THERE ARE NO THINGS, THERE ARE ONLY ACTIONS

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Everything is obscure in the idea of creation if we think of things which are created and a thing which creates, as we habitually do, as the understanding cannot help doing. It is natural to our intellect, whose function is essentially practical, made to present to us things and states rather than changes and acts. But things and states are only views, taken by our mind, of becoming. There are no things, there are only actions.

More particularly, if I consider the world in which we live, I find that the automatic and strictly determined evolution of this well-knit whole is action which is unmaking itself, and that the unforeseen forms which life cuts out in it, forms capable of being themselves prolonged into unforeseen movements, represent the action that is making itself.

Now, I have every reason to believe that the other worlds are analogous to ours, that things happen there in the same way. And I know they were not all constructed at the same time, since observation shows me, even to-day, nebulae in course of concentration. Now, if the same kind of action is going on everywhere, whether it is that which is unmaking itself or whether it is that which is striving to remake itself, I simply express this probable similitude when I speak of a centre from which worlds shoot out like rockets in a fireworks display—provided, however, that I do not present this centre as a thing, but as a continuity of shooting out.

God thus defined, has nothing of the already made; He is unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery; we experience it in ourselves when we act freely. That new things can join things already existing is absurd, no doubt, since the thing results from a solidification performed by our understanding, and there are never any things other than those that the understanding has thus constituted. To speak of things creating themselves would therefore amount to saying that the understanding presents to itself more than it presents to itself—a self-contradictory affirmation, an empty and vain idea. But that action increases as it goes on, that it creates in the measure of its advance, is what each of us finds when he watches himself act. Things are constituted by the instantaneous cut which the understanding practices, at a given moment, on a flux of this kind, and what is mysterious when we compare the cuts together becomes clear when we relate them to the flux. Indeed, the modalities of creative action, in so far as it is still going on in the organization of living forms, are much simplified when they are taken in this way. Before the complexity of an organism and the practically infinite multitude of interwoven analyses and syntheses it presupposes, our understanding recoils disconcerted. That the simple play of physical and chemical forces, left to themselves, should have worked this marvel, we find hard to believe. And if it is a profound science which is at work, how are we to understand the influence exercised on this matter without form by this form without matter? But the difficulty arises from this, that we represent statically ready-made material particles juxtaposed to one another, and, also statically, an external cause which plasters upon them a skilfully contrived organization. In reality, life is a movement, materiality is the inverse movement, and each of these two movements is simple, the matter which forms a world being an undivided flux, and undivided also the life that runs through it, cutting out in it living beings all along its track. Of these two currents the second runs counter to the first, but the first obtains, all the same, something from the second. There results between them a modus vivendi, which is organization. This organization takes, for our senses and for our intellect, the form of parts entirely external to other parts in space and in time. Not only do we shut our eyes to the unity of the impulse which, passing through generations, links individuals with individuals, species with species, and makes of the whole series of the living one single immense wave flowing over matter, but each individual itself seems to us as an aggregate, aggregate of molecules and aggregate of facts. The reason of this lies in the structure of our intellect, which is formed to act on matter from without, and which succeeds by making, in the flux of the real, instantaneous cuts, each of which becomes, in its fixity, endlessly decomposable. Perceiving, in an organism, only parts external to parts, the understanding has the choice between two systems of explanation only: either to regard the infinitely complex (and thereby infinitely well-contrived) organization as a fortuitous concatenation of atoms, or to relate it to the incomprehensible influence of an external force that has grouped its elements together. But this complexity is the work of the understanding; this incomprehensibility is also its work. Let us try to see, no longer with the eyes of the intellect alone, which grasps only the already made and which looks from the outside, but with the spirit, I mean with that faculty of seeing which is immanent in the faculty of acting and which springs up, somehow, by the twisting of the will on itself, when action is turned into knowledge, like heat, so to say, into light. To movement, then, everything will be restored, and into movement everything will be resolved. Where the understanding, working on the image supposed to be fixed of the progressing action, shows us parts infinitely manifold and an order infinitely well contrived, we catch a glimpse of a simple process, an action which is making itself across an action of the same kind which is unmaking itself, like the fiery path torn by the last rocket of a fireworks display through the black cinders of the spent rockets that are falling dead.

Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution
Read the whole book here.

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BOILING GEOMETRY

If I boil water in a kettle on a stove, the operation and the objects that support it are, in reality, bound up with a multitude of other objects and a multitude of other operations; in the end, I should find that our entire solar system is concerned in what is being done at this particular point of space. But, in a certain measure, and for the special end I am pursuing, I may admit that things happen as if the group water-kettle-stove were an independent microcosm. That is my first affirmation. Now, when I say that this microcosm will always behave in the same way, that the heat will necessarily, at the end of a certain time, cause the boiling of the water, I admit that it is sufficient that a certain number of elements of the system be given in order that the system should be complete; it completes itself automatically, I am not free to complete it in thought as I please. The stove, the kettle and the water being given, with a certain interval of duration, it seems to me that the boiling, which experience showed me yesterday to be the only thing wanting to complete the system, will complete it tomorrow, no matter when tomorrow may be. What is there at the base of this belief? Notice that the belief is more or less assured, according as the case may be, but that it is forced upon the mind as an absolute necessity when the microcosm considered contains only magnitudes. If two sides of a triangle and the contained angle are given, the third side arises of itself and the triangle completes itself automatically. I can, it matters not where and it matters not when, trace the same two sides containing the same angle: it is evident that the new triangles so formed can be superposed on the first, and that consequently the same third side will come to complete the system. Now, if my certitude is perfect in the case in which I reason on pure space determinations, must I not suppose that, in the other cases, the certitude is greater the nearer it approaches this extreme case? Indeed, may it not be the limiting case which is seen through all the others and which colors them, accordingly as they are more or less transparent, with a more or less pronounced tinge of geometrical necessity? In fact, when I say that the water on the fire will boil today as it did yesterday, and that this is an absolute necessity, I feel vaguely that my imagination is placing the stove of yesterday on that of today, kettle on kettle, water on water, duration on duration, and it seems then that the rest must coincide also, for the same reason that, when two triangles are superposed and two of their sides coincide, their third sides coincide also. But my imagination acts thus only because it shuts its eyes to two essential points. For the system of today actually to be superimposed on that of yesterday, the latter must have waited for the former, time must have halted, and everything become simultaneous: that happens in geometry, but in geometry alone. Induction therefore implies first that, in the world of the physicist as in that of the geometrician, time does not count. But it implies also that qualities can be superposed on each other like magnitudes. If, in imagination, I place the stove and fire of today on that of yesterday, I find indeed that the form has remained the same; it suffices, for that, that the surfaces and edges coincide; but what is the coincidence of two qualities, and how can they be superposed one on another in order to ensure that they are identical? Yet I extend to the second order of reality all that applies to the first. The physicist legitimates this operation later on by reducing, as far as possible, differences of quality to differences of magnitude; but, prior to all science, I incline to liken qualities to quantities, as if I perceived behind the qualities, as through a transparency, a geometrical mechanism. The more complete this transparency, the more it seems to me that in the same conditions there must be a repetition of the same fact. Our inductions are certain, to our eyes, in the exact degree in which we make the qualitative differences melt into the homogeneity of the space which subtends them, so that geometry is the ideal limit of our inductions as well as of our deductions. The movement at the end of which is spatiality lays down along its course the faculty of induction as well as that of deduction, in fact, intellectuality entire. Continue reading “BOILING GEOMETRY”

THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson