Henri Bergson's doctoral thesis was published in France in 1889, and much later translated into English (1910) under the title Time and Free Will. It contained basic ideas that Bergson developed further in Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907), especially his idea of duration. Where Immanuel Kant imagined a noumenal realm beyond the phenomenal (and deterministic) realm of space and time, Bergson imagined a new kind of time that makes room for free will. Time does not have the same homogeneous character as space. It may flow unevenly. In particular, whereas "time flown" (viz., the past) has a determined character, "time flowing" (into the future) is unpredictable and the source of human freedom.Bergson says correctly that because our our actions are "determined" by our motives, this does not mean necessitated or pre-determined.
...every demand for explanation in regard to freedom comes back, without our suspecting it, to the following question: "Can time be adequately represented by space?" To which we answer: Yes, if you are dealing with time flown; No, if you speak of time flowing. Now, the free act takes place in time which is flowing and not in time which has already flown. Freedom is therefore a fact, and among the facts which we observe there is none clearer. All the difficulties of the problem, and the problem itself, arise from the desire to endow duration with the same attributes as extensity, to interpret a succession by a simultaneity, and to express the idea of freedom in a language into which it is obviously untranslatable.
determination here means necessity, since common sense believes in free will.Consciousness indeed informs us that the majority of our actions can be explained by motives. But it does not appear that
The simplest psychic states do in fact occur as accessories to well-defined physical phenomena, and the greater number of sensations seem to be bound up with definite molecular movements.
no longer hesitates to hold that the drama enacted in the theatre of consciousness is a literal and even slavish translation of some scenes performed by the molecules and atoms of organized matter. The physical determinism which is reached in this way is nothing but psychological determinism, seeking to verify itself and fix its own outlines by an appeal to the sciences of nature.Bergson attacks the idea that the "reversibility" of physical systems can be applied to living things. Reversibility was popular in the late nineteenth century as a criticism of the second law of thermodynamics, especially the derivation of this law from statistical mechanics by Ludwig Boltzmann. The laws of Newtonian mechanics are time reversible. Atoms and molecules have no memory of their past. Living systems gain something from their memory of the past. (Cf., Ernst Mayr.)
Let us also note that the law of the conservation of energy can only be intelligibly applied to a system of which the points, after moving, can return to their former positions. This return is at least conceived of as possible, and it is supposed that under these conditions nothing would be changed in the original state of the system as a whole or of its elements...Here duration certainly seems to act like a cause, and the idea of putting things back in their place at the end of a certain time involves a kind of absurdity, since such a turning backwards has never been accomplished in the case of a living being...The same does not here remain the same, but is reinforced and swollen by the whole of its past, while the material point, as mechanics understands it, remains in an eternal present, the past is a reality perhaps for living bodies, and certainly for conscious beings. While past time is neither a gain nor a loss for a system assumed to be conservative, it may be a gain for the living being, and it is indisputably one for the conscious being. Such being the case, is there not much to be said for 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 [i.e., reversibility]?
Jacques Monod on Bergson.
noise," which in a nonliving 'i.e., nonreplicative) system would lead little by little to the disintegration of all structure, is the progenitor of evolution in the biosphere and accounts for its unrestricted liberty of creation, thanks to the replicative structure of DNA: that registry of chance, that tone-deaf conservatory where the noise is preserved along with the music.Bergson, it will be recalled, beheld in evolution the expression of an absolutely creative force, in the sense that he imagined it as bent on no goal other than creation in itself and for its own sake. In this he stands at the opposite pole from the animists (whether Engels, Teilhard de Chardin, or optimistic positivists like Spencer), who all regard evolution as the majestic unfolding of a program woven into the very fabric of the universe. For them, consequently, evolution is not really a creation but uniquely the "revelation" of nature's hitherto unexpressed designs. Whence the tendency to see in embryonic development an emergence of the same kind as evolutionary emergence. According to modern theory, the idea of "revelation" applies to epigenetic development, but not of course to evolutionary emergence, which, owing precisely to the fact that it arises from the essentially unforeseeable, is the creator of absolute newness. Would this apparent meeting of the ways between Bergsonian metaphysics and scientific thought be yet another effect of sheer coincidence? Perhaps not: artist and poet that he was, and exceedingly well acquainted with the natural sciences of his day besides, Bergson could not help being alive to the stunning richness of the biosphere and the amazing variety of forms and behavior it displays, which seem to bear almost direct witness indeed to an inexhaustible, completely untrammeled creative prodigality. But where Bergson saw the most glaring proof that the "principle of life" is evolution itself, modern biology recognizes, instead, that all the properties of living beings rest on a fundamental mechanism of molecular invariance. For modern theory evolution is not a property of living beings, since it stems from the very imperfections of the conservative mechanism which indeed constitutes their unique privilege. And so one may say that the same source of fortuitous perturbations, of "
Excerpts from Time and Free Will:
An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
CHAPTER III THE ORGANIZATION OF CONSCIOUS STATES FREE WILLIt is easy to see why the question of free will brings into conflict these two rival systems of nature, mechanism and dynamism. Dynamism starts from the idea of voluntary activity, given by consciousness, and comes to represent inertia by gradually emptying this idea: it has thus no difficulty in conceiving free force on the one hand and matter governed by laws on the other. Mechanism follows the opposite course. It assumes that the materials which it synthesizes are governed by necessary laws, and although it reaches richer and richer combinations, which are more and more difficult to foresee, and to all appearance more and more contingent, yet it never gets out of the narrow circle of necessity within which it at first shut itself up. A thorough examination of these two conceptions of nature will show that they involve two very different hypotheses as to the relations between laws and the facts which they govern. As he looks higher and higher, the believer in dynamism thinks that he perceives facts which more and more elude the grasp of laws : he thus sets up the fact as the absolute reality, and the law as the more or less symbolical expression of this reality. Mechanism, on the contrary, discovers within the particular fact a certain number of laws of which the fact is thus made to be the meeting point, and nothing else: on this hypothesis it is the law which becomes the genuine reality. Now, if it is asked why the one party assigns a higher reality to the fact and the other to the law, it will be found that mechanism and dynamism take the word simplicity in two very different senses. For the first, any principle is simple of which the effects can be foreseen and even calculated: thus, by the very definition, the notion of inertia becomes simpler than that of freedom, the homogeneous simpler than the heterogeneous, the abstract simpler than the concrete. But dynamism is not anxious so much to arrange the notions in the most convenient order as to find out their real relationship: often, in fact, the so-called simple notion — that which the believer in mechanism regards as primitive — has been obtained by the blending together of several richer notions which seem to be derived from it, and which have more or less neutralized one another in this very process of blending, just as darkness may be produced by the interference of two lights. Regarded from this new point of view, the idea of spontaneity is indisputably simpler than that of inertia, since the second can be understood and defined only by means of the first, while the first is self-sufficient. For each of us has the immediate knowledge (be it thought true or fallacious) of his free spontaneity, without the notion of inertia having anything to do with this knowledge. But, if we wish to define the inertia of matter, we must say that it cannot move or stop of its own accord, that every body perseveres in the state of rest or motion so long as it is not acted upon by any force : and in both cases we are unavoidably carried back to the idea of activity. It is therefore natural that, a priori, we should reach two opposite conceptions of human activity, according to the way in which we understand the relation between the concrete and the abstract, the simple and the complex, facts and laws. A posteriori, however, definite facts are appealed to against freedom, some physical, others psychological. Sometimes it is asserted that our actions are necessitated by our feelings, our ideas, and the whole preceding series of our conscious states; sometimes freedom is denounced as being incompatible with the fundamental properties of matter, and in particular with the principle of the conservation of energy. Hence two kinds of determinism, two apparently different empirical proofs of universal necessity. We shall show that the second of these two forms is reducible to the first, and that all determinism, even physical determinism, involves a psychological hypothesis: we shall then prove that psychological determinism itself, and the refutations which are given of it, rest on an inaccurate conception of the multiplicity of conscious states, or rather of duration. Thus, in the light of the principles worked out in the foregoing chapter, we shall see a self emerge whose activity cannot be compared to that of any other force. Physical determinism, in its latest form, is closely bound up with mechanical or rather kinetic theories of matter. The universe is pictured as a heap of matter which the imagination resolves into molecules and atoms. These particles are supposed to carry out unceasingly movements of every kind, sometimes of vibration, sometimes of translation; and physical phenomena, chemical action, the qualities of matter which our senses perceive, heat, sound, electricity, perhaps even attraction, are thought to be reducible objectively to these elementary movements. The matter which goes to make up organized bodies being subject to the same laws, we find in the nervous system, for example, only molecules and atoms which are in motion and attract and repel one another. Now if all bodies, organized or unorganized, thus act and react on one another in their ultimate parts, it is obvious that the molecular state of the brain at a given moment will be modified by the shocks which the nervous system receives from the surrounding matter, so that the sensations, feelings and ideas which succeed one another in us can be defined as mechanical resultants, obtained by the compounding of shocks received from without with the previous movements of the atoms of the nervous substance. But the opposite phenomenon may occur; and the molecular movements which go on in the nervous system, if compounded with one another or with others, will often give as resultant a reaction of our organism on its environment: hence the reflex movements, hence also the so-called free and voluntary actions. As, moreover, the principle of the conservation of energy has been assumed to admit of no exception, there is not an atom, either in the nervous system or in the whole of the universe, whose position is not determined by the sum of the mechanical actions which the other atoms exert upon it. And the mathematician who knew the position of the molecules or atoms of a human organism at a given moment, as well as the position and motion of all the atoms in the universe capable of influencing it, could calculate with unfailing certainty the past, present and future actions of the person to whom this organism belongs, just as one predicts an astronomical phenomenon. We shall not raise any difficulty about recognizing that this conception of physiological phenomena in general, and nervous phenomena in particular, is a very natural deduction from the law of the conservation of energy. Certainly, the atomic theory of matter is still at the hypothetical stage, and the purely kinetic explanations of physical facts lose more than they gain by being too closely bound up with it. We must observe, however, that, even if we leave aside the atomic theory as well as any other hypothesis as to the nature of the ultimate elements of matter, the necessitating of physiological facts by their antecedents follows from the theorem of the conservation of energy, as soon as we extend this theorem to all processes going on in all living bodies. For to admit the universality of this theorem is to assume, at bottom, that the material points of which the universe is composed are subject solely to forces of attraction and repulsion, arising from these points themselves and possessing intensities which depend only on their distances: 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. Let us then assume for a moment that this last hypothesis is true : we propose to show, in the first place, that it does not involve the absolute determination of our conscious states by one another, and then that the very universality of the principle of the conservation of energy cannot be admitted except in virtue of some psychological hypothesis. Even if we assumed that the position, the direction and the velocity of each atom of cerebral matter are determined at every moment of time, it would not at all follow that our psychic life is subject to the same necessity. For we should first have to prove that a strictly determined psychic state corresponds to a definite cerebral state, and the proof of this is still to be given. As a rule we do not think of demanding it, because we know that a definite vibration of the tympanum, a definite stimulation of the auditory nerve, gives a definite note on the scale, and because the parallelism of the physical and psychical series has been proved in a fairly large number of cases. But then, nobody has ever contended that we were free, under given conditions, to hear any note or perceive any colour we liked. Sensations of this kind, like many other psychic states, are obviously bound up with certain determining conditions, and it is just for this reason that it has been possible to imagine or discover beneath them a system of movements which obey our abstract mechanics. In short, wherever we succeed in giving a mechanical explanation, we observe a fairly strict parallelism between the physiological and the psychological series, and we need not be surprised at it, since explanations of this kind will assuredly not be met with except where the two series exhibit parallel terms. But to extend this parallelism to the series themselves in their totality is to settle a priori the problem of freedom. Certainly this may be done, and some of the greatest thinkers have set the example; but then, as we said at first, it was not for reasons of a physical order that they asserted the strict correspondence between states of consciousness and modes of extension. Leibniz ascribed it to a pre-established harmony, and would never have admitted that a motion could give rise to a perception as a cause produces an effect. Spinoza said that the modes of thought and the modes of extension correspond with but never influence one another: they only express in two different languages the same eternal truth. But the theories of physical determinism which are rife at the present day are far from displaying the same clearness, the same geometrical rigour. They point to molecular movements taking place in the brain: consciousness is supposed to arise out of these at times in some mysterious way, or rather to follow their track like the phosphorescent line which results from the rubbing of a match. Or yet again we are to think of an invisible musician playing behind the scenes while the actor strikes a keyboard the notes of which yield no sound: consciousness must be supposed to come from an unknown region and to be superimposed on the molecular vibrations, just as the melody is on the rhythmical movements of the actor. But, whatever image we fall back upon, we do not prove and we never shall prove by any reasoning that the psychic fact is fatally determined by the molecular movement. For in a movement we may find the reason of another movement, but not the reason of a conscious state: only observation can prove that the latter accompanies the former. Now the unvarying conjunction of the two terms has not been verified by experience except in a very limited number of cases and with regard to facts which all confess to be almost independent of the will. But it is easy to understand why physical determinism extends this conjunction to all possible cases. Consciousness indeed informs us that the majority of our actions can be explained by motives. But it does not appear that determination here means necessity, since common sense believes in free will. The determinist, however, led astray by a conception of duration and causality which we shall criticise a little later, holds that the determination of conscious states by one another is absolute. This is the origin of associationist determinism, an hypothesis in support of which the testimony of consciousness is appealed to, but which cannot, in the beginning, lay claim to scientific rigour. It seems natural that this, so to speak, approximate determinism, this determinism of quality, should seek support from the same mechanism that underlies the phenomena of nature the latter would thus convey to the former its own geometrical character, and the transaction would be to the advantage both of psychological determinism, which would emerge from it in a stricter form, and of physical mechanism, which would then spread over everything. A fortunate circumstance favours this alliance. The simplest psychic states do in fact occur as accessories to well-defined physical phenomena, and the greater number of sensations seem to be bound up with definite molecular movements. This mere beginning of an experimental proof is quite enough for the man who, for psychological reasons, is already convinced that our conscious states are the necessary outcome of the circumstances under which they happen. Henceforth he no longer hesitates to hold that the drama enacted in the theatre of consciousness is a literal and even slavish translation of some scenes performed by the molecules and atoms of organized matter. The physical determinism which is reached in this way is nothing but psychological determinism, seeking to verify itself and fix its own outlines by an appeal to the sciences of nature. But we must own that the amount of freedom which is left to us after strictly complying with the principle of the conservation of energy is rather limited. For, even if this law does not exert a necessitating influence over the course of our ideas, it will at least determine our movements. Our inner life will still depend upon ourselves up to a certain point; but, to an outside observer, there will be nothing to distinguish our activity from absolute automatism. We are thus led to inquire whether the very extension of the principle of the conservation of energy to all the bodies in nature does not itself involve some psychological theory, and whether the scientist who did not possess a priori any prejudice against human freedom would think of setting up this principle as a universal law. We must not overrate the part played by the principle of the conservation of energy in the history of the natural sciences. In its present form it marks a certain phase in the evolution of certain sciences; but it has not been the governing factor in this evolution and we should be wrong in making it the indispensable postulate of all scientific research. Certainly, every mathematical operation which we carry out on a given quantity implies the permanence of this quantity throughout the course of the operation, in whatever way we may split it up. In other words, what 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. Science will for ever remain subject to this law, which is nothing but the law of non-contradiction; but this law does not involve any special hypothesis as to the nature of what we ought to take as given, or what constant. No doubt it informs us that something cannot come from nothing; but experience alone will tell us which aspects or functions of reality must count for something, and which for nothing, from the point of view of positive science. In short, in order to foresee the state of a determinate system at a determinate moment, it is absolutely necessary that something should persist as a constant quantity throughout a series of combinations; but it belongs to experience to decide as to the nature of this something, and especially to let us know whether it is found in all possible systems, whether, in other words, all possible systems lend themselves to our calculations. It is not certain that all the physicists before Leibniz believed, like Descartes, in the conservation of a fixed quantity of motion in the universe: were their discoveries less valuable on this account - or their researches less successful? Even when Leibniz had substituted for this principle that of the conservation of vis viva, it was not possible to regard the law as quite general, since it admitted of an obvious exception in the case of the direct impact of two inelastic bodies. Thus science has done for a very long time without a universal conservative principle. In its present form, and since the development of the mechanical theory of heat, the principle of the conservation of energy certainly seems to apply to the whole range of physico-chemical phenomena. But no one can tell whether the study of physiological phenomena in general, and of nervous phenomena in particular, will not reveal to us, besides the vis viva or kinetic energy of which Leibniz spoke, and the potential energy which was a later and necessary adjunct, some new kind of energy which may differ from the other two by rebelling against calculation. Physical science would not thereby lose any of its exactitude or geometrical rigour, as has lately been asserted: only it would be realized that conservative systems are not the only systems possible, and even, perhaps, that in the whole of concrete reality each of these systems plays the same part as the chemist's atom in bodies and their combinations. Let us note that the most radical of mechanical theories is that which makes consciousness an epiphenomenon which, in given circumstances, may supervene on certain molecular movements. But, if molecular movement can create sensation out of a zero of consciousness, why should not consciousness in its turn create movement either out of a zero of kinetic and potential energy, or by making use of this energy in its own way? Let us also note that the law of the conservation of energy can only be intelligibly applied to a system of which the points, after moving, can return to their former positions. This return is at least conceived of as possible, and it is supposed that under these conditions nothing would be changed in the original state of the system as a whole or of its elements. In short, time cannot bite into it; and the instinctive, though vague, belief of mankind in the conservation of a fixed quantity of matter, a fixed quantity of energy, perhaps has its root in the very fact that inert matter does not seem to endure or to preserve any trace of past time. But this is not the case in the realm of life. Here duration certainly seems to act like a cause, and the idea of putting things back in their place at the end of a certain time involves a kind of absurdity, since such a turning backwards has never been accomplished in the case of a living being. But let us admit that the absurdity is a mere appearance, and that the impossibility for living beings to come back to the past is simply owing to the fact that the physico-chemical phenomena which take place in living bodies, being infinitely complex, have no chance of ever occurring again all at the same time: at least it will be granted to us that the hypothesis of a turning backwards is almost meaningless in the sphere of conscious states. A sensation, by the mere fact of being prolonged, is altered to the point of becoming unbearable. The same does not here remain the same, but is reinforced and swollen by the whole of its past, while the material point, as mechanics understands it, remains in an eternal present, the past is a reality perhaps for living bodies, and certainly for conscious beings. While past time is neither a gain nor a loss for a system assumed to be conservative, it may be a gain for the living being, and it is indisputably one for the conscious being. Such being the case, is there not much to be said for 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? In truth, it is not a wish to meet the requirements of positive science, but rather a psychological mistake which has caused this abstract principle of mechanics to be set up as a universal law. As we are not accustomed to observe ourselves directly, but perceive ourselves through forms borrowed from the external world, we are led to believe that real duration, the duration lived by consciousness, is the same as the duration which glides over the inert atoms without penetrating and altering them. Hence it is that we do not see any absurdity in putting things back in their place after a lapse of time, in supposing the same motives acting afresh on the same persons, and in concluding that these causes would again produce the same effect. That such an hypothesis has no real meaning is what we shall prove later on. For the present let us simply show that, if once we enter upon this path, we are of course led to set up the principle of the conservation of energy as a universal law. For we have thereby got rid of just that difference between the outer and the inner world which a close examination shows to be the main one: we have identified true duration with apparent duration. After this it would be absurd to consider time, even our time, as a cause of gain or loss, as a concrete reality, or a force in its own way. Thus, while we ought only to say (if we kept aloof from all presuppositions concerning free will) that the law of the conservation of energy governs physical phenomena and may, one day, be extended to all phenomena if psychological facts also prove favourable to it, we go far beyond this, and, under the influence of a metaphysical prepossession, we lay down the principle of the conservation of energy as a law which should govern all phenomena whatever, or must be supposed to do so until psychological facts have actually spoken against it. Science, properly so called, has therefore nothing to do with all this. We are simply confronted with a confusion between concrete duration and abstract time, two very different things. In a word, the so-called physical determinism is reducible at bottom to a psychological determinism, and it is this latter doctrine, as we hinted at first, that we have to examine...
We can now formulate our conception of freedom. Freedom is the relation of the concrete self to the act which it performs. This relation is indefinable, just because we are free. For we can analyse a thing, but not a process; we can break up extensity, but not duration. Or, if we persist in analysing it, we unconsciously transform the process into a thing and duration into extensity. By the very fact of breaking up concrete time we set out its moments in homogeneous space in place of the doing we put the already done; and, as we have begun by, so to speak, stereotyping the activity of the self, we see spontaneity settle down into inertia and freedom into necessity. Thus, any positive definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism. Shall we define the free act by saying of this act, when it is once done, that it might have been left undone? But this assertion, as also its opposite, implies the idea of an absolute equivalence between concrete duration and its spatial symbol: and as soon as we admit this equivalence, we are led on, by the very development of the formula which we have just set forth, to the most rigid determinism. Shall we define the free act as "that which could not be foreseen, even when all the conditions were known in advance ?" But to conceive all the conditions as given, is, when dealing with concrete duration, to place oneself at the very moment at which the act is being performed. Or else it is admitted that the matter of psychic duration can be pictured symbolically in advance, which amounts, as we said, to treating time as a homogeneous medium, and to reasserting in new words the absolute equivalence of duration with its symbol. A closer study of this second definition of freedom will thus bring us once more to determinism. Shall we finally define the free act by saying that it is not necessarily determined by its cause? But either these words lose their meaning or we understand by them that the same inner causes will not always call forth the same effects. We admit, then, that the psychic antecedents of a free act can be repeated, that freedom is displayed in a duration whose moments resemble one another, and that time is a homogeneous medium, like space. We shall thus be brought back to the idea of an equivalence between duration and its spatial symbol; and by pressing the definition of freedom which we have laid down, we shall once more get determinism out of it. To sum up; every demand for explanation in regard to freedom comes back, without our suspecting it, to the following question: "Can time be adequately represented by space?" To which we answer: Yes, if you are dealing with time flown; No, if you speak of time flowing. Now, the free act takes place in time which is flowing and not in time which has already flown. Freedom is therefore a fact, and among the facts which we observe there is none clearer. All the difficulties of the problem, and the problem itself, arise from the desire to endow duration with the same attributes as extensity, to interpret a succession by a simultaneity, and to express the idea of freedom in a language into which it is obviously untranslatable.
Bergson on John Stuart Mill"To be conscious of free will," says Stuart Mill, " must mean to be conscious, before I have decided, that I am able to decide either way."1 This is really the way in which the defenders of free will understand it; and they assert that when we perform an action freely, some other action would have been "equally possible." On this point they appeal to the testimony of consciousness, which shows us, beyond the act itself, the power of deciding in favour of the opposite course. Inversely, determinism claims that, given certain antecedents, only one resultant action was possible. "When we think of our- selves hypothetically," Stuart Mill goes on, "as having acted otherwise than we did, we always suppose a difference in the antecedents. We picture ourselves as having known something that we did not know, or not known something that we did know." 2 And, faithful to his principle, the English philosopher assigns consciousness the role of informing us about what is, not about what might be. We shall not insist for the moment on this last point: we reserve the question in what sense the ego perceives itself as a determining cause. But beside this psychological question there is another, belonging rather to metaphysics, which the determinists and their opponents solve a priori along opposite lines. The argument of the former implies that there is only one possible act corresponding to given antecedents: the believers in free will assume, on the other hand, that the same series could issue in several different acts, equally possible. It is on this question of the equal possibility of two contrary actions or volitions that we shall first dwell: perhaps we shall thus gather some indication as to the nature of the operation by which the will makes its choice.