16-07A: Summary Of Essay Seven -- Engels's 'First Law': Never Mind The Quality Just Repeat the Mantra




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This is an Introductory Essay, which has been written for those who find the main Essays either too long, or too difficult. It doesn't pretend to be comprehensive since it is simply a summary of the core ideas presented at this site. Most of the supporting evidence and argument found in each of the main Essays has been omitted. Anyone wanting more details, or who would like to examine my arguments in full, should consult the Essay for which this is a summary. [In this particular case, that can be found here.]


As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.


The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.


Phrases like "ruling-class theory", "ruling-class view of reality", "ruling-class ideology" (etc.) used at this site (in connection with Traditional Philosophy and DM), aren't meant to suggest that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although some of them did -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius). They are intended to highlight theories (or "ruling ideas") that are conducive to, or which rationalise the interests of the various ruling-classes history has inflicted on humanity, whoever invents them. Up until recently this dogmatic approach to knowledge had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who either relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.**


However, that will become the central topic of Parts Two and Three of Essay Twelve (when they are published); until then, the reader is directed here, here, and here for more details.


[**Exactly how this applies to DM will, of course, be explained in the other Essays published at this site (especially here, here, and here). In addition to the three links in the previous paragraph, I have summarised the argument (but this time aimed at absolute beginners!) here.]



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1) Quantity Into Quality


a) 'Leaps' In The Dark


b) Counter-Examples Just Keep Stacking Up


c) The Quality Of Boiling Mamelukes


2) Conclusion


Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism


Abbreviations Used At This Site


Return To The Main Index Page


Contact Me



Quantity Into Quality


Engels famously summarised his first 'Law' in the following way:


"…[T]he transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, we could express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)…. 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." [Engels (1954), p.63; bold emphases added.]


Exactly how Engels knew that it was impossible to "alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion" he annoyingly kept to himself. This worry is made all the more problematic when we recall that for Engels matter was merely an abstraction -- but, if that is so, it seems energy must be, too. The question then is: How can anything be altered by the addition or subtraction of an abstraction?


However, Engels did at least try to deny that his:


"...laws [have been] foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them." [Ibid., p.62.]


Despite this, Engels's imposition of a necessary 'Law' -- and one based only on a handful of examples (largely drawn from certain areas of chemistry, buttressed by a few rather quirky anecdotal facts) --, is as clear an example of Linguistic Idealism [LIE] as one could wish to find. [Why this is so is explained in Essay Twelve (summary here); on LIE, see here, and here.]


Less partisan observers might be forgiven for concluding that Engels either did not know what the word "foisted" meant, or he hoped no one would notice when he actually indulged in a little of it himself.


Nevertheless, this 'Law' is in fact far too vague and confused for anyone to be able to say whether or not it is true.



'Leaps' In The Dark


According to DM-theorist, these changes aren't protracted and smooth:


"This is precisely the Hegelian nodal line of measure relations, in which, at certain definite nodal points, the purely quantitative increase or decrease gives rise to a qualitative leap; for example, in the case of heated or cooled water, where boiling-point and freezing-point are the nodes at which -- under normal pressure -- the leap to a new state of aggregation takes place, and where consequently quantity is transformed into quality." [Engels (1976), p.56. See also Engels (1976), p.160.]


"What distinguishes the dialectical transition from the undialectical transition? The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualness...." [Lenin (1961), p.282. Bold emphases added.]


Unfortunately for Engels and Lenin, many things in nature and society change qualitatively without going through a DM-inspired "nodal" point -- or even so much as a tiny "leap".


These include the following: melting or solidifying plastic, metal, rock, sulphur, tar, toffee, sugar, chocolate, wax, butter, cheese, and glass. As these are either heated or cooled, they gradually change from solid to liquid, and vice versa, with no "nodal" point anywhere in sight.


Some might want to appeal to the exact melting points of solids as clear examples of dialectical "leaps"; however, this is what we read about the so-called "amorphous solids" (such as glasses, gels, and plastics):


"Amorphous solids do not have a sharp melting point; they are softened in a range of temperature." [Quoted from here; accessed 03/05/2015. Bold emphasis added.]


"Amorphous solids tend to soften slowly over a wide temperature range rather than having a well-defined melting point like a crystalline solid." [Quoted from here; accessed 08/04/2015. Bold emphasis added.]




"Almost any substance can solidify in amorphous form if the liquid phase is cooled rapidly enough...." [Ibid. Bold added.]


Plainly, this means that "almost any substance" will lack a melting point if it has been cooled in the above way. In turn, this implies that there are countless non-'nodal' (non-"leap"-like) changes in nature.


[Notice: I am not arguing that there are no sudden changes, only that not everything behaves this way. The argument that "phase changes" in general are "nodal" has been dealt with more fully in Essay Seven.]


Now, because dialecticians have yet to tell us how long a "node" is supposed to last, they can safely indulge in some sloppy, off-the-cuff, a priori Super-Science of their own, applying this supposedly 'objective' Law entirely subjectively. [More on this here, and here.]


[The phrase "Super-Science" refers to the practice of deriving fundamental 'truths' about reality from thought alone, which 'truths' go way beyond anything the sciences could possibly establish or confirm, and which 'truths' have in fact been inferred from contingent aspects of the language used to 'derive' them. These 'truths' are supposed to apply not only to all regions of space and time, but to every possible and conceivable world. Indeed, in many cases, they express the 'logical form of reality'. (How that actually works in practice is best omitted from this summary; it is explained in detail here and here.)]


If this is difficult to believe, ask the very next dialectician you meet precisely how long a "nodal point" is supposed to last. [And good luck getting an answer to that one!] As seems clear, if no one knows, anything from a Geological Age to an instantaneous quantum leap could be "nodal"!


Plainly, this introduces a fundamental element of arbitrariness into what is supposed to be a scientific law. Hence, the use of "subjectively", above.


However, given the strife-riven and sectarian nature of dialectical politics, any attempt to define DM-"nodes" could lead to yet more factions. Thus, we are sure to see emerge the rightist "Nanosecond Tendency" -- sworn enemies of the "Picosecond Left Opposition" -- who will both take up swords with the 'eclectic' wing: the "it depends on circumstances" 'clique' at the 'centrist' "Femtosecond League".


These days a favourite example used to illustrate this 'Law' is Steven Jay Gould's theory of Punctuated Equilibria. However, amateur dialectical palaeontologists who appeal to this theory fail to note that the alleged "nodal" points involved in Gould's theory last tens of thousands of years, at the very least. This is a pretty unimpressive "leap" -- in fact, it is more like a painfully slow crawl. If it took that long for water to turn to steam -- or for Capitalism to turn to Socialism -- we would all die of boredom, or global warming, or both, first. Plainly, this particular watched dialectical kettle would never boil. [Again, I have discussed this topic in more detail here.]



Counter-Examples Just Keep Stacking-Up


[Please Note: (1) When confronted with many of the examples listed below, DM-fans generally respond by pointing out that Engels's' 'Law' only applies to developing bodies and systems, which rules these counter-examples out. I have dealt with that reply here and here; (2) The argument below is now somewhat out-of-date; it has been up-dated here.]


The difficulties the First 'Law' faces do not stop there. When heated, objects/bodies change in quality from cold to warm and then to hot with no "nodal" point separating these particular "qualitative" stages -- hot water is significantly "qualitatively" different from cold water. The same happens in reverse when they cool. Moving bodies similarly speed up from slow to fast (and vice versa) without any "nodal" punctuation marks affecting this qualitative transition. Bodies with a high relative velocity are "qualitatively" different from those with a low relative velocity -- any who doubt this should stand in front of a stationary bus, and then in front of one moving at top speed. [Only joking!] In like manner, the change from one colour to the next in the normal colour spectrum is continuous, with no "nodal" points evident anywhere at all -- and this is also the case with the colour changes that bodies experience when they are heated until they are red-, or white-hot. Sounds, too, change smoothly from soft to loud, and in pitch from low to high, and then back again in a "node"-free environment. In fact, with respect to wave-governed phenomena in general, change seems to be continuous rather than discrete, which means that since the majority of particles/objects in nature move in such a manner, most things in reality seem to disobey this aspect of Engels's rather unimpressive 'Law' -- at least, at the macroscopic level. Hence, here we have countless changes in "quality" that are non-"nodal".


To be sure, some wave-like changes are said to occur discontinuously (indeed, the word "node" is used precisely here by Physicists), but this isn't the result of continuous background changes. For example, quantum phenomena are notoriously discontinuous, and such changes are not preceded by continual or gradual quantitative increases, as this 'Law' demands.


"With this assurance Herr Dühring saves himself the trouble of saying anything further about the origin of life, although it might reasonably have been expected that a thinker who had traced the evolution of the world back to its self-equal state, and is so much at home on other celestial bodies, would have known exactly what's what also on this point. For the rest, however, the assurance he gives us is only half right unless it is completed by the Hegelian nodal line of measure relations which has already been mentioned. In spite of all gradualness, 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. -- Once again, therefore, it is Hegel who has to correct Herr Dühring." [Engels (1976), pp.82-83. Bold emphasis added.]


"It is said, natura non facit saltum [there are no leaps in nature]; and ordinary thinking when it has to grasp a coming-to-be or a ceasing-to-be, fancies it has done so by representing it as a gradual emergence or disappearance. But we have seen that the alterations of being in general are not only the transition of one magnitude into another, but a transition from quality into quantity and vice versa, a becoming-other which is an interruption of gradualness and the production of something qualitatively different from the reality which preceded it. Water, in cooling, does not gradually harden as if it thickened like porridge, gradually solidifying until it reached the consistency of ice; it suddenly solidifies, all at once. It can remain quite fluid even at freezing point if it is standing undisturbed, and then a slight shock will bring it into the solid state." [Hegel (1999), p.370, §776. Bold emphasis alone added.]


"[I]t will be understood without difficulty by anyone who is in the least capable of dialectical thinking...[that] quantitative changes, accumulating gradually, lead in the end to changes of quality, and that these changes of quality represent leaps, interruptions in gradualness…. That is how all Nature acts…." [Plekhanov (1956), pp.74-77, 88, 163. Bold emphasis alone added. (Unfortunately, the Index page for this book over at the Marxist Internet Archive has no link to the second half of Chapter Five, but it can be accessed directly here. I have informed the editors of this error. Added June 2015: they have now corrected it!)]


"The 'nodal line of measure relations'... -- transitions of quantity into quality... Gradualness and leaps. And again...that gradualness explains nothing without leaps." [Lenin (1961), p.123. Bold emphasis alone added. Lenin added in the margin here: "Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!"]


"What distinguishes the dialectical transition from the undialectical transition? The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualness. The unity (identity) of Being and not-Being." [Ibid., p.282. Bold emphasis added.]


"Dialecticians call this process the transformation of quantity into quality. Slow, gradual changes that do not add up to a transformation in the nature of a thing suddenly reach a tipping point when the whole nature of the thing is transformed into something new." [Rees (2008), p.24. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]


The argument here is plainly: (1) Quantitative increase in matter or energy results in gradual change, and hence (2) At a certain point, further increase breaks this "gradualness" inducing a "leap", a sudden "qualitative" change. But, sub-atomic, quantum changes occur suddenly with no "gradual" build-up. For example, electrons in an atom do not "gradually" absorb energy and then "leap" to an new orbital.


"Changes of energy, such as the transition of an electron from one orbit to another around the nucleus of an atom, is done in discrete quanta. Quanta are not divisible. The term quantum leap refers to the abrupt movement from one discrete energy level to another, with no smooth transition. There is no 'inbetween'.


"The quantization, or 'jumpiness' of action as depicted in quantum physics differs sharply from classical physics which represented motion as smooth, continuous change. Quantization limits the energy to be transferred to photons and resolves the UV catastrophe problem." [Quoted from here; accessed 15/12/2015. Quotations altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Minor typo corrected.]


Hence, discontinuous quantum phenomena cannot be recruited to fit, or illustrate, this 'Law'.


[In Essay Seven, the application of this 'Law' to 'discrete', microscopic/quantum phenomena is shown to be no less misguided.]


Some might want to argue that in relation to the above there are, indeed, sudden changes. For example, at some point a speeding car will be deemed to be travelling fast (for instance, when it exceeds local speed limits, or is in excess of, say, 50 mph). However, this response drives a gaping hole through this 'law' (n pun intended), for it will be a human observer who will decide in each case that a car is travelling fast, or that a lump of metal is hot, or a sound is loud.


There are several problems with this reply: (1) It will be the human observer that undergoes a supposed nodal-change here, not the objects in question. There is no objective point at which a car is travelling fast, or a sound is loud. So, in this case, a qualitative change will have taken place in the human observer, not the object (the car) in question. While the latter will have had energy added to it, it hasn't changed in the required manner, the observer has -- but that observer has had no energy added to her. (2) It is even less clear what a 'quality' is supposed to be in such cases. Are there objective laws in nature that decide when a lump of iron is hot and when it is not? Is that lump objectively hot at, say, 99oC, but not objectively hot at 98oC? As we will see below, given the DM-definition of 'quality' there is in fact no DM-'quality' here. In relation to hotness, there is no point at which a lump of metal "is what it is and not something substantially new", as the definition requires.


It could be objected that a human observer will have had energy added to her, the light energy that enters her eyes. I have dealt with objection in extensive detail in Essay Seven Part One (here, here and here); sceptical readers are directed there for more details.


There are countless material changes which flout this rather vague 'Law'; indeed, recalcitrant examples in addition to those listed the above spring rapidly to mind. If the same colour is stared at for several minutes it can undergo a qualitative change into another colour (several optical illusions are based on this fact). Something similar can happen with regard to many two-dimensional patterns and shapes (for example the Necker Cube and other optical illusions); these undergo considerable qualitative change when no obvious quantitative differences are involved. [Objections to this line-of-argument are neutralised here.]


Someone could again object that energy will have been fed into such systems, which means that the above aren't genuine counterexamples. However, this objection itself trades on at least two further ambiguities (discussed in more detail in Essay Seven): 1) The distinction between energy added to a system and energy merely expended, and 2) The nature of DM-"qualities". The reader is referred to the above Essay for more details.


In fact, there are so many exceptions to this 'Law' that it would be wise to demote it and consign it to a more appropriate category, perhaps among trite rules of thumb that sometimes seem to work -- a bit like "An apple a day keeps the doctor away", or even "A watched kettle never boils"; hardly cosmically applicable principles. Indeed, given the fact that this 'Law' has no discernible mathematical content it is rather surprising it was ever called a "Law", to begin with.


There are countless examples where significant qualitative change can result from no obvious quantitative differences. These include the qualitative dissimilarities that exist between different chemical substances for the same quantity of matter/energy involved.


For instance, Isomeric molecules (studied in stereochemistry) are a particularly good example. This is especially true of those that have so-called "chiral" centres (i.e., centres of asymmetry). In such cases, the spatial ordering of the constituent atoms, not their quantity, affects the overall quality of the resulting molecule (something Engels said couldn't happen). Here, a change in molecular orientation, not quantity, effects a change in quality.


Consider one example of many: (R)-Carvone (spearmint) and (S)-Carvone (caraway); these molecules have the same number of atoms (of the same elements), and the same bond energies, but they are nonetheless qualitatively distinct because of the different spatial arrangement of the atoms involved. Change in geometry leading to a change in quality, contrary to what Engels asserted.


This un-dialectical aspect of matter is especially true of the so-called "Enantiomers" (i.e., symmetrical molecules that are mirror images of each other). These include compounds like (R)-2-clorobutane and (S)-2-chlorobutane, and the so-called L- and D-molecules, which rotate the plane of polarised light the left (laevo) or the right (dextro)) -- such as, L- and D-Tartaric acid. What might at first appear to be small energy-neutral differences like these have profound biochemical implications; a protein with D-amino acids (instead of L-) won't work in most living cells since the overwhelming majority of organisms metabolise L-organic molecules. These compounds not only have the same number of atoms in each molecule, there are no apparent energy differences between them; even so, they have easily distinguishable physical qualities.


Change in quality -- identical quantity.


[Objections to the use of isomers have been neutralised here, here and here.]


Moving into Physics: if two or more forces are aligned differently, the qualitative results are invariably different (even when the overall magnitude of each force is held constant).


Consider just one example: let forces F1 and F2 be situated in parallel (not along the same line of action), but diametrically opposed to one another (i.e., parallel in opposite senses, in the same plane, but not collinear). Here, these two forces can exercise a turning effect on a suitably placed body. Now, arrange the same two forces in like manner so that they remain parallel (still in an opposite sense), but act diametrically along the same line. In this case, as seems clear, these forces will have no turning effect on the same body. Change in quality with no change in quantity, once more.


Since there are many ways to align forces (as there are with other vector quantities, such as velocities and accelerations, etc.), there are countless counter-examples to this rather pathetic first 'Law' here alone.


Some might object that moving a force in the manner envisaged requires energy, so these examples are not in fact energy neutral. However, the arrangements listed could exist side by side. A qualitative difference then would be obvious, but there would be no quantitative discrepancy between them.


In addition, an expenditure of energy will depend on the nature of the force field in which they are embedded (i.e., whether or not the field is "conservative"). [On "conservative forces", see here and here.]


In a conservative field, the work done in moving a force in a circuit is zero, but certain (non-circuitous) line integrals in such fields can also be zero, if these are chosen carefully.


In either case, we would have a qualitative difference for no extra quantitative input, something this terminally vague 'Law' does not rule out. Naturally, once again, this 'Law' could be tightened to exclude these and other awkward counterexamples, but then it would cease to be a law and would become merely a narrow convention (and one that would have been imposed on nature, too).


Perhaps more significantly, this 'Law' takes no account of qualitative changes that result from (energetically-neutral) ordering relations in nature and society. Here, identical physical structures and processes can be ordered differently to create significant qualitative changes. One example is the different ordering principles found in music, where an alteration to a sequence of the same notes in a chord or in a melody can have a major qualitative impact on harmony, with no quantitative change anywhere apparent. So, the same seven notes (i.e., tones and semi-tones) arranged in different modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolean and Locrian) sound markedly different to the human ear. Of course, there are other ways of altering the quality of music in an energetically neutral environment over and above this (such as timing).


Another example along the same lines concerns the ordering principles found in language, where significant qualitative changes can result from the re-arrangement of the same parts of speech. For instance, the same number of letters jumbled-up can either make sense or no sense, as the case may be -- in, say, "dialectics" and "csdileati" (which is "dialectics" jumbled up).


Perhaps more radical still, the same words can mean something qualitatively new if sequenced differently --, as in, for example: "The cat is on the mat" and "The mat is on the cat". Or, even worse: "It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic", compared with "It is impossible completely to understand Hegel's Logic, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Marx's Capital." Here there is considerable qualitative difference with no quantitative change at all.


There are many other examples of this phenomenon, but a few more should suffice for the purposes of this summary: a successful strike (one that is, say, planned first then actioned second) could turn into its opposite if it is actioned first and planned second. Now even though the total energy input here would be ordered differently in each case, the overall energy budget of the system (howsoever that is characterised) need not be different. So, the addition of no extra matter or energy here could turn successful action into disaster if the order of events is reversed. Of course, we can all imagine situations where this particular example could involve different energy budgets, but this is not necessarily the case, which is all I need.


There are literally thousands of everyday examples of such qualitative changes (where there are no obvious associated quantitative differences), so many in fact that Engels's first 'Law' begins to look all the more pathetic as a result. Who for example would put food on the table then a plate on top of it? A change in the order here would constitute a qualitatively different (and more normal) act: plate first, food second. Which of us would jump out of an aeroplane first and put their parachute on second -- or cross a road first, look second? And is there a sane person on the planet who goes to the toilet first and gets out of bed second? Moreover, only an idiot would pour 500 ml of water slowly into 1000 ml of concentrated Sulphuric Acid, whereas, someone who knew what they were doing would readily do the reverse. But all of these have profound qualitative differences if performed in the wrong order (for the same energy budget). [Again, obvious objections to the above have been neutralised in Essay Seven Part One.]


How could Engels have missed examples like these? Is dialectical myopia so crippling that it prevents its acolytes using their common sense?


Furthermore, qualitative change can be induced by other qualitative changes, contrary to Engels's claim:


"...qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion..." [Engels (1954), p.63. Emphasis added.]


For example, in a 1:1 mixture of paint, one litre of brown can be made by mixing two half litres each of red and green, but the same qualitative effect can be achieved by using less or more of both (say, 2 litres of each), but in the same ratio. Here a change in the quantity of mixed paints has no effect on the qualitative properties of the mixture (i.e., its colour), while the qualities mixed do. In this case, two qualities (two colours) will have changed into a new quality (a new colour) when mixed. Not only do the same amounts (and proportions) of red and green paint exist before and after mixing, for any fixed amount of each, the two former qualities will have merged into a single quality. Qualitative change produced by qualitative change in a quantitatively neutral environment.


Of course, it could be argued that the mixture contains more paint than it did before (which means that there actually has been a quantitative change), but this isn't so. In general, prior to mixing there were n litres of each colour (and 2n litres of both) preserving the 1:1 ratio; after mixing the same amount of paint still exists, namely n litres of each (and 2n litres of both, for any n), still preserving the 1:1 proportion. The qualitative change in colour has nothing to do with the quantities involved, but everything to do with the mixing of the two previous qualities in the same ratio.


To be sure, if the ratio of the mixed paints were changed, a different qualitative outcome would result, but as noted above, even this doesn't happen "nodally", and so it seems to be of little relevance to the first 'Law'. So, if the ratio is kept the same, we would have a change in quality initiated solely by a qualitative change, but not by an increase in quantity.


Also, mixing 2n litres of molten metal (with severally different qualities) can lead to a qualitatively new alloy, for example, brass or pewter. This point clearly applies to any mixing of 2n units (or other amounts) of any sort of matter. Indeed, something similar can be achieved with the mixing of most chemicals, as it can with light, sound and taste.


Matter in general is therefore reassuringly non-dialectical.


Someone could still object that there has been an increase in matter here. If one litre of red is added to one litre of green, say, this causes a qualitative change in colour, as Engels argued. There has plainly been an increase in matter, here. But, there is in fact no increase in matter, in this case, since we started with two litres and we ended with two litres.


Moreover, Engels is entirely unclear what constitutes the "addition" of matter and/or energy to a "body", which is probably what lies behind the objection noted above. That objection takes it as read that one litre of red is added to one litre of green, but if we word this differently, even that becomes false. Imagine this scenario: we have a container of paint holding one litre of red and one litre of green separated in the middle by a collapsible barrier (which stays inside the container). Let us assume that the barrier is collapsed so that the red and green halves can mix together. In that scenario, the object/body in question is the container along with its contents. At the end of this we still have the same object (the container with exactly the same quantity of paint, and the divider), only now exhibiting a new quality.


Moreover, the collapsing of the barrier could be initiated by a battery powered device internal to the container, too.


[Non-contrived and naturally occurring examples of this sort of change are given in Essay Seven Part One -- for instance, here. This series of counter-examples is predicated on Engels failure to delineate the thermodynamic boundaries of the bodies/processes he counts as instances of this 'Law'.]


Put this way, we would have a change in quality to an object/body with no new matter or energy added, contradicting Engels. [More details here.]


More counter-examples rapidly stack up: a child living in, say, Paris can become an orphan (qualitative change) if both of her parents die in South Africa -- meaning that no quantitative change will have happened to that child -- unless, of course, we are meant to re-interpret a change in a distant geographical/familial relation as a quantitative change.


The largest cut diamond on earth (residing in a safe deposit box, say, in New York) could change into the second largest if another bigger diamond is cut in, say, Amsterdam. This example also applies to other remote changes. For example, the biggest star in a galaxy could become the second biggest if another star hundreds of millions of light years away (but in the same galaxy) grows in size (perhaps over millions of years) through accretion of matter. So, in both cases, there would be a qualitative change to the first object with no relevant matter or energy added or subtracted from/to that object. There are countless examples of remote change like this.


A cheque drawn in, say, New York will become instantaneously worthless (qualitative change) if the issuing bank in Tokyo goes bust (meaning that no quantitative change will have happened to that cheque).


A Silver Medallist in, say, the Olympics can become the Gold Medal winner in an event (qualitative change) if the former Gold medallist is disqualified because of drug-taking (meaning that no quantitative change will have occurred to that Silver Medallist).


Two identical "Keep off the Grass" signs can mean something different (qualitative change) if one of them is posted on a garden lawn and the other is positioned near a stand of Marijuana plants, at the same height above sea level (thus with no change in energy).


Should anyone object to this example, we need only alter it slightly: imagine another "Keep off the Grass" sign, but now in front of, but a few yards/metres away from, a huge picture of a lawn. Imagine this large background picture is removed and replaced by a huge picture of a Marijuana stand, again a few yards/metres away from the "Keep off the Grass" sign. The sign itself will have had no matter or energy added to it, but it will have altered in 'quality'.


Some might still object that the object here is in fact the "Keep off the Grass" sign and the background picture, since it is that picture which gives the sign its meaning. If so, there will have been an addition of matter to this sign as each background picture was changed. In that case, all we need do is alter the example once again: imagine another "Keep off the Grass" in front of, but a few yards/metres away from, two huge pictures of a lawn and a Marijuana stand, one of which picture is in front of the other. Imagine one of these background pictures is moved so that it is now behind the other picture. Imagine also that this move is powered by a battery operated device. The sign itself will have had no matter or energy added to it, neither will the entire ensemble -- that is, the sign, the two large pictures and the battery-operated mechanical moving device will have had no matter or energy added, since this ensemble is self-sufficient in energy -- but the ensemble will have altered in quality as these two large pictures are swapped.


[The objection that this is a highly contrived example is rebutted here.]


A circle looks like an ellipse (qualitative change) when viewed from certain angles for no change in energy to that circle.


The same three mathematical (or physical) points can undergo a qualitative change if, say, from being arranged linearly they are then re-arranged as the corners of a triangle (with no energy added to these points). Here, there would be a qualitative change with no quantitative change, once again. There are, of course, a potentially infinite number of examples of that sort of change imaginable for 2-, or 3-dimensional shapes, for n points (be they mathematical or physical -- so this is not necessarily an abstract set of counter-instances).



The 'Quality' Of Boiling Mamelukes


The hackneyed examples that DM-theorists regularly dredge up to illustrate this 'Law' (i.e., boiling water, balding heads, Mendeleyev's Table, the alleged fighting qualities of the Mamelukes -- and, of late, Catastrophe and Chaos Theory) in fact only seem to work because of the way that the word "quality" has been 'defined' by dialecticians. Here's how the Marxist Internet Archive characterises it:


"Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else and reflects that which is stable amidst variation. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else.


"Thus, if something changes to an extent that it is no longer the same kind of thing, this is a 'qualitative change', whereas a change in something by which it still the same thing, though more or less, bigger or smaller, is a 'quantitative change'.


"In Hegel's Logic, Quality is the first division of Being, when the world is just one thing after another, so to speak, while Quantity is the second division, where perception has progressed to the point of recognising what is stable within the ups and downs of things. The third and final stage, Measure, the unity of quality and quantity, denotes the knowledge of just when quantitative change becomes qualitative change." [Quoted from here. Accessed August 2007. The definition has been altered slightly since.]


This is an Aristotelian notion, one that Hegel also employed:


"Each of the three spheres of the logical idea proves to be a systematic whole of thought-terms, and a phase of the Absolute. This is the case with Being, containing the three grades of quality, quantity and measure.


"Quality is, in the first place, the character identical with being: so identical that a thing ceases to be what it is, if it loses its quality. Quantity, on the contrary, is the character external to being, and does not affect the being at all. Thus, e.g. a house remains what it is, whether it be greater or smaller; and red remains red, whether it be brighter or darker." [Hegel (1975), p.124, §85.]


So, in the case of boiling water, for instance, we are told that the increase in quantity of one item (i.e., heat) alters the quality of the second (i.e., water). But, as noted above, "quality" is defined in Aristotelian terms (i.e., as that property which is essential to a substance/process, without which it must change into something substantially new). And yet, by no stretch of the imagination is liquidity an essential property of water (except, perhaps in an everyday or pre-scientific sort of sense); but it isn't an essential property of H2O. But, even if it were, increased amounts of water do not seem to change that particular quality (i.e., its liquidity) into anything else; it takes an increase in something other than water to alter its state (namely heat). So, this 'Law' should perhaps be re-written in the following way:


E1: An increase in the quantity of one item leads to a change in what is perhaps not one of the essential qualities of another object/process.


Moreover, this is still not an example of the right kind of qualitative change, since water in a solid, liquid or gaseous form is still water (i.e., H2O). Quantitative addition or subtraction of energy does not result in a qualitative change of the required sort; nothing new emerges. This substance stays H2O throughout.


[This point is easier to see if we change the example: as a liquid or a solid, iron is still iron. The addition of heat doesn't change it into something substantially new.]


Furthermore, countless substances exist in solid, liquid, or gaseous form, so this can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, lead is its atomic structure, and that stays the same whether or not it exists in solid or liquid form. As such, it remains "the same kind of thing."


With that, much of the 'metaphysical bite' of this 'Law' disappears; in fact it becomes rather toothless.


In addition, it seems a little odd to describe an increase in heat as an increase in quantity when what happens is that the relevant water molecules just move about faster if energy is fed into the system. Of course, it could be objected that this is precisely Engels's point; since energy can be measured (here as an increase in heat, say), then that increase in heat is indeed an increase in quantity -- in this case "quantity of motion". But, the original idea appeared in Hegel's work at a time when heat was regarded as a substance (in fact a liquid), Caloric. We now know that what really happens is that molecules just move faster -- after having interacted with still other faster moving molecules. [This is something Engels admits anyway; see for example Engels (1954), pp.63-64.]


So, when Engels speaks here of an increase in energy, he was either using a façon de parler, or he hadn't quite abandoned the old idea that heat is a substance. Nowadays, we might want to call this phenomenon an increase in "energy" if we so wish, but if we do, that would merely plunge this part of the first 'Law' into complete darkness, since the word "energy" (if it isn't a façon de parler) doesn't describe an identifiable substance that can be qualified in this way.


Furthermore, using "quantity" to depict the change in motion of molecules is dubious, too. Certainly, we can speak of an increase in velocity, but there is no such thing as a quantity of velocity that could sensibly be said to increase. Velocity is not a substance either, and although we certainly use numbers to depict it, we do not refer to anything called the "quantity of velocity". Since velocity is a vector, its magnitude is given by a scalar, but velocity itself is just that scalar operating in a that direction. To call the magnitude of a vector a "quantity" would be to confuse a vector (or indeed a direction) with a substance.


Nevertheless, even if it were appropriate to depict things in this way, neither the heat nor the faster molecules change in quality themselves. Any amount of heat remains heat; motion is still motion. Hence, this 'Law' doesn't seem to apply to these 'phenomena', either. In that case, the first 'Law' should now perhaps be re-written along the following lines:


E2: An increase in the quantity of one item (e.g., heat) leads to no qualitative change in that item, while it can cause an alteration in the quality of another item (e.g., water), which will in turn have changed in quality while undergoing no quantitative change itself (there being the same amount of water present) -- but which qualitative change is inadmissible anyway since it isn't a quality definitive of the latter (e.g., water as H2O).


This is not an impressive 'Law'.


As far as the other hardly perennial -- balding heads -- is concerned, it isn't easy to see how this illustrates the first 'Law', either. That is because it is difficult to believe that someone with, say, n hairs on his or her head is hirsute, when the same person with n-1 hairs is objectively bald -- even if at some point or other (and not necessarily the same point in each case) we all might subjectively change the words we use to depict one or both.


Now, if it could be shown that those with precisely n-1 hairs on their heads are always objectively bald, and that this is an essential defining quality of baldness, or of bald people (in the Aristotelian/Hegelian sense just mentioned), so that a change from n to n-1 hairs always results in baldness, and which rule is true for all hirsute human beings, then the first 'Law' might have some life left in it in just this one instance. It could then be called a dialectical 'Law' that applies only to rapidly or slowly balding parts of nature, but nothing else. [Which is longhand for saying that is cannot be a law.]


Nevertheless, even this won't work. With respect to baldness, human anatomists (or even hairdressers) have yet to define hair loss in such Aristotelian terms. Hence, and unfortunately for DM-fans, these professions have so far failed to categorise all follically-challenged individuals this precisely, declaring that anyone with n-1 hairs is essentially bald, whereas anyone with n hairs is still essentially non-coot. Until they do, there are no Aristotelian/Hegelian qualities (definitive of bald human beings) for dialecticians to latch onto. So, in this case, it is impossible to see how an 'objective' example of this dialectical 'Law' could apply --, merely a 'subjective' impression, and one that has to rely on a quirky application of an already vague Aristotelian/Hegelian 'definition' of "quality".


So it seems that if a change in quality occurs, it takes place not in the person going bald, but in the one describing him/her/it as bald. In that case, with respect to human balding, change in the quantity of hair on one person's head will merely change the quality of someone else's opinion of him/her -- and even that occurs subjectively.


There isn't much here on which to base a dialectical 'Law', at least nothing that would fail to brand this part of DM as a fringe science, at best.


Another over-used example is Mendeleyev's Table.


In this particular case, the argument appears to be that as elementary particles are added to certain atoms they change qualitatively into others, which is not, of course, how Mendeleyev saw things, nor is it how Engels interpreted this 'Law'. That is because elementary particles were unknown in their day; indeed, the atomic theory of matter was not widely accepted until after the work of Jean Perrin, 40 or 50 years later.


However, far more fatal is the observation that the Periodic Table does not in fact conform to Engels's 'Law'! To see why, we need to re-examine once again what Engels and others have actually said about this 'Law':


"With this assurance Herr Dühring saves himself the trouble of saying anything further about the origin of life, although it might reasonably have been expected that a thinker who had traced the evolution of the world back to its self-equal state, and is so much at home on other celestial bodies, would have known exactly what's what also on this point. For the rest, however, the assurance he gives us is only half right unless it is completed by the Hegelian nodal line of measure relations which has already been mentioned. In spite of all gradualness, the transition from one form of motion to another always remains a leap, a decisive change." [Engels (1976), p.82. Bold emphasis added.]


"It is said, natura non facit saltum [there are no leaps in nature]; and ordinary thinking when it has to grasp a coming-to-be or a ceasing-to-be, fancies it has done so by representing it as a gradual emergence or disappearance. But we have seen that the alterations of being in general are not only the transition of one magnitude into another, but a transition from quality into quantity and vice versa, a becoming-other which is an interruption of gradualness and the production of something qualitatively different from the reality which preceded it. Water, in cooling, does not gradually harden as if it thickened like porridge, gradually solidifying until it reached the consistency of ice; it suddenly solidifies, all at once. It can remain quite fluid even at freezing point if it is standing undisturbed, and then a slight shock will bring it into the solid state." [Hegel (1999), p.370, §776. Bold emphases alone added.]


"What distinguishes the dialectical transition from the undialectical transition? The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualness." [Lenin (1961), p.282. Bold emphasis added.]


The argument here runs plainly as follows (1) Quantitative increase in matter or energy results in gradual change, hence (2) At a certain point, further increase interrupts this "gradualness", inducing a "leap", a sudden "qualitative" change.


But, this doesn't happen in the Periodic Table! Between each element there is no gradual increase in protons and electrons leading to a sudden change -- there are only sudden changes as these 'particles' are added! For example, as one proton and one electron are added to Hydrogen, it suddenly changes into Helium. Hydrogen does not slowly alter and then suddenly "leap" and become Helium. The same is true of every other element in the Table. In that case, one of the best examples dialecticians use to 'illustrate' this 'Law' in fact fails to do so! There is no "interruption" in gradualness, here.


Now, this is a more honest reading of the data, is it not? And not a single foisting anywhere in sight!


These comments also apply to the other examples drawn from Organic Chemistry quoted by Engels (and Woods and Grant (1995), examined in Note 4 of Essay Seven Part One); cf., Engels (1954), pp.161-63 and Engels (1976), pp.65-68. There is no interruption in 'gradualness' here, either.





This 'Law' can be made to work in a few selected instances if we bend things sufficiently (and if we fail to define either "quality", "node", or "leap" -- and if we ignore Hegel's own definition of "quality" into the bargain); by way of contrast there are countless examples where this 'Law' doesn't apply, no matter how we try to twist things.


[Several of the other examples to which DM-fans appeal in order to illustrate/support their theory are considered in detail in Essay Seven.]


Latest Update: 11/02/16


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