20 Oct 2009

Living Time. Creative Evolution. Bergson. Ch.1 Part 4: Individuality and Age

by Corry Shores
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Living Time

Henri Bergson

Creative Evolution

Évolution Créatrice

Chapter 1

The Evolution of Life – Mechanism and Teleology

Chapitre Premier

De l’évolution de la vie. – Mécanisme et finalité.

4. Individuality and Age

4. vieillissement et individualité

Previously Bergson wondered if our own bodies were somehow intrinsically different from the objects that we discern in the flux of reality in the world around us. Our body’s parts are heterogeneous and yet they hang together and cooperate. We are individuals, but objects like crystals are not. But even we are not completely individual. For, the vital forces that work towards individuality are merely tendencies. They are coupled with other tendencies, for example our tendency to reproduce. When we reproduce we create parts of ourselves that break-off and exist independently. Hence we are not entire in our individuality.

§ 20 Duration Persists but Never Repeats

So, we may characterize living beings by this strong tendency to individualize as a heterogeneous coherent aggregate of diverse but cooperative parts. Our bodies then are fundamentally different from regular objects, which lack this vital force. The closest we will find in the material world would be the whole cosmos itself, which works something like a living organism.

Living beings endure.

Like the universe as a whole, like each conscious being taken separately, the organism which lives is a thing that endures. Its past, in its entirety, is prolonged into its present, and abides there, actual and acting. [16b]

Comme l'univers dans son ensemble, comme chaque être conscient pris à part, l'organisme qui vit est chose qui dure. Son passé se prolonge tout entier dans son présent, y demeure actuel et agissant. [16c]

Now, both our bodies and our minds mature over time. We see this as well even in unicellular organisms. But living things do not all follow the same paths in the way they develop.

there is no universal biological law which applies precisely and automatically to every living thing. There are only directions in which life throws out species in general. Each particular species, in the very act by which it is constituted, affirms its independence, follows its caprice, deviates more or less from the straight line, sometimes even remounts the slope and seems to turn its back on its original direction. [17b]

il n'existe pas de loi biologique universelle, qui s'applique telle quelle, automatiquement, à n'importe quel vivant. Il n'y a que des directions où la vie lance les espèces en général. Chaque espèce particulière, dans l'acte même par lequel elle se constitue, affirme son indépendance, suit son caprice, dévie plus ou moins de la ligne, parfois même remonte la pente et semble tourner le dos à la direction originelle. [17c]

We might say that a tree never grows old because it always has young growth at its tips. However, something ages, in this case the trunk’s interior.

Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed. [17c]

Partout où quelque chose vit, il y a, ouvert quelque part, un registre où le temps s'inscrit. [17d]

This idea of time’s inscription is just a metaphor. Now, we might say that time itself has the ability to affect things on account of its own activity and that it can exist independently of other things (it has “an effective action and a reality of its own”). If we only take our immediate experiences into account, we will not realize that the past actively extends irreversibly into the present as duration. And if we only use our reasoning abilities, we will not understand that reality is continually changing on its fundamental level. It is as though reality knows the past and thus is aware of how to not repeat itself (“the more we get away from the objects cut out and the systems isolated by common sense and by science and the deeper we dig beneath them, the more we have to do with a reality which changes as a whole in its inmost states, as if an accumulative memory of the past made it impossible to go back again.” 17-18). Yet, our mechanistic instinct is stronger than our reasoning and our immediate experience. And it (too?) denies original change and concrete duration. Thus we think that changes are merely arrangements and rearrangements of parts and that time is not really irreversible. Hence, when we grow old, so we think, all we are doing is gradually losing some parts of us, and gaining certain others. And, we conceive the time that the hour-glass undergoes to be the same time that affects us. (18c)

§ 21 Like Sand through the Hourglass, These are the Days of Our Duration

Now, biologists do not know exactly what our bodies gain and lose as we age. Sedwick Minot thinks that the growth and differentiation of cellular protoplasm is the cause of aging. [Bergson references other theories as well, see pp.18-19] What all these examples show is that the scientists think of our aging like just an hour glass losing sand.

§ 22 Perpetual Pubescence

Bergson believes that something more profound must cause aging. Consider how an embryo continually changes form as it grows and develops.

Any one who attempts to note all its successive aspects becomes lost in an infinity, as is inevitable in dealing with a continuum. [19d]

Celui qui voudrait en noter tous les aspects successifs se perdrait dans un infini, comme il arrive quand on a affaire à une continuité. [20a]

Life just continues this dynamic prenatal evolution. We see this with insect larvae. Human puberty and menopause “in which the individual is completely transformed, are quite comparable to changes in the course of larval or embryonic life yet they are part and parcel of the process of our ageing” (20a). And our body prepares for these changes from the beginning.

It is evident that a change like that of puberty is in course of preparation at every instant from birth, and even before birth, and that the ageing up to that crisis consists, in part at least, of this gradual preparation. In short, what is properly vital in growing old is the insensible, infinitely graduated, continuance of the change of form. [20b]

Il est évident qu'un changement comme celui de la puberté se prépare à tout instant depuis la naissance et même avant la naissance, et que le vieillissement de l'être vivant jusqu'à cette crise consiste, en partie au moins, dans celte préparation graduelle. Bref, ce qu'il y a de proprement vital dans le vieillissement est la continuation insensible, infiniment divisée, du changement de forme. [20d]

Yet it is true that as we age, there is some destruction to our body. In these cases we might use mechanistic explanations. However, with these losses there is the accumulation of recorded duration.

But under these visible effects an inner cause lies hidden. The evolution of the living being, like that of the embryo, implies a continual recording of duration, a persistence of the past in the present, and so an appearance, at least, of organic memory. [20d]

Mais sous ces effets visibles se dissimule une cause intérieure. L'évolution de l'être vivant, comme celle de l'embryon, implique un enregistrement continuel de la durée, une persistance du passé dans le présent, et par conséquent une apparence au moins de mémoire organique. [21a]

§ 23 We Don’t Feel Like a Number

Consider instead unorganized bodies again. Their present state depends exclusively on what occurred in the previous instant. As well, a system’s motions depend on the places the parts just were a moment ago (“the position of the material points of a system defined and isolated by science is determined by the position of these same points at the moment immediately before”). Because we are dealing with these instantaneous tendencies and mathematicized time and space locations, we could just find calculus formulas to describe the ways that physical systems behave. When doing so, we would think of time as being a dimension that is like a container all by itself in which physical things extend temporally. [For more, see §71 of Time and Free Will].

the laws that govern unorganized matter are expressible, in principle, by differential equations in which time (in the sense in which the mathematician takes this word) would play the ro1e of independent variable. [20-21]

les lois qui régissent la matière inorganisée sont exprimables, en principe, par des équations différentielles dans lesquelles le temps (au sens où le mathématicien prend ce mot) jouerait le rôle de variable indépendante. [21b]

But this is not so for living beings. When we apply mathematics in the sciences, we become concerned with finding states that replace their immediate predecessors, erasing them from the present.

certain aspects of the present, important for science, are calculable as functions of the immediate past. Nothing of the sort in the domain of life. Here calculation touches, at most, certain phenomena of organic destruction. Organic creation on the contrary, the evolutionary phenomena which properly constitute life, we cannot in any way subject to a mathematical treatment. [21bc]

certains aspects du présent, importants pour la science, sont calculables en fonction du passé immédiat. Rien de semblable dans le domaine de la vie. Ici le calcul a prise, tout au plus, sur certains phénomènes de destruction organique. De la création organique, au contraire, des phénomènes évolutifs qui constituent proprement la vie, nous n'entrevoyons même pas comment nous pourrions les soumettre à un traitement mathématique. [21d]

Indeed, “all the past of the organism must be added to that moment, its heredity in fact, the whole of a very long history” (21cd). Yet we naturally hold the metaphysical view that sees the human body in the same terms as the rest of the physical world. Really however such ideas tell us nothing about the nature of life.

§ 24 No Instantaneous Duration

We normally tend not to distinguish between living and non-living things. So we also think that organized beings lack duration, just like unorganized objects. However, when we say that a system’s state depends on the way it was immediately before, we seem to be introducing the concept of duration. And would we not have to admit as well that because each instant is determined by the prior, that all of the past is implied in the present moment?

Now we should distinguish concrete time from abstract time. Concrete time is the actual time that a system undergoes as it develops. Abstract time is what we deal with when we speculate on the abstract system’s dynamics. But let’s consider the claim that the system’s present state depends on the instant before. That could not be; it is like saying that one mathematical point touches another. Rather we are dealing with limits and differentials. Really the immediately prior instant is the infinitely small (inextensive) duration leading up to the present. However, we are not then actually dealing with something in the past. It is instantaneous and present which expresses tendencies toward change (“The instant “immediately before” is, in reality, that which is connected with the present instant by the interval dt. All that you mean to say, therefore, is that the present state of the system is defined by equations into which differential coefficients enter, such as ds/dt, dv/dt, that is to say, at bottom, present velocities and present accelerations. You are therefore really speaking only of the present – a present, it is true, considered along with its tendency” 23a).

The systems science works with are, in fact, in an instantaneous present that is always being renewed; such systems are never in that real, concrete duration in which the past remains bound up with the present. [23b]

Et, de fait, les systèmes sur lesquels la science opère sont dans un présent instantané qui se renouvelle sans cesse, jamais dans la durée réelle, concrète, où le-passé fait corps avec le présent. [23c]

Now consider how mathematicians will predict a system’s future state. They are not concerned with every state between now and then. Their calculations will only tell us the future state at that instant. The flow of time between does not enter into the equation. If he is concerned with moments during the interval, they still will just be instantaneous tendencies. The scientist

is always speaking of a given moment a static moment, that is and not of flowing time. In short, the world the mathematician deals with is a world that dies and is reborn at every instant, the world which Descartes was thinking of when he spoke of continued creation. [23-24]

c'est toujours d'un moment donné, je veux dire arrêté, qu'il est question, et non pas du temps qui coule. Bref, le monde sur lequel le mathématicien opère est un monde qui meurt et renaît à chaque instant, celui-là même auquel pensait Descartes quand il partait de création continuée. [24b]

However, how could evolution occur in an instant?

Evolution implies a real persistence of the past in the present, a duration which is, as it were, a hyphen, a connecting link. [24a]

L'évolution, elle, implique une continuation réelle du passé par le présent, une durée qui est un trait d'union. [24bc]

§25 Life and Mind are Creation Unceasing

In living beings, change is continuous and the past is preserved in the present, which is real duration. Consciousness shares these attributes.

Can we go further and say that life, like conscious activity, is invention, is unceasing creation? [24b]

Peut-on aller plus loin, et dire que la vie est invention comme 1 activité consciente, création incessante comme elle? [24cd]

Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]:

Images from the original French [click to enlarge]

Bergson, Henri. L'Évolution Créatrice. Ed. Felix Alcan. Paris: Librairies Félix Alcan et Guillaumin Réunies, 1908. Available online athttp://www.archive.org/details/levolutioncreatr00berguoft

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Transl. Arthur Mitchell. London: MacMillan and Co., 1922. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/creativeevolutio00berguoft

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