BERGSON, EINSTEIN, AND TIME
D. R. Khashaba
I am reading Maria Popova’s article on Jimena Canales’s The Physicist and the Philosopher http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10445.html As is my habit, I will write down what occurs to me as I read, not basically commenting on the article but expressing marginal thoughts on points discussed, perhaps mostly on Time and on the ‘science and philosophy’ question.
Hannah Arendt, in the citation heading the article, speaks of “the continuously flowing stream of sheer change” being changed by man “into time as we know it”. This is very perceptive and perhaps it says it all. In nature, in reality, there is no time: there is the stream of change, the Heraclitian flux.
I think it is too much to speak of the Bergson-Einstein conversation ‘shaping our experience of time’. What changed in the twentieth century was the theoretical approach influenced by the fiction of absolute time. Experienced time was always and continues to be subjective and relative.
“Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks …”. Do ‘clocks’ measure time? Can we catch time as an objective ‘what’ to measure? We measure an event in terms of an arbitrarily chosen standard event reduced to an arithmetical unit and we can never reach the absolutely irreducible standard unit. Ask Zeno of Elea. As in the case of space: you can never have the absolutely irreducible unit measure of space. You cannot take the Euclidean point as a unit for measuring Descartes’s res extensa, which is an uncatchable faery.
Of course Bergson’s duration was and is of no use for science. This underlines the radical difference (that Socrates saw clearly and that I have been harping on in all my writings) between science which interprets objective phenomena in terms of theoretical fictions on the one hand and philosophy which interprets subjective realities in terms of imaginative myths. (If the reader finds this enigmatic I ask her or him to excuse me because this sums up my philosophy, which could not be put in a few words without seeming enigma,)
“The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.” Fascinating! But as I see it, no interchange between science and philosophy can lead to an ultimate view of the ‘fabric of existence’. As Plato emphasized, the study of outer things can only give us doxa (let us say ‘theory’), while the mind in itself and by itself gives us insight into a reality that can only be intimated poetically in parable, metaphor, and myth. Or as Kant put it, objective science can only deal with phenomena while pure reason is solely concerned with Ideas. There can be no meeting ground between the two. Science has to confess it has nothing to do with ultimate reality and philosophy has to acknowledge that it has nothing to do with factual knowledge or knowledge about the natural world.
It is odd that Einstein, the sanest of modern scientists, and Bergson, with his penetrating intellect, could not see that their argument was pointless since they were speaking about two different and completely unrelated things — like two people arguing about Venus, one having in mind the planet and the other the goddess. I believe that Whitehead, in whose philosophy the notion of duration had a crucial role, could be unclear about the difference between subjective and objective time.
We read of Einstein “rattling our understanding of time”. Whose understanding? Newton’s or Stephen Hawking’s maybe. But not Sappho’s or Wordsworth’s.
To my mind it is meaningless to oppose physics to metaphysics or rationality to antirationalism. Physics studies objective existents, the world outside us; metaphysics explores our inner reality. Rationalism, to which antirationalism is rightly opposed, claims that reason can explain everything and, in principle, can foretell what the state of the world will be at any future time; rationality is the demand that we accept nothing that does not satisfy out reason. Of course such sweeping statements as I have made here must be full of pores and replete with embedded contradictions; this is inevitable, but I believe a sympathetic reader will find sense in what I am saying.
The statement that “the universe (and our knowledge of it) could stand just as well without us” is two-pronged. That the universe could stand without us is opposed to subjective idealism which no sane person ever held seriously but only as a theoretical problem. That ‘our knowledge’ of the universe would stand ‘without us’ is inane.
We read: “Each man represented one side of salient, irreconcilable dichotomies that characterized modernity.” These dichotomies result from scientists trying to answer philosophical problems and philosophers trying to reach objective factual knowledge. All my writings have been directed to resolving this groundless impasse.
D. R. Khashaba
January 19, 2017
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