Updated date:

What Was the Debate of Time Between Einstein and Bergson?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Time is…complicated. It’s hard to define yet we can clearly feel its influence. Perhaps not surprisingly, science and philosophy have different ideas about the concept, and it all came to a head when Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson defended their viewpoints which were not the same. It is an interesting debate, like many others sometimes venturing into personal affairs rather than remaining on task. It is still undecided to this day who is right (if there even is such a thing) so let’s examine for ourselves this famous exchange between two giants of their respective fields.

Beginnings and Twins

The time period was spring 1911 when Einstein and Bergson first began this adventure. At the time, scientific truth was not as commanding as it is today and so it was easier to dissuade people of some of its results. This was especially so with Einstein’s relativity, which rewrote the ideals of gravity and introduced frames of reference, paradoxes, and singularities to the mainstream science scene. It was in fact one of his famous consequences known as the Twin Paradox which was to be a topic presented by Paul Langevin (the man who extended relativity to find the conflict) at the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy. Put briefly, relativity demonstrated how one twin in a highly speed (some appreciable fraction of the speed of light) and another at low speed will age differently. The presentation was quite influential, being the first of the many seemingly contradictory results the field had to offer, helping people accept Einstein’s work because of the laid out mechanics behind the theory (Canales 53-7).

It did not sit well on some people’s tongues like Bergson. He didn’t flat out reject the findings of relativity so long as they were under the correct circumstances which to him remained lacking in definition. This is where the issue lies, with the nature of reality and the contextual components of it. To Bergson, time wasn’t independent of us but instead a critical component of our existence. When relativity coordinated the events of a reference frame with that of a clock in the same frame, Bergson felt this was a false comparison because we are not correlating the events of the now but to an object in the now. Sure, the clock can bring time to our attention but does it give it meaning? And how do you address the supposed simultaneity relationship between objects and events? Clocks help note these moments but beyond that it doesn’t aid us in understanding them any further. Bergson rejected a materialism approach to reality, essentially (40-4).

It's easy to understand why he would take that stance, considering the ever changing nature of reality. No longer could one find absoluteness to anything because it was all relative. Assigning values to things is only useful on a temporary basis at best. Once and event has transpired, that’s it. “The past is essentially that which no longer acts” according to him. This is especially interesting in the context of memories, which recall events of the past for us. Bergson implied that memory and perception are not really different but really just a question of what is happening at any given moment (45, 58).

Einstein, upon hearing all of this, felt that Bergson’s work was more a study on psychology that it was a description of physical reality. To Einstein, any philosophical discussion on time was pointless since it was not applicable to that topic. He took the example of events happening at a faster rate causing our perception of the events to lag behind the measured time values, so how would you refer to both circumstances at the same time? A psychology or philosophy-based discussion wouldn’t be enough nor adequate to cover the topic. It hit home his view that those topics were for mental considerations only and had no place in the physical sciences. But then what makes science so worthy in the first place? It can lead to a “crisis of reason” that brings doubt to our lives. As Merleau –Ponty put it, “scientific facts overrule experiences in our lives.” Does that mean the mental considerations are not a valid viewpoint to hold onto as truth? Time is crucial to the human experience, and here was science making that seem invalid (Canales 46-9, Frank).

For many philosophers, it was unimaginable to contemplate the psychological effects of relativity (which then could be extended to talk about the philosophical consequences. One in particular, Brunschvicg, had several thoughts on this. Did any physical changes necessarily imply biological changes? After all, if clocks are our interface to establish the passage of time then they are a construct of us. How could we correlate changes to a clock to us, because we are of different constituents? How could a physical change therefore relate to biological ones? On top of this, whose clock would be most useful to us? Edoward Le Roy offered the idea of using different terms to talk about physical passages of time as separate from psychological passages of time (Canales 58-60, Frank).

This wasn’t acceptable to Bergson. He felt one of these was made up. It would be valid to question Bergson’s understanding of relativity, for after all he wasn’t a scientist. One piece of evidence is Bergson’s use of special relativity as opposed to general relativity (which demonstrated that accelerating fields were indistinguishable from one another if we isolate the reference frame). Bergson focused on this because if that could be found in error then the general case would be too. But time is a more complicated topic in general relativity, requiring calculus to fully appreciate it. So, it could be argued that Bergson was putting himself to a task he could accomplish without entering a discipline he couldn’t comment on. Alternatively, this could be seen as a refusal to try and tackle the entire problem but instead focus on a narrow consequence. But recall that Bergson was troubled with the interpretation, not the actual science itself (Canales 62-4, Frank)

With this in mind, Bergson pursued the Twin Paradox and attempted to show that the time difference implied a philosophical passage as well. He pointed out that because the two accelerated differently then an asymmetry is created between the two. We now have non-real times to deal with, where “times are not equal in every sense.” Our tool for measuring time is a clock, but are they the same now? Has a physical change happened, resulting in the times being measured differently? And whose reference frame would be the right frame now? This was quite troubling to Bergson, but to Einstein he didn’t bat an eye at it. This was all about perspective and the frame you chose to relate from. Besides, any attempt to try and measure a physical difference would invariably lead to the same issue of reliability, for how could you know for certain it really happened? (Canales 65-6, Frank)

Poincare

Interestingly, a famous mathematician did not agree with Einstein’s work. Poincare and Einstein met each other only once in 1911, and it did not go well. Ol’ Poincare, famous for several mathematical theories, didn’t subscribe to the effects of relativity likely because he didn’t understand it or “did not want to accept it.” The irony for anyone familiar with Poincare’s work will be evident here, for much of it has relativity connections that were found prior to Einstein’s work! Like Bergson, Poincare’s primary concern was with time. He was a believer in conventionalism, or that many ways to accomplish something but that one of them was always more “conventional than necessary.” Science, to Poincare, was a convenient position to take but not always right. Einstein was quick to point out that science isn’t a choice, but an ever improving view on reality. Science shouldn’t choose to follow some things over others because of convenience can lead to a loss of objectivity. One can talk about a theory many different ways but you cannot dismiss a theory outright solely on the conjecture that it’s convenient (Canales 75-7).

This was made especially clear when Einstein challenged Poincare’s viewpoint of the Universe having an indeterminate shape. Einstein had used Riemann-based geometry in general relativity to hint at a non-Euclidean geometry where triangles don’t add up to 180 degrees and parallel lines happen over curved surfaces. With Poincare’s challenge, it was a claim against the validity of math providing evidence for science. Is math just a tool for science or does it actually reveal the structure of the Universe? If not, then the time argument would gain much ground by Bergson and proponents. Poincare was trying to ride the wave between science and philosophy with these weird statements, and it did get a variety of responses. Edoward Le Roy and Pierre Duken commented on the “constructed nature of many scientific clams” (which can ring true to this day with many scientific ideas seemingly without any valid claim) while Bertrand Russel and Louis Couturat commented on Poincare being a nominalist (or one who takes a theory to only be true for certain circumstances and is not universally true) which Poincare himself denied being. It all got the attention of Bergson, and the two became friends (78-81).

For Bergson, Poincare represented a chance to meld philosophy with science and create a work which would avoid “a philosophy that wants to explain reality mechanically.” With relativity’s use of math, it was a useful tool but ultimately not necessary because of this trait. In fact, like we hinted at before with Bergson’s aversion to the more rigorous mathematical theories, it was this need for math that bothered Bergson plenty. He didn’t want Einstein to being “mathematical representation into transcendental reality.” By bringing math as the sole representation of time, Bergson and Poincare felt something was lost in the process. To them, it invited scientists to continue to observe only discrete moments of reality rather than the continuous true nature it held. This packaging leads to disagreements over the definition and consistency of time, as Poincare saw it, and is a direct reflection on our inability to have simultaneous events happen for all people. This lack of consistency therefore removes time from the realms of scientific study, according to him. Bergson agreed with this, going even further in adding that our feelings feed into this intuitive way of time referencing. We need to consider how we live in time as we perceive it, as a conscious entity rather than a mathematical construct (Canales 82-5, Gelonesi).

Lorentz

Poincare was not the only representative from the mathematical/scientific world to get involved in this. In fact, it was one of the minds behind a famous transformation that Einstein used with his relativity. Hendrik Lorentz, despite being tied to relativity courtesy of his mathematical transform, never accepted general relativity. It wasn’t that they weren’t on goods terms, it’s just something he never embraced. We do know that Lorentz was also friends with Bergson, therefore one naturally wonders what influence was imparted on Lorentz but it likely didn’t help his ties with Einstein (Canales 87-9).

Lorentz was also in an alliance of sorts with Poincare, who felt Lorentz had changed the simultaneity debate by giving a reason for the apparent difference seen as opposed to some underlying mechanism. That is, the transform was an artificial theory. According to Poincare, Lorentz felt there was no scientific way to see the differences between clocks in different reference frames. Lorentz knew no experiment known at the time could show differences but nonetheless tried to develop one involving the changing mass of an electron to demonstrate that indeed the theory was only a description and not an explanation. By 1909, he tossed in the towel and gave Einstein his credit but still wanted some recognition of relativity’s shortcomings. He still had the occasional belief in the experiment being possible, with 1910 bringing him to feel like the individual had the choice in determining their truth and in 1913 going so far as to say no experiment could proof relativity to be true. Any differences that were to be found were largely epistemological, with our mindset being the most important factor (90-4).

Einstein got word of this and made it clear that Lorentz’ work on this topic was fictitious in principle. Lorentz did not appreciate that and responded with his main issues with special relativity. For one, the correlation between changes in space and changes in time bothered him. Also, the fact that different times could exist for different reference frames was troubling, for what if someone was outside the situation and was an omniscient observer of sorts that could clearly see major differences yet neither person in their reference frame would be wrong with their time? Such a person, as Einstein pointed out, would be outside of physics and therefore not a major consideration. Thus began a long correspondence between the two that did build up respect as the years went along (94-7).

Michelson

Michelson

Michelson

In the years following relativity, many experiments were devised to test out relativity. One of the most famous would be Albert A. Michelson’s and Edward Morley’s experiment in 1887, yet its original purpose was to see if some ether existed in space by looked at light path deflections. Once such a medium was disproved the experiment became crucial in finding the speed of light to be the absolute limit that exists. Einstein realized its usefulness for special relativity in 1907 but Bergson didn’t agree. Experimentation should lead to new theories and not the other way around. Einstein, however, knew the worth of the experiment because he finally had a universal value to compare his times with. It doesn’t require a mechanical clock which is fallible to imperfections done by man nor does it require a celestial clock which is based off ever changing quantities like the Earth’s rotation rate. Light solves these problems, because it is objective, eternal, easy to compare to and even better easy to make (98-105).

Guillaume

Someone however took this universal idea and applied it to time in an attempt to uncover a universal time independent of us as well as a relativity context. Edoward Guillaume in 1922 presented this work and felt he could show all the other times were really just universal time in disguise. It should be no surprise that Guillaume was a friend of Bergson and so the connection between the two was apparent. Bergson did see the parallel in meaning but the details were still leaving much to be desired in comparing times to see if actual differences existed. Guillaume recognized this need and so tried to return to Newtonian mechanics use of a single variable for universal time, which could be thought of as an average of sorts. Bergson still didn’t think this was quite right, because one needed to see the “difference between concrete time…and that abstract time.” He is referring to the predictive power physicists use with math to see how future events play out for physical systems. For Bergson, that future is not set in stone and so how could you average a potential value? And as future progresses towards present, possibilities disappeared and that was philosophically ripe for debate. Einstein saw things differently and went right to the heart of the problem of universal time: “’That parameter t just doesn’t exist.’” No method for measuring universal time would be possible, therefore it isn’t a scientific concept. That didn’t stop people from subscribing to Guillaume’s idea, so Einstein had to counter the theory. Thus started a correspondence feud between the two, with the plausibility of the idea vs. the practicality being at the heart of the fight. Issues with delta time values, spatial vs. temporal changes, and the consistency of the speed of light were brought up and eventually the two agreed to disagree (218-25).

And that’s how things have ended up being. In general, the physics and the philosophy struggle to find a common ground. Today, we consider Einstein the victor since his theory is well known and Bergson’s has been obscured over the years. You might find it interesting though that the opposite was true in the early 20th century. Such is the nature of events and the context they are surrounded by. It just seems like it all truly is a matter of time…but it seems like it’s up to you as to the best way to make that determination.

Works Cited

Canales, Jimena. The Physicist & The Philosopher. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. 2015. Print. 40-9, 53-60, 62-6, 75-85, 87-105, 218-25.

Frank, Adam. “Was Einstein Wrong?” npr.org. NPR, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 05 Sept. 2019.

Gelonesi, Joe. “Einstein vs Bergson, science vs philosophy, and the meaning of time.” Abc.net. ABC, 24 Jun. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Leonard Kelley