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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Lenin, and crisis in natural sciences and philosophy today | Anil Rajimwale

Saturday 11 May 2024, by Anil Rajimwale


On the occasion of Lenin’s 154th birth anniversary
Lenin, and crisis in natural sciences and philosophy today

Anil Rajimwale

The discoveries in the natural sciences at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th centuries led Lenin to write one of the most celebrated works in sciences and philosophy: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The immediate instigation for the work was the ‘split’ in the atom and the consequent intense debates among the scientists and the philosophers, as new particles were discovered within and the ‘atom’ collapsed. With it, the ‘building block’ of the world was gone, replaced by intangible forces like waves and particles, difficult to identify, and also gone was the firm basis for philosophical speculation. It seemed to many that ‘matter’ had disappeared, and along with it atomism and materialism. Sharp debates engulfed natural sciences as well as philosophy.

In fact, atomism had been the age-old basis of most of the philosophies idealist, but more particularly of the materialist ones. General philosophers as well as the scientists found it difficult to imagine a world and universe without the atom: how could the world exist?! Thus both the natural sciences as well as philosophy were in deep crisis. Other great scientific discoveries only helped deepen the crisis of a scientific world-view.

This was discerned by the great Lenin, who immediately set about writing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in February 1908 in Geneva, went to London in May 1908 for more materials. Completing the book in October 1908, he secretly sent it to Moscow for printing. Lenin’s sister A.I. Elizarova corrected the proofs, sent them back to Lenin, who finalized and sent it back to Elizarova. The book was printed in May 1909. Lenin insisted on the book being printed with the utmost speed, insisting it be circulated among the social democratic party circles immediately. He must participate in the debates!

He thought it expedient to update the world-view and philosophical moorings, including in the political circles. Hence this hurry to publish a book on science and philosophy, that too in the political organization like the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party)? Lenin insisted on its serious philosophical and political considerations.

Lenin attributed great importance to the philosophical debates unleashed by discoveries and crisis in the natural sciences. Many people underestimate the impact of scientific discoveries on the world-view. Its study is considered unimportant, a waste of time for political activist. In fact Lenin, leader of the great Russian revolution, was deep in the study of scientific discoveries, crisis and debates in philosophy at the time. This is a lesson for us today, when the world is going through an information and scientific-technological revolution.

We need to remember this on the occasion of Lenin’s birth anniversary, and update ourselves in philosophical, ideological and natural scientific fields.

Lenin as an outstanding philosopher

People know Lenin as an outstanding political leader, economist, organizer, tactician, etc. But he was equally accomplished philosopher, deeply studying the contemporary science and technology. He had mastered the dialectical method of the great German philosopher Georg Hegel, as perhaps nobody else. He mastered all the natural sciences, enriching his dialectical-philosophical method, countering mechanical and metaphysical approach. Dialectics was science of motion for him. He clearly stated that without studying the dialectics of Hegel one could not really understand at least the first volume of Marx’s Capital.

Epoch-making discoveries in natural sciences: early 20th century
It was a period of great and epoch-making discoveries in natural sciences, that changed the world in the subsequent decades. In the period of momentous developments in the natural sciences, Max Planck discovered the quantum particle in 1900, Albert Einstein prepared for relativity, first in Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 and then general relativity in 1916. He also discovered ‘the photoelectric effect’ in 1905, confirming the quantum theory. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, atom was no more the building block of the universe. Atomism-based philosophy was in crisis. It led to immense debates regarding the nature of matter and reality. Among others, they led to the famous ‘Solvay conferences’ of the world scientists to discuss the nature, meanings and implications of the new discoveries. These conferences were initiated by Ernest Solvay in 1911, in the light of the crisis in natural sciences.

Lenin considered it absolutely essential, even urgent, to discuss the new developments in the atomic sciences and atomism, and also their long-term impacts on philosophical world-view. It was necessary not only to defend materialism at the philosophical level but also to develop it to higher and deeper levels. He realized that ‘The crisis in modern physics’ consisted in the fact that the limits of matter known to us were pushed further. What “formerly seemed absolute, immutable and primary…are now revealed to be relative.” (Lenin, ibid, p269). Atom, electron (particles) are ‘inexhaustible’, strengthening materialism, rather than idealism.

The imperialist age and the natural sciences

The discoveries and crises in the natural sciences coincided with the growing crisis of imperialism, preparing for a world war, which broke out in 1914. Along with the economic and military crisis, the crisis of world outlook was also deepening. Imperialist/ bourgeois scholars questioned materialism, trying to ‘show’ that with the split in the atom, matter and materialism had ‘disappeared’. They spread mysticism, Kantianism and neo-Kantianism. They aimed at sowing ideological and philosophical confusion.

The great Immanuel Kant (18th century) was a scientist, but he also was partly an agnostic (‘reality cannot be known’). Some of the outstanding scientists fell for Kantianism, because after the atom, it was the emergence of a world ‘unknown’, seemingly, and even unknowable.

Along with new discoveries, mystic interpretations too began to spread among a section of scientists. Things were made difficult, with the intangibles replacing the tangibles in the construction of ‘the world’. Today too Kant’s philosophical agnosticism, a priorism and subjectivism influences many quantum and information scientists. (A priorism: to assume something already ‘given’, readymade). Kant’s subjective idealism is used to build a worldview out of the wave-particle duality. Even great scientists like Planck, Margenau, Rosenthal-Schneider, Reichebach, Lenzen (in ‘mathematical nature’), to an extent even Einstein, etc, were influenced by Kantian subjectivism, despite their outstanding discoveries. Philosophical world-view is mixed up with philosophy of science. Instead of the scientific discoveries being assimilated into philosophy, they are used to fit into the old concepts. Consequently, there often is a throwback into the older philosophies, e.g. the Kantian one.

Einstein simultaneously criticized Kantianism on issues, and re-establish materialism point of view, so also David Bohm and BJ Hiley. With quantum and relativity etc discoveries, Kantian agnosticism and a swing between materialism and idealism has increased. ‘A priorism’ has got hold on a big section of scientists. Debates continue.

Scientific discoveries were used to distort humanistic philosophy and use the sciences for human destruction by imperialism, both in propaganda and practice.

Problems ‘post-atom’: new levels of sciences

It was Lenin, the philosopher, who at once grasped the problem and said something profound, quoting Abel Rey, in his seminal philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, presenting the essence of the new level of science thus: “…it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of real motions of moderate velocity, while the new physics is a copy of real motions of enormous velocity.” (Moscow, 1952, p274) An extraordinary statement, relevant even more today.
That is one reason why Lenin asked the social-democrats to study the new events deeply and assimilate. That was the time of the retreat of Russian revolution after its failure in 1905-07. Social-democrats were looking for answers, but only Lenin was looking into the natural sciences and philosophy for a correct worldview. That is why he was pressing this work to be published at the earliest, following traditions of Engels’s wonderful Dialectics of Nature.
A revolutionary par excellence, he insisted on mastering motion, dialectics and change at higher levels.
The crisis in science and philosophy was (and is) because the motions of the ‘object’ to be investigated are increasing every moment. We are passing from observations of the slow mechanical motions to the near-light and light speeds. Earlier we lived in the world of slow motions; today we live in a world of accelerating velocities. Our worldview must keep pace with the accelerations in the material forms.
Today we live in a world where absolute time, absolute space and absolute motion of the Newtonian world have disappeared. That world largely coincided with the industrial revolution and Copernican planetary revolutions. Industrial revolution based upon fixed repetitive mechanical motions of machines created a mechanical world and metaphysical, mechanical worldview. The motions of machines, wheels, shafts, tools, trains etc determined the way we looked at the larger world. Even motions of planets and stars, as also our own body were looked upon as a ‘machine’.
New sciences of solids, liquids, gases, ‘work’ of machines, mechanics of tools and machines etc emerged. We were habituated to look upon the outside as in order with fixed relations, one succeeding the other. It all produced mechanical and metaphysical view of the world, like clockwork, repetitive. Our motions were slow and orderly, compared to the present. It was a great merit of Marx, Engels and Lenin that they delved deep into the industrial world and retrieved dialectics of their motions.

The industrial world was that of ‘motions of moderate velocity’, a world known as ‘Newtonian’ and ‘Cartesian’. All our major concepts of philosophy were derived from this world. By the beginning of the 20th century we thought we had more or less understood the universe, that we had final ‘tools’ to understand the world and anything in it. Our concepts and tools, scientific concepts and apparatuses could know everything.

And suddenly, all this disappeared in the light of new discoveries.
We suddenly transited to a world of ‘motions of enormous velocity’. We have unleashed the forces within the atom, with particles of enormous velocities/energies. The particle is identifiable with waves, leading to wave-particle duality. Split in atom has led to electronics and electromagnetism as new means of production as well as of information. So, this is not just science and philosophy but real economic life. Science has become a productive force, creating new tools, both of production and knowledge. This is the source of computer revolution. Today, we have got Higgs boson’, also called by some the ‘God’s particle’ (a term opposed by Higgs himself).

Fundamentally new discoveries in the natural sciences have given rise to new existential problems, such as:

What is the ‘post-atomic’ world like?

The existing world-view is built upon stability of space (e.g. earth) and step by step flow of time (as measured by the clock). We so far stood upon the earth surface and ‘looked at’ the world. This is upset now. Now we are going out into the space and looking at the earth etc.

The new particles/waves move at enormous speeds. Therefore, to ‘see’ them, we use extremely precise and deep-looking apparatuses, as well as calculations regarding e.g. particles.

According to Niels Bohr, the particle (electron) is made of cloud of waves. They do not exist separately, and so, we are dealing with ‘wave-particle’ duality, a new level of dialectics. The practical result: electronic computers. New tools identify reality at high velocities.
The ‘subject’, the observer (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’), is now in accelerating motion, unlike in industrial age. Our tools to connect the world (computers, mobiles, nano-tech) are high-speed ones. Thus a new philosophical relation between the subject and object emerges, both being in accelerating motion. Einstein said, observations/conclusions are relative, depending upon the ‘frame of reference’. We are no more fixed with and in the machine/tool.
Mastering dialectics as the ‘source of motion’ (see Hegel, Engels, Lenin) acquires greater importance with ‘enormous velocities’. World of electromagnetism and quantum forces modify structure of matter. In the new world the ‘particle’ momentary, and reality is instant transformation, conversions split-second changes.
The ‘reality’ or existence is no more confined to the tangible objects, being increasingly related with intangible ‘objects’/ processes.
Through brain-computer interface (BCI), the idea has been found to be ‘material’, and not simple photo of reality. It consists of physico-chemical, biochemical and electronic and quantum processes. In the BCI experiments, one can ‘write’ on the screen simply by seeing and thinking, as also use the computer without hands. Brain is connected to the screen using ‘brain chips’, directly sending electronic signals to the screen.
We are about to enter the age of quantum computing, which is going to have a deep impact on human life, society and social structure.
Concepts of space, time and motion are changing fundamentally. Etc.

Philosophical implications of electromagnetism
Michelson-Morley experiments related with light speed, discovery of electromagnetism in 19th century and the formulation and discovery of the quantum particle in 1900 shook the scientific world to the very roots. Gaston Bachelard the great scientist asked: is so ‘little’ (tiny) required to shake the universe! Yes, ‘a single decimal’, or parts thereof was enough!
Electromagnetism is not just and abstract science; it is part of our everyday life e.g. in electricity, fans, motors, AC, TV, generators etc. It was discovered by Michael Faraday, working with electric foils and all sorts of wires and nuts-bolts etc in a waste shop, and by Maxwell through intricate calculations, in 19th century. They demolished the concept of ‘empty space’ between two or more objects (rocks, solid objects on our planet, sun, earth, moon etc). They found, the ‘empty space’ was filled with charged electromagnetic particles and waves. It was filled with, what they called, the field, a working hypothesis as well as a reality, both a concept and an existence. Field revolutionized our concept of tangible bodies and what lies between them, thus revolutionizing our world-view. Electricity and magnetism moved through the space at light speed, creating ripples out of each other. Thus the ‘Newtonian space’ ended, and new world (electromagnetism) opened up, moving at light speed!

Our world-view shifted from the tangible bodies to the intangibles, to the field and electromagnetism. A new ‘object’ emerged, unprecedented in its challenge.

Epistemology and philosophy were thrown into crisis: what is world at light-speeds like?! Our knowledge is confined to only four percent of reality, because light, lighting the ‘world’, forms only 4% of electromagnetic spectrum. (Even that we don’t know fully!) Now the new telescopes bring world of and beyond ultra-violet and infra-red radiations. We have begun a new journey. How to interpret the new?

Matter and dialectics at light speed

Clearly, the structure of the concept of matter has to change, with greater emphasis on motions, transformations and time. Engels said, “with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science…, materialism has to change its form.” (Ludwig Feuerbach, emphasis added) Dialectics is demanding greater attention.

At very high, near-light or light-speeds, the structure of ‘matter’ changes, and consequently also the form of matter and of materialism itself. The philosophers have to assimilate this, as Lenin did. He criticized Ernst Mach, Avenarius, Bogdanov and such other scientist-philosophers, who getting disoriented by new discoveries in physics, concluded that ‘matter had disappeared’.

Ernst Mach was a highly influential scientist and philosopher of 19th-20th centuries. Lenin criticised Mach’s famous work Analysis of Sensations. Mach was an outstanding scientist, no doubt. But with the discovery of the electrons and waves, he philosophically reduced the world to the experiences of ‘elements’ (sensations). Mach said: “These elements are usually called sensations.” In the absence of tangible objects, we experience the sensations. So the absence of the tangibles created philosophical and epistemological problems.

If the epistemological problems are not solved correctly, then agnosticism, subjective ‘experiences’ (idealism) and transcendentalism (beyond sensations) takes the place of scientific analyses. The world is reduced to subjective sensations, experiences and to an ‘impossibility’ to ‘really see’. We begin creating an imaginary world. Quoting German scientist Ernst Haeckel and British biologist Lloyd Morgan, Lenin made a brilliant critical analysis of outstanding French physicist Henri Poincare, discussing meaning of atom, electron, mass, velocity and Newton’s principles of motion. It shows Lenin had deeply studied the scientific and physical (of physics) literature of his times before reaching philosophical conclusions.

Materialism and dialectics today

In the context of the scientific and philosophical debates, Lenin thought it urgent to circulate the new philosophical findings among the ranks of social-democrats. Today in 21st century, we are passing through an unprecedented scientific and technological revolution, wherein information has become a productive and informative force. In this context, it is essential to raise materialist philosophy to new levels by assimilating the new discoveries in the sciences. It needs serious updating.

The importance of motion and time has increased as never before in the concept of matter, as we deal with processes at light-speed. A micro-second is equal to one millionth of a second. Science has discovered further divisions, such as nano, pico, femto seconds. A Nobel Prize has recently been awarded for the discovery of the ‘atto-second’, that is, the decimal point followed by 17 zeroes and a one. Its proportion to the second is equal to that of one second to 31.71 billion years!

Humans are reaching the minutest units of time and space, developing our tools accordingly. What are the ‘structures of objects’ at those scales of world? It is better to call them processes rather than ‘objects’. New telescopes and satellites are taking us deep into the past of the universe and to the electromagnetic views at different wave-lengths of structures of galaxies, adding new dimensions to concept of matter.

Epistemological, philosophical and interpretive approaches need to be clarified and protected against distortions and theoretical-ideological confusions. Without dialectical method, we will not be able to interpret the new world realities properly.

Lenin showed the way to master dialectical method to interpret the world.

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