On Questions Epistemological (or on the Theory of Knowledge)

On Questions Epistemological (or on the Theory of Knowledge)

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In the history of nature, the emergence of a higher level of complexity of matter out of its material pre-conditions is simultaneously the process of positing those natural laws which are intrinsic to itself and which govern its further development.  For example, the historical origination of living matter out of its non-living precursors is simultaneously the emergence of those fundamental laws which are peculiar to or specific to living matter and which determine its movement and subsequent evolution. Whilst evolving out of the non-living with its physico-chemical relations, living matter has its own distinct relations. The eariest forms of life arose out of the most complex of non-living, chemical, macromolecular forms of matter. The emergence of living forms represented a qualitative break in the history of nature. It is at these junctions in natural development that new relations and laws peculiar to the new stage are posited. The development from the physical to the chemical was a similar ‘nodal point’.

This is why scientific theories which deal with the nature of living matter, for example, can only be applied, without qualification, to formations which are exclusively biological in character. Likewise, the application of chemical theory and technique in order to understand the chemistry of living matter can only be made on the basis of the premise that living systems are not simply a complex mixture of chemicals but represent a higher form of organisation of nature. Therefore, speaking generally, the application of the laws of a lower sphere of nature to the material and relational complexities of a higher sphere in order to gain a real knowledge of it can only be made with and under specific conditions and qualifications which take into account the distinct organisation and characteristics of the higher formation which is being investigated. Thus, in Psychology, for example, to understand the human mind as a totality it is scientifically insufficient to focus exclusively on its biological side.  It is necessary to grasp its origin and development as a function of social conditions and relations that have come into being historically.

The historical evolution of the human personality is inseparable from the social development of humanity. It would be a mistake to consider both mental structures and psychological relations such as the different emotions, social notions, conceptual content, etc, to be indeterminably fixed for all time as is the tendency amongst some biologists, psychologists and the recent bogus ‘discipline’ of Evolutionary Psychology. We must consider the possibility that the human being of the historically far distant society would be utterly unrecognisable to humanity at its present historical stage. So much so that their mode of life and relationships would even be considered to be quite incredible if not totally alien in all aspects, especially the moral, to those modes and relations prevailing at the present time. Of course, there are many presuppositions to this assertion which are beyond the scope of this article.

The human mind is the highest known outcome of this entire historical development of matter, that is, of development as whole. It contains this entire history of these previous stages superseded within it and yet is a qualitatively higher, distinct determination vis-a-vis all these previous stages. The physical, chemical, biological, social and psychological are different stages in the evolution of matter. Each stage arising out of the previous stages and containing them superseded within itself; the most self-subsistent (sui generis) stage being the physical. The actual organisation of the sciences corresponds to the different stages and levels of the complexity of matter.

All our conceptions of the way nature works are historically and technically conditioned. They are relative conceptions of the way nature works. They are approximate conceptions and always will be since human knowledge of nature will always be subject to alteration in both its technical application and overall theoretical conceptions. The fact that we can operate with such conceptions in technical practice and achieve goals which were posited in advance based on theory, demonstrates the close relation and correspondence between our scientifically derived conceptions of the world and its actual objective character independently of those conceptions. This is not to preclude the notion that all such conceptions necessarily contain error seeded within them by virtue of their relative and approximate nature. For example, the relationship between Newton and Einstein or even that between Lamarck and Darwin. There is and always will be room for change in scientific knowledge and practice because nature in itself is infinitely complex, inexhaustible in its attributes and characteristics, a neverending abyss of forms and detailed inner complexity. By definition, our scientific conceptions will never be absolute in their conceptual content and are and will always be relative and conditioned, subject to change and alteration. The relative truth of a conception in one epoch enables us to grasp the relative error or relatively erroneous sides of a supplanted conception of previous times.

Humanity’s conceptions of nature can be tested in the scientific, technical and productive activities of humanity.  These activities, their results and the evaluation of them constitute the most adequate criteria for testing the truth of our knowledge of nature i.e. of investigating the correlation and correspondence of our conceptions with the world of nature external to our consciousness. These forms of activity, and the comprehension of their results, become the most adequate criteria of the objective character of our conceptions of the way both nature and society work.

On the basis of such knowledge, a pre-arrangement and planning of activities can be carried out in order to meet human needs.  It is industry and technique generally that are, as Marx writes in his early work on Political Economy, the materialisation and demonstration of the rational and productive powers of humanity and which demonstrate the objectively truthful correspondence between the character of natural processes and the  character of our notions of them i.e. they demonstrate these notions to be forms of knowledge of nature.  However, at the same time, it is important to note that…

the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely.  This criterion too is sufficiently “indefinite” not to allow human knowledge to become “absolute”.

[Lenin. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Progress, Moscow 1970.  p.129. ]

Nature, therefore, is accessible to human understanding i.e. it is knowable but ‘the criterion of practice’ is ‘sufficiently indefinite’ to preclude the absolutisation of ideas and hence dogmatism. The different forms of knowledge can never be ossified into immutable notions of the way nature works.  All these forms are mobile in their conceptual content, revealing nuances of error and inadequacy as technique, investigative method and new discoveries show up the contradictions in scientific theory.  Hence, in its overall historical development, human knowledge of nature tends to become more comprehensive, more complete, more exact, profounder in its conceptual content and explains a wider field of phenomena.

Whilst its development gives humanity a forever deepening knowledge of nature, this understanding never absolutely precludes inexactitude, incompleteness or the potential for further development in any body of knowledge. For example, modern physics gives a more accurate and adequate description of all those forms of matter which are described by the theories of classical physics.  Under specific conditions, the axioms and paradigms of the latter are less adequate and exact. For example, the theoretical principles of Newtonian mechanics become less adequate and accurate when they are employed in attempts to scientifically describe moving objects approaching the velocity of light. The range and applicability of modern physics is more comprehensive and embraces a wider field of physical phenomena than the older classical ideas. The further evolution of physics will, in its turn, ‘classicalise’ the ideas of contemporary physics.

Therefore, in its development, human knowledge of nature reveals its historically-conditioned character and demonstrates that there is no absolute, ultimate concrete knowledge in natural science.  All concrete forms of scientific knowledge of nature contain latent erroneous sides that become manifest as the rational powers of humanity develop, showing up the relative and approximate character of these forms.  Whilst the role of abstract thought is indispensable in understanding what is essential in a range of phenomena (and therefore central to the processes of discovery), it must be grasped that human knowledge of any natural process can never fully and completely exhaust the infinite complexity of any given natural process as a whole.

Every step forward in the evolution of scientific knowledge is a movement towards the deepest possible, all-embracing, absolute knowledge of nature. However, it is not, and can never be, the final, immutable word. Any body of scientific knowledge is a kind of conceptual asymptote in which knowledge constantly approaches the absolute objective character of its object but never actually or finally arrives at it. Our knowledge of nature is always liable to deepen, to change and always will be so. This, of course, is a function of the inexhaustible and infinitely complex and diverse character of nature. It is a function of the primacy of nature over our conceptions of it.

As soon as humanity becomes rationally conscious of the principle that nature has its modi operandi which are both discoverable and explicable, it ceases to be nature’s marionette (at least to the same degree as it was previously) and the possibility opens up for its technical and practical manipulation in order to serve human interests. Needless to say, they may also be deployed for the purposes of oppression and destruction as we witness today in the age of capital.

As the techniques of scientific investigation and research develop, new discoveries are made which can introduce inconsistencies and contradictions into the body of a theory. These fissures emerge within a theory when discoveries made cannot be accommodated within the parameters of the existing theory i.e. cannot be explained on the grounds of the prevailing paradigm. Hence, the discoveries which are most significant are those which are not consistent with the general nature of a theory. The resulting posited contradictions which emerge can thenceforth only be resolved by the modification of the theory or by its complete transformation into a new, paradigmatically different, theory. A ‘revolution’ in the particular sphere of human knowledge which was characteristically represented by the previously existing dominant theory. The usual example given in this regard is the crisis in Physics at the end of the nineteenth century.

Newtonian conceptions, which previously had been thought to be eternally and universally applicable under all conditions and circumstances, were shown to be adequate only within definite physical parameters, that is, under specific conditions. The development of Physics in this period engendered within itself contradictions which could only be resolved by means of a transformation in its fundamental theoretical principles. It was the arising of these contradictions which created the conditions for this transformation at the beginning of the twentieth century. This theoretical leap forward took the form of the new conceptions in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics which formed the basis for the subsequent development of Physics in the twentieth century.

This example illustrates a general tendency that asserts itself in the evolution of human knowlege. Namely, that the emergence of a theory which gives a deeper, more profound and more widely embracing conception of nature simultaneously reveals, brings into relief, the truth that the theory which was previously dominant in a particular field of knowledge was a limiting case of what has now displaced it. The older theory’s limits are revealed in the emergence of the new theory; the limits of Newtonian mechanics were revealed at the beginning of the twentieth century with the development of the ‘New Physics’.

The establishment of the parameters of the new theory tends to circumscribe the applicability of the principles of the old theory. It renders the applicability of these principles qualifiable only within the operation of the previous set of parameters of the older conceptions. Attempts to apply the older principles within the parameters of the new theory give rise to contradictions which are scientifically inconsistent and theoretically incoherent. For example, Newtonian conceptions start to break down at velocities approaching that of light but remain applicable and scientifically valid at lower velocities. It is entirely possible to employ Relativistic conceptions in the design of a fairground rollercoaster but, at the velocities involved, Newtonian Mechanics are sufficient. Newtonian conceptions alone would be inadequate in the design of the hardware and software of the latest satellite and computer technology.

The concepts which constitute the body of a theory are therefore subject to continual testing and examination in order to discern their applicability under all possible conditions. This is the case especially when new discoveries contradict the established universality. The modification or eclipse of the established theory by the displacing conceptions tends to express a deeper, more widely applicable and more universal knowledge of natural phenomena in the given field of knowledge. In this way, scientific thought tends to become richer, more concentrated and more concrete in its conceptual content as it constantly approaches an absolute conception of nature whilst never actually arriving at such a conception. Posited here is a dialectical relationship in the development of knowledge between the absolute and the relative.

The historical development of knowledge increasingly expresses the inner unity of the infinite diversity and complexity of nature. Of course, on the face of things, it may seem that this advance of knowledge tends towards increasing levels of abstraction. However, in so far as every advance in the depth and scope of knowledge embraces within itself a more profound description of an increasing variety of phenomena, then this historical development becomes a more concrete conceptual appropriation of nature. At the same time, this development reveals nature in all its endless forms to be inherently dialectical, showing contradiction to be the animating principle of its life and ‘self-movement’.

Both Hegel and Marx recognised contradiction to be immanent in nature, society, mind. The formal, non-dialectical conceptions we often meet in the outlook of scientists tend to view contradiction as an irrational foible of mind or a flaw in method rather than indwelling in specific form in the object itself. It is thought to have no reality or manifestation outside the internality of consciousness.

Of course, formal conceptions have applicability within definite limits and parameters wherein objects with a relative degree of stability are being investigated. For example, in Chemistry, in order to study precipitation reactions:

A+(aq)  +  X- (aq)  +   B+(aq)  +   Y- (aq)  —————>   AY (s)   +    B+(aq) +  X- (aq)

In the above example, from the fundamentals of chemistry, it becomes necessary to localise the system being studied within given conceptual parameters and experimental conditions in order to make it accessible and subject to scientific investigation within a given time span, etc. In this instance, a formal approach to the investigation enables us to grasp the essentials of the reaction taking place. This does not mean that the chemical reaction itself is not a dialectical process but that these dialectics can be comprehended under formalised conditions of investigation which assumes a certain degree of stability of the chemical system.

The development of the natural sciences tends to demonstrate, confirm and reaffirm the objective dialectics of nature itself. A dialectical understanding of the world in its different forms, although scattered in different fragments and disguises throughout the history of human thought, reaches its highest idealist elaboration and expression in Hegelian philosophy. Hegel sifted the complete history of philosophy and human thought generally.  Out of this work, and profoundly influenced in young adulthood by the events of the French Revolution (1789-1794), he developed dialectics into a form that came to serve as a theoretical source for the dialectics of Marx.

Later in the nineteenth century we see Darwin bringing a dialectical approach to the study of life in its origins and evolution. It could be argued that Darwin did not approach his life’s work as a ‘conscious’ dialectician. However, as a consequence of the character of the area he was investigating, it could also be argued that what was imposed on him was the necessity to approach his work with an overall dialectical conception. The result being that he elaborated a theory of evolution which ‘did for nature’ what Marx ‘did for society’. The objective dialectics of the world inevitably assert themselves regardless of even the most rigorous formal methods.

A dialectical approach in the natural sciences not only makes science more ‘scientific’ but can make it heuristically more fruitful. Eventually mechanistic conceptions of nature come unstuck and break down because they come up against the dialectics of the object by methodologically running contrary to the objectively dialectical character of the investigated object or process. In the course of the mechanistic approach in science, its limited and ‘unscientific’ sides emerge. This is especially the case when the investigation is moving to deeper levels. Even a machine is not really a machine but rather a dialectical process in the form of a machine. It is only a machine in its formal materiality and not even so in its functionality since the breakdown of any machine will always reveal the dialectic to have been busily at work. The mechanistic parameters of the formal logical approach in the end have to give way in the face of dialectical nature.

What are the scientific implications of the limitations of the formal-mechanistic logical approach? These limits impose a barrier on the evolution of the natural sciences which means that beyond a certain point – which must be determined for each area of human knowledge – the application of formal-mechanistic axioms in the investigation of nature, in scientific research, act as a fetter on the acquisition of a deeper, more profound knowledge of nature. At the core of this conceptual fetter is the inadmissibility of contradiction in nature itself i.e. an explicit or implicit denial of nature’s dialectical character.

We see the operation of this barrier in contemporary Physics whose research is presenting it with conundrums and paradoxes which some Physicists seek to ‘formalise’ rather than understand as being in the very nature of the object itself. Rather they struggle with their own formal conceptions of nature when they are confronted with such contradictions in their work. Accordingly, there will be a need to develop a mathematics which is capable of representing and expressing such paradoxes and conundrums since the the object itself is actually paradox manifest.

The historical development of natural science itself – especially in the sophistication of its investigative and research technique – enquiring ever more deeply into the structure, complexity and diversity of nature actually creates the methodological conditions within itself for the shift away from mechanistics towards dialectics. It becomes subject to a tendency towards transformation in its methods of approach to and general comprehension of the objects of its investigation. The ontological ground for this transformation is the objectively dialectical character of nature itself. The evolution of natural science as a whole tends to increasingly move towards a comprehensive knowledge of nature that goes beyond formal and mechanistic conceptions and posits an all-embracing dialectical conception of its life and processes. In the course of this evolution, the heuristic function of dialectical thinking must truly come into its own. But this function – to be truly heuristic – must become integrated with the real, actual procedures, practices, investigative-research methods and concrete knowledge of the natural sciences. If it is divorced from all this reality, it simply becomes ossified into a metaphysical and lifeless system of bare abstractions, alien to real research and real discovery. This integration of dialectical thought with the practice and knowledge of natural science enables it to establish a real organic connection and relationship to the dialectical reality of its objects of investigation. A mutual enrichment takes place between science and dialectics resulting in a higher synthesis which facilitates the deepening of our scientific knowledge of nature.

Dialectics is, in essence, the study of the contradictory nature of all forms of existence in its infinite variety and multiplicity of ever changing forms. A study of the contradictions in anything not only gives us a conception of its origins but also presents us with a notion of its inherent impulses and general tendencies of development. For any dialectical discourse, the point of departure must also simultaneously be the point towards which the process is tending but at a higher posited stage of development. The destination is a return to the point of departure which is also an advance beyond the point of departure. In the origination of human society and mind, that point is Nature which precedes Man and into which Man returns through social revolution : ‘fully naturalised humanism’ or ‘fully humanised naturalism’ (Marx).

Shaun May


28 February 2012



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