[Book] Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

6. Uncertainty and Idealism

The uncertainty principle

The real death knell for Newtonian mechanics as an universal theory was sounded by Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and other scientists that stood at the cradle of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. The behaviour of “elementary particles” could not be explained by classical mechanics. A new mathematics had to be developed.

In this mathematics there are concepts like a “phase-space” wherein a system is defined as a point which has its degrees of freedom as coordinates, and “operators”, magnitudes that are incompatible with algebraic magnitudes in the sense that they are more similar to operations than to magnitudes themselves (in fact they express relations instead of fixed properties) play a significant role. Probability also plays an important role, but in the sense of “intrinsic probability”: it is one of the essential characteristics of quantum mechanics. In fact quantum mechanic systems must be interpreted as the superposition of all the possible pathways they can follow.

Quantum particles can only be defined as a set of internal relationships between their “actual” and its “virtual” state. In that sense they are purely dialectical. Measuring those particles in one way or another leads only to the revealing of the “actual” state, which is only one aspect of the whole (this paradox is popularly explained by the tale of “Schrödinger's cat”). It is called the “collapse of the wave function”, and is expressed by the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg. This entirely new way of looking toward physical reality, which is expressed by quantum mechanics, was kept “in quarantine” for long time by the rest of the scientific disciplines. It was seen as an exceptional kind of mechanics, only to be used in describing the behaviour of elementary particles, the exception to the rule of classic mechanics, without any importance whatsoever.

In place of the old certainties, uncertainty now reigned. The apparently random movements of subatomic particles, with their unimaginable velocities, could not be expressed in terms of the old mechanics. When a science reaches a blind alley, when it is no longer able to explain the facts, the ground is prepared for a revolution, and the emergence of a new science. However, the new science, in its initial form, is not yet completely developed. Only over a period does it emerge in its final and complete form. A degree of improvisation, of uncertainty, of varying and often contradictory interpretations, is virtually inevitable at first.

In recent decades a debate has opened up between the so-called stochastic (“random”) interpretation of nature and determinism. The fundamental problem is that necessity and chance are here treated as absolute opposites, mutually exclusive contraries. In this way, we arrive at two opposing views, neither of which is adequate to explain the contradictory and complex workings of nature.

Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, developed his own peculiar version of quantum mechanics. In 1932, he received the Nobel Prize for physics for his system of matrix mechanics, which described the energy levels of orbits of electrons purely in terms of numbers, without any recourse to pictures. In this way, he hoped to get round the problems caused by the contradiction between “particles” and “waves” by abandoning any attempt to visualise the phenomenon, and treating it in a purely mathematical abstraction. Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics covered exactly the same ground as Heisenberg's matrix mechanics without any need to retreat into the realms of absolute mathematical abstraction. Most physicists preferred Schrödinger's approach, which seemed far less abstract, and they were not wrong. In 1944, John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American mathematician, demonstrated that wave mechanics and matrix mechanics were mathematically equivalent, and could achieve exactly the same results.

Heisenberg achieved some important advances in quantum mechanics. However, permeating his whole approach was the determination to inflict his peculiar brand of philosophical idealism upon the new science. From this arose the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. This was really a variety of subjective idealism, thinly disguised as a school of scientific thought. “Werner Heisenberg,” wrote Isaac Asimov, “proceeded to raise a profound question that projected particles, and physics itself, almost into a realm of the unknowable.” 5 That is the correct word to use. We are not dealing here with the unknown. That is always present in science. The whole history of science is the advance from the unknown to the known, from ignorance to knowledge. But a serious difficulty arises when people confuse the unknown with the unknowable. There is a fundamental difference between the words “we do not know” and “we cannot know”. Science sets out from the basic notion that the objective world exists and can be known to us.

However, in the whole history of philosophy there have been repeated attempts to place a limit upon human cognition, to assert that there are certain things which “we cannot know”, for this reason or that. Thus Kant claimed that we could only know appearances, but not Things-in-Themselves. In this, he was following in the footsteps of the scepticism of David Hume, the subjective idealism of Berkeley and the sophists: that we cannot know the world.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg advanced his celebrated “uncertainty principle”, according to which it is impossible to determine, with the desired accuracy, both the position and velocity of a particle simultaneously. The more certain a particle's position, the more uncertain its momentum, and vice versa. (This also applies to other specified pairs of properties.) The difficulty in establishing precisely the position and velocity of a particle that is moving at 5,000 miles per second in different directions is self-evident. However, to deduce from this that cause and effect (causality) in general does not exist is an entirely false proposition.

How can we decide on the position of an electron? he asked. By looking at it. But if we use a powerful microscope, it would mean striking it with a particle of light, a photon. Because light behaves like a particle, it will inevitably disturb the momentum of the observed particle. Therefore, we change it by the very act of observation. The disturbance will be unpredictable and uncontrollable, since (at least from the existing quantum theory) there is no way of knowing or controlling beforehand the precise angle with which the light quantum will be scattered into the lens. Because an accurate determination of the position requires the use of light of short wavelength, a large but unpredictable and uncontrollable momentum is transferred to the electron. On the other hand, an accurate determination of the momentum requires the use of light quanta of very low momentum (and therefore of long wave-length), which means a large angle of diffraction, and hence a poor definition of the position. The more accurately the position is defined, the less accurate the momentum can be defined, and vice versa.

So can we get round this problem if we develop new kinds of electron microscopes? Not according to Heisenberg's theory. Since all energy comes in quanta, and all matter has the property of acting both as a wave and a particle, any type of apparatus we use will be governed by this principle of uncertainty (or indeterminacy). Indeed, the term uncertainty principle is inexact, because what is asserted here is not just that we cannot be certain, because of problems of measurement. The theory implies that all forms of matter are indeterminate by their very nature. As David Bohm says in his book Causality and Chance in Modern Physics:

“Thus the renunciation of causality in the usual interpretation of the quantum theory is not to be regarded as merely the result of our inability to measure the precise values of the variables that would enter into the expression of causal laws at the atomic level, but, rather, it should be regarded as a reflection of the fact that no such laws exist.”

Instead of seeing it as a special aspect of quantum theory at a particular stage in its development, Heisenberg postulated indeterminacy as a fundamental and universal law of nature, and assumed that all other laws of nature would have to be consistent with it. This is completely different to the approach of science in the past when it was confronted with problems related to irregular fluctuations and random movement. No-one imagines it is possible to determine the exact motion of an individual molecule in a gas, or predict all the details of a specific car accident. But never before has a serious attempt been made to derive from such facts the non-existence of causality in general.

Yet this is precisely the conclusion we are invited to draw from the principle of indeterminacy. Scientists and idealist philosophers have gone on to argue that causality in general does not exist. That is to say, that there is no cause and effect. Nature thus appears as an entirely causeless, random affair. Bohm argued that the entire universe is unpredictable.

“We cannot be certain of anything. Instead, it is assumed that in any particular experiment, the precise result that will be obtained is completely arbitrary in the sense that it has no relationship whatever to anything else that exists in the world or that ever has existed.” 6

This position is the complete negation, not only of science, but of rational thought in general. If there is no cause and effect, not only is it impossible to predict anything; it is impossible to explain anything. We can only limit ourselves to describe what is. In fact, not even that, since we cannot even be certain that anything exists outside ourselves and our own senses. This brings us right back to the philosophy of subjective idealism. It reminds us of the argument of the sophist philosophers of ancient Greece: “I cannot know anything about the world. If I can know something, I cannot understand it. If I can understand it, I cannot express it.”

What the “indeterminacy principle” really represents is the highly elusive character of the movement of subatomic particles, which are not susceptible to the kind of simplistic equations and measurements of classical mechanics. There is no doubt about Heisenberg's contribution to physics. What is in question is the philosophical conclusions which he drew from quantum mechanics. The fact that we cannot measure exactly the position and momentum of an electron does not imply in the slightest that there is a lack of objectivity here. The subjective way of thinking permeates the so-called Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics. Niels Bohr went so far as to state that “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

The physicist John Wheeler maintains that “no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” And Max Born spells out the same subjectivist philosophy with absolute clarity:

“The generation to which Einstein, Bohr, and I belong was taught that there exists an objective physical world, which unfolds itself according to immutable laws independent of us; we are watching this process as the audience watches a play in a theatre. Einstein still believes that this should be the relation between the scientific observer and his subject.” 7

What we have here is not a scientific evaluation, but a philosophical opinion reflecting a definite world outlook—that of subjective idealism, which permeates the entire Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. A number of eminent scientists, to their credit, made a stand against this subjectivism, which runs contrary to the whole outlook and method of science. Among these were Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Louis de Broglie and Erwin Schrödinger, all of whom played a role in developing the new physics at the very least as important as Heisenberg.

Objectivity versus subjectivism

There is not the slightest doubt that Heisenberg's interpretation of quantum physics was heavily influenced by his philosophical views. Even as a student, Heisenberg was a conscious idealist, who admits being greatly impressed by Plato's Timaeus (where Plato's idealism is expressed in the most obscurantist way), while fighting in the ranks of the reactionary Freikorps against the German workers in 1919. Subsequently he stated that he was “much more interested in the underlying philosophical ideas than in the rest”, and that it was necessary “to get away from the idea of objective processes in time and space”. In other words, Heisenberg's philosophical interpretation of quantum physics was very far from being the objective result of scientific experiment. It was clearly linked to idealist philosophy, which he consciously applied to physics, and which determined his outlook.

Such a philosophy is at odds not only with science, but the whole of human experience. Not only does it lack any scientific content, but it turns out to be perfectly useless in practice. Scientists who, as a rule, like to steer clear of philosophical speculation, make a polite nod in the direction of Heisenberg, and simply get on with the job of investigating the laws of nature, taking for granted not only that it exists, but that it functions according to definite laws, including those of cause and effect, and that, with a bit of effort, can be perfectly well understood, and even predicted by men and women. The reactionary consequences of this subjective idealism are shown by Heisenberg's own evolution. He justified his active collaboration with the Nazis on the grounds that “There are no general guidelines to which we can cling. We have to decide for ourselves, and cannot tell in advance if we are doing right or wrong.” 8

Erwin Schrödinger did not deny the existence of random phenomena in nature in general or in quantum mechanics. He specifically mentions the example of the random combining of DNA molecules at the moment of conception of a child, in which the quantum features of the chemical bond play a role. However, he objected to the standard Copenhagen interpretation about the implications of the “two-hole” experiment; that Max Born's waves of probability meant that we had to renounce the objectivity of the world, the idea that the world exists independently of our observing it.

Schrödinger ridiculed the assertion of Heisenberg and Bohr that, when an electron or photon is not being observed, it has “no position” and only materialises at a given point as a result of the observation. To counter it, he devised a famous “thought experiment”. Take a cat and put it in a box with a vial of cyanide, he said. When a Geiger counter detects the decay of an atom, the vial is broken. According to Heisenberg, the atom does not “know” it has decayed until someone measures it. In this case, therefore, until someone opens the box and looks in, according to the idealists, the cat is neither dead nor alive! By this anecdote, Schrödinger meant to highlight the absurd contradictions caused by the acceptance of Heisenberg's subjective idealist interpretation of quantum physics. The processes of nature take place objectively, irrespective of whether human beings are around to observe them or not.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, reality only comes into being when we observe it. Otherwise, it exists in a kind of limbo, or “probability wave superposition state”, like our live-and-dead cat. The Copenhagen interpretation draws a sharp line of distinction between the observer and the observed. Some physicists take the view, following the Copenhagen interpretation, that consciousness must exist, but the idea of material reality without consciousness is unthinkable. This is precisely the standpoint of subjective idealism, which Lenin comprehensively answered in his book Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

Dialectical materialism sets out from the objectivity of the material universe, which is given to us through sense perception. “I interpret the world through my senses.” That is self-evident. But the world exists independently of my senses. That is also self-evident, one might think, but not for modern bourgeois philosophy! One of the main strands of 20th century philosophy is logical positivism, which precisely denies the objectivity of the material world. More correctly, it considers that the very question of whether the world exists or not to be irrelevant and “metaphysical”. The standpoint of subjective idealism has been completely undermined by the discoveries of 20th century science. The act of observation means that our eyes are receiving energy from an external source in the form of light waves (photons). This was clearly explained by Lenin in 1908-09:

“If colour is a sensation only depending upon the retina (as natural science compels you to admit), then light rays, falling upon the retina, produce the sensation of colour. This means that outside us, independently of us and of our minds, there exists a movement of matter, let us say of ether waves of a definite length and of a definite velocity, which, acting upon the retina, produce the sensation of colour. This is precisely how natural science regards it. It explains the sensations of various colours by the various lengths of light waves existing outside the human retina, outside man and independently of him. This is materialism: matter acting upon our sense organs produces sensation. Sensation depends on the brain, nerves, retina, etc., i.e., on matter organised in a definite way. The existence of matter does not depend on sensation. Matter is primary. Sensation, thought, consciousness are the supreme product of matter organised in a particular way. Such are the views of materialism in general, and of Marx and Engels in particular.” 9

The subjective idealist nature of Heisenberg's method is quite explicit:

“Our actual situation in research work in atomic physics is usually this: we wish to understand a certain phenomenon, we wish to recognise how this phenomenon follows from the general laws of nature. Therefore, that part of matter or radiation that takes part in the phenomenon is the natural 'object' in the theoretical treatment and should be separated in this respect from the tools used to study the phenomenon. This again emphasises a subjective element in the description of atomic events, since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer, and we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.” 10

Kant erected an impenetrable barrier between the world of appearances and reality “in itself”. Here Heisenberg goes one better. He not only speaks about “nature in itself”, but even maintains that we cannot really know that part of nature which can be observed, since we change it by the very act of observing it. In this way, Heisenberg seeks to abolish the criterion of scientific objectivity altogether. Unfortunately, many scientists who would indignantly deny the charge of mysticism have uncritically assimilated Heisenberg's philosophical ideas, merely because they are unwilling to accept the necessity for a consistently materialist philosophical approach to nature.

The whole point is that the laws of formal logic break down beyond certain limits. This most certainly applies to the phenomena of the subatomic world, where the laws of identity, contradiction and the excluded middle cannot be applied. Heisenberg defends the standpoint of formal logic and idealism, and therefore, inevitably arrives at the conclusion that the contradictory phenomena at the subatomic level cannot be comprehended by human thought at all. The contradiction, however, is not in the observed phenomena at the subatomic level, but in the hopelessly antiquated and inadequate mental schema of formal logic. The so-called paradoxes of quantum mechanics are precisely this. Heisenberg cannot accept the existence of dialectical contradictions, and therefore prefers to revert to philosophical mysticism—”we cannot know”, and all the rest of it.

We find ourselves here in the presence of a kind of philosophical conjuring trick. The first step is to confuse the concept of causality with the old mechanical determinism represented by people like Laplace. These limitations were explained and criticised by Engels in the Dialectics of Nature. The discoveries of quantum mechanics finally destroyed the old mechanical determinism. The kind of predictions made by quantum mechanics is somewhat different from those of classical mechanics. Yet quantum mechanics still makes predictions, and obtains precise results from them.

Causality and chance

One of the problems faced by the student of philosophy or science is when a particular terminology is used that is frequently at variance with everyday language. One of the fundamental problems in the history of philosophy is the relationship between freedom and necessity, a complex question, which is not made any easier when it emerges in different disguises—causality and chance, necessity and accident, determinism and indeterminism, etc.

We all know from everyday experience what we mean by necessity. When we need to do something, it means that we have no choice. We cannot do otherwise. The dictionary defines necessity as a set of circumstances compelling something to be, or to be done, especially relating to a law of the universe, inseparable from, and directing, human life and action. The idea of physical necessity involves the notion of compulsion and constraint. It is conveyed by expressions like “to bow to necessity”. It occurs in proverbs like “necessity knows no law”.

In the philosophical sense, necessity is closely related to causality, the relation between cause and effect—a given action or event necessarily gives rise to a particular result. For example, if I stop breathing for an hour, I will die, or if I rub two sticks together, I will produce heat. This relation between cause and effect, which is confirmed by an infinite number of observations and practical experiences, plays a central role in science. By contrast, accident is regarded as an unexpected event, which occurs without apparent cause, as when we trip over a loose paving stone, or drop a cup in the kitchen. In philosophy, however, accident is a property of a thing which is a merely contingent attribute, that is, something which is not part of its essential nature. An accident is something that does not exist of necessity, and which equally well could not have happened. Let us consider an example.

If I let this piece of paper go, it will normally fall to the floor, because of the law of gravity. That is an example of causation, of necessity. But if a sudden draught should cause the paper to blow away unexpectedly, that would be generally seen as chance. Necessity is therefore governed by law, and can be scientifically expressed and predicted. Things which happen of necessity are things which could not have happened otherwise. On the other hand, random events, contingencies, are events that might, or might not, happen; they are governed by no law that can be clearly expressed and are by their very nature, unpredictable.

Experience of life convinces us that both necessity and accident exist and play a role. The history of science and society shows exactly the same thing. The whole essence of the history of science is the search for the underlying patterns of nature. We learn early in life to distinguish between the essential and non-essential, the necessary and contingent. Even when we come across exceptional conditions that may seem “irregular” to us at a given stage of our knowledge, it often turns out that subsequent experience reveals a different kind of regularity, and still deeper causal relations, which were not immediately obvious.

The search for a rational insight and understanding of the world in which we live is intimately connected with the need to discover causality. A small child, in the process of learning about the world, will always ask “why?”—to the distraction of its parents, who are frequently at a loss for an answer. On the basis of observation and experience, we formulate a hypothesis as to what causes a given phenomenon. This is the basis of all rational understanding. As a rule these hypotheses in turn give rise to predictions concerning things that have not yet been experienced. These may then be tested, either by observation or practice. This is not only a description of the history of science, but also of an important part of the mental development of every human being from early childhood on. It therefore covers intellectual development in the very broadest sense of the word, from the most basic learning processes of a child up to the most advanced study of the universe.

The existence of causality is shown by an immense number of observations. These enable us to make important predictions, not only in science, but in everyday life. Everyone knows that if water is heated to 100°C, it turns into steam. This is the basis not only for making a cup of tea, but for the industrial revolution, upon which the whole of modern society rests. Yet there are philosophers and scientists who seriously maintain that steam cannot be said to be caused by heating water. The fact that we can make predictions about a vast number of events is itself proof that causality is not merely a convenient way of describing events, but, as David Bohm points out, an inherent and essential aspect of things. Indeed, it is impossible even to define the properties of things without resorting to causality. For example, when we say that something is red, we imply that it will react in a certain way when subjected to specified conditions—i.e., a red object is defined as one which when exposed to white light will reflect mostly red light. Similarly, the fact that water becomes steam when heated, and ice when cooled, is the expression of a qualitative causal relationship which is part of the essential properties of this liquid, without which it could not be water. The general mathematical laws of motion of moving bodies are likewise essential properties of these bodies, without which they could not be what they are. Such examples may be multiplied without limit. In order to understand why and how causality is so closely bound up with the essential properties of things, it is not enough to consider things statically and in isolation. It is necessary to consider things as they are, as they have been, and as they will necessarily become in the future—that is to say, to analyse things as processes.

In order to understand particular events, it is not necessary to specify all the causes. Indeed, this is not possible. The kind of absolute determinism put forward by Laplace was answered in advance by Spinoza in the following witty passage:

“For example, if a stone falls from a roof on the head of a passer-by and kills him, they will show by their method of argument that the stone was sent to fall and kill the man; for if it had not fallen on him for that end, by God's will, how could so many circumstances (for often very many circumstances concur at the same time) concur by chance? You will reply, perhaps: 'The wind was blowing and the man had to pass that way, and hence it happened.' But they will retort: 'Why was the wind blowing at that time? And why was the man going that way at that time?' If again you reply: 'The wind had then arisen on account of the agitation of the sea the day before, the previous weather having been calm, and the man was going that way at the invitation of a friend,' they will again retort, for there is no end to their questioning: 'Why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?'

“And thus they will pursue you from cause to cause until you are glad to take refuge in the will of God, that is, the asylum of ignorance. Thus again, when they see the human body they are amazed, and as they know not the cause of so much art, they conclude that it was not by mechanical art, but divine or supernatural art, and constructed in such a manner that one part does not injure another. And hence it comes about that someone who wishes to seek out the true causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature like a man of learning, and not to stare at them in amazement like a fool, is widely deemed heretical and impious, and proclaimed such by those whom the mob adore as interpreters of nature and the Gods. For these know that once ignorance is laid aside, that wonderment which is their only means of arguing and of preserving their authority would be taken away.” 11


The attempt to eliminate all contingency from nature leads necessarily to a mechanistic viewpoint. In the mechanistic philosophy of the 18th century—represented in science by Isaac Newton, the bare idea of necessity was elevated to an absolute principle. It was seen as perfectly simple, free from all contradiction, and with no irregularities or crosscurrents.

The idea of the universal lawfulness of nature is profoundly true, but a bare statement of lawfulness is insufficient. What is necessary is a concrete understanding of how the laws of nature actually operate. The mechanistic outlook necessarily developed a one-sided view of the phenomena of nature, reflecting the actual level of scientific development at the time. The highest achievement of this view was classical mechanics, which deals with relatively simple processes, cause and effect, understood as the simple external action of one solid body upon another, levers, equilibrium, mass, inertia, pushing, pressing, and the like. Important as these discoveries were, they were clearly insufficient to arrive at an accurate idea of the complex workings of nature. Later on, the discoveries of biology, particularly after the Darwinian revolution, made possible a different approach to scientific phenomena, in line with the more flexible and subtle processes of organic matter.

In classical Newtonian mechanics motion is treated as something simple. If we know at any given moment what different forces apply to a specific moving object, we can predict exactly how it will behave in the future. This leads to mechanistic determinism, the most prominent exponent of which was Pierre Simon de Laplace, the French 18th century mathematician, whose theory of the universe really is identical to the idea of predestination present in several religions, notably Calvinism.

In his Philosophical Essays on Probabilities, Laplace wrote:

“An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate Nature and the mutual positions of the being that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain; and the future just like the past would be present before our eyes.” 12

The difficulty arises from the mechanistic method inherited by 19th century physics from the 18th century. Here necessity and chance were regarded as fixed opposites, the one excluding the other. A thing or process was either accidental or necessary, but not both. This method was subjected to a searching analysis by Engels in The Dialectics of Nature, where he explains that the mechanistic determinism of Laplace inevitably led to fatalism and a mystical concept of nature:

“And then it is declared that the necessary is the sole thing of scientific interest and that the accidental is a matter of indifference to science. That is to say: what can be brought under laws, hence what one knows, is interesting; what cannot be brought under laws, and therefore what one does not know, is a matter of indifference and can be ignored. Thereby all science comes to an end, for it has to investigate precisely that which we do not know. It means to say: what can be brought under general laws is regarded as necessary, and what cannot be so brought as accidental. Anyone can see that this is the same sort of science as that which proclaims natural what it can explain, and ascribes what it cannot explain to supernatural causes; whether I term the cause of the inexplicable chance, or whether I term it God, is a matter of complete indifference as far as the thing itself is concerned. Both are only equivalents for: I do not know, and therefore do not belong to science. The latter ceases where the requisite connection is wanting.”

Engels points out that such mechanical determinism effectively reduces necessity to the level of chance. If every trifling occurrence is of the same order of importance and necessity as the universal law of gravity, then all fundamental laws are on the same level of triviality:

“According to this conception only simple, direct necessity prevails in nature. That a particular pea-pod contains five peas and not four or six, that a particular dog's tail is five inches long and not a whit longer or shorter, that this year a particular clover flower was fertilised by a bee and another not, and indeed by precisely one particular bee and at a particular time, that a particular windblown dandelion seed has sprouted and another not, that last night I was bitten by a flea at four o'clock in the morning, and not at three or five o'clock, and on the right shoulder and not on the left calf—these are all facts which have been produced by an irrevocable concatenation of cause and effect, by an unshatterable necessity of such a nature indeed that the gaseous sphere, from which the solar system was derived, was already so constituted that these events had to happen thus and not otherwise. With this kind of necessity we likewise do not get away from the theological conception of nature. Whether with Augustine and Calvin we call it the eternal decree of God, or Kismet as the Turks do, or whether we call it necessity, is all pretty much the same for science. There is no question of tracing the chain of causation in any of these cases; so we are just as wise in one as in another, the so-called necessity remains an empty phrase, and with it—chance also remains what it was before.” 13

Laplace thought that if he could trace the causes of everything in the universe he could abolish contingency altogether. For a long time, it appeared that the workings of the entire universe could be reduced to a few relatively simple equations. One of the limitations of the classical mechanistic theory is that it assumes that there are no outside influences on the motion of particular bodies. In reality, however, everybody is influenced and determined by every other body. Nothing can be taken in isolation.

Nowadays the claims of Laplace seem extravagant and unreasonable. But then, similar extravagances are to be seen at every stage in the history of science, where each generation firmly believes itself to be in possession of the “ultimate truth”. Nor is this entirely mistaken. The ideas of each generation are indeed the ultimate truth, for that period. But all that we are saying when we make such assertions is: “This is as far as we have got in understanding Nature, with the information and technological capabilities we currently possess.” Therefore, it is not incorrect to claim that these truths are absolute for us at this moment in time since we can base ourselves on no others.

The 19th century

Newton's classical mechanics in their time represented an enormous step forward in science. For the first time, Newton's laws of motion made possible precise quantitative predictions, which could be checked against the observed phenomena. However, precisely this precision leads to new problems when Laplace and others attempted to apply them to the universe as a whole. Laplace was convinced that Newton's laws were absolutely and universally valid. This was doubly incorrect. First of all, Newton's laws were not seen as approximations applicable in certain circumstances. Secondly Laplace did not consider the possibility that under different circumstances, in areas not yet studied in physics, these laws might need to be modified or extended. The mechanistic determinism of Laplace supposed that once the positions and velocities were known at any instant of time the future behaviour of the whole universe would be determined for all time. According to this theory, all the rich diversity of things can be reduced to an absolute set of quantitative laws based on a few variables.

Classical mechanics as expressed in Newton's laws of motion deal with simple cause and effect, for example the isolated action of one body upon another. However, in practice, this is impossible, since no mechanical system is ever completely isolated. Outside influences inevitably destroy the isolated one-to-one character of the connection. Even if we could isolate the system, there will still be disturbances arisen from motions at the molecular level, and other disturbances at the even deeper level of quantum mechanics. As Bohm remarks:

“Thus, there is no real case known of a set of perfect one-to-one causal relationships that could in principle make possible predictions of unlimited precision, without the need to take into account qualitatively new sets of causal factors existing outside the system of interest or at other levels.” 14

Does this mean that prediction is impossible? Not at all. When we aim a gun at a certain point, the individual bullet will not land precisely at the point predicted by Newton's law of motion. However, a large number of shots fired will form a cluster in a small region near the point predicted. Thus, within a given range of error, which always exists, very precise predictions are possible. If we wanted to obtain unlimited precision in this instance, we would discover an ever increasing number of factors which influence the result—irregularities in the structure of the gun and bullet, tiny variations of temperature, pressure, humidity, air currents, and even the molecular motions of all these factors.

Some degree of approximation is necessary, which does not take into account the infinity of factors required for a perfectly precise prediction of a given result. This involves a necessary abstraction from reality, as in Newtonian mechanics. However, science continually proceeds, step by step, to discover ever deeper and more precise laws that enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the processes of nature, and thus make more accurate predictions. The abandonment of the old mechanical determinism of Newton and Laplace does not mean the abolition of causality, but a deeper understanding of the way in which causality actually works.

The first breaches in the wall of Newtonian science appeared in the second half of the 19th century, especially with Darwin's theory of evolution and the work of the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann on a statistical interpretation of thermodynamic processes. Physicists endeavoured to describe many-particle systems like gases or fluids with statistical methods. Those statistics however, were seen as an auxiliary in situations where it was impossible for practical reasons to collect detailed information about all the properties of the system (for example all the positions and velocities of the particles of gas at a given moment in time).

The 19th century saw the development of statistics, first in the social sciences, then in physics, for example in the theory of gases, where randomness and determinacy can both be seen in the movement of molecules. On the one hand, individual molecules seem to move in an entirely random manner. On the other hand, very large numbers of the molecules that make up a gas are seen to behave in a way that obeys precise dynamical laws. How to explain this contradiction? If the movement of its constituent molecules is random and therefore cannot be predicted, surely the behaviour of a gas ought to be similarly unpredictable? Yet this is far from the case.

The answer to the problem is supplied by the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Out of the apparently random movement of a large number of molecules, there arises a regularity and a pattern which can be expressed as a scientific law. Out of chaos arises order. This dialectical relation between freedom and necessity, between chaos and order, between randomness and determinacy was a closed book to the science of the 19th century, which regarded the laws governing random phenomena (statistics) to be entirely separate and apart from the precise equations of classical mechanics. Considering fluids Gleick writes:

“Any liquid or gas is a collection of individual bits, so many that they may as well be infinite. If each piece moved independently, then the fluid would have infinitely many possibilities, infinitely many 'degrees of freedom' in the jargon, and the equations describing the motion would have to deal with infinitely many variables. But each particle does not move independently—its motion depends very much on the motion of its neighbours—and in a smooth flow, the degrees of freedom can be few.” 15

Classical mechanics worked very well for a long time, making important technological advances possible. Even down to the present time, it has a vast amount of applications. However, eventually it was found that certain areas could not adequately be dealt with by these methods. They had reached their limit. The neatly ordered, logical world of classical mechanics describes part of nature. But only part. In nature we see order, but also disorder. Alongside organisation and stability there are equally powerful forces tending in the opposite direction. Here we have to resort to dialectics, to determine the relation between necessity and chance, to show at what point the accumulation of tiny, apparently insignificant changes of quantity became transformed into sudden qualitative leaps.

Bohm proposed a radical re-thinking of quantum mechanics, and a new way of looking at the relation between whole and parts.

“In these studies…it became clear that even the one-body system has a basically non-mechanical feature, in the sense that it and its environment have to be understood as an undivided whole, in which the usual classical analysis into system plus environment, considered as separately external, is no longer applicable.” The relationship of the parts “depends crucially on the state of the whole, in a way that is not expressible in terms of properties of the parts alone. Indeed, the parts are organised in ways that flow out of the whole.” 16

The dialectical law of transformation of quantity into quality expresses the idea that matter behaves differently at different levels. Thus, we have the molecular level, the laws of which are studied mainly in chemistry but partly in physics; we have the level of living matter, studied mainly in biology; the subatomic level, studied in quantum mechanics; and also another level still deeper than that of elementary particles, which is presently being explored in particle physics. Each of these levels has many subdivisions.

It has been shown that the laws governing the behaviour of matter at each level are not the same. This was already shown in the 19th century by the kinetic theory of gases. If we take a box of gas containing billions of molecules, moving in irregular paths and in constant collision with other molecules, it is clearly impossible to determine the precise motions of each individual molecule. In the first place, it is ruled out on purely mathematical grounds. However, even if it were possible to solve the mathematical problems involved, it would be impossible in practice to measure the initial position and velocity of each molecule which would be needed to make precise predictions concerning it. Even a slight change in the initial angle of motion of any molecule would alter its direction, in turn leading to a still bigger change in the next collision, and so on, leading to huge errors in any prediction concerning the movement of an individual molecule.

If we try to apply the same kind of reasoning to the behaviour of gases at the macroscopic (“normal”) level, one would assume that it is also impossible to predict their behaviour. But this is not the case; the behaviour of gases at a large-scale level can be perfectly predicted. As Bohm points out:

“It is clear that one is justified in speaking of a macroscopic level possessing a set of relatively autonomous qualities and satisfying a set of relatively autonomous relations which effectively constitute a set of macroscopic casual laws. For example, if we consider a mass of water, we know by direct large-scale experience that it acts in its own characteristic way as a liquid. By this we mean that it shows all the macroscopic qualities that we associate with liquidity. For example, it flows, it 'wets' things, it tends to maintain a certain volume, etc. In its motion it satisfies a set of basic hydrodynamic equations which are expressed in terms of the large-scale properties alone, such as pressure, temperature, local density, local stream velocity, etc. Thus, if one wishes to understand the properties of the mass of water, one does not treat it as an aggregate of molecules, but rather as an entity existing at the macroscopic level, following laws appropriate to that level.”

This is not to say that the molecular constitution has nothing to do with the behaviour of water. On the contrary. The relation between the molecules determines, for example, whether it manifests itself as a liquid, a solid or vapour. But, as Bohm points out, there is a relative autonomy, which means that matter behaves differently at different levels; there exists

“a certain stability of the characteristic modes of macroscopic behaviour, which tend to maintain themselves not only more or less independently of what the individual molecules are doing, but also of the various disturbances to which the system may be subjected from outside.” 17

Is prediction possible?

When we toss a coin in the air, the chance that it will land “heads or tails” may be put at 50:50. That is a truly random phenomenon, which cannot be predicted. (Incidentally, when spinning, the coin is neither “heads” nor “tails”; dialectics—and the new physics—would say that it is both heads and tails.) As there are only two possible results, chance predominates. But matters change radically when very large numbers are involved. The owners of casinos, which are supposedly based on a game of “chance”, know that, in the long run, zero or double zero will come up as frequently as any other number, and therefore they can make a handsome and predictable profit. The same is true of insurance companies, which make a lot of money out of precise probabilities, which, in the last analysis, turn out to be practical certainties, even though the precise fate of individual clients cannot be predicted.

What are known as “mass random events” can be applied to a very wide field in physical, chemical, biological and social phenomena, from the sex of babies to the frequency of defects on a factory production line. The laws of probability have a very long history and have been used in the past in different spheres: the theory of errors (Gauss), the theory of accuracy in shooting (Poisson, Laplace), and above all, in statistics. For example, the “law of great numbers” establishes the general principle that the combined effect of a large number of accidental factors produces, for a very large class of such factors, results that are almost independent of chance. This idea was expressed in the beginning of the 18th century by Daniel Bernoulli, whose theory was generalised by Siméon Denis Poisson in 1837, and given its final form by Pafnuty Lvovich Chebyshev in 1867. All Heisenberg did was to apply the already known mathematics of mass-scale random events to the movements of subatomic particles, where, predictably, the element of randomness was quickly overcome.

“Quantum mechanics having discovered precise and wonderful laws governing the probabilities, it is with numbers such as these that science overcomes its handicap of basic indeterminacy. It is by these means that science boldly predicts. Though now humbly confessing itself powerless to foretell the exact behaviour of individual electrons or photons or other fundamental entities, it can yet tell you with enormous confidence how such great multitudes of them must behave precisely.” 18

Out of apparent randomness, a pattern emerges. It is the search for such patterns, that is, for underlying laws, which forms the basis of the whole history of science. Of course, if we were to accept that everything is just random, that there is no causality, and that, anyway, we cannot know anything because there are objective limitations to our knowledge, then all will have been a complete waste of time. Fortunately, the whole history of science demonstrates that such fears are without the slightest basis. In the great majority of scientific observations, the degree of indeterminacy is so small that, for practical purposes, it may be ignored. At the level of everyday objects, the uncertainty principle proves to be absolutely useless. Thus, all the attempts to draw general philosophical conclusions from it, and apply it to knowledge and science in general, is simply a dishonest trick. Even at the subatomic level, it does not at all mean that we cannot make definite predictions. On the contrary, quantum mechanics makes very exact predictions. It is impossible to achieve a high level of certainty about the coordinates of individual particles, which may thus be said to be random. Yet, at the end of the day, out of randomness arises order and uniformity.

Accident, chance, contingencies, etc., are phenomena that cannot be defined solely in terms of the known properties of the objects under consideration. However, this does not mean that they cannot be understood. Let us consider a typical example of a chance event—a car accident. An individual accident is determined by an infinite number of chance events: if the driver had left home one minute later, if he had not turned his head for a split second, if he had been travelling ten miles an hour slower, if the old lady had not stepped into the road, etc., etc. We have all heard this kind of thing many times. The number of causes here is literally infinite. Precisely for that reason, the event is entirely unpredictable. It is accidental, and not necessary, because it might or might not have occurred. Such events, contrary to the theory of Laplace, are determined by so many independent factors that they cannot be determined at all.

However, when we consider a very large number of such accidents, the picture changes radically. There are regular trends, which can be precisely calculated and predicted by what are called statistical laws. We cannot predict an individual accident, but we can predict with great accuracy the number of accidents that will occur in a city over a period of time. Not only that, but we can introduce laws and regulations which have a definite impact on the number of accidents. Thus, there are laws that govern chance, which are just as necessary as the laws of causality themselves.

The real relationship between causality and chance was worked out by Hegel, who explained that necessity expresses itself through chance. A good example of this is the origin of life itself. The Russian biologist and biochemist Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin (1894-1980) explains how in the complex conditions of the early period of the earth's history, the random movements of molecules would tend to form ever more complex molecules with all sorts of chance combinations. At a certain point, this huge number of accidental combinations gave rise to a qualitative leap, the emergence of living matter. At this point, the process would no longer be a matter of pure chance. Living matter would begin to evolve in accordance with certain laws, reflecting changing conditions. This relationship between the necessity and accident in science has been explored by David Bohm:

“We see, then, the important role of chance. For given enough time, it makes possible, and indeed even inevitable, all kinds of combinations of things. One of those combinations which set in motion irreversible processes or lines of development that remove the system from the influence of the chance fluctuations is then eventually certain to occur. Thus, one of the effects of chance is to help 'stir things up' in such a way as to permit the initiation of qualitatively new lines of development.”

Polemicising against the subjective idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics, Bohm shows conclusively the dialectal relationship between causality and chance. The existence of causality has been demonstrated by the whole history of human thought. This is not a question of philosophical speculation, but of practice and the never-ending process of human cognition:

“The causal laws in a specific problem cannot be known a priori; they must be found in nature. However, in response to scientific experience over many generations along with the general background of common human experience over countless centuries, there have evolved fairly well defined methods for finding the causal laws. The first thing that suggests causal laws is, of course, the existence of a regular relationship that holds within a wide range of variations of conditions. When we find such regularities, we do not suppose that they have arisen in an arbitrary, capricious, or coincidental fashion, but, … we assume, at least provisionally, that they are the result of necessary causal relationships. And even with regard to the irregularities, which always exist along with the regularities, one is led on the basis of general scientific experience to expect that phenomena that may seem completely irregular to us in the context of a particular stage of development of our understanding will later be seen to contain more subtle types of regularity, which will in turn suggest the existence of deeper causal relationships.” 19

Hegel on necessity and accident

In analysing the nature of being in all its different manifestations, Hegel deals with the relation between potential and actual, and also between necessity and accident (“contingency”). In relation to this question, it is important to clarify one of Hegel's most famous (or notorious) sayings: “What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational.” 20 At first sight, this statement seems mystifying, and also reactionary, since it seems to imply that all that exists is rational, and therefore justified. This, however, was not at all what Hegel meant, as Engels explains:

“Now, according to Hegel, reality is, however, in no way an attribute predicable of any given state of affairs, social or political, in all circumstances and at all times. On the contrary. The Roman Republic was real, but so was the Roman Empire, which superseded it. In 1789 the French monarchy had become so unreal, that is to say, so robbed of all necessity, so irrational, that it had to be destroyed by the Great Revolution, of which Hegel always speaks with the greatest enthusiasm. In this case, therefore, the monarchy was the unreal and the revolution the real. And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses its necessity, its right of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality—peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality; and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.” 21

A given form of society is “rational” to the degree that it achieves its purpose, that is, that it develops the productive forces, raises the cultural level, and thus advances human progress. Once it fails to do this, it enters into contradiction with itself, that is, it becomes irrational and unreal, and no longer has any right to exist. Thus, even in the most apparently reactionary utterances of Hegel, there is hidden a revolutionary idea.

All that exists evidently does so of necessity. But not everything can exist. Potential existence is not yet actual existence. In Science of Logic, Hegel carefully traces the process whereby something passes from a state of being merely possible to the point where possibility becomes probability, and the latter becomes inevitable (“necessity”). In view of the colossal confusion that has arisen in modern science around the issue of “probability”, a study of Hegel's thorough and profound treatment of this subject is highly instructive.

Possibility and actuality denote the dialectical development of the real world and the various stages in the emergence and development of objects. A thing which exists in potential contains within itself the objective tendency of development, or at least the absence of conditions which would preclude its coming into being. However, there is a difference between abstract possibility and real potential, and the two things are frequently confused. Abstract or formal possibility merely expresses the absence of any conditions that might exclude a particular phenomenon, but it does not assume the presence of conditions which would make its appearance inevitable.

This leads to endless confusion, and is actually a kind of trick that serves to justify all kinds of absurd and arbitrary ideas. For example, it is said that if a monkey were allowed to hammer away at a typewriter for long enough, it would eventually produce one of Shakespeare's sonnets. This objective seems too modest. Why only one sonnet? Why not the collected works of Shakespeare? Indeed, why not the whole of world literature, with the theory of relativity and Beethoven's symphonies thrown in for good measure? The bare assertion that it is “statistically possible” does not take us a single step further. The complex processes of nature, society and human thought are not all susceptible to simple statistical treatment, nor will great works of literature emerge out of mere accident, no matter how long we wait for our monkey to deliver the goods.

In order for potential to become actual, a particular concatenation of circumstances is required. Moreover, this is not a simple, linear process, but a dialectical one, in which an accumulation of small quantitative changes eventually produces a qualitative leap. Real, as opposed to abstract, possibility implies the presence of all the necessary factors out of which the potential will lose its character of provisionality, and become actual. And, as Hegel explains, it will remain actual only for as long as these conditions exist, and no longer. This is true whether we are referring to the life of an individual, a given socioeconomic form, a scientific theory, or any natural phenomenon. The point at which a change becomes inevitable can be determined by the method invented by Hegel and known as the “nodal line of measurement”. If we regard any process as a line, it will be seen that there are specific points (“nodal points”) on the line of development, where the process experiences a sudden acceleration, or qualitative leap.

It is easy to identify cause and effect in isolated cases, as when one hits a ball with a bat. But in a wider sense, the notion of causality becomes far more complicated. Individual causes and effects become lost in a vast ocean of interaction, where cause becomes transformed into effect and vice versa. Just try tracing back even the simplest event to its “ultimate causes” and you will see that eternity will not be long enough to do it. There will always be some new cause, and that in turn will have to be explained and so on ad infinitum. This paradox has entered the popular consciousness in such sayings as this one:

For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost;
For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost;
For the want of a horse, a rider was lost;
For the want of a rider, a battle was lost;
For the want of a battle, a kingdom was lost;
…And all for the want of a nail.

The impossibility of establishing a “final cause” has led some people to abandon the idea of cause altogether. Everything is considered to be random and accidental. In the 20th century this position has been adopted, at least in theory, by a large number of scientists on the basis of an incorrect interpretation of the results of quantum physics, particularly the philosophical positions of Heisenberg. Hegel answered these arguments in advance, when he explained the dialectical relation between accident and necessity.

Hegel explains that there is no such thing as causality in the sense of an isolated cause and effect. Every effect has a counter-effect, and every action has a counter-action. The idea of an isolated cause and effect is an abstraction taken from classical Newtonian physics, which Hegel was highly critical of, although it enjoyed tremendous prestige at that time. Here again, Hegel was in advance of his time. Instead of the action-reaction of mechanics, he advanced the notion of Reciprocity, of universal interaction. Everything influences everything else, and is in turn, influenced and determined by everything. Hegel thus re-introduced the concept of accident, which had been rigorously banned from science by the mechanist philosophy of Newton and Laplace.

At first sight, we seem to be lost in a vast number of accidents. But this confusion is only apparent. The accidental phenomena which constantly flash in and out of existence, like the waves on the face of an ocean, express a deeper process, which is not accidental but necessary. At a decisive point, this necessity reveals itself through accident. This idea of the dialectical unity of necessity and accident may seem strange, but it is strikingly confirmed by a whole series of observations from the most varied fields of science and society. The mechanism of natural selection in the theory of evolution is the best known example. But there are many others. In the last few years, there have been many discoveries in the field of chaos and complexity theory which precisely detail how “order arises out of chaos”, which is exactly what Hegel worked out one and a half centuries earlier.

We must remember that Hegel was writing at the beginning of the 19th century, when science was completely dominated by classical mechanical physics, and half a century before Darwin developed the idea of natural selection through the medium of random mutations. He had no scientific evidence to back up his theory that necessity expresses itself through accident. But that is the central idea behind the most recent innovative thinking in science.

This profound law is equally fundamental to an understanding of history. As Marx wrote to Kugelmann in 1871:

“World history would indeed be easy to make if the struggle were to be taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would on the other hand be of a very mystical nature, if 'accidents' played no part. These accidents naturally form part of the general course of development and are compensated by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very much dependent upon such 'accidents', including the 'accident' of the character of the people who head the movement.” 22

Engels made the same point a few years later in relation to the role of “great men” in history:

“Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even in a definite delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.” 23

Determinism and chaos

Chaos theory deals with processes in nature that are apparently chaotic or random. A dictionary definition of chaos might suggest disorder, confusion, randomness, or chance: haphazard movement without aim, purpose or principle. But the intervention of pure “chance” into material processes invites the entry of non-physical, that is, metaphysical factors: whim, spirit or divine intervention. Because it deals with “chance” events, therefore, the new science of chaos has profound philosophical implications.

Natural processes that were previously considered to be random and chaotic have now proved to be lawful in a scientific sense, implying a basis in deterministic causes. Moreover, this discovery has such a widespread, not to say universal application, that it has engendered a whole new science—the study of chaos. It has created a new outlook and methodology, some would say a revolution, applicable to all established sciences. When a block of metal becomes magnetised, it goes into an “ordered state”, in which all of its particles point the same way. It can be oriented one way or the other. Theoretically, it is “free” to orient in any direction. In practice, every little piece of metal makes the same “decision”.

A chaos scientist has worked out the basic mathematical rules that describe the “fractal geometry” of a leaf of the black spleenwort fern. He has fed the information into his computer that also has a random number generator. It is programmed to build up a picture using dots put at random on the screen. As the experiment progresses, it is impossible to anticipate where each dot will appear. But unerringly, the image of the fern leaf is built up. The superficial similarity between these two experiments is obvious. But it suggests a deeper parallel. Just as the computer was basing its apparently random selection of dots (and to the observer “outside” the computer, for all practical purposes it was random) on well-defined mathematical rules, so also it would suggest that the behaviour of photons (and by implication all quantum events) are subject to underlying mathematical rules which, however, are well beyond human understanding at the present time.

The Marxist view holds that the entire universe is based upon material forces and processes. Human consciousness is in the final analysis only a reflection of the real world that exists outside it, a reflection based on the physical interaction between the human body and the material world. In the material world there is no discontinuity, no interruption in the physical interconnection of events and processes. There is no room, in other words, for the intervention of metaphysical or spiritual forces. Materialist dialectics, Engels said, is the “science of universal interconnection”. Moreover, the interconnectedness of the physical world is based upon the principle of causality, in the sense that processes and events are determined by their conditions and the lawfulness of their interconnections:

“The first thing that strikes us in considering matter in motion is the interconnection of the individual motions of separate bodies, their being determined by one another. But not only do we find that a particular motion is followed by another, we find also that we can evoke a particular motion by setting up the conditions in which it takes place in nature, that we can even produce motions which do not occur at all in nature (industry), at least not in this way, and that we can give these motions a predetermined direction and extent. In this way, by the activity of human beings, the idea of causality becomes established, the idea that one motion is the cause of another.” 24

The complexity of the world may disguise the processes of cause and effect and make the one indistinguishable from the other, but that does not alter the underlying logic. As Engels explained,

“cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general interconnection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa.” 25

Chaos theory undoubtedly represents a big advance, but here also there are some questionable formulations. The celebrated butterfly effect, according to which a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, and causes a storm the following week in Chicago is no doubt a sensational example, intended to provoke controversy. However, it is incorrect in this form. Qualitative changes can only occur as the result of an accumulation of quantitative changes. A small accidental change (a butterfly flapping its wings) could only produce a dramatic result if all the conditions for a storm were already in existence. In this case, necessity could express itself through an accident. But only in this case.

The dialectical relationship between necessity and chance can be seen in the process of natural selection. The number of random mutations within the organism is infinitely large. However, in a particular environment, one of these mutations is found to be useful to the organism and retained, while all the others perish. Necessity once again manifests itself through the agency of chance. In a sense, the appearance of life on earth can be seen as an “accident”. It was not preordained that the earth should be exactly at the right distance from the sun, with the right kind of gravity and atmosphere, for this to happen. But, given this concatenation of circumstances, over a period of time, out of a vast number of chemical reactions, life would inevitably arise. This applies not only to our own planet, but to a vast number of other planets where similar conditions exist, although not in our solar system. However, once life had arisen, it ceases to be a question of accident, and develops according to its own inherent laws.

Consciousness itself did not arise out of any Divine plan, but, in one sense also arose from the “accident” of bipedalism (upright stance), which freed the hands, and thus made it possible for early hominids to evolve as a tool-making animal. It is probable that this evolutionary quirk was the result of a climatic change in East Africa, which partly destroyed the forest habitat of our simian ancestors. This was an accident. As Engels explains in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man, this was the basis upon which human consciousness developed. But in a broader sense, the emergence of consciousness—of matter aware of itself—cannot be regarded as an accident, but a necessary product of the evolution of matter, which proceeds from the simplest forms to more complex forms, and which, where the conditions exist, will inevitably give rise to intelligent life, and higher forms of consciousness, complex societies, and what we know as civilisation.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle devotes a lot of space to a discussion of the nature of necessity and accident. He gives us an example, the accidental words that lead to a quarrel. In a tense situation, for example a marriage in difficulties, even the most innocuous comment can lead to a row. But it is clear that the words spoken are not the real cause of the dispute. It is the product of an accumulation of stresses and strains, which sooner or later reaches a breaking point. When this point is reached, the slightest thing can provoke an outburst. We can see the same phenomenon in the workplace. For years, an apparently docile workforce, fearful of unemployment, is prepared to accept all manner of impositions—wage reductions, sackings of colleagues, worsening conditions, etc. On the surface, nothing is happening. But in reality, there is a steady increase in discontent, which, at a certain point, must find an expression. One day, the workers decide that “enough is enough”. At this precise point, even the most trivial incident can provoke a walkout. The whole situation changes into its opposite.

There is a broad analogy between the class struggle and the conflicts between nations. In August 1914, the Crown Prince of Austro-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo. This was alleged to have caused the First World War. As a matter of fact, this was an historical accident, which might or might not have occurred. Prior to 1914 there were several other incidents (the Morocco incident, the Agadir incident), which could equally have led to war. The real cause of World War One was the accumulation of unbearable contradictions between the main imperialist powers—Britain, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia. This reached a critical stage, where the whole explosive mixture could be ignited by a single spark in the Balkans.

Finally, we see the same phenomenon in the world of economics. At the moment when we write these lines the City of London has been shaken by the collapse of the Barings Bank. This was instantly blamed on the fraudulent activities of one of the bank's employees in Singapore. But the Barings collapse was merely the latest symptom of a far deeper malaise in the world financial system. The headlines in The Independent newspaper read “an accident waiting to happen”. On a world scale, there are at present US $25 trillion invested in derivatives. This shows that capitalism is no longer based on production, but to a greater and greater extent upon speculative activities. The fact that Mr. Leeson lost a large amount of money in the Japanese stock markets may be connected with the accident of the Kobe earthquake. But serious economic analysts understand that this was an expression of the fundamental unsoundness of the international financial system. With or without Mr. Leeson, future collapses are inevitable. The big international corporations and financial institutions, all of whom are involved in this reckless gambling, are playing with fire. A major financial collapse is implicit in the whole situation.

It may be that there are many phenomena whose underlying processes and causative relationships are not fully understood so that they appear to be random. For all practical purposes, therefore, these can only be treated statistically, like the roulette wheel to the punter. But underlying these “chance” events there are still forces and processes that determine the end results. We live in a universe governed by dialectical determinism.

Marxism and freedom

The problem of the relation between “freedom and necessity” was known to Aristotle and endlessly discussed by the mediaeval Schoolmen. Kant uses it as one of his celebrated “antinomies”, where it is presented as an insoluble contradiction. In the 17th and 18th centuries it cropped up in mathematics as the theory of chance, related to gambling.

The dialectical relationship between freedom and necessity has resurfaced in chaos theory. Doyne Farmer, an American physicist investigating complicated dynamics, comments:

“On a philosophical level, it struck me as an operational way to define free will, in a way that allowed you to reconcile free will with determinism. The system is deterministic, but you can't say what it's going to do next. At the same time, I'd always felt that the important problems out there in the world had to do with the creation of organisation, in life or intelligence. But how did you study that? What biologists were doing seemed so applied and specific; chemists certainly weren't doing it; mathematicians weren't doing it at all, and it was something that physicists just didn't do. I always felt that the spontaneous emergence of self-organisation ought to be part of physics. Here was one coin with two sides. Here was order, with randomness emerging, and then one step further away was randomness with it own underlying order.” 26

Dialectical determinism has nothing in common with the mechanical approach, still less with fatalism. In the same way that there are laws that govern inorganic and organic matter, so there are laws that govern the evolution of human society. The patterns that can be observed through history are not at all fortuitous. Marx and Engels explained that the transition from one social system to another is determined by the development of the productive forces, in the last analysis. When a given socioeconomic system is no longer able to develop the productive forces, it enters into crisis, preparing the ground for a revolutionary overturn.

This is not at all to deny the role of the individual in history. As we have already said, men and women make their own history. However, it would be foolish to imagine that human beings are “free agents” who can determine their future purely on the basis of their own will. They have to base themselves on conditions which have been created independent of their will—economic, social, political, religious, and cultural. In this sense, the idea of free will is nonsense. The real attitude of Marx and Engels towards the role of the individual in history is shown by the following quotation from The Holy Family:

History does nothing, it 'possesses no immense wealth', it 'wages no battles'. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; 'history' is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing its aims.” 27

There is no question of men and women being merely blind puppets of fate, powerless to change their own destiny. However, the real men and women living in the real world of which Marx and Engels write, do not and cannot stand above the society in which they live. Hegel once wrote that “interests move the life of the peoples”. Consciously or otherwise, the individual actors on the historical stage ultimately reflect the interests, opinions, prejudices, morality and aspirations of a specific class or group within society. This is really self-evident from even the most superficial reading of history.

Nevertheless, the illusion of “free will” is persistent. The German philosopher Leibniz remarked that a magnetic needle, if it could think, would doubtless imagine that it pointed North because it choose to do so. In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud utterly demolished the prejudice that men and women are in complete control even of their own thoughts. The phenomenon of Freudian slips is a perfect example of the dialectical relationship between accident and necessity. Freud gives numerous examples of mistakes in speech, “forgetfulness”, and other “accidents”, which, in many cases, undoubtedly reveal deeper psychological processes. In the words of Freud:

“Certain inadequacies of our psychic capacities…and certain performances which are unintentional prove to be well motivated when subjected to the psycho-analytic investigation, and are determined through the consciousness of unknown motives.” 28

It was a fundamental tenet of Freud's approach that none of human behaviour is accidental. The small mistakes of everyday life, dreams, and the apparently inexplicable symptoms of mentally ill people are not “accidental”. By definition, the human mind is not aware of unconscious processes. The more deeply unconscious the motivation, from the standpoint of psychoanalysis, the more obvious it is that a person will not be aware of it. Freud grasped early on the general principle that these unconscious processes reveal themselves (and therefore can be studied) in those fragments of behaviour which the conscious mind dismisses as silly mistakes or accidents.

Is it possible to attain freedom? If what is meant by a “free” action is one that is not caused or determined, we must say quite frankly that such an action has never existed, and never will exist. Such imaginary “freedom” is pure metaphysics. Hegel explained that real freedom is the recognition of necessity. To the degree that men and women understand the laws that govern nature and society, they will be in a position to master these laws and turn them to their own advantage. The real material basis upon which humankind can become free has been established by the development of industry, science and technology. In a rational system of society—one in which the means of production are harmoniously planned and consciously controlled—we will really be able to speak about free human development. In the words of Engels, this is “mankind's leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.”

5. Asimov, I. New Guide to Science, p. 375.

6. Bohm, D. Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, pp. 86 and 87.

7. Ferris, T. The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, pp. 103 and 106.

8. Lerner, E. The Big Bang Never Happened, pp. 362-3.

9. LCW, Vol. 14, p. 55.

10. Ferris, T. op. cit., pp. 95-6.

11. Spinoza, Ethics, p. 8.

12. Quoted in Stewart, I. Does God Play Dice? pp. 10-2.

13. Engels, F. The Dialectics of Nature, pp. 289-90.

14. Bohm, D. op. cit., p. 20.

15. Gleick, J. Chaos, Making a New Science, p. 124.

16. Bohm, D. op. cit., pp. x and xi.

17. Bohm, D. op. cit., pp. 50-1.

18. Hoffmann, B. op. cit., p. 152.

19. Bohm, D. op. cit., pp. 25 and 4.

20. Hegel, G. Philosophy of Right, p. 10.

21. MESW, Vol. 3, pp. 338-9.

22. MESC, Marx to Kigelmann, 17th April 1871, p. 264.

23. MESC, Engels to Starkenburg, 25th January 1894, p. 467.

24. Engels, F. The Dialectics of Nature, pp. 17 and 304.

25. Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, p. 32.

26. Quoted in Gleick, op. cit., pp. 251-2.

27. Marx K. and Engels, F. Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 93, henceforth referred to as MECW.

28. Freud, S. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, p. 193.

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