1 Nov 2009

The Mechanics of Duration. Creative Evolution. Bergson. Ch.1 Part 6: Radical Mechanism and Real Duration

by Corry Shores
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The Mechanics of Duration

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.

6. Radical Mechanism and Real Duration: the Relation of biology to physics and chemistry

6. Le mécanisme radical : biologie et physico-chimie.

Previously we saw how the course of evolution is unpredictable.

§30 We Must Evolve Into Philosophers

Bergson explains now that our intellects reject "this idea of the absolute originality and unforeseeability of forms" (30c). Our brains evolved to keep us ready for appropriate actions. To do so, our minds try to determine what makes this present situation similar to some others that we already know, so that we may apply the principle: "like produces like" (31b). Science carries-out this faculty to its highest degree: "science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition" (31b). [Consider how the law of gravity repeats itself continually and countlessly. We think of the law as being something abstract from all its manifestations. It's a law and not an event, so to speak. It can manifest at any particular time.] Science considers repeating things to be "withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time" (31c). Hence science cannot deal with things that it cannot abstract from the succession of moments that are actually happening as history progresses (that are "irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history") (31c). But we noted that this scientific attitude is inherent to the way our minds work. Hence

To get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must break with scientific habits which are adapted to the fundamental requirements of thought, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy. (31c.d)

Il faut, pour se représenter cette irréductibilité et cette irréversibilité, rompre avec des habitudes scientifiques qui répondent aux exigences fondamentales de la pensée, faire violence à l'esprit, remonter la pente naturelle de l'intelligence. Mais là est précisément le rôle de la philosophie. (32a)

§31 Analysis is Lifeless

In reality, things are continuously evolving unpredictably. Yet, because our own minds have evolved to detect similarities, we do not notice the perpetual alterations. So we make these mistakes:

a) Continuous evolution seems like a series of successive self-same stages.

b) The emergence of something entirely new seems like just a reconfiguration of parts we already know, and hence the seemingly new thing is merely a repetition of a fact we already knew about.

c) So even though the new thing was unforseeable, we mistakenly regard it as merely a "new arrangement of old elements." (32a)

d) The new causality involved appears to us as merely "old causes repeated in a new order." (32b)

e) We did not foresee the new arrangment. But we incorrectly assume that had we known the elemental causes, we could have predicted the new living form.

f) We erroneously think that we can reduce biological evolution to mechanical principles in physics and chemistry. And we come to think that if we reject this claim then we are saying that life forms are not made of the same materials as other things in the world.

Bergson replies: it is not the material composition of life that is under question. What we doubt is that we may reduce living beings to the artificial systems of inert matter that science studies. Instead, Bergson claims, any life form itself is more like a natural system comparable only to the whole of the entire universe itself. This all-encomassing sort of system a 'real whole,' an 'indivisible continuity' is the only mechanism that Bergson would ascribe to living creatures. When we examine a living being within the greater system, it would not really be a piece that we can subtract from the whole.

The systems we cut out within it would, properly speaking, not then be parts at all; they would be partial views of the whole. And, with these partial views put end to end, you will not make even a beginning of the reconstruction of the whole, any more than, by multiplying photographs of an object in a thousand different aspects, you will reproduce the object itself. [32-33]

les systèmes que nous y découpons n'en seraient point alors, à proprement parler, des parties ; ce seraient des vues partielles prises sur le tout. Et, avec ces vues partielles mises bout à bout, vous n'obtiendrez même pas un commencement de recomposition de l'ensemble, pas plus qu'en multipliant les photographies d'un objet, sous mille aspects divers, vous non reproduirez la matérialité. [33bc]

The same holds for life forms. We cannot break them down into constituent mechanistic chemical and physical elements without losing the organic dynamic of the whole. We cannot depend on physics and chemistry to "give us the key to life" (33b).

§32 The Geometry of Evolution

Now consider a curve. The more we zoom in on part of the curve, the more it appears like a line. As we near the limit, we reach a part that is infinitely small, and is virtually straight like a line. [For a better explanation, see §72 of Time and Free Will and this entry about the derivative.]

Each of these infinitely small linelets conincides with the curve's tangent. However, these infinitely small straight lines are mathematical abstractions. A curve is not made-up of infinitely many straight lines. Rather, it is continuously curving. At every moment of the curve's curving, it is tending in the direction of the tangent at that point. Bergson says that this tendency is like the vitality of life. But the continuous tending of the curve cannot be reduced to the little linelets. This is because we use our imagination to stop the motion at these limits, when really the curving of the curve is continuous. Analogously, we cannot reduce the tendencies of living evolution to these instants of unidirectional tending. Instead, vituality is the continuous force of change in something that we can only analyze-out abstractly and artificially in retrospect, after the movement is made.

§33 Calculus Lacks Vitality

Science progresses the more it is able to find the determinable instantaneities in dynamic processes. The differential calculus of modern mathematics accomplished this feat. In ancient geometry, a shape such as a circle was considered already rendered and static. But now we conceive of curves dynamically, as if in a continuous process of alteration. Science hopes for the same sort of accomplishment in biology. It wishes it could look at the elemental chemical and physical dynamics of a life system at a given instant, then apply differential calculus to determine where that system is headed.

Bergson's sort of organic mechanics is a mechanics of translation [because one form does not transform into another, but translates into a whole new domain where the rules, structures, mechanisms, and dynamics are different.] But the sort of science that sees the world as always having the same basic elements that merely rearrange themselves would be a mechanics of transformation [because in this case there is just one domain whose parts continually rearranging themselves.] So if science were able to use something like calculus to predict evolution, then from this perspective, Bergson's mechanics of translation would just be subsumed under the more encompassing mechanics of transformation. Bergson now has us consider how there are an infinity of functions that can share the same differential. [Knowing just the pattern of tendencies along a movement will not tell us with certainty how that motion will continue-on farther down its development.] So even if we apply integral calculus to the physico-chemical elements of vital action, we will not necessarily know thereby its precise course of development. Hence, Bergson will go along to a certain degree with the presumptions of mechanism. But he will not follow it far enough to conclude that we may use mathematics to predetermine the course of vital motion. At best, we might only determine its development in part. The rest would be "left to indetermination" (34d).

§34 Science can Determine Some Things, However

Despite the fact that phychics and chemistry may never be able to predict evolutions, it is still possible that we may use these fields to bring about vital organic dynamics. During the time Bergson writes this text, scientists had already succeeded in replicating basic aspects of cell division. And while the motions of an amoeba might seem to involve something like the unpredictable free choices of the organism, its movement can also be described mechanically. It moves according to an "ever-changing vortex" surrounding the cell. The vortex's dynamics can be determined by the way the amoeba exchanges its own fluids with those surrounding it.

§35 Nonetheless, Scientists are Not In Agreement

Yet, not all scientists approve of such techniques that predict living behavior on the basis of mechanistic principles. Some object that these methods only look at the "waste products of vital activity," and they cannot explain the active plastic substances that "obstinately defy synthesis" (36cd).

The is a preeminant naturalist who distinguishes two orders of phenomena that we may observe in living tissues: anagensis and katagenesis. Anagenetic energies elevate inferior energies by assimilating inorganic substances. In this way, they construct tissues. This energy holds for assimilation, growth, and reproductive activities. All the other functionings of life exhibit a fall rather than a rise in energy. This are the katagenetic phenomena. And physico-chemistry only deals with facts of this katagenetic order and thus "in short, with the dead and not with the living" (37a). Also, other scientists object to the mechanistic explanations of amoeba movement on the grounds that they also observe something like psychological activity that mechanistic theories cannot explain. And, historiologist E.B. Wilson's work with cell development shows that even the simplest unicellular organisms are incomparably different from the inorganic world. (37-38)

§36 Some Scientists See Originality in Life, and not Constant Mechanisms

So there are some who believe that physics and chemistry can explain biological processes. Such people are also only concerned with the functional activities of living beings. These phenomena are merely ones that repeat themselves. Hence mechanism is a fundamental assumption of this perspective. However, those who are concerned with "the minute structure of living tissues, on their genesis and evolution" note that this repetition "creates its own form through a unique series of acts that really constitute a history" (38c).

§37 Duration vs. Mechanism

Yet, neither side of the debate has more evidence to support their position. In fact, neither one may experimentally verify their contention. The mechanists have not artificially replicated life yet on the basis of chemical and physical principles. The other side thinks that it is impossible to do so in the first case. But this is a negative fact. And you cannot use positive experimental knowledge to prove a negative.

Bergson takes this position: we cannot understand living beings like the artificially isolated systems that science studies [see section 2 of this chapter]. Yet, amoeba do seem closer to mechanisms, so it is harder for him to maintain his stance when considering lower life-forms that hardly ever evolve. Yet more complex organisms undergo regular cycles of transformation. Duration is much more fundamental to them. For this reason, they are less explainable by mechanistic principles: "The more duration marks the living being with its imprint, the more obviously the organism differs from a mere mechanism, over which duration glides without penetrating" (39b). And let's consider the duration spanning all of evolution from its beginning eons ago all the way up to now. We see that mechanism fails to explain this progress. Hence evolution and mechanism do not go so well together. Bergson will not give a conclusive mathematical refutation of mechanism. Rather, he will dispute it on the basis of "real time."

§38 The Mechanism of Rejection

We can use mechanistic principles to explain artificially isolated parts of larger dynamic systems. However, we cannot use it to explain the whole. Mechanism wants to apply mathematical functions to present situations to determine past and future states of the system. In this way, it claims that everything is always already given. In so doing, they make time useless, or even unreal in a sense. Consider Laplace's formulation:

An intellect which at a given instant knew all the forces with which nature is animated, and the respective situations of the beings that compose nature supposing the said intellect were vast enough to subject these data to analysis would embrace in the same formula the motions of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the slightest atom: nothing would be uncertain for it, and the future, like the past, would be present to its eyes. [Laplace, “Introduction à la théorie analytique des probabilités,” (OEuvres complètes, vol. vii., Paris, 1886, p. vi.), qtd in Bergson 40b]

Une intelligence qui, pour un instant donné, connaîtrait toutes les forces dont la nature est animée et la situation respective des êtres qui la composent, si d'ailleurs elle était assez vaste pour soumettre ces données à l'Analyse, embrasserait dans la même formule les mouvements des plus grands corps de l'univers et ceux du plus léger atome : rien ne serait incertain pour elle, et l'avenir, comme le passé, serait présent à ses yeux. [41a]

Or Du Bois-Reymond's formulation:

We can imagine the knowledge of nature arrived at a point where the universal process of the world might be represented by a single mathematical formula, by one immense system of simultaneous differential equations, from which could be deduced, for each moment, the position, direction, and velocity of every atom of the world. [Du Bois-Reymond, Ueber die Grenzen des Nalurerkennens, Leipzig, 1892, qtd in Bergson 40bc]

On peut imaginer la connaissance de la nature arrivée à un point où le processus universel du monde serait représenté par une formule mathématique unique, par un seul immense système d'équations différentielles simultanées, d'où se tireraient, pour chaque moment, la position, la direction et la vitesse de chaque atome du monde. [41c]

Under this perspective, we would still take time into account. But in a way, we cease being concerned with it. Time would no longer do anything, or be anything. Under radical mechanism, the totality of the real is always there in a sense, as if eternal. And so because our minds cannot see everything at once, we think that there is duration. However, our minds experience duration in a completely different way than this. It is a stream "against which we cannot go" (41bc). In fact, it is "the foundation of our being" as well as "the very substance of the world in which we live." Since we experience duration this way, we cannot merely forget it in order to construct a universal mathematic for the system of our world. It is for this reason that Bergson rejects radical mechanism.

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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