Durant 1926: Mind and Brain (Bergson)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 1.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. HENRI BERGSON

2. Mind and Brain

We naturally incline to materialism, Bergson argues, because we tend to think in terms of space; we are geometricians all. But time is as fundamental as space; and it is time, no doubt, that holds the essence of life, and perhaps of all reality. What we have to understand is that time is an accumulation, a growth, a duration. “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances”; it means that “the past in its entirety is prolonged into the present and abides there actual and acting.” Duration means that the past endures, that nothing of it is quite lost. “Doubtless we think with only, a small part of our past; but it is with our entire past … that we desire will, and act.” And since time is an accumulation, the future can never be the same as the past, for a new accumulation arises at every step. “Each moment is not only something new, but something unforeseeable; … change is far more radical than we suppose”; and that geometrical predictability, of all things which is the goal of a mechanist science is only an intellectualist delusion. At least “for a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly.” what if this is true of all things? Perhaps all reality is time and duration, becoming and change?

We naturally incline to materialism, Bergson argues, because we tend to think in terms of space. But time is as fundamental as space; and it holds the essence of life, and perhaps of all reality. We desire, will, and act with our entire past. To exist is to change.

In ourselves, memory is the vehicle of duration, the handmaiden of tune; and through it so much of our past is actively retained that rich alternatives present themselves for every situation. As life grows richer in its scope, its heritage and its memories, the field of choice widens, and at last the variety of possible responses generates consciousness, which is the rehearsal of response. “Consciousness seems proportionate to the living being’s power of choice. It lights up the zone of potentialities that surrounds the act. It fills the interval between what is done and what might be done.” It is no useless appendage; it is a vivid theatre of imagination, where alternative responses are pictured and tested before the irrevocable choice. “In reality,” then, “a living being is a center of action; it represents a sum of contingency entering into the world; that is to say, a certain quantity of possible action.” Man is no passively adaptive machine; he is a focus of redirected force, a center of creative evolution.

As life grows richer in its scope, its heritage and its memories, the field of choice widens, and at last the variety of possible responses generates consciousness. Man is no passively adaptive machine; he is a focus of redirected force, a center of creative evolution.

Free will is a corollary of consciousness; to say that we are free is merely to mean that we know what we are doing.

The primary function of memory is to evoke all those past perceptions which are analogous to the present perception, to recall to us what preceded and what followed them, and so to suggest to us that decision which is the most useful. But this is not all. By allowing us to grasp in a single intuition multiple moments of duration, it frees us from the movement of the flow of things, that is to say, from the rhythm of necessity. The more of these moments memory can contract into one, the firmer is the hold which it gives to us on matter; so that the memory of a living being appears indeed to measure, above all, its powers of action upon things.

To say that we are free is merely to mean that we know what we are doing. We are not free when we are reacting to a trigger.

If determinists were right, and every act were the automatic and mechanical resultant of pre-existent forces, motive would flow into action with lubricated ease. But on the contrary, choice is burdensome and effortful, it requires resolution, a lifting up of the power of personality against the spiritual gravitation of impulse or habit or sloth. Choice is creation and creation is labor. Hence the worried features of men; and their weary envy of the choiceless routine of animals, who “are so placid and self-contained.” But the Confucian peacefulness of your dog is no philosophic calm, no quiet surface of unfathomed depth; it is the certainty of instinct, the orderliness of an animal that need not, and cannot, choose. “In the animal, invention is never anything but a variation on the theme of routine. Shut up in the habits of the species, it succeeds, no doubt, in enlarging them by its individual initiative; but it escapes automatism only for an instant, for just the time to create a new automatism. The gates of its prison close as soon as they are opened; by pulling at its chain, it succeeds only in stretching it. With man, consciousness breaks the chain. In man, and man alone; it sets itself free.” *

* This is an example of Bergson’s facility in replacing argument with analogy, and of his tendency to exaggerate the gap between animals arid men. Philosophy should not flatter. Jerome Coignard was wiser, and “would have refused to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man, because of the sharp and unwarranted distinction it drew between man and the gorilla.”

If determinists were right, motive would flow into action with lubricated ease. But on the contrary, choice is effortful, and it requires resolution. Determinism by instinct has been lessening as life organisms have evolved; until, in man, it is possible to reduce it completely.

Mind, then, is not identical with brain. Consciousness depends upon the brain, and falls with it; but so does a coat fall with the nail on which it hangs,—which does not prove that the coat is an “epiphenomenon,” an ornamental ectoplasm of the nail. The brain is the system of images and reaction-patterns; consciousness is the recall of images and the choice of reactions. “The direction of the stream is distinct from the river bed, although, it must adopt its winding course. Consciousness is distinct from, the organism which it animates, although it must undergo its vicissitudes.”

Consciousness is distinct from, the organism which it animates, although it must undergo its vicissitudes.

It is sometimes said that in ourselves, consciousness is directly connected with a brain, and that we must therefore attribute consciousness to living beings which have a brain, and deny it to those which have none. But it is easy to see the fallacy of such an argument. It would be just as though we should say that because in ourselves digestion is directly connected with a stomach, therefore only living beings with a stomach can digest. We should be entirely wrong, for it is not necessary to have a stomach, nor even to have special organs, in order to digest. An amoeba digests, although it is an almost undifferentiated protoplasmic mass. What is true is that in proportion to the complexity and perfection of an organism, there is a division of labor; special organs are assigned special functions, and the faculty of digesting is localized in the stomach, or rather is a general digestive apparatus, which works better because confined to that one function alone. In like manner, consciousness in man is unquestionably connected with the brain; but it by no means follows that a brain is indispensable to consciousness. The lower we go in the animal series, the more nervous centers are simplified and separate from one another, and at last they disappear altogether, merged in the general mass of an organism with hardly any differentiation. If, then, at the top of the scale of living beings, consciousness is attached to very complicated nervous centers, must we not suppose that it accompanies the nervous system down its whole descent, and that when at last the nerve stuff is merged in the yet undifferentiated living matter, consciousness is still there, diffused, confused, but not reduced to nothing? Theoretically, then, everything living might be conscious. In principle, consciousness is co-extensive with life.

In principle, consciousness is co-extensive with life.

Why is it, nevertheless, that we seem to think of mind and thought in terms of matter and the brain? It is because that part of our minds which we call the “intellect” is a constitutional materialist; it was developed, in the process of evolution, to understand and deal with material, spatial objects; from this field it derives all its concepts and its “laws,” and its notion of a fatalistic and predictable regularity everywhere! “Our intellect, in the narrow sense of the word, is intended to secure the perfect fitting of our body to its environment, to represent the relations of external things among themselves,—in short, to think matter.” It is at home with solids, inert things; it sees all becoming as being, * as a series of states; it misses the connective tissue of things, the flow of duration that constitutes their very life.

* Cf. Nietzsche: “Being is a fiction invented by those who suffer from becoming.”—Birth of Tragedy, p. xxvii.

We seem to think of mind and thought in terms of matter and the brain, because our intellect was developed to understand and deal with material, spatial objects. Therefore, it has the notion of a fatalistic and predictable regularity everywhere.

Look at the moving-picture; it seems to our tired eyes to be alive with motion and action; here, surely, science and mechanism have caught the continuity of life. On the contrary, it is just here that science and the intellect reveal their limitations. The moving picture does not move, is not a picture of motion; it is only a series of instantaneous photographs, “snap-shots,” taken in such rapid succession that when they are thrown in rapid succession upon the screen, the willing spectator enjoys the illusion of continuity, as he did in his boyhood with thumbnail movies of his pugilistic heroes. But it is an illusion none the less; and the cinema film is obviously a series of pictures in which everything is as still as if eternally congealed.

The moving picture does not move. It is only a series of instantaneous photographs taken in rapid succession. When they are thrown in rapid succession upon the screen, there is an illusion of motion. It is just here that science and the intellect reveal their limitations.

And as the “motion”-picture camera divides into static poses the vivid current of reality, so the human intellect catches a series of states, but loses the continuity that weaves them into life. We see matter and we miss energy; we think that we know what matter is; but when at the heart of the atom we find energy, we are bewildered, and our categories melt away. “No doubt, for greater strictness, all considerations of motion may be eliminated from mathematical processes; but the introduction of motion into the genesis of figures is nevertheless the origin of modern mathematics”;—nearly all the progress of mathematics in the nineteenth century was due to the use of the concepts of time and motion in addition to the traditional geometry of space. All through contemporary science, as one sees in Mach and Pearson and Henri Poincare, there runs the uncomfortable suspicion that “exact” science is merely an approximation, which catches the inertia of reality better than its life.

The human intellect catches a series of states, but loses the continuity that weaves them into life. “Exact” science is merely an approximation, which catches the inertia of reality better than its life.

But it is our own fault if, by insisting on the application of physical concepts in the field of thought, we end in the impasse of determinism, mechanism, and materialism. The merest moment of reflection might have shown how inappropriate the concepts of physics are in the world of mind: we think as readily of a mile as of half a mile, and one flash of thought can circumnavigate the globe; our ideas elude every effort to picture them as material particles moving in space, or as limited by space in their flight and operation; Life escapes these solid concepts; for life is a matter of time rather than of space; it is not position, it is change; it is not quantity so much as quality; it is not a mere redistribution of matter and motion, it is fluid and persistent creation.

A very small element of a curve is very near to being a straight line. And the smaller it is, the nearer. In the limit it may be termed a part of the straight line, as you please, for in each of its points a curve coincides with its tangent. So, likewise, ‘vitality’ is tangent, at any and every point, to physical and chemical forces; but such points are, in fact, only views taken by a mind which imagines stops at various moments of the movement that generates the curve. In reality, life is no more made-up of physico-chemical elements than a curve is composed of straight lines.

But it is our own fault if, by insisting on the application of physical concepts in the field of thought, we end in the impasse of materialism. Life escapes these solid concepts; for life is fluid and persistent creation.

How then shall we catch the flow and essence of life if not by thinking and the intellect? But is the intellect all? Let us for a while stop thinking, and just gaze upon that inner reality—our selves—which is better known to us than all things else: what do we see? Mind, not matter; time, not space; action, not passivity; choice, not mechanism. We see life in its subtle and penetrating flow, not in its “states of mind,” not in its devitalized and separated parts, as when the zoologist examines a dead frog’s legs, or studies preparations under a microscope, and thinks that he is a biologist studying life! This direct perception, this simple and steady looking-upon (intueor) a thing, is intuition; not any mystic process, but the most direct examination possible to the human mind. Spinoza was right: reflective thought is not by any means the highest form of knowledge; it is better, no doubt, than hearsay; but how weak it is beside the direct perception of the thing itself! “A true empiricism is one that sets itself the task of getting as close as possible to the original, of sounding the depths of life, of feeling the pulse of its spirit by a sort of intellectual auscultation”; we “listen in” on the current of life. By direct perception we feel the presence of mind; by intellectual circumlocution we arrive at the notion that thought is a dance of molecules in the brain. Is there any doubt that intuition here beholds more truly the heart of life? 

We don’t catch the flow and essence of life by thinking and the intellect. We can get a glimpse of it by directly looking at ourselves. This simple and steady looking-upon a thing is the most direct examination possible to the human mind. 

This does not mean that thinking is a disease, as Rousseau held, or that the intellect is a treacherous thing which every decent citizen should forswear. The intellect retains its normal function of dealing with the material and spatial world; and with the material aspects or spatial expressions of life and mind; intuition is limited to the direct feeling of life and mind, not in their external embodiments but in their inner being. “I have never maintained that it was necessary ‘to put something different in the place of intellect,’ or to set instinct above it. I have simply tried to show that when we leave the domain of mathematics and physics to enter that of life and consciousness, we must make our appeal to a certain sense of life which cuts across pure understanding and has its origin in the same vital impulse as instinct—although instinct, properly so-called, is quite a different thing.” Nor do we try “to refute intellect by intellect”; we merely “adopt the language of the understanding, since only the understanding has a language”; we cannot help it if the very words that we use are psychological only by symbolism, and still reek with the material connotations forced upon them by their origin. Spirit means breath, and mind means a measure, and thinking points to a thing; nevertheless these are the crass media through which the soul must express itself. “It will be said that we do not transcend our intellect, for it is still with our intellect, and through our intellect, that we see the other forms of consciousness”; even introspection and intuition are materialist metaphors. And this would be a legitimate objection, “if there did not remain, around our conceptual and logical thought, a vague nebulosity, made of the very substance out of which has been formed the luminous nucleus that we call the intellect.” The new psychology is revealing in us a mental region incomparably wider than the intellect. “To explore the most sacred depths of the unconscious, to labor in the sub-soil of consciousness: that will be the principal task of psychology in the century whIch is opening. I do not doubt that wonderful discoveries await it there.”

While the intellect deals with the material and spatial world; intuition is limited to the direct feeling of life and mind in their inner being. Intuition has its origin in the same vital impulse as instinct—although instinct is quite a different thing. The new psychology is revealing in us a mental region incomparably wider than the intellect. 

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