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Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Is it then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 5

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

The idea that Bergson is trying to get across is that human beings evolve during the course of a lifetime by the self creating the self. Here he seems to be making a significant error by equating psychological development with biological adaptation. He sees the two as inseparable, joined at the hip so to speak, but they are, in fact, two distinct processes serving two distinct and unrelated outcomes. The development of the psychological self is, as Bergson points out, the cauldron of both rational and lived experience, each of which contributes to the re-creation of ourselves by ourselves. On this point, Bergson is most likely correct. His phenomenological approach to the lived experience almost requires one to conclude that change is inevitable because every action and every thought contributes to the constant purpose of perpetual change. But this change is contained within a single lived experience. It does not impact future generations, make for much more than a measure of maturation in a single individual lived experience.

Evolutionary change, on the other hand, serves a completely different purpose. Evolution suggests that a species adopts random changes when one of those changes is deemed to be necessary for species survival. Evolution is an adaptive process rather than a process driven by activity. It is often a sexual process with females choosing mates displaying the much desirable random changes, In this way the desired change is passed on to and by future generations. Evolutionary change is not a result of phenomenological change but, rather, a result of adaptive responses to a changing environment. It is not driven by thoughtful interventions (the exception is managed changes in breeding dogs, horses, cows and pigs by human intervention) rather by mutations of genes that are then selected as desirable and, therefore, kept and passed on.

Evolutionary change is not connected in any way to psychological development, changes in psyche that make each unique individual what they are. To Bergson’s defense, he is writing a mere three decades after Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of natural selection was published. He was also likely influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer and his regressive ideas about social darwinism (it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’) as social change. Spencer’s view of change was far more developmental than adaptive concentrating of the development of the superior castes while dismissing the development of the lower castes in society. Given the lack of a complete understanding of Darwin and the poorly constructed social schema envisioned by Spencer, Bergson’s attempt to join evolutionary change with human development is understandable, just wrong.

When Bergson writes, “The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change,” he is describing a process of human development across linear time; change which can be understood as a regular and quite normal progression of life itself. This change may be understood in the context of stages of development which, in turn, may be described, normalized and studied. It is an action of psychological study and not one of random changes across several generations which would be more attuned to evolutionary change. Even as a metaphor, Bergson falls short of his mark.

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Yes, it is true but it has absolutely nothing to do with teleological purpose, punishment or reward for behavior deemed to be unclean, unspiritual or unworthy or, in the case of rewards, the precise opposite. To believe that creation is purposeful, that some deity has a plan for me and you, that it is in our best interest to keep this deity appeased or it may not rain, crops might not grow, rivers might turn to blood and hail, tornados and hurricanes (not to mention earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamis) is, to my mind, an exercise in wishful thinking. Oh, perhaps it was important in late antiquity to try to answer the mysteries that presented themselves but there is little reason to ponder the very existence of a God that plans for each and every outcome as a part of the grand teleological plan for creation (and extinction). Since Darwin, who showed how natural selection (not the survival of the fittest which is a term that may be applied to Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism) follows random genetic mutations that help insure the survival of a species or, perhaps, the demise of that species altogether, teleological arguments fall in the ranks of mythology and fairy tales without evidence other than the evidence of the recursive nature of its own writings of the foundational truth contained within the mythology.

The universe is, it seems, a very large random number generator. Things happen randomly. These things become part of a larger and ever changing historical narrative, one that has little staying power as interests and contexts shift quite rapidly. Underlying the idea of randomness is the closely related notions of isolated, almost solipsistic, existential experience of the life of the self and the random social network that begins with the dyad of self and other, two unique beings that interact for a while and then part; each leaving a trace behind that is both self and other. These encounters, even among close friends and lovers are random in their occurrence and yet, in some cases may be quite predictable as well (by force of habit rather than by chance meeting; say I have dinner with my wife at 6:00 PM every night except when we have other plans, the meal didn’t get cooked, the stove went on the fritz, the dogs ate the chicken before it got to the table…and so on).

The very fact that you or I am present in the world is the outcome of a single sperm out of millions of potential sperms penetrated a single ova to produce each unique other and the unique self is the beginning of the ontogenesis of the self or the other; an entirely random outcome, one that is based on the probability of connection produces a unique being at birth. On the other hand, the wanton destruction of human beings during the Shoah (Holocaust for those who chose the Greek) by Germans with the aid of Poles and Lithuanians seems to mitigate against the idea of a God with a plan. If the plan was to kill six million Jews then this God is a sadist and not worthy of adoration. If this God with a plan was horrified by the escalation of the murderous mania of the German bureaucracy and didn’t intervent to stop it then this God with a plan is simply weak and not worthy of adoration. If this God with a plan was horrified by the murdering and was unable to stop it then this God with a plan is impotent and unworthy of adoration. We can say that today because there is so much evidence pointing directly to the very randomness of the exercise of free will; the intentional actions that human beings follow that are brought on by both the convergence of time and space at this very moment and the intention to act within that time and space to insure the survival of the planet until such time as the sun explodes into a red giant engulfing the orbiting earth turning it into a crispy rock where no life survives as we know life.

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, they do not look for , nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and binding’ binds and holds them together.
— Plato, Phaedo 99

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Plato’s description of the teleological, the account holding that final causes exist in nature, providing an underlying systemic design to the very forces that mysteriously point to the divine, is a classical riddle leading human beings to project the eschatological end times; the design of a divine being whose enterprise of death, judgment, heaven and hell ends with apocalyptic transitions from one life to another. There is a teleological presumption that this design requires a creator, or at the very least a first cause creator, one with a thoughtful mind that plans and executes that plan over which human beings have little or no control. On this view, humans are prisoners of this design, powerless to affect the outcome of the planed end of times.

It seems that eschatological programs dominate major religions of the world. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian eschatology dominate their respective belief systems. Most of the modern eschatological thinking is dominated by a violent disruption, even the destruction, of the world. Jewish and Christian eschatological understanding sees the end times as the perfection of God’s creation of the world; God created the world for a purpose and is constantly moving toward the final goal of this creation. For Jews, the end times will be noted when the messiah presents himself to the world. For the Christians the end times come when the messiah returns to the world. In either case, the end times, the perfection of creation means the end of the world as we know it; even, perhaps the destruction of the world and the end of everything.

Teleological eschatology presents a mix of optimistic joy and pessimistic terror, with pessimism holding most of the good cards. Even true believers will suffer in the end of times; the inevitability of which is programmed into the plan of which only God is certain. So we constantly face predictions of the end of the world, the most recent of which was the Mayan Apocalypse but this prediction is not isolated in the minds of those who believe in the very idea of a linear path from creation to destruction, a plan conceived by some creator God (or gods) or another to explain that which is difficult to explain.

There is, however, a significant problem with the teleological insistence on God having a plan for everything. It simply doesn’t mesh with science. Let me explore some teleological arguments juxtaposed against a single scientific program, evolution. While I do not claim this analysis as a comprehensive one, I do claim it to be a good faith, albeit brief, summary of some key ideas. One claim of those who embrace religious eschatology is that their system explains reality. Evolution, on the other hand, only claims to be an explanation of the development of life on earth without looking at or making claims about origins. Evolution or natural selection is a random process over which no design appears to dominate. Natural selection eschews the very notion of supernatural intervention into the process of biological changes while their religious counterparts claim supernatural intervention through a creation ex nihilo that is static and unchanging. Teleological eschatology claims a purpose for creation where evolution understands the world in terms of its very randomness, a randomness that creates biological diversity in constant flux; changes that are not instantaneous, rather that occur over long periods of time, far longer than the span of a human lifetime. Finally, teleological eschatology claims that the only way to avoid the ultimate catastrophic end of times is to do God’s will as they describe the will of God. Natural selection makes no such claim; it claims that biological changes are responses to environmental conditions that, in turn, provide a context to insure survival. These conditions and contexts are not part of some grand scheme but, rather, are random natural events occurring over time.

While teleological eschatology appears rational to many, it has a distinct flaw that cannot be overcome. It is dependent on its own rationale, its tautological dependence on its own sacred texts that somehow, when taken together, make up (yes, the pun is intended) a belief system that cannot be questioned. The belief system feeds upon itself, taking ancient proof texts to prove that the hand of God permeates everything. When questioned, the system falls apart. Proving the existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is fully dependent on one’s prior belief in that God without which all proofs fail. If belief is required for proof then one has a system that, on its face, is tautological in the sense that it uses a set of self-reinforcing statements or claims that are not subject to refutation; in short, using different words to say the same thing.

In the end, teleological systems fail, not because they are not rational for their internal rationality is often quite exquisite, rather they fail because they feed only upon themselves without opening the door to distinctly rational, observable, and replicable understandings.

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