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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Einstein vs Bergson, science vs philosophy and the meaning of time

Photo: Joe Gelonesi
Joe Gelonesi, key member of ABC RN’s executive editorial team for the past decade writes, "When Henri met Albert the stars didn’t quite align; nor did their clocks. Jimena Canales, historian of science, tells Joe Gelonesi about her discovery of an explosive 20th century debate that changed our view of time and destroyed a reputation."

Physicists and philosophers have a curious relationship. They both need each other for the cosmic dance, but one partner sometimes refuses to join in. Star physicist Stephen Hawking even declared the end of philosophy in 2011.

In some ways the pronouncement was to be expected; physics triumphalism dictates that at some point philosophy will exhaust itself and be unable to solve the mysteries that science seems to conquer in leaps. It’s been coming for a while; at least since the word science replaced natural philosophy a few centuries ago.

Photo: Portrait of physicist Albert Einstein sitting in an armchair with a pipe, circa 1934. (Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Along this narrative are high points of confrontation, played out by grand actors on the intellectual stage. Jimena Canales has rediscovered one such moment, which pitted a grandee of philosophy against a rising star of physics.

Canales is an award winning historian of science with a penchant for cosmological themes. She has also authored an ambitious history of the idea of a tenth of a second. As part of her research she came across rare documents which chronicled an extraordinary standoff. She immediately understood her luck.

‘It is the dream a historian could have—I bumped into very interesting material that hadn’t been told before. It’s one of those incredible untold stories.’

Canales had uncovered the transcript of a meeting that took place on April 6, 1922 at the esteemed Societe  Francaise de philosophie in Paris. The protagonists were none other than Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson. In dispute was the very nature of time.

Taking on Einstein might seem foolhardy now, but the world of ideas was a different place a century ago. Bergson was already someone; Einstein was on the make.

Bergson’s Creative Evolution, published in 1907, had put him on the map, and introduced perhaps his most enduring idea—elan vital. Through it Bergson attempted to explain the march of the universe in a non-Darwinian sense, the vital energy that drives all forward. Bergson understood this as a concept that science could grasp only imperfectly, and one that lies at the heart of the creative impulse.

Photo: French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) pictured circa 1905. (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

The book also develops a theory of time. Rather than a physical account, Bergson explores the subjective nature of time—what it means to us as living beings, rather than as an abstract concept external to our concerns. This is the notion of lived time.

Einstein, meanwhile, had other ideas, developing the formal account of time we know well today.

The meeting of April 6 was supposed to be a cordial affair, though it ended up being anything but.

‘I have to say that day exploded and it was referenced over and over again in the 20th century,’ says Canales. ‘The key sentence was something that Einstein said: “The time of the philosophers did not exist.”’

It’s hard to know whether Bergson was expecting such a sharp jab. In just one sentence, Bergson’s notion of duration—a major part of his thesis on time—was dealt a mortal blow.

As Canales reads it, the line was carefully crafted for maximum impact.

‘What he meant was that philosophers frequently based their stories on a psychological approach and [new] physical knowledge showed that these philosophical approaches were nothing more than errors of the mind.’

The night would only get worse.

‘This was extremely scandalous,’ says Canales. ‘Einstein had been invited by philosophers to speak at their society, and you had this physicist say very clearly that their time did not exist.’

Bergson was outraged, but the philosopher did not take it lying down. A few months later 

Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the law of photoelectric effect, an area of science that Canales noted, ‘hardly jolted the public’s imagination’. In truth, Einstein coveted recognition for his work on relativity.

Bergson inflicted some return humiliation of his own. By casting doubt on Einstein’s theoretical trajectory, Bergson dissuaded the committee from awarding the prize for relativity. In 1922, the jury was still out on the correct interpretation of time.

So began a dispute that festered for years and played into the larger rift between physics and philosophy, science and the humanities.

Source: ABC Online

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