Engels, Weinberg

Dialectics of Nature, Friedrich Engels, 1883 (ed. 1976):

… an acquaintance with the historical course of evolution of human thought, with the views on the general inter-connections in the external world expressed at various times, is required by theoretical natural science for the additional reason that it furnishes a criterion of the theories propounded by this science itself. Here, however, lack acquaintance with the history of philosophy is fairly frequently and glaringly displayed. Propositions which were advanced in philosophy centuries ago, which often enough have long been disposed of philosophically, are frequently put forward by theorising natural scientists as brand-new wisdom and even become fashionable for a while. It is certainly a great achievement of the mechanical theory of heat that it strengthened the principle of the theory of heat that it strengthened the principle of the conservation of energy by means of fresh proofs and put it once more in the forefront; but could this principle have appeared on the scene as something so absolutely new if the worthy physicists had remembered that it had already been formulated by Descartes? Science physics and chemistry once more operate almost exclusively with molecules and atoms, the atomic philosophy of ancient Greece has of necessity come to the fore again. But how superficially it is treated even by the best of natural scientists! Thus Kekulé tells us … that Democritus, instead of Leucippus, originated it, and he maintains that Dalton was the first to assume the existence of qualitatively different elementary atoms and was the first to ascribe to them different weights characteristic of the different elements. Yet anyone can read in Diogenes Laertius that already Epicurus had ascribed to atoms differences not only of magnitude and form but also of weight, that is, he was already acquanited in his own way with atomic weight and atomic volume.

The year 1848, which otherwise brought nothing to a conclusion in Germany, accomplished a complete revolution only in the sphere of philosophy. By throwing itself into the field of the practical, here setting up the beginnings of modern industry and swindling, there initiating the mighty advance which natural science has since experienced in Germany and which was inaugurated by the caricature-like itinerant preachers Vogt, Büchner, etc., the nation resolutely turned its back on classical German philosophy that had lost itself in the sands of Berlin Old-Hegelianism. Berlin Old-Hegelianism had richly deserved that. But a national that wants to climb the pinnacles of science cannot possibly manage without theoretical thought. Not only Hegelianism but dialectics too was thrown overboard—and that just at the moment when the dialectical character of natural processes irresistibly forced itself upon the mind, when therefore only dialectics could be of assistance to natural science in negotiating the mountain of theory—and so there was a helpless relapse into the old metaphysics. What prevailed among the public since then were, on the one hand, the vapid reflections of Schopenhauer, which were fashioned to fit the philistines, and later even those of Hartmann, and, on the other hand, the vulgar itinerant-preacher materialism of a Vogt and a Büchner. At the universities the most diverse varieties of eclecticism competed with one another and had only one thing in common, namely, that they were concocted from nothing but remnants of old philosophies and were all equally metaphysics. All that was saved from the remnants of classical philosophy was a certain neo-Kantianism, whose last word was the eternally unknowable thing-in-itself, that is, the bit of Kant that least merited preservation. The final result was the incoherence and confusion of theoretical thought now prevalent.

One can scarcely pick up a theoretical book on natural science without getting the impression that natural scientists themselves feel how much they are dominated by this incoherence and confusion, and that the so-called philosophy now current offers them absolutely no way out. And here there really is no other way out, no possibility of achieving clarity, than by a return, in one form of another, from metaphysical to dialectical thinking.

Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven Weinberg, 1992:

Even where philosophical doctrines have in the past been useful to scientists, they have generally lingered on too long, becoming of more harm than ever they were of use. Take, for example, the venerable doctrine of “mechanism,” the idea that nature operates through pushes and pulls of material particles or fluids. In the ancient world no doctrine could have been more progressive. Ever since the pre-Socratic philosophers Democritus and Leucippus began to speculate about atoms, the idea that natural phenomena have mechanical causes has stood in opposition to popular beliefs in gods and demons. The Hellenistic cult leader Epicurus brought a mechanical worldview into his creed specifically as an antidote to belief in the Olympian gods. When Rene Descartes set out in the 1630s on his great attempt to understand the world in rational terms, it was natural that he should describe physical forces like gravitation in a mechanical way, in terms of vortices in a material fluid filling all space. The “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes had a powerful influence on Newton, not because it was right (Descartes did not seem to have the modern idea of testing theories quantitatively) but because it provided an example of the sort of mechanical theory that could make sense out of nature. Mechanism reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, with the brilliant explanation of chemistry and heat in terms of atoms. And even today mechanism seems to many to be simply the logical opposite to superstition. In the history of human thought the mechanical worldview has played a heroic role.

That is just the trouble. In science as in politics or economics we are in great danger from heroic ideas that have outlived their usefulness. The heroic past of mechanism gave it such prestige that the followers of Descartes had trouble accepting Newton’s theory of the solar system. How could a good Cartesian, believing that all natural phenomena could be reduced to the impact of material bodies or fluids on one another, accept Newton’s view that the sun exerts a force on the earth across 93 million miles of empty space? It was not until well into the eighteenth century that Continental philosophers began to feel comfortable with the idea of action at a distance. In the end Newton’s ideas did prevail on the Continent as well as in Britain, in Holland, Italy, France, and Germany (in that order) from 1720 on. To be sure, this was partly due to the influence of philosophers like Voltaire and Kant. But here again the service of philosophy was a negative one; it helped only to free science from the constraints of philosophy itself.