Matter in motion: Dialectical philosophy’s role in science

by | Mar 15, 2024

In this second article in a series on philosophy and science, we take a look at dialectics and its relevance to understanding change in the natural world.
Dialectics and science

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” So said Heraclitus over two-and-a-half thousand years ago. An ancient Ionian philosopher, Heraclitus is most well-known for his philosophy of flux, or change, a philosophy that has found various expressions throughout world history, and in modern times has come to be called dialectics.

What Heraclitus meant by this was that flux and motion are fundamental aspects of matter, and more importantly that contradictions abound within nature. Everything both is and is not. You cannot step into the “same” river twice because the water has moved and isn’t the same water you stepped into previously.

The same is true for the person in Heraclitus’ quote. The human body, like all organisms, is in a state of constant change — cells die and new cells are reproduced all the time. What we eat gets metabolized and the chemicals and minerals in our food replaces those already making up our cells.

You do not notice these changes on a day-to-day level, but on a long-enough time scale, it could be that most, if not all, of the atoms that made up you a couple of decades ago have all been replaced. In a chemical sense, you are physically a completely different person to who you were then, yet at the same time, you are obviously the same person.

This is the essence of the philosophy of dialectics, and arising from this state of flux come certain contradictions, which together give rise to new qualities.

Dialectics and materialism

As mentioned in the previous article, the German philosopher Hegel, influenced by Heraclitus, brought dialectics back into Western philosophy in the 19th century, which became highly influential and found new meaning when later coupled with materialist philosophy — known as dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism is often met with skepticism and hostility due to its association with the later German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were directly influenced by Hegel and considered themselves dialectical materialists. But I think this skepticism is premature.

In my view, detractors of dialectical materialism often object to Marx and Engels’ application of this philosophical method to the study of human society and human history, things which the detractors believe cannot be understood in a scientific way, and therefore discredit dialectical materialism in general. However, whatever your views on this point—and the question of whether we can actually scientifically study and understand society and history is not the subject of this article — this criticism overlooks the applicability of dialectical materialism to the natural sciences.

Where mechanical materialism — the deterministic and clock-work view of the Universe during the Enlightenment — hit a dead-end, dialectical materialism carried materialism forward and enriched materialist philosophy with a more advanced, holistic view of the world, taking into account and embracing contradictions in nature rather than ignoring or seeing them as a problem.

Contradiction and conflict

The first law of dialectics, worked out by Hegel, explores the concept of “the unity and conflict of opposites”. We have already touched upon this first law with the example given by Heraclitus. Other examples of contradictions and opposites in nature include hot and cold, positive and negative, the two magnetic poles of north and south, cause and effect, part and whole, and life and death.

None of these things can be described or understood, or in some cases even exist, without the existence or acknowledgement of their opposites.  The contradiction and conflict of the part and whole is also of particular importance to the natural sciences.

For example, let’s look at water. Water is made up of H2O molecules. These molecular “parts” make up the “whole”, which we call water. However, looking at each individual part in isolation, they are in many ways completely different to water. Water is wet, but a single H2O molecule is not. The property, or quality, of “wetness” only exists when H2O molecules come together and organize themselves. In other words the property of wetness is a result of the relationship of individual water molecules interacting with each other and organizing themselves in a particular way.

This holistic and dialectal approach to understanding the world stands in contradiction to another aspect of science, which would eventually prove to have its limits: reductionism. That is, in studying the natural world through observation and experiment, it was tempting to see things in isolation and in their component parts, rather than as part of the context of their environment and development — things were understood to be nothing more than the sum of their parts.

This was particularly true in biology and anatomy. Whilst the reductionist method helped shine light on our understanding of how the body works, it nevertheless on its own leads us into an incomplete understanding of biology.

At the turn of this century, there was a wave of reductionist thinking and hopes surrounding the Human Genome Project, with scientists and the media talking about us being able to discover the gene for pretty much everything. There were races to find the gene for criminal behavior, the gene for creative talent, or the gene for high intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such pursuits came up short.

With apologies to the proponents of “the selfish gene”, a living organism is more than just what’s encoded in its DNA. It is also more than just the tissues and organs for which these genes code and which make it up. A living organism is a thing in and of its self. It is the cumulative product of all these individual parts — the genes, the organs, the tissues — developing and interacting together to produce an organism with properties and qualities, which its individual parts do not possess on their own.

Modern geneticists and biologists are moving away from the over-simplified, reductionist view of life, and recognize that genes and the organism to which they belong have a complicated interplay that cannot be described by genes alone as described above.

Epigenetics and the recognition of external factors also affecting a living organism’s development are a welcome recognition of reductionism’s limits, and I would say also show a move (perhaps unconsciously) to a dialectic way of thinking and understanding within the biological sciences.

I mentioned that dialectics is the philosophy of change within matter, but it would be incorrect to take a completely one-sided view and claim that matter is constantly in a state of change. There exist of course periods of stasis and equilibrium. This seems to contradict the whole notion of dialectics, but the second law of dialectics—the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes — helps to overcome this contradiction.

Quantity into quality

The fields of chaos theory, emergence, and complexity are perhaps the most powerful discoveries which vindicate this next fundamental law of dialectics.

The relatively new science of “emergence” — the idea that some properties emerge from within the inner workings of a particular system whose constituent parts do not possess such properties — is essentially the laws of dialectics written in the language of mathematics and physics.

From avalanches to earthquakes, phase transitions to the death of stars, nature is abound with examples of this process of change. That is, small, sometimes imperceptible changes to a system take place over a period of time without much noticeable happening until a critical point is reached when the system undergoes a qualitative change.

Let’s look again at water. As is well known, from between 0 and 100 °C, water is qualitatively the same. It may feel hotter or colder depending on its temperature, but it remains a liquid and behaves generally in the same way whether it is at 1 °C or 99 °C. The quantitative change in this example is adding heat to the water to increase its temperature, which suddenly, at 100 °C, causes a qualitative change to the water in the form of it boiling and turning into steam. This is known as a phase transition and of course applies not just to water. What is perhaps not so well known is that such a process of change is a perfect example of dialectics in action.

Change therefore does not always take place gradually and evenly, but rather often in leaps and bounds, and in a lot of cases, is a product of dialectics’ first law of contradiction and conflict within a system.

The theory of evolution has been greatly enriched by appreciating these laws of dialectics. In the decades since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, evolution was thought to be a slow and gradual process whereby species, via natural selection, undergo small changes from one generation to the next until eventually, so much change has occurred that a new species has evolved.

The problem with this view of evolution was the fossil record, which showed a worrying lack of “intermediates” between species. It appeared that the transition from one species to another was a fast and sudden process.

In the 1970s, evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge came up with the theory of punctuated equilibrium. This theory states that species can be stable for long periods of time and find an equilibrium in their environment and ecology, and these periods of equilibrium are “punctuated” by sudden changes leading to the rise of new species. These changes could be due to external, environmental factors or a mutation in their genes which gives rise to such an advantageous trait that that gene propagates through the population in a relatively short space of time.

One of the most famous examples of this process is the Cambrian explosion, when just over half a billion years ago, life took a sudden leap with an “explosion” in diversity and evolution of new species and phyla and complex organisms, breaking out of the hundreds of millions of years prior when all life on Earth was simple and mostly unicellular.

Punctuated equilibrium remains controversial in some circles and there is by no means a consensus on what the correct model of evolution is, but in my view, the theory of Gould and Eldredge is the best yet in explaining why the fossil record looks like the way it is: evolution is a dialectical process, not a gradualist one.

It is also worth noting that Gould was a conscious dialectical materialist and used dialectical materialism as a heuristic approach to his science. Perhaps without his dialectical thinking and worldview, he may not have come to this theory of evolution based on the evidence at hand.

The negation of the negation

Evolution by natural selection shows us dialectics at play. The third law of dialectics, the negation of the negation, also finds expression in biological and evolutionary change quite nicely.

This term sounds quite strange and abstract, and is best illustrated with an example — and biology provides us with plenty.

Consider an acorn and an oak tree. From a dialectical perspective, they are both the same and different things. The same, since an oak tree grows from an acorn and an oak tree produces more acorns, and different since an acorn and an oak tree are clearly two distinct things. From a scientific perspective, this can be explained, of course, by the fact an acorn and an oak tree share the same DNA; they are the same organism at different stages in its development and lifecycle.

The negation of the negation alludes to the fact that in this example, the destruction or negation of one thing gives rise to something new, which itself also develops and changes, until that is negated in place of something new but on a higher level.

Under the right physical and environmental conditions, an acorn will germinate and grow into an oak sapling. The acorn no longer exists, it has been “negated”, and in its place has grown a tree. At a certain point, that tree will bear fruit and produce not one acorn, but many more acorns over its lifetime.

When the tree finally dies — when it is also negated — the multitude of acorns it produced will have produced many more oak trees. When we add evolution to this analogy, this multitude of new acorns and trees are the “higher level” referred to in the previous paragraph: the negation of the negation has come full circle, but the new acorns are not identical to the original, but have new mutations, new features, and in the long run, may even give rise to a new species of oak tree better adapted to its environment.

The negation of the negation also highlights one further aspect of dialectical processes, which is that some things have a tendency to turn into their opposites. This applies in some ways to all three laws of dialectics.

We see such phenomena in wider systems with many interconnecting and inter-relating parts. In the history of life on Earth, photosynthetic organisms evolved first, and their byproduct—molecular oxygen—was toxic to life. But when life evolved bacteria that utilized oxygen for its own metabolism, oxygen stopped being a toxin for a whole branch of organisms, and now we cannot imagine life on Earth without it.

Where the previous article in this series showed how materialism, as opposed to idealism, is the correct starting point for science and the understanding of nature, I have tried in this article to show how dialectics —in conjunction with materialism — is an appropriate philosophy and worldview to have when dealing with the science of change within nature.

But I think Stephen Jay Gould put it best in his essay “Nurturing Nature”, published in his book An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas, when he wrote:

“[…] dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars […] When presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products and inputs to the system.

“Thus, the law of ‘interpenetrating opposites’ records the inextricable interdependence of components; the ‘transformation of quantity to quality’ defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the ‘negation of negation’ describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.”

In the next and final article, we’ll look at some of the most recent ideas in science and show how they too shed light on the dialectical nature of the Universe. We’ll see how dialectical thinking could point towards the answers to the big questions in modern science.

Read the previous article in this series, Materialism matters: The role of philosophy in science

Feature image credit: Pixabay

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