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Why Materialism ?

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of
M. Shirokov 1941

By materialism we usually mean either the reduction of all phenomena to inert matter and its movements, or the evaluation of life in terms of eating and drinking. Dialectical materialism means neither of these things. Where it differs from every form of Idealism is in its belief that in the evolution of the universe the non-living preceded the living. There was a time when there was no mind. Mind is a characteristic of matter at a high stage of its develo­ ment. Dialectical materialism fully recognizes the progres­ sive enrichment of evolving matter from level to level, and fully accepts the reality of mind and of spiritual values.

It is only mechanistic materialism thinking statically instead of dialectically that shuts its eyes to such obvious facts. Dialectical thinking is strictly empirical, and this may be regarded as another aspect of its materialism. Whatever facts emerge in experience must be recognized, but transcendental objects it does not recognize. In the Middle Ages there was a fierce controversy between nominal­ists and realists. The nominalists said that concepts are only products of human thought, and that real existences are always concrete and individual. The realists asserted that ideas and ideals have an actual existence of their own. Plato held that Beauty exists in the ideal world from which it descends to dwell for a moment only in beautiful objects,which all eventually lose their beauty.

In this controversy the dialectical materialist would be wholly on the side of the nominalists and against Plato. Beauty exists, but never apart from beau_tiful things. Good­ ness exists but never apart from good people. Thought exists but not apart from brains. The simple truth is that form and matter are inseparable, but at the same time distinct. The form that matter takes may be the form of beauty or of thought, Jhe form is real but it is always a form of matter. That is sound Aristotelianism as well as sound dialectical materialism, and it would trouble no one if we did not so frequently assume that platonic mysticismis the only respectable philosophy. 

 Dialectical materialism therefore does not believe in thedualism of soul and body. But it does not therefore deny the existence of mind. The modern psychology which does not require " a soul," and therefore rejects both interac­tionism and parallelism, does not reduce mental processes to physiological, but discovers in the organism at a certain level of brain development a control of behaviour in terms of foresight and purpose. It is as unnecessary to attribute this new function to the indwelling of a soul as to explain sensation in the lower animals in this way. Granted a sufficiently developed brain a new pattern of behaviour becomes possible and actually appears. This shows that the organism when it attains a given complexity has new properties which must neither be reduced to physiological reflexes nor attributed to the intrusion of some alien element.

Emergent Evolution

Dialectical materialism recognizes the emergence of new qualities at different levels.

This . evolutionary materialism is sometimes known as " emergent evolution," and has been ably expounded by Lloyd Morgan, Alexander and Roy Wood Sellars.

Unfortunately it is sometimes compromised by being com­bined with philosophical parallelism in order to give to the evolutionary process a teleological character. But it is unnecessary to postulate a directive spiritual force if, as the emergent evolutionists themselves demonstrate, the material factors at any one stage are in themselves sufficient cause for the next. Most evolutionists therefore already hold the dialectical rather than the vitalist or parallelist form of emergent evolution.

The doctrine of emergence is of the greatest importance for the whole question of development and change in nature. Although development implies the emergence of novelty, scientists are extremely sensitive to any tampering with the principle of continuity. 

But a doctrine of pure continuity rules out the emergence of the really new, since everything is a combination of the original elements. The result is that in defence of continuity evolution itself may be denied, since without real change evolution is meaningless. On the other hand in defence of change continuity may be denied, in which case once again there is no evolution. Two possibilities are open, one can merely assert that as an empirical fact there is both change and continuity. But the 
mind is unsatisfied with what falls short of a rational explanation. The other possibility is afforded by the new dialectic which repudiates the dis­junctive method in thinking which is responsible for all these difficulties. The disjunctive method treated existences as mutually exclusive and owning their content. The dialectical or  conjunctive method treats them as interpenetrating and sharing their content. Thus a special character in some object, is not derived from the character of its components taken severally but from the distinctive relationships of these components, from a special configuration. There is a function jointly exercised. This avoids the error of demanding that if a new quality emerges at a given moment it must have emerged from somewhere. Where was it before it emerged ? This puts the whole question wrongly. Emergence is treated like the emergence of a duck from beneath the surface of a pond. Ifit appears it must have been under the water before. But that is not what emergence means at all. When two colourless fluids are mixed and the result is a red fluid the redness was nowhere before it emerged ; it is a character belonging to a particular configuration. Dialectical materialism will have nothing to do with hylozoism or panpsychism ; it does not believe that life and mind have always existed in imperceptible degrees and had only to grow in quantity until they were big enough to be noticed, thus emerging. It believes that they appeared for the first time at a definite period in the history of matter, and that they are the inevitable consequence or concomitant of certain material pat­terns.

When it comes to defining the agent of change, dialectical materialism has its most suggestive theory to offer. Its conception of movement and contradiction as inherent in all matter and all relationships is, of course, derived by inversion from Hegel. What Hegel and Bradley show to be the inherent instability of any particular relationship as conceived, Marx shows to be characteristic of all relation­ ships as concrete, as well as conceived. Development through contradiction is not due to some mystical force working within the material content of the world, but is an observed characteristic of all life and matter. Contradictions and their emergence do not have to be projected into facts quite innocent of them, you have only to examine reality to find them. To be convinced of the dialectic of nature,look around you !

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