Science and Marxism

Science and dialectics in Reason in Revolt

Reason in Revolt first sets out to explain the laws of dialectics using modern scientific examples. In the section, Quantity and Quality, Woods discusses the dialectical concept of the transformation of quantity into quality, which is exemplified, as we shall see, by the way heated water changes into steam. This is an important concept both for Marxists and also for scientists, who use the term ‘phase change’ or ‘phase transition’ for changes such as the transition from a liquid to a gaseous state.

Phase changes, or the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa

Reason in Revolt first sets out to explain the laws of dialectics using modern scientific examples.

In the section, Quantity and Quality, Woods discusses the dialectical concept of the transformation of quantity into quality, which is exemplified, as we shall see, by the way heated water changes into steam. This is an important concept both for Marxists and also for scientists, who use the term ‘phase change’ or ‘phase transition’ for changes such as the transition from a liquid to a gaseous state.

In modern philosophy the concept was first fully developed by Hegel, who took it from the ancient Greeks.

Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Hegel used the example of water changing from a liquid to a gas in his Science of Logic and elsewhere. He showed how a constant addition of a quantity of heat to water leads to a ‘qualitative leap’ at boiling point. Above boiling point, water no longer has the ‘quality’ of being a liquid. Instead, it is a gas, a qualitatively different form of matter.

Criticising the maxim, ‘Nature does not make leaps’, Hegel wrote:

Again, water when its temperature is altered, does not merely get more or less hot but passes through from the liquid into either the solid or gaseous states; these states do not appear gradually; on the contrary, each new state appears as a leap, suddenly interrupting and checking the gradual succession of temperature changes at these points. (Science of Logic, p369)

Additional quantities of heat at boiling point do not lead (under normal circumstances) to a further increase in the temperature of the water, it leads to a qualitative change – water turns from a liquid into a gas. The same applies if the temperature of water is reduced:

Water, in cooling, does not gradually harden as if it thickened like porridge, gradually solidifying until it reaches the consistency of ice; it suddenly solidifies, all at once. It can remain quite fluid even at freezing point if it is standing undisturbed, and then a slight shock will bring it into the solid state. (Science of Logic, p370)

Hegel’s observations are scientifically accurate. Physicists call this type of change, when water changes from a liquid phase to a gaseous phase, a phase change. The fact that nature makes leaps from one form to another, such as from a liquid to a gas, is seen as an important concept in physics and cosmology today. Brian Greene explains how cosmologists today examine periods in the distant past when the rapidly expanding early cosmos itself underwent phase changes (for instance, speculation about a period of “inflation” in the early universe, which is thought to undergo phase changes). Greene himself uses the example of water changing into a gas. The concept of phase changes or transitions, Greene comments, “helped scientists make definite predictions that have been experimentally proved”. (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p268)

This process of change is summarised in materialist dialectics in the expression, “the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa”. The addition of “vice versa” indicates that the reverse is true: a change of quality brings new characteristics which can be quantitatively measured. For instance, the qualitative change of water from a liquid to a gas brings about a gas which has a certain pressure and temperature which can be quantified.

In discussing the maxim, ‘Nature does not make leaps’ Hegel was also seeking a justification for leaps that take place in society – revolutions. Hegel is well aware that the French Revolution of 1789 was described as “unnatural” by detractors such as the ‘father of Conservatism’, Edmund Burke, who argued that unless change is gradual it will end in disaster because nature does not make leaps.

Woods also attempts some scientific observations while giving the same example of the phase changes of water. But unlike Hegel and Engels, his scientific knowledge is lacking. For instance, he states:

Until it reaches boiling point, the water keeps its volume. It remains water, because of the attraction of the molecules to one another. (Reason in Revolt, p49)

But water does not “keep its volume” and neither Hegel nor Engels suggest that it does. If a liquid is heated it expands and its volume increases: this is how a thermometer works. Further, it “remains water” even when it turns to a gas (water vapour or steam). And it does not remain liquid because of the “attraction of the molecules to one another” but because of atmospheric pressure. Lower the atmospheric pressure sufficiently and the water will boil without any addition of heat.

Woods then goes on to contradict himself, when he states that the volume between the atoms (strictly, molecules) increases in water which is heated which, of course, must mean an increase of the volume of the water as a whole. He then attempts to describe boiling at the molecular level. He writes:

However, the steady change in temperature has the effect of increasing the motion of the molecules. The volume between the atoms is gradually increased, to the point where the force of attraction is insufficient to hold the molecules together. (Reason in Revolt, p49)

But Woods has at this point described melting, a different process to boiling. In Dialectics of Nature, Engels discusses phase changes at the molecular level in great detail, but makes no such scientific errors (relative to his epoch, of course).

Melting takes place during the heating of a solid, such as ice, when the molecules become too energetic and the force of attraction of the bonds between them break, and the molecules flow freely in a liquid state. This is what Woods’ description resembles. In this way ice turns into water, which flows with little restriction from molecular bonds.

Boiling is quite different. It essentially takes place when, during heating, evaporating molecules become more and more numerous until, at boiling point, these molecules escaping from the surface of the water counteract the pressure of the air molecules on the surface of the water. At this point the water boils away, unrestricted by the atmospheric pressure. It is quite a different process. This is standard science which can be found in any textbook.

In Dialectics of Nature, Engels quotes Hegel on the phase change of water, and then goes on to give a very significant example:

Similarly, a definite minimum current strength is required to cause the platinum wire of an electric incandescent lamp to glow; every metal has its temperature of incandescence… (Dialectics of Nature, p87)

This particular type of leap in nature, the points at which metals glow at various specific stages of heating, (e.g. red hot, white hot, etc) was vexing the minds of the scientists of the time. They were looking for an equation which showed how gradual processes could lead to these sudden changes in colour, or different energy states. But none seemed to work. When at the turn of the 20th century Max Planck found a formula which satisfied experimental observation, the formula contained discrete leaps from one energy level to another. Planck termed the discrete packets of energy suggested by his formula “quanta”.

Had they been alive to witness it, Marx and Engels would have derived no small satisfaction at Planck’s discovery, not least because Hegel, discussing leaps in nature, quite coincidentally even used the same term. Any existing thing, Hegel wrote, “is essentially a relation of quanta”. This quanta may undergo “quantitative alteration”, Hegel continues, within a range in which it “does not change its quality”. But, “there enters a point in this quantitative alteration at which the quality is changed and the quantum shows itself … so that the altered quantitative relation is converted into … a new quality, a new something.” (Science of Logic, p367) Planck’s quanta marked the beginning of quantum mechanics, which takes for its basis that physical systems (such as atoms) leap from one discrete energy state to another.

Electrons and protons

In another discussion of dialectics in the section, The Unity and Interpenetration of Opposites, Woods aptly uses the atom as an example of how opposites interact with each other.

In an atom, electrons swarm round a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons. But the electrons carry the opposite charge to the protons, and this way, among many others, all physical things made of atoms are comprised of, or are “interpenetrated” by, opposites. Woods quotes Richard Feynman, the US physicist, who said “All things, even ourselves, are made of fine-grained, enormously strongly reacting plus and minus parts, all neatly balanced out.” (Feynman quoted in Reason in Revolt,p64)

The opposite charges are united in the atom. In capitalist society, the ‘opposites’ of the exploiting boss and exploited worker are also bound together and mutually dependent in the production process. Opposing classes are united (in a geographical sense) in each capitalist county. They are a unity of opposing forces in this sense. But these opposing forces will lead, under the right conditions, to an explosion.

After reading Hegel’s Science of Logic, Lenin regarded this concept of a unity of opposites as central to dialectics. Lenin quotes Hegel, who said that the understanding of “opposites in their unity” is “the most important aspect of dialectic”. (Science of Logic, p56) We will discuss the origins of this concept in ancient Greece shortly, where it can be traced to the Ionian philosophy of ‘coming into being’ and ‘passing away’, and we will meet it again when we discuss the nature of modern science.

But Woods’ science is weak. Pointing out that the electron has a negative charge and the proton a positive charge, Woods begins by asking:

Why do the contradictory forces of electrons and protons not cancel each other out? Why do atoms not merely fly apart? The current explanation refers to the “strong force” which holds atoms together. (p64)

But the contradictory ‘forces’ of electrons and protons do cancel each other out, in the sense that the atom becomes neutrally charged if it has the same number of electrons and protons.

The striking thing is not that electrons and protons do not ‘cancel each other out’ but that they do. The proton has 1836 times the mass of the electron, but exactly the same size charge, only positive rather than negative. The question ‘why do atoms not fly apart’ seems like an odd question to ask. After all, the positive and negative charges of the electron and proton attract each other. And what puzzled scientists before the development of the science of quantum mechanics was why the electron did not spiral into the atom’s nucleus. The strong force, incidentally, does not hold the electrons and protons together as Woods appears, perhaps unintentionally, to state (elsewhere he gets this right), the electrical force does.

Woods gives a number of examples of opposites, but then concludes with a rather sweeping statement:

There are two kinds of matter, which can be called positive and negative. Like kinds repel and unlike attracts. (p65)

This curious statement (two kinds of matter?) is reminiscent of the outlook of the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling at the turn of the 19th Century. Schelling used the example of the north and south poles of the magnet as a metaphor for the world and its contents, to suggest that change in nature expresses itself through a duality of polar opposites, a philosophy that was very influential for a period. In this way, Schelling, for a period a close friend of Hegel, contributed to the development of the dialectic of the interpenetration of opposites, which Hegel developed further.

But Woods’ statement reduces the complexity of the universe and its contents to a very crude formulation. What of gravity, of the neutron, of quarks and neutrinos and those sub-atomic particles which appear to come in sets of threes in various ways? The dialectic of the interpenetration of opposites is a tool which in various ways can undoubtedly aid the comprehension of nature and society, but it is reduced to an absurdity in such sweeping pseudo-scientific statements which can lead to objections or even ridicule from the scientifically minded.

Everything flows

The first passage on modern science in Reason in Revolt comes at the beginning of the section, Everything Flows. Woods claims:

Particles are constantly changing into their opposite, so that it is impossible even to assert their identity at any given moment. Neutrons change into protons, and protons into neutrons in a ceaseless exchange of identity. (p45)

There is no truth in this. A neutron that has escaped from an atomic nucleus will decay after about twelve minutes into three particles: a proton, an electron and a neutrino, but this process is quite different to the “ceaseless exchange” pictured here. Later, Woods says that the famous German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s exchange force “implied” this supposed “ceaseless exchange” of identity between protons and neutrons. (p96) It does not. The exchange forcedeals with exchanges between identicalparticles, not different ones, which would lead to a violation of the law of conservation of charge. It is a well-understood phenomenon.

Although dialectics certainly suggests that science will find a time limit beyond which protons will decay in some way, and teams of scientists are testing to find that limit – nevertheless the proton is stable over very long periods. A twelve-year experiment, started in 1989, suggested that the proton has a lifetime of at least ten million billion billion billion years (1034 years – 1 followed by 34 zeros). It does not ceaselessly change, as Woods asserts.

Woods’ aim is to suggest that nature is not immutable but that change penetrates down to the most fundamental particles. In many ways this is true, if one avoids sweeping statements. But what Woods applies to the smallest particles he will not apply on the largest scale. Engels showed that in the Newtonian conception of the universe, “nature was obviously in constant motion, but this motion appeared as an incessant repetition of the same processes”, and thus nature was seen as essentially immutable. Kant, says Engels, changed all that. (Anti-Dühring, p73) Yet, surely, when Woods concludes his discussion of cosmology and modern physics, he retreats to the point of view of this same “incessant repetition of the same processes”. He writes: “All individuals must perish, but the wonderful diversity of the material universe in all its myriad manifestations is eternal and indestructible. Life arises, passes away, and arises again and again. Thus it has been. Thus it will ever be.” (p225)

A fundamental law of dialectics: truth is concrete

Woods is no scientist – he has no grounding in science at all. Explaining the energy contained in a gram of mass, Woods gives the answer measured in ergs, an obsolete unit of energy universally replaced by the Joulein 1960. Science has accumulated many observations and has considerably changed in the near half-century since 1960 – some theories considered by scientists to be highly speculative in 1960 are now robustly proven, while others have long since been abandoned.

Woods approaches science as a philosopher of dialectical materialism. He claims that Reason in Revolt has had a “tremendous success internationally”. But ithas had no impact whatsoever on science, undoubtedly for the reasons shown above.

Many readers of Reason in Revolt were no doubt attracted by the promise of an exposition of the philosophy of dialectical materialism and its relationship to science, or the development of an understanding of the world we live in – for instance, whether our universe has a definite origin in time and space, or is infinite. We will shortly discuss what the proponents of dialectics, from ancient Greece to modern times, said about these ideas, and discuss the relationship of these ideas to the development of science. It is indeed a fascinating subject.

But by disregarding the need for a thorough understanding of science – as if philosophy can substitute for a detailed understanding of the matter being studied – Woods does an immediate disservice to dialectics and, thereby, to Marxism. Woods forgets that Hegel himself sets out, from the outset, an important law: truth is concrete.

At the start of his Encyclopaedia, for example, Hegel says:

Everybody allows that to know any other science you must have first studied it, and that you can only claim to express a judgement upon it in virtue of such knowledge. Everybody allows that to make a shoe you must have learned and practised the craft of the shoemaker, though every man has a model in his own foot, and possesses in his hands the natural endowments for the operations required. For philosophy alone, it seems to be imagined, such study, care, and application are not in the least requisite. (Hegel Encyclopaedia, paragraph 5)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky said Hegel’s dialectical method insists that:

Every object, every phenomenon has its own significance, and it must be judged according to the circumstances, the environment, in which it exists. This rule was expressed by the formula: ‘there is no abstract truth; truth is concrete.’(Chernyshevsky, quoted by Georgi Plekhanov in The Development of the Monist View of History, pp103-4)

Woods should be left in no doubt whatsoever about the importance of this principle of dialectics. Lenin echoes Chernyshevsky: “One of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete.” (One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, last chapter)

Leon Trotsky says this about dialectics and science:

Dialectics and materialism are the basic elements in the Marxist cognition of the world. But this does not mean at all that they can be applied to any sphere of knowledge, like an ever-ready master key. Dialectics cannot be imposed upon facts; it has to be deduced from facts, from their nature and development… You will get nowhere with sweeping criticisms or bald commands. (Problems of Everyday Life, p 288)

How can Woods construct a dialectical criticism of modern science when he does not understand how water boils? And how will he fare with Einstein’s theory of relativity? We will come to this later.

Next: Concepts of the universe – an historical survey