Reviews - What do customers think about Bergson and Modern Physics: A Re-Interpretation and Re-Evaluation (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science)?
Brilliant exposition of Bergson, and a critical analysis of metaphysical presumptions. Jul 24, 2007
Capek divides his book into three parts. The first part amounts to a particular characterization of the metaphysics underlying nineteenth century science and philosophy. This metaphysics is then undermined through consideration of Bergson's `biological epistemology'. The second part is an attempt to expound Bergson's theory of `duration', which remains obscure despite Capek's exposition. The third part relates aspects of Bergson's theories to certain features of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, the intention being to suggest that Bergson's overall perspective is a better match for contemporary physics than the traditional, more static, perspectives.
Overall the book succeeds in presenting and then criticizing a set of presumptions in traditional metaphysics, and it does so by approaching and illuminating these presumptions from a number of angles. As an explication of Bergson's own thought it is also very clear, but Bergson's theories do not necessarily become more impressive through being rendered with clarity - conceptually they remain recondite. Lastly, an exposition of developments in twentieth century physics is offered, and this again benefits from Capek's wonderfully clear style, and the philosophical implications are extensively discussed (Capek's previous book, `The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics', is even more thorough on this point). Google's online book site has several chapters available, cost free.
In Part One Capek presents a characterization of a metaphysical position that might be termed `mechanistic determinism'. While primarily arising from the developments in physics from Newton onwards, Capek also traces its origins to the speculations of the ancient Greeks. It is a world view which sees the cosmos as a machine, where every action is fully determined by preceding actions, and which thinks it coherent to consider the cosmos from a vantage outside of time, whereby the past, the present, and the future, are all equally real and all equally determined; it is a view which sees the unchanging as the paradigm of what needs no further explanation, and which is considered `most real' - in contrast, that which changes is `less real', even illusory, and, consequently, must be explained in terms of that which is changeless. On this world view, knowledge, and truth, are thought of as absolutes, unchanging absolutes, and they are to be found when this vantage surveying the entirety of the cosmos, past, present and future, is attained or approached. While Newton's laws of motion, and subsequent theories widening the applicability of mechanistic ideas, meant that this world view could be justified in terms of the determinable motion of solid bodies, Capek shows that a predilection for such a view existed in ancient Greek thought and, derivatively, in Judeo-Christian theology. Given that the ideal vantage is one where the cosmos appears fixed and finished, where all change can be predicted, the means by which one approaches knowledge and truth might also be expected to be fixed and finished, and not open to change through time, or `evolution' - these `means' are our systems of logic and mathematics - thus Capek takes `mechanistic determinism' and, indeed, most positions in traditional metaphysics, as asserting that the fundamentals of logic and mathematics are invariant over time and, more strongly, are invariant in any conceivable world. In keeping with the predilection for the unchanging and uniform, in theories which postulate fundamental particles, these particles are conceived as homogenous and eternal - this was the case in Democritean atomism, and so too with atomism's revival in the Renaissance: the apparent change of the everday world is `explained' in terms of eternal changeless particles undergoing motion. The predilection for constancy is further embodied in the laws of conservation, be this in regard heat, momentum, or energy - the same strategy is employed, namely that of explaining change in terms of some entity which is changeless.
The image of the world as an object is made vivid in the philosophy of Parmenides of Elea, who saw the ideal image of the cosmos as an eternal unchanging sphere. Capek suggests that atomism, as imagined by Demorcritus, saw the eternal sphere made small, that is, in the form of the atoms, which, like the sphere, were conceived as unchanging and eternal. The idea of the cosmos as an object retains its appeal - as one of the prominent metaphysicians of the twentieth century said, `I myself think the world is a big physical object' (David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, p.1). Bergson's philosophy undermines such a conception.
But before dealing with the world per se, Capek focuses on Bergson's challenge to conceptions of knowledge that see knowledge itself as eternal and absolute, and the means of attaining knowledge as likewise fixed and unchanging. Historically, such a challenge ran counter to cherished conceptions - Capek refers to historical facts, prime being the unprecedented success of scientific endeavour in the centuries following Newton, which led to an intellectual climate brimming with self-confidence: a complete account of the natural world was deemed imminent. Science's success notwithstanding, there were millenia old intellectual currents, sourced in the Greeks and rendered inviolable by Christianity, that resisted any suggestion that knowledge, and our apprehension of it, could be incomplete, `imperfect', and subject to evolution. The latter term, however, with its association to Darwin, points to new ideas that were disturbing the status quo. As Capek puts it, where Darwin posited the physical evolution of humans, Bergson posited in addition the evolution of the intellect.
Bergson's theory was biological in that it analysed the interaction between humankind and the environment in much the way any animal might be studied. Rationality (or thought processes in general) was a function of the human animal, and not some capacity immune to biological scrutiny. As such, Bergson suggested that it was structured in response to the sensory input available over many millenia; this input was sourced primarily from the everyday world - the `world of middle-dimensions' - and so the structure of rationality was adapted to function in such an environment. With concurrent and symbiotic advances in technology and theory from the Renaissance on, the range of `input' had been enormously expanded - the telescope had opened the large of scale, while the microscope had delved into the minute of scale; time had been fractioned into ever briefer frequencies, while Michelson's experiments, confirming the finity of the speed of light and robbing the `aether' of any properties resembling a fluid medium, had transformed vast tracts of space into vast windows of time. This expanded environment did not readily conform to the structures of thought successful in the more limited environment of the everyday. Instead of concepts readily translatable into visual images, theory became recalcitrant to visual analogs, positing entities which simultaneously bore features of waves and particles, working in a geometry of four spatial dimensions, conceiving of the cosmos as finite yet boundless, and of events as the `collapse' of probability functions. Yet, despite physics' use of new formalisms, the desire to consider the most basic structures of thought (logic, for example, and determinism) as unscathed and sacrosanct remained. Bergson was adamant that here too an expansion of our premisses and methods would occur. Our `environment' had expanded, and so our intellect would do likewise.
Part Two of the book aims to make comprehensible Bergson's positive suggestions. Perhaps the two key ideas are: that `qualitative multiplicity' is a fundamental concept; and that genuine novelty occurs in the world.
The first notion, that of `qualitative multiplicity' can, if read ungenerously, seem banal. If all it entailed was that every entity can be further analysed into heterogenous parts, or aspects, then its impact would be limited to a call against any `fundamentalism'. Bergson, perhaps, did want this to be entailed, but he also elaborated an, admittedly obscure, doctrine whereby time was equated with memory, and memory was not conceived as a purely anthropocentric concept, but rather as pertinent to all the elements of the world.
Capek tries to show how this strategy applies to ordinary material objects, resorting to de Broglie's idea of the wavelike nature of matter, and suggesting that the period of oscillation or vibration, which is vanishingly short, equates to the `memory' of matter. Bergson uses language along the lines of the past `interpenetrating' the present, so that for matter only 10-24 seconds `interpenetrates', while for conscious beings, such as ourselves, decades potentially `interpenetrate'. For me, however, it remains opaque why we should consider the `interpenetration' experienced in human memory as an example of the same kind of process as what occurs for matter to `interpenetrate' with its antecedent forms. In any case, Bergson suggested that `qualitative multiplicity' can be experienced by humans when they meditate on the internal phenomenology of the passing of time - he was adamant that this was essentially an `imageless' experience, and here one could appreciate how events meld with one another yet remain distinct. Again, all this is fine, and reminds me of certain notions from Eastern religions, but I'm not sure how practical thought can be advanced, or even practised, with Bergson's insights held as basic.
Relatedly, Bergson considered that conceiving the world as a manifold, that is, as an array of ultimately independent and distinct entities, be these material (like particles or `events'), or immaterial (like monads, or geometric points), is mistaken. Rather than independence, Bergson espouses some kind of relation as basic, call this `interpenetration' or what you will. Once more, I can admit that Bergson is correct, but I'm not sure what to think after that, or whether my thoughts are changed in any way if I side with him. Perhaps they are not meant to change, at least not for the vast majority of purposes: only on contemplating these so-called ultimate questions, questions of `ontology' or `what there is', is a change evident, and this change amounts to a rejection of the traditional framework through which these questions are posed.
The second key idea is that of genuine novelty occurring in the world. This is an overt rejection of determinism. The past is clearly demarcated from the future, and while the past is fixed and finished, the future is genuinely open. This also amounts to a rejection of the ideal of a vantage, outside of time, from whence time's passage can be seen `all at once', and whence the future is seen on equal terms with the present and the past. This ideal is one that informs traditional conceptions of truth, and knowledge, and of God - it is an ideal which `spatializes' time, and, using the visual imagery so familiar and easy to our structures of thought, literally `lays out' time along a spatial dimension. Capek, and Bergson, criticise this as a false conception of time, one that is of practical use, but one which ultimately is a fiction, negligent of the nature of temporal experience.
I find this second key idea much more illuminating. Determinism is a pervasive and, at times, a pernicious influence. By suggesting that it is fiction, albeit a fiction motivated by regularities in the world which are real, and of great practical use to track, Bergson provides a theoretical underpinning to a much more optimistic and, to my mind, realistic view.
In Part Three of the book, Capek goes on to suggest ways in which Bergson's position is supported by current physics. Such links are, unsurprisingly, vague. A discussion of indeteminism on the subsensible level, as per quantum mechanical events, is speculatively extrapolated to `explain' indeterminism at the level of human consciousness. There is also a discussion of Bergson's theory of the stratification of the self, and how the various strata can be thought of as primarily `spatial' or as primarily `temporal' - the `deep' self being mostly temporal, and the `superficial' self mostly spatial - while Capek's exposition is clear, the practical import of Bergson's theory is not. Further chapters return to criticisms of the `mechanistic determinism', and related `traditional' metaphysical concerns.