. Dialectical materialism is a monist. For philosophers of dialectics. If philosophers consider this reply to questions on the theory of knowledge an offence against good manners. that is too bad.

and also in conformity with Hegel. Einstein championed three basic propositions which he called elements of reality. A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism. studying and generalizing the origin and development of knowledge. Einstein derided this "spooky action at a distance" of quantum mechanics. includes what is now called the theory of knowledge. too. 1914) Einstein’s elements of reality: Locality As Kumar correctly explains. as understood by Marx. Experiments in the 1980s to the present day demonstrated that if two photons are simultaneously emitted . Causality and Objectivity. which. must regard its subject matter historically. Locality is the belief that things in separate localities cannot be in instantaneous touch with each other in the way quantum mechanics appeared to suggest.‘ Dialectics. the transition from non-knowledge to knowledge. or epistemology. and which he felt were undermined by quantum mechanics. We will terms these Locality. aware that this is a vast simplification of issues we can only extremely briefly indicate.―Dialectical materialism ‗does not need any philosophy standing above the other sciences. yet it has since been proved experimentally.‖ (Lenin.‘ From previous philosophy there remains ‗the science of thought and its laws— formal logic and dialectics. Karl Marx.

Even though they each travel speed of light away from each other. 2008). more or less instantaneously. that the pairs of photons sent to the different Swiss towns seemed to ‗know‘. The experiment even took into account how the rotation of the earth might affect the experimental results. It was Erwin Schrödinger who first used the term ―entangled‖ when devising his Schrödinger‘s cat thought experiment. or more precisely by their equipment. in some sense. the distance between the two Swiss towns was so great that. (Spacelike Separation in a Bell Test Assuming Gravitationally Induced Collapses. if the particles had communicated with each other at the time of the experiment. using optical fibres. Making pairs of entangled photons. The scientists found. The latest experiment to test quantum entanglement was conducted by physicists from the University of Geneva in June 2008. 14 August. as expected. they are somehow still part of the same entity. while the other was sent to Jussy. 18 kilometres away. communication between the entangled pair of photons would have taken place at ten thousand times the speed of light. Compared to previous experiments. they sent one of each pair from Geneva in Switzerland to the Swiss town of Satigny. It seems just as likely (if not more so). how their partner was being manipulated by the scientists. Nature. that entangled objects have a connection .from an atom they are ‗entangled‘ or in instantaneous touch with each other.

there is no causality. Kumar compares the random radioactive decay of atoms to an apple falling from a tree. Kumar asserts. Yet we do not know. It is not at all clear that there is a . precisely. However. The wind blowing the apples down is chaotic and cannot be predicted precisely. Kumar writes. They act as if they do not acknowledge the existence of separate localities. when each apple will fall. precisely. and the apple would hover for an unknown period of time in the air before falling. Causality Examining Heisenberg‘s uncertainty principle. quantum mechanics has revealed the causes of atomic decay. just as we do not know. nor can the atrophy of the cells in the stems of individual apples which connects the apple to the tree branch be precisely known. in the quantum world. But this is misleading. it falls to the ground. Just like the quantum leap of electrons which Einstein helped define in 1905. which appear to defy our concepts of space and time by disappearing from one place and reappearing in another without passing in between.outside of time and space in some unknown way. In an apple orchard. caused by gravity. the apples fall in autumn and we know the causes.. Similarly. these entangled objects appear to disregard space and time. Once the apple is ripe. when each atom will decay.

difference between causality in the example of the apple orchard. whether they are atoms attracted by electrical forces or planets or stars attracted by gravity. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion.‖ (Pierre Simon Laplace. Differences in the initial conditions. if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis. even if only three physical bodies are in motion around each other. their motion is chaotic and hence can never be calculated exactly. The most idealised notion of causality (determinism) was expressed by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 –1827) ―We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. merely by calculating the initial position or motion to a greater degree of accuracy. for instance. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities) Yet in reality. leads to completely different outcomes. and all positions of all items of which nature is composed. discovered. for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. rather than an . let alone more. and causality at the atomic or subatomic level as understood by quantum mechanics. It appears that quantum mechanics has revealed that we had an idealised notion of causality. as the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912) showed. it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom.

Heisenberg wrote that Einstein wished to return to "the idea of an objective. real world". The economy under capitalism is equally chaotic. due to our Marxist analysis. (Physics and Philosophy. but given the right conditions. but only in the last analysis.‖ We know. independently of whether or not we observe them". 82-83) . Objectivity In 1958. pp. Trotsky writes. This does not challenge the Marxist view that in the final analysis the economic conditions in a society determine its political structure. that there may be a sudden interruption of the old order by a revolution which renders all previous theories invalid.increasingly accurate result. ―Although economics determines politics not directly or immediately. Poincaré‘s ideas laid the basis for modern chaos theory. nevertheless economics does determine politics. a hurricane can suddenly develop. where subatomic particles "exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist. permanently transforming the landscape. the means by which economic circumstances will determine the political superstructure. Capitalist economics is chaotic like the world‘s weather – the economy falls into repeating cycles of prosperity or slump. And we are aware. as Marxists. but we cannot precisely determine the pace of events or in many cases even the precise order of events.

Einstein wrote: ―… there is no such thing as an independently existing trajectory. until you consider that it was Einstein who had discovered that space and time were relative to an observer or. Relativity. How far has it travelled? Two metres. relative to an observer.Sounds reasonable. you will readily accept that in the two second it took the coin to rise and fall. it has travelled two metres as measured inside the train. p. relative to a particular body of reference. using the common terms. or more precisely. (1916). But if we imagine the train is going 30 kilometres an hour from London to Manchester. to use Einstein‘s more exact language. on the place you measure from – the ―body of reference‖. only a trajectory relative to a particular body of reference‖ or. but you get different values for time and space depending on what your frame of reference is. of course. If you tossed the coin in a train. one up one down? It depends. That would be a . more precisely. Time and space are objective. You might be inclined to say your measurement on the train is incorrect and that the measurement of someone on the embankment watching the train go by is correct. the coin has also travelled with the train some distance north – a little over 8 metres. (Einstein. 10) Toss a coin in the air. And it depends on the observer. Einstein gives the example of a train. It rises a metre and falls again.

without our being able to feel the effects of the motion. ―In the first place. Consider that the earth is going at some 30 kilometres a second round the sun. What about the spacetraveller who is stationary with respect to the sun. we cannot form the slightest conception. And the sun is going round the galaxy. but no amount of scientific measurements can show the difference – this is something which Galileo proved when he argued that the earth goes round the sun. then. (1916). the coin has travelled some 60 kilometres. ―we entirely shun the vague word ‗space‘ of which.scientific error. and we replace it by ‗motion relative to a … body of reference. p. who watches the coin. to the problem of space. as Einstein said. we must honestly acknowledge. there is no independently existing trajectory for the coin. through some very powerful binoculars.‖ Einstein writes. Relativity. as the earth thunders past? For her. . and the galaxy is speeding at some 1000s of kilometres away from other galaxies… whose observation (measurement) is correct? The answer is. once more. 9) We return. for a matter of convenience or policy.‘‖ (Einstein. And he learnt this from Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré. which measurement is to be accepted as the only correct one. You may decide. plus the other movements. only a trajectory relative to a particular body of reference.

as if they can go back in time and start again. In 1935. Supporting Einstein. the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger also wanted to discover a physics which was deterministic rather than probabilistic and dependent on an observer. in which a cat is both dead and alive until observed. Subatomic particles seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Einstein wanted science to be able to say precisely what the state of something was without disturbing it . how we observe them. depending on how we set up our apparatus – that is. A rainbow is not a single object but a complex combination of natural processes.Subatomic particles may appear to be waves or particles. The US physicist Nick Herbert pointed out that insisting that subatomic particles have an independent existence is like insisting that rainbows are solid objects and have some definite place in space irrespective of the observer. if we change our method of measurement. We know that rainbows appear to be different in appearance and in different places depending on the position of the observer. They are objectively real yet relative to the observer. But at issue here is the notion of observation. and it is true that the issue has not been resolved. They even seem to change their behaviour retrospectively. Their behaviour indicates that somehow time is not what it seems. he devised the famous Schrödinger‘s cat thought experiment. or does not exist.

with an observation. it will cool it down. But when you next use a thermometer to take the temperature of something. If it is hotter than the body you are testing.10) . So how do you accurately take the temperature of something? In practice. p. ask yourself what the temperature of the thermometer is. it will heat it up. It remains a fact that subatomic particles do not exist objectively. that is what the ‗hottest‘ physics on the planet is suggesting at the time of writing. in the same way as the discovery of electromagnetic radiation helped us understand the transient nature of rainbows. June 2010. as Heisenberg explained. independently of whether or not we observe them. but are more like rainbows. At least. Perhaps Einstein and Schrödinger were making an error of judgement similar to someone trying to find the origins of life by examining carbon atoms. ―in the same sense as stones or trees exist‖. which is merely a reflection of our own living experience. (Scientific American. If it is colder. the idea that the scientist lives in a bubble outside of nature and can experiment on it without disturbing it is an idealised notion. Conclusion One day. It might demonstrate that at the atomic level there is only ―a single dimension of highly warped space‖ and none of time. a new theory will overthrow quantum mechanics and reveal the deeper reality behind subatomic particles.

Pete Mason is author of " . But as Marxists. Marxism and the Big Bang . as dialectical materialists. Undoubtedly another cherished tenet of material reality will be demolished. we cannot be found attempting to defend outmoded views on what constitutes reality. Fax: ++ 44 20 8988 8793. London E11 1YE. read online | buy print Theory Science Committee for a Workers' International PO Box Tel: ++ 44 20 8988 8760. Britain.When the next revolution in science occurs. we must keep in mind Hegel‘s ―true meaning of the refutation of one system by another‖. but must face up to the new results of experiments and measurements. Moscow. cwi@worldsoc. with the usual cries of bewilderment from the media and philosophers of metaphysical materialism.A Critical Review of ‘Reason in Revolt‘". Bibliography Quotes from Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism are from the edition first published in 1947 by Progress publishers.

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