Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Matter as the Substance of Everything That Exists

The general concept of matter. The first thing that strikes the imagination when a person observes the world around him is the amazing variety of objects, processes, qualities and relationships. We are surrounded by forests, mountains, rivers, seas. We observe stars and planets, we admire the beauties of the Aurora Borealis, the flight of comets. There is no end to the diversity of this world, and to save themselves from drowning in this ocean of diversity people have from time immemorial sought something uniform.

In observing the phenomena of growth and decay, integration and disintegration, the ancient thinkers noticed that certain properties and states survived all transformations. They called this constantly surviving basis of things the primordium. This was the first attempt to achieve philosophical monism. Some philosophers believed that all things consisted of liquid matter (water), others thought it was fire, still others, water, fire, earth and air. This natural view of the origin of the diversity of the world was the starting-point for the scientific explanation of many phenomena of nature and society. The idea of the atomic structure of matter arose in 500 B.C.

At the end of the 19th century the atomistic conception of the structure of matter surprised scientists by reaching beyond the boundaries of its mechanistic interpretation. The atom turned out to be divisible and made up of electrically charged particles. In the atom scientists discovered a whole world of nuclei, electrons, and electromagnetic fields. This marked a huge step forward in the study of matter. Physicists concluded that "matter, of which we and all things around us are made, is not solid and indestructible, but unstable and explosive. Quite literally, we are sitting on a powder keg. To be sure, this keg has rather strong walls, and we required a few thousand years to drill a hole in it. But today we have done it, and we may at any moment blow ourselves sky-high."[1]

The discovery of the electron was followed by other discoveries, one of the most crucial being the idea of the electrical nature of matter. The age of electricity had dawned. Maxwell's theory of electro-magnetism developed the conception of the physical field.

While applied science continued its triumphant march, philosophy and natural science sought further clues to the structure of matter.

Taken together, these new discoveries were dialectical in character. The revolution in natural science called for a radical review of former theories and scientific facts, particularly the connection between matter, motion, space and time. The scientific picture of the world that gradually came into focus showed that it was change, transition, transformation and development that required explanation. But scientific thinking was still in bondage to mechanistic tradition. Scientists still tended to think that the particles of the atom, if only their motion could be observed in detail, must obey the same laws of mechanics as the planets, whose position could be predicted for thousands of years ahead. But as research into the structure of the atom advanced, it became increasing ly clear that the behaviour of electrons did not obey the classical laws of mechanics.

The new forms of reality were described in mathematical formulae. The age of mechanical models was over. However, thinking possesses a certain inertia: new facts were squeezed into the framework of old concepts. For two centuries Newton's classical mechanics had been considered a perfect picture of the universe. Its limitations, however, were revealed by Einstein's relativity theory and this launched an agonising process of breaking up the old, habitual notions. A good many eminent physicists who had only a mechanistic view of the world, which they identified with materialism in general, were influenced to some degree by idealism. Some physicists and philosophers believed that only sensuously palpable phenomena, things that could be seen, touched, and smelled were material. But microphenomena are beyond the range of direct perception. In this strange world matter appeared in a new light, without colour, smell, solidity, without any of the properties with which people had come to associate the concept of the material. On the basis of the new data of science, new concepts were evolved that contradicted the "obvious" but corresponded to the latest experimental results and scientific thinking. On the other hand, the impossibility of perceiving microphenomena directly suggested that these phenomena were non-material. Matter came to be regarded either as an aggregate of electrons or as a form of energy, or even as any stable set of sensations. Some scientists and philosophers found it difficult to understand that out there in the infinite depths of this world that was diminishing into invisibility there could be any vehicle or measure of materiality.

In the old days, mass had been considered the measure of the quantity of matter. The discovery of the inconstancy of mass, its variability depending on the velocity of bodies, was taken to mean that matter had disappeared and materialism was bankrupt. Forgetting the earthy roots of all mathematical constructions, some scientists began to claim that these constructions were the result of pure thought. "Matter has disappeared and there is nothing left but equations," they declared.

Lenin described the situation in physics as a methodological crisis and called the scientists who had taken up the positions of idealism "physical" idealists.

Philosophers and natural scientists in some countries today tend to identify the concept of matter with that of substance. In this way, while appearing to criticise vulgar materialism, they actually criticise dialectical materialism. Some of them believe, for example, that atoms may be deprived of the status of physical reality on the grounds that no one has ever seen an atom and what cannot be perceived does not exist.

It should not be assumed that such scientists deny the existence of the world. They do not, of course, doubt its empirical reality. The expressions "matter has disappeared" and "matter may be reduced to electricity" are merely philosophically inept expressions of the truth that new forms and types of motion of matter have been discovered.

Matter is everything that surrounds us, that exists outside our consciousness, that does not depend on our consciousness, and that is or may be reflected directly or indirectly in consciousness. All the sciences study certain properties and relations of specific forms of matter, but not matter in its most general sense. The philosophical understanding of matter retains its significance whatever the discoveries of natural science. The concept of matter does not epistemologically mean anything except objective reality existing independently of human consciousness. Moreover, matter is the only existing objective reality: the cause, foundation, content and substance of all the diversity of the world.

It is the substratum, that is to say, the vehicle, the bearer of all properties and relationships of everything that exists. In all the visible changes that occur in things, in all processes, in their properties and relationships there must be some underlying vehicle of these transformations and changes. That which passes into something else and assumes a different form remains unchanged and this underlying, most general vehicle, that is, the substance, of all that exists, is matter. Every new scientific discovery—of elementary particles, fields, their transmutations, and so on—means another step forward in concretising the concept of matter.

Matter manifests itself in innumerable properties. The most important are objective existence, structure, indestructibility, motion, space, time, reflection and information. These are the attributes of matter, that is to say, its universal, intransient properties without which it could not exist.

According to Lenin's definition, "matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them."[2] This definition of matter is opposed to both objective and to subjective idealism, which believes that all the objects around us are nothing but aggregate states of consciousness, "sets of sensations".

The oversimplified definition of matter as substance made it impossible to apply the category of matter in explaining the life of society. But the dialectical interpretation of matter embraces not only the natural forms of its existence but also the social forms, human society being the highest form of the motion of intellectualised matter.

One quite often hears people say "all things consist of matter". They do not consist of matter. They are the specific, concrete forms of its manifestation. Matter as such is an abstraction. Looking for a uniform matter as the principle of everything is like wanting to eat not cherries but fruit in general. But fruit is also an abstraction. Matter cannot be contrasted to separate things as something immutable to something mutable. Matter in general cannot be seen, touched or tasted. What people see, touch or taste is only a certain form of matter. Matter is not something that exists side by side with other things, inside them or at their basis. All existing formations are matter in its various forms, kinds, properties and relations. There is no such thing as "unspecific" matter. Matter is not simply the real possibility of all material forms, it is their actual existence. The only property that is relatively separate from matter is consciousness as an ideal and not material phenomenon.

The material unity of the world. Any to some extent consistent philosophical theory can infer the unity of the world either from matter or from the spiritual principle. Consequently, the principle of monism is also consistent with idealism. In the first case we are dealing with materialist monism and in the second, with idealist. Fichte, for example, insisted that one of the two must be got rid off: [sic] spirit or nature. From this standpoint the combining of the two is totally impossible and their "apparent" unity is, he alleged, partly hypocrisy, partly a lie, and partly subjective inconsistency.

Some philosophical theories have maintained positions of dualism—acknowledging two parallel but independent worlds, the world of the spirit and the world of matter.

Some philosophers see the unity of objects and processes in their reality, that is, in the fact that they exist. This is indeed the general principle that unites everything in the world. But can the very fact of existence be regarded as a basis for the unity of the world? This depends on how reality itself is interpreted, what is meant by reality: existence may be material or spiritual, imaginary. The theologians, for example, believe that God is real, that he exists but does not possess objective reality. He is unimaginable. Our feelings, thoughts, aspirations and aims are also real—they exist. Yet this is not objective but subjective existence. If existence is the basis of the unity of the world, then it is so only if we are talking about not subjective hut objective existence.

The actual unity of the world lies in its materiality. There can be nothing in the world that does not fit into the concept of matter and its multiform properties and relations. The principle of the material unity of the world signifies not an empirical similarity or identity of concrete material systems, elements and laws, but the universality of matter as sub stance, as the carrier of multiform properties and relations. There is no mountain supposedly towering above the world that science can climb and from its peak see the world as a whole. It is against logic to simply transfer the principles of the known part of the world to the world as a whole. "Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point where our sphere of observation ends."[3] At the same time the world is one and indivisible and there is not and cannot be anything supernatural in that sphere of being that is so far beyond our knowledge. The part of the world that we see is interconnected and in a state of continuous interaction with other parts of the world. The known part of the universe is, at least to some extent, related to the universe as a whole; since it is part of this whole, it is not something alien to it.

The unity of the world is expressed in the classification of the sciences, which records the connections between them that have objective content. The infinite universe, both in great things and in small, in the material and the spiritual spheres consistently obeys universal laws that connect every thing in the world and make it a single whole.

The principle of materialist monism also applies to society. Social being determines social consciousness. Materialist monism rejects views that single out consciousness and reason as a special substance contrasted to nature and society. Consciousness is, in fact, cognition of reality and a part of that reality. There is no gulf between the laws that govern the motion of the world, and human consciousness. Consciousness belongs not to any transcendental world but to the material world. It is not a supernatural unicum but a natural attribute of highly organised matter.

Matter is the cause and basis of all the world's diversity. It holds all the secrets of existence and all the ways of knowing them. The category of matter is reality rich in colours and forms. Its cognition begins when we state that an object exists without yet knowing its attributes.

Acknowledgement of matter as the substance of everything that exists is a crucial methodological principle. To the extent that they have any objective content all fields of knowledge and culture rest entirely on the assumptions of the materialist world-view, although by no means all scientists and artists are aware of this indisputable fact. Science is materialist to the core. Anything in it that is not materialist is not scientific either. All creative activity is based on the one axiomatic proposition concerning the reality of the object of study, the reality of the world. No one can think creatively without recognising this proposition. Consistent application of the principle of materialism presupposes that one is able in any inquiry to separate the objective from the subjective, actual processes from their interpretations, the target of research from the means and forms of its cognition.

The structure and indestructibility of matter. Matter has a heterogeneous, "granular", discontinuous structure. It consists of bits that vary in size and quality: elementary particles, atoms, molecules, macromolecules, stars and their systems, galaxies, and so on.

The "discontinuous" forms of matter are indissolubly connected with the "continuous" forms. The latter are different types of fields—gravitation, electromagnetic and nuclear. Some physicists want to retain the concept of ether but at a new level of comprehension, in the form of an all-pervasive vibrating cosmic medium possessing no mass. Physical fields connect the particles of matter, allow them to interact and thus exist. So without the field of gravitation nothing would connect the stars in the galaxies or substance itself in stars. There would be no solar system, no sun, no planets. All bodies in general would cease to exist. Without electrical and magnetic fields nothing would connect atoms into molecules and electrons and nuclei into atoms.

This universal connection and interaction forms an attributive definition of substance and presupposes the mutual reflection and circulation of information in the universe. The concept of information has gradually expanded to embrace not only human communication but also the communication between living organisms and the various systems in each organism, the mechanisms of heredity, and finally, the physical objects, the entire surrounding world. The phenomenon of information may today be regarded as an all-embracing attribute of matter in motion, as the definition of all the interactions in the world.

The orderliness of matter has its levels, each of which is characterised by a special system of laws and by its own vehicle. This is the submicro-elementary level—the hypothetical form of existence of the matter of fields from which elementary particles are born (micro-elementary level); the next stage is the nucleus (nuclear level), from nuclei and electrons there come atoms (atomic level), and from them molecules (molecular level), from molecules there are aggregates—gaseous, liquid, and solid bodies (macroscopic level). The bodies thus formed make up the stars and their satellites, the planets and their satellites, the stellar systems and the metagalaxies that embrace them, and so on to infinity (cosmic level).

Besides the substance condensed in the form of celestial bodies, there is also diffused matter in the universe. This exists in the form of detached atoms and molecules and also gigantic clouds of gas and dust of varying density. All this taken together with irradiation constitutes the boundless universal ocean of rarefied substance in which the celestial bodies appear to float. The cosmic bodies and systems have not existed since time began in their present form. They take shape as a result of condensation of nebulae that formerly occupied vast spaces. Consequently, cosmic bodies arise from a material environment as a result of the intrinsic laws of the motion of matter itself.

After the material formations had risen from the atomic level to the higher, molecular level, there followed a process of complication of chemical substances that lasted for billions of years. The gradual complication of the molecules of carbon compounds led to the formation of organic compounds (organic level). Little by little increasingly complex organic compounds were formed. And finally came life (biological level). Life was the necessary, law-governed outcome of the development of all chemical and geological processes on the Earth's crust. The evolution of life proceeded from primitive, pre-cellular forms of protein existence to cellular organisation, to the formation first of the unicellular, and then multicellular organism with increasingly complex structures — the invertebrates, the vertebrates, the mammals, and the primates. The primates were the final stage in the evolution of organic nature and the starting-point for the origin of man. We thus find ourselves standing on the last rung of the majestic ladder of the progressive development of matter (social level). It is also conceivable that there may be gigantic cosmic civilisations created by rational beings (metasocial level) beyond the range of terrestrial civilisation.

It may be assumed that in the present age Earth is the only habitation of conscious life in the Galaxy and perhaps in much larger space-time scales of the universe. Do life and mind exist in outer space? If so, what attribute of what material organisation can they be? If we assume that the universe is infinite, it is scarcely conceivable that life is a pure accident, the possession only of overfavoured Earth. At any rate we have no grounds to feel oppressed by a sense of loneliness in the infinite vastness of the universe.

The concept of structure is applicable not only to the various levels of matter, but to matter as a whole. The stability of the basic structural forms of matter is predicated on the existence of an integral structural organisation of matter, which stems from the close interconnection of all the levels of structural organisation known to us today.

In this sense we can say that every element of matter bears the imprint of the universal whole. The various kinds of particles are not only "elements" of the discontinuous structure of matter, but also "stages", "key points" in its development.

The dialectical conception of matter contests any absolutising of the specific, concrete forms and properties of matter; it orients science on a search for new, as yet unknown forms and properties of the real world. Science, if it is objective, proceeds along this path: discovery of the laws of the structure of the atom, of elementary particles, including electrically neutral particles, investigation of various nuclear reactions. Quite recently science penetrated the structure of elementary particles and came to grips with research into the physical vacuum—a special kind of field that may be regarded as a reservoir, from which elementary particles are born and into which they are transformed. Lenin's philosophical prediction that the electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, that nature is infinite, is coming true.

The impossibility of reducing one structural level of matter to another. Any object or process in the world arises only from other objects and cannot disappear without giving rise to some other object. This is a fundamental proposition of all forms of materialism. What distinguishes the dialectical conception of matter is its denial of the possibility of reducing matter to one or a few simple forms, as mechanistic materialism does. Physics cannot be reduced to mechanics, chemistry to physics, and biology cannot be reduced to an aggregate of mechanical, physical and chemical phenomena. Nor can society be reduced to all the other forms of organisation of matter. Thus biological organisation has a special meaning which cannot be explained in the framework of the physical picture of the world. In the realm of the animate we are concerned with such specific phenomena as adaptation, metabolism, growth and procreation, the struggle for existence, mutation and heredity. There is none of this in non-organic nature. In the living organism even the purely physical and chemical processes are subordinated to certain biological tasks. We cannot explain by purely physical or chemical laws why the ape can sacrifice its life to save its young, or why a bird will sit for weeks to hatch out its eggs.

While stressing the need to take into consideration the specifics of each structural level of matter, we must at the same time remember certain general laws inherent in all levels and also the connection and interaction between the various levels. This connection shows itself mainly in the fact that simple forms of organisation always go hand in hand with complex forms. The higher level includes the lower as one of its genetic preconditions and at the same time as one of its own elements. The physics of elementary particles has not only "conquered" chemistry. It has begun to tackle living substance—biology. Humanity today stands on the threshold of completely new, extraordinary discoveries which will hand us the master microkeys to processes occurring in animate matter, including man. Biologists have proved that heredity is conditioned by the nucleus of the cell, the chromosomes, which transmit hereditary characteristics. It turns out that the answer to one of the most intimate questions of biology depends to a great extent on chemistry, and that life is the chemistry not only of protein bodies but also of chemical components, particularly the nucleic acids.

Scientific development has shown that progress in physiology and biology depends to a large extent on progress in the physics and chemistry of organisms, including the physico-chemical investigation of nervous activity.

If we try to reduce the more complex forms of motion to the simple forms we may backtrack into mechanism. Ignoring the unity and connection of the various forms of the motion of matter may lead to attempts to regard motion in isolation from its vehicle, for example, heredity without its material substratum. It is precisely on the molecular level that our ideas of the subtle mechanisms of heredity have materialised.

However, the higher forms of organisation are not included in the lower forms. Life is a form of organisation inherent in protein bodies. There is no life in non-organic bodies. The chemical form of organisation is inherent in chemical elements and their compounds, but it does not exist in such material objects as photons, electrons, and other similar particles.

Since the complex forms of the organisation of matter include the lower forms as subordinate elements, we must take this into consideration and in studying animals and plants, for example, apply not only the leading biological methods but also physico-chemical methods in a secondary capacity.

At the same time the study of biological phenomena enriches chemistry and physics. Knowledge of the lower levels as components of the higher levels helps us to get a deeper insight into the highest level of organisation of matter. Thus, chemistry in studying structures at the molecular level has achieved considerable successes thanks to the appearance of quantum mechanics, which has revealed certain peculiarities in the structure of the atomic level. This is understandable because chemical reactions at the molecular level are connected with intra-atomic processes.

The uncreatability and indestructibility of matter. One of the attributes of matter is its indestructibility, which is displayed in a set of specific laws of the conservation of matter in the process of its transformation. In studying the foundation of matter modern physics has demonstrated the universal transformability of elementary particles. In the continuous process of interchangeability matter is conserved as substance, that is to say, as the base of all change. The cessation of mechanical motion owing to friction leads to an accumulation of internal energy in the body in question and intensification of the heat motion of its molecules. Heat motion in its turn may become chemical or electromagnetic motion. In the microcosm the particles of matter are transformed into radiation. The law of the conservation and transformation of energy states that no matter what processes of transformation occur in the world, the general quantity of mass and energy remains unchanged. Any material object can exist only in connection with others and through them it is connected with the rest of the world. The destruction of a concrete thing means only that it has turned into something else. The birth of a concrete thing means that it has arisen from something else. For nature the "destruction of the particular" is the performance of the same necessity in the global play of life forces as its emergence. The world as a whole continues to exist only thanks to the continuous and partial destruction of itself. That matter is conserved becomes apparent only in the process of mutation of its forms.

The principle of the indestructibility and uncreatability of matter is of great importance in forming a world-view and a methodology. Guided by this principle science has discovered the laws of the conservation of mass, energy, charge, parity and other fundamental laws that have enabled us to reach a deeper and fuller understanding of the processes at work in various fields of nature. The crucial laws of scientific cognition also aim us against idealist views, such as creationism. Some scientists maintain, for instance, that atoms are from time to time "created" out of nothing, that is to say, at a certain moment certain atoms comprising matter allegedly do not exist but the next moment they exist, having appeared out of nothing.

The indestructibility of matter cannot be understood only in terms of quantity. The laws of conservation also presuppose qualitative indestructibility. Ignoring this aspect of the laws of conservation inevitably leads to mistakes, an example of which is the idea of the heat death of the universe. This theory alleges that all forms of motion must turn into heat, which will ultimately disperse in universal space. The temperature of all bodies will be equalised and all motion will cease. There will be neither light nor heat. Everything will die. And this will be the end of the world! According to this conception the universe lives its life and follows the path from birth to death like all the rest of us; science knows no other change except the transition to senility, and no other process but motion towards final oblivion. We see the stars constantly turning into radiation just as eternally and unceasingly as mountains of ice melt in a warm ocean. Today's sun weighs many billions of tons less than the sun of a month ago. Since other stars are melting in the same way, the universe as a whole is now less substantial. Not only the quantity of matter in the universe is diminishing, but even what is left is constantly escaping into the icy cold of outer space at colossal and ominously increasing speeds. The universe seems to be running away from us and dissolving like a vision into oblivion.

Research has shown, however, that heat death is impossible. The ceaseless process of conversion of all forms of motion into heat is accompanied by an equally unceasing process of the conversion of heat into other forms of motion. The stars are not only cooling; other stars are being born and growing brighter. There is nowhere for matter to appear from and nowhere for it to go. It is the source, the cause, and the consequence of itself. It owes nothing to anything or anyone for its existence.



Max Born, My Life and My Views. Introduced by I. Bernard Cohen Charles Scribners' Sons, N.Y., 1968, p. 67.


V. I. Lenin, "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism", Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 130.


Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, p. 58.

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