12 Feb 2010

Freedom is Irreversible §93 Time and Free Will. Bergson

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

Freedom is Irreversible

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 explained that those who adopt a psychological determinism also often take-up a physiological determinism. Recall the role that the law of the conservation of energy plays in this union of psychological and physiological determinism. Our minds are made of molecules. They move about according to forces acting on them. Because these forces are determined, their movement can be predicted. Our mental states are the products of our brain's molecular states. So our mental states would seem to be determined. If we were to have a free thought, that would mean that our brain's molecules would need to move in a way contrary to the forces acting upon it. This means extra energy would need to spontaneously arise in our brains. But the law of energy conservation says that no new energy can emerge within a system in this way. Thus our brain molecules would not be able to move freely, and thus our minds could not have a free thought.

§93 It Implies That a System Can Return to Its Original State. Neglects Duration, Hence Inapplicable to Living Beings and Conscious States

The law of the conservation of energy holds sway in the sciences of Bergson's time. However, he says, it was not always this way, and hence it is not a necessary fixture for all scientific research.

Consider first when we perform operations on a mathematical equation. We might subtract a figure from one side, but then we add it to the other. In these ways, we maintain the same [relative] quantity for the equation. This implies that the quantity is permanent, no matter how much we break it apart. So "whatever is given is given, what is not given is not given, and in whatever order we add up the same terms we shall get the same result" (150d). Science always must obey this law. [If we were to add a number to one side but not subtract it from the other, then their values would be unequal, and there would be a contradiction. Hence,] it is little more than the law of non-contradiction. It tells us that something cannot come from nothing. It applies only to systems that maintain their quantities. However, experience might tell us that there are systems where this rule does not apply. Descartes believed in this law of conservation. But we do not know if all other physicists before Leibniz also held this position as well. Must we disregard their findings if they did not presume the law of the conservation of a fixed quantity of motion in the universe? For long science progressed without the theory. In the form it takes in Bergson's time, it seems to apply to nearly all physico-chemical phenomena. However, it is still possible that we will find a new kind of energy "rebelling against calculation" in physical and nervous systems (152a). This would not disprove the law of energy conservation as much as it would limit it to a certain range of systems.

The most radical form of mechanistic theories regards consciousness as a secondary parallel phenomenon (an epiphenomenon) to molecular movements. Conscious states would depend upon the brain's physical states, so we also say that mental states supervene upon brain states. This means that a change in the brain's molecular movement will create a change in brain state. Bergson then wonders if the inverse could not also be the case, that changes in mind states could cause changes in brain states. When brain states change, they in a way add energy to our mental state systems. So if there is energy in our mental state systems, could it not be used to change or add the energy in the physical brain system?

[When we use the law of conservation of energy, we are treating a system as though all its motions are mathematically determinable. That means we could deduce prior states or predict future ones. So when we arrive at the future state, we could also calculate the motions in reverse to tell us the state we began with. In a way also, the bodies in motion could have their motions reversed so that they return to their original states. Yet some processes cannot be reversed. Soon we will look at Prigogine's & Stengers' explanation. For now we refer to this helpful page by F. Heylighen. We imagine a box with two chambers. There is a hole leading from one side to the other. Many gas particles are placed in the one side. Slowly particles from the filled side will move to the empty side. But also, ones from the initially empty side will move back. In the beginning, it is most probable that all or nearly all the particles are on the initially-filled side. But after a while, they will tend to balance. Once at a balance, it is extraordinarily unlikely that all the molecules will again be found on the initially-filled side again. Hence this would be an irreversible process. Haresh Khemani explains here (citing Engineering Thermodynamics by P K Nag) that such irreversible processes are called natural processes, because all processes in nature are irreversible.] Bergson writes that the law of energy conservation only applies to systems whose points may return to their former positions. If the changes were irreversible, then time would leave its mark in the system, or "bite into it" as he puts it. If we observe some piece of inert matter, we do not necessarily see some mark of time's effect on it. On those grounds we often generalize the principle. But this is not the case when we observe living things in nature. No living being as far as we know has been able to reverse its biological processes to return to an earlier state. A biological system is infinitely complex. [Just as it is too improbable that the gas particles of the double chamber would return to a state where they are all in one chamber again, so too,] it is completely improbable that the molecules of a biological system will return to a previous arrangement. [Consider also how there is a developmental process to conscious states. It seems like time itself changes internally-experienced states, even if it is the same state that is prolonged. Hence] Bergson writes, "even a sensation, by the mere fact of being prolonged, is altered to the point of becoming unbearable" (153cd). It is as though the same state becomes "swollen by the whole of its past" (153d). So according to the mechanical calculations of material bodies, things seem to remain in an eternal present. However, the past is a true reality for conscious beings. So for systems that obey the law of energy conservation, the addition or subtraction of time does little to add or subtract from the system. However for living beings and especially for conscious beings, time does produce a gain (153d), as Bergson puts it, "here duration certainly seems to act like a cause" (153a).

[So the law of energy conservation does not apply to mental states, because mental states are irreversible and time adds something to the system, rather than conserve everything. We noted previously that the law of conservation is the ground for psychological determinism. Hence the mind might not be determined, and instead could be free. Thus] we might have cause then to consider the "hypothesis of a conscious force or free will, which, subject to the action of time and storing up duration, may thereby escape the law of the conservation of energy" (154a).

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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