Tuesday 22 August 2000

Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1924)

From The Philosopher, Volume. II, 1924

Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

By Professor Wildon Carr

EPITOME OF LECTURE given on November 7th, at the Lyceum Club

2000 - the Editor adds:

In this early paper from the Journal, delivered orally, as was the then fashion, Professor Wildon Carr offers an holistic account of life, the universe and everything... 


The title of my lecture may suggest that I am going to undertake the ambitious task of expounding two important and most complex theories in one short discourse. It is, however, one subject only which I have in mind, namely, the extraordinary revolution in the fundamental conceptions of philosophy and science which marks the first quarter of this Twentieth Century. I going to speak of Bergson's and Einstein's theories as the most striking illustrations of the new ideas which l can think of.

I recollect, when I was a lad, being very impressed by a sermon I heard by a well-known clergyman who professed a liberal form of religion which he called Theism. (The Rev. C. Voysey). He closed an eloquent peroration by saying that there was one human science in which God and Man were on the same plane - this was mathematics. It was impossible even for God to think that 'twice two is four' is untrue. In this, he was expressing a fundamental conception which was formulated by Descartes at the beginning of modern philosophy, and which became firmly established as the basis of the scientific discoveries of the Nineteenth Century. The Nineteenth Century was dominated by the idea of the positivity of natural science The great philosopher of the latter part of that century, Herbert Spencer, expressed it in his doctrine of the Unknowable.

Science was a realm of clear positive knowledge; in scientific facts, and more especially still in mathematical principles, the human mind touched the absolute; but surrounding this realm was a murky, obscure, indefinite region in which the human mind could find no sure foothold. This region was not only unknown, but unknowable, because when we tried to apply principles within it we inevitably fell into contradiction.

He named this realm the 'unknowable' and suggested that we might be reverent towards it as it contained the object of religious belief. This position was generally accepted by all the great scientific leaders and researchers of the last generation. Today, there is the most complete change.

We might almost say that men of science today are more confident that they know the conditions of that realm which Spencer called 'the unknowable' than they are that they have any absolute knowledge of those near at hand facts which are the subject of the sciences.

The change in the modern outlook has come along two distinct and different lines, because there are two factors in knowledge. These are first the activity of the mind in knowing, and second, the activity of the world in revealing itself. To illustrate the change which has these two lines I have chosen a theory of Bergson and a theory of Einstein. They are quite independent and unconnected, but together they show two aspects of the change, the one its subjective, the other its objective aspect.

Bergson has told us that he was led to doubt the absolute nature of the human intellect by the scientific observations of the great French entomologist, J. H. Fabre. These observations led to the conclusion that the form of mentality in insects was an entirely different mode of consciousness to that which we find in ourselves. What seemed to be clear, moreover, was that the mode of consciousness which was active in insects was peculiarly suited to the needs of their existence and to the kind of actions they were required to perform and to the range of their activity.

It appeared to Bergson that the intellect of higher animals and of us human beings might, in like manner, be a mode of consciousness which was a product of evolution and designed for our special needs. This led to his theory of knowledge. The intellect, he held, is not designed for speculation but for action - and for speculation only in so far as it serves action. We do not contemplate reality. Our life consists in a readiness for action, and our attitude is one of forward-looking to the actions which we are preparing. The intellect is the form of mentality which serves us in our life activity. It does not reveal things as they are, but it frames the actions which serve us in our life activity. It frames the changing, stream of existence, making it assume the staid forms of spatial things. It geometrizes space and it spatializes time.

Let us now turn to the other aspect of the revolution, its objective side. The world as Newton conceived it: a structureless, infinite space and a time flowing at [a constant] rate, seemed to philosophers and men of science of the last century to involve no hypothesis but to be a simple acceptance of fact at its clear face-value. When Newton discovered the law of gravitation, and could express it in a formula which applied universally, it appeared as though the secure foundations of physical science were laid on an objective basis. There was, however, a very troublesome inconsistency in the conception. The law of gravitation postulated universal attraction, and if the universe really is infinite in space and time, how are we to account for the fact that masses of matter are distributed throughout it? In infinite time, the attractive force must have brought all into one central mass. It would be impossible in this lecture to indicate the various observations which have thrown doubt on Newton's universe of infinite space and time and have led finally to its rejection. Einstein has now given to science an entirely new concept of the universe, the concept of a universe which is finite and yet unbounded. I may enable you to get a rough picture of the idea by asking you to imagine yourselves living in a sphere in which you can move freely but in which every movement towards the circumference involves a flattening of your proportions with its limit in complete flatness at the circumference: in such a universe, space would not be structureless, for your shape would depend on your position.

If we take the course of science generally, we see that it has been helped forward in its progress by invention. It was the telescope which enabled Galileo to demonstrate the truth of the Copernican theory and led to the momentous discovery that light is not instantaneous, but has a definite interval of time in its propagation. It was the microscope which revealed the new worlds within worlds. But both these instruments seemed to confirm the view that science was confined to a realm of clear knowledge with undefined boundaries. In the latter half of the last century, a new instrument was invented, the spectroscope, which has not only extended our knowledge of nature but revolutionised it. Unlike the telescope and the microscope, which continue our unaided observation, the spectroscope takes us, as it were, at a bound to the limits of the universe and shows us how it is constituted. The new electric theory of matter and the secret of atomic structure is what it has revealed.

But the most revolutionary discovery of modern science concerns the principle of discovery itself. We are observers of nature, but the nature we observe consists of systems moving relatively to one another. There is no system or place in a system which is absolute, so that by reference to it we may determine absolutely the velocity of a movement. Yet to measure the movement of any system we must adopt a standpoint. This is Einstein's principle of relativity. Every observer of nature measuring phenomena takes a frame of reference and whatever frame he chooses it must be for him a system at rest. Thus, just as we saw in Bergson's theory when we considered the subjective factor, or mind, or intellect, so in Einstein's theory when we consider the objective factor, the world, or universe, we have nothing absolute to refer to.

In the beginning of philosophy, Descartes conceived nature as a system. Creation, he said, was the imparting of movement to extension, and movement must produce a vortex system and this was the world. Newton rejected this as an hypothesis and accepted space and time as the background of movement, the velocity of which might be infinite. Einstein has brought us back to concept of the nature as a system, and Bergson has given us the concept of our intellect as itself a product of creative evolution. On each side, mind and nature, the idea of the absolute - absolute knowledge of absolute reality - has given place to the principle of relativity.

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