Science, Marxism and the Big Bang: A Critical Review of 'Reason in Revolt'

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Kantís cosmology and Engelsí commentary

In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant speculated on the nature of the universe. His ideas had a remarkable influence and he is still cited today, for instance, as one of the first to suggest that there are galaxies other than our Milky Way, in his book, Universal Natural History and the Theory of Heavens, published in 1755.

Kant turned to philosophy, and in Critique of Pure Reason, summarised in the Prolegomena, Kant gives the first of his cosmological Ďantinomiesí, or contradictions, as follows:

Thesis: The world has a beginning in time and space (a limit).
Antithesis: The world is spatially and temporally infinite.
(Prolegomena, Section 51)

Kantís cosmological antinomies, which began by counter-posing the concepts of a finite and an infinite universe, were the announcement of the conscious reintroduction of dialectics into philosophy.

Following Kantís reintroduction and re-interpretation of the dialectics which originated in ancient Greece, Hegel immersed himself in a study of ancient Greek philosophy as a student. Later Hegel recognised that there were not just four cosmological antinomies, or contradictions, as Kant supposed, but opposing tendencies in everything. Engels terms this the "interpenetration of opposites".

Kantís theory of the evolution of the solar system from a "nebulous" state, a gaseous cloud, is still credited in science today for revolutionising our understanding of the solar systemís formation.

Kant began his career by resolving the stable Solar system of Newton and its eternal duration, after the famous initial impulse had once been given, into the result of a historical process, the formation of the Sun and all the planets out of a rotating, nebulous mass. From this, he at the same time drew the conclusion that, given this origin of the Solar system, its future death followed of necessity. His theory, half a century later, was established mathematically by Laplace, and half a century after that, the spectroscope proved the existence in space of such incandescent masses of gas in various stages of condensation. (Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Selected Works, p408)

Is this quoted anywhere in Reason in Revolt? If so, we must have missed it. Engels appears to suggest a universe with a history in time Ė a beginning and an end. Woods mentions Kantís theory twice, but fails to draw from it the conclusions that Engels does. Engels calls Kantís insight "the greatest advance made by astronomy since Copernicus. For the first time the conception that nature had no history in time began to be shaken." (Anti-DŁhring, p72)

Here Engels explains that previously the universe appeared to people only "as an incessant repetition of the same processes". After Kant, this could no longer be so easily asserted. For Engels, the birth and death of our solar system must for the same reason apply to all the solar systems in all the galaxies (or Ďisland universesí as Kant termed them). Engels repeats the idea briefly in Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy and develops it in greater detail in the introduction to Dialectics of Nature.

We should add that, before turning to philosophy, Kant participated in the dispute originally between Newton and Leibniz mentioned above, in a treatise defending Newtonís concept of absolute space. Leibniz more correctly argued that space was relative. Engels says simply that Kant "didnít see clearly into the matter" (Dialectics of Nature, The measure of motion Ė Work, p118). As we have noted in the chapter, Galileo and the relativity of space (under the subhead What is space?), Engels correctly recognised that space is relative.