27 Jan 2010

Conserving Mental Energy TF §89 If Principle of Conservation of Energy is Universal... Bergson. Time and Free Will

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

Conserving Mental Energy

Henri Bergson

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

The Organization of Conscious States; Free Will
De l'organization des états de conscience: la liberté

Part XXX: Physical Determinism

Previously Bergson discussed a form of determinism. Our body is made of particles in motion whose movements are governed by determinate laws. Our brain likewise is made of particles. So our thoughts proceed according to the physical dynamics of the particles themselves. Some theorize that if we had adequate knowledge of the quantities of forces acting on our body's particles, we could predict our future thoughts and behavior. Now, for us to have a free thought would mean that some particles would need to break from the determined forces governing their motion. They would require extra force not already in the system in order to do so. Hence it would be necessary to add energy into our brain-system. But according to the law of the conservation of energy, there is always the same amount of energy in a closed system. Hence within the framework of this mechanistic perspective on our brains, the law of the conservation of energy would say we cannot have free thoughts or actions.

§89 If Principle of Conservation of Energy is Universal, Physiological and Nervous Phenomena are Necessitated, but Perhaps not Conscious States

Bergson begins by acknowledging that the atomic theory of matter is not yet very developed in his time. However, this theory is not necessary for drawing a certain conclusion. If we extend the theorem of the conservation of energy to all processes happening in living bodies, we could perhaps conclude that physiological facts follow from their antecedents. Bergson will now explain why.

If we adopt the law of energy conservation, we consider all material points making-up the universe to be subject to the forces of attraction and repulsion. These forces arise from these points themselves and they posses "intensities which depend only on their distances" (145c): "hence the relative position of these material points at a given moment - whatever be their nature - would be strictly determined by relation to what it was at the preceding moment" (145d).

In the following sections, Bergson will begin with this hypothesis. He then will proceed to show that it does not imply that our conscious states are absolutely determined by one another. [But if this is true, then there are situations in the world which are not subject to the law of the conservation of energy. Hence,] "the very universality of the principle of the conservation of energy cannot be admitted except in virtue of some psychological hypothesis" (145-146).

Note that in the French text, there is material not found in the English translation. After the second sentence he discusses the few poor scientific findings in atomic science. [The English translation comes about 25 years later. Perhaps by then the science had progressed enough that it was not so easy to doubt.] Below is the edited text:

Ainsi les expériences récentes de M. Hirn sur l'écoulement des gaz [ft1] nous invitent à voir autre chose encore dans la chaleur qu'un mouvement moléculaire. Les hypothèses relatives à la constitution de l'éther luminifère, qu'Auguste Comte traitait déjà assez dédaigneusement [ft2] ne paraissent guère compatibles avec la régularité constatée du mouvement des planètes, [ft3] ni surtout avec le phénomène de la division de la lumière. [ft4] La question de l'élasticité des atomes soulève des difficultés insurmontables, même après les brillantes hypothèses de William Thomson. Enfin rien de plus problématique que l'existence de l'atome lui-même. A en juger par les propriétés de plus en plus nombreuses dont il a fallu l'enrichir, nous serions assez porté à voir dans l'atome, non pas une chose réelle, mais le résidu matérialisé des explications mécaniques.

I. Hirn, Recherches expérimentales et analytiques sur les lois de l'écoulement
et du choc des gaz, Paris, 1886. Voir surtout les pages 160-171 et 199-3o3.
2. Cours de philosophie positive, tome II, 3 2e leçon.
3. Hirn, Théorie mécanique de la chaleur, Paris, 1868; tome II, page 267.
4. Stallo, La matière et la physique moderne, Paris, 1884, page 69.

Images of the pages summarized above, from the English translation [click to enlarge]:

Images of the pages summarized above, from the original French [click to enlarge]:

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:http://www.archive.org/details/timeandfreewill00pogsgoog

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published, Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/essaisurlesdonn00berguoft

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