A Dialectical-Materialist View of Progressive
Development in the Physical World
One of the most difficult questions faced by contemporary dialectical materialism is the concept of progressive development in the world of nature. The applicability of the term “progressive” to particular stages in the evolutionary development in the biological world is till problematical. In the case of the physical world, such applicability is even more problematical.
In the social sphere, dialectical materialists and the various Marxist groups with which they are usually associated politically and ideologically make frequent use of the term “progressive.” They view their well-known goal orientation as not simply emerging from their consciousness, but from the operation of objective laws of social development. These laws not only exist independently of our consciousness, but, among other things, are ultimately responsible for our consciousness, including our consciousness of the existence of these laws. Consequently, in the social sphere, “progress” represents any tendency or motion along the general path to which these laws propel society, with humans serving as the actors. Regression, then, is motion taking society backward in the zigzag of history. Such backward motion is viewed as only temporary, the former social conditions reappearing in their essential content, differing only in a superficial or phenomenal way from the situation that had formerly occurred. The laws that propelled society to the point before the regressive stage began are once more responsible for propelling society forward again.
In this context, then, a step or advocacy of a step that contributes to social development along the forward direction is considered progressive. The term therefore acquires both a subjective and an objective character. It is subjective insofar as the actions of an individual or group of individuals are a consequence of conscious behavior on the basis of a theoretical understanding, however rudimentary, of the direction of development of society. It is objective in the sense that the step taken or advocated is a stage in the evolutionary development of society within the framework of a law-governed process that arises independently of consciousness. The paradox resulting from the assertion that a consciously directed action is independent of consciousness was explained by the materialist view: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”1 This concept is unique to dialectical materialism, which regards society as a form of matter, namely, social matter. It is material, since human beings are material objects; it is social, as distinct, say, from physical, because the significant properties of such matter for the social sciences are social relations, rather than the physical properties of mass, volume, temperature, and the like.
Evolutionary development of society is thus seen as a particular case of the more general process of the evolutionary development of material systems.
In the dialectical-materialist worldview, the subject matter of philosophy is the most general laws of development of material systems and the theoretical reproduction of these systems in our minds. The question we wish to consider is whether the concept “progressive development” is a general philosophical category applicable to processes in the physical world as well as to processes of social development, or whether it is a specialized category of the social sciences. In other words, we wish to explore whether the concept of progress is strictly anthropomorphic or whether such a concept is applicable to the sphere of nature.
It will be necessary for our purpose to distinguish the concept of change from that of development
In dialectical philosophy, “motion” and “change” are usually interchangeable terms. Dialectical materialism generally follows Aristotelian dialectics in regarding change or motion as the realization of the potential—an object becomes what it potentially is but which it was not, and ceases being what it was. This view sets into dialectical opposition the categories of state and motion, in which motion is the transition between states. Thus, a system in one state undergoes transformation into another state.2 More precisely, however, motion is not simply the act of the accomplished transformation, but a process: the process of leaving one state and entering another. Materialist dialectics, however, places particular stress on asserting the primacy of motion over state, motion being absolute and unceasing, the states between which the motion occurs being relative and transitory.
In this framework, then, a system in which the states reoccur repeatedly, that is, a cyclical process, can be considered both as a system in motion as well as a system in an unchanging state of motion. It is essentially because of this contradictory character (contradictory in the dialectical sense, not in the formal- logical sense) that physics views reversible processes as qualitatively distinct from irreversible processes. On one level of organization and integration of a material system, a reversible process is taken to be a form of motion, while on another level, a reversible process is taken to be a state. (The passage of philosophical categories into one another is another characteristic of the dialectical view of philosophical categories.3) When a system undergoes irreversible qualitative change, the character of the motion is different. Two general tendencies are apparent. One tendency is characterized by the increase in entropy, that is, the existing ordered structure undergoes some degree of disordering or randomization. Another tendency that appears is just the opposite–more highly ordered structures evolve with greater or lesser rapidity from structures of lower order. Prigogene, for example, has associated the formation of some higher structures with the spontaneous motion of systems far from equilibrium. In this way, he has shown how ordered structures can appear within a system which, as a whole, is increasing in entropy. He has given the example of water, which forms structures called eddies when flowing down an incline of sufficiently great slope.4 It is therefore not essential here whether the tendency of entropy to increase is meaningful on a cosmological scale (since the law of increasing entropy may be meaningful only for closed systems). Regardless of the scale or scope of the applicability of the law, it cannot be denied that structures of increasingly complex order are continually forming.
study of the formation of complex, highly ordered systems is attracting
increasing attention, especially in connection with the formation of
macromolecules from which living molecules have emerged. We still know little
more about this process than
Two possible generalized mechanisms by which structures of increasing complexity come into being tend to suggest themselves.
Changes of a random character, randomly induced, can lead to the appearance of qualitatively different structures which compete for the underlying “raw materials,” that is, underlying physical substructures in the manner of the Darwinian process of natural selection.
In what many suspect is a more likely process of self- development, particular structures of higher complexity form themselves preferentially from the available substructures.5 This may occur as a result of the tendency of systems to undergo spontaneous transitions to lower energy levels, with the element of irreversibility introduced by the release of the surplus energy in randomized form (dissipation as radiation or thermal energy), making this surplus immediately unavailable for reversal of the process. The structures that are more likely to survive continual interactions with other structures and substructures are those with the more favorable binding energies. The physical world could then be regarded as being in a process of development in a direction that is law-governed, but in which contingencies can play a significant role and thereby determine the speed with which the law-governed tendency is likely to emerge. Obviously, such a process of evolutionary development is not at all easy to project into the future and is easier to understand by hindsight. The law-governed character of the process, however, makes it possible to characterize one or another stage in development as progress or regress insofar as the scientific theory gives us knowledge of the future course of development to some degree of adequacy. The term “progress” used in this way is connected with a sense of progression that reflects a logical and historical unity, the historical process is a consequence of logical necessity.6
A regressive development can be one that sidesteps or reverses the development of the physical system, delaying the progression but not eliminating the tendency for the system as a whole to move in the progressive direction. This would be similar to those branches in the biological evolution of primates that led to apes of limited intelligence in relation to the branch from which homo sapiens developed.
Another type of regressive development is one which annihilates the system as a whole, as in the case of some catastrophic event. Physical systems, however, are never so thoroughly destroyed that they leave no trace of their previous existence. Matter does not vanish but only undergoes transformation. Catastrophic destruction thus represents a relatively greater regression, either by taking the evolutionary process backward several stages or by removing one of several that have the potential for developing along the same line.
In the case of evolutionary processes one has to be cautious about attaching the appellation progressive or regressive. The terms really have significance only to the extent that transitions from a structure on one level to a higher level can be embraced with significant predictability within the framework of a scientific theory appropriate to those levels. In the dialectical-materialist view, laws are really tendencies, and when a theory attempts to embrace levels that are too distant from one another, the contingent aspects turn science into speculation.
The concept of progress in connection with processes of evolutionary development in the physical world is more difficult deal with than in the case of the social world, because, contrary to the general belief, our scientific knowledge of process is more highly developed in the social sphere than in the physical sphere. Marx introduced the concept of socioeconomic formation as the fundamental social structure underlying fundamental social change. He was then able to study the evolutionary transitions giving rise to the succession of socioeconomic formations, all of which were accessible from historical materials, and all of which were still to be found in the world in his own lifetime, namely, communal, slave, feudal, and capitalist societies. In the Marxist view, the scientific accuracy of his analysis was remarkable, not only in regard to his success in outlining the principal tendencies that were to manifest themselves in the course of the further development of capitalist society, but also his recognition of the communist socioeconomic formation as the necessary consequence of these developments in capitalism. In the case of the physical world, we are first beginning to explore processes of galactic formation and stellar evolution under rather difficult conditions for gathering empirical data. Physical science has largely been concerned with investigations of properties of states of stable structures, rather than with the transitions among them. The present forms of matter on the physical level have not undergone discernible change in some ten to twenty billion years—in the most distant galaxies we still see the same fundamental structures as we do in our own. We are only now beginning to recognize that physical matter prior to the big bang might be of a nature quite different from what we have in the universe as we now know it. The study of evolutionary processes in the physical world is thus a very young field. Such studies are more advanced in the biological sphere and still more advanced, in the Marxian view, in the social sphere. This accounts for the fact that dialectical materialism, as a monistic philosophical system of thought, arose on the basis of investigations largely in the social sciences rather than in the physical sciences, where one usually considers that scientific knowledge is more advanced
Originally published in Bulgarian translation in Filosofska Mysl, no. 4 (1987), 82–85
1. Karl Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), I, 503.
3. See A. I. Uyemov, Veshchi, svoistva
i otnosheniya (
4. Ilya Prigogene, “Time, Structure and Entropy,” in Jiri Zeman, ed., Time in Science and Philosophy (Prague: Academia, 1971), 89–100.
5. Manfred Eigen, “Selforganization of Matter and the Evolution of Biological Macromolecules,” Naturwissenschaften 58 (1971), 465–523.
6. Erwin. Marquit, “Stabilité et development dans les sciences de la nature,” La Penseé, no. 213–14 (Sept.–Aug, 1980), 122–24.