The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson
“I cannot get it into my head,” wrote Einstein, that the last thirty years “make up almost 109 seconds.” What makes a moment meaningful, haunting our past and our future? April 6, 1922 was a significant date for Einstein; it was the day he met Henri Bergson, one of the most respected philosophers of his era.
In a widely publicized meeting in Paris, the philosopher congratulated the physicist for having discovered a stunning theory but chastised him for having lost aspects of time that were intuitively important for us. Appalled to see a theory ignore what attracted our attention toward certain events and not to others, Einstein’s critic sketched out the principles of an alternative cosmology that would neither fall prey to the arid precision of the sciences nor wallow in poetic rhetoric. Applauded for his “full-blooded” notion of time, his objections would inspire generations to come.
During the face-to-face encounter “between the greatest philosopher and the greatest physicist of the twentieth century,” his audience learned how to become “more Einsteinian than Einstein.” Bergson did not contest any experimental results; he accused the physicist of “grafting upon science” a dangerous “metaphysics.” The physicist responded swiftly, enlisting allies against the man who refused to grant to science—and physics—the power to reveal the time of the universe.
“The time of the universe” discovered by Einstein and “the time of our lives” associated with Bergson spiraled down dangerously conflicting paths, splitting the century into two cultures and pitting scientists against humanists, expert knowledge against lay wisdom. With repercussions for American pragmatism, logical positivism, phenomenology, and quantum mechanics, a series of intrigues and alliances explain why longstanding rivalries between science and philosophy, physics and metaphysics, objectivity and subjectivity are still so passionately fought. By the end of their lives, Bergson reconsidered Einstein and Einstein reconsidered Bergson, but their views remained irreconcilable.
The Physicist and the Philosopher is divided into four main parts. The first opens with three chapters that take us directly to the meeting between Einstein and Bergson. Part 2 then focuses on the men. It details the various contexts where Einstein’s contributions were considered in direct relation to Bergson’s critique. We follow the debate as it reverberated from France to England, Germany, and America. In each of these places, we meet some of the major players involved in the conflict, such as the Catholic Church, and see how it affected various scientific and philosophical movements, such as American pragmatism, logical positivism, and quantum mechanics. Some of these chapters focus on key moments before and after April 6, 1922, when similar arguments to those delivered that day were advanced.
Part 3 centers on the things. It investigates why Einstein and Bergson remained so divided by zooming into particular examples that came up again and again—explicitly and repeatedly—in their discussions and those of their interlocutors. Certain things, such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, film, and automatic registering devices, played salient roles. Microscopic particles, tiny microbes, immense observers, superfast beings, animals and ghosts entered their discussions as well.
Part 4 concludes with words—the last comments they made about each other. At that time, Bergson was nearly eighty, witnessing the rise of Nazism in Germany, the occupation of Paris, and a new era of conflict and unrest. Einstein was well into his seventies. He had retired from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton and was reminiscing about Bergson a few months before the Americans detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb. In the end, we encounter a story of the rise of science in a divided century, of misunderstanding and mistrust, and of the every day things that tear us apart.
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|Epub||May 31, 2018|
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