Purpose in Nature and Philosophy in Natural Science

Purpose in Nature and Philosophy in Natural Science

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I am sat here working at my computer and in front of me is a window through which sunlight has started to stream. On the window-sill I have a pot-plant which seems to be happy there. I water it everyday and sometimes feed it. As the sunlight started to come through the window, I noticed something which is not particularly astonishing but I think is worth thinking on. The leaf-blades on the plant all started to re-orient themselves in the specific direction of the sunlight. The Biologists have a term for this. They call it phototropism. These responses in plants are controlled, apparently, by plant ‘hormones’ known as Auxins. Observing this response in itself is, in my opinion, an observation of the intrinsic beauty of plants, their wholeness and synchronicity of movement.

How very deeply it disturbs me to see the wonderful rainforests of the world, teeming with life, being destroyed in order to farm cattle for burgers or provide palm oils for the transnational food corporations. What an extremely destructive system this capitalist system is. We must put it to the sword before it does the same to everything of truth, beauty and goodness. This to be an act of love.

The rationalist tradition in philosophy tends to ascribe purposefulness only when and where there is conscious mediation and therefore human activity. But Darwin quite conclusively demonstrated that there is indeed purposefulness in Nature i.e. that under specific conditions and pressures of selection, living organisms tend to evolve in a particular direction which implies purpose. Some organisms have developed similar structures quite independently of each other because they have been subjected to the same types of selection pressures: the operation of the relationships therein are what might be termed the unfolding of an ‘unconscious purpose’ in Nature. There is purposefulness in both social and natural development except in the former it is mediated by consciously thinking and acting human beings.

When a leaf orientates itself in order to absorb the optimum amount of sunlight, is that not a form of ‘unconscious’ purpose? There is absolutely no need whatsoever for divine intervention in such matters. In regard to the purposefulness of development, I cannot see any divergence or incompatability between Evolutionary Theory and Marx’s theory. They both contain teleological elements.

There is a real relationship between the actual movement of the leaves of the plant and the direction from which the sunlight is coming. This must be an evolutionary adaptation which probably took millions, if not billions, of years to develop. Those plants which could orientate their leaves in this way must have gained an advantage over those that could not (or were not as good at doing it) under conditions where the direction of the sunlight was irregular or constantly changing. Insofar as this tropism was genetically encoded, the transmission of its genes would have served its offspring in a similar way and thereby facililitated survival and propagation. The survival value of the mechanism is obvious. This implies that even the chance, random mutations of the genome in both plants and animals is purposive in the sense that it provides the ‘raw material’ (as expressed phenotypically) on which the laws of natural selection can work their magic.

Darwin provided us with a theory of how and why living organisms in Nature originate and evolve. There is no substitute for the real investigations and discoveries of the natural sciences. Anybody who is waiting for a “Marxist” natural science will wait for ever and rightly so. The method, spirit and discoveries of Marx’s thinking was never intended to – and never could – replace or even challlenge the undeniable or irrefutable achievements of the natural sciences. Anybody who chatters about “Marxist science” is, in my opinion, not only deceiving themselves and others but has lost sight of Marx’s conceptions of both Nature and social development.

However, when we look at the actual philosophical approach – either conscious or unconscious – of many natural scientists to their work, we can quite clearly see that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Marx’s dialectical approach to questions can also serve a heuristic function in the natural sciences including within the area of Evolutionary Theory.

In my local library recently, I picked up a copy of a book by a celebrity Physicist here in England. We find him hosting radio programmes and staring up with awe into the high heavens on TV presentations. It was the title of the book which grabbed my attention ; “Paradox?” by Jim Al Khalili. Jim himself appears to be an affable enough fellow but it is quite obvious straight away – from looking through the pages of the text – that he is completely unacquainted with both the work of Hegel and Marx and the philosophical approach which underpins it.  And yet he has been brave and gallant enough to step out into the public arena with a philosophy of science text entitled “Paradox?” It would be equivalent to Shaun May stepping out into ‘cutting edge’ areas of Quantum Mechanics or Solid State Physics with a dissertation reviewing the limitations of the latest discoveries.

The basic thesis of the book is that Nature is not inherently paradoxical and that the paradoxes that become manifest in theoretical Physics are explicable if certain theoretical adjustments are made. Paradox is viewed herein as an irrationally-produced foible of the human intellect and not as Hegel and Marx – and others before them – discovered, indwelling, immanent in Nature, Society, Mind. For many scientists, Nature is formal and without contradiction. When Nature itself contradicts this – and this becomes apparent in the paradoxes of their theories  –  they seek solutions in the modification of their method, approach or perspectives because, in their eyes, Nature cannot possibly operate dialectically, with contradiction as its animating principle. The almost inevitable outcome is generally an eclectic hotchpotch of a philosophy which merely serves to replicate in a different form those principles which the ‘philosopher of science’ has sought to go beyond.

They do not seek to comprehensively question their whole philosophical approach (which, generally, is totally in the dark about the dialectics of Nature, its dialectical ontology) but rather tend inspect, dig around and puzzle over the perspectives taken in such an approach. This is especially the case in England which is the home of philosophical Empiricism and mechanistic forms of Materialism. A dialectical approach by scientists to their work would not only bring that approach into a philosophical consonance with their objects of investigation but would undoubtedly be more fruitful on a heuristic level. Perhaps somebody should tell Jim that this would particularly be the case in the area of theoretical and particle Physics.

Shaun May

October 2013



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