Time and its plasticity is a complex concept that has always aroused interest in philosophy and science forums. This article discusses a historical clash between two authorities of both disciplines (Bergson and Einstein), which had later consequences.
The philosopher Henri Bergson (left) and the physicist Albert Einstein. © Getty-Ullsteinbild/Bettman
That April 6, 1922 was a special day for philosophy and science. The Société Française de Philosophie had organized a conference in Paris. On the dais: Albert Einstein; an entire emerging star on a global scale, spreading the theory of relativity. The subject aroused much interest and the room was packed. In the audience, discreetly, sat an eminent old philosopher, much more popular than Einstein at the time: Henri Bergson.
This unique French spectator was pressured by his disciples and finally raised his hand to ask a question. In his intervention, Bergson cordially congratulated Einstein on having formulated a magnificent theory, but reproached him for having forgotten all other aspects of time. which, though useless mathematically, are essential to us. He stressed that relativity did not close the debate on time, something to which Bergson had devoted a lifetime of reflection. After his intervention, the philosopher waited…, during a period of silence. The physicist responded, but with a devastating phrase: “the time of the philosophers does not exist”.
Apparently, this disagreement had costs for both: Bergson a progressive decline in popularity until his death and Einstein an almost certain Nobel Prize for the theory of relativity.
But for many, that debate represented a victory for rationality over intuition. According to some historians, from then on, part of the scientific community thought that philosophers were no longer sufficiently qualified to contribute to the scientific and technological revolutions that awaited the future.
There is no doubt that, in that room, Bergson felt annoyed at being convinced that he was being denied the right to philosophize on a matter that he considered to be his legitimate competence. Bergson maintained that Einstein’s theory of relativity was attempting to become metaphysics, invading territory that was not its own; in other words, epistemological assumptions were disguised as physical statements. Bergson did not stop there and wrote a book dedicated to debating the core of the issue, titled: “Duration and simultaneity”.
At that time, Einstein used to give examples in which clocks were used to explain relativity in a simpler and more accessible way for all audiences. Bergson deduced that his thesis identified time with the measurements of clocks and affirmed that “We need watches to distinguish one event from another, but stripped of that purpose, watches are just cute pieces of machinery.”
While the philosophy of Bergson was associated with metaphysics and anti-rationalisma Einstein was related to physics, rationality and the idea that the universe would remain the same and could exist without us. Einstein even went so far as to say that “The distinction between past, present and future is only a persistent and stubborn illusion.”
There is an imperceptible step between the past and the now. Our consciousness always flows without going through units of time, regardless of whether we can minimize those units
Bergson argued that time has two faces. The first is what he called objective time, the one used by clocks, calendars or machines. The second is what he defined as duration, a living time, the time of our inner experience. That time that is felt and lived.
For Bergson, there are no two identical moments of duration. The arrival of a train at a certain moment of objective time is always the same. Instead, our past feelings and memories influence our temporal experience in the present.
Bergson described that concept of duration as a continuous flow. There is an imperceptible step between the past and the now. Our consciousness always flows without going through units of time, regardless of whether we can minimize those units. The past bleeds into the present and we cannot count one without the other.
At that time, Bergson’s influence also extended to literature and other fields. From the outset, he was also a recognized writer. Also, he married Marcel Proust’s cousin. Precisely, his trace is evident in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time”, where the possibility of contracting or expanding durability can be checked, regardless of the target time.
In the end, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 to Albert Einstein (in 1921 it was deserted), not because of the theory of relativity, which had made him famous, but because of his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Svante Arrhenius (president of the Nobel Committee), explained that, although most of his discussions revolved around the theory of relativity, it did not deserve the prize. He added that “It is no secret that the famous philosopher Bergson has challenged that theory.” Bergson, for his part, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.
Without a doubt, that meeting in Paris offered the worst face of both protagonists, each in their most dogmatic version.
Obviously, Bergson made some mistakes in some of his arguments, and some critics maintained that he had misunderstood relativity theory, let alone general relativity.
Finally, add that Einstein’s complete answer on that day was: “the time of the philosophers does not exist; there is only a psychological time that differs from the physical. Over time, Einstein softened his view of time. It seems that he was not satisfied that physics could not make a complete description of time, recognizing that metaphysics could play a role in science.
There are periods in which philosophy has come closer to science and technology, but there are others, in which it has distanced itself more…
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