Dialectical Materialism and the Self-organization of Matter


Christian Fuchs


The aim of this paper is to show that the theory of self-organization in some respect proves the topicality of dialectical materialism and that an alternative concept of substance makes sense within the framework of dialectical materialism. The first part of the paper shows that Marx and Engels opposed the notion of substance because for them this notion was connected with the assumption of mechanical materialism that there is an eternal, unchanging stuff in the world to which all existence can be reduced. An alternative concept of substance is implicitly present in Engels’ works because he says that the eternal aspect of the world is that matter is permanently changing and moving and producing new organizational forms. Ernst Bloch has explicitly formulated such a concept of what he calls “process-substance” within the framework of dialectical materialism and in opposition to mechanical materialism. Such an alternative conception of substance can, as the second part of this paper shows, also be expressed as the permanent and eternal self-organization of matter. Concepts from self-organization theory such as control parameters, critical values, bifurcation points, phase transitions, non-linearity, selection, fluctuation and intensification in self-organization theory correspond to the dialectical principle of transition from quantity to quality. What is called the emergence of order, the production of information, or symmetry breaking in self-organization theory corresponds to Hegel’s notions of sublation (Aufhebung) and the negation of the negation. Self-organization theory shows that Engels’ Dialectics of Nature is still very topical and that dialectical materialism contrary to mechanical materialism and idealism hasn’t been invalidated, it rather seems to be confirmed that dialectics is the general principle of nature and society.


1. Matter and Substance in Dialectical Materialism


Friedrich Engels has formulated some theses of a dialectical philosophy of nature that have remained very topical until today:


v      The real unity of the world consists in its materiality (1878: 41)

v      The basic forms of all being are space and time, and there is no being out of space and time (1878: 48).

v      Motion is the mode of existence of matter. There is no matter without motion and no motion without matter. Both are uncreatable and indestructible (1878: 55)

v      The human mind is the highest product of organic matter (1886a: 313; 1886b: 341).

v      Nature does not just exist, but comes into being and passes away (1886a: 317), it has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in un-resting motion and change (ibid.: 320).

v      Matter is eternally changing and moving.  “We have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it“ (1886a: 327).

v      Nature forms a system, an interconnected totality of bodies which react on one another, this mutual reaction constitutes motion (1886a: 355)

v      The basic form of all motion is approximation and separation, contraction and expansion – attraction and repulsion which are dialectical poles of movement (1886a: 356f).

v      Matter is the totality of matters from which this concept abstracts. Words like matter and motion are abbreviations[1], which combine many different, sensually perceivable things according to their common properties (1886a: 503). Matter is an abstraction in the sense that we abstract from the qualitative differences of things and combine them as physically existing in the concept of matter (ibid.: 519).


Matter is the totality of objects that constitute reality and is itself constituted in space and time by an interconnected totality of bodies which react on one another (motion), i.e. they repulse and attract each other. Motion is the mode of existence of matter in space-time. Matter is an eternal process of becoming and passing away, a ceaseless flux, it is uncreatable and indestructible. Matter is the totality of objective, really existing systems that are interconnected and accord to different physical laws. The material unity of the world means that the motion of matter results in a natural hierarchy of relatively autonomous forms of movement of matter where each level has new, emergent qualities that can’t be reduced to lower levels or an assumed materia prima.


Attraction and repulsion are the essence of matter (Hegel 1874: §§97f)[2], as polar opposites they are “determined by the mutual action of the two opposite poles on one another, [...] the separation and opposition of these poles exists only within their unity and inter-connection, and, conversely, [...] their inter-connection exists only in their separation and their unity only in their opposition“ (Engels 1886a: 357). Energy is repulsion as one form of motion of matter, it is mass in movement. The unity of attraction and repulsion forms a field that surrounds and influences particles. Matter and energy are two forms of one and the same thing, matter is condensed energy and energy radiated matter. Einstein has shown that energy and mass are equivalent, hence energy has mass and mass energy. Energy is produced and transmitted from one atom to another only in portions of a certain extent (quanta, Max Planck). The atom emits (or gains) energy as it moves from one stationary state to another. Energy is not emitted or absorbed in a continuous manner, but rather in small packets of energy called quanta. An atom moves from one energy state to another state in steps. The energy of a quantum depends on the frequency of radiation and Planck’s constant (E = f x h), or expressed another way the frequency of radiation can be described as f = (M x c²)/h. This also means that particles are fields and that a particle with a mass M is connected with a field of frequency (M x c²)/h. The complementarity relation says that for each type of particle there is a corresponding wave-field.


Bohr and Rutherford have shown that atoms are not the smallest parts of the world. In it we find electrons circling around the nucleus which consists of protons and neutrons which are themselves no elementary particles, but consist of quarks. Elementary particles (6 types of quarks, 6 types of leptons) are not an immovable substance, they are transforming themselves. The stuff our world is made of are atoms, pure materials or elements. We know 118 pure materials (periodic table). They combine and form molecules which have new qualities. Radioactivity and quantum theory don’t mean the “disappearance of matter”. Particles and energy are both structural forms of matter. Elementary particles seem to disappear and reappear, they can’t be considered as changeless substance, but as Erwin Schrödinger said they are “more or less temporary entities within the wave field whose form and general behaviour are nevertheless so clearly and sharply determined by the laws of waves that many processes take place as if these temporary entities were substantial permanent beings“ (Schrödinger 1953: 16).


These new physical conceptions such as Heisenberg’s conception of the field as the source of particles, the assumption of quarks as elementary particles etc. show that the source of existing forms of matter is itself material and that the unity of the world is its materiality (Hörz 1976). Mechanical materialism has been invalidated by modern physics, but not so dialectical materialism. The latter’s assumption that the world is in constant flux and process-like has been asserted. Engels basic hypotheses about the dialectics of matter still remain topical.


Information is a relationship that exists as a relationship between specific organizational units of matter. Reflection (Widerspiegelung) means reproduction of and reaction as inner system-changes to influences from the outside of a system. There is a causal relationship between the result of reflection and the reflected. The reflected causes structural changes, but doesn’t mechanically determinate them. There is a certain, relative autonomy of the system which can be described as a degree of freedom from perturbations. On the different organization-levels of matter we find different degrees of freedom. This degree increases along with complexity if we go up the hierarchy from physical-chemical to living and finally social systems. The causal relationship between the reflected and the result of reflection is a dialectic of freedom and necessity. Information is an objective relationship between the reflected, the result of reflection inside the system’s structure and the realisation of functions of the system within the reflected environment of the system (see Hörz/Röseberg 1981: 273ff). This means that information is a relationship of reflection between a system and its environment, to be more precise between units of organised matter. Information is not a structure given in advance, it is produced within material relationships. “Information is a physical structure and at the same time a structure which dominates the physical forces. […] Information is not a physical substance, it is instead temporarily ‘attached’ to it. Information must be understood as a specific effect and as a relationship” (Fuchs-Kittowski 1997: 559f).


Already Lenin pointed out that reflection is a quality of matter (Lenin 1952: 82) and his definition of matter is connected to this notion of reflection: “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“ (ibid.: 118f). But this notion of reflection is a mechanic-deterministic one because it assumes that there is a linear, fully determined reflection of outside reality within a material system. No autonomy and degree of freedom is granted to the category that is considered as the one being determined by a determining instance. Mechanistic determinism argues that causes and effects can be mapped linearly: each cause has one and only one effect, similar causes have similar effects, different causes have different effects; one assumes that small changes of causes necessarily have small effects and large changes of causes necessarily have large effects. Meanwhile the sciences of complexity have shown that similar causes can have different effects and different causes similar effects;  small changes of causes can have large effects whereas large changes can also only result in small effects (but nonetheless it can also be the case that small causes have small effects and large causes large effects). Thinking the relationship of a system and its environment dialectically and in terms of the modern sciences of complexity, the notion of reflection shouldn’t be defined in a strictly deterministic manner, there should be room for a dialectic of chance and necessity. Lenin’s conception of matter is a dualistic one because it doesn’t consider consciousness as a specific organizational form of matter, but sees it as something external to matter (that nonetheless depends on the latter). This definition suggests that subjectivity is not material, idealists or spiritualists could agree with it. E.g. Aristotle or Thomas d’Aquin said that God is an extra-mental, immaterial reality.


Energy and information don’t exist outside of or external to matter, they are specific aspects of the movement and development of matter and as such are integral aspects of the world.


In Ionian philosophy there was the idea of prime matter. For Thales the prime matter (Urstoff) was water, for Anaximander apeiron or the unlimited, for Anaximenes air, for Heraclitus fire. The Atomists Democritus and Leucippius reduced all being to smallest parts of the world that are not dividable, move spontaneously and join or repel when colliding. There are eternal and indestructible corpuscles. The cosmos is seen as a system that is structured by the collision of atoms, the atoms themselves are considered as substance that doesn’t change. These early positions can be considered as materialist monisms.


Aristotle, who tried to combine Ionian materialism and Elatic idealism, postulated that substance always remains the same, that nothing becomes or passes away, and that the same nature always maintains itself. For Aristotle there is substance (essence) and accident (contingency), hyle (matter) and eidos (form). Form and substance are two aspects of a thing that can’t be divided, the only form without matter would be God. His position is one of ontological dualism, besides material being there is immaterial being.


The Middle ages were dominated by a religious conception that considered matter as a creation of God. This was questioned by Pantheistic conceptions such as that of Giordanno Bruno that considered God as an eternal force that is immanent in nature. The Newtonian world-view was characterised by its belief in the absolute immutability of nature and a reductionistic methodology. Nature was considered as a conservative system that remains stabile from its beginning until its end, organic matter was reduced to mechanics. French materialism of the 18th century (LaMettrie, Holbach, Diderot, Helvétius, Condillac, Alembert, Condorcet, Bonnet, Robinet, Laplace) as well as the “mechanical materialists” (Engels 1886b: 342) of the 19th century (Moleschott, Büchner, Vogt) were influenced by this worldview. The human being was considered a machine and the universe wasn’t comprehended “as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development“ (Engels 1886b: 342). Relatively autonomous objective systems with higher forms of motion were reduced to mechanical ones.


Marx and Engels opposed the idea of substance (an endless, changeless carrier of changing qualities[3]) as materia prima because they considered such positions as mechanical and undialectical, neglecting that matter is always in motion and in its dialectical process of becoming develops higher organizational levels. Hence if one takes a look at the history of dialectical materialism one will find an animosity towards the notion of substance. Lenin, for example, wrote: “The recognition of immutable elements, “of the immutable substance of things,” and so forth, is not materialism, but metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical, materialism“ (Lenin 1952: 251). Herbert Hörz (1976: 222ff), one of the main philosophers of the German Democratic Repulic, argued that due to field physics, the discovery of radioactivity, relativity theory and quantum theory, the notion of substance has become untenable. Modern physics has shown that elementary particles are transformed into other ones, the existence and maintenance of a particle is only possible in relationship to other particles and the latter’s qualities. Hence the idea of an unchangeable carrier of qualities seems no longer to be valid. “Whereas the notion of substance presupposes a changeless carrier, […] modern physics conceives material events primarily as change, interaction and searches for the structural laws of this change” (Hörz 1976: 225). The notion of substance wouldn’t be able to show the dialectical relationship of particle and field that was introduced by quantum theory. Field and elementary particles wouldn’t be substance because they aren’t changeless.


Hegel opposed the notion of substance for other reasons: Spinoza sees substance as causa sui, it is its own reason. Hegel says that such an assumption would exclude the creation of the world by God that he believed in. “A deeper insight into nature reveals God as creating the world out of nothing. And that teaches two things. On the one hand it enunciates that matter, as such, has no independent subsistence, and on the other that the form does not supervene upon matter from without, but as a totality involves the principle of matter in itself“ (Hegel 1874: §128, see also §§150f)


Due to modern physics a mechanistic and reductionistic conception of substance must be repudiated. Nonetheless there seems to be an alternative conception of substance immanent in Engels’ works on nature themselves: The substance of the world, i.e. that which exists permanently and endlessly, is the process-structure of matter. Matter is unresting, in permanent motion, in ceasless flux and a self-producing entity. In its dialectical movement it produces different organizational levels that have higher, emergent qualities which can’t be reduced to older qualities. Rainer Zimmermann (1999) shows that such an alternative conception of substance can be traced back to the line of thought constituted by Benedictus de Spinoza – Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling – Ernst Bloch. And it seems apparent that also Karl Marx and Frederick Engels seem to fit into this line as is e.g. shown by Engels’ assumption that matter is a producing entity and through its permanent flux and motion “remains eternally the same in all its transformations”.


Giordano Bruno, Spinoza and Schelling considered nature as a producing and process-like entity. Ernst Bloch sees this line as a historical alternative to the “block”-matter and the “root-thinking” of mechanistic materialism (Bloch 2000: 166ff). Spinoza differs between natura naturans (the actively creating nature producing things) and natura naturata (the passively produced nature). Substance does not need other concepts to be explained, it is its own reason (causa sui), its essence involves its own existence. For Schelling, nature ”has its reality in itself (and) is its own product, a Whole which is organised out of itself, and is organizing itself“ (Schelling, Sämtliche Werke, III: 17, cited from Zimmermann 1999). Schelling explains nature by principles which lie in nature itself, and in particular the principle of productivity. In opposition to the standard-assumption of their times that matter was created by God, these philosophers insisted that nature has its own reason and is producing itself. This means that in nature and matter as self-producing systems there is no place for a first mover that is not moved itself or for a creatio-ex-nihilo. Schelling and Spinoza anticipated the assumption of dialectical materialism that matter is in permanent flux and produces different, and ever higher organization-levels of matter.


The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch worked out an alternative conception of substance and matter within the framework of dialectical materialism (for details see Zeilinger 2002). In opposition to mechanical materialism[4] Bloch argues that matter is process-like, it is not a “dead block, moved only by pressure and push and remaining itself all the time” (Bloch 1963: 230), but nonetheless he doesn’t give up the notion of substance. Matter for Bloch is fermenting and process-like (Bloch 1963: 203), it is a process-being, being-in-possibility (dynamei on; 1963: 207) and has a historical-dialectical character (1963: 209). Matter would be potentiality, and as such kata to dynaton (being-after-possibility) and dynamei on[5]. The former is that which can appear historically according to the conditions given, the latter as the correlate of the objectively real possible or the substrate of possibility within the dialectical process (1963: 233). The kata to dynaton is the historically possible, it conditions, i.e. it enables and constrains future possibilities: “These are not only the disturbing, thwarting, but also the material conditions assisting in the appearance of form“ (Bloch 1975: 140). Matter as clade would be the fermenting sapling (gärender Schoss) of a substance that is bearing, developing, clarifying, qualifying itself (Bloch 2000: 173). Motion in its full extent would be the form of existence of matter: motion, change, production, tendency and latency (2000: 176).


As past potentialities matter conditions the future, but it nonetheless also involves aspects of openness and of the Not-Yet. Matter would be the world substrate in the sense that it opens up possibilities that can be realised (1963: 209). Matter is the existence-form (Daseinsform) of possibility (Bloch 2000: 119ff). Hence matter would also be utopian matter. “Not-Yet” characterises the tendency of material processes, as the origin that is processually emerging and tending towards the manifestation of its content (1963: 219). Matter is the “possibility-substratum which is fermenting in Nothingness, bearing in the Not-Yet and guaranteeing the novum” (1963: 227). The Novum (see Bloch 1963: 227ff; 1975: 141ff) is grounded in the real possibility of a Not-Yet-Having-Become, it is the land of perspectives of the process itself, something that has never been and is real future. As such, it is never completely new. The novum opens up the possibility of “active hope”, but it is not necessarily “a good one”, it can cause “fear as well as hope”, it includes the “double-possibility of crash and rise”. It is a “moment of could-become-other” (Anderswerdenkönnen) in objective-real possibilities, one could say one of relative chance. Matter both contains tendency and latency (Bloch 1975: 144ff). Tendency means relative determination and necessity in the development-process of the world, latency is a force which drives the process towards a goal and forms spontaneously new structures. Latency drives towards a novum. Tendency in contrast to laws is undecided, for its decision it is in need of a “subjective factor”, it has room for chance and the novum. Latency means an open, broad plurality. In latency, tendency has its pre-existence of its direction and its anticipation.


Bloch’s concept of matter anticipated the modern theories of self-organization which also stress the productivity of matter that results in different organizational forms and hierarchical levels of matter and the self-reproduction and re-creativity of self-organizing units. Nature is for Bloch a producing subject, he says it is forming itself, forming out of itself (1963: 234). In this context Bloch takes up Spinoza’s concept of natura naturans in order to stress that nature is not only passively produced, it is also itself an actively producing system. The relationship of tendency and latency in matter also reappears as a dialectic of chance and necessity in self-organization theory (the concepts of relative chance by Kolmogorow and Chaitin and of incomplete determinism). What Bloch calls a novum is called emergent qualities in the sciences of complexity. Bloch used the term “emergence” himself by stressing that all gestalt figures emerge from the dialectical process and from matter as developing, producing (ausgebären[6]) substance immanently as well as speculatively (Bloch 1975: 165). For Bloch matter is a dialectically developing, producing substance.


Substance for Bloch is process-substance (1975: 246), it opens up possibilities, is fermenting and actively producing. It is “germ and utopian totum of the materia ultima in the laboratory of the world” (ibid.). Such a concept of substance seems to be an alternative to the “passive block-“ and “root-“substance of mechanical materialism. Bloch explicates such an understanding, whereas it was implicitly present in Engels’ works who didn’t speak of substance, but about the eternal self-transformation and dialectical movement of matter.


Bloch stresses the important role of the human being in the self-transformation of matter. An organizational form of matter that would guarantee freedom and happiness would ultimately depend on human activities. Also Marx was interested in the relationship of man and nature and like Bloch considered the man-nature-totality as a self-organizing system. In his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts he stresses that in the production of his life which includes the metabolism between society and nature and social reciprocity, man as the universal, objective species-being produces an objective world (gegenständliche Welt) and reproduces nature and his species according to his purposes. He says that “nature is man’s inorganic body – that is to say, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature – i.e., nature is his body – and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it is he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature“ (Marx 1844: 515f). Marx says that animals only produce their immediate needs, whereas man as the universal, objective species-being through production and the dialogue with nature not only produces himself, he also “reproduces the whole of nature“ (ibid.: 516). So also for Marx human activity is decisive for the self-reproduction and self-transformation of the man-nature-system. Exploitation and estrangement in capitalism would result in a destruction of this system and hence Marx argues (just like Bloch did 100 years later) that the sublation of this social formation is a necessary condition for the true appropriation of man’s nature. “This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism“ (Marx 1844: 536). Bloch adds that a “good novum“ would mean “materialisation of the human being, humanisation of matter“ (Bloch 2000: 176).



2. Self-organization and dialectics


I want to show that saying the substance of the world is the permanent dialectical movement of matter and its self-productivity, corresponds to saying that matter organises itself and nature is a self-organizing system.


The theory of self-organization has lead to a change of scientific paradigms: from the Newtonian paradigm to the approaches of complexity. There is a shift from predictability to non-predictability, from order and stability to instability, chaos and dynamics; from certainty and determination to risk, ambiguity and uncertainty; from the control and steering to the self-organization of systems, from linearity to complexity and multidimensional causality; from reductionism to emergentism, from being to becoming and from fragmentation to interdisciplinarity. This has been interpreted as a shift from modern to post-modern knowledge (Best/Kellner 1997).


Concepts of physical self-organization have been put forward by Ilya Prigogine’s theory of dissipative systems (Nicolis/Prigogine 1989, Prigogine 1980), Hermann Haken’s (1978, 1983) synergetics and Manfred Eigen’s hypercycle-theory (Eigen/Schuster 1979). The principles of physical self-organization include (see Fuchs 2001, Ebeling/Feistel 1994):


1.       control parameters: a set a parameters influences the state and behaviour of the system

2.       critical values: if certain critical values of the control parameters are reached, structural change takes place, the system enters a phase of instability/criticality

3.       fluctuation and intensification: small disturbances from inside the system intensify themselves and initiate the formation of order

4.       feedback loops, circular causality: there are feedback loops within a self-organizing system; circular causality involves a number of processes p1, p2, …., pn (n³1) and p1 results in p2, p2 in p3, …. , pn-1 in pn and pn in p1.

5.       non-linearity: in a critical phase of a self-organizing systems, causes and effects can’t be mapped linearly: similar causes can have different effects and different causes similar effects;  small changes of causes can have large effects whereas large changes can also only result in small effects (but nonetheless it can also be the case that small causes have small effects and large causes large effects).

6.       bifurcation points: once a fluctuation intensifies itself, the system enters a critical phase where its development is relatively open, certain possible paths of development emerge and the system has to make a choice. This means a dialectic of necessity and chance. Bifurcation means a phase transition from stability to instability.

7.       selection: in a critical phase which can also be called point of bifurcation, a selection is made between one of several alternative paths of development

8.       emergence of order: in a critical phase, new qualities of a self-organizing system emerge; this principle is also called order from chaos or order through fluctuation. A self-organizing system is more than the sum of its parts. The qualities that result from temporal and spatial differentiation of a system are not reducible to the properties of the components of the systems, interactions between the components result in new properties of the system that can’t be fully predicted and can’t be found in the qualities of the components. Microscopic interactions result in new qualities on the macroscopic level of the system. Checkland (1981: 314) defines an emergent quality in similar terms “as a whole entity which derives from its component activities and their structure, but cannot be reduced to them”.

9.       information production: new qualities of a self-organizing system emerge and have certain effects, i.e. a complex reflective relationships is established between the trigger of self-organization (the reflected), the emergent qualities (the result of reflection) and the function the new qualities fulfil for the system in its adaptation to its environment. We have defined this relationship as information, self-organizing systems are information-producing systems, information is not a pre-existing, stabile property of a complex system

10.   fault tolerance: outside a critical phase, the structure of the system is relatively stable concerning local disturbances and a change of boundary conditions

11.   openness: self-organization can only take place if the system imports entropy which is transformed, as a result energy is exported or as Prigogine says dissipated

12.   symmetry breaking: the emerging structures have less symmetry than the foundational laws of the system

13.   inner conditionality: self-organizing systems are influenced by their inner conditions and the boundary conditions from their environment

14.   relative chance: there is a dialectic of chance and necessity in self-organizing systems; certain aspects are determined, whereas others are relatively open and according to chance

15.   complexity: the complexity of a system depends on the number of its elements and connections between the elements (the system’s structure). There are three levels of complexity: a. there is self-organization and emergence in complex systems, b. complex systems are not organised centrally, but in a distributed manner; there are many connections between the system’s parts, and c. it is difficult to model complex systems and to predict their behaviour even if one knows to a large extent the parts of such systems and the connections between the parts


One example of physical self-organization are the Bénard-cells: A special liquid is heated at a certain temperature t2 from beneath and cooled down at a certain temperature t1 from above. So there is a temperature-difference Dt = t2 – t1 which develops and is the control parameter of the system (principle 1). At Dt = 0 the system is in equilibrium, the temperature gradient rises and at a certain critical value (p2), a new pattern emerges in the liquid that looks like honeycombs (p8, p9). The liquid particles are located in layers. The temperature of the lower layers is warmer than that of the upper ones. They expand and their density decreases. At the beginning of the critical phase, a first small fluctuation is caused which means that a particle is thrown out of its position in a certain layer and enters an upper or lower layer (p3). It is not predetermined in which layer this fluctuation will occur. Fluctuations only take place if a certain threshold of the control parameter Dt is crossed. The fluctuation intensifies itself (p3), more and more liquid particles are detached from their stationary position , disorder, chaos and motion shows up (p6). The liquid particles arrange in cells which have different forms (round, square, broad, thin, large, small etc.). These forms are dependent on modes, which are elementary forms of motion. At a certain point of time, several types of cells exist. Finally one type can assert itself, there is one dominant form due to a selection process within the system (p7). As a result of the superimposition of many of the same form, a pattern emerges that looks like a honeycomb (p8, p9). So from an initial chaos of particles, order has emerged. At a certain value of the temperature gradient, this order disappears. In this process, it is determined that order will emerge, that there will be initial fluctuations which spread out and that one of several types of roles will be selected. But it is not determined in which layer the fluctuation will be caused, how the cell-types will exactly look like and which one will be selected (p14). This experiment will only be successful if energy in the form of a temperature difference will be applied to the system (p11).


Another example that is frequently used in order to explain self-organization, is the functioning of a laser (see Haken 1987). A laser consists of an active medium that is situated between two mirrors. This medium is either a gas that is radiating due to the discharge caused by entry of a current or a crystal that is pumped through a flash lamp. A ruby with crome ions can be used. The atoms of the crystal are stimulated by the flashes and an electron changes its trajectory, it jumps from an inner trajectory to an outer one and takes up energy from the flash lamp. It spontaneously returns to its former trajectory and emits energy in the form of a light wave. So due to the stimulation of the atoms caused by the flash lamp, the atoms emit light waves. The two mirrors again and again reflect the light. First there is a chaos of light waves. A light wave can hit other atoms and force them to intensify its own light. By such processes, the light waves reach certain amplitudes. Hermann Haken says that one light wave “enslaves” the others, this means that it becomes dominant and orders the system. As a result an ordered light wave, the laser beam, emerges. From a chaos of light waves, an ordered pattern emerges (p8, p9). The decisive control parameter is current supply (p1, p11). The system can only enter criticality if the current reaches a certain threshold (p2). A light wave is caused by a fluctuation, i.e. an electron returns to its inner trajectory and emits energy; a light wave can intensify itself by “enslaving” electrons (p3). Such an intensification always means circular causality, because an entity causes the behaviour of another entity and this behaviour results in a transformation of the first entity (p4). Due to such intensifications, the system enters a state of chaos/instability/bifurcation (p5, p6). A certain light wave is selected (p7) and determines the emergence of the laser beam (p8, p9). It is determined that a laser beam will emerge, that fluctuations and intensification will be caused; but it is not determined how this exactly takes place and which light wave will order the system (p14).


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has outlined that the purpose of dialectics is “to study things in their own being and movement and thus to demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding” (Hegel 1874: Note to §81). Self-organization refers to the forms of movement of matter and hence is connected to dialectics. What are called control parameters, critical values, bifurcation points, phase transitions, non-linearity, selection, fluctuation and intensification in self-organization theory (principles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7) corresponds to the dialectical principle of transition from quantity to quality. This is what Hegel has discussed as the Measure (Hegel 1874: §§107ff): The measure is the qualitative quantum, the quantum is the existence of quantity. “The identity between quantity and quality, which is found in Measure, is at first only implicit, and not yet explicitly realised. In other words, these two categories, which unite in Measure, each claim an independent authority. On the one hand, the quantitative features of existence may be altered, without affecting its quality. On the other hand, this increase and diminution, immaterial though it be, has its limit, by exceeding which the quality suffers change. [...] But if the quantity present in measure exceeds a certain limit, the quality corresponding to it is also put in abeyance. This however is not a negation of quality altogether, but only of this definite quality, the place of which is at once occupied by another. This process of measure, which appears alternately as a mere change in quantity, and then as a sudden revulsion of quantity into quality, may be envisaged under the figure of a nodal (knotted) line“ (ibid.: §§108f).


What is called the emergence of order, the production of information, or symmetry breaking in self-organization theory (principles 8, 9, 12) corresponds to Hegel’s notions of sublation (Aufhebung) and negation of the negation. Something is only what it is in its relationship to another, but by the negation of the negation this something incorporates the other into itself. The dialectical movement involves two moments that negate each other, a somewhat and an another. As a result of the negation of the negation, “something becomes an other; this other is itself somewhat; therefore it likewise becomes an other, and so on ad infinitum” (Hegel 1874: §93). Being-for-self or the negation of the negation means that somewhat becomes an other, but this again is a new somewhat that is opposed to an other and as a synthesis results again in an other and therefore it follows that something in its passage into other only joins with itself, it is self-related (§95). In becoming there are two moments (Hegel 1812: §176-179): coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be: by sublation, i.e. negation of the negation, being passes over into nothing, it ceases to be, but something new shows up, is coming to be. What is sublated (aufgehoben) is on the one hand ceases to be and is put to an end, but on the other hand it is preserved and maintained (ibid.: §185). In dialectics, a totality transform itself, it is self-related. This corresponds to the notions of self-production and circular causality. The negation of the negation has positive results, i.e. in a self-organizing system the negation of elements results in positive new qualities.


The two examples mentioned above in fact are examples of the dialectical development of matter. When the control parameters reach a certain threshold, a point of bifuraction or criticality, Hegel says a nodal-line, shows up. The quantities that are increased and transform into quality are the temperature gradient and electric current. The emergence of a pattern of honeycombs and of the laser beam means sublation and the negation of the negation. The old state of the systems is eliminated, but nonetheless preserved in new qualities. New qualities show up and hence the systems reach a higher level.


The principle of relative chance which is typical for self-organizing systems had already been considered as dialectic of chance and necessity by Hegel, Marx and Engels (Hegel 1874: §§144ff, Engels 1886a: 486-491). Engels has stressed that the dialectic of attraction and repulsion is an aspect of matter and its movement. Both elements are also described by self-organization theory: Chaos, noise or instability is described as disordered movement of the elements of a complex system. One can also say that the elements are repulsing each other. But this repulsion is one that turns into attraction, because the elements interact, there are processes of ordering and selection, i.e. attraction takes place as the emergence of a coherent whole and new qualities.


As an example for the transition from quantitiy to quality Engels mentions the homologous series of carbon compounds:

Here therefore we have a whole series of qualitatively different bodies, formed by the simple quantitative addition of elements, and in fact always in the same proportion. This is most clearly evident in cases where the quantity of all the elements of the compound changes in the same proportion. Thus, in the normal paraffins CnH2n+2, the lowest is methane, CH4, a gas; the highest known, hexadecane, C16H34, is a solid body forming colourless crystals which melts at 21° and boils only at 278°. Each new member of both series comes into existence through the addition of CH2, one atom of carbon and two atoms of hydrogen, to the molecular formula of the preceding member, and this quantitative change in the molecular formula produces each time a qualitatively different body (Engels 1878: 119).


Almost everywhere in chemistry one can find examples for the transition from quantity to quality, therefore Engels speaks of chemistry as “science of the qualitative changes of bodies as a result of changed quantitative composition“ (Engels 1886a: 351). This transition is what today is called in self-organization theory emergence. In a self-organizing system, a certain threshold of a control parameter is crossed and order emerges. What is today called a point of bifurcation, instability of criticality, Engels refers to as “Hegelian nodal line of measure relations – in which quantitative change suddenly passes at certain points into qualitative transformation“ (Engels 1878: 117) or even directly anticipating the modern terminology he speaks of “critical points“ (Engels 1886a: 351). As other examples for nodal lines Engels mentions e.g. a certain current strength that is required to cause the platinum wire of an electric incandescent lamp to glow, the temperature of incandescence and fusion of metals, the freezing and boiling points of liquids, the critical point at which a gas can be liquefied by pressure and cooling (Engels 1886a: 351). The transition from quantity to quality that occurs e.g. in the homologous series of carbon compounds when certain atoms are added can also be termed the emergence of a qualitatively different body.


Other examples that Engels mentioned for the transition from quantity to quality and that could equally be described as the emergence of new qualities in a critical situation after a threshold of a certain control parameter has been crossed, include:


v      the change of form of motion and energy: “All qualitative differences in nature rest on differences of chemical composition or on different quantities or forms of motion (energy) or, as is almost always the case, on both. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e. without quantitative alteration of the body concerned. [...] Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two bodies, of which one loses a definite quantity of motion of one quality (e.g. heat), while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality (mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition). Here, therefore, quantity and quality mutually correspond to each other“ (Engels 1886a: 349)


v      the states of aggregation of water (Engels 1886a: 351): “Thus the temperature of water is, in the first place, a point of no consequence in respect of its liquidity: still with the increase or diminution of the temperature of the liquid water, there comes a point where this state of cohesion suffers a qualitative change, and the water is converted into steam or ice“ (Hegel 1874: §108).


As other examples Hegel mentions the reaching of a point where a single additional grain makes a heap of wheat; or where the bald-tail is produced, if we continue plucking out single hairs.


For Engels “the negation of the negation is an extremely general […] law of development of nature, history, and thought; a law which, as we have seen, holds good in the animal and plant kingdoms, in geology, in mathematics, in history and in philosophy“ (Engels 1878: 131).


As an example from nature he mentions the development process of a grain of barley: “Billions of such grains of barley are milled, boiled and brewed and then consumed. But if such a grain of barley meets with conditions which are normal for it, if it falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture it undergoes a specific change, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilised and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten-, twenty- or thirty-fold“ (Engels 1878: 126). As similar examples he mentions the development process of insects, geology as a series of negated negations, a series of successive chatterings of old and deposits of new rock formations, differential and integral calculus, the development of philosophy and society.


These development processes can also be described in the terms of physical self-organization: the control parameters that influence the development of the grain are time and natural conditions such as heat and moisture. During this development new seeds will show up. At a specific point of time, a critical point is reached and the grain ceases to exist. But at the same time new grains emerge.


Dialectical processes and negation of the negation not just only mean the emergence of other, new qualities, it also includes a development process that results in higher qualities and other structural levels. Dialectical development is not just change or self-transformation and self-reproduction, it is also the emergence of higher levels of organization (Hörz 1976: 311ff). Hence dialectical thinking assumes an immanent hierarchy in nature and evolutionary leaps. This was also considered by Engels:


the transition from one form of motion to another always remains a leap, a decisive change. This is true of the transition from the mechanics of celestial bodies to that of smaller masses on a particular celestial body; it is equally true of the transition from the mechanics of masses to the mechanics of molecules – including the forms of motion investigated in physics proper: heat, light, electricity, magnetism. In the same way, the transition from the physics of molecules to the physics of atoms – chemistry – in turn involves a decided leap; and this is even more clearly the case in the transition from ordinary chemical action to the chemism of albumen which we call life. Then within the sphere of life the leaps become ever more infrequent and imperceptible (Engels 1878: 61).


Self-organization theory is also dialectical in the respect that it frequently considers self-organization as emergent evolution. This means that there are different hierarchical organizational levels of self-organization which differ in complexity and where new qualities of organization emerge on upper levels. In self-organization theory e.g. Ervin Laszlo (1987) argues that evolution does not take place continuously, but in sudden, discontinuous leaps. After a phase of stability a system would enter a phase instability, fluctuations intensify and spread out. In this chaotic state, the development of the system is not determined, it is only determined that one of several possible alternatives will be realised. Laszlo says that evolution takes place in such a way that new organizational levels emerge and identifies the successive steps of evolution.


Biology has long struggled to find a consistent definition of life. Such definitions normally include a list of properties such as movement, metabolism, replication, sensation, reaction to stimuli, growth, ageing, disease, death, reproduction, regulation, inheritance. The problem is that there always examples can be found that don’t seem to fit the definition. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1992) have tried to find a consistent definition of life, they say that living systems are biologically self-organizing ones, i.e. the permanently produce themselves. They call such self-producing systems autopoietic (autos=self, poiein=to make something). Autopoietic systems or biological self-organization can be characterised by the following items:


1.       They permanently produce their parts and their unity themselves

2.       An autopoietic organization is characterised by relations between its parts

3.       These relations result in a dynamic network of interactions

4.       Autopoietic systems are operationally closed: the effects of the network of interactions don’t go beyond the network itself

5.       The autopoietic unit forms its own border, it delimits its structure from its environment. In a cell the membrane is such a border.

6.       The production of the system’s components enables the forming of a border, a border is a precondition for a dynamic that is needed for the self-production of the system (circular causality)

7.       Living systems constitute themselves as different from their environment, they are autonomous units.

8.       Structural coupling: Perturbations from the environment can influence an autopoietic unit, but it can’t fully determine changes of the system’s structure


The main characteristics of an autopoietic system are self-maintenance, self-production and production of its own border.


In his Anti-Dühring and his Dialectics of Nature, Friedrich Engels pointed out the problem of defining life and intuitively anticipated the theory of autopoiesis: He overestimated the role of proteins in living systems, because today we know that not only proteins, but also nucleic acid, water, carbon, carbohydrates, fat, vitamines etc. are important for the existence of life. Anticipating autopoiesis, Engels says that life exists in the “constant self-renewal of the chemical constituents“ it has (Engels 1878: 75), life is a “self-implementing process“ (ibid.: 76), albumen would not only permanently decompose itself, it would also permanently produce itself from its components (Engels 1876a: 558f).


3. Conclusion


As Engels implicitly and Bloch explicitly point out, the substance of the world is its process-character, the permanent dialectical movement of matter and the productivity of matter that results in self-reproduction and the emergence of new, higher qualities and organizational forms of matter. This corresponds to saying that the substance of the world is the permanent self-organization of matter. As has been shown, processes of physical self-organization can be described in dialectical terms. Control parameters, critical values, bifurcation points, phase transitions, non-linearity, selection, fluctuation and intensification in self-organization theory correspond to the dialectical principle of transition from quantity to quality. What is called emergence of order, production of information or symmetry breaking in self-organization theory corresponds to Hegel’s notions of sublation (Aufhebung) and negation of the negation. The concept of emergent evolution corresponds to the principle of dialectical development, the dialectics of chance and necessity as well as of attraction and repulsion that have been described by Hegel, Engels and Marx are constitutive for processes of self-organization. The other way round, the examples Engels gave for the dialectics of nature can also be seen as examples of self-organization of matter.


Self-organization theory shows that Engels’ Dialectics of Nature is still very topical and that dialectical materialism contrary to mechanical materialism hasn’t been invalidated, it rather seems to be confirmed that dialectics is the general principle of nature and society. Self-organization theory lines out Engels’ assumptions that the real unity of the world consists in its materiality, that matter is process-like and in constant flux, that it is a producing entity that is uncreateable and indestructible. That the substance of the world is self-organization of matter which results in higher organizational forms of matter, thus far the highest organization form is human society, means that God doesn’t exist, that there is no creatio-ex-nihilo and no first mover that isn’t moved itself. Dialectical materialism seems be confirmed by modern science, whereas serious problems arise for idealistic worldviews. Self-organization theory is indeed a dialectical materialist-theory, but unfortunately its representatives not all to often realises this and acknowledge the dialectical tradition and heritage of the philosophy of nature in the line of Friedrich Engels and his descendants.




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[1] Also for Hegel, matter is an abstraction. He defines the Thing as the determined and concrete unity of Ground and Existence. It consists of matters or materials which are themselves partly things, which in that way may be once more reduced to more abstract matters. Numerous diverse matters coalesce into the one Matter. “Thus Matter is the mere abstract or indeterminate reflection-into-something-else, or reflection-into-self at the same time as determinate; it is consequently Thinghood which then and there is the subsistence of the thing. But this means the thing has on the part of the matters its reflection-into-self [...]; it subsists not on its own part, but consists of the matters, and is only a superficial association between them, an external combination of them“ (Hegel 1874: §127).


[2] “The One, as already remarked, just is self-exclusion and explicit putting itself as the Many. Each of the Many however is itself a One, and in virtue of its so behaving, this all rounded repulsion is by one stroke converted into its opposite — Attraction [...].But the Many are one the same as another: each is One, or even one of the Many; they are consequently one and the same. Or when we study all that Repulsion involves, we see that as a negative attitude of many Ones to one another, it is just as essentially a connective reference of them to each other; and as those to which the One is related in its act of repulsion are ones, it is in them thrown into relation with itself. The repulsion therefore has an equal right to be called Attraction; and the exclusive One, or Being-for-self, suppresses itself. The qualitative character, which in the One or unit has reached the extreme point of its characterisation, has thus passed over into determinateness (quality) suppressed, i.e. into Being as Quantity“ (Hegel 1874: §97f).


[3] Also Kant assumed a permanence of substance and said that “throughout all changes in the world substance remains, and that only the accidents change“ (Kant 1787: 214)

[4] Bloch says that mechanical materialism has a concept of matter that is only analytical and static, it doesn’t know history, perspective and horizons of transformation (Bloch 1963: 208).


[6] the German term used by Bloch is “ausgebären“ which corresponds on the one hand to “bearing“, but not only points at an active production, it also refers to a developing process