Science and Marxism

The dialectic of becoming in ancient Greece

Woods seeks to enlist two ancient Greek philosophers in his scheme of the infinite, so this historical survey must begin with them. These two philosophers are Anaximander, from the sixth century BCE, and Aristotle, from the fourth century BCE.

Woods seeks to enlist two ancient Greek philosophers in his scheme of the infinite, so this historical survey must begin with them. These two philosophers are Anaximander, from the sixth century BCE, and Aristotle, from the fourth century BCE.

Anaximander – the dawn of dialectics

Both materialism and dialectical thought can be traced back to the sixth century BCE and a remarkable and powerful city-state called Miletus, in Ionia (now Turkey).

In those days Miletus was experiencing a period of revolutionary upheavals as a rising merchant class challenged the old ruling elite for power. These revolutionary upheavals must have been earth shattering, like the 1789 French revolution (in which King Louis XVI was guillotined), or the 1917 Russian revolution. In those revolutions the whole social order was turned upside down – everything in the social order which seemed eternal was proved to be ephemeral, like the so-called ‘divine right of kings’. Something similar happened in Miletus. The rising merchant class for a time took power from the old aristocracy in a series of revolutions.

Anaximander (610-547 BCE)

This revolutionary period gave birth to the philosophy of dialectics. It is no coincidence that Kant and Hegel, who made dialectics central to their philosophy and greatly developed the ancient dialectics founded in Miletus, also lived in such revolutionary times – the period of the 1789 French revolution. It was in these momentous events, as one class clashed with another, that these philosophers came to believe that a clash of opposites leading to a sudden qualitative, fundamental change represented the true underlying nature of all things.

In ancient Ionia, this brought about the philosophical school thought to have been founded by Thales and Anaximander, and it is called the Ionian school of philosophy. It will hopefully become clear that our discussion of this ancient philosophy is very relevant to the claims made in Reason in Revolt about dialectical materialism and the universe.

No doubt reflecting the revolutionary times in Miletus, in which it must have seemed that nothing was permanent, Anaximander speculated that the entire universe had come into being from some unknown substratum and would eventually perish.

Woods says, “from the beginnings of philosophy, men speculated about infinity. Anaximander (610-547 BC) took it as the basis of his philosophy.” (p353) Woods’ assertion that Anaximander, who is said to be the first western philosopher to set down philosophical ideas in writing, took infinity “as the basis of his philosophy” gives a misleading impression of Anaximander’s views.

Far from suggesting that our universe was infinite, Anaximander said that our universe had come into being in a ball of fire and would pass away. What was revolutionary about the philosophy of Anaximander, particularly from the point of view of dialectical materialism, was precisely his challenge to those who, like Woods, intone: “Thus it has been. Thus it ever will be.” Anaximander describes how a “sphere of fire” grew from a “germ, pregnant with hot and cold, [which] separated off from the boundless”, forming several rings, from which arose the sun, moon and stars.

For Anaximander, the “heavens and the worlds within them” have a beginning. He also believed they have an end. Anaximander’s views, of course, remind us of the Big Bang picture of the birth of the universe, beginning in a hot dense state, a kind of “sphere of fire”.

Nevertheless, Anaximander postulated some sort of substratum from which the universe arose in its sphere of fire. “All the heavens and the worlds within them” have arisen from “some boundless nature”, Anaximander said. He seemed to use the term, ‘the boundless’, to describe this substratum. It appears that ‘the boundless’ represented some kind of inexhaustible source of the creation of matter. But the boundless does not by any means necessarily stand for an infinity of space and time – that interpretation might be no more than an anachronistic extrapolation based on a Newtonian outlook. Some modern translations use the phrase “boundless chaos”.

Even so, it is speculated that Anaximander’s concept of the boundless arose as an extension of the idea of the immortal Homeric gods. A typical viewpoint states: “Anaximander added two distinctive features to the concept of divinity: his Boundless is an impersonal something and it is not only immortal but also unborn.” (The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) So the origin of the boundless is likely to be associated with concepts of the divine. Thales is thought to have said: “What is the divine? That which has no origin and no end.”

Two centuries later Aristotle pointed out, in Physics (book one, part seven), that the ancient dialectics of coming into being always assumes what he called a “substratum”, and we have adopted his term in this review. So from what substratum might our universe have been brought about as if ‘from nothing’?

Dialectics and the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of space

Woods discusses such a candidate substratum (indeed, one of the leading candidates) when he discusses the strange subatomic quantum fluctuations observed in the apparent vacuum of empty space, in which subatomic particles appear to come into existence fleetingly in opposing pairs, only to recombine and annihilate each other.

What is curious in this connection is that the philosophers of the school which Anaximander and others brought into being, the most ancient, Ionian school, were best known for their concept of coming into being and passing away. Today’s cosmology, in various ways, links this subatomic coming into being and passing away to the sudden coming into being of the universe in the Big Bang.

Towards the beginning of Reason in Revolt, Woods mentions in passing what he calls a “restless flux of swirling quantum waves” (p107), when attempting to discuss quantum mechanics. Towards the end of Reason in Revolt he correctly quotes from a passage in a now otherwise largely obsolete 1959 book by Banesh Hoffmann: “What we would think of as empty space is a teeming, fluctuating nothingness, with photons appearing from nowhere and vanishing almost as soon as they were born.” (Quoted in Reason in Revolt, p386)

Woods here correctly points to the curiously dialectical concept of the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum, and compares this with the dialectics of coming into being and passing away, as discussed by Engels in Anti-Dühring: “but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away.” (Anti-Dühring, p30)

The theory of quantum fluctuations has been a standard part of quantum mechanics (quantum field theory) for more than fifty years. Yet midway through Reason in Revolt, at the pinnacle of its mockery of modern science and the Big Bang, Woods devotes an entire section, Thoughts in a Vacuum, to ridiculing this very same idea. (p219) Woods’ contradictory positions suggest that he has not understood what he has written.

The interpenetration of opposites

Woods repeats in the abstract: “Everything that exists deserves to perish” but expresses his cosmology like this: “Time, space and motion are the mode of existence of matter, which can neither be created nor destroyed. The universe has existed for all time.” (p199) This is not the dialectical viewpoint of the ancient Greek philosophers from whom Hegel developed his dialectics. Woods is here defending Newtonian cosmology. Anaximander conceived that the universe had a beginning and an end but, as a materialist, he always assumed it emerged from some underlying substratum.

Ancient philosophers of the school of Thales and Anaximander were materialists and had a dialectical outlook. Anaximander said:

Whence things have their origin,

Thence also their destruction happens.


This means, according to Aristotle: “whatever comes into existence should have an end”. This is the origin of the quote from Johann Goethe’s Faust, which Engels uses and Woods fondly repeats a few times in Reason in Revolt: “Everything that exists deserves to perish” (p141), more correctly expressed as Engels renders it: “All that comes into being deserves to perish.”

Anaximander’s philosophy of coming into being and passing away reflected turbulent political times in the ancient city state of Miletus. Furthermore, these ‘opposites’ of coming into being and passing away, of birth and death, creation and destruction, were understood to interpenetrate everything, even our universe itself.

In other words, this ancient school of philosophers believed that the opposites of coming into being and passing away were two integral aspects of everything capable of change: for instance, a person is born and dies, and this mortality is a part of their being. This was the origin of the unity and interpenetration of opposites, which Engels summarised so clearly – and which Lenin, following Hegel, considered the central element of dialectics. These opposites, which dialectics says is found in everything which changes, attempt to negate the other, until one finally triumphs and there is a qualitative change – Louis XVI is guillotined, water boils, atoms decay, the living die. There is a passing away and, perhaps, another coming into being.This was called the dialectic of becoming.

Next: Aristotle on the ‘heavens’