26 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §120 Illustration from hypothetical acceleration of physical movement.

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"

§120 Illustration from hypothetical acceleration of physical movement.

Previously Bergson noted how astronomers predict future heavenly events. This incorrectly leads us to the determinist claim that we might foretell someone's decisions if only we have enough information about them.

Bergson will now try to illustrate the vital difference between predicting cosmic events and foretelling someone's free decisions.

Let's suppose there is a very evil demon. He decrees that all motions in the universe will go twice as fast. But note that physics does not measure movement's concrete duration. They begin with one simultaneity at the beginning of the motion [all the moving bodies are arranged in some position simultaneously, and they are all positioned in relation simultaneously to the stop-watch hands]. The physicists observe the motion continue-on until its stopping-point. They determine this point again by simultaneities [the watch-hands as simultaneous with the moving bodies]. In between these two simultaneities is what they consider an extent of time. But what constitutes that extension are a series of other moments, which are just simultaneities too.

Now consider again how the evil demon caused things to move twice as fast. That will not change the number of simultaneities between the beginning and ending ones. It only will diminish the durational intervals between them. [Let's use this example: we determined that our bodies moved in 10 seconds. The second-hand passed-through 10 separate second-marks. So we will just deal with these ten simultaneities. If bodies move twice as fast, that means both the moving objects as well as the second-hand move doubly. So there will still be the same ten simultaneities during the bodies' motion.] And thus also, nothing will change in the mathematical calculations. The only difference will be for example that our consciousness perceives the day as being much shorter than normal. [So, just like with the speed-up stop-watch,] we will have no standard of measure that will allow us to quantitatively determine that the day is shorter. Rather, we will "realize in some way or other a decline in the usual storing of experience, a change in the progress usually accomplished between sunrise and sunset" (194). [In other words, we will notice a qualitative difference].

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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