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Necessity and Accident

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In further analysing the nature of being in all its different manifestations, Hegel deals with the relation between potential and actual, and also between necessity and accident ("contingency"). We shall return to the question of necessity and accident later on, as it has occupied a central role in modern science, and is still a highly controversial subject. In relation to this question, it is important to clarify one of Hegel’s most famous (or notorious) sayings: "What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational." (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 10.) At first sight, this statement seems mystifying, and also reactionary, since it seems to imply that all that is exists is rational, and therefore justified. This, however, was not at all what Hegel meant, as Engels explains:

"Now, according to Hegel, reality is, however, in no way an attribute predicable of any given state of affairs, social or political, in all circumstances and at all times. On the contrary. The Roman Republic was real, but so was the Roman Empire, which superseded it. In 1789 the French monarchy had become so unreal, that is to say, so robbed of all necessity, so irrational, that it had to be destroyed by the Great Revolution, of which Hegel always speaks with the greatest enthusiasm. In this case, therefore, the monarchy was the unreal and the revolution the real. And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses its necessity, its right of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality—peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality; and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish." (MESW, Vol. 3, pp. 338-9.)

A given form of society is "rational" to the degree that it achieves its purpose, that is, that it develops the productive forces, raises the cultural level, and thus advances human progress. Once it fails to do this, it enters into contradiction with itself, that is, it becomes irrational and unreal, and no longer has any right to exist. Thus, even in the most apparently reactionary utterances of Hegel, there is hidden a revolutionary idea.

All that exists evidently does so of necessity. But not everything can exist. Potential existence is not yet actual existence. In The Science of Logic, Hegel carefully traces the process whereby something passes from a state of being merely possible to the point where possibility becomes probability, and the latter becomes inevitable ("necessity"). In view of the colossal confusion that has arisen in modern science around the issue of "probability," a study of Hegel’s thorough and profound treatment of this subject is highly instructive.

Possibility and actuality denote the dialectical development of the real world and the various stages in the emergence and development of objects. A thing which exists in potential contains within itself the objective tendency of development, or at least the absence of conditions which would preclude its coming into being. However, there is a difference between abstract possibility and real potential, and the two things are frequently confused. Abstract or formal possibility merely expresses the absence of any conditions that might exclude a particular phenomenon, but it does not assume the presence of conditions which would make its appearance inevitable.

This leads to endless confusion, and is actually a kind of trick which serves to justify all kinds of absurd and arbitrary ideas. For example, it is said that if a monkey were allowed to hammer away at a typewriter for long enough, it would eventually produce one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This objective seems too modest. Why only one sonnet? Why not the collected works of Shakespeare? Indeed, why not the whole of world literature, with the theory of relativity and Beethoven’s symphonies thrown in for good measure? The bare assertion that it is "statistically possible" does not take us a single step further. The complex processes of nature, society and human thought are not all susceptible to simple statistical treatment, nor will great works of literature emerge out of mere accident, no matter how long we wait for our monkey to deliver the goods.

In order for potential to become actual, a particular concatenation of circumstances is required. Moreover, this is not a simple, linear process, but a dialectical one, in which an accumulation of small quantitative changes eventually produces a qualitative leap. Real, as opposed to abstract, possibility implies the presence of all the necessary factors out of which the potential will lose its character of provisionality, and become actual. And, as Hegel explains, it will remain actual only for as long as these conditions exist, and no longer. This is true whether we are referring to the life of an individual, a given socioeconomic form, a scientific theory, or any natural phenomenon. The point at which a change becomes inevitable can be determined by the method invented by Hegel and known as the "nodal line of measurement." If we regard any process as a line, it will be seen that there are specific points ("nodal points") on the line of development, where the process experiences a sudden acceleration, or qualitative leap.

It is easy to identify cause and effect in isolated cases, as when one hits a ball with a bat. But in a wider sense, the notion of causality becomes far more complicated. Individual causes and effects become lost in a vast ocean of interaction, where cause becomes transformed into effect and vice versa. Just try tracing back even the simplest event to its "ultimate causes" and you will see that eternity will not be long enough to do it. There will always be some new cause, and that in turn will have to be explained, and so on ad infinitum. This paradox has entered the popular consciousness in such sayings as this one:

For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost;
For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost;
For the want of a horse, a rider was lost;
For the want of a rider, a battle was lost;
For the want of a battle, a kingdom was lost;
...And all for the want of a nail.

The impossibility of establishing a "final cause" has led some people to abandon the idea of cause altogether. Everything is considered to be random and accidental. In the 20th century this position has been adopted, at least in theory, by a large number of scientists on the basis of an incorrect interpretation of the results of quantum physics, particularly the philosophical positions of Werner Heisenberg. We shall return to this later. Suffice it to say that Hegel answered these arguments in advance, when he explained the dialectical relation between accident and necessity.

Hegel explains that there is no such thing as true causality, in the sense of an isolated cause and effect. Every effect has a counter-effect, and every action has a counter-action. The idea of an isolated cause and effect is an abstraction taken from classical Newtonian physics, which Hegel was highly critical of, although it enjoyed tremendous prestige at that time. Here again, Hegel was in advance of his time. Instead of the action-reaction of mechanics, he advanced the notion of Reciprocity, of universal interaction. Everything influences everything else, and is in turn, influenced and determined by everything. Hegel thus re-introduced the concept of accident which had been rigorously banned from science by the mechanist philosophy of Newton and Laplace.

At first sight, we seem to be lost in a vast number of accidents. But this confusion is only apparent. Order emerges out of chaos. The accidental phenomena which constantly flash in and out of existence, like the waves on the face of an ocean, express a deeper process, which is not accidental but necessary. At a decisive point, this necessity reveals itself through accident.

This idea of the dialectical unity of necessity and accident may seem strange, but it is strikingly confirmed by a whole series of observations from the most varied fields of science and society. The mechanism of natural selection in the theory of evolution is the best-known example. But there are many others. In the last few years, there have been many discoveries in the field of chaos and complexity theory which precisely detail how "order arises out of chaos," which is exactly what Hegel worked out one and a half centuries earlier.

"Classical" chemical reactions are seen as very random processes. The molecules involved are evenly distributed in space, and their spread is distributed "normally" i.e., in a Gauss curve. These kinds of reaction fit into the concept of Boltzmann, wherein all side-chains of the reaction will fade out and the reaction will end up in a stable reaction, an immobile equilibrium. However, in recent decades chemical reactions were discovered that deviate from this ideal and simplified concept. They are known under the common name of "chemical clocks." The most famous examples are the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, and the Brussels model devised by Ilya Prigogine.

Linear thermodynamics describes a stable, predictable behaviour of systems that tend towards the minimum level of activity possible. However, when the thermodynamic forces acting on a system reach the point where the linear region is exceeded, stability can no longer be assumed. Turbulence arises. For a long time turbulence was regarded as a synonym for disorder or chaos. But now, it has been discovered that what appears to be merely chaotic disorder on the macroscopic (large-scale) level, is, in fact, highly organised on the microscopic (small-scale) level.

Today, the study of chemical instabilities has become common. Of special interest is the research done in Brussels under the guidance of chaos theorist Ilya Prigogine. The study of what happens beyond the critical point where chemical instability commences has enormous interest from the standpoint of dialectics. Of especial interest here is the phenomenon of the "chemical clock." The Brussels model (nicknamed the "Brusselator" by American scientists) describes the behaviour of gas molecules. Suppose there are two types of molecules, "red" and "blue," in a state of chaotic, totally random motion. One would expect that, at a given moment, there would be an irregular distribution of molecules, producing a "violent" colour, with occasional flashes of red or blue. But in a chemical clock, this does not occur beyond the critical point. The system is all blue, then all red, and these changes occur at regular interval.

"Such a degree of order stemming from the activity of billions of molecules seems incredible," say Prigogine and Stengers, "and indeed, if chemical clocks had not been observed, no one would believe that such a process is possible. To change colour all at once, molecules must have a way to ‘communicate.’ The system has to act as a whole. We will return repeatedly to this key word, communicate, which is of obvious importance in so many fields, from chemistry to neurophysiology. Dissipative structures introduce probably one of the simplest physical mechanisms for communication." (Prigogine and Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, p. 148.)

The phenomena of the "chemical clock" shows how in nature order can arise spontaneously out of chaos at a certain point. This is an important observation, especial in relation to the way in which life arises from inorganic matter.

"‘Order through fluctuations’ models introduce an unstable world where small causes can have large effects, but this world is not arbitrary. On the contrary, the reasons for the amplification of a small event are a legitimate matter for rational inquiry." (Prigogine and Stengers.) (Prigogine and Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, p. 206.)

We must remember that Hegel was writing at the beginning of the last century, when science was completely dominated by classical mechanical physics, and half a century before Darwin developed the idea of natural selection through the medium of random mutations. He had no scientific evidence to back up his theory that necessity expresses itself through accident. But that is the central idea behind the most recent innovative thinking in science.

This profound law is equally fundamental to an understanding of history. As Marx wrote to Kugelmann in 1871:

"World history would indeed be easy to make if the struggle were to be taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would on the other hand be of a very mystical nature, if ‘accidents’ played no part. These accidents naturally form part of the general course of development and are compensated by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very much dependent upon such ‘accidents,’ including the ‘accident’ of the character of the people who head the movement." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 264, Moscow, 1965.)

Engels made the same point a few years later in relation to the role of "great men" in history:

"Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even in a definite delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence. Engels to Starkenburg, 25th January 1894, p. 467.)

 
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