26 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §121 Astronomical prophecy such an acceleration

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. My commentary is in brackets.]

Henri Bergson

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Chapter III. "The Organization of Conscious States. Free Will."
Chapitre III. "De l'organisation des états de conscience : la liberté."

Part LII: Real Duration and Prediction
"La durée réelle et la contingence"

§121 Astronomical prophecy such an acceleration

Previously Bergson illustrated the point that astronomical prediction is not the same as foretelling someone's free actions. He used the example of an evil demon that decrees all motion to go twice as fast. But that means our measuring devices go twice as fast as well. We would notice that the pace of time had a different feel to it. But nothing changes in our calculations, because physics does not deal with the way we experience duration in our consciousness.

Bergson now has us consider what an astronomer does when she foretells lunar eclipses. She compresses all the time between the eclipses, and calculates them all right now. She does not experience the intervening durations between them. So it is as though she sped-up the time, like the evil demon does. The astronomer is only concerned with certain simultaneities, and all the duration between is compressible into an instant. [194-195] Consider when we see a shooting star. It darts quickly across the sky. It seems like its beginning-point and end-point are simultaneous and connected by an extending line. Really it is impossible for something to be in two places at once. But this is much like how astronomers compress the duration between eclipses, and see them all simultaneously in one calculation. So the only way that an astronomer may predict future events is if she makes them phenomena that are currently present to her. She compresses the time between and lives as if she were already there in the future. But then she pretends to have foreseen it by subsequently placing the phenomenon back into its durational place, decompressing the time our consciousness will need to experience before actually witnessing the event. [195c]

Images from the English translation [click for an enlargement]:

Images from the original French [click for an enlargement]:

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Transl. F. L. Pogson, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001).

Available online at:


French text from:

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888.

Available online at:


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