12 Dec 2009

Time's Universal Intensity. D: Le temps universel. Ch. 4. Concerning the Plurality of Times. Duration and Simultaneity. Henri Bergson

by Corry Shores
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[The following summarizes part of chapter 4 in Bergson's Duration and Simultaneity. Paragraph headings are my own. My personal commentary is in brackets.]

Time's Universal Intensity

Henri Bergson

Duration and Simultaneity

Ch. 4. Concerning the Plurality of Times

Subheading D:
Le temps universel

Previously Bergson discussed the principle of reciprocity in relativity theory. The consequence is that all moving systems experience the same flow of time, even if they appear different from the others' perspectives.

§80 The Physicist's Perspective

Bergson will now turn to another illusion (the first is the false conclusion from relativity that someone going faster experiences slower time). Recall that Peter and Paul are physicists in systems moving relative to each other. Peter thinks that there are other consciousness like his own spread around the world. He also thinks it possible that there could be a consciousness at every point in the universe. So other such people as Paul, John, and James may or may not be in motion in relation to him. It does not matter either way so much, because Peter considers them as humans who think and feel like he himself does. When he thinks of them this way, he puts aside his life as a physicist, and allows himself to think like most people commonly do. But when he is a physicist, he deals with measurements and calculations for his system. Other conscious people along with him in his system will find the same numerical figures as him. These men in his own system are "referrers." But what about the men outside Peter's system? He will consider them not as referrers, but as referents. They are merely "empty puppets." As soon as he considers their feelings and consciousness, he takes their perspective. Then they cease being referents, and become referrers, thereby making Peter the puppet-referent. But we only take-up one or another alternate perspective while performing physics observations and calculations. Otherwise, we would see each person as the humans they are. From this normal way of looking at things, we have no reason to think they experience different temporalities. "The plurality of times looms up at the precise moment when there is no more than one man or group to live time" (58ab). When we select one reference time, only its temporality becomes real. All others outside this system of reference live in imaginary times. As such, we may imagine as many as we wish.

§81 The Unity of Multiple Times

Now consider how before relativity, many thought that there was one universal mathematical time. Then with the advent of relativity theory, some came to hold that there was a plurality of times. Bergson's view is that there are different systems whose temporalities seem different from each other's perspective, but they share a common time. He says further that in fact it is not the theory of universal time that most lends to his view. Rather, relativity's theory of multiple times more readily shows that in fact there is just one real temporality for all systems.

Relativity says that we may take either system S or S' as the motionless system. But no other theory allows us to do this. S and S' would each hold a different position in regard to a fixed system (like the ether). So suppose we want to say that observers in each system live the same time. If we do not suppose relativity, the only way we can do so is if we say that one person in one system would have the same psychological experience if she were in another system. But we have no way to precisely define the identities between their durations. However, the relativity thesis allows us to make this claim. It rejects the privileged system. So both S and S' are interchangeable when we make one the duplicate of the other.

But, in that event, the two people in S and S' can be led mentally to coincide, like two equal superimposed shapes; they will have to coincide not only with respect to the different modes of quantity but even, if I may so express myself, in respect to quality for their inner lives have become indistinguishable, quite like their measurable features: the two systems steadfastly remain what they were at the moment we propounded them, duplicates of one another, while outside the hypothesis of relativity they were no longer entirely so the moment after, when we left them to their fate. [59a]

§82 The Intensity of Immobility

What we say about S' we can say about any other system S''. The person in it will experience the same duration. Although, someone might say that the reciprocal displacement between S' and S is not the same as between S'' and S. Thus there might be "different intensities of immobility in keeping with the greater or lesser speed of the reciprocal displacement of the two systems before one of them, suddenly elevated to a system of reference, had been mentally immobilized" (59bc). Bergson dismisses this idea. Whether the observer is thought in relation to one or to another system, and whether he be here or there, he will experience the same duration.

Before relativity, there was no theory of a multiplicity of times. So with relativity, we begin doubting the unity of time. And yet we see with our example of S and S' that the theory of relativity leads to us "supporting the unity of real time more rigorously than we do ordinarily" (59d). "We conclude that, as far as the universality of real time is concerned, the theory of relativity does not shake the accepted belief and tends rather to strengthen it" (59-60).

Bergson, Henri. Duration and Simultaneity. Ed. Robin Durie. Transl. Mark Lewis and Robin Durie. Manchester: Clinamen Press, 1999.

The original French version is available online at:

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