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JimenaCanalesThePhycisist&ThePhilosopherLUMPENPROLETARIAT—Mexican-American physicist, engineer, and historian Dr. Jimena Canales is the author of The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time.  Earlier today on free speech radio, Dr. Canales discussed, among many other things, Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, and philosophy.  Dr. Jimena Canales [1] is an engaging story-teller, as she elucidates the debate between Einstein and Bergson over the nature and reality of time.  Listen (or download) here.



LETTERS AND POLITICS—[4 NOV 2015]  This is Pacifica Radio’s Letters and Politics.  On today’s show:JimenaCanales,Ph.D.

“Einstein becomes a symbol for this rise of science.  And we have, on the other hand, the decline of philosophy, particularly French philosophy.  And it is also the moment in which we start having this very profound division between the sciences and the humanities.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “In 1922, a major debate between Albert Einstein and, once famed, philosopher Henri Bergson on the nature of time would, ultimately, shatter the relationship between the fields of science and philosophy and between what we feel and what the equations say.

“Today, we’ll be in conversation about this historic debate with Jimena Canales, professor of the History of Science at the University of Illinois and author of the book, The Physicist and the Philosopher.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Bergson said:  What is time?  Well, time is action.  That is what I’m saying.  And he was irritated by scientists, including Einstein, that just wanted to lay out the universe, as if on a grid, as if it had been given at once, but ignored the creation of the unforeseeable, the new, the unpredictable into the scene of life.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “That’s next on Letters and Politics.”  [2]  (c. 6:27)

“Good day; and welcome to Letters and Politics.  I’m Mitch Jeserich.  On July 11, 1923, Albert Einstein gave his Nobel Prize Lecture on the Fundamental Ideas and Problems of the Theory of Relativity.  It’s probably not a surprise to most, as the theory is the most important discovery in physics since Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz [ostensibly] came up with calculus.  But it was not the Theory of Relativity, that Einstein won the prize for.  The prize was for his discovery of the photoelectric field, which electrons emit from most metals when light shines upon the metals.

“Einstein’s lecture on the Theory of Relativity was, in fact, an act of defiance, as his theory came under scrutiny after he entered a debate with a famed French philosopher of the time, Henri Bergson, on the nature of time.  This was a major debate, whose reverberations can still be felt today.

“My guest today argues that it was a debate, that even helped put philosophy a status behind that of science.  Today, we’re gonna be in conversation about this debate, Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, and the nature of time.  My guest is Jimena Canales, she holds the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  And she’s the author of the book, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time.

“Jimena Canales, it is my very good pleasure to welcome you to this radio programme.”  (c. 7:46)

DR. JIMENA CANALES:  “Thank you, Mitch.  Thank you for having me.  It’s a pleasure.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “What more can you tell me about Einstein’s lecture with the Nobel Prize?  The Nobel Prize Lecture, I guess it’s called.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “It was a bit of Einstein being stubborn.  And he clearly heard—when the award was being given to him—he clearly heard why it wasn’t given for relativity was because the philosopher Bergson had contested his theory in Paris.  And this had happened a few months earlier.  We’re talking about April 6th, 1922, which is the day when Einstein and Bergson met.  Einstein was a celebrity.  He had arrived to Paris from Berlin.  Journalists hounded him.  Newspapers covered the meeting.  It was a sensation, not only because Einstein was a great physicist, but also because France and Germany were still recovering form the animosity of the First World War.

“So, it was very meaningful, symbolically, for the two countries to have philosophers invite Einstein to speak to them.  And Bergson, during the meeting, said that he did not want to confront Einstein on many occasions.  He also said how deeply he admired him as a person and as an individual, how much he was impressed by his scientific accomplishments.

“But, during the meeting, Einstein uttered a very scandalous sentence.  He said:  The time of the philosophers does not exist.  And here we are.  Einstein has been invited, primarily, by philosophers.  The physicists, the Société [Française de] Physique, he didn’t give a lecture to them.  And he utters this phrase:  The time of the philosophers doesn’t exist.  And, in front of him, in the audience, is sitting a man who we don’t remember much today, but who, at the time and in the first decades of the 20th century, was more famous than Einstein, confronted with this challenge.

“So, then, Bergson proceeded to write a whole book refuting relativity.  And this is the story that I cover in my book.  The repercussions, as you say, were sorely felt at the evening when Einstein received the Nobel Prize.”  (c. 10:19)  []

“Einstein didn’t even believe in quantum mechanics.”

‘Einstein was a reluctant contributor to quantum mechanics.’

On Henri Bergson’s élan vital…  []  (c. 24:44)

MITCH JESERICH:  “I have to tell you, Jimena Canales, as I began to go through your book, The Physicist and the Philosopher, my initial reaction was:  Who is this Bergson guy trying to challenge the great Albert Einstein?  This guy must be a fool.  But very soon I gained a great appreciation for Henri Bergson, somebody I’d never heard of before I actually picked up your book.” [3]

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Well, one of the most amazing things for me, researching this book, is that I actually started—I had published my first book, A Tenth of a Second.  In the last chapter, the book ends with the encounter between Einstein and Bergson.  And it was to see, just, the fall of Bergson and how he became erased from history.  And I started tracing how that happened in the book.  And it happened through, many times, through letters that Einstein was sent.

“So, Einstein settled on one response to Bergson after he understood that he had provoked him during his meeting, after he saw the consequences of the Nobel Prize.  And he wrote many, many letters saying:  Bergson’s wrong.  He gets his physics wrong.

“Bergson, on the other hand, was saying that he wasn’t talking about physics and that he accepted Einstein’s theory as a physical theory.  But the theory was being expanded to be more than just physics.  It attempted to become philosophy.  And it was a philosophy that derived from Descartes, according to Bergson, and that had many problems.  It was, basically, a mechanical, a mechanistic view of the universe with very little room for things like invention and novelty, indeterminacy.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Okay, let’s get into these theories of time, then.  Let’s start with Albert Einstein, which is, perhaps, more difficult to understand.  I think that Bergson’s idea of it is something we can all get a sense of.  But with Einstein, Albert Einstein once said:  The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.  Can you explain to me Albert Einstein’s theory of time?” (c. 27:02)

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Yes.  So, Einstein, on many occasions, disregarded this subjective notion of time.  He also said that the difference between the past, the present, and the future was nothing but a subjective illusion.  And one of his main contributions is to have discarded this notion of absolute simultaneity.  And that means that we can no longer think of things happening in different places without considering the time, that it takes for one of those places to affect the others.  So, this is where the speed of light comes in.  And it is a little bit difficult and a little bit strange to understand that our theory of what time is is actually also a theory of what light is and what is it’s velocity.

“So, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is based on the insight that light takes time to transmit.  And, in addition to that, light does not behave like we know so many other things in our world, at our scale, to behave.  It is invariant.  And it does not work as we thought it did in the time of Galileo and Newton.  And with those insights you, basically, come to the conclusion that there is nothing like absolute time, but that there are only relative times.  And you have a host of paradoxes.

“In my book, I focus most on the twin paradox, but also on the concept of time dilation.  And this is really what shocked most the readers of Einstein, which shocked the public at large.  And it, basically, says that when you’re travelling at speeds closer to that of light time slows down.  And we have the twin paradox, which was a way in which the time dilation was popularised.  And the story goes something like this:  If there’s a twin and one of them remains on Earth while the other one goes travelling in outer space, the one who goes travelling in outer space at speeds close to that of light will age less than the twin that remains on Earth.  If he comes back, they will see how the travelling twin is much younger than the one who remained on Earth.

“So, Bergson, although he was very clear that he accepted the equations of relativity, he accepted all the facts, that he accepted how the equations were invariant, which was one of the main novelties, on many occasions he claimed that the twin who left Earth was fictional, that Einstein was asking us to think about scenarios, which were really fictional, and to think of them as happening in real life.

“And, again, this was not a confrontation against the facts known at the time.  But it was, rather, a way of asking readers of Einstein to be a little bit more sensitive, a little bit more suspicious, a little more critical about these metaphors, that he was bringing where time slows down, time can stop, which is a very strange universe of relativity.  And he did this be exaggerating the fictional aspects, that entered into these relativity narratives, which were all the rage.”  (c. 30:59)

MITCH JESERICH:  “So, this idea—and, according to the Theory of Relativity and Einstein’s views on time, they’ve been proven.  In 1971, an atomic clock was put on an airplane and one was put on the ground.  And I guess when the airplane went around the world, eventually, they showed that there was a slight difference in time.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Absolutely.  And that is one of the reasons why it is important for me to stress throughout the book and to give voice to Bergson, who said:  I am not contesting the facts of physics.  What I’m making is a philosophical point.  And my role, as a philosopher, is to see how one goes from mathematics and experiments to transcendental reality.  And what role is played by the symbolic in creating this new reality.  But it’s not about facts.

“And I was very amazed in my research to find that many, many scientists, very important scientists, sided with Bergson, instead of with Einstein.  And it was a matter of how to interpret these effects, that are known.  So, at one point, Bergson said:  It is not that clocks slow down because time is dilated.  It’s, actually, because time is dilated that clocks slow down.

“And, again, I was completely shocked to find that the scientists, who knew relativity, who had worked on relativity, who were the experts on relativity, the main scientists, particularly, Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz, were friends with Bergson and, actually, sided with Bergson’s interpretation of these effects.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “But those who sided with Einstein and Einstein, himself, would say that our idea of what we tangibly experience as time, as duration from action to action, was not real.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Yes.  So, Einstein said, on various occasions, there’s no difference between the past, the present, and the future.  And the fact that we perceive it as such is, really, a mark of our limitations as human beings.  And he liked the power of science.  One of the reasons why he liked the power of mathematics and the power of science was because, with it, you could overcome this human partial way of understanding temporality, what he calls subjective illusionEmpty ideas, he said, at another point.

“And, of course, this was completely scandalous.  And it symbolised the rift in science and something, that many philosophers continued to criticise up to today.  For example, the cosmologists working today asked just having separated so much our actual experience, something that the physicist, the Harvard physicist, Percy Bridgman, in the 1940s called the obvious structure of experience.  And, from having taken that out of science, where does that leave us?  And that’s exactly what Bergson asked his readers to think about.  You know?  When is it that we are looking at the formulas?  What he called the actually perceived effects and the things, that we can’t perceive.  And he asked readers to think of all these marvelous things, that were being discovered by Einstein and by many other relativity scientists, but to think of them with a grain of salt.

Einstein:  God doesn’t play dice with the universe.  []  (c. 41:50)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Tell me about what the debate represents.  And you touched upon this earlier, Jimena Canales, about how we get this split in philosophy and science.  Now, scientists used to be known in the 1800s as natural philosophers.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Yes, exactly.  And there is the question of, you know:  What is the philosophy behind Einstein’s theory?  It’s quite complex because, in the book, when I talk about the division between science and philosophy, I’m not saying that there is no philosophical background to Einstein’s work or to Einstein’s theory.  He was inspired by particular philosophers, that were of a different ilk from those, that were closer to Bergson.

“But what we do see here is the split between the humanities and the sciences, the relegation of the expertise to talk about time given to scientists, particularly to physics.  We see the divide between our intuitive sense of time, where what’s important for us is what one would call the arrow of time.  What happens in our everyday lives has to do with how we think about our memories, and how our memories affect our future, and where we see time flowing, and a view of time, that is, basically, connected to a deterministic, static universe.”  (c. 43:29)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Can you tell me, though, about the coining of the term scientist?”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Yes.  So, the term scientist is actually of quite recent origin.  And one of the moments in which it made its appearance was in 1830.  And this was in a discussion with a poet.  William Whewell tells us that the term scientist should be used because the term natural philosophy is too broad and that we need a new terminology in order to more properly distinguiLetters-and-Politics-Logo-No-Background-327x230sh branches of philosophy.

“So, that’s when we start seeing and hearing a lot more people use the term scientist.”  (c. 44:01)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Jimena Canales, thank you very much.”

DR. JIMENA CANALES: “Thank you, Mitch, for listening.  Thank you for having me on the show.”

(In the final quarter-hour,  Letters and Politics spoke with semi-retired attorney and author Gerry Spence about his new book, Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away With Murder.)



The Scientist” by Coldplay


[1] Read Dr. Jimena Canales’ websitehttp://www.jimenacanales.org/

“Like a stone cast on still waters, the Einstein-Bergson debate on the nature of time set off ever-widening ripples in physics and philosophy, but also in art, politics, and religion. In this fascinating book, Canales has written a kind of alternative intellectual history of the interwar decades of the twentieth century, one full of color and improbable conjunctions of people and ideas.”–Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Read Dr. Jimena Canales’ bio at the Department of History, College of LAS, University of Illinois:

“Jimena Canales is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science and the author of numerous scholarly and journalistic texts on the history of modernity, focusing primarily on science and technology.

“She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of Science. Her first book, A Tenth of a Second (hardcover, paperback, kindle), exploring the relation between science and history as one of the central intellectual problems of modern times, has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. Her second book, The Physicist and The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time has been recently published by Princeton University Press.

“Canales’ work on the history of science had been published in Isis, Science in Context, History of Science, the British Journal for the History of Science, and the MLN, among others; topics on visual, film and media studies have appeared in Architectural History, Journal of Visual Culture, Thresholds, Aperture, Artforum and WiRED magazine.

“Canales was awarded the “Prize for Young Scholars” of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, and has lectured widely nationally and internationally, presenting her work in the BBC, Juan March Institute and the Centre Georges Pompidou. She was previously an Associate Professor in History of Science at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the IKKM (Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie) in Germany. She was a recipient of the Charles A. Ryskamp Award from the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) in 2013-2014.”


[2]  KPFA News Headlines (read by Aileen Alfandary)

[3]  Your scribe, however, was actually introduced to the philosophical work of Henri Bergson in an undergraduate philosophy course taught by Richard Dokey.  Most memorable, perhaps for its relative obscurity even among academics, was Professor Dokey’s presentation of Ralph Barton Perry‘s coining of the term egocentric predicament, which refers to the concept dating back to the solipsist philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753).  Berkeley denied the existence of material substance, except as ideas in the minds of perceivers, and thus asserted a problematical relation with reality.  More recently, we may compare this with the Wachowski Brothers‘ allegorical Matrix films.

[4]  Cf. subjectivism.


[This article is currently under construction.]

[Last modified 5 NOV 2015  06:44 PDT]