Why Einstein Could Not Believe that God Throughs Dice
Ever since Max Born’s discovery in 1926 that the laws of physics on the atomic and subatomic level give only statistical results, physicists have sought to restore the one-cause–one-effect character of prequantum physics. Born pointed out that the same experiment, when repeated over and over again even in a theoretically identical manner, does not yield a unique result but rather a statistically distributed set of results. Einstein was never able to accept the intrinsically statistical character of the laws of the microworld, writing to Born immediately after the latter had announced his discovery, “I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice” (Einstein 1971, 91).
There are many other aspects about the physics of the microworld which depart radically from the physics of the world which we observe more directly in our everyday activity and to which we now refer as the macroworld. I shall mention only one of these because of the significance it bears on the subsequent debates over the completeness or lack of completeness of the manner in which quantum physics embraces the behavior of the microworld.
Imagine a musician playing a single note on a flute. For the same position of the fingers, the flutist can sound a note in any of several octaves. By merely looking at the positions of’ the fingers, one cannot tell which octave is being played. Once the note is heard, its octave is clear. Several different persons listening to the same note will arrive at the same conclusion.
A similar situation in the microworld proves to be quite different. The quantum-physical state of the air in a hypothetical microflute is considered in quantum theory to be a superposition of all the octaves that can be present. The physical detection of the note by a listener then makes it possible to replace the previous description of the state with one representing the particular note that was detected. In the language of quantum physics, this is known as reduction of the wave packet.
Another listener, however, may hear the note in a different octave and change the description of the state of the air in the flute accordingly. The new description is also a reduction of the wave packet, but with a different result. The difference between the flute in the macroworld and the hypothetical flute in the microworld is that the octave sounded on the macroflute actually depends on the position of the flutist’s lips and the manner in which the air is blown into the instrument, while a musician playing the microflute and blowing exactly in the same manner will be heard to be playing different octaves by different listeners or different octaves by the same listener at different times. This difference in the way states are described before and after measurement is what led Niels Bohr to consider that quantum physics does not deal with the physics of the microworld but with our knowledge of the physics of the microworld. According to Bohr’s view (now also referred to as the Copenhagen interpretation), every observation or measurement of a microstate (in our example, the listening to the note) singles out one state of the many possible states of a microsystem. The state thus singled out must then be used to describe the subsequent behavior of the previously mixed state, that is, a state considered to be a mixture of all possible results of measurements. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, we are dealing not with imperfections in our knowledge, but with the only knowledge that is to be had-namely, the results of actual measurements or the statistical distribution of possible results of measurements not yet made.
In recent years, discussions among the physicists on the adequacy and completeness of quantum theory have increased markedly as a result of the carrying out of experiments that had previously been put forth as hypothetical experiments to demonstrate the shortcomings of quantum mechanics. Einstein, until his death in 1955, continued to argue in his debates with Bohr that quantum mechanics was incomplete in its description of the microworld and that one should not be satisfied with only statistical descriptions on the one hand or after-the-fact descriptions of the microworld on the other.
In 1935 Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen published a paper “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?” In this paper they considered a hypothetical experiment in which measurements are performed on one of two particles traveling away from each other after having interacted with one another. The argument about incompleteness was based on the fact that from measurements on one of the two particles, it would be possible to completely determine the state of the other, while quantum mechanics would not allow this. Their proof involved the common-sense assumption that the measurement could be made after the two particles were sufficiently far removed from one another so that one of them could not possibly affect the behavior of the other. Bohr’s reply, in an article with the same title, was that no matter how far apart they were, the two particles constituted a holistic system that could not be viewed as two distinct particles (1935). The recent experiments confirm Bohr’s position.1
Like Einstein and many other physicists, dialectical materialists have been reluctant to accept the theoretical view of the physical world which appears to abandon causality and declares the subject matter of physics not to be the objectively existing physical world, but our knowledge of this world. Such a view would appear to violate the materialist position that there is
no difference in principle between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. . . . The only difference is between what is known and what is not yet known. . . . [We] must determine how knowledge emerges from ignorance, how incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact. (Lenin 1972, 103)
The views of Marxists in the United States who followed the developments in physics were largely shaped by physicist David Bohm’s conscious efforts to apply dialectical-materialist methods to this problem (Bohm 1952) and by fellow physicist Hans Freistadt’s popularization in Science & Society (1953) of Bohm’s ideas as a defense of materialism against idealism in physics.2 Bohm suggested that the correct physical variables needed to complete the description of the microworld lie hidden at a level of the physical world which is not yet known to us. The statistical behavior that we encounter in the quantum mechanical description is a consequence of averaging over the results of strictly deterministic interactions on the hidden-variable level.
In the Soviet Union, where Bohm’s ideas received wide circulation, Vladimir A. Fock and other physicists argued against an oversimplified view of determinism and for a materialist understanding of the nature of the statistical laws of quantum mechanics. Fock’s views, not readily accessible to Marxists in the United States during the 1950s, went largely unnoticed, especially his warning that
to force upon nature a deterministic form of laws, to renounce, discarding all evidence, the possibility of a more general probabilistic form of these laws—means to start up from some kind of dogma, but not from the properties of nature itself. Such a position is philosophically incorrect. (Fock 1957)
This article by Fock shows how it is possible to deal with the statistical nature of the microworld, the wave-particle duality, and Bohr’s principle of complementarity within a dialectical-materialist framework. The hidden-variable approaches usually insist that the motion of microobjects be describable in terms of trajectories, which, in turn, requires that the description of the state of motion of the microobject allow the designation of a unique position and momentum. This requirement proves to be logically untenable and rooted in mechanistic thinking (Marquit 1978–79).3 It is also the source of viewing the reduction of the wave packet as a paradox: if an object is following a unique trajectory, how is it possible that different measurements of the same state produce different results? If, on the other hand, a microobject is not absolutely localizable to a uniquely defined position at a given instant, then the occurrence of an observable interaction over a range of possible positions entails no logical inconsistency. Even Karl Popper, writing from the position of an objective idealist, has argued that the reduction of the wave packet is a myth, that the wave packet does not collapse when one gains knowledge of what had happened, but that it collapses when the experiment leading to that knowledge occurs (1985, 26).
The relation between determinism and the probabilistic aspects of the laws of physics has been the subject of continuing interest, especially among scholars in the socialist countries, and literature accessible to the nonphysicist is increasingly becoming available in English.4
There is also a second side to this question, which, unfortunately, has not been the subject of much study, namely, how did it come about that Marxists and non-Marxists alike acquired the prejudice that it is the task of natural science to give a unique prediction for the outcome of any physical process. It should be noted here that in political economy Marxists have long accepted the notion of laws as tendencies (e.g., Marx’s law on the falling rate of profit). I shall now turn to an examination of one of the principal sources for the origin of this prejudice. We shall begin with a discussion of laws.
The concept of law
We shall begin our discussion of laws by examining the general concept of law-governedness. The opposite of law-governed is chaotic, and this contrast can assist us in establishing the most essential features of the concept of law-governed. The term chaos is now being used in the physics of nonlinear systems for what are actually quasi-chaotic models. The term chaos implies the absence, of any relatively stable or persisting connection or relation among coexisting parts of a material system or among successive states of the system. The concept of law-governed is thus first of all associated with the presence of such interconnections. Further, the interconnections must be more than just instantaneous coexistence—they must be persisting, that is, they must be marked by some degree of stability. Such interconnections, insofar as they apply to relations among parts of a system, are characterized by the term structure, hence such interconnections are structural laws: if the interconnections apply to relations between successive states of the system, they are laws of change (or laws of motion), and finally if they govern the direction of successions of changes, they are laws of development.
There is a tendency to regard law exclusively as an expression of the enduring or persisting in the phenomena associated with a system. Thus, in his classic book on the foundations of science, Norman R. Campbell wrote:
Laws are propositions asserting relations which can be established by experiments or observation. . . . The relations asserted, if not always the same, have always a common feature which may be described as “uniformity of association.” In other words, a law always asserts that A is uniformly associated with B, where A and B are “phenomena,” knowledge of which is derived from judgments of the external world. (Campbell 1957, 38–39)
Campbell’s definition has the shortcoming that it ties laws too tightly to phenomena, while science goes more deeply into the essence of systems of matter. As a result of the theoretical activity that arises in connection with abstraction of material properties, a science can formulate laws in terms of concepts that are not directly expressible in phenomenal form. This does not mean that the ultimate test of the validity of a law is not experimental or empirical observation. An essential feature of the scientific method is to project theoretically the consequences of an uncorroborated law onto the behavior of a material system and then to perform the appropriate observations to confirm the law. Laws of chemistry based on Dalton’s theory of the chemical atom were not confirmed by observation of the combination of individual atoms: their validity was established on the basis of experimental confirmation of the theoretical predictions derived from these laws.
In a previous paper, I characterized phenomena as manifestations of the properties of a system (Marquit 1980a). If laws are the expression of the enduring or persisting in phenomena, they must also be expressions of the enduring or persisting essential properties or qualities of material systems and their reproduction in thought on all levels of abstraction, including the logic of thought. By structure we mean a stable side of a system. What does one really mean by stable? Stability suggests persistence over some period of time in face of changes that are taking place in a system or in face of the presence of factors tending to produce change. That is why the concept of law is extended to embrace also structures.
Since the concept of law appears to embrace all objects, including their essence and phenomena, one might be tempted to accept the following characterization given by Marx Wartofsky in his book Conceptual Foundations of Scientific Thought:
A law states an invariant relation among all members of a given class (with respect to some parameters taken to be relevant). (1968, 252)
Such a formulation is adequate insofar as a system can be reduced to a set of members (elements) and organized into fixed classes and definite relations among the members of the same and/or different classes. Some systems can indeed be abstracted into such sets and that is why so much attention has been paid to set theory. Real systems can also have a complex hierarchical structure and varied interconnections (Marquit 1980a, 160), which make such a reduction into a topological set impossible for the scientific study of its principal features. On every new level of organization and integration of matter, new qualities emerge and these new qualities are not reducible to the qualities on the structurally lower or historically earlier levels. Moreover, laws must deal not only with stable structures, but also link the qualitative changes that occur within a system and establish the causal connections giving rise to evolutionary development. Hörz and others stress that the relatively stable, essential properties of a system provide the basis for the existence of laws, including those laws which express causal relations governing the behavior of the system. To acquire knowledge of a system, we seek out in the structure of the system the necessary and essential relations. The causally conditioned and structurally determined motion of elements of a system is thereby the basis for the existence of laws (Hörz et al. 1980, 47).
Let us consider what is meant by necessary relations. To do so we should first consider some general features of the three types of laws: the laws of structure, motion, and development. Each type is not independent of the others. For example, laws of development deal with structural changes and motion of systems. In the case of structural laws, the necessary relations determine which structures will occur on the basis of the interconnections of the substructures and the demarcation of the system. In the case of laws of motion and development, the necessary relations express not only the possibilities of motion (for example, Kepler’s laws on the elliptical motion of the planets), but also the causal connection between certain states of motion and structure on the one hand and the subsequent states of motion and structure on the other. These cause-effect relationships need not produce a unique effect for a given cause. The laws can express the effect in terms of a range of possibilities subject to the laws of probability (statistical laws). In the physical sciences the laws expressing a unique cause-effect connection are often called dynamical laws (as distinct from the laws of dynamics), since they characterize the laws of dynamics first formulated by Newton—a unique force (cause) produces a unique change in motion (effect). In quantum physics the causal connections are expressed by statistical laws, as is often the case for laws in the social and life sciences. Statistical laws, as we shall discuss shortly, are characterized by dynamical, stochastic (random), and probabilistic aspects. Laws dealing with stages of evolutionary development of systems in nature and society, as well as many of the laws in the life and social sciences, are much more difficult to formulate in mathematical terms. Numerous interconnections among the principal and neighboring levels and transient structural instabilities connected with qualitative changes in systems often cannot be taken into account even statistically. The internal and external random factors may be too varied qualitatively or infrequent to embrace reliably in terms of mathematical probabilities. In such cases laws are expressed as tendencies which will invariably assert themselves over the long term, but not at a time that is precisely predictable.
In their collective work Marxistisch-leninistische Philosophie, Bartsch and others state:
A law is a connection determining the character of processes, the connection being an essential, general, and necessary one, and therefore a reproducible one. (1982, 209)
These authors point out that the reproducibility is not always demonstrable or even in principle possible in the case of some laws of historical processes. Later on we will discuss laws that are not experimentally verifiable: these are the universal laws that apply to all forms of matter and thought, in particular, the laws of dialectics. They are extracted from the history of human experience in all fields of activity.
The principal features of the concept of law at which we have been arriving can be stated as follows:
Laws are the objective, essential, general, and necessary stable connections determining the character of structures and processes on some level of organization and integration of matter or on some level of abstraction. The connections embraced by laws can be tendencies which will eventually assert themselves or they can be of a statistically or dynamically causal character.
The question immediately arises whether the inclusion of tendencies or statistical causality in the concept of law does not amount to the acceptance of irrationality or unknowability in the domain covered by such laws. Is this not equivalent to the abandonment of materialism? Hörz and coworkers point out that a statistical law expresses a unity of dynamical, stochastic (random), and probabilistic aspects of the structure of the law (1980, 110).
This unity can be seen in the following. Consider a statistical law governing the behavior of a single element in a system, for example, of an electron emitted in the radioactive decay of a nucleus. Suppose that the statistical law states that the electron is equally likely to be emitted in any direction. The stochastic (random) aspect is expressed by the fact that the direction of emission of the electron is random. The randomness, however, is constrained by the probabilistic aspect, according to which the probability of emission into any solid angle A is given by A divided by 4π. The dynamical aspect follows from the necessary consequences of interrelationship between the stochastic and probabilistic aspects. For example, if the statistical law gives a zero probability for some range of angles, then this range of angles would be excluded from the field of possibilities. If the statistical law does not give a zero probability, but a very small probability for the emission of the electron in some finite range of angles, then the dynamic aspect would express itself as a tendency for this range of angles not to occur. The term tendency here can refer to two situations. In the case of a system consisting of a single radioactive nucleus, the tendency is more likely to be manifested as we consider the behavior of increasingly large numbers of similar systems and is necessarily realized as the ensemble of such systems becomes infinite in number. If we are dealing with a system containing a large number of individual radioactive nuclei, then the tendency is more likely to be manifested as the number of radioactive nuclei increases and is necessarily realized as the number becomes infinite.
As we already indicated, the term tendency is also used to characterize a law-governed process where the complex of interactions affecting the motion of the system is too varied qualitatively to embrace in terms of mathematical probabilities or where the number of interactions subject to the statistical laws is insufficient for the adequate realization of the law of large numbers. In this case the tendency will be realized only if the system remains qualitatively stable long enough for the interactions responsible for the tendency to assert themselves.
Worldview and the concept of law and causality
It has been already stated that among physicists there was a great reluctance to accept the idea that statistical laws govern the interactions in the microworld. The statistical laws introduced into thermodynamics in the nineteenth century had been regarded as a necessary alternative to the mathematical representation of the motion and interaction of each molecule in a system consisting of large numbers of molecules. The statistical laws of quantum mechanics, however, do not have that character. They were first found in the solutions of the Schrödinger quantum-mechanical wave equation. In 1926 Max Born concluded that the set of wave functions that resulted from these solutions for a given physical interaction were associated with the probability for the occurrence of the quantum-mechanical states that these functions represented. Einstein shared the view of many physicists when he wrote to Max Born that he could not believe that God threw dice.
In the materialist view, the ultimate source of philosophical thought is the objectively existing material world. If a conflict arises between a philosophical principle and observations of the behavior of the physical world, we must seek to resolve the conflict. From the methodological viewpoint, the most fruitful procedure is first to repeat or review the observation, since scientific experience shows that erroneous observations are the most likely source of such discrepancies. If the observation is confirmed, then the next step would be to examine the theoretical foundations which provided the basis for the observations and interpretation of the results. The reason one would do this is because philosophical generalizations cannot be the product of activity in one scientific field, but are the result of a complex process of generalization from several fields of human activity. Therefore, philosophical knowledge rests on a wider base of support than scientific knowledge in any single field. If the conflict still persists, then the philosophical principle or the way it is being applied requires scrutiny.
Almost a century of investigations in physics has failed to lead to the formulation of the laws of microphysics on the basis of dynamical causality. It is therefore necessary to reexamine the philosophical principle which the microworld appeared to violate.
Up to the time of Galileo, physical motion was regarded at least in part as a tendency. According to the commonly accepted view, motion was the result of a natural law, that each of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—tended to occupy its natural place. The only other natural motion was the circular motion of the planets and their moons. Galileo’s horizontal inertial motion was also circular, since the earth is spherical. In the seventeenth century Newton succeeded in formulating laws of motion within a framework of the uniqueness of the cause-effect bond. The further elaboration of Newtonian mechanics in the eighteenth century displayed its great explanatory and predictive powers over the entire range of mechanical motions then accessible to human observation.
One basic feature of Newtonian mechanics made it particularly attractive to the great social thinkers of the eighteenth century. The same laws of motion applied to all physical bodies regardless of their quality. The concept of law under feudalism reflected the hierarchical social order of feudal society, according to which different laws, rights, and obligations applied to the different social classes. The hierarchical social order had its parallel structure in the church and in the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe. Just as different laws governed the activity of the monarchy, nobility, clergy, and populace, different laws applied to the motions of the heavenly bodies. The earth was stationary, the sun and moon followed different circular paths, the planets (or wandering stars) had retrograde motions imposed on the general circular motion, and the stars moved in unison in circular motion. The observed changes in the orientation of the circular planes were attributed to the different oscillations of the respective spheres in which each was embedded. Above all, the structure of the system remained unchanging.
The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo overthrew the notion that God placed the earth at the center of the universe and thereby threatened the view that God placed humans on the best of His creations and from among them chose the King and the Pope to express His will. The persecution to which Copernicus, Galileo, and their followers were subjected and the banning of their writings are an indication of the revolutionary nature of the worldview that was emerging in their work. This worldview was not created by them, but was a dramatic expression of an outlook that had been several hundred years in the making. Newton’s laws completed the destruction of hierarchical relations in law-governedness. All heavenly bodies, as well as all physical bodies on earth, were subject to the same laws. In the social sphere the growth of bourgeois economic relations based on the production of commodities with wage labor and exchange in the open market required the absence of qualitative factors in the applicability of the laws of the marketplace, both in regard to access as well as to contractual relations. Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr. (1976, 161) citing the much earlier work of Erwin Panofsky (1927, 258–331) noted that human concepts of space are historically and culturally conditioned, that “in the fifteenth century there emerged mathematically ordered ‘systematic space,’ infinite, homogeneous, and isotropic.” Leonard Goldstein stresses that neither Panofsky nor Edgerton were able to identify why this change in spatial conceptualization occurred when it did and suggests that it was
the rise of private property in commodity production of a kind in which technology, in the form of simple machines driven by natural power (wind, water), is applied to manufacture, with the necessary development of a division of (free) labor in the process of production, and the rise of a market for the exchange of goods, that constitute a new way of living in Europe and therewith a new way of conceptualizing about man and nature. (1988, 12)
Goldstein notes that the increased use of heavy machinery powered by wind and water power began between the ninth and eleventh centuries and this eventually stimulated interest in the study of the way mechanisms function. In conjunction with this interest it was necessary to investigate spatial and quantitative relations. Although the production of commodities dates back to antiquity, the increased use of machinery in such production gave commodity production a qualitatively different character, if only because of the mass of commodities that had to be managed. Goldstein points out that bookkeeping, including double-entry bookkeeping, “along with the predilection for exact methods of measurement in the various branches of science, developed in Italy already in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (42).
We are encountering here the complex process by which we acquire knowledge of the material world. The material conditions in which we live are the ultimate source of our knowledge. We acquire this knowledge by our various activities. Productive labor has been the principal human activity and therefore our knowledge is acquired mostly from this activity. This activity, however, does not take place in an ahistorical context. It is conditioned by the level of technological development of the productive forces and the social relations that prevail in the society. In class-divided societies, however, the dominant class strives to insure that its class interests are accepted as a given by all of society and therefore spares no effort to ensure that all areas of mental activity are structured to reinforce its class-based outlook. In 1845, Marx and Engels characterized this situation in the following way. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” The recognition of these interests by the ruling class and their propagation in society become principal needs in order that these interests are accepted not as narrow class interests, but as the interests of all of society (Marx and Engels 1976, 59).
The social order and the property relations on which they are based are represented as necessary, natural, and immutable. It is therefore not surprising that the structural framework of theoretical views of the biological and physical worlds reproduce in varying degrees the prevailing social structures. In this way there emerges a comprehensive worldview claiming universal applicability to nature, society, and thought.
When newly emerging classes representing competing property relations collide with the ruling class in struggle for socioeconomic dominance, then these classes will likewise develop a worldview that will produce parallel structures in nature and society. As was the case previously, the resulting product will have a content reflecting both the new social (that is, property) relations and the level of technological development of the productive forces associated with the emerging property relations.
The Cuban physicist-philosopher, Pedro Luis Sotolongo, divides technological development into two stages (1985).
He calls the first the revolution in technology, during which time the new technological basis for production is developed to the point where its potential for large-scale application in production becomes evident. He calls the second stage the revolution in production, during which the new technology is increasingly applied to production until it becomes the economically dominant mode of production. Judging by the experiences of Europe with the application of machinery to production, it seems as if the first stage slowly led to changes in the view of nature as part of the process of development of the technology. The second stage, that is, the period of transition to dominance in production, which provides the material basis for the struggle for sociopolitical dominance, represents the period of systematization of theories of nature (including science), but already under the influence of the new social relations of production (i.e., the property relations).
The resulting interaction between the view of nature and the social outlook is illustrated dramatically in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen. This sixteenth-century English classic vigorously and consciously couples the defense of the feudal system of values with the defense of the Ptolemaic system and opposition to equality in nature and society.
In one adventure in this work (Spenser 1970, 283–86), Sir Artegall, “The Champion of true Justice,” and his page, Talus—an iron man—encounter the villainous giant who had attracted a crowd of people. The giant holds a huge balance in his hand and declares that he will compare the weights of heaven and hell and everything in them including kingdoms and nations. The giant declares that he will eliminate all inequalities. Sir Artegall first tries to argue with the giant, pointing out the just reasons for inequality. He says that the Maker created everything in just the right proportions and positioned them so that the earth would be in the center and remain immovable, held in place with water, and the water held in place by the air so that the earth could guide the course of the heavens.
But if thou shouldst weigh them new in pound
We are not sure they would so long remain
All change is perilous, and all chance unsound.5
The giant, however, remains unconvinced and still insists that he will set things right. He will make the high mountains level with the lowly plain, throw the high rocks down into the deepest sea, suppress tyrants that make men subject to their law, eliminate the lords that dominate the common people, and give the wealth of the rich to the poor. The righteous Sir Artegall makes one last attempt to argue with the giant:
All in the power of their great Maker lie:
All creatures must obey the voice of the most high.
They live, they die, like as he doth ordain,
Nor ever any asketh the reason why.
The hills do not the lowly dales disdain;
The dales do not the lofty hills envy.
He maketh Kings to sit in sovereignty:
He maketh subjects to their power obey;
He pulleth down, he setteth up on high;
He gives to this, from that he takes away.
For all we have is his: what he list [wishes] do, he may.
Sir Artegall, seeing that the giant will not accept the justice of these arguments, concludes that the giant is not interested in the truth, whereupon the iron man, Talus, slays the giant and disperses the “lawless multitude.”
There are two kinds of inequality defended here and both are ordained by God so that nature and society will be protected from perilous change. One is the quantitative inequality and the other is the qualitative, the former being expressed as inequality in quantity of matter and wealth, the latter as inequality in physical and social position and inequality in the applicability of laws.
The mechanization of the world
As we have seen above, the concept of the qualitative equality and universal applicability of laws became pivotal ideological issues in the struggle between the feudal rulers and the emerging bourgeois forces for socioeconomic and political hegemony. By ideology is meant here the complex of philosophy and sociopolitical theory, social values, political concepts and attitudes, and other reflections of class interests in the sphere of ideas.
It is not necessary, nor even possible, to establish the extent to which Newton’s formulation of his laws of motion reflected the new social relations of production (capital–wage labor) that were in ascendancy. The increase in the scale of application of machinery (however simple) to production stimulated commodity production as a subsidiary economy within a social system that was dominated by largely self-sufficient feudal estates. The increased use of machinery made necessary the investigation of the laws of mechanical systems. It also constituted the material basis for the growth of urban centers in which the bourgeois class was economically, and eventually ideologically, dominant. It was inevitable that this ideology would influence the structural development of the nascent theory of mechanical systems. Every comprehensive worldview seeks to embrace nature as well as society in order to establish the universality and inevitability of its value system.
It is evident that the self-sustaining, self-regulating motion of mechanical systems governed by Newton’s laws of motion was compatible with the bourgeois view of the self-sustaining, self-regulating market economy. The social theorists of the rising bourgeois class quickly adopted models of government based on the harmonious machine, with systems of checks and balances becoming incorporated into the goals of the revolutionary movements against the feudal order.
Because of the close political ties of the established church in France with the monarchy and the feudal order, the antifeudal movement there took on a fiercely anticlerical character. The social philosophers freed social theory from religious dogma just as the physical scientists removed it from scientific theory. The leading French philosophers of the eighteenth century were generally deists (Voltaire, Rousseau—as were Franklin and Jefferson in North America) or atheists (Diderot, Holbach, Helvétius, La Mettrie).
Voltaire’s deism expressed itself chiefly in two ways. He saw God as the creator of the universe, including the earth and all the plants, animals, and peoples on it. He also saw God as the source of human reason. Two principal features of Newton’s laws, it seems, were particularly attractive to Voltaire: that the cause-effect bond was unique and that the laws applied equally to all physical bodies. Descartes had already viewed the world of nature as a machine. His world machine, however, did not include humans because they had souls. Voltaire now saw in Newtonian mechanics the theoretical basis for the operation of the world machine. Moreover, he developed an argument for including humans in the world machine while at the same time offering a basis for human social and individual behavior without recourse to a religious dogma. Here is how he achieved this:
I saw with the great Newton . . . nature everywhere resembles herself. The law of gravitation, which acts upon a star, acts upon all stars, upon all matter. The fundamental law of morality equally acts upon all civilized nations. There are a thousand differences in the interpretation of this law in a thousand circumstances: but the basis ever remains the same, and this basis is the idea of justice and injustice. . . .
How then have we acquired the idea of justice? As we have acquired that of prudence, of truth, of convenience, by sentiment and reason. (Voltaire 1932, 460)
Voltaire saw that the idea of justice and injustice was necessary upon earth “that we might live there for a certain time” (455).
Voltaire here has in effect introduced determinism into human actions by his assertion that the ideas of justice are necessary for human survival. For in an earlier passage of the same work he states:
There is nothing without a cause. An effect without a cause are words without meaning. Every time that I have a will, this can only be in consequence of my judgment, good or bad; this judgment is necessary, consequently so is my will. In effect, it would be very singular that all nature, all the planets, should obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased, solely according to his caprice. He would act by chance; and we know that chance is nothing. We have invented this word to express the known effect of all unknown causes. (439)
By denying the reality of chance processes, Voltaire rules out all chance occurrences in society and in nature and is thus asserting the uniqueness of the cause-effect bond. Having accepted the determinism of the world of nature in accordance with the uniqueness of the cause-effect bond of Newtonian mechanics, Voltaire thus extends this causal principle to human behavior, conditioned only by the human ability to reason correctly, so that only one action will be recognized as necessary.
In their essay entitled “Der Mechanisierung der Mechanik” (The Mechanization of Mechanics) von Borzeszkowski and Wahsner point out that Newton himself had not elevated his mechanics to the general philosophical principle that Voltaire had attributed to him (von Borzeszkowski and Wahsner 1980. 13–80).6
Although Newton had made no such sweeping claim, Voltaire asserted that Newton “discovered and demonstrated a new principle which moves all of nature” (I784a, 784, entry under “Newton et Descartes”).
After the inclusion of humans in the world machine, Voltaire could then write:
We are what seems like small wheels in the great machine, animals with two feet, two hands like monkeys, less agile than them, just as comical, and having somewhat grander ideas. We are carried by the general motion imposed by the master of nature, we give nothing, but receive everything, we are no more the master of our ideas than we are of the circulation of the blood in our veins. Each manner of being necessarily obeys the universal law. It is ridiculous, it is said, and impossible that man is able to give something when the multitude of stars gives nothing, that we should be the absolute masters of our actions and our wills when the universe is a slave. (1960)
Von Borzeszkowski and Wahsner note that although Maupertuis was the first to bring Newton’s achievements to France, Voltaire assumed the task of popularizing Newtonian mechanics there. In doing so he elevated the determinism of mechanics to a general philosophical principle. This philosophical direction, known as mechanistic determinism, although having earlier origins, was put on what seemed to him to be the solid scientific foundation of Newtonian mechanics. The mechanization of the world, including mechanics, was now off to a serious start.
Leibniz challenged Newton’s explanation of the motion of the planets by arguing that the solar system would not remain stable. While Newton accepted the possibility that the complex of gravitational interactions among the planets would eventually cause the solar system to collapse, he believed that the Creator intervenes from time to time to prevent the system from running down. According to von Borzeszkowski and Wahsner, the role of God in Voltaire’s conception is different from that in Newton’s conception. Since Newton gives God a role in regulating the motion of the solar system. Newton places limits of validity on the action of physical laws. Matter and motion are not completely separated. They are ultimately mediated by God. For Voltaire, a catastrophic end of the universe was not troublesome. God could have created the world to last only a certain time. We also are the work of His wisdom and we pass away (I784b, ch. 6).
Thus for Voltaire, God created the solar system, including the earth and all things on it, endowed humans with reason so they can sustain themselves on earth, and all these creations were set in motion in accordance with Newton’s laws. This is the end of philosophy. The rest is the solution of Newton’s laws. In this scheme, Voltaire could assign everything either to philosophy (metaphysics) or to matter (geometry). The objects of metaphysics are reason, spirit, God. The objects of matter are:
the very principles of mathematics, points without extension, lines without width, surfaces without thickness, units infinitely divisible, etc.; . . . they are however, in fact, only material things considered in their masses, in their surfaces, in their simple lengths and widths, in the extremities of these simple lengths and widths. All measures are precise and demonstrated. Metaphysics has nothing to do with geometry. One can be a metaphysician without being a geometrician. (1784a, 88–89, entry under “metaphysique”)
Here it must be kept in mind that Newton’s proofs in his principal work The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy are largely in geometrical form. Voltaire uses the words geometrician and mathematician for what today would be called physicist. For example, he referred to the debate between the followers of Descartes and Leibniz over what was to be considered the measure of physical motion as the “scandal of geometry” (1784b, 76).
Voltaire’s position is thus one that completely separates physics from philosophy. In doing so, he introduced a worldview that recognizes no internal development, evolutionary processes, or qualitative change, since mechanical motion involves no qualitative change. The only motion is change of position as a consequence of Newton’s laws, according to which motion is evoked only through external causes (forces).
Despite the numerous inconsistencies that resulted from the attempts at systematic application of such a worldview, it continues to play negative roles in the development of many fields in the social and natural sciences. The mechanistic attempts to extend the behavior of lower animals to human behavior are being used to justify the racist and elitist theories of sociobiology. Sociobiology is unable to take into account the qualitative differences between humans and lower animals that arise from the role of consciousness and culture among humans.
Voltaire’s views were absorbed rapidly by other French philosophers in the struggle against the monarchy and its clerical supporters. The function of thought in Voltaire’s scheme was to recognize necessity. The French mechanistic materialists turned this into a more consistent mechanistic determinism by regarding thought as the passive reflex of material being. Mechanistic determinism was introduced into physics in its most sweeping form by Pierre Simon de Laplace, who asserted in 1814 that the state of the universe at one instant uniquely determines the state of the universe at every other instant. With thought now denied even a relatively independent existence, Laplace concluded that whatever occurs in the universe must be the direct consequence of the operation of Newton’s laws. With the assumption that all forces are functions of position of matter, Newton’s laws could provide the unique causal linkages from any time in the past to any time in the future. Laplace also proved that the solar system, given its present configuration, could remain stable. He could then dispense altogether with a deity.
Dalton’s theory of the individual unchangeable chemical atom, proposed in 1808–10, provided the physical vehicle for the operation of Newton’s laws. The remaining task was to unravel the mystery of the forces that produced changes in motion.
In 1847 Helmholtz published his law of conservation of energy, which he called conservation of force, since the concept of energy had not yet been distinguished from force. The linkages between the qualitatively different forces, which Helmholtz now provided, strengthened the conviction that the explanation of all natural science was to be found in mechanics, that the task of physics was now to find all the ultimate forces in nature and thus complete the application of Newton’s laws to matter. In his address in 1872 “On the Limitations of Nature,” the noted physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond asserted that “the cognition of nature . . . is the reduction of changes in the world of physical bodies to the motion of atoms which is produced by central forces independent of time or the resolution of natural processes into the mechanics of atoms” (1886, 105–6).7
I have described what appears to be the principal path by which mechanistic determinism took hold in physics. It must be emphasized at this point that one should not put the full responsibility on Voltaire, because the mechanistic view had already been present in one or another form in antiquity among the Atomists, Descartes, with his world-machine concept, was the first in the more recent period to develop the mechanistic worldview into a comprehensive philosophical system. His English contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, was perhaps a more consistent materialist than Descartes. He viewed all being as material bodies and all motion as mechanical motion. Descartes, however, placed more emphasis on integrating the interconnections of motion into his system. The uniqueness of the cause-effect bond is a principal characteristic of the form of mechanistic determinism introduced into physics as a general property of the physical world by Laplace in the spirit of Voltaire.
The presence of statistical laws in a theoretical system does not make the system nonmechanistic any more than the presence of dynamical laws makes Newtonian mechanics in itself mechanistic. The characteristics of the mechanistic outlook are:
(a)All change is the result of external causes.
(b)The objects embraced by the theory undergo no qualitative change. No internal self-development processes take place.
(c)Objects on higher levels of organization and integration are reducible to the objects of the theory in the sense that the whole is considered to be equal to the sum of its parts.
(d)The field of possible motion is limited ahistorically in the sense that all contingencies are precisely predictable.
A theory that is structured in accordance with these four characteristics is still not mechanistic if it is recognized that the application of the theory is a stage in the process of cognition of the object embraced by the theory, that processes of internal development and qualitative changes in the external interconnections must still be taken into account to obtain a more complete understanding of the behavior of the object.
A particular problem arises in physics, where the primary effort has been to reproduce the properties of the physical world on the basis of four fundamental interactions. The symmetry of the interactions with respect to time reversal has made it difficult to establish a theoretical basis for the direction of time. On the other hand, evolutionary processes in the physical, biological, and social spheres all disclose the directional character of time. When it was suggested earlier that laws, among other things, are stable connections, the character of the connection was not restricted to interactions. In a discussion of determinism and causality, S. T. Melyukhin and B. F. Kevbrin note that not all connections are interactions. As one of several examples they cite the connections between coexisting properties of a system (1985).
Such connections are obviously decisive in determining the boundaries of the system and necessarily affect the further development of the system. One might conclude from this work of Melyukhin and Kevbrin that the integration of holistic, system-theoretical concepts with fundamental-interaction concepts could contribute to the further elaboration of the nature of causality in the physical world.
Originally published in Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 1, no. 3 (1988): 395–417. Minor corrections in spelling, syntax, and punctuation were made by the author.
School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455
*A shorter version of this paper was originally published in Russian in Filosofskie nauki, no. 2 (1987): 69–78.
1. For a survey and discussion of these experiments see Shimony (1988).
2. Bohm’s views became widely known also through his book Causality and Chance in Modern Physic’s (1957).
3. For a summary of recent discussions on determinism in physics and an alternative view of the wave-particle duality, see Marquit (1988).
4. See, for example, Hörz et al. (1980).
5. Spelling is modernized in the passages cited.
6. My attention to Voltaire in connection with the philosophical generalization of the causal principle of Newtonian mechanics was stimulated by this article. All of the citations from Voltaire which now follow are also cited by those authors. Here and in what follows, unless an English-language source is cited, translations are my own. For further discussion on the causal principle of Newtonian mechanics, see Marquit (1979 and 1980b).
7. For systematic discussions about mechanistic determinism, see Hörz (1962) and Röseberg (1975).
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