CHAPTER FIVE SECTION FIVE: "THE TWO TRENDS IN MODERN PHYSICS, AND GERMAN IDEALISM"
German Idealism, in its neo-Kantian incarnation is using the crisis in physics to declare materialism dead. Lenin refers to the "well-known" Kantian Hermann Cohen [1842-1918] who declared in 1896, in a new introduction to the History of Materialism - "the falsified history of materialism written by F. Albert Lange" [1825-1878]-- that the new physics has turned matter into "force" and "energy" thus it has brought "about the victory of idealism."
Heinrich Hertz [1857-1894] ("the famous physicist") is drafted by Cohen as an ally. Lenin says this is an example of how the idealists grasp at any vague or incomplete statement by scientists and try to use it as a support for anti-materialism. Lenin turns to Hertz's work Mechanics to see what he actually thinks.
"If we inquire into the real reason why physics at the present time prefers to express itself in terms of the theory of energy," Hertz says, "we may answer that it is because in this way it best avoids talking about things of which it knows very little...."
After more quotes from this text, Lenin tells us that it is not because "matter" has been abandoned by the physicists that they speak in terms of energy, etc., but because, since the disintegration of the indivisible "atom" they have not yet advanced to a more solid and concrete explanation of nature in the new physics as had been promoted in the old physics. "It is evident from this that the possibility of a non-materialist view of energy did not even occur to Hertz."
Lenin next turns to Eduard von Hartmann [1842-1906] ("far more reactionary that Cohen") and his book Die Weltanschauung der modernen Physik, Leipzig, 1902) where he remarks, "Modern physics had grown up on a realist basis and it was only the neo-Kantian and agnostic movement of our own time that led it to re-interpret its results in an idealist spirit."
Lenin likes von Hartmann because he goes all the way! "It is highly instructive," Lenin says, "to see how this irreconcilable partisan idealist (non-partisans in philosophy are just as hopelessly thick-headed as they are in politics) explains to the physicists what it means to follow one epistemological trend or another."
The physicists, von Hartmann thinks, have begun to follow idealism as a fashion. To be serious they will have to begin to see that the external world is completely psychical in nature and to abandon all their views about realism when it comes to nature. There is no compromising mishmash such as produced by Bogdanov, et al.
SECTION SIX: THE TWO TRENDS IN MODERN PHYSICS, AND FRENCH FIDEISM
Once materialism has been abandoned and Machism adopted it will come back to bite you. Here is what happened to Poincaré. This great physicist adopted Mach's outlook with regard to physics-- that our knowledge is a symbolic representation of our sense data, only to find that the philosopher E. Le Roy (1870-1954) pounced upon his ideas to justify religion. Science is just one symbolic way at looking at the world of experience, so religion is just another way. Neither has any claim to a so-called "objective reality." I'm not sure the religious folk really like this sort of defense, but Poincaré was, Lenin says, "abashed" by these conclusions and sought to distance himself from Le Roy (in the Value of Science).
What Poincaré failed to see was that Le Roy's views do follow from the idealism that is the source of Mach's views. Both religion and science claim to see a world dependent on human beings and the mind. Poincaré, however, still thinks that even if he agrees with Mach, that science is made up of conventional symbols, yet there is something "objective" about it. The objects of science "are real in as much as the sensations they invoke in us," says Poincaré, "appear to us to be united by some sort of indestructible cement and not by an ephemeral accident."
Poincaré may be a great scientist, Lenin remarks, but "only the Voroshilov-Yushkeviches can take him seriously as a philosopher." He flees from materialism via Machism and at the first sign of religion “takes refuge under the wings of materialism’’ and the existence of objective external objects.
The last six or seven pages of this section Lenin devotes to the philosophy of Abel Rey (1873-1940) which he says is "imperative." Rey, unlike Ward, Cohen, Hartmann et al, seeks to prove "the illegitimacy of the idealist (and fideist) conclusions drawn from the new physics." We first met Rey back in installment 17, now we see him in a little more depth.
Rey calls the two trends in physics "conceptualism" [this is Machism and allied idealist views] and neo-mechanism [materialism]. Rey wants to keep some form of viable Machist philosophy and at the same time deny any support to religion.
He says that Mach's meaning when he refers to "experience" has been misunderstood. Rightly understood it would be seen not to be a prop for religion. He says, "Experience is that over which our mind has no command.... Experience is the object that faces the subject." A little later he says, "Objective is that which is given from without, imposed by experience; it is that which is not of our making, but which is made independently of us and which to a certain extent makes us."
So Rey is really, Lenin says, what Engels called a "shamefaced materialist". "The fundamental characteristic of materialism is that it starts from the objectivity of science, from the recognition of objective reality reflected by science, whereas idealism needs 'detours' in order, in one way or another, to 'deduce' objectivity from mind, consciousness, the 'psychical.'"
Rey's "embellishment" of Mach tries to remove the differences between his thought and materialism. But, says Lenin, he ignores a major thesis of Mach regarding cause and effect, namely ‘’that there is no physical necessity, but only logical necessity!”
And this is Rey's problem. The reason he became "muddled" is "because he had set himself the impossible task of 'reconciling' the opposition between the materialist and the idealist schools in the new physics."
There is a very interesting note in this section. Lenin quotes the French physicist Alfred Cornu [1841-1902] who said that the more we learn about nature the more we see that Descartes [1596-1650] was right in holding "that in the physical world there is nothing save matter and motion." Cornu goes on to say that the recent new discoveries in physics are attempts to give us a more detailed knowledge of matter and motion and that "the return to Cartesian ideas is obvious." Lenin remarks that Cornu and others were/are ignorant of the fact "that the dialectical materialists Marx and Engels had freed this fundamental premise of materialism from the one-sidedness of mechanical materialism.”
Attempts to reconcile modern physics and idealism, such as Rey's, result from ignorance of diamat. His own epistemology is materialist for he admits that a law of nature has practical significance and in his book says this "is fundamentally the same as saying that this law of nature has objectivity." The muddle is to try and unite this view with the views of Mach & Co. All of this is further evidence of Lenin's thesis that there are only two trends in modern physics, materialism and idealism, and there is no "third way."
Next Up: We will begin with Section 7 "A Russian 'Idealist Physicist'"
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.