Commentary 08 on|
Karl Jaspers Forum, Target Article 15, 19 January 1999
HOW DO PHYSICISTS BUILD REALITY?
By Herbert F J Muller
MATERIALISM AND REFLECTIVITY IN SCIENCE
by Paul Jones
1 February 1999
The materialistic interpretation of the fundamental principles
formulated by H.F.J.Muller makes them a sound basis for any
science, preventing dogmatism and rigidity in the cases of
essentially reflective study. These principles are thus reduced
to the well known principles of dialectical materialism.
In my previous comment ["I Do Exist. Do You?"],
I have spoken on the elements of ontological and epistemological
idealism in H.Muller's article. This comment will be a natural
complement, discussing the common opposite of idealism, metaphysical
(vulgar) materialism. The five principles formulated by Dr. Muller
could be easily reinterpreted in a materialistic way to specify the
distinction between dialectical and metaphysical materialism.
The first statement that theory development is ad-hoc construction
sometimes in response to difficulties with earlier constructions
stresses the relative independence of the forms of reflection
from the object reflected, which must be accounted for by any
serious researcher. In the extreme, this independence may lead
to abstract speculations devoid of relation to any object at all.
Quite often, such speculations take the form of objectivity,
hiding them under the mask of an object-oriented theory.
There have been numerous examples of pseudo-sciences like
astrology, demonology, ufology etc. The distinction between
science and pseudo-science may be difficult to draw, and many
people get seduced by the apparent rigor and scrupulosity of
pseudo-science, including those involved in its development,
who may sincerely believe in their doing something significant.
There may be big institutes occupied in pseudo-science, academic
journals and conferences discussing its "problems", numerous
popular interpreters and refined methodologists all that cannot
make it more science, however.
Side note: philosophy is not a science, but neither is it a
pseudo-science. Philosophy occupies its own place in
spiritual culture, complementing science and art. However,
when philosophers pretend to be scientists and develop their
philosophies in a science-like manner (for instance, in a
deductive style of mathematics), philosophy may degrade to
pseudo-science. In the same way, certain directions in art
and art criticism can transform into pseudo-science when
pretending to be more than art. Similarly, one could consider
pseudo-art and pseudo-philosophy, originating from the same
tendency to identify form with the whole thing.
For vulgar materialism, everything in the mind is nothing but
reflection of matter. However, such materialism does not
account for the productive side of subjectivity, forgetting
that people do not only reflect the world but also produce it,
and the very reflection is a kind of reproduction. Vulgar
materialism identifies the reflections of things with the
things themselves, and the laws of reflection with the laws
of nature reflected. Even in physics, this position is
intrinsically inconsistent: the polarization of a target
atom caused by a charged projectile cannot be considered as
a projectile's property, and a crater in the wall caused by
a bullet is different from the bullet itself. The first
obvious difference is that an image and its prototype are
often made of different materials; this is especially so
for human reflection, when everything becomes subjectively
reproduced in the form of a social process.
The first Muller's principle can hence be re-formulated as:
people's knowledge about the world contains both objective and
productive components, the forms of reflection being related
to the way of discriminating the object reflected from the
rest of the world. In other words, every object becomes what
it is for the subject only when it is involved in some human
activity; all one knows has already been "adapted" to the
human ways, thus being a "cultivated thing" rather than a
"thing in itself". However, this does not mean that there
is any boundary between "perceptible" and "transcendental"
things, since everything in the world is bound to be involved
in human activity and become a part of culture; one can only
speak about what has been already comprehended and what still
remains to be learned.
Side note: there may be different levels of involving a thing
in human activity, some of them being rather indirect. For
instance, a distant star serving for orientation is in no way
physically influenced by the act of orientation however, it
becomes quite different as an object; the same star could be
made an object in many other ways (as a source of astrophysical
data, a source of poetic inspiration, or an argument in philosophy
dispute). For singular things, their objective integrity can
only be limited, since their ability to represent certain objects
depends on their interaction with other things; the world as a
whole is the only thing that can manifest perfect integrity,
and one the distinctive feature of human mind is that it can
comprehend this integrity being physically finite.
The second principle formulated by H.Muller is that every theoretical
construction originates from subjective experience, which makes it
essentially recursive when it comes to studying subjectivity itself.
In particular, the distinction between the subject and the object cannot
be thought of as something existing prior to people's activity,
which is restructuring the world. Consequently, there cannot be
"given" objects or subjects, both forming themselves in the process
of interaction. For a vulgar materialist, all things are "done"
to a person, and all one has to do is to "study" and "use" them.
However, since science is a cultural phenomenon, every science has
to develop with the culture, and the limits of its applicability can
never be known from the very beginning, being established in the
process of the science's development. There can be no complete
knowledge, and perfect understanding would mean no need in science.
One of the most common prejudices in science is the belief in the
communicative power of the words and their absolute semantics
independent of the cultural context. Much of conceptual arguing
comes from mere misunderstanding, when people ascribe the others'
words with the meanings they had never had, forgetting that every
word has different meaning in different contexts, up to the opposite
meanings in different texts. Like the same thing can be reflected
in different ways, the same forms of reflection can be used to
refer to different things.
When one has to describe consciousness in the forms produced by it,
there may be much confusion about the sides of the science related
to its form and those belonging to its content. One can never
separate them in theory or experiment, but this does not deny the
objectivity of the both. On the other side, the attempts to
build a purely "objective" science of consciousness (or economy,
or sociology, or any other humanitarian science) should be treated
with caution, since the essential cultural dependence is an
indispensable component of any adequate research in this field.
Thus, one cannot expect deep penetration in human psychology from
experiments preventing any interference between the experimenter
and the examinee: such experiments could reveal some other
interesting phenomena, but never those specific for conscious
behavior. Similarly, neuroscience has nothing to do with
studying subjectivity, since it does not include activity and
communication of conscious beings in its methodology.
The third principle, that theory development does not mean
approaching a pre-destined constructions, can be important to
prevent metaphysical dogmatism, especially in social sciences,
where the object studied does not exist before the study in
a purely objective form, forming during the study along with
it. In physics, the objects can often be created in time
small comparable with its lifetime, so that study could
be restricted to the object's existence rather than its
formation. In social sciences, the situation is different,
since social objects are rarely stationary, often developing
faster than they can be comprehended. That is why the only
scientific approach would be to account for non-stationarity
of the object and the involvement of the scientist in its
formation. However, in physics too, there may be essentially
non-stationary experiments, where the interference of the object
and the experimenter is essential; traditional methods may become
inadequate in such cases.
It should be noted that the results of an essentially reflective
science cannot be verified in the ways usual for traditional
science, employing repetitiveness and uniformity as the
criteria; traditional binary logic cannot be applied here too,
since its schemes are based on the stationary aspects of
activity. Since there can be no ready formalism adequate for an
object in formation, science needs ideas from art and philosophy,
assimilating their language and style as well.
The fourth principle is that the conceptual reconstruction of the
world has to be transformed into a picture of the world, which
does not belong to the sphere of spirituality any longer, becoming
a framework for any further activity. Science will pass its results
to philosophy, which is to produce an ideological basis for
practice, which is the only criterion of the adequacy of cognition.
No science can be verified in itself, especially the science of
consciousness and other humanitarian knowledge: one has to apply
science to practice to make it adequate to the object studied.
The fifth principle stresses the essential openness of reflection,
so that no adequate knowledge can be self-consistent and perfect.
This is a natural consequence of the infinity of the world and its
development revealing new aspects in the same thing, or new things
able to become the same objects. Any recourse to logic is of
limited importance in science, since the criteria of adequacy lie
outside reflection. Nothing can be proven, in the traditional
(metaphysical) sense. In social sciences, one has to always be
aware of the object's development and the mutability of the
situation during the same study; the conceptual apparatus must
be flexible enough to allow for that.
Thus understood, the epistemological principles of Dr. Muller
are nothing but the principles of dialectical materialism as
opposed to any metaphysics, both materialist and idealistic.
The world exists on itself, prior to any consciousness, but
consciousness is a necessary stage in the world's development,
and the necessity of assimilating all the world is one of the
attributes of consciousness. People do not merely reflect the
world, but reorganize it in a quite different way, and the forms
of social motion can initiate production of any other material
forms. Since everything is in development, no cognition can be
absolute and static, and the new sides of the same phenomena can
be revealed; however, the possibility of new cognitive forms
depends on the level of economic and social development, and no
idea can come without a cultural foundation. On the other side,
it is only practice that can prove the adequacy of cognition,
and science does not have monopoly in assimilating the world.