Living Consciousness: The Metaphysical Vision of Henri Bergson by G. William Barnard (S U N Y Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology: New York State University Press) examines the brilliant, but now largely ignored, insights of French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Offering a detailed and accessible analysis of Bergson's thought, G. William Barnard highlights how Bergson's understanding of the nature of consciousness and, in particular, its relationship to the physical world remain strikingly relevant to numerous contemporary fields. These range from quantum physics and process thought to philosophy of mind, depth psychology, transpersonal theory, and religious studies. Bergson's notion of consciousness as a ceaselessly dynamic, inherently temporal substance of reality itself provides a vision that can function as a persuasive alternative to mechanistic and reductionistic understandings of consciousness and reality. Barnard closes the work with several "ruminations" or neo-Bergsonian responses to a series of vitally important questions such as: What does it mean to live consciously, authentically, and attuned to our inner depths? Is there a philosophically sophisticated way to claim that the survival of consciousness after physical death is not only possible but likely?
Excerpt: For well over a decade, I have been deeply engaged with the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Many of my colleagues have been rather puzzled by my decision to commit so much time to Bergson's thought. While there has been a mini-resurgence of interest in his work in the last decade (primarily among scholars who are familiar with the poststructuralist French thinker Gilles Deleuze, who reintroduced Bergson to a postmodern audience), I think that it is safe to say that until quite recently, even among the philosophically inclined, Bergson's ideas have been for the most part relegated to some metaphorical musty bookshelf of the mind, filled with thinkers who are considered (at least tacitly) to be antiquated relics of a bygone era. Much of this book is dedicated to proving that Bergson's thought should not be so easily dismissed. It is my hope that after reading this text you will come to agree that spending time in the company of this relatively forgotten genius is well worth the effort.
Bergson, like most profound thinkers, is someone who can inspire and provoke; he is someone who, if we listen carefully, if we pay attention, can open up new worlds inside of us; he is someone who can prompt us to reexamine many of our most cherished philosophical assumptions. Do not, therefore, take Bergson lightly. This is philosophy with a kick, philosophy that might, little by little, rearrange your comfortable mental world in unexpected ways.
In addition, do not expect that Bergson's ideas will be assimilated easily, or without protest. Texts such as Time and Free Will or Matter and Memory (Berg-son's first two works, and the primary focus of this book) attempt to articulate a radically counterintuitive understanding of our everyday experience. Therefore, do not be surprised if it takes some time to assimilate and to digest certain aspects of Bergson's philosophy. It is to be expected that a philosophy that is so inherently focused on temporality will itself need a little time to do its work.
Because I recognize that it can at times be a rather challenging task to understand Bergson's thought, I have attempted to present his ideas in a way that is as uncluttered as possible. That is, the majority of this text attempts to do what I would argue any good academic examination of Bergson's thought should do, that is, it seeks to provide a clear, thoughtful, and thorough exposition and analysis of the main tenets of his work, in its own terms, free from any extraneous technical jargon; it also attempts to articulate, to a limited extent, some of the central intellectual currents that were prominent during Bergson's historical period (e.g., mechanism, determinism, and so on).
However, I have to confess that, while I have made every attempt to offer a faithful and accurate representation of Bergson's ideas, I am also keenly aware that the Bergson that you are about to discover in this text is not the Bergson, as if his work is frozen somewhere in Platonic cold storage, just waiting to be awakened and given new life by my (or any scholar's) words. Instead, given my background as a religious studies scholar interested in the comparative study of the philosophy and psychology of mysticism and non-ordinary states of consciousness, what you will discover here is a "spiritual" Bergson—a Bergson that many recent scholars of his work might well not recognize nor endorse. However, I would claim that, like William James (Bergson's closest and most influential philosophical ally in America), Bergson is multifaceted enough that it is possible to articulate a variety of seemingly mutually exclusive understandings of his thought and yet still remain true to his work. My task, therefore, is to highlight certain aspects of Bergson's thought that have been recently overlooked or ignored (i.e., the more "mystical" implications of his work) in order to provide a more nuanced and balanced understanding of his overall philosophical perspective.
Furthermore, this text attempts to demonstrate that Bergson's work is not some outdated remnant of the past, but rather is a provocative, nuanced, complex perspective that continues to have relevance today for a broad range of compelling discussions that are currently taking place in the fields of anthropology, religious studies, psychology, physics, neuroscience, and philosophy. Bergson's work not only provides a set of thoughtful, persuasive answers to numerous, rather daunting philosophical problems that continue to plague scholars today, but does so in a way that is congruent with the central findings of modern science, even while Bergson's perspective also strongly challenges the implicit, typically unexamined, positivism, determinism, and physicalism that underlies how many, if not most, academics and scientists interpret these findings.
In Living Consciousness, I attempt to show that Bergson offers numerous stimulating and provocative insights into the nature of consciousness (and reality itself), insights that offer a fresh and helpful approach to several highly diverse realms of inquiry, for example, the philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience; quantum mechanics; various models of psychotherapy and spiritual transformation; and anthropological and philosophical approaches within the field of religious studies. For example, I seek to demonstrate that Bergson's thought provides a coherent and intellectually engaging philosophical framework for reinterpreting the nature of the physical universe—a reinterpretation that places consciousness in the heart of matter itself; I attempt to illustrate how Bergson's controversial understanding of the nature of memory is still worthy of consideration, even after more than a century of research into the structure and function of the brain; I attempt to articulate how a Bergsonian perspective on the nature of the subconscious illuminates the transformative process and underlying goals of various modes of psychotherapy and spiritual practice; and finally, as a scholar of religious studies, I offer Bergson's dense and complex metaphysical perspective as an intriguing way to begin to make sense of such non-ordinary states of awareness as trance, possession, mystical experiences, dreams, visionary events, telepathy, and clairvoyance.
In certain respects, the interdisciplinary nature of Bergson's work itself, with its detailed engagement with issues that are now relegated to separate, often isolated, academic specializations, prompted me to engage in these (careful and cautious!) scouting expeditions into realms of thought that are at times admittedly somewhat outside of the boundaries of my own disciplinary background. However, given the multifaceted nature of Bergson's own work, I became convinced of the need to risk going beyond the familiar and comfortable milieu of my own training and to enter into relatively unknown territory. Therefore, although I am willing to claim that these extradisciplinary forays are essentially accurate and are presented with a reasonable amount of clarity (a claim that I am willing to make in large part due to the diligent and careful reading of several experts from those disciplines), it is also important to underscore that I undertook this task with a keen awareness of my own academic limitations and that I make no claims that these chapters of the book are comprehensive. Instead, I see them primarily as suggestive and inevitably schematic maps of territory that has not previously been explored (at least by me)—maps that nonetheless can still help to open up new and unanticipated vistas of connections between Bergson's perspective and these highly diverse fields of academic specialization.
The not-so-simple job of organizing this book was also often rather daunting in that (as will soon become apparent) Living Consciousness itself is the end result of a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, this book is primarily oriented toward academics (either those who are overtly interested in Bergson's work or more broadly those who are interested in how his work applies to current discussions of the nature of consciousness, the mind/body connection, the question of free will, and so on). On the other hand, I have also made a conscious attempt to write this book for a broader audience in that, not only do I attempt to use nontechnical language whenever possible, but I also include certain subsections—that is, "ruminations" (which I describe in greater detail below)—that are explicitly oriented to readers outside of academia.
In many ways, this book was written for people like my father: intelligent, inquisitive, well-educated readers who are not philosophers or scholars of religion and yet are interested in topics such as the nature of consciousness, intuition, mysticism, and so on—readers who have never had the opportunity or perhaps the inclination to read any of Bergson's works. It is my hope, therefore, that Living Consciousness can accomplish what might well be an impossible task: to be clear and vivid enough to speak to this broader audience, while simultaneously presenting a rigorously argued analysis of Bergson's work that will appeal to academics.
For those in the latter category, that is, those who pursue the rarified, often arcane discussions that scholars relish, it will be important not to overlook the collection of endnotes. While I (sadly!) had to dramatically pare down the length and quantity of endnotes that I originally wrote, nonetheless, the endnotes that remain are fully of juicy scholarly information. Here is where I overtly address the secondary literature on Bergson; here is where I offer an exploration of (and occasional arguments with) the numerous scholars of Bergson's thought who have preceded me; and here is where I attempt to establish connections to numerous other lines of thought that can help to shed light on whatever topic is being discussed. The endnotes are also (with the exception of the explicit bibliographical references) self-contained. Each substantive endnote begins with a brief recapitulation of the issue that it addresses, a procedure that attempts to prevent unnecessary and tedious flipping back and forth between the endnotes and the main body of the text.
While the endnotes are my gift to the diehard Bergson scholars, the "ruminations" are my gift to those who might, at least at times, find typical academic writing a bit indigestible. Although the main body of the text is primarily descriptive and analytical in style, in the ruminations I shift the tone of my prose. Here I let my guard down (to the extent possible for a trained academic) and simply say what I think, without having to give a complex series of carefully hedged arguments to hammer my point home. These "ruminations" are the result of my prolonged attempts to chew upon—to digest—Bergson's work; they are the partial record of the long, slow work of assimilating his ideas, and over time, of converting his thought into a vision of life that has become, as it were, a part of my own flesh and bones. In these ruminations I take Bergson further than perhaps even he might have anticipated. Here I speak as vividly and concretely as possible; here I tell stories from my own life; here I write about what matters most to me; here I give myself permission to speak about topics that most "respectable" academics avoid (e.g., dreams, telepathy, mystical experiences, and so on).
In these ruminations there are also statements that are at times explicitly normative. In the main subsections of the book I offer a detailed and nuanced examination of Bergson's understanding of the nature of consciousness and the physical world—that is, I focus on "what is." In the ruminations, however, (and occasionally even in the "margins" and "overtones" of the main text itself) I attempt to flesh out the normative implications of Bergson's understandings of the nature of the self and reality—that is, I focus on "what could or should be." While Living Consciousness is not a book on ethics, it has increasingly become clear to me that different metaphysical assumptions imply different visions of how human beings could or should live in the world and what human beings could or should aspire to become.' For instance, if you believe that the world is a cold, predetermined place, in which inert bits of matter interact mechanically to produce the illusion of freedom and consciousness, then you will quite naturally have a distinctly different sense of the possibilities that life has to offer than someone who believes that the universe is an interconnected, living, dynamic whole and that human beings have the capacity to experience a profound intuitive attunement to levels of consciousness that are, quite literally, cosmic in scope (one guess as to which option is more Bergsonian!).
In this way, the ruminations are an opportunity to think out loud about the normative implications that follow if you accept a cluster of basic Bergsonian metaphysical assumptions. They are an opportunity to "ruminate" on what we, as human beings, can (and perhaps should) aspire to and how we might live our lives in ways that are aligned with these ontological presuppositions. Therefore, even though (ironically) I do not explore in any detail the later works of Bergson in which he overtly discusses the ethical implications of intuition and mysticism (to do so would have expanded an already ambitious book beyond any hope of readability), the teleological thrust of Living Consciousness moves in this direction and can be most overtly found in the ruminations.
I realize that by including these ruminations I take a risk of alienating some of my scholarly audience. Once again, however, I feel it is imperative to take this step. Not to do so would be (for me) a deep betrayal of the spirit of Bergson's own work. While Bergson had tremendous respect for clear thought and for vigorous argumentation, he nonetheless also stressed the crucial importance of utilizing modes of philosophical inquiry—for example, intuition, metaphorical imagery, and creative synthesis—that are not given much credence in today's academic world. Therefore, while I have made every attempt to present a clear and accurate depiction of Bergson's work in the main body of the text, in these ruminations I have not shied away from a creative appropriation of several of Bergson's key ideas.
I would argue that this willingness to judiciously adapt Bergson's thought is, ironically, perhaps truer to his perspective than any scholarly attempt to locate Bergson's work solely in the past. Because Bergson repeatedly emphasizes that the universe itself can be best understood as a ceaseless dynamic flux characterized by a constant (albeit often unrecognized) emergence of genuine novelty, any philosophical vision that hopes to remain viable will itself also have to remain open to change (an understanding that Bergson himself frequently acknowledges in his reflections on the nature of the philosophical process).2 Therefore, in the ruminations, I have been willing to use Bergson's work (without apology and indeed with great gusto) for my own highly individual ends and to make conclusions based on his perspective that he might never have anticipated (or even necessarily approved)—all the while remaining, I would argue, aligned with and true to what is most importantly "Bergsonian" in his thought.
For those who are used to the style of conventional academic prose (a style that is burned into a scholar's very marrow through a daunting initiatory process of graduate training and publishing incentives), these ruminations might at times seem a bit jarring. In the end, I can only hope that my attempt to juxtapose several divergent styles of prose is successful and that readers will find them complementary rather than discordant. It is my hope that the more academic subsections are clear enough to be read (and perhaps even enjoyed) by non-academics, and that the ruminations are substantive and thoughtful enough to be read (and perhaps even enjoyed) by academics.
One further task remains in this introduction: to offer a concise and intelligible summation of the three major sections of this book—a task that I approach with some degree of ambivalence, since any summation simply cannot do justice to the hundreds of pages that follow. Such a summation can, however, at least offer a glimpse of the central issues explored in Living Consciousness.
Section 1 focuses on the themes covered in Bergson's first major work, Time and Free Will (published in 1889 as Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience). This brilliantly insightful book (Bergson's doctoral dissertation) offers a forceful defense of human freedom via a nuanced, introspective examination of the nature of consciousness. According to Bergson, if we focus on the immediacy of what is occurring moment by moment within the depths of our own experience, what we will discover is that our consciousness, unlike the objects in the world surrounding us, is a freely flowing continuity of ceaseless change, a dynamic flux that is ever new and intrinsically creative. Our consciousness is also (again, in contrast to the world of matter) inherently temporal. In fact, Bergson goes further and claims that our consciousness itself is time and that time itself is consciousness—not time as we typically understand it, that is, not the time that is measured by the beats of a clock, but rather the time that we each subjectively experience.
Bergson's term for consciousness/time is durée. Durée is, arguably, the most important theoretical construct in Bergson's work: it is the living heart of Berg-son's perspective; it is the thread that is woven in and through Bergson's entire opus. What Bergson attempts to do in Time and Free Will is to use his nuanced depictions of durée to shift our attention to what is happening within ourselves, so that we can examine our own experience in order to determine whether his descriptions of the nature of consciousness are accurate or not. He also notes, however, that it is extremely difficult to cultivate this mode of intuitive knowledge, in which we directly experience durée, due in large part to our deeply rooted biological need to focus our attention outside of ourselves in order to master the objective world.
According to Bergson, this external world, at least functionally, is the polar opposite of durée, in that it appears to be split up into discrete, clearly bounded, seemingly stable objects that can be measured, counted, and labeled; it behaves in highly predictable ways; and it is inherently spatial in nature. Our almost hypnotic fascination with the external world, however, leads to a distorted understanding of the nature of consciousness in that we almost inevitably tend to perceive durée through the distorting lens of our desire to master this spatial realm, leading us to believe that our inner life is also quasi-spatial in nature; that is, we come to imagine that our inner world consists of a collection of "states" (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations) that have clear beginnings and endings—states that behave according to certain fixed natural laws and that can be reduced to a quantifiable interaction of mindless automatic forces (e.g., hormonal secretions, economic factors, genetic patterns, and so on).
According to Bergson, our urgent, almost obsessive, need to analyze, weigh, quantify, and control the external world cuts us off, at least partially, from the freedom and creativity of our deeper self, that is, durée. Consequently, we live much of our lives basically like automatons, alienated (for the most part) from the more profound strata of our being. It is no wonder then that we are often convinced that freedom is an illusion and that we are nothing more than the sum total of a multitude of sociocultural-economic-biological forces. However, Bergson asks us to shift our attention away from the insistent messages bombarding us from the outside as well as from the superficial beliefs that we have inherited from others in order to attempt the extremely difficult task of paying careful attention to what is present within us, as us, as the ever new, inherently creative, flux of our own consciousness. Bergson argues that, to the extent that we succeed in this task we will gain an intuitive certainty that human freedom is real, a certainty that, if nurtured, has the potential to reinfuse our life with increased levels of dynamism and a renewed appreciation for the gift of human existence.
The liminal section functions as a type of connecting link between section 1, with its focus on the themes of Time and Free Will, and the subsequent focus in section 2 on the ideas explored in Bergson's second book, Matter and Memory. The primary emphasis in the liminal section is on Bergson's understanding of the nature of the physical world as articulated in Matter and Memory (as well as in later works). Instead of seeing matter and durée as two substances that are ontologically distinct from each other (as Bergson appears to do in Time and Free Will), by the time of the publication of Matter and Memory (1896), Bergson begins to envision matter itself as "durée-like" in nature .4 That is, he begins to emphasize that the external world itself, if understood correctly, is (like our own consciousness) not split into atomistic parts, but rather is a dynamic, flowing, interconnected continuum of processes; that is, the material world in reality is not a collection of "things" bumping into each other in utterly predetermined ways in the "container" of empty space, but rather is constituted by ceaseless movement and change and consequently is also inherently temporal in nature.
The liminal section contains several (unfortunately rather cursory) discussions of the ways in which Bergson's non-atomistic, post-Newtonian understanding of matter proved to be remarkably prophetic in that almost all of his claims about the nature of the physical universe were, several decades later, proven to be true in strikingly specific ways by a series of ongoing (and revolutionary) theoretical advances and empirical discoveries made in physics (first by Einstein and then later by numerous quantum physicists): for example, the fusion of space and time theorized by Einstein; the realization that light can be either wave-like or particle-like depending upon how it is measured; the understanding that matter (seemingly so solid and predictable) is, in actuality, a blur of probabilities and wave functions; and the inescapable conclusion that the act of observation fundamentally alters what is being observed. All of these advances in the realm of physics echoed and confirmed Bergson's prior claims about the nature of the physical world—that is, that there is a degree of indetermination even in matter itself; that mental and physical phenomena may not after all be utterly distinct from one another; that consciousness itself is intimately implicated in the processes of material existence; that the physical world, if understood correctly, is less like a complex rearrangement of tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other and more like an intricate and interconnected dance of vibratory, spatiotemporal processes (in other words, that matter is, if understood correctly, an interactive, overlapping, ever-shifting field of different "rhythms" of durée).
The liminal section also underscores how for Bergson the physical world is not some sort of immensely complicated mechanical object, but instead is closer to a melody. As Bergson notes, like our consciousness, the melody of the physical universe is never static; it does not have clear-cut boundaries, but rather it unfolds. Like our consciousness, the tones of this melody overlap: they interpenetrate each other and yet, interestingly, each tone remains distinct. Like our consciousness, the tones of the melody of the universe are inherently plural and yet are simultaneously held together via the cohesive power of memory. Finally, this cosmic melody (again, like our consciousness) is a manifestation of continual change; it is an ever new play of difference—difference that is inherently temporal in its very nature (i.e., melodies take time).
The "both/and" nature of this sonic metaphor, as I point out in ruminations in both section 1 as well as in the liminal section, can be a very helpful lens with which to view reality and to understand ourselves. Here we have a perspective that argues that both unity and diversity, continuity and change, identity and difference are intrinsic and deeply intertwined aspects of both the physical world and the deepest levels of our selfhood. Both sides of this spectrum, therefore, can and should be affirmed, instead of proclaiming the philosophical, psychological, moral, or political superiority of one side over the other. I suggest that by approaching life from this point of view, we are encouraged to cherish differences and otherness, while at the same time we are also prompted to value the underlying connection that exists with other human beings and with the world around us. This point of view allows us to appreciate change, creativity, uniqueness, and individuality, while simultaneously respecting the value of tradition, heritage, and communal solidarity.
While section 1 focuses primarily on the nature of consciousness as it is experienced within us and the liminal section attempts to show how the underlying nature of the world of matter, as understood by both Bergson and quantum physics, appears to possess many of the qualities of consciousness itself, section 2 attempts to show how, in Matter and Memory, Bergson takes on the exceedingly difficult task of bringing together the apparent dualities of time and space, inside and outside, mind and matter.
What Bergson accomplishes in this revolutionary book is nothing short of astonishing in that he provides a philosophically coherent way to overcome the mind/body divide, thereby solving what is arguably the most challenging problem posed by Western philosophy during the past several centuries. Amazingly, even though Bergson's answer to this problem was never explicitly refuted, Matter and Memory has basically been ignored by philosophers and psychologists during most of the past century. The inexplicable absence of Bergson's thought among these thinkers—that is, philosophers of mind, cognitive psychologists, and so on—is quite a loss, especially in light of the fact that during the past few decades the study of consciousness has finally been resurrected after it had almost completely disappeared from view due to the combined onslaught of behaviorism and positivism.
Section 2 attempts to redress this situation by demonstrating the continuing relevance of Matter and Memory, especially in light of some of the central issues that have arisen during recent academic discussions of the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical body, especially the brain. For example, the so-called "hard problem" (i.e., understanding how it is possible that our subjective, conscious experiences are produced by the physical processes of the brain) not only remains unsolved, but also according to many thinkers is incapable of being solved within the current orthodox paradigms. As I note, however, Matter and Memory offers a highly sophisticated and creative solution to the "hard problem," a solution that, until recently, has been studiously ignored by most academics interested in the nature of consciousness. Bergson's solution to the hard problem is a uniquely configured version of panpsychism—the view that experience/mind/consciousness (in some shape or form) is basic to the physical universe—or in other words, the philosophical position that matter itself is associated on the most basic level with mind.
In Matter and Memory, Bergson argues that the physical universe is an ever-changing, overlapping, interconnected configuration of "images"—vibratory fields that are, in-and-of -themselves, a form of virtual consciousness. These "images" are the underlying substance, the "raw data" of our perceptions of the universe. According to Bergson, our "pure perceptions" (i.e., perceptions that are devoid of any overlay of memory) are formed when we subconsciously screen out the vast majority of the proto-conscious images of the universe that are ceaselessly flowing in and through us so that we can pay attention to the tiniest fraction of this universal flux, thereby converting the virtual consciousness of these universal images into the bedrock of our conscious perceptions. Our "concrete perceptions" (i.e., our actual, lived perceptions of the world around us) are, in turn, formed when these "pure perceptions" are overlaid with various layers of memory.
For Bergson, every moment of lived experience is an inextricable fusion of matter and memory. (Bergson eventually resolves this interactive functional dualism into an ontological nondualism when he argues that both matter and memory are, in the end, nothing but different "rhythms" of durée.) Our pure perceptions are carved out of the material substratum of the universe (i.e., matter not as inert "stuff," but rather matter as the streaming proto-conscious vibratory fluxes of the cosmos) and yet the vast majority of what we actually perceive comes from a highly distilled overlay of memory that is seamlessly superimposed upon the "scaffolding" of our pure perceptions, giving them meaning and significance. Our everyday experience, therefore, is grounded in material reality (in that our perceptions are rooted in a direct, albeit highly truncated, contact with the physical universe); however, simultaneously, our experience of the world, others, and ourselves is powerfully shaped under the surface of our conscious awareness by the utterly unique and ceaselessly changing configuration of our personal memories—not only our specific, episodic recollections of past events, but even more importantly, a condensed, ever-shifting fusion of subconsciously held beliefs, cultural assumptions, bodily memory, and affective patterning. Every moment of experience, therefore, is a participatory, co-created event that, on the one hand, connects us to a shared, objective world, while on the other hand, is utterly unique and profoundly molded by our biographical, cultural, and historical background. In this way, for Bergson memory is not some sort of passive and mute register of the past, but instead actively helps us to interpret and make sense of our unique experience of the world.
When Bergson claims that each of us at every moment is profoundly influenced by our entire past, a past that operates within us on subconscious levels of our being in-and-as different "strata" of memory, he is not making the claim that we are utterly and robotically driven by these past experiences. While, as I note in an extended rumination in section 2, there are numerous levels of our memory that, sadly, appear to have become highly defended, contracted, and walled off due to repeated traumatic experiences; while even if it is true that we can all too often act under the influence of these more "knotted" levels of our inner world, in ways that can seem deadened or mechanical, nonetheless because durée is actively present at all moments in the deepest levels of our being, it is always possible (in our freedom) to cultivate and deepen our connection to these depths and, hence, to generate increased levels of spontaneity, consciousness, and creativity in our daily lives. (I argue that we also can see evidence of these qualities of durée/memory every night in the form of the countless complex dream worlds that effortlessly manifest themselves within and as forms of our own consciousness.)
Section 2 also gives extended attention to Bergson's claim that our conscious experiences are not manufactured for us by the activity of the physical brain. In these chapters, I attempt to explain why Bergson would make such a seemingly outrageous claim, noting that his understanding of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and the brain (and especially that crucial subset of consciousness: memory) is not only philosophically sophisticated, but is also completely congruent with the most up-to-date scientific data on the physiological functioning of the brain.
What Bergson argues is that it is not at all clear that the neurochemical activity of the brain produces our conscious awareness. All that we know for sure is that there is some sort of correlation between brain activity and consciousness. Bergson, for one, argues that it is better to think of the brain as a type of filter that either screens out most of the "images" that flow into it from the material universe or that restricts the equally expansive, multilayered flux of memories that are subconsciously present within us. (Bergson provocatively suggests that the brain also might well serve to limit our contact with other consciousnesses as well.)
An alternative Bergsonian understanding of the function of the brain is that it acts as a type of "receiver," somewhat similar to a radio or television set. Drawing upon this second metaphor, Bergson postulates that the neurochemical activity of the brain does not produce consciousness, but rather enables the brain to "tune into" appropriate "frequencies" of preexisting levels of consciousness—that is, the states of consciousness that correspond to waking life, dreaming, deep sleep, trance, as well as, at least potentially, the consciousnesses of other beings. Just as the programs received by a television set are not produced by the electrical activity within the television itself, but rather exist independently of the television set, in the same way, this Bergsonian understanding of the brain/consciousness relationship postulates that consciousness is neither contained within nor produced by the brain.
Bergson also postulates (again, provocatively) that it is not the job of the brain to store memories. It might appear that this claim flies in the face of well over a century of scientific findings, but interestingly enough, the search for memory traces within the brain has been, at best, inconclusive. Similarly, while it might appear that damage to the brain destroys the memories that are stored there, the current scientific data available on neurological impairment and memory loss can easily be interpreted, from a Bergsonian perspective, to indicate that injury to the brain primarily damages the brain's ability to either access or to express memory—not that the memories themselves have necessarily been destroyed.
Bergson therefore forcefully argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to the activity of inert material forces (e.g., the neurochemical activity of the brain) no matter how complex this interaction might be. However, while for Bergson there are crucial functional differences between matter and consciousness (i.e., between the body and the mind), nonetheless, from an ontological perspective this duality is understood to be simply two ends of a single, albeit highly pluralistic and dynamic, continuum. For this reason, according to Bergson all of the material forms of the universe, and all of our experiences, in differing ways, are nothing but highly interactive and yet uniquely particular forms of durée.
This understanding that all of reality is a highly diverse, yet unified, spectrum of differing "rhythms" or "degrees" of consciousness (an understanding that, as I point out in section 2, is echoed by the work of David Bohm, an intriguing and highly respected physicist famous for his work on "non-locality") provides a framework for making sense of a wide range of phenomena (i.e., intuition, trance, visions, mystical experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, and so on) that are often either ignored or devalued if examined from the perspective of a more conventional materialistic worldview. Over the course of his career, Bergson himself became increasingly interested in these types of phenomena. He not only wrote extensively on the nature of intuition and, in his final major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, discussed the crucial value of mysticism for ethics as well as more broadly the evolution of consciousness itself, but he was also, to a limited degree, involved in testing the claims made about psi phenomena. He was even made the president of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1913. (Bergson's Presidential Address to the SPR offers his most explicit theorizing on the connection between his philosophy and paranormal phenomena.)
If, as Bergson postulates, the entire universe consists of differing levels of overlapping, interpenetrating rhythms of durée; if our brain's task is to "tune into" only a very small range of these levels of consciousness; if we are, under the surface of our awareness, deeply connected not only to other levels of material reality, but other consciousnesses as well; then as I suggest in a lengthy rumination in section 2, perhaps various spiritual disciplines (such as chanting, fasting, meditation, dancing, the ingestion of psychotropic substances, and so on) serve to open up the filters of the brain or to "change its channel" so that we can perceive what has always been there, even if it has previously been hidden from our sight. While Bergson's perspective does not deny that psychological, cultural, and biological factors can crucially influence the particular form that various non-ordinary phenomena take (in fact, he would insist that this is the case), nonetheless, Bergson's work suggests that various transcultural and/or transpersonal factors may also be operative in the genesis of these types of experiences. (Berg-son's philosophical framework also provides an ontological basis for understanding a variety of more prosaic modes of consciousness that are also often not highly valued in Western culture, perhaps in part because they appear to be trans-empirical in nature—for example, intuition and empathy. His work also suggests an alternative and fertile way to understand the genesis of crowd contagion, possession states, and certain forms of mental illness.)
The final chapter of section 2 focuses on how Bergson's theories on psi phenomena were closely linked to his speculations on the possible survival of personal consciousness after the death of the physical body. If Bergson is correct and our consciousness, even now, has a degree of independence from material reality; if our brain does not actually store memories, but instead offers those memories an opportunity to help us to interact effectively with material reality; if there is, in fact, reliable data that indicates that it is possible even now for our consciousness to transcend the boundaries of our physical form (e.g., the numerous critically sophisticated and well-documented studies on telepathy, clairvoyance, near-death experiences, and so on), then we have every right to rationally conclude that there is a high probability that our own consciousness does not dissolve when our physical body dies.5 In the final rumination of section 2, amplifying Bergson's rather sparse discussion of postmortem survival, I draw upon the implications of his broader work on the nature of consciousness and offer a series of suggestions about how we might envision the specific "textures" of the afterlife—positing that Bergson's insights into how we even now create numerous interacting yet highly pluralistic "worlds of experience" to inhabit might well be applicable after the death of the physical body as well.
As has perhaps become apparent, the thrust of section 2 (and in fact of Living Consciousness as a whole) in many ways moves in the direction of an examination of a range of topics that are generally avoided (or more seriously, mocked) within the academy—for example, psi phenomena, mysticism, and postmortem survival. However, no serious student of Bergson's work can deny that this is precisely the direction that Bergson's own scholarship took (even if, tellingly, it would be very difficult to discern this telos of Bergson's work in many, if not most, of the recent academic discussions on Bergson's thought).
Bergson's early work can easily be understood and examined on its own terms, divorced from these more controversial topics of discussion and (as noted earlier) can be profitably applied to numerous and important contemporary philosophical and psychological concerns (e.g., the nature of consciousness, the mind/body problem, and so on). As has been made clear, one of the central goals of this book is to illuminate and underscore the contemporary applicability of Bergson's thought—especially the ideas expressed in Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory. These early texts are the living seed of all of Bergson's later (and at least in his own time period, more well-known works, that is, Creative Evolution and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). My hope is that this text, at the very least, offers a clear and helpful elucidation of these two foundational works. Nonetheless, I would also (in my more optimistic moments) like to hope that Living Consciousness provides something more: a glimpse into the ways in which Bergson's metaphysics and epistemology can offer us an intriguing, and to my mind exciting, way to philosophically make sense of a variety of phenomena that are all too often not taken seriously in contemporary academic discussions (e.g., intuition, telepathy, clairvoyance, postmortem survival).
I would also (again, in my more optimistic moments) like to imagine that this examination of Bergson's work can underscore the ways in which Western philosophy, in various ways, was perhaps somewhat premature to pronounce that we now live in a postmetaphysical world. As the subtitle of Living Consciousness indicates, Bergson's vision of reality was resolutely metaphysical (it was also, I would submit, truly visionary in its depth and breadth). While I remain in basic agreement with the postmodern suspicion of any one dominant, overarching, triumphal metaphysical stance, I am also keenly aware of how this often worthwhile and liberative deconstructive move in philosophy has all too often tended to create room not for more creative and transformative understandings of the universe and our place in it, but (sadly) has frequently engendered either a destructive nihilism (and its perhaps inevitable opposite, for example, various forms of virulent, and often violent, fundamentalisms/literalisms) or an unquestioned and unexamined philosophical materialism. It is my hope that this work can help to articulate a more attractive alternative—a vision of reality that is fully congruent with scientific findings and scientific methodology, and yet which refuses (unlike many current versions of "scientism") to reduce the universe, and our own consciousness, to the mechanistic end results of blind, inert, utterly predictable, material objects; a vision of reality in which consciousness, freedom, and life are fundamental; a vision of reality that is inherently open-ended and pluralistic, even while simultaneously affirming the numerous ways in which, under the surface, we are deeply and continually intertwined with, and interconnected to, the cosmos itself.
There are, sadly, numerous areas of Bergson's thought that this text was not able to address except in passing (e.g., Bergson's intriguing understanding of the dynamics of evolution and intuition that he offers in Creative Evolution as well as the timely and insightful presentation of the complex interaction between social ethics, biology, religious traditions, and mysticism that he presents in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). A Bergsonian worldview is intrinsically unfinished and ceaselessly evolving, so it is perhaps appropriate that I cannot claim
that this work is in any way definitive. Nonetheless, if I have done my job correctly, then Living Consciousness will not only have sparked further interest in Bergson's work, but will have catalyzed numerous, perhaps unanticipated, questions about the implications of his thought—questions that ideally do not lead to the static closure of final answers, but rather to the creative openness of questioning itself.
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