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Between God and Darwin: Bergson's Creative Evolution (Part 1 of 3)

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Earlier this year, we looked at two contradictory approaches to evolution: biological (bottom-up) and teleological (top-down).

The former sees life as a blind chain reaction driven by chance, the latter as a planned fulfillment of a goal - ‘grand design’.

In general, science (since Darwin) favours the former, and religion the latter. But this is of course nuanced, which is why in this three-part series why, we’re exploring the middle position: Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution.

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First, we need an on-ramp.

Since hopping down from the trees, totemic beliefs helped our ancestors explain natural events. Bad spirits live in that forest, God lives in this mountain, and long-necked turtles are sacred. Floods and earthquakes are the wraths of gods, and diseases are signs of evil spirits. These belief systems are now gone except for a few tribes in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon.

Polytheism (belief in many gods) was a more sophisticated version of tribal belief systems. Common in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, each element had its own god, with all deities gathered in the pantheon. For example, in ancient Greece, Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty, Ares was the god of war, Poseidon was the god of the seas, and Zeus was the “boss”. (Hinduism remains the only significant polytheistic religion today.)

Then, monotheistic (one god) religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam gained prominence, although their strength, at least in the West, has been weakening since the 17th century, because...

The age of Enlightenment (17-18th century), propelled by the scientific revolution of Kopernicus and Newton, began reshaping our concept of who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and what is nature. We began challenging the primacy of the gospel.

Religion, faith, and absolutist monarchy gave way to science, reason, and the state.

Darwin emerged out of this period and in 1859 provided a compelling and research-based theory of evolution in his Origins of Species.

Until Darwin, divine intelligence was believed to be creating, guiding, and even ending life (plant, animal, and human), and natural cycles. This position is top-down, teleological. A grand divine plan designed by God, and realized by animals, plants, and humans at the top.

Darwin came up with a contradictory theory. Evolution is a blind bottom-up, causal process driven by chance. It’s a series of automatic adjustments to outer conditions, weeding out the unfit in the evolutionary process of adaptation. Nature itself does the selection. It’s the opposite of the top-down.

And since Darwin, we are at this juncture.


Because it’s hard to reconcile both positions. Even Darwin on his deathbed said - "If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance--that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble.”

This is where Henri Bergson’s ‘Creative Revolution’ comes in.

Bergson (1859–1941), a French philosopher, writer, and Nobel prize winner, didn’t see evolution as a series of adaptations to outer circumstances, but neither as a realization of a plan.

We’ll now start unpacking his views on both positions on evolution:

a) Mechanism, automatic, bottom-up (scientists, Darwin)

b) Finalism, planned, top-down (religion, Leibniz)

Examples below are from his 1907 book ‘Creative Evolution.’

Bergson on mechanism

He agrees with Darwin that adaptation is involved in the evolutionary process.

But the Darwinian adaptation is an automatic, mechanical process, like a liquid you pour into a glass, where the liquid adapts to the form of the glass, according to the "same causes produce the same effects" principle. Organisms adapt to outer conditions.

Bergson agrees that there are PARTS of life where you can see repetitive and mechanistic movements akin to the liquid/glass analogy. These are chemical reactions or physiology (e.g. pupils dilating in dark, blinking).

Physiology, chemistry, and physics only explain life at the rudimentary, functional level. True - there are mechanistic, repetitive, and predictable PARTS of life … but that doesn't explain the WHOLE of life and its origin. There is no glass form to be adapted to in the first place. Instead of repetition and mechanistic adjustment, he emphasizes responding and creation.

Bergson on finalism

Finalism is the doctrine that “the universe as a whole is the carrying out of a plan.”

The most common example of finalism is religion, where our life is explained through the lens of God’s divine intention, and divine intelligence codified in the scriptures. (In philosophy, Aristotle and Leibniz were advocating finalism.)

Although Bergson refers to God 36 times in his book, he is more concerned with the concept of finalism than religious beliefs per se.

Here is a good example:

“When a child plays at reconstructing a picture by putting together the separate pieces in a puzzle game, the more he practices, the more and more quickly he succeeds. The reconstruction was, moreover, instantaneous, the child found it ready-made, when he opened the box on leaving the shop. The operation, therefore, does not require a definite time, and indeed, theoretically, it does not require any time. That is because the result is given. It is because the picture is already created, and because to obtain it requires only a work of recomposing and rearranging—a work that can be supposed going faster and faster, and even infinitely fast, up to the point of being instantaneous. But, to the artist who creates a picture by drawing it from the depths of his soul, time is no longer an accessory; it is not an interval that may be lengthened or shortened without the content being altered. The duration of his work is part and parcel of his work. To contract or to dilate it would be to modify both the psychical evolution that fills it and the invention which is its goal. The time taken up by the invention, is one with the invention itself. It is the progress of a thought which is changing in the degree and measure that it is taking form. It is a vital process, something like the ripening of an idea.” (p.263)

Bergson has two main problems with finalism:

a) If the result is already created (like a puzzle image), how do you explain time? Wouldn’t time “shrink” according to the speed at which you are putting the pieces together?

b) If everything consists in reconstructing the final perfect picture (puzzle or life) by assembling its parts, how do you explain creativity, spontaneity, and uniqueness? No one is creative by assembling pieces of the puzzle – s/he only becomes faster, and more efficient. And that’s of course different, you could say the opposite, to the artist who’s “drawing from the depths of his soul.”

Okay, moving on to his hand movement analogy.

If you move your hand from A to B, mechanism only sees A and B locations in isolation (depending on how close you look, five, ten, or hundred isolated locations between A and B).

Finalism, on the other hand, will acknowledge the order of both locations, because if you are realizing a plan, you have before and after.

Both positions, Bergson tells us, miss the reality – the movement itself.

But the funny thing is, you can’t deny that there ARE many locations between A and B (mechanism), and, you can’t deny that there IS order (finalism) to it. This is the essence of Bergson’s position – highlighting the invisible reality of life in the middle.

Take another example – an eye and vision.

The eye consists of millions of individual cells. If you look under the microscope, you CAN see them in isolation, like the puzzle pieces – the mechanistic angle.

But also, there is order in the way these cells mutually operate in sync, so that the eye can see – the finalistic angle. Finalists would say that the eye has these cells working in sync so that it can see – again, a final goal realized.

Neither angle explains what vision is, yet they are both “true.”

Bergson tells us - “Nature's simple act has divided itself automatically into an infinity of elements which are then found to be coordinated to one idea, just as the movement of my hand has dropped an infinity of points which are then found to satisfy one equation.”

He mentions that we “find it very hard to see things in that light, because we cannot help conceiving organization as manufacturing.”

Next time, we’ll look at more examples from his Creative Evolution.

Catch you then.


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