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TNN The mystery and the magic of time: a few reflections
Ania Lian, 2003

Henri Bergson attempted to defend the cause of the multiplicity of coexisting lived times against Albert Einstein. His concept of lived times immediately relativises time as a category and suggests that time is not absolute and therefore it is a reflection of the events that we measure as signifying the passing of time. It would seem that for Henri Bergson, time is events: that which you measure/take as determining that time is passing.  It would follow that time does not show anything other than the events that we select and define as indicating to us that time is passing. The implications are serious. We can say that what we see as the passing of time, in fact describes what we see, and not how things are. Can we therefore influence time? It can certainly be claimed that we can influence how we measure it.  

This simple realisation can lead us to another one. By influencing the ways in which we measure time, we may discover events that previously escaped us. These new events may have the potential to tell us more about the conditions that trigger the passing of time.  We may also find ways to stop those events from taking place and therefore to stop a chain reaction of specific processes that we may wish to prevent from happening. Isn't this interesting? 

I would suggest that the way in which Bergson talked about time was from the perspective of the methodology for conducting an inquiry. Myconclusion would be that by investigating the various ways in which we measure time, we may gain insights into the processes which necessitate other processes. We may also gain insights as to how to stop some processes from taking place and therefore how to stop or slow down the passing of time for the events considered. In this way, we can find ways of influencing the lifecycle of living organisms, including the ageing process.

It is known that Henri Bergson and Einstein were in conflict regarding the issue of time. Einstein categorically rejected the  “philosopher’s time”. In his view, lived experience cannot recuperate or save what has been denied by science! For Einstein, distinctions between past, present and future were outside the scope of physics.

I would like to propose that
Bergson and Einstein could not resolve the problem of what is time because they had no problem. In my view, they were both saying the same thing and, in fact, both were right. Thus Bergson talked about time from the perspective of how to expand our methods of inquiry. On the other hand, Einstein talked about time from the perspective of the outcomes of the inquiry. Einstein's position that time is a construction in the universe where, in fact, nothing happens is a reflection of his attitude to what he discovers. Everything is relative and hence not true in an absolute sense. They both were saying the same thing. In my view, the difference is that Bergson’s model helps us to understand better the concept of relativity of the references that we apply to measure time.

What Einstein does help us see is that the reality of the concepts such as ageing, death, disease, we take as fate. Ageing therefore seems normal, diseases must be cured, and death is inevitable.  However, as Einstein reminds us, problems cannot be solved within the mindset that generated them. To change the mindset would require to further explore our definitions, understandings, our measurements. We may find out that different ways of looking at processes may reveal to us more potent and more revealing observations and possibilities.  Einstein's distance to the categories in terms of which we act reminds us that our categories should be objects with which we work in order to discover more. Consequently, we cannot be slaves to our categories.

I would suggest that, quite possibly, little may be inevitable as, to follow Einstein's thinking, nothing ever is what it seems to be. How things are is up to us: it all depends how we work with information. And yes, immortality may well be within reach, provided that we do not corrupt the question of immortality with the perspective of an interested science. I see a disinterested science as one that proceeds by continually relativising its discoveries in terms of the opportunities that they open up and those which they close off. It is a dynamic science which sets no boundaries on the inquiry process in regard to the questions that it asks and the reference contexts which it investigates. I am not alone in this view (cf. Latour and Stengers).

On the other hand, an interested science proceeds by sculpturing 'a method of measurement', a point of view, into separate disciplines with questions which claim legitimacy from within the perspective of the point of view that forms the discipline. But, to follow Saul, there is little benefit in knowing everything about something which is very small. Saul repeats the words of the president of Petro-Canada, “you can’t shrink to greatness” (Saul, J.R. 1997. The unconscious civilization: 107). Certainly, recent shifts in higher education argue against the research culture that cultivates a small mind (click here for more on this). 

March, 2003 (Ania Lian)


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