Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bergson and Psi


Reading of a philosophy professor’s aim to naturalise Bergson left me wondering what would be left after he was done. Of the modern philosophers of note I cannot imagine one less amenable. What would one make of his interest in Psi? His presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1913 was entitled Phantasms of the Living and Psychical Research. A leading man of science at a dinner party relates an incident which was told to him by a reliable witness. He doubts and offers grounds.

I discover the same feeling, the same disdain for the concrete, at the root of the objections that are raised against many of your conclusions. I will cite only one example. Some time ago, I was at a dinner party at which the conversation happened to turn on the phenomena which your Society investigates. There was an eminent physician present, one of our leading men of science. After listening attentively, he joined in the conversation, expressing himself, as nearly as I remember, in these words: "All that you are saying interests me very much, but I ask you to reflect before drawing a conclusion. I also myself know an extraordinary fact. I can guarantee its authenticity, for it was related to me by a lady highly intellectual, whose word inspires me with absolute confidence. The husband of this lady was an officer. He was killed in the course of an engagement. Well, at the very moment when the husband fell, the wife had the vision of the scene, a clear vision, in all points conformable to the reality. You may perhaps conclude from that, as she herself did, that it was a case of clairvoyance or of telepathy? . . . You forget one thing, however, and that is that it has happened many times that a wife has dreamed that her husband was dead or dying, when he was quite well. We notice cases in which the vision turns out to be true, but take no count of the others. Were we to make the full return, we should see that the coincidence is the work of chance."

Bergson points out that his grounds were specious and wilfully blind for he has ignored the very striking degree of conformity between the vision and the concrete circumstances of the death of the husband. What is the reason for the rejection of such clairvoyance? The strength of modern science lies in measurement and experiment. If events are not suitable for such scrutiny then they tend to be ignored.

All our mental science, all our metaphysics, from the seventeenth century until the present day, proclaims this equivalence. We speak of thought and of the brain indifferently; either we consider the mental a simple "epiphenomenon" of the cerebral, as materialism does, or we put the mental and the cerebral on the same level, regarding them as two translations, in different languages, of the same original. In short, the hypothesis that there is a strict parallelism between the cerebral and the mental appears eminently scientific. Instinctively, philosophy and science tend to cast aside whatever would contradict this hypothesis or fit ill with it. And this at first sight appears to be the case with the facts which "psychical research" deals with, or at least it might be so with a good number of them.

In his Matter and Memory Bergson distinguishes between memory which has become motor memory or rote and is subject to cerebral trauma and memory which is manifest in lived duration and is spiritual and non-corporeal. It is this sort of consciousness which makes possible the impossible knowledge. In his address he expands on the relation between the immaterial aspect of mind and its personal tethering to a body and speculates that there may be some sort of flowing together of consciousness which is not bound by the common strictures of space and time.

But if the mind is attached to the body only by a part of itself, we may conjecture that for the other part of the mind there is a reciprocal encroachment. Between different minds there may be continually taking place changes analogous to the phenomena of endosmosis.

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