Contents of
Alternatives to




by Igor Naletov

The above critical analysis of the positivist attitude to the problem of the objectivity of scientific knowledge, as well as the comparison of positivist views with some of the alternative concepts surfacing in the modern philosophy of science was to highlight, among other things, the inseparable unity of modern materialism and dialectics. One cannot pursue the principle of objectivity of scientific knowledge without concessions to idealism and metaphysics if the materialistic approach is not integrated, merged from the outset with the dialectical methodology of science. It is highly essential that this integration is not a mechanical combination of dialectical and materialistic concepts which supplement one another but that they are blended in the analysis of the real problems of scientific cognition.

The task of blending materialism and dialectics is the more topical at present as not many investigations can boast integrated dialectical materialist approach to the analysis of concrete scientific problems. Regrettably, the study of special problems is not infrequently guided by the principles of didactics rather than by the dialectics of scientific cognition, and the division of scientific material convenient for its presentation to students often predetermines the principles of scientific analysis. However, methodical schemes invaluable in the classroom sometimes turn out to be too rigid to reveal all the aspects of the interdependence of materialism and dialectics.

The importance of this problem is also highlighted by the analysis of the main philosophical trends of our time. As has been shown above, modern bourgeois philosophy reveals an obvious tendency toward materialism. The crisis of the positivist methodology of science gives rise to new philosophical schools, such as critical realism and scientific materialism, which proclaim materialism to be their credo.

However, this materialistic trend in Western philosophy does not merge with materialistic dialectics and remains indifferent to its achievements, Moreover, it is often openly biased against dialectics. The fact that many representatives of critical realism recognise the objective reality not only of individual physical objects, but also of general properties and entities, and speak of scientific metaphysics, the development of scientific knowledge, etc. is very indicative of a profound crisis of the positivist philosophy of science. Yet it is but the first stage in the search for new methodological guidelines since the principles of objectivity and testability of scientific knowledge, correct in general, must be supplemented or, to be more exact, integrated with the dialectical approach to scientific problems.

The obvious fact that modern materialism is inconceivable without dialectics is again and again confirmed by concrete investigations. Take, for instance, the old problem of consciousness whose different aspects are now highly topical. Sociology, pedagogics and social psychology view this problem mainly from the social angle, i.e. in terms of the determining influence of social conditions on the genesis of consciousness. Cybernetics studies the same problem from the viewpoint of the possibility of reproducing the functions of consciousness by cybernetic machines, psychology and neuropsychology, in terms of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, etc.

One can declare himself a convinced materialist professing the primacy of social being in relation to consciousness, indicating that consciousness is a function of the brain, highly organised matter, or pointing out the possibility of modelling the brain processes with the help of computers. Yet none of these statements attests to a consistent materialistic stand unless they represent a dialectical approach to the problem. Once we separate one from the other, which is sometimes the case in scientific publications, we automatically undermine the very foundation of the professed materialistic views. It is common knowledge, for instance, that the content of human consciousness is determined by social factors. One should bear in mind, however, that the prerequisites for the formation of concepts, mental images reside in neurodynamic processes. Hence, a consistent materialistic analysis of the nature of consciousness is only possible if both sides are taken into account in their interdependence. Should we for a moment lose sight of one of them and rashly state, for instance, that we owe consciousness to social factors only, the ghost of idealism will present itself right here and then. Indeed, since individual knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, our statement would imply the existence of some kind of primordial knowledge which might well assume the form of “absolute” or “innate” ideas.

Furthermore, this is not the only loophole which would be opened for idealism by our unwary statement. If consciousness is determined by social factors only, how should we account for such phenomena as talent, good inclinations, natural gifts? How should we explain Mozart’s musical endowments and Lenin’s genius? We should have either to leave these questions unanswered, or appeal for help to Providence. In a word, without dialectics we should not make a step toward materialism.

Materialism has now reached a stage when its further development as the world view and as the methodology of scientific knowledge is only possible on the dialectical foundation. Conversely, dialectics cannot be a coherent system of philosophical views unless it rests on the materialistic foundation.

The merger of materialism and dialectics is embodied in Marxism-Leninism which opened a new epoch in the development of philosophy. After the emergence of Marxism-Leninism any deviation from either dialectics or materialism, any concession to idealism, eclecticism and metaphysics is bound to undermine the unity of philosophy and should be regarded as essentially regressive.

The entire history of materialism shows that it could not be consistent unless it was interpreted dialectically. This was particularly obvious when materialist principles were applied to the explanation of social phenomena—suffice it to recall Feuerbach. In our time, non-dialectical materialism is simply inconceivable; it cannot but stumble at every step. Modern science and social processes are so complex and dynamic that any inconsistency in world outlook and in the philosophical interpretation of one or another phenomenon is fraught with grave ideological consequences. Each philosophical problem, therefore, should be treated from the viewpoint of dialectical materialism, i.e. from the materialistic and dialectical angles. The materialistic principles themselves will turn into an inadmissible philosophical abstraction if they are divorsed from dialectics. In our time dialectics is opposed not only to metaphysics, but also to idealism, Conversely, materialism claiming consistency is incompatible with metaphysics and all sorts of eclecticism.

The positivist concept of objectivity, the Popperian interpretation of “objective knowledge” and the stand of “scientific realism” are notable, first and foremost, for a narrow understanding of the principle of objectivity. Nevertheless, each of the above trends has certain rational elements and their comparison will help understand more clearly the essence of the problem and define the guidelines for its modern solution. The obvious difficulties encountered by positivism and other trends of the modern philosophy of science in the interpretation of objectivity show that there are but two methodological alternatives open before a philosopher: either to give up the search for objectivity altogether and agree that objective knowledge is unattainable, or to hold on to the materialistic tradition at the risk of earning the reputation of an outdated and even retrograde thinker attempting to draw philosophy back to the ideals of classical natural science. The first alternative appears to be rather attractive: it seemingly complies with the spirit of modern science which continues blasting one bastion of classical science after another, and relieves the scientists of the need to rack their brains over “metaphysical” problems enjoying but little popularity with most of them. At a closer look, however, it does not help to avoid difficulties, since any attempt to carry on investigations with the legalised handicap of the “subjective” brings the investigator back to the problem of distinguishing between the objective and the subjective which he tried to escape. This was clearly demonstrated by the fate of the hypothesis of “latent parameters” in quantum mechanics which postulated the inevitable presence of the observer in the quantum-mechanical theory. As regards the second alternative, i.e. the adherence to the principle of objectivity, it turns out to be a thorny path just as well and calls for a serious philosophical analysis of the concept of objectivity. What is more, this analysis appears to be the more difficult as it is to provide a basis for mutual understanding between the philosophers and the representatives of special sciences.

What was the main weakness in the positivist concept of the objective? In one of the previous sections devoted to this problem we have shown that positivism identified the objective with the observable. It was through observation and combination of various sensations and perceptions that one could form an intersubjective idea of any object. An individual observation or perception could not, of course, give knowledge independent of the subject, but a series of observations, the perception of recurrent processes were evidently sufficient to provide the necessary material for separating the subjective from the intersubjective.

A similar understanding of the objective underlies also the concept of “critical rationalism”. In his theory, Popper only eliminates the most obvious weaknesses in the positivist interpretation of the objective, but sides with the concept of intersubjectivity. According to Popper, the difference between the objective and the subjective consists only in that the former has passed through the purgatory of intersubjective criticism which separates the elements of knowledge immune to falsification from those disproved by constantly changing experience. The objective is thus identified with the conventional, the immutable, with what is not questioned by experience at a given moment. The narrowness of such criteria of objectivity reveals itself, in fact, each time science transgresses the bounds of habitual, stereotyped phenomena and events. As regards unobservable processes, relationships and properties, the positivist criterion of objectivity proves to be completely unsatisfactory. Popper’s criterion reveals its untenability and inner subjectivism when one fundamental theory gives place to another, since the breakdown of a theory signifies the dissolution of the stable nucleus which cannot be falsified and is, according to Popper, the refuge of objectivity.

In its search for objective knowledge me modern “philosophy of biology” strives to reduce biological knowledge to physical phenomena. Why is it so? Because phenomenalistic theories proceed from the assumption that the stable nucleus of knowledge immune against subjective influence or interpretation can only be defined through the analysis of physical structures on the molecular, atomic or subatomic levels. This mirage still entices scientists who stake on physicalism and are fascinated by the seemingly clear and tangible outlines of new theories—though this path, as we have shown, is actually a blind alley, and the scientist who takes it in quest of objective knowledge is soon bound to discover it. True, the physicalism of “scientific materialism” is more constructive if only for the fact that it is oriented on the recognition of objective reality, creation of scientific ontology and its subsequent verification. In our opinion, it is far less damaging to scientific progress than positivist physicalism which in fact seeks to pass off the present reduction of scientific knowledge to physico-chemical concepts as the last word of science.

As we see, the problem of objectivity in the philosophy of science is split, so to speak, among the existing levels of scientific knowledge, if not among different sciences. We shall not attempt here to investigate into the general causes of this phenomenon in the development of science; we shall merely take it for granted as a fact. In each doctrine, the concept of objectivity is confined within more or less narrow bounds which have a more or less definite location in the “space” of modern scientific knowledge and conform to its existing structure. The concreteness of philosophical categories, as we have shown above, has nothing to do with this location reflecting the limitations of each doctrine and, in the end, its subjectivism. The dialectico-materialist interpretation of the objective which is inseparably linked with the definition of matter as a philosophical category denoting objective reality independent of human consciousness in general, sets but the epistemological framework for this concept and has no meaning beyond the limits of the basic question of philosophy—the one concerning the relation of matter and consciousness. It is not connected with the boundaries of individual sciences or fields or levels of knowledge. It contrasts everything that is subjective to everything that is independent of consciousness. It points out the asymmetry (in the epistemological sense) of the relationship between them.

The contrast between the objective and the subjective has a purely philosophical meaning. Perhaps like no other conceptual distinction, it sets a clear demarcation line between philosophy and positive sciences which are in fact indifferent to such a universal division. The independence of philosophical knowledge, its irreducibility to any special science stands out here with particular clarity, though the specificity of philosophy can also be demonstrated on the example of a number of other problems.

The philosophical understanding of the objective as essentially independent of consciousness in general is evidently much broader than its interpretation in the positivist, Popperian, physicalist and scientific-realist concepts, which connect objectivity with observability, intersubjectivity, reducibility to physical notions, etc. It should be noted, however, that different versions in the interpretation of objectivity are not always groundless and senseless. The positivist understanding of objectivity, for one, has a certain value within the framework of empirical investigations, whereas the Popperian interpretation of objectivity must be given credit for its attempt to view the positivist solution from a broader socio-cultural perspective and to emphasise the existing demarcation (tending, however, to absolutise it) between the individual and general consciousness, etc. It would not be correct to regard them as completely wrong; rather, they are narrow and deformed.

To view the problem of objectivity from the philosophical angle, one has to universalise the methods or ideas of special sciences or branches of knowledge and rise above their level, since this problem assumes one form in physics, another in biology, still others in history, theoretical sciences, empirical sciences, etc. Each of these disciplines concentrates on its own specific, topical aspects of the problem and has its own means and ways for its solution.

Hence, the first aspect of the problem of objectivity, as it is posed in contemporary philosophy, calls for a dialectical analysis and consists in distinguishing, first and foremost, between its empirical and theoretical levels. Obviously, objectivity cannot be reduced to observability, coherence, one or another degree of the generalisation of concepts, etc. Any of the above criteria leads to an unwarranted restriction of the concept of objectivity as it implies independence of the object of investigation from some special kind, form or level of consciousness, but not from consciousness in general. Yet the concept of the objectivity of knowledge in its philosophical sense presupposes the independence of knowledge from consciousness in general, be it individual or collective. The numerous difficulties involved in the implementation of this criterion do not by any means attest to its uselessness, they merely confirm the well-known truth that the path of true science is not a royal road. The theories asserting the objective character of knowledge but regarding it to be independent of certain forms of consciousness only imply, willy-nilly, its dependence on other forms of consciousness, thus leaving a loophole for idealism.

No less untenable are the attempts of some other philosophers proclaiming themselves adherents of materialism to identify matter and, consequently, objectivity with one or several properties of material objects except the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up—the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind. [1]

The history of philosophy shows that the single problem of the objectivity of knowledge can and must be solved differently at different levels of scientific cognition. The recognition of this fact is perhaps the starting point of the process of fusion of materialism and dialectics which reveals the complex and contradictory character of scientific cognition and shows that it cannot be confined to the sensuous, empirical stage. Scientific cognition goes into the depth of processes and phenomena, penetrates the realm of laws and reveals laws of different orders and different degrees of generalisation. The criterion of objectivity which may appear simple and explicit to any investigator in his specialised field is bound to turn into a complex problem when he enters upon the theoretical level of cognition and finds himself in the jungle of philosophy after the prairie of the macroworld.

It should be stressed, however, that the observance of the principle of objectivity was and remains the primary objective of modern science. Without the elimination of the subject, however difficult it may be for the investigator, scientific research will lose all meaning. Therefore recognising distinctions in the approach to the problem of objectivity at philosophical, theoretical, empirical and other levels is making but one, though important, step forward. The next step, which is, evidently, the most difficult one, consists in revealing their relationship and defining a method for changing over from a philosophico-theoretical to philosophico-methodological aspect and further to the theoretical and empirical levels of the problem of objectivity. In point of fact, we need some kind of a bridge to pass from the philosophical principle of objectivity to its concrete embodiment in the context of a scientific theory.

We believe that the function of such a “bridge” leading from one level of knowledge to the other in the formulation and solution-of the problem of objectivity can be performed primarily (but only partly) by the idea of invariance.

The principle of objectivity implies, in essence, the “elimination of the subject” from the object of investigation. What is the actual meaning of this requirement in the context of a concrete scientific investigation? Should we understand this phrase literally?

Significantly, dialectical materialism has never maintained that the requirement of the objectivity of knowledge is equivalent to setting up some kind of an insurmountable barrier between the subject and the object of investigation. Insurmountable in the sense that it prevents any influence of man on the object of cognition and only permits the “mirror” reflection of reality in his consciousness. “Knowledge,” wrote Lenin, “is the reflection of nature by man. But this is not a simple, not an immediate, not a complete reflection, but the process of a series of abstractions, the formation and development of concepts, laws, etc., and these concepts, laws, etc. (thought, science “the logical Idea”) embrace conditionally, approximately, the universal law-governed character of eternally moving and developing nature.” [2]

Thus the dialectics of cognition presupposes man’s active penetration, intrusion into reality, his, so to speak, aggressive attitude to it. Here one may ask: how can such an attitude agree with the principle of objectivity?

To “eliminate the subject” does not mean to fence him off from the object of his investigation, though sometimes a specific kind of a barrier, e.g. an aquarium wall, can indeed make for objectivity, like in the case of an observer studying the behaviour of fish or sea plants. Nor does it mean to dig a ditch which can sometimes separate an investigator watching wild life. “Eliminating the subject” means creating conditions which would not so much prevent him from interfering with objective processes as from distorting them and causing to deuiate from their normal course. In terms of epistemology the subject is a very complex notion accounting for the possibility of human errors, inaccuracies and prejudices, inadequacy of technical and natural means at man’s disposal, as well as of the store of knowledge available to him, the specific features of his perceptions, mentality, etc. It would evidently take several pages to enumerate the elements which make up the notion “subject” and should be excluded from the notion “scientific knowledge”. What really matters, however, is not this enumeration, but the obvious fact that man’s centuries-old experience must have already developed reliable mechanisms compensating for the subjective aspects of the process of cognition. The “elimination of the subject” is always aimed, in one form or another, at this compensation and correction of the defects which are inevitably introduced by man in his exploration of the Universe.

Far from denying the “subjectification” of reality by man, dialectics considers it inevitable and shows that man transforms reality through his practical, experimental and even mental activity, since the world, of course, can never be adequately represented in man’s concepts. Man is unable to embrace the world in all its inexhaustibility; he is bound to limit the sphere of his investigations to the phenomena which are within his reach. At present, for instance, man is still unable to penetrate the structure of micro particles and has to be content to study their “external” interaction or to split them in a powerful accelerater.

So, insisting on the objectivity of scientific knowledge, dialectics proceeds from the fact that the subject alters the object in the process of its investigation. Yet the objective can only be revealed in the surrounding world if the investigator concentrates primarily on the stable, the recurrent. It is this search for immutable, invariant properties and values that represents the transition from the general idea of objectivity to the theoretical analysis of objective processes and phenomena. While revealing the immutable, the stable in the objects and phenomena under investigation, the natural scientist may not even be aware of the fact that he attains objective knowledge.

The above does not mean, of course, that changing properties cannot be objective. If we speak of dynamic processes, the only requirement they should meet from the viewpoint of the principle of objectivity is the constancy of change. Not the change of constancy, but vice versa. Just so! The language of objectivity is translated into the language of invariance. Naturally, a physicist, a biologist or a sociologist cannot divorce the object of investigation from his consciousness. What he can and what he really does and must do is to distinguish between the mutable and the immutable properties of the object during his studies. This bridge from the general philosophical to a particular scientific idea of objectivity has been operable for centuries though its strength has been frequently subjected to testing. None of the tests, however, destroyed it, nor could do so completely. As a result, the bridge had only gained in strength, simplicity and elegance. Why, for instance, was its usability called in question at the turn of the 20th century? Because the philosophers erroneously identified matter with the concrete properties of things, but not with their only “property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind”, whereas the physicists were bewildered by the collapse of their habitual concepts: the mass of the electron turned out to be variable, the stationary and impenetrable “ether” movable, the spatial and time intervals changeable. The world, once stable and reliable, was falling to pieces, matter “had disappeared”,

How did philosophy and physics overcome this crisis? Lenin formulated a philosophical definition of matter in which the criterion of objectivity was connected with the property of existing independently of man’s consciousness. Physics found new invariants giving a new meaning to this philosophical idea. “Invariants,” wrote Max Born, “are the concepts of which science speaks in the same way as ordinary language speaks of ‘things’, and which it provides with names as if they were ordinary things.” [3]

Invariance is the property of immutability in relation to a definite set of physical or mathematical conditions, specifically, to a group of transformations. This property is inherent in individual physical and mathematical values and physical characteristics, as well as in equations and laws of physics. An invariant value can be exemplified, for instance, by the distance between two points in geometry, or by value E2H2 in regard to Lorentz’s transformations in electrodynamics, though the values of the intensity of electrical fields (E) and magnetic fields (H) prove to be invariant when changing from one inertial reference system to another. Group invariance (or group symmetry) is a kind of symmetry which is widely used in modern physics: the invariance of equations in relation to groups of Galilean, Lorentz’s and Poincaré’s transformations, the symmetry of Schrodinger’s operator in relation to the rotational group of three-dimensional space, the symmetry of crystals, the unitary symmetry, etc.

A more general case of in variance is co-variance, i.e. the property of transformation of a number of physical and mathematical values in accordance with a definite linear law when passing from one reference system to another. Co-variance reveals itself in relation to different groups of transformations. It may be inherent both in different values, e.g. vectors, tensors of relative rotations, and in different equations and functions. A co-variant value is a value transforming in relation to one of the representations of a group of coordinate transformations being studied. Co-variant equations are those which, on being recorded in a co-variant form, do not change their appearance in any system of coordinates, though individual physical values incorporated in such equations may be different in different reference systems. The wide use of the notion of transformation group is accounted for by the immutability of a number of physical objects within one or another group, which circumstance makes it possible to define the law of their change during such transformations.

A transformation group can be exemplified, for instance, by a finite set of projections of a certain object on other objects known sufficiently well by their properties, e.g. on measuring instruments, experimental facilities, etc. Thus, if we are interested in a geometrical form, i.e. in the spatial structure of an object, we can regard its projections on different surfaces arranged at different angles relative to one another as geometrical transformations of the form of this object. The selection of a set or series of such “projections” making up a certain group of transformations in the mathematical sense depends on the conditions of the existence of a given system, on its limits or measure, as well as on the concrete cognitive situation and the nature of the task the investigator is confronted with. It is the analysis of invariance and structure carried out with due regard for the objective and subjective aspects of the process of cognition (i.e. for its specificity) that makes it possible to use the principle of invariance in the solution of such a fundamental epistemological problem as the problem of the objectivity of knowledge.

To be sure, it would not be correct to identify the invariant with the objective. Both invariant and variant physical values, as well as their relationships can be objective in equal measure. Both of them, as has already been emphasised by Einstein, reflect to a degree objective reality. According to Einstein, the difference between invariants and variants does not lie in the same plane as the difference between the objective and the real, on the one hand, and the subjective and the seeming, on the other. If that were not the case, the concept of objectivity would apparently become superfluous. The revelation of invariants and variants is not yet equivalent to the establishment of the epistemological nature of each of these classes of phenomena. The question of the invariant or variant character of different quantities and of their relationships can only be solved within the framework of each individual theory and under the strictly defined conditions of investigation.

Invariant values and relationships are direct characteristics of the laws governing the behaviour and properties of the objects of a given theory which are freed (in the obtained knowledge) from the characteristics relating to the specific conditions of investigation. This also applies to those conditions of investigation which are connected in one way or another with the subject in a given relationship. Hence, the conditions to be additionally eliminated are only those characterising the subjective aspect of the process of cognition. The object under investigation should be considered theoretically in all possible transformation groups so that its objective presentation in theory may be as full as possible. For instance, in the classical method of description the absolute length characterises the property of a body in absolute space regardless of the selected reference system. Recognition of the absolute nature of space and time presupposes the indifference of objects to the subject and to the reference system. Conversely, the relativist description of the space-time interval characterises the property of a physical object in relation to the selected system of reference (provided, of course, it is inertial). The theory of relativity treats simultaneity as a variant (relative) concept. It means that the simultaneity of two events is not regarded as absolute, since it represents not only the relation between the events themselves, but also depends to an essential degree on the selected system of coordinates. It is even more so if the events are separated spatially. In that case the objectivity of simultaneity (and, to a certain extent, of space and time themselves) can only be attested to by the invariance of space and time in one or another relationship.

As we see, variant values characterise relations between the objects of a given physical theory, on the one hand, and the conditions of investigations (including the observer himself), on the other. A variant value can have any meaning only within the framework of a given theory and only in relation to definite conditions of investigation (cognition). Invariant and variant values represent different aspects of objective reality. Yet for a concrete physical theory the relationship between them is of paramount importance, as it determines the concrete measure of objectivity attained by this theory. It is not fortuitous that the search for invariants constitutes one of the main tasks of every physical and mathematical theory, and the replacement of old invariants by new ones is indicative of a transition from the old theory to a new, more general one. As a matter of fact, a transition from one theory to another covering essentially the same sphere of phenomena is only possible as a result of transformations revealing new invariants. This mechanism of transformations ensuring the birth of objective knowledge has long been one of the chief secrets of science, the veritable philosophical stone so badly needed by the “alchemy” of scientific cognition. It is in the process of search for invariants that the system of knowledge is purged of subjective elements and old scientific theories are replaced by new, more objective ones.

The change in the relationship between invariant and variant values in favour of the former testifies to the elimination of subjective elements from physical knowledge and is indicative of a transition to a higher level of objectivity, to the expansion of the sphere of objectivity of physical knowledge. The preservation of immutability, invariance of certain values against the background of the mutability, variance of others is a sure sign of the objectivity of immutable values. It appears that invariance is always connected, in one way or another, with objectivity. It does not mean, of course, that invariance always represents the objective content of a theory, but the probability of their coincidence is very high. Being always oriented towards the future; the process of cognition must of necessity have a considerable “margin of safety”, therefore every invariant in a theory must be regarded as potentially variable. On the other hand, the variable aspects of a theory are to be studied more closely with a view to determining the degree of objectivity they may represent, for which purpose attempts should be made to identify a group of transformations under which certain values in the equation in interest may prove to be invariant. The presence of invariants and variant relationships in a given theory determines the degree of its “objectivity”, i.e. testifies to the presence of structural characteristics and properties of physical objects whose specific forms of symmetry are disclosed by the given theory under the specified conditions of investigation.

If some values or their relationships prove to be variable relative to given transformations, this cannot yet be regarded as attesting to the non-objectivity of the corresponding properties or relationships. It simply means that the question remains open and the investigation should continue. What is variant in relation to one group of transformations may prove to be invariant in relation to another group. Besides, account is also taken of the fact that the very process of change can also be expressed in the language of invariants with the help of its isomorphic (or homomorphic) transformations. For instance, the melody of a song can be represented by changes in a continuously modulated signal. During the transmission of the signal from the sensors to the central processing units its form changes with the change of the physical carriers, methods of modulation and coding. Yet the content of the signal, the information carried by it, i.e. the orderliness of the pulses representing the melody of the song remains invariant, independent of these transformations.

It should be specially noted, even in this cursory survey of the problem, that the principle of invariance underlying macroworld theories in a latent form plays even a more important role in the investigation of the microworld. Though the classical theories (mechanics and electrodynamics) can be restructured in such a way as to place this principle in the limelight, they are nevertheless based on dynamic principles expressed in the equations of motion or field. We may assume, without going deep into this subject, that the objectivity of knowledge in the investigation of the macroworld is best represented by the equations of classical mechanics. It is not accidental, therefore, that the decisive role in ensuring the objectivity of knowledge at the macrolevel belongs to experiment. By contrast, theoretical science has developed its own, specific methods and principles of obtaining objective knowledge attaching, it appears, special importance, to the principle of invariance.

As is known, invariance or group symmetry originally played but a secondary role in quantum mechanics, making it possible to obtain only auxiliary data on a quantum system. With the integration of Schrodinger’s and Dirac’s “dynamic” equations, however, the situation changed. Soviet scholars Yu. B. Rumer and A. I. Fet write: “The development of physics over the past few years has reversed, as it were, the relationship between the equations of motion and symmetry groups. Now the symmetry group of a physical system has come to the foreground; the representations of this group and its subgroups carry the most important data on the system. Hence, groups turn out to be the primary, the most profound elements in a physical description of nature. As to the concepts of space and time, they play the role of ’material’ for the construction of the representations of groups and owe the place they occupy in physics to historical factors only. The ’equations of motion’ are assigned the role of conditions superimposed on the vectors of some functional space for singling out irreducible representations of a group or equations of the infinitesimal representation of the same group. This shift of basic concepts does not seem to encourage the idea that each kind of particles and fields should be represented by some equation of motion. What is more, the very universality of the scheme known as the ’theory of field’ is called in question.” [4]

The principle of invariance is also largely accountable for the considerable degree of subjectivism in scientific concepts of space and time.

The concept of absolute space and time was used by Newton in two different, though interrelated, senses. First, by absolute space Newton understood the empty and motionless (in relation to matter) space of the Universe, and by absolute time, pure duration corresponding to absolute space. Second, he used the term “absolute” to characterise the invariance of lengths and time intervals. It is precisely this latter aspect of the absolute nature of space and time which we are interested in here, since it is directly connected with the question of their objectivity.

The development of physics showed that the hypothesis of the absolute nature of space and time was narrow and contradicted a number of important scientific facts. For instance, it was not compatible with the principles of electrodynamics. The equations of electrodynamics were not invariant in relation to the Galilean transformations expressing the absoluteness of time and space. When applied to the electromagnetic field, Galilean transformations led to a conclusion that magnetic disturbance was transmitted at different velocities in two opposite directions from a moving source whereas the equations themselves excluded such a possibility. Subsequently the narrowness of the Galilean principle of relativity as applied to electromagnetic phenomena was proved experimentally. Michelson’s experiments in determining the velocity of light in different directions relative to the moving Earth showed that the classical law of the summation of the velocities ensuing from the Galilean principle of relativity did riot hold true in relation to the velocity of light. The contradiction between electrodynamics and the results of Michelson’s experiment, on the one. hand, and classical mechanics based on the Galilean principle of relativity, on the other, was resolved by the theory of relativity. Proceeding from the postulate of the constancy of light velocity and using it as the basis of his theory, Einstein universalised the principle of relativity calling for the invariance of physical laws for inertial systems and extended it to all physical processes, including electromagnetic ones. In classical mechanics the concept of absolute time found its expression in the recognition of absolute simultaneity: if any two events occurred simultaneously in one inertial system of reference, they were also bound to occur simultaneously in another. The conclusion ensuing from the principle of the constancy of light velocity was entirely different: two events which took place simultaneously in one system of reference could not be simultaneous in another. In other words, simultaneity according to this principle was relative. The relativeness, non-invariance of simultaneity signified the non-invariance of the laws of physics in relation to Galilean transformations. According to Einstein’s principle of relativity, the laws of physics are invariant not in relation to the Galilean, but to Lorenz’s transformations, these providing direct substantiation for the concept of relativity of space and time viewed separately. Thus the length of a rod turns out to be different in the rest system and in the body axes system of coordinates.

Various authors not infrequently see the philosophical significance of the theory of relativity in that it showed the variant character of space and time. It is correct in the sense that this theory indeed revealed new links and relations which had not been taken into account by classical physics and thus gave a broader and more profound picture of the dialectics of time-space relations. Such a general appraisal, however, needs to be somewhat specified.

First, it would not be correct to regard the concept of absolute space and time (if by the “absolute” we understand their invariance) as an erroneous, metaphysical picture of the world. This concept stands in the same relation to the objective world as do all classical physics and its laws. It is a permissible idealisation of reality, its approximate reflection in relation to speeds which are practically negligible as compared with the velocity of light. It is applicable to situations in which the velocity of light can be regarded as practically infinite.

Second, the significance of the theory of relativity cannot be reduced to establishing the relativity of space and time. From it ensues not only the invariance of space and time separated from each other, but also the existence of a new invariant: the time-spatial interval. Einstein and Infeld write: “The world of events forms a four-dimensional continuum. There is nothing mysterious about this, and the last sentence is equally true for classical physics and the relativity theory. Again a difference is revealed when two CS [coordinate systems] moving relatively to each other are considered. The room is moving, and the observers inside and outside determine the time-space coordinates of the same events. Again the classical physicist splits the four-dimensional continua into the three-dimensional spaces and the one-dimensional time-continuum... The old physicist bothers only about space transformation, as time is absolute for him. He finds the splitting of the four-dimensional world-continua into space and time natural and convenient. But from the point of view of the relativity theory, time as well as space is changed by passing from one CS to another, and the Lorentz transformation considers the transformation properties of the four-dimensional time-space continuum of our four-dimensional world of events.” [5]

The qualitative distinction between the space-time relationship in classical physics and the four-dimensional continuum in the relativity theory is that in the first case space and time are treated as existing independently of matter and motion and separately from each other, their connection being entirely external, whereas in the second case they penetrate each other and make a single whole. On the one hand, the concept of time is incorporated in the definition of the spatial interval which is the distance between two points localised simultaneously. The relativity of simultaneity makes the spatial interval dependent on time. On the other hand, spatial components are incorporated in the definition of time. The time of two inertial systems is expressed through an equation incorporating a spatial coordinate. Since this coordinate is different for different systems of reference, time turns out to be dependent on space. Hence, the space-time continuum in the theory of relativity is not a mechanical combination of space and time connected with each other through external links, but an integral whole. Fused in a single continuum, space and time do not lose all of their independence. However, from absolute this independence turns into relative. Space and time become, as it were, sections of a four-dimensional continuum. The exposition of the invariance of the space-time interval was simultaneously a substantiation of the idea of the objectivity of space and time in the context of a new physical theory. A similar function was subsequently performed by the general theory of relativity.

The second aspect of the problem of objectivity, as distinct from the first, considered above, calls for special dialectical analysis and pertains to the development of scientific knowledge.

After the crisis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the current, scientific and technological revolution has once again demonstrated the relativity of scientific knowledge, its concepts and theories. Centuries-old and seemingly inviolable fundamental concepts and ideas of physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, psychology and other sciences are undergoing a process of thorough revision. The relativity of fundamental concepts testifies to the historical character of the process of cognition. As we have seen, the present-day breakdown of scientific concepts, like in Lenin’s time, arouses the feelings of uncertainty among natural scientists and philosophers, particularly those under the influence of positivist traditions, and makes them question the very foundation of science, the objectivity, stability and value of scientific knowledge in general.

In this context the relation of the principle of objectivity of scientific knowledge to the principle of its historical development acquires special significance.

Analysing the crisis in natural science at the turn of the 20th century, Lenin showed that the relativity of scientific knowledge was a manifestation of its dialectical development. Yet it is only one aspect of scientific knowledge which must not be torn out of the broad historical context of the development of science; on the contrary, it should be considered in connection with other aspects and features, particularly with relativity’s opposite, viz., the absoluteness of scientific knowledge. Should we assume relativism, an objective and necessary aspect of scientific development that it is, as a foundation of the theory of knowledge and regard it outside and independent of absoluteness, we shall arrive, as was pointed out by Lenin, at absolute relativism which sees in the history of cognition a process of endless change of concepts none of which can give a true reflection of objective reality.

In fact, the recognition of the relativity of knowledge is not equivalent to the denial of its objectivity. One should not, as Lenin pointed out, confuse the question of the objectivity of scientific knowledge with the question of its fullness and identify objective knowledge with exhaustive and absolute knowledge. Absolute and relative truths do not oppose each other as mutually exclusive, incompatible characteristics, they mutually complement each other: “... for dialectical materialism there is no impassable boundary between relative and absolute truth”. [6] Any knowledge contains objective truth to the extent to which it gives an adequate reflection of objective reality, and “to acknowledge objective truth, i.e., truth not dependent upon man and mankind, is, in one way or another, to recognise absolute truth” [7]. From this viewpoint, relative truth is also objective truth and only differs from absolute truth in that it is but a particle, a “grain” of the latter in the sense that it represents the content of absolute truth incompletely, partially. Absolute truth, in turn, is the sum total of relative truths and each stage in the development of science “adds” new grains of knowledge to this sum.

Speaking of the dialectics of the relative and the absolute in cognition, one should bear in mind yet another important feature of their relationship, namely, that it represents continuity in the process of scientific cognition. In the course of its historical development science forms a more and more complete and adequate picture of natural and social reality. The growth of scientific knowledge consists therefore in a steady expansion of the sphere of truth represented by a succession of theories replacing one another.

Summing up his analysis of the dialectics of the relative and the absolute in the process of cognition, Lenin wrote: “Dialectics—as Hegel in his time explained—contains an element of relativism ... but is not reducible to relativism, that is, it recognises the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional.” [8]

The ideas expounded by Lenin over 70 years ago are not less, if not more, topical today. Absolute relativism, reanimated in a number of the latest bourgeois concepts of the philosophy of science, including critical realism and the works of some representatives of the “historical trend”, has now acquired some new aspects. As distinct from the earlier period, when absolute relativism was mainly traceable to gaps in scientific knowledge (this cause is still operative, though to a lesser degree), the present-day relativists more and more frequently involve the cultural-historical determinism of theoretical thinking. Justly emphasising the dependence of scientific knowledge on universal socio-historical factors, representatives of the above-mentioned and other “postpositivist” doctrines seek to prove that theories relating to one and the same sphere of knowledge but developed in different cultural and philosophical contexts are incommensurate with one another. In their opinion, scientific revolutions represent so profound a turn in scientists’ views that there can be no question of any continuity of old and new theories.

Yet the history of science points to the opposite and demonstrates various forms of such continuity. The methods whereby a new theory assimilates and deepens the objective content of its predecessor can be roughly classified under two categories.

In the first category, the continuity of the new and old theories is realised through the transfer of certain elements of the old theory into the structure of the new one. These elements may include not only empirical data, but also certain theoretical concepts. For instance, the general theory of relativity borrows the variation principles, the principle of the equivalence of inert and gravitational masses from the classical gravitation theory. In the second category, which is of a more fundamental and general character, the continuity of the laws formulated in the old and new theories assumes the form of a limit transition, i.e. the laws of the new theory pass into the laws of the old one regarded at their limiting case. Thus, if we assume Planck’s constant to equal zero, the Schrodinger equation, the basic one in quantum mechanics, transforms into Hamilton-Jacobi’s canonical equation of motion.

Scientifically grounded laws and theories have deep roots and exercise lasting influences; otherwise theoretical knowledge would be simply inconceivable. In this connection a question naturally arises: what is the source of the tenacity of a scientific theory in general, why does it preserve its explanatory and forecasting powers over a prolonged historical period?

The mechanisms pointed out by the well-known American philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are psychological, rather than epistemological by nature. Kuhn atributes the stability of a paradigm as a model for the theoretical explanation of facts to the specific psychology of the scientific community which shows a guarded attitude to a new theory and is never too fast to support it, as well as to the unwillingness of some quarters in this community to part with the habitual stereotype of causal explanations and predictions. Such an explanation appears to have certain grounds, though the scientists’ psychological motives need a more careful examination in each particular case. Yet far more important, in our opinion, is the methodological aspect of this problem. From the epistemological viewpoint, the stability of theories derives largely from the fact that each of them participating in causal explanations and predictions rests on definite premises. Unlike the theory itself which is thoroughly elaborated, its premises are found with comparative ease and, as a rule, are hypothetical by nature. Therefore, if the predictions or explanations made on the basis of a given theory prove to be erroneous, the premises are rejected with comparative ease. Newton’s gravitation theory, for instance, was considered to be irrefutable for over two centuries. When it sometimes failed to come up to expectations, it was not the theory itself but its premises that were called to account. Thus the discovery of an error in the calculations of Uranus’ orbit based on the theory of gravitation did no harm to the theory; it was shielded by the premises which performed their function of a lightning rod. As is known, John Adams and Urbain Leverrier traced the error to the influence of the hitherto unknown planet (Neptune) which had not been taken into account by the then existing system of assumptions.

Should a theory happen to lose its ability to predict and explain events, its prerogatives can be subsequently restored if a new set of conditions is found (and corresponding assumptions formulated) under which the theory regains its powers. In many theoretical disciplines scientists prefer to preserve the theory’s right to predict and explain events and put off the question of its incompatibility with certain facts. Hence, theories retain their explanatory powers (if only potential) even when some explanations prove to be patently erroneous.

Such theories are later modified in accordance with new data which appeared at first discordant, and new assumptions are made to support them. The fruitfulness of the “backing hypothesis” method can be exemplified by Pavlov’s theory of conditioned reflexes. The analysis of the structure of this theory shows that it is sufficiently resistant to some contradicting facts. For instance, an animal trained to respond in a definite way to a certain stimulant far from always follows the exact pattern of behaviour required of it. Its response is usually slow or even incorrect. That does not mean, however, that the very first deviation from the forecast made on the basis of the theory of conditioned reflexes should be seized upon as a pretext for refuting this theory. In such cases the usual tactics of a scientist consists in shielding the adopted theory with an auxiliary hypothesis and alleging interference with the required conditions of an experiment rather than in discarding the theory itself.

A supposition can be made, for instance, that the animal’s nervous system fails for some reason or other to pass through the excitation caused by a corresponding stimulant or even exerts upon it a certain suppressing effect. Indeed, numerous experiments carried out by neurophysiologists showed that excitation can really be suppressed in the nervous system owing to feedback via various nervous circuits with their numerous bends and loops. The hypothesis of the suppression of excitation in nervous circuits serves, on the one hand, as an additional assumption backing up the idea of conditioned reflexes, and, on the other, turns out to be an independent theory subject to additional testing (like all assumptions ensuing from the principle of causality). This hypothesis preserves the validity of the conditioned reflex theory, making it a durable and effective instrument of causal explanations and predictions in the physiology of higher nervous activity.

Hence, owing to various assumptions, scientific theories provide a high degree of stability for explanations and predictions based upon them and cover a broad field of various phenomena and processes.

As we see, a transition from one scientific theory to another is a much more complex process than a simple negation of the old theory by a new one; some elements of the old theory are revised or even altogether excluded from the content of a more developed theory, other elements are carried over from the old to the new theory without any change or in the form of a limit transition, ensuring the necessary continuity and comparability of different stages in the development of science.

The third important aspect of the problem of objectivity or, more accurately, of the dialectics of the objective and subjective which is ignored both by the “critical rationalists” and “scientific realists” is the relation of the objective content of our knowledge to the abstractions instrumental |n the development of scientific concepts and theories, i.e. the dialectics of the objective and the subjective in the very content of scientific knowledge. As we have seen, positivism regarded sensations, sensory data as the only reality, i.e. identified them with reality independent of our consciousness and thus discarded altogether the question of the approximateness, incompleteness of human knowledge. As to “critical rationalism”, it defends the thesis of the complete arbitrariness of the abstractions and assumptions needed to construct a scientific theory. Both these schools, undialectical as they are, proved unable to solve the problem of objectivity.

The substantiation of the objectivity of scientific knowledge cannot be limited to the analysis of the relation of the content of this knowledge to the objective world, though it is, undoubtedly, the major part of the task. As is known, cognition is not a mirror image of reality, but, using Lenin’s words, a process of the formation of abstractions, laws, etc. In the process of cognition, particularly scientific cognition, the investigator sets himself an aim, defines the object of investigation, disengages himself from all that is inessential and likely to hamper his reasoning and experimenting, etc. Besides these operations, cognition presupposes the breaking away of thought from reality, the flight of fancy, the image-bearing thinking. It might seem that all this mental activity is bound to reduce to zero any objectivity of knowledge since it represents nothing but the subjective factor in the process of cognition. Moreover, many of the above operations consisting essentially in the creation of abstractions must lead of necessity to the distortion of reality, to obvious errors and miscalculations. The objectivity of knowledge might seem incompatible with the constructive activity of thought, with its active interference in the course of events.

Yet it would be unwarrantable pedantry to disparage scientific knowledge because of its subjective component which does involve the possibility of errors and distortion of reality. In point of fact, scientific knowledge would be simply impossible without this component. Abstractions which are prerequisites for scientific knowledge deserve therefore special attention, the more so as many difficulties connected with the problem of objectivity derive from the incorrect understanding of their character and role.

Coincidence of a notion and its object, theory and reality is a complex, dialectically contradictory process. Between the object and the knowledge of the object lies the sphere of man’s activity, his goal-oriented actions aimed at transforming and cognising the surrounding world. Lenin wrote: “Here there are actually, objectively, three members: 1) nature; 2) human cognition the human brain (as the highest product of this same nature), and 3) the form of reflection of nature in human cognition, and this form consists precisely of concepts, laws, categories, etc.” [9] Pointing out that the main drawback of the theory of knowledge in pre-Marxian materialism consisted in its inability to apply dialectics to the theory of reflection, Lenin specially emphasised in his “Philosophical Notebooks” the need for a dialectical approach to the theory of knowledge, to cognition as a historically developing complex process mediated by the collective material and spiritual activity of mankind and by the existing system of relations between the individual subjects of cognition.

The elaboration of the concepts of reflection was thus connected with the development of much more flexible and profound views on the cognitive activity of man. Cognition is indeed reflection, yet it is the reflection of a special kind which could only be explained after a radical revision of the epistemological concepts of pre-Marxian materialism. The revised concept, far from breaking off with the basic principles of the materialist approach to the process of cognition, was to make materialism even more flexible and consistent. The new, more profound understanding of the process of cognition was to be based on the idea of unity of reflection and activity which implied the dependence of human knowledge on socio-historical conditions. This new concept threw entirely new light on many traditional problems of the theory of knowledge and made it possible to explain the mechanism of the reflection of objective reality.

Despite the broad variety of views on the origin of scientific knowledge in pre-Marxian materialist philosophy, common to all of them was the conviction that the solution was to be achieved through investigating the direct action of objects on passive individual consciousness. The formation and growth of knowledge were only attributed to the operation of those factors which manifested themselves in the influence of objects on the sensuousness of the individual, and no account was taken of all other determinants of the process of cognition—the dependence of the cognitive image on links with other branches of knowledge, on the existing historical substantive generalisations and schematic ties and relationships revealing themselves in man’s practical experience, on the forms and methods of investigations, etc. In point of fact, it was not understood that any object could only become a source of knowledge after being mediated by the practical activity of social man and by the previous history of cognition with its objectifications, schematisations and idealisations.

The new ideas constantly emerging in the course of the development of science are always conditioned, in one way or another, by the cognitive situation in the entire system of scientific knowledge. The progress of science is based primarily on the available knowledge, on the existing collective forms of cognitive activity objectified in the language, in scientific systems, etc. It is the active character of specifically human perceptions, their unity with social practice, the need for a dialectical integration of individual sensory data in a single system of perceptions that was referred to by Lenin when he characterised sensation as “a subjective image of the objective world”. [10]

The social norms and prerequisites for cognitive activity play even a more important role in the formation of an objective epistemological image at the theoretical level of investigation. Theoretical thinking is known to be based on a complex system of idealisations, including a special layer of mental structures, the so-called ideal objects which have no analogues among empirical objects, properties or relationships and which function and develop in accordance with their own laws operative in the field of theoretical knowledge only.

As long as a layman inexperienced in philosophical intricacies remains within the sphere of conventional ideas, his attempts to see through a tangle of events and find a clue to his current problems can hardly induce him to take a conscious stand on either side of the barricade between materialism and idealism. Things begin to clear up when he passes beyond the limits of his experience and finds himself confronted with unusual phenomena and processes or encounters violations of habitual causal relationships. Under such conditions, an individual who is not prone to religious prejudices begins to realise the complete groundlessness of the illusion that his consciousness dictates laws to nature or forms a chain of events by determining the order of causes and consequences at his own will.

It is perhaps after being within a hairbreadth of death in an earthquake or after suffering a heavy shock from a flood as a result of an unexpected torrential rain that an individual keenly realises the objectivity of the surrounding world. A scientist, however, attaches far greater importance, of course, to those “arguments” which are adduced by Nature for or against his ideas and theories. Isn’t, for instance, the refutation of the once popular theory of the existence of water canals on Mars, maintained till quite recently, yet another argument in support of the objectivity of our knowledge? Aren’t the discoveries of quantum mechanics and of the physics of elementary particles which shattered the foundation of classical science convincing proof of the objective nature of scientific cognition? The very unexpectedness, “bizarreness” of the most important discoveries of modern science, as well as the apparent intangibility of many scientific ideas testify to the fact that our knowledge of nature does not shut itself up in its own shell, but reflects with an ever increasing degree of accuracy the real, objective properties of reality. As is known, the graphic representation of the surrounding world is connected with the specific features and conditions of man’s cognitive process. Yet the phenomena under investigation exist independently of human consciousness and therefore need not necessarily assume the graphic, tangible form as understood by man.

The objectivity of the existing connections and relationships in the world is also demonstrated by the fact that man often begins to realise their significance for his life and practical activity too late and, being unaware of the existence of certain links of extensive causal chains in nature and society, proves incapable of foreseeing all the consequences of his interference with natural processes. This aspect of the objectivity problem, for one, gives mankind no little trouble at present on account of the irrational use of natural resources by previous generations, the upsetting of the natural balance of water and energy reserves, and environmental pollution. The very fact that people often find themselves unable even to formulate a problem before it thrusts itself upon them clearly demonstrates the objective nature of causal relations, social and natural laws which do not depend on when and how man becomes aware of their operation.

Scientific knowledge is but a more or less adequate reflection of objective relations between phenomena which is shaped and mediated by the no less objective needs of society. Special importance, in our opinion, attaches to the recognition of the objectivity of links and relations. The existence of objects outside man’s mind is seldom negated even by inveterate agnostics adhering to Hume’s tradition. Nor is it denied by positivism and modern “philosophical science”. What they do not accept is the objectivity of links and relations, particularly causal relations. This necessitates considering in somewhat greater detail the objective character of causal explanations, forecasts and laws in the general context of the problem of objectivity.

The concept of causality represents in the most general form various relations in nature and society between phenomena one of which (called cause) determines or produces the other (called effect). Objective in such relations are not only cause and effect as definite objects, events or phenomena, but also the relations themselves which are independent of consciousness whatever their nature: material, energetic, informative, etc.

It may look strange to the uninitiated that this brief statement could have caused and is still causing sharp debates which involve not only the methodology of scientific cognition, but also extend to the problems of social development and even ideological struggle. Yet universality is characteristic of all philosophical categories if they are truly scientific and represent objective reality. Viewed in terms of “problem-intensity”, they may be likened to an iceberg with a huge submerged portion: the problems they contain in embryo reveal ever new facets in each successive historical period.

There is apparently nothing ambiguous about the word “produce”, particularly when we use it in the context of our everyday experience or in relation to macroscopic processes. In its conventional applications it conveys the ideas of the real direction of a process as a result of which one phenomenon produces another, of the succession of cause and effect in time, of their real similarity and unity of their nature. Yet each of these aspects of a causal relationship turns into a complex and difficult problem when we turn to objects studied by modern science. How can we single out cause and effect from a multitude of other objects and phenomena accompanying the process under investigation, and this in such a way as to express correctly the real relation between them? What is the meaning of the word “to produce” in a scientific context if there is no possibility to trace the entire process from cause to consequence? Is this process continuous or intermittent, necessary or accidental, transitive or intransitive, and so on and so forth? Most of these problems do not even arise in our everyday consciousness, nor are they implicated in the philosophical investigations of the positivist and realist schools.

For positivism, which regards sensations or complexes of sensations as the only reality a scientist is concerned with, causality is a purely psychological problem limited to the formation of associations in the process of observation of a regular sequence of events. Hence, from the positivist viewpoint the problem of causality is devoid of any philosophical meaning and comes within the scope of concrete psychological investigations.

“Critical rationalism” regards causality in terms of the deduction of explanations and predictions from more general knowledge. It therefore does not recognise the problem of the correctness, accuracy of these causal explanations and predictions of the effect of one or another cause, since effect is a logical sequence of cause, provided there is a more general law. The problem of the relationship between discontinuity and continuity is discarded by this school in a similar manner: the causal relationship being the result of a logical inference must be continuous and transitive by virtue of its definition. Popper, for one, rejects also the problem of the relation of causality to chance and necessity, since the very concept of causality implies necessity as its logical component.

By contrast, “scientific realism” recognises the objective existence of causal relations supposing them to be directly mirrored in scientific knowledge. The philosopher’s task is thus restricted to the generalisation of the available knowledge of the physical, biological, chemical forms of causal relations and to the classification of these numerous forms, whereas the establishment and investigation of their specificity is left to natural scientists themselves. The difference between the philosophical and natural scientific knowledge of causality thus lies in the degree of its generalisation only. Paradoxical though it may seem, both “scientific realism” and positivism discard the same philosophical problems. This coincidence, as we have shown earlier, springs from the identification of knowledge and reality which is characteristic of both positivism and “scientific realism” despite the latter’s obviously materialistic platform. The only difference between them consists, perhaps, in that positivism deduces reality directly from knowledge, whereas “realism” deduces knowledge from objective reality.

Both philosophical trends, as we see, arrive at the same conclusion, though their paths are different: positivism “eliminates” materialism as a principle of scientific investigation, whereas realism “eliminates” dialectics. One lays the stress on the subjective, the other denies its role in the process of scientific cognition. Here we can see once again that materialism and dialectics are inseparable and that one cannot exist without the other.

To be sure, the physicists or biologists are only interested in the objective content of a process and seek to establish causes and effects, pursuing their immediate practical aims. As to the philosophers, they have a different problem to solve: they should separate the objective content of knowledge from those subjective elements which are inevitably introduced by the scientists in causal explanations and predictions. Assuming the physicist’s or biologist’s attitude, the philosopher not only abandons his field, but attempts to pass for a philosophical truth something which has absolutely no right to claim this title. Willy-nilly, this stand is tantamount to the distortion of reality in a philosophical sense.

Of course, in dealing with causality the philosopher should not close his eyes to the objective content of the knowledge gained within the framework of special sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology, otherwise he would open the door for idealism and subjectivism in science. Yet his real task which has already been considered earlier (see section 3 of this Chapter) consists in specifying the subjective aspects of causal explanations and predictions. In the context of the basic question of philosophy, i.e. the relationship of matter and consciousness, the mind and nature, the philosopher ought to disclose all subjective prerequisites for scientific investigation, since this task lies outside the scope of the problems tackled by the scientists themselves. From the philosophico-theoretical viewpoint, the problem of objectivity consists in revealing the subjective elements of causal explanations and predictions in special scientific investigations and in disclosing after that the interdependence of the objective and the subjective, their dialectics in the process of cognition.

Hence, the development of knowledge is characterised by a trend towards comprehending the real object of cognition as a unity of all its aspects and toward integrating all the cognised fragments of reality (different systems of relations) in a single objective system revealing its different aspects before the cognising subject. The realisation of this trend calls for the investigation of the forms of interaction of each object with other objects (the latter being regarded in this case as the conditions of the former), as well as with the cognising subject himself. The objectivity of knowledge is therefore made contingent on the understanding of the role of the subject in the process of cognition, particularly the role of measuring operations, the instruments used by the investigator, his system of reference and methods of coding the attained knowledge.

In his everyday work a physicist, a chemist or a biologist usually encounters this problem in its philosophico-methodological aspect while seeking for concrete, specific means to single out the objective content of causal relations in reality itself, in actual processes taking place under natural conditions. It is the more important as the real problems and difficulties facing science in the field of methodology often stem not only from the erroneous understanding of causality, but also from the disregard or underestimation of the abstractions and assumptions forming the framework of the concept of causal relations. From the methodological viewpoint, i.e. from the viewpoint of the effective solution of modern scientific problems pertaining to the principle of causality, it is important to take account not only of the objective content of the concept of causality, but also of its subjective aspect or, more specifically, of all the intricacies in the causal relationship represented by the dialectics of the objective and the subjective.

Indeed, to establish a causal relationship between events A and B and to explain event B by pointing out its cause A or to predict possible consequences B1, B2, etc. of known cause A one must not only indicate the corresponding signs of causality, but also disengage himself from all other events except A and B in the given space-time continuum. “In order to understand ... details,” wrote Engels, “we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc.” [11] An abstraction of this kind resorted to in the establishment of a causal relationship is in fact a routine mental operation often performed in everyday life. For instance, watching the collision of billiard balls we have no difficulty in identifying the impact of one ball as the cause of the movement of another. In doing so, we discard mentally such factors as the friction of the balls against the surface of the table, the convection airflows, and others, since we know from experience that they cannot have any essential influence on the position of massive billiard balls.

Similarly, we say with certainty that on a summer day a stone is heated with sunbeams, but not with the light of distant stars, though we know that their light also reaches the earth’s surface. Yet its effect is negligible as compared with the radiant energy of the Sun, therefore we simply disregard it in our explanation.

In dealing with causal relationships such abstractions are used so often that they become habitual and seem quite natural. The ease with which they are created and their practical value produce an illusion that, being quite justifiable in one or several cases, they must be quite relevant in all other similar situations. It is only after we are confronted with a complex situation that we begin to realise the full extent of the difficulties that have to be overcome if we want to establish the cause or effect of a given event in the tangle of a multitude of other objects and phenomena.

What is the cause, for instance, of the appearance of deserts in the once flourishing regions of Central Asia? No doubt the cause does exist, though it is evidently represented by a complex system of different factors. To answer this question, we must study a tremendous amount of natural-history material and use a great many different experimental means and methods. We must carry out, for one, a geomorphological analysis of water reservoirs, register the climatic changes in the region in interest, study the structure of the topsoil, and so on and so forth. It is only after we complete such research that we shall be able to discard inessential factors and construct a more or less adequate explanation. Why should the task be so complex in this particular case? Is it because the investigator is required to exercise special care in order to reveal the signs of a causal relationship? Rather on the contrary, such signs are too numerous and the problem consists in selecting’ those of them (after the assessment of their comparative significance) which are characteristic of the given concrete situation.

The abstractions used in identifying cause and effect play an essential role in the explanation and prediction of various phenomena. Should such abstractions prove impossible for some experimental or theoretical reasons, no correct explanation or prediction of events on the basis of causal dependence can be provided. In other words, the establishment of a cause-effect relation is conditional on the accomplishment of all necessary abstractions.

The abstractions connected with the concept of causality will only be valid if the investigator observes certain general rules (rules of abstraction) of which we shall indicate at least three.

First, invariable conditions should always be fenced off, since cause and effect should be variable factors by definition (their emergence or disappearance may be regarded as a special case).

Second, if all or many conditions are variable in one or another respect (which is quite probable), the changes regarded as signs of a causal relationship must be different by their quality from all other changes in the given space-time continuum.

Third, the influence of attending factors must be far less pronounced than the influence of the cause on the effect, the difference in their intensity being such that the attending factors could be disregarded without any appreciable effect on the results of the investigation.

The above rules of abstraction impose certain limitations on the objective (boundary) conditions of the investigation of relationships in interest and, if observed, warrant the qualification of such relationships as “causal”. The observance of these rules takes the form of various assumptions which relate to the conditions of cognition and are stated in relevant scientific texts.

The strict observance of these rules when identifying cause-effect relations guarantees the success of any causal explanation or prediction. A change of B that follows a change of A cannot yet be regarded as proof of the causal dependence of B on A unless the above rules are observed.

To be sure, the fulfilment of abstraction rules is often made impossible by objective reality itself. In many cases the scientists would probably prefer experiments to the conditions provided by nature for investigation. What is an advantage in one cognitive situation may turn into an obstacle in others. Noting this specific feature of the process of cognition, the Soviet scholar, V. A. Ambartsumyan, writes: “A physicist confronted with an unknown phenomenon usually repeats his experiment to establish the dependence of the phenomena in interest on those conditions under which the experiment is staged. He has a possibility .not only of studying these conditions in every detail, but also of changing them. Things are quite different in astrophysics. Having chanced to observe an unusual phenomenon only once, we .can neither control the external conditions under which it took place, nor repeat it at will. Sometimes we do not even have any idea of the condition and circumstances attending the phenomenon we have observed.” [12]

In most other fields scientists are usually capable of creating artificial conditions which meet the abstraction rules. The aim of an experiment in this case is to show that a change of one object or phenomenon (which does not affect the natural processes under the artificial conditions of the experiment) causes a corresponding change (or emergence) of the other object with other conditions being invariable. It is precisely the preservation of the constancy of all other conditions that ensures the observance of the abstraction rules. If the experimental check of a causal dependence is impossible for some reason or other, the investigator can meet the requirements of the abstraction rules by resorting, for instance, to appropriate mathematical means.

Suppose, we want to prove a causal relation between the uniform expansion of a rubber ball during an increase of its internal pressure and the behaviour of a molecule in a closed vessel. A uniform expansion of the spherical walls testifies to the equality of gas pressure on the vessel walls. Now, how shall we account for this equality if it is known that gas consists of individual molecules moving chaotically within the given volume? In our explanation of the uniform expansion of the vessel we in fact abstract ourselves from the details of the trajectory of an individual molecule and from the results of the molecule collisions. Do we have the right to make such an assumption? It turns out we do. When we deal with a large number of molecules, we may take it for granted that each molecule stays in any point of the given volume during equal periods of time, since there are equal probabilities that any molecule can get to any concrete region irrespective of its location. As a result of a great number of chaotic collisions not a single molecule can stay next to another one. Consequently, each molecule acquires a high degree of independence in its movements relative to other molecules. Since accidental collisions tend towards complete compensation, conditions are realised for the application of the concept of causality to the given relationship in full compliance with abstraction rules.

Now, what happens when these rules are not observed? Should the researcher fail to take them very seriously, the results of his investigation are bound to be distorted and he may not even be aware of it. Suppose, we want to apply Hook’s law to the relationship between the strain in a steel bar and the pressure applied to it, disregarding the fact that this causal relationship obtains within definite pressure limits only, which are different for different metals. It stands to reason that the explanation itself and the predictions of a concrete strain as a function of the corresponding pressure value will prove erroneous.

A similar problem arises in defining the wing configuration in an airplane design. As long as the airplane speed was not high, the designer was justified in regarding air as incompressible liquid. Of, course, this assumption was but a crude approximation to real processes, but it could be tolerated as the resulting error was practically negligible. However, when it became necessary to define probable airplane characteristics at high speeds, the hitherto justifiable assumption lost its validity. Account had also to be taken of many other forces arising due to friction, air vortices, vibration, etc. The task of accurate prediction and calculation became much more complex. Consequently, the rules of abstraction (the accuracy of assumptions given in quantitative terms) have acquired special importance and failure to observe them is likely to result in serious errors.

The assumptions which relate to the conditions of investigation and are used in the analysis of any causal relationship constitute a subjective element in the concept of causality. The admission of this fact calls for a very thorough philosophical analysis of the dialectics of the objective and the subjective in causal explanations and predictions. It is important to understand, first, that the share of subjectivity in such explanations and predictions is so negligible that it cannot jeopardise their objectivity. Second, the introduction of certain subjectivity in such cases is quite justifiable, since the use of abstractions in scientific explanations and predictions is necessitated in each particular case by quite definite objective conditions. It means that the concept of causality calls for at least a twofold substantiation: first, it is necessary to prove the validity of the very idea of causal relationship which underlies its definition; second, it is necessary to prove the soundness of the abstractions and approximations resorted to. Significantly, from the methodological viewpoint, this latter set of arguments is not less important than the identification of the causal dependence itself and should be presented independently of the former set of arguments.

Here the study of causal relationships reveals one of the most curious manifestations of the dialectics of the subjective and the objective. On the one hand, the singling out of the signs of a causal relationship is a subjective act aimed at investigating and analysing the objective world. Any denial of the subjective character, goal-orientation and selectivity of the scientific investigation into the cause-effect relationship would be untenable. On the other hand, this subjective act is by no means arbitrary, it is prompted by objective conditions. As regards its motives, they are rooted, in the final analysis, in the practical activity of man.

The active role of the subject in the processes of investigation (the subjective aspect) which manifests itself in experiments, hypotheses, suppositions, assumptions, use of various theoretical and mathematical means is an indispensable condition of scientific cognition. The tremendous successes achieved by science in the cognition of the world would have been impossible without man’s selective approach to reality, without his conscious use of appropriate means and methods in the process of cognition. However inaccurate the approximations, it should never be forgotten that the final result of the investigator’s activity is the creation of a scientific picture of the world which helps man to reflect and transform reality through his practical activity. All this is fully applicable to the investigation of objective causal relations.

At the same time one should bear in mind that the singling out of a causal dependence from the entire system of complex objective relations and the disregard of all other conditions cannot but distort the integral picture of the world, since there are no absolutely isolated systems implicitly postulated by the concept of causality. Noting the complex, dialectical character of the cognition of the universal connection of phenomena, Lenin wrote: “The human conception of cause and effect always somewhat simplifies the objective connection of the phenomena of nature, reflecting it only approximately, artificially isolating one or another aspect of a single world process.” [13]

Being an abstraction, every concept, causality including, tends to distort reality. The attitude to this indisputable fact is different on the part of pessimists and optimists in science. The former say that our knowledge is an endless chain of errors and delusions, whereas the latter (and we include ourselves in their number) do not view the situation as tragic, though they do recognise it to be contradictory, sometimes even dramatic.

Indeed, there is no ground for mistrusting science only because its results are not ideal. The history of science provides numerous examples when such difficulties were successfully overcome. In view of the extreme epistemological complexity of the concept of causality we should reconcile ourselves to the inevitable inaccuracies in any causal explanation and prediction. The scientist’s task is to reduce such inaccuracies to a minimum and take full advantage of the effective means (both technical and conceptual) now available to him in order to “neutralise” his errors. It should be noted in this connection that inaccuracies can sometimes be disregarded altogether without any detriment to the validity of causal explanations. For instance, in everyday life we readily accept the explanation that water freezes as a result of the ambient temperature decrease to –4°C, though more accurate measurements made under different conditions will undoubtedly reveal a certain scatter in thermometer readings even if measurements are made in one and the same place but at different times, or at one and the same time but with different water samples. Why do we tolerate such an inaccuracy? Only because all other factors we close our eyes to are not essential in the given situation. We may disregard, for instance, the influence of admixtures in water and the probable variation of atmospheric pressure which is also known to affect liquid freezing processes.

In the example under consideration we only single out what we are interested in at the moment, namely, only two most essential events and neglect all other factors and accompanying conditions. If the quantity of admixtures in water remains within normal limits and the ambient pressure is not very much different from normal, the error in the explanation of water freezing by a decrease of ambient temperature to –4°C will not be essential. Generally speaking, the scientist has every right to change the conditions of his investigation in accordance with the situation and use to this end any conceptual or mathematical means at his disposal, provided, of course, that he strictly observes the rules of abstraction, avoids any arbitrariness in his causal explanations and predictions and takes care not to distort living reality.

The objectivity of the principle of causality, however, consists not only in that it reflects certain aspects of reality and that the selection of certain events as causes and effects is prompted by the objective conditions of cognition. The very motives of this selection are always rooted in the material, practical activity of people and, in the end, in the entire system of social production. Moreover, it is none other than this practical activity that passes the final judgement on the objectivity of causal relations.

This idea has been very clearly expressed by Engels. “The first thing that strikes us in considering matter in motion,” he wrote, “is the interconnection of the individual motions of separate bodies, their being determined by one another. But not only do we find that a particular motion is followed by another, we find also that we can evoke a particular motion by setting up the conditions in which it takes place in nature... In this way, by the activity of human beings, the idea of causality becomes established, the idea that one motion is the cause of another.” [14] It is precisely the activity of human beings, their social practice, that frees our knowledge from subjectivity, gives our abstractions flesh and blood and integrates them into its great concreteness. It is only through practice, by including the cognised link of a causal relationship, as we understand it, into the objective, universal system of relations that we test the truth of our knowledge. Should it fit into the system without disturbing the course of natural processes, we shall have every right to regard our mental operations and abstractions, even the most daring ones, as completely justifiable.


[1]  See V. I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”, op. cit., pp. 260–61. [—> main text]

[2]  V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic”, op. cit., p. 182. [—> main text]

[3]  Max Born, Physics in My Generation, Pergamon Press, London, 1956, p. 163. [—> main text]

[4]  Yu. B. Rumer, A. I. Fet, Theory of Unitary Symmetry, Moscow, Nauka Publishers, 1970, p. 8 (in Russian), p. 424. [—> main text]

[5]  Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961, pp. 219, 208. [—> main text]

[6]  V. I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empiric-Criticism”, op. cit., p. 136. [—> main text]

[7] Ibid., p. 133. [—> main text]

[8] Ibid., p. 137. [—> main text]

[9]  V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic”, op. cit., p. 182. [—> main text]

[10]  V. I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empiric-Criticism”, op. cit., p. 119. [—> main text]

[11]  F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, op. cit., p. 30. [—> main text]

[12]  V. A. Ambartsumyan, Philosophical Questions of the Science of the Universe, Yerevan, 1973, p. 116 (in Russian). [—> main text]

[13]  V. I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empiric-Criticism”, op. cit., p. 156. [—> main text]

[14]  Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 230. [—> main text]

Contents of
Alternatives to


SOURCE: Naletov, Igor [Naletov, I. Z. (Igor´ Zinov´evich)]; translated from the Russian by Vladimir Stankevich. Alternatives to Positivism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984. 470 pp.

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

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

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