The Nature of Time…Science v. Philosophy.  A look inside a dispute between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson

Plus a recipe for the ultimate time teaser, the Proustian Madeleine

Skip to the recipe.

The April 9th, 2022 issue of The Economist newspaper included a review of a new book called the Physicist and the Philosopher, by Jimena Canales.  The book takes a look at a famous debate between two towering figures of the early 20th century, though history has been more kind to one than the other.

The subject concerns a debate between Einstein and Bergson which took place on April 6th, 1922 where the most famous philosopher in the world at the time debated Einstein and lost.  Henri Bergson was such a famous thinker of the area, that the Guinness Book of World Records has one of his talks down as the cause of New York City’s very first traffic jam.  Bergson was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927, so the performance of his ideas in debate did nothing to diminish his flame.

The evening was hosted by the Société Française de la Philosophie and included a talk on Einstein’s recently published Theory of Relativity.  Bergson’s own work also concerned the concept of time, and that evening he laid out a theory which was to be published shortly after in a book entitled “Duration and Simultaneity”.

The evening, so The Economist outlines, did not go in Bergson’s favour.  Einstein’s rebuttal was withering and complete.  He debunked the concept of “philosopher’s time”, the cornerstone of Bergson’s theory and dismissed it simply as perspective, tricks of the mind.

While the Theory of Relativity’s insights have proven so profound that the concepts have entered mainstream understanding, Bergson’s ideas have sunk beneath the waves of history.  And yet, the nub of their debate remains live.  This can be summarised as “what is the difference between the objective and the subjective, and can we have a form of knowledge which encompasses both?”

Bergson had been pondering time since Einstein was but a wee lad, publishing “Time and Free Will” already in 1889 (Einstein was 10).  In this book, Bergson laid out the idea that the concept of mechanistic time was incorrect.  Essentially, time is seen in terms of space: an hour measures 1/24th of the earth’s rotation.  Bergson argued that this view misses the most important element of time, duration.  I have pondered on this much as a friend of mine often speaks of time dilation—that we can enter a mental state where the clock slows down.  

Newtonian physics dictated that time is unvarying in duration, inexorable and evenly incremental.  Bergson challenged that idea.  He argued that every increment, like the tick marks on a ruler, are not separated from the past in a mechanistic way, but that every moment carries the past with it.  He cited music as a prime example—that each note in a symphonic movement is not itself in isolation, but comes to us pregnant with the meaning of what came before it.  The Greek word syntagm, used also in rhetoric, linguistics, and semiotics, has a similar implication…that meaning is derived from a sequence…that meaning lives in connection to what preceded, to its intention, to what follows it.  It is a very compelling idea.

“Pure duration is the form that the succession of our states of consciousness adopts when the self lets itself live, when it stops establishing a separation between its present and former states.”

Henri Bergson

In other words, writes The Economist, “The passage of time–the present billowed with the past—provides escape from a clockwork universe.  This approach does not deny the importance of matter, but places life partially outside it.  It is duration that permits novelty, both in the life forms that emerge from evolution and in the acts that proceed from the exercise of free will.”  [italics mine].

Bergson’s most important concept, that of élan vital, the essence of individual life, is born from the individual’s struggle for existence in the very materiality of the material world.  

His ideas were hugely influential though from a scientific view, thoroughly debunked, they are still very much with us today.

T.S. Eliot, a contemporary heavily influenced by Bergsonian ideas, wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

“[The evening] was spread out against the sky like a patient etherised on a table.”  Just as Marcel Proust annihilates time as the narrator is lost in memory sparked by the taste of a madeleine.

The core of Bergson’s idea was that intuition, our perception, was how duration existed, that time was personal.  This idea strikes at the heart of Newtonian physics.  Only, so too, does Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  Relativity states that time flows at different rates—faster or slower—for observers moving with respect to each other, as most do.  Space also compresses, with the corollary that simultaneity is an impossibility.  In other words, different observers see things separated in space and time.  Time and space blur together in a way implying that the past and future are just as real as the present.

“The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Albert Einstein

This idea is an existential challenge to Bergson’s challenge to Relativity: “if time is thus spread out in space…it takes account neither of what is essential to succession nor of duration in so far as it flows.”  Bergson believed that time is singular, “the same for all beings and all things.”

It is the “Twin’s Paradox” which most fundamentally disproves Bergson’s idea.  One twin rides a rocket into space and then returns, only to find that her twin has aged more than she…relativity states that the faster something moves relative to you, the slower the clock will tick from your point of view, quite literally.  Bergson believed that the clocks of both would remain in sync.

Even if he has been thoroughly vilified by the scientific community, Bergson’s ideas remain influential.  Thinkers such as Rupert Sheldrake, author of “The Science Delusion” who deem a materialistic view of the world to be inadequate, are indebted to his ideas.  Yet, even though much of mainstream science regards Bergson’s ideas with hostility or dismissiveness, some who are working in the outer edges of discovery, now regard his ideas as prescient.

Louis de Broglie, a Nobel prize-winning quantum physicist thought of Bergson as a visionary.  He noted of Bergson, “he would have observed with joy that nature at each instant hesitates between a multiplicity of possibilities.”  Indeed, Einstein’s very concept of space-time would seem to allow for the possibility of Bergson’s thinking.

In the decades following the historic debate and posited humiliation, Bergson bean to shift his views on some aspects of “duration and simultaneity.”  But it was Einstein who moved the most, acknowledging the role of metaphysics in science; in particular, Einstein carried to his grave a frustration with physic’s inability to explain “now”—but as he noted, “something as distinct from the past and the future cannot be explained by physics.”  What did the West do before the arabs gave us “0”?  

In the end, their positions seem rather similar.  It was all just a storm in a teacup.  Ironic that the theory used to debunk Bergson’s philosophy is now increasingly seen as confirming its central theme.

Recipe for a Quantum Madeleine

From a bakery that is no more.  The crisp edge on these delightful citrus-scented tea-cakes sets them apart from any other classic madeleine.

Special equipment: 3 non-stick madeleine pans with 12 (2-tablespoon) moulds each

  • 1 ¾ sticks (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus additional for brushing molds
  • 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
  • 1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¼ cup whole milk
  • 1 ½ tablespoons mild honey

Put racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.  Brush the moulds with melted butter.

Sift together the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, then whisk in the lemon zest.  Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into another bowl with the tip of a paring knife (you can save the pod for another use).

Add the sugar and dry whisk with the vanilla until well-mixed, then whisk in eggs, milk, honey, and remaining 1 ¾ sticks melted butter.  Fold this into the flour mixture until just combined.

Spoon a rounded tablespoon of batter into each mould, filling it about two-thirds full.  Bake (with 2 pans on one rack) until golden around edges and a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center of a madeleine comes out clean, about 10 to 12 minutes total.  Switch position of pans halfway through baking and rotate 180 degrees to ensure even cooking.

Turn out madeleines onto a rack and serve slightly warm.

Cooks’ notes:

• These madeleines are best eaten when just baked.

• The batter can be made 3 hours ahead, then chilled, covered.

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