Sunday, September 01, 2013

Subjective Experience and the Existence of Free Will in Bergson

With burgeoning progression in neuroscience projects across a variety of fields including stem cell generation, brain scanning, and natural language processing, the free will / determinism debate remains vibrant. One resource for understanding the problem is French philosopher Henri Bergson and his claim that free will exists, and can be understood through how time and free will are connected.

Henri Bergson lived 1859-1941. 1900s. He was well-known in philosophy and intellectual culture more broadly in the early 1900s, including for anticipating quantum mechanics 30 years ahead of its discovery due to his assessment of time as being asymmetrical. In the 1960s, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze reawakened interest in Bergson, highlighting the importance of Bergson’s concepts regarding multiplicity and difference. Now Bergson continues to be relevant to neuroscience and other areas interested in the understanding of subjective experience, free will, and mind/body dualism. Bergson published three masterworks:
  • Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889) arguing in favor of free will 
  • Matter and Memory (1896) resolving mind/body dualism with a larger problem frame taking both dimensions into account 
  • Creative Evolution (1907) linking the idea of the time as energy and the energy of time to evolution 
Linking Time and Free Will 
According to Bergson in Time and Free Will, and as explicated by Suzanne Guerlac in Thinking in Time, we cannot treat the inner world of consciousness and subjective experience with the same model we use to understand the physical world. We need to purify concepts from their objective scientific use for the purpose of examining subjective experience, where the important features are the intensity of qualities, the multiplicity of overlapping mental states, and duration, the lived experience of time. Time is a force because it has a causal role in experiences not being the same each time, or over time, and in allowing experiences to accumulate through memory. Time is therefore a force, but an internal force not subject to the laws of nature as external forces. Exactly because time is not governed by mechanistic external forces, it allows room for the exercise of free will. The force of time makes free will possible and we exercise it when we are living in time, tuned into our subjective experience, and acting passionately and decisively. A more accurate conceptualization of our freedom is not in deciding between two alternatives but rather in experiencing free actions carving themselves out of our hesitation as we plunder though the constant becoming of life. 

Further explanation: YouTube video

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