Modern Science and Its Philosophy

Philipp Frank


how idealists and materialists view modern physics

WE know today that nature can be described and understood not “mechanistically" but only through abstract mathematical formulas. Great significance has been attached to this revolution for the philosophic world view. The argument is that since a mathematical formula is something purely mental, the world can no longer be understood in a materialistic sense. Materialism must be superseded by idealism. The physics of the twentieth century is a victory for the "spiritualistic" or, as it is sometimes less clearly expressed, idealistic world view.

This viewpoint has its representatives among both the idealists and the materialists. The former rejoice at the unexpected aid they have received for their world view from the progress of science itself. The latter blame modem physics for abandoning the paths of progress marked out by Galileo and Newton and promoting the return to the dark views of the Middle Ages.

We will cite from the writings of a few English and German authors to illustrate the point of view of the idealists, and from the works of Soviet authors, the apprehensions of the materialists.

In his well‑known book The Mysterious Universe, the famous British physicist, Sir James Jeans says, for example:

The signal for the revolution was a short paper which Einstein published in June 1905. And with its publication, the study of the inner working of nature passed from the engineer‑scientist to the mathematician . . . The essential fact is simply that all the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathematical pictures . . . Nature seems very conversant with the rules of pure mathematics, as our mathematicians have formulated them in their studies, out of their own inner consciousness and without drawing to any appreciable extent on their experience of the outer world . . . Our remote ancestors tried to interpret nature in terms of anthropomorphic concepts of their own creation and failed. The efforts of our nearer ancestors to interpret nature on engineering lines proved equally inadequate . . . It would now seem to be beyond dispute, that in some way nature is more closely allied to the concepts of pure mathematics than to those of biology or of engineering . . . In any event, it can hardly be disputed that nature and our conscious mathematical minds work according to the same laws. She does not model her behavior, so to speak, on that forced on us by our whims and passions, or on that of our muscles and joints, but on that of our thinking minds . . . The concepts which now prove to be fundamental to our understanding of nature . . . seem to my mind to be structures of pure thought, incapable of realization in any sense which would properly be called material . . . To my mind, the laws which nature obeys are less suggestive of those which a machine obeys in its motion than of those which a musician obeys in writing a fugue, or a poet in composing a sonnet . . . The universe can be best pictured . . . as consisting of pure thought, the thought of what, for want of a wider word, we must describe as a mathematical thinker. [1]

The physicist and astronomer Jeans has here made use of this turn from a "mechanistic" to a "mathematical" understanding of physics to favor a religiously tinted metaphysics. When the professional German philosophers, on the other hand, deal with this revolution in science, we find them erecting a "scientific" metaphysics on this foundation.

To illustrate this tendency we will quote a few passages from B. Bavink's Science and God. The author stresses that the fundamental laws of physics are today statements about probability.

But a mathematical probability is not a physical reality like a temperature or field strength or what not. With this new interpretation, the whole material notion of substance disappears in our hands. What remains then of the plain, real, hard, sharp, heavy, etc. matter? A certain probability depending on formal mathematical laws, that energy or impulse are observable at a certain world‑point.

The physicist of today has learned—an enormous advance from the point of view of his world‑view—that his atoms or electrons or what not, are no longer to be regarded as rigid lumps of reality, from which no path can be found into the mental and spiritual sphere; he sees, on the contrary, that all these structures are forms in perpetual flux. which are only of interest even to him as regards their form. With this view, every variety of materialism is superseded . [2]

In this mathematical conception of nature, Bavink, like Jeans, sees the foundations of an idealistic philosophy of physics and hence of science as a whole. The only difference is that Bavink uses somewhat more technical philosophic terms.

One task Bavink proposes for an idealistic philosophy of nature is the following:

It still remains to be shown how the material world is to be deduced from the purely psychical data. It is obvious that spiritualism has hitherto always failed in this respect. It has never succeeded in deducing even the properties of a hydrogen atom from data of this kind. What is new in the present situation is the fact that such a proposal no longer appears so completely absurd as it did even twenty years ago. For that which hitherto presented an insuperable obstacle, namely the "rigid lumps of reality" of ordinary atomic theory, has been resolved into pure form, and a mathematical form is in itself something psychical, it belongs, as Plato already saw, directly in the realm of the Logos, which is behind all things . . .

There it stands; the hard, cold sober world of matter with its atoms, the existence of which is today proven beyond a doubt. It is impossible to pass it by, and it is time for all idealists finally to accept this fact and give up their fruitless attempts to avoid it. Matter will only be finally subjugated by mind when we are really able to understand it as the product of psychical powers. Merely to postulate this as a fact, which is all that spiritualism has hitherto done, is not of the slightest use; matter and its worshippers, the materialists, simply laugh us out of court saying: here is a single atom, the simplest of all, the hydrogen atom. Show us what you can do! Show us how we are to understand it as the product of purely psychical potencies—then we will believe you. Now it appears as if spiritualism today can actually pass this test. I will not maintain that it has already passed it, but I believe it to be undeniable that it is very close to doing so, and has every prospect of success. [3]

Some professional philosophers look upon modem physics as a direct return to the anthropomorphic, animistic physics of the Middle Ages, as it was practiced by Aristotelian scholasticism. Thus Aloys Wenzl, Professor at the University of Munich, says in his essay, "Metaphysics of Modem Physics":

And in this manner the human struggle for insight in the world will have described a circle, or more correctly a spiral. The examination of nature began with an anthropomorphic representation of the material world, in that souls were ascribed to material things, and the relations between them were viewed as expressions of psychic relationships of love and hate. The tendency to reification led farther and farther away from such early representations, freed physics more and more from such images and of necessity led ever closer to a mathematical examination of nature. For there are only two possible ways of making the facts and the laws of experience meaningful. They must either be treated according to psychologic laws or associated with the ideal forms of mathematics. Modern physics has followed the second method to the very limit. But if more is desired, if assertions about their meaning are to be made, the mathematically expressed relationships must be explained, which would be a return, on a much higher plane, to be sure, to the original method, if not in physics, then in metaphysics. [4]

When we notice how a philosopher of the twentieth century "explains" the physics of his day, we will see that the "idealistic" explanation is not so far removed from the "spiritualistic" or mystical. In the same essay, Wenzl says:

It is clear that the concept of matter has changed completely . . . Only the mathematical method itself actually defines the sphere of the material world . . . But we can no longer associate an idea of something dead, with this material world. If we do wish to make an assertion about its essence, it is much sooner a world of elemental spirits which are bound in their relationships and their formation of wholes to certain rules of the spiritual realm which are mathematically comprehensible; or to put it in other words, it is a world of lower spirits whose reciprocal relationships can be expressed in mathematical form. We do not know what kind of relationship this mathematical form signifies, but we do know the form. Only the mathematical forms themselves or God could know their inner significance. A very alert metaphysician might explain them at best by analogy to known psychic relationships. [5]

All these utterances show what great hopes the supporters of idealism have had in the crisis in physics of the twentieth century. But just as some political systems adopt idealism as the foundation for their philosophy, so the supporters of Marxism acknowledge materialism as a foundation for their world view. When we read the writings of the spiritual leaders of Russian Marxism, we see that the crisis in physics and its utilization as propaganda for idealism are viewed with concern and alarm.

Lenin published in 1908 a book under the title "Materialism and Empiriocriticism: Notes on a Reactionary Philosophy." [6] In the fifth chapter, entitled "The Latest Revolution in Science and in Philosophical Idealism," Lenin speaks of the changes brought about in the conception of matter by the energetic and electromagnetic theories. The physicists inclined toward idealism often formulate the results of these new conceptions as follows:

The atom is dernaterialized. Matter disappears.

And the Russian philosopher N. Valentinov in his book "Ernst Mach and Marxism" (1907) draws the following inference with reference to a world view:

The assertion that a scientific explanation of the world is found in straight materialism, is now no more than a myth, and a foolish one at that.

Says Lenin:

There is not the slightest doubt about the association of the new physics, or rather a certain school of the new physics, with the school of Mach and other types of a modern idealistic philosophy.

The nature of the crisis in modern physics consists in the overthrow of old laws and fundamental principles. Objective reality outside of consciousness is rejected and materialism is replaced by idealism and agnosticism. Matter has disappeared. This is the way the basic and typical difficulty created by the crisis is expressed.

Even in the year 1922 when Lenin was already at the head of the Soviet Government of Russia, he was much concerned about the dangers for materialism that might and did arise out of the crisis, thereby imperiling the foundations of Communism. At that time it was the relativity theory that played the most important part in the crisis in physics.

On December 3, 1922 Lenin wrote in the journal Under the Banner of Marxism:

We must keep in mind that as a result of the revolution taking place in science today, reactionary philosophic schools and tendencies are likely to arise. Therefore, the journal Under the Banner of Marxism must be concerned about this revolution in modern science; otherwise, fighting materialism would be neither fighting nor materialism.

If the great majority of middle‑class intelligentsia stand behind Einstein, who is not taking an active part in the fight against materialism, then this holds not only for Einstein, but for most of the great scientists since the end of the nineteenth century.

We find the same apprehensions and the same fight if we examine textbooks that have been introduced in Soviet colleges for teaching materialism. Thus we find in the textbook Dialectical Materialism: [7]

The attempts made to think of motion without matter and of force without underlying substance are laying the foundation for idealism and clericalism. At the present time we see the furthering of these same idealistic tendencies. As a result of their association with Einstein's theory of relativity many are inclined to imagine motion without matter.

And again:

In place of the old unchangeable atoms there has appeared a system of moving electrons. Therefore, say the "Machians," matter has disappeared. But actually, more exact principles are replacing primitive physical laws.

Yet the followers of Mach say: There is no objective knowledge . . . The latest quantum mechanics strengthens the concept of causality, and makes corrections in the old concept. The Machians, however, declare that causality has disappeared.

In the Russian materialistic literature there is a great deal of criticism of the new physical theories, particularly quantum mechanics, on account of their mathematical and formalistic nature. In effect, the line of approach is much like that of the German and English idealists—such as Bavink and Jeans—except that the materialists are naturally critical about the replacement of mechanics by mathematics as an "idealistic" trend. I will cite as evidence an article entitled "Chemistry and the Structure of Matter" which appeared in a Russian literary journal, Krasnaya Nov. The author, Orlov, says:

Quantum mechanics is today still under the spell of the fetish, mathematics. This means that the method of quantum mechanics is of a formal mathematical nature. The mathematical pattern permits the building of a bridge that unites empirical facts furnished by spectroscopy with the behavior of electrons, atoms, and molecules. But up to now we have no physical explanation for the formulas of quantum mechanics. Instead of that, it is often proposed to abandon the search for an interpretation of physical laws and to replace physical representations with abstract mathematical symbols. It is in this that the fetish, mathematics, consists.

It is remarkable how often scientists with sympathies for idealism, philosophers with scientific inclinations but of a spiritualistic background, and advocates of materialism as a tool for achieving political goals agree with one another in so many essential points.

We have seen in Chapters 5 and 6 that the transition from mechanistic to mathematical physics was the result of the positivistic conception of science and that it had nothing to do with the twentieth‑century tendency toward idealism and metaphysics.

But it may well be, and is often maintained, that positivistic physics contains an element of spiritualism or idealism. Positivistic physics consists in the last analysis of propositions about observations or perceptions. But then, so it is often said, it asserts something about the psychic. It has completely abandoned materialism and has become a science of the mind, exactly like psychology. In fact, Ernst Mach built up all the sciences out of relationships among sensations.

Many, therefore, look upon positivistic physics as a variety of subjective idealism, which declares that science can never assert anything about the actual world, but only about subjective sense impressions. In the above‑mentioned book, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin represented Mach's doctrine as a direct continuation of Bishop Berkeley's philosophy. He also blamed this doctrine for depreciating the actual world and for promoting the view that behind the world of sense impressions, about which alone science can assert something, lies the real world, which, however, is inaccessible even to science. According to this view, Mach seeks to strengthen the belief that the real world can only be explored through extrascientific or superscientific sources of knowledge such as metaphysics and religion.

This view of Mach's doctrine, however, is completely contradicted by Mach's actual intentions. To be sure, it must be admitted that his terminology may sometimes be the cause of such confusion. Also many of his disciples were in effect inclined toward idealism, perhaps because of pressure to conform to the prevailing official philosophy, according to which everything smacking of materialism was strictly taboo.

For Mach himself, however, the sensations with which he built up the entire science were in no contradiction to the actual world that seemed inaccessible to reason. For him these sensations, which to avoid confusion he very often termed "elements," were the building material he wished to use to create a unified system of science; this could be accomplished if one crossed from one field of science to another, say from physics to physiology.

For Mach, there was no way in which the difference between the apparent world and the real world could be scientifically formulated. Yet the gross mechanistic philosophy stood in no logical contradiction to Mach's conception. The bodies of daily experience with which mechanism constructed its world were also nothing else than a complex of sensations like sight and taste. The question whether there really is a matter (a thing‑in‑itself) that is different from the sensation has no meaning for science, since no experiment can be performed that might possibly settle the question. Every proposition about a gross material thing can also be expressed about sensations. Thus the whole of mechanistic physics can be translated into the language of Mach. A logical contradiction exists only between a metaphysically conceived Machism, which is then subjective idealism, and a metaphysically conceived materialism, which accepts only matter as having existence. But this doctrine was invented by idealists to refute materialism, and was, in any case, hardly representative of the thought of scientifically minded materialists.

The school philosophers (see Chapter 4) did not have to wait for the relativity and quantum theories of the twentieth century to misconstrue the transition from mechanistic to mathematical theory. They succeeded in doing this with the physics of the nineteenth and earlier centuries. On more than one occasion they made use of the explanation of Mach's doctrine as subjective idealism. It was even simpler than that. Wherever they saw something mathematical they tried to explain it as an idealistic element inside materialistic physics.

Hermann Cohen, for example, the leader of the neo‑Kantian school of Marburg, says that mechanics has acquired a more spiritual character when such subtle mathematical concepts as the differential calculus had to be used to formulate its laws.

In the critical supplement to the seventh edition of F. A. Lange's "History of Materialism" (vol. 1, pp. 504 ff.) Cohen says:

The road of research leads straightway to idealism. Materialism is being destroyed at the roots of physical concepts, and it is mathematics, that is leading in the emancipation, which promises to be a lasting one . . . Reality is the Real in mass, force and energy—the reality of infinitesimally small quantities. There are no other means by which we could even denote the real of mass and force for Newtonians, or the real of electric charge for dynamicists; much less can we explain these realities in another way. There is no other means than the differentials. The infinitesimal is not only the origin of every quantity but also the origin of being itself, of the real . . . At the roots of physical concepts materialism was destroyed and the liberation was achieved by mathematics. The old Platonic union of physics and mathematics has proved its eternal strength. The mathematical ideas . . . offer the solution of the fundamental question of philosophy—the question, What is science?

But we have seen in Chapter 5 that the idealistic interpretation of science, when taken seriously, is the first step in the return to the animistic anthropomorphic science of the medieval scholastics.

Positivism, on the other hand, particularly logical positivism, prevents the crisis in the mechanistic philosophy from spreading to the scientific world view as a whole. It shows that the abandonment of mechanistic physics does not imply the need for a return to the anthropomorphic physics of the Middle Ages. And right here something has happened that seems rather paradoxical. All those that advocate a return to pre‑Galilean science, whether it be under the name of "idealism," "holism," or "organicism," or even under the name of "race" or "nation," fight with great ardor for the retention of the mechanistic philosophy in the field of physics, and condemn the positivistic physics as an aberration.

Evidence for this can be found by merely turning the pages of the "Journal for the Whole of the Natural Sciences," which was published in Germany under the Nazi government from 1935 on. Its purpose was to fight against positivism in science. Its main line of attack was to encourage the struggle of "German" science against "French rationalism" and "English empiricism." Organismic philosophy is generally regarded as specifically "German."

A few passages from K. Hillebrand's programmatic article, "Positivism and Nature," may be cited here. They will make clear how an overestimation of mechanistic physics served in the fight against positivism and in behalf of organismic science.

Mechanism was a planned world picture constructed upon a principle; positivism accepts without choice every experience into the sum of its experiences. It accepts to be sure mechanistic explanations, as the equivalent of sense perceptions, but it denies as a matter of course the significance of every explanation, and gladly disavows them, for its aim is only description . . . I therefore ask, is not the principle advantage of positivism over mechanism tied up with as great a disadvantage? Is it really necessary or even pleasing to exchange a pictural concept of a mechanistic explanation for a pure mathematical formula, which transcends all perception? The breakdown of mechanism into positivism—very interesting as intellectual history—is an event, it seems to me, that is at present almost everywhere entirely misunderstood. And yet the principles of scientific method will never be determined without its clarification.

And now the author embarks upon an inspired glorification of mechanistic physics. He says:

He who understands the running of a machine, say a clock, based on the complete dependence of rigid bodies on spatial conceptions, has genuinely satisfying knowledge. It is the mistake of positivism that it is able to take this intention of Democritus as just one among other arbitrary hypotheses. It is also unfortunate for the development of positivism that it retains the objectivistic bias of mechanism and has surrendered its only virtue, its pure, clear picturization.

As is almost always the case with those favoring an idealistic‑organismic science, the enthusiasm for the mechanistic physics in its most obsolete form is coupled with a strong aversion for the application of non‑Euclidean and multidimensional spaces. Hillebrand continues:

Mechanism is Euclidean science. Relativism of non‑Euclidean spaces, on the contrary, is the favorite child of positivism. A four‑dimensional space or a space with curved radii is just as logical for pure abstract thought as the Euclidean; indeed the dissolution of space and time into mere abstract mathematical formulas seems to be a distinct gain to this other type of human being. The overwhelming eternal advantages of Euclidean space as against these abstract arts ought not to be forgotten.

The reason for the glorification of "mechanistic" physics by the advocates of organicism is that for their argument they need the application of a kind of physics that is as narrow as possible and therefore most unsuited for the more involved events. Says Hillebrand:

It is evident from what has been said above that according to our way of thinking mechanism is far superior to positivistic empiricism—so long as it does not attempt to explain living matter. Besides, since Science has abdicated in this respect, there is nothing lost; . . . the value therefore of exact scientific research is not attacked, in so far as it is restricted to "dead" matter nature. The human mind possesses two sufficient types of knowledge: the explanatory and the understanding. "Anschauung" in the explanatory sense is the mechanistic explanation of nature, the representation of bodily form in a Euclidean space‑time relation going far beyond positivistic sense perception and yet conceivable or pictorial in a narrower sense of sight and taste sensation. The understanding type of knowledge is "Anschauung" in a wider sense, perception not as sensation, but rather as a palpable human event that need not be "sensible."

The German word Anschauung has two meanings, both of which are used in this quotation. It means, first, "optical perception" or "pictural representation"; second, however, it means "mental intuition" or "empathic understanding." This ambiguity makes the word Anschauung a favorite term in idealistic metaphysics. It provides a philosophic basis for the "intuition" of the totalitarian leader.

The tendency is very clearly seen to allow mechanistic science to pass as the only "explanatory" type of knowledge that is useful for exact science, so that it might be easier if necessary to introduce the so‑called "understanding" type of knowledge (intuition) in the sciences of human conduct.

Logical empiricism, as opposed to this, stresses the unitary character of science. It is not interested in splitting human knowledge into "mechanistic‑explanatory" and "understanding‑intuitive" types. Our modern logic of science depicts the factual process of successful knowledge and  scientific representation. Mechanistic explanation and intuitive understanding both are popular and rather superficial types of scientific representation, but by no means particularly profound types of knowledge.


1  J. H. Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1930), pp. 106, 135, 138, 143, 145 ff. [—> main text]

2  B. Bavink , Science and God, English translation by H. S. Hatfield (London: Bell, 1933), pp. 68, 71. [—> main text]

3  Ibid., pp. 93, 95. [—> main text]

4  A. Wenzl, "Metaphysik der Physik von heute," Wissenschaft und Zeitgeist (Leipzig: Meiner, 1935), No. 2, p. 30. [—> main text]

5  Ibid., pp. 28, 29. [—> main text]

6  English translation (New York: International Publishers, 1927). [—> main text]

7  M. Mitin, ed., Dialekticheskii Materializm (Moscow Philosophical Institute of the Communist Academy, 1934), vol. 1, pp. 111, 55. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Frank, Philipp. Modern Science and Its Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949. Reprint: New York: George Braziller, 1955. Chapter 10, How Idealists and Materialists View Modern Physics, pp. 186-197.

Modern Science and Its Philosophy: Contents

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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