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Between God and Darwin: Bergson's Creative Evolution (Part 3 of 3)

This article concludes our exploration of Bergson’s ‘Creative Evolution’.

In part one, we introduced his approach by placing him between Darwinian mechanism and religious/philosophical finalism; in part two, we looked at three contrasts: Life force vs form; states vs tendencies; and, dissociation vs association.

Today, we’re attending to his views on instinct vs intelligence and three causalities.

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Let’s start with another contrast – Bergson’s take on...

Instinct vs Intelligence

“Evolution has taken place along divergent lines. It is at the extremity of two of these lines—the two principal—that we find intelligence and instinct in forms almost pure.”

· Instinct is immediately satisfying and almost perfect, superior when a task is at hand in front of an animal, and within the boundaries of the system. It’s good at repetition and construction, but it’s also the most basic. Ants, bees, and other insects are good examples; they can build perfectly operating machine-like structures but are “locked-in,” as though chained to these structures.

· Intelligence is effective later but has a lasting effect. It’s inferior immediately and short term, but superior later due to its flexibility and fluidity and its ability to see beyond its immediate radius. It can create things out of nothing. It’s able to make tools that make tools, whereas instinct can only use one tool at a time. Bergson on intelligence - “Whilst it is inferior to the natural instrument for the satisfaction of immediate wants, its advantage over it is the greater, the less urgent the need.”

I really like his steam engine analogy:

Imagine an old steam engine. It has many taps that must be turned on and off to let the steam into the cylinder or to pour water in to condense the steam. This requires the constant attention of boy A employed to operate the machine, doing repetitive tasks at hand, in front of him.

But then, boy B starts his shift and, sick of this dull job, ties the handles of the taps, with cords, to the beam of the engine. Now, the taps are opening and closing themselves, and the machine operates automatically, freeing up boy B.

The first machine holds boy A’s attention captive. He must be there, watching, opening and closing the taps, performing tasks immediately in front of him. The mechanism of the machine engages his attention completely, as though he were tied to it.

Conversely, the second machine frees up boy’s B attention. He automated the taps and now his attention is diverted to do anything he wants, while the machine operates. He’s free, not held captive by the machine, now deploying attention to anything he wants.

That’s one of the ways how Bergson sees the difference between the animal and human brain, between instinct and intelligence, and between two types of consciousness:

“Instinct perfected is a faculty of using and even of constructing organized instruments; intelligence perfected is the faculty of making and using unorganized instruments.”

Think of the implications of this!

Boy A or an animal will be “operating the machine” forever. It’ll master it and do it perfectly and efficiently, but that’s where its horizon ends. (This relates to the puzzle example in the first article.)

Boy B will work out the machine, automate it, and will use his now free attention to create a new machine – or anything else, then another and another … the benefits, spinning off as by-products of his actions, far outreach the immediate benefits of each individual machine. His horizon is expanding, it’s not static.

Three types of causality

Bergson distinguishes three different, often confused, ways of understanding the basic cause-effect principle:

1) Cause by impelling (forcing, driving)

“The billiard ball that strikes another determines its movement by another.”

2) Cause by releasing

“The spark that explodes the gunpowder acts by releasing.”

3) Cause by unwinding

“The gradual relaxing of the spring, that makes the phonograph turn, unwinds the melody inscribed on the cylinder: if the melody which is played be the effect, and the relaxing of the spring the cause, we must say that the cause acts by unwinding.”

(Imagine a vinyl or CD instead of the phonograph.)

What distinguishes these types of causes?

The quantitative and qualitative relationship between the cause and the effect.

Only in the billiard ball’s case, impelling, do we get the effect directly matching the strength and quality of the cause. The weaker the cause the weaker the effect and vice versa. If I strike the ball weakly, it’ll barely move but if I strike it strongly, it’ll fly.

In the second case, releasing, even the weakest spark will ignite a huge explosion. But the exact same explosion will be ignited by a strong spark. The effect will be the same regardless of the quality and quantity of the cause.

The third case, unwinding, might look like the explosion example. But there is a difference. If I put a CD into the player and press play, the music will start playing and play for hours. But it’s not the same effect as the explosion, because my pressing the play button didn’t cause the melody of the first or sixth song. The music isn’t a direct effect of pressing the play button. It unwinds and unravels. True, without pressing the play button, no music would play. But the effect of the music on the listener, my enjoyment of it, and the emotions it brings are independent of the cause.

This distinction is profound.

It throws out the window the “without the cause there is no effect” cliché. It also pokes the "same causes produce the same effects" principle of mechanism, discussed in the first article.

Bergson shows that it really isn’t that simple and that the A–B cause-effect relation operates only in a narrow sense, closed systems.

Alright, this wraps up our series on Henri Bergson’s ‘Creative Evolution.’

He explores the foggy territory between the Darwinian evolutionary theory (bottom-up, driven by chance), and its opposite, the top-down, teleological theory of most religions and a few philosophers (e.g. Leibniz, Aristotle).

It’s a brilliant, short, and easy-to-read book and I highly recommend it.

But if you can’t read it, make sure to read parts one and two that took us here.


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