Friday, 8 June 2018

Henri Bergson and the Phonograph

A good mind can make out more than a fair one on a particular topic though the latter may be infinitely more supplied with information. One of the strengths of philosophy is this getting back to first principles and asking the simple questions that can give a fundamental orientation to research. Bergson's impugning of the theory amounting to a doctrine, of mind brain identity proceeds on the simple query:

Impressions made by external objects are supposed to subsist in the brain as it were on a sensitive plate or a phonographic disk. But, when we look more closely, we see how fallacious these comparisons are. If, for example, the visual recollection of an object were really an impression left by that object on the brain, there would not be one recollection of an object, there would be thousands or even millions of them; for the simplest and most stable object changes its form, its size and its shade of colour, according to the point of view from which it is perceived. Unless, then, I condemn myself to a position absolutely fixed when looking at it, unless my eye remains immovable in its socket, countless images in no way superposable will be outlined successively on my retina and transmitted to my brain. And what must the number of the images be if the visual image is of a person, whose expression changes, whose body is mobile, whose clothing and environment are different each time I see him ? Yet it is unquestionable that my consciousness presents to me a unique image, or, what amounts to the same, a practically invariable recollection of the object or person ; evident proof that there is something quite different here from mechanical registration.
(from: The Soul and the Body in Mind-Energy by Henri Bergson)

Please note that the phonograph was the killer app of the day, April 12th. 1912. We now of course have the computer but the objection still stands. Memory in shellac or silicon is just not human memory. In spite of all the variety of sensible impressions it remains singular. My memory of our garden is not that of an abounding variety of plants that each day presents, it is just 'the garden'.

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