Henri Bergson: Creative Evolution

As I have stated previously, by the end of the 19th century, such strides had been made in science that it was popularly accepted that soon humankind would understand the wonders of the universe and would be empowered to use knowledge to advantage.  It was popularly believed at that time that the universe consisted of objects located in space, and that all action within it was related to the operation of cause and effect.  That raised questions concerning free will. Two philosophers in the early 20th century challenged those assumptions: Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead.

Henri Bergson became well known for his books, Time and Free Will, Matter and Memory, and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.  He introduced a world in dynamic process,  which could be revealed through both science and metaphysics..  Metaphysics is the study of that which can be directly observed, and also that which cannot be directly observed but may be inferred by observation and knowledge as it relates to ultimate reality; and it examines the nature of our ideas concerning that reality.

Merriam Webster defines metaphysics as follows:

a (1): a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology (2): ontology: 2 b: abstract philosophical studies : a study of what is outside objective experience.

Bergson described the relationship between science and metaphysics as follows:

Philosophy ought then to follow science in order to superpose on scientific truth the knowledge of another kind, which may be called metaphysical.  Thus combined, all our knowledge, both scientific and metaphysical, is heightened.

Samuel Enoch Stumpf writes of Bergson in his book, Philosophy – History and Problems at page 389,

Bergson contended that in the end scientific reasoning, insofar as it is based on analysis, falsifies the nature of whatever object it analyzes.  This follows, he said, from the fact that “analysis . . .  Is the operation which reduces the object to elements already known, that is, to elements common both to it and other objects.” Therefore, ”to analyze . . .  Is to express a thing as a function of something other than itself.” To analyze a rose is to take it apart and discover its constituents.  From such an analysis we do in fact derives knowledge of the rose, but in such a state of analysis, the rose is no longer the living thing it was in the garden.  Similarly, the science of medicine discovers much knowledge of the human anatomy by dissecting it into parts.

In every case, says Bergson, the analytic intellect learns, ironically, by destroying the object’s essence.  Its essence is its dynamic, thriving, pulsing, living, continuing existence –its duration.  Analysis, however, interrupts this essential duration; it stops life and movement; it separates into several independent and  static parts what in true life is a unified, organic, and dynamic reality.

Bergson holds that we do not perceive reality directly; rather, we see that which our senses and intellect have modeled reality to be. To understand who we are and what is our destiny requires intuition, as distinct from rational analysis.  Analysis objectifies experience, viewing that experience is as though it were static.  On the other hand, he says, “intuition starts from movement, posits it, or rather perceives it as reality itself, and sees in immobility only an abstract moment, a snapshot taken by our mind. . . .”

For Bergson, intellect and reasoning are merely tools that we use to make sense of our perceptions in a way that is meaningful and effective.  Rest, he says, is only an appearance; what appear to us to be things are but “things in the making, not self-maintaining states, but only changing states. . . .”  In that way, it appears to me that he has extended the Darwinian notion of the dynamic nature of life; and he anticipates Alfred North Whitehead‘s Process Philosophy.

Of particular interest to me is his notion of the elan vital which appears to guide or nudge evolution from one stage of being to the next.  He notes that the evolution of an organ, such as the eye, requires many simultaneous changes that cannot be left to random selection.  How does one explain that phenomenon?  For many fundamentalists it is “the hand of God” as revealed in the Genesis accounts of creation.  Not only does such a position wring the great mystery in, and sacredness of, life in the world as we experience it, but it also fails to address the differences between the two different accounts of creation as told in Genesis.  I understand Bergson’s notion of the elan vital not as operating from without, but from within.  I analogize it to the function of genetics or, perhaps, to even the implications of String Theory?

Whereas Nietzsche perceived morality to be either master-  or servant – oriented, Bergson sees morality and religion, as alive, i.e.,  in transition.  Stumpf describes at page394 Bergson’s observation concerning morality and religion:

Moral progress occurs, says Bergson, only when mystics and saints, obscure heroes of moral life, . . .  men who raise humanity to a new destiny, “who see in their mind’s eye a new social atmosphere, an environment in which life would be more worth living. . . .”  Even when the intellect formulates laws for all people, the intuition opens up richer sources of emotional power, at once inducing aspiration and providing creative power to embrace new modes of life.  This morality moves constantly from a consideration of the self and of one’s society to the larger field of humanity.

For an excellent article on the evolutionary origins of religion, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions .

In my next post, I will share some quotations of Bergson that had particular meaning for me.

Links to my site:

Introduction https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/introduction/

Graphic Arts https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/i-graphic-arts/

Architecture https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/ii-church-architecture-and-its-incorporation-of-art/

Music https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/iii-music/

Theology https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/iv-theology/

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