Issue #43 August 2021

Rebel Without a Cause – Reconstructing Free Will in Bergson

Sacha Kolin, "Have Wings-Will Fly", (1968)

After Henri Bergson’s first book Time and Free Will and in all his subsequent books, he takes himself to have proved that humans are free. However, his ontology radically changes by the time Matter and Memory is completed, and even more so after Creative Evolution. The duration (durée) of Time and Free Will is something in the mind, whereas by his next work, he has an entirely durational ontology. I have outlined this ontology in a previous work. Here, I mean to reconstruct a view of the metaphysics of free will that I think is plausible, mostly in light of Bergson’s first stab at it in Time and Free Will, but also by entirely incorporating his later ontology. As it turns out Bergson ends up looking like something of a libertarian, which is normally taken to be the most implausible position. However, with the metaphysical tools to back it up, I think you get a compelling account.

I will eschew questions specifically of moral responsibility and instead focus on the metaphysics, giving an alternative and non-deterministic picture that vindicates a categorical sense of self-determination. I begin by outlining and affirming traditional incompatibilism. Following this, I show why ordinary libertarian responses to incompatibilism always fail to the determinist. Next, I outline Bergson’s theory of indeterminism and duration. Finally, I discuss the kind of free will that seems to be entailed by this view and defend it against traditional objections levelled against theories similar in form.


A Lay of the Land

This section outlines the theories Bergson is reacting against. While he is an incompatibilist about free will, he thinks the way traditional libertarian and determinist philosophers have represented the problem leads to error. Here I define terms and positions, laying the land of the problem.

Incompatibilism is the thesis that free will is incompatible with determinism. We will define these things as follows:

Free Will: The ability or power for some agent to have performed some act, other than they have.

Determinism: Every state of the universe is caused by the previous state of the universe.

Determinism means that any act performed by some agent, in any given state of the universe, has causal origins going back to the beginning of the universe. Presumably, the way an agent acts at any given time is caused by antecedent states of the universe just like anything else, and if all acts are a result of antecedent states of the universe, then the agent could not act otherwise than they do – they are at the whim of the universe. This is the incompatibilist position: that the conjunction of these two theses cannot be true. We can construct an argument for this as follows:

  1. Determinism is the thesis that a state of the universe S1 at T1 entails a single state of the universe S2 at T2, which entails a single state of the universe Sn at Tn.
  2. Free will is the thesis that agents are free if and only if they could have performed some act, other than they did.
  3. If determinism is true, the action of some agent at Tn is entailed by antecedent states of the universe.
  4. If (3) is true, then it is impossible for the agent to have performed some act other than they did.
  5. Therefore, (1) and (2) cannot both be true – free will is incompatible with determinism.

For the sake of this essay, we will assume this to be true. Both Bergson and those he opposes think this is the case (though, as we will see later, for different reasons). Furthermore, suppose we can show that Bergson offers a seductive solution to the problem as given. In that case, we can also show three things: that the alternative, compatibilism, is not a bullet we have to bite (on the assumption it is not something desirable), freedom is not something we have to ad-hoc redefine as many have attempted to do, and that there is a metaphysical basis for the categorical existence of free will, something often dismissed as metaphysical fancy.

Following the above argument, the incompatibilist can go one of two ways: giving up free will or giving up determinism. They finish the argument with a final premise:

  1. The actions of some agent at Tn are not entailed by antecedent states of the universe because the agent could have performed some act, other than they did.


  1. The actions of some agent at Tn are entailed by antecedent states of the universe; thus, the agent could not have performed some act, other than they did.

These positions I will call libertarians and determinists, respectively. Bergson writes that “The argument of [the determinists] implies that there is only one possible act corresponding to given antecedents: the [libertarians] assume, on the other hand that the same series could issue in several different acts, equally possible.”1placeholder The disagreement between these two camps can be depicted by the following diagram, taken from Time and Free Will:2placeholder

The diagram depicts the path of some agent M, coming to a point O, where it seems that there are two possible actions to take, X, or Y. While this is a thoroughly simplified depiction of action (as presumably there are innumerable tendencies to action in real life, not two) it will do for our purposes. Now let us say the agent at O hesitates, deliberates, and then chooses X.

The libertarian will analyse the situation by positing that the agent could have taken path Y. That is, the agent has free will as defined above. Thus, if time were somehow reversed, the libertarian would say that it is just as possible that the agent could have chosen Y. There would be no fact of the matter about what choice the agent makes and thus no fact of the matter about whether some state of the universe entails some other single state of the universe. Rather, it would entail a constellation of possible states (here X and Y) where the agent chooses which one is actualised.  The agent could have done otherwise, therefore determinism is false. The determinist would reply that in choosing X, the agent had some reason3placeholder to choose X, which is the antecedent state of the universe O. There is a determinate fact of the matter about the path taken by the agent that can be traced back to happenings before they were born. The agent could not have done otherwise, therefore agents do not have free will.

Both solutions accept the terms of the above argument and the representation of reality offered by the diagram. The libertarian concludes the argument with the truth of free will, and the determinist concludes the argument with the truth of determinism. I will not adjudicate the reasons why one ought to accept one rather than the other, as they already both admit of a mistake. Bergson, while a believer in free will, denies the terms of the question.


Possibly, Maybe

This section explains why Bergson thinks that once this representation of free will is accepted, the determinist always wins the debate.

The libertarian and the determinist accept the terms of the debate outlined above. The former focuses on point O, where there were open possibilities for the agent, while the latter focuses on the choice of path X. In this, Bergson identifies a “common postulate: both take up their position after the action X has been performed and represents the process of my voluntary activity by a path M O, which branches off at the point O, the lines of O X and O Y symbolising the two directions which abstraction distinguishes within the continuous activity of which X is the goal.” The debate has already represented the decision in such a way that X is the path taken, the decision made. If the agent has already picked X, how are we supposed to make sense of the agents supposed freedom ‘to do other than they did’?

Here we can distinguish between two sorts of “could have acted other than they did.” There is firstly a trivial sense in which an agent could have acted otherwise. This amounts merely to there being no contradiction in considering some counterfactual. For example, there is no contradiction in the thought that I could have made another coffee before writing this sentence, as nothing was stopping me from doing so. This is the sense in which a compatibilist takes us to be free because these statements are entirely consistent with determinism. To the compatibilist sentences of the sort “could have acted other than they did”, and thus the existence of free will, only need to come out true in a plausible semantic theory of counterfactuals. On the other hand, there is a more substantial sense in which some possible alternative state of the universe exists, which the agent could have actualised through choice. It is the second sense, and the affirmation of real possibility (the bearer of the fact that an agent could have chosen some other reality), that the libertarian makes their case.

Regarding the first sense, I have two objections to the compatibilist. First, it is hard to see how the first sense is how we should interpret the notion of “could have acted other than they did.” To be more specific, the agent could not have acted otherwise, in the actual world, because they did not act otherwise. This is surely the sense of freedom we care about here. Just because certain counterfactuals come out true in our theory of semantics tells us nothing about the world as it is. Thus, I offer an adapted formulation of what we mean by free will:

Free Will: The ability or power for some agent to have performed some act, other than they have, in the actual world.

Second, if we ignore my first point and grant that a conditional analysis is sufficient to make free will compatible with determinism, then the compatibilist is committed to an infinite number of absurd but conceivable counterfactuals being true about the agent’s free will. For example, it would be true that “the agent could have chosen to grow wings and fly (if the universe were different)” or “the agent could have mastered the art of teleportation and became an international thief (if the universe were different)” because you could just as easily construct a possible world to accommodate these possibilities. The compatibilist will reply that such remote possible worlds are irrelevant to understanding sentences about free will (as they will be false). However, there is no non-arbitrary line to draw in kinds between plausible and implausible worlds. For this reason, the first sense of possibility is entirely trivial. In other words: so what if these sentences are true? They are mere fancies of the mind, projected into the past. This shows that when people talk about free will, they are talking about it in the second sense, which reinforces my decision to redefine free will to avoid this worry.

In this first sense, the determinist conclusion is not escaped. It merely affirms what the incompatibilist has already denied: that the mere ability to do otherwise is not sufficient for free will. It must be up to the agent in some relevant sense as to what ability and thus future is actualised – the agent must originate the action. In the first sense, the agent still has no real choice whatsoever, regarding the state of the universe, even at a local level.

Regarding the second sense, that there are substantial possibilities, this will be the site for the defence of free will by the libertarian. However, as noted earlier, the libertarian has taken up the debate after the action (as you must do in representing it as such). In taking up the perspective after the fact, Bergson thinks the libertarian has granted too much to the determinist. By drawing the diagram in this way, the libertarian has no right to talk about real possibilities at point O after the fact. The agent determinately chose path M O X and any retroactive representation of some other possible path (even in focusing on the point of deliberation O) is to “ignore the data with which they have constructed the figure.”4placeholder If the agent picked X in the actual world (by stipulation), how could they have not picked X? It fails to clear the bar of the adapted formulation of free will as it requires appealing to unactualized possible paths. Appealing to something like unactualized realities, or the choice to have (past sense) done otherwise is to slip back into the unsatisfying compatibilist answer. It is worth saying more about why this is the case.

The problem with possibility conceived in the second sense for Bergson lies in the assumption that possibility is less than reality rather than more than reality. (This is the same critique he levels against the concept of nothing, or negation, in Creative Evolution.) What does he mean by this? Well, he means that possibility is always something projected into the past (in the first sense of could have done otherwise), rather than existent in the future (in the second sense of could have done otherwise). The standard conception of possibility is that there are real but unactualized possibilities, entities that are less than reality. However, to get to the idea of a possibility, it is a necessary precondition to have some reality first. Possibles are always more than reality because it is always reality plus an act of the mind inventing some alternative outcome. The possible is always the mirror image of reality, and to say that it has independent existence (as the libertarian would have to do to vindicate free will) is to say that there can be a reflection without the reflected.5placeholder

Accepting the terms of the argument as it is, commits the libertarian to the same error as the compatibilist: they are only talking about the first sense of possibility instead of the second, because they are not talking about the actual world, they are talking about some hypothetical contingency. This plainly results, once again, with the victory of the determinist because the agent has no real choice whatsoever regarding the state to universe, even at a local level.

This outcome hints towards a broader problem with the notion of free will tensed in a way such that its condition is “could have acted otherwise.” Once we say that the action has already happened, this amounts to a priori denying the possibility of free will in the second sense. Bergson thinks we must not look after the fact, we must look at what is happening at the time of choice, what is happening in the becoming of everything at that very moment. Before we take this point of view, we will explore Bergson’s critique of determinism.

Sacha Kolin, Untitled, (1966)

Map, Meet Territory

Bergson does not take any of the traditional arguments to attempt to refute the free will-determinism deadlock. While he is a believer in free will, he does not conclude the falsity of determinism due to the truth of free will like the libertarian completing the incompatibilist argument. Indeed, such a solution seems very unlikely to succeed, no matter how many times people try it. Instead, he thinks that determinism, accepted as a “common postulate” by all camps, is false for independent reasons and that free will is a consequence of its falsity. He takes a metaphysics first approach. Thus, this section outlines Bergson’s critique of determinism and the alternative metaphysical picture. (I run through this section pretty quickly, but I cover a lot of the same ground, and in a more in-depth way, here.)

Earlier, we stated the thesis of determinism as follows:

Determinism: a state of the universe S1 at T1, entails a single state of the universe S2 at T2, which entails a single state of the universe Sn at Tn

For Bergson, it is a mistake to represent time as discrete points T1, T2…Tn because reality is not actually broken up into such discrete moments. We represent it that way for pragmatic reasons. Thus, determinism is false, not because there are corners of the universe (humans) breaking this chain as the libertarian claims, but because there is no single state of the universe. There is no chain, nor chain links, just the universe continuously developing.

The reason it is an error to treat reality as decomposable into discrete states is that it leads to all kinds of paradoxes and unsavoury conclusions. The best way of showing this is by a discussion of one of Zeno’s paradoxes. We will only discuss the arrow:

The Arrow: Take an arrow flying towards a target. For motion to occur, it must change positions. However, if you take the arrow at any instant of time, it is motionless. Therefore, every point of the trajectory of the arrow is motionless. But if every point in time the arrow is motionless, it is motionless at all times. Thus, motion is an illusion.

This argument must have gone wrong somewhere because motion is surely not an illusion. The reality of motion would seem to be a precondition for the continuity of thought and action, without which we plainly contradict almost every common-sense truth and collapse into Eleatic homogeneity. The problem with such a conception of motion is that it ‘spatialises’ it.

To spatialise something for Bergson is to assume it has the properties of homogenous mathematical space. This is to assume (1) that the thing in question is infinitely divisible and (2) the absolute exclusion of any given point from any other given point of that thing (discreteness). This is what is happening in the argument: we lay out the trajectory of the real movement of the arrow on a spatial continuum and assume it is a serial continuity of motionless points that we can never restore motion to. Simply by assuming the arrow’s path is infinitely divisible into what are necessarily motionless states, Zeno rules out movement. Zeno’s paradoxes prove that “it is impossible to construct, a priori, movement with immobilities.”6placeholder However, this could be what reality is actually like, so what is wrong with spatialisation beyond these conclusions, and how can we vindicate motion?

What Bergson thinks is going wrong here is that spatialisation mistakes motion for space, quality for quantity. It is to mistake the map for the territory, representation for reality. We directly perceive the reality of motion in seeing that the arrow travels from the bow to the target, which we retroactively represent by some path A B. Following this, we assume that the action undertaken by the arrow, the motion that constitutes its reality, has the same properties as the line representing such motion, the ideal space representing the motion. Finally, this results in Zeno’s paradoxes and the denial of the reality of motion, the conditions for the possibility of thought and action, and the most ubiquitous everyday fact of life. The problem is that spatialisation misrepresents reality, it plainly contradicts what we know most intimately in perception.

Bergson’s alternative to this is to say that while space, the representation, is infinitely divisible, the movement is not. Motion is an undivided fact.7placeholder While it is true that the arrow passes from A to B, and in some sense, passes over many points between them, these points are not reality. The arrow did precisely what we have seen it do – move from point A to B. The ‘points’ that the arrow passes over are merely imagined stops in the continuous movement of the arrow. The genesis of paradoxes like Zeno’s come from our mistaking these points for reality. This argument can be generalised to determinism more generally.

The thesis of determinism as given above makes the same mistake, spatialisation, and thus comes to the same inert conclusions as Zeno. The nature of the universe is a continuous and undivided fact, not a series of time slices, infinitely decomposable. This is Bergson’s distinction between time and duration.

Time is the quantitative mathematical form we impose on motion for pragmatic everyday reasons such as coordinating people at a distance or engineering machines and devices. We assume it has the properties of homogenous mathematical space. Thus, time is the spatialised form of duration, where reifying it into metaphysical reality results in Zeno’s paradoxes. On the other hand, duration is the qualitative, interpenetrating, and flowing movement constitutive of reality, the territory lying underneath the map we spread out over it. Duration is fundamentally a different kind of thing to space and of time, which is just another arrangement of space. It is real time (or real change). Positing this is the only way to avoid Zeno’s conclusions.

Determinism is false because it only applies to time and not duration. The universe flows holistically, not in atoms. The states T1, T2…Tn are merely constructs of the mind. Taking them to be the locus of metaphysical speculation would lead to errors such as we see with Zeno. For example, Russell’s solution to this problem is merely to redefine movement as the change in position of some object over time. Thus, he accepts motion in the substantial Bergsonian sense must be an illusion (due to the considerations of Zeno) and that each moment is motionless. Yet, he thinks we can nonetheless call this motion. This is what Bergson calls the ‘cinematographical method.’8placeholder This doctrine affirms that motion is possible to reconstruct from the motionless as a convergent series of static moments culminating in motion.

The problem with a view like this is that no matter how fine you slice reality up, it necessarily flickers through states in and out of existence. It consists of bursts or leaps of being, separated by an ontological gulf, unable to be connected. Reality cannot be disconnected in this way. He calls it the cinematographical method because, in this picture, reality is like a film: a set of stills that seem only to simulate reality. Thus, advocating for the truth of determinism as defined above is already to advocate for a spatialised reality of strange sui generis entities, causally disconnected, whose intelligibility may only be coincidental.

In terms of the free will debate, it is hard to imagine how any notion of free will is redeemable in a scheme in which, at every moment, the agent is a metaphysical island, constantly disappearing, disconnected from the past and future. How could an agent effect the world and create the future from before such a gulf? It is this presupposition that Bergson sees in the diagram depicting the agent’s choices that amounts to giving up free will, a priori. Even the libertarian who rejects determinism still accepts a picture of reality carved up into motionless points. Spatialisation is always a static abstraction away from reality. To get real knowledge of the will and mobile reality, we must return to the moment lived.

So, what does Bergson’s view of duration and indeterminism look like? I summarise it here. It is to affirm real duration beneath spatialised time, which we have direct access to in consciousness as the enabling condition for action. It retains the causal connection between past and present because duration is a continuous fact, not made up of discrete points. It retains the active substrate necessary for thought, action, and common sense. Most importantly, Bergson’s view shows that determinism is false as there is no future state of reality predetermined by all previous states because there are no states. There is only the novel advance into the future.

However, Bergson does not affirm, like the libertarian, that there is a slew of possible future states. Because once again, there are no states. Instead, what he will say, contra the determinist who posits one path, and contra the libertarian who posits many, there are no paths. The determinist is correct in saying that there is only one past but wrong in saying there is only one future.9placeholder The libertarian is correct that the future is indeterministic but is wrong to say the future is merely open at the time of choice – it is more than that. There is no future, there is just duration advancing into novelty, and we as agents live on the leading edge of absolute indeterminacy. We now return to the question of free will.

Sacha Kolin, Untitled, (1955)

Freedom as a Fact

Returning to the debate about free will, we can apply the insights of duration and the error of spatialisation to the way free will is ordinarily presented. What follows is that choice or freedom cannot be represented by a diagram such as the one given above, lest we play into the determinist’s hands. We must do away with any such representation. Bergson writes: “Do not ask me then whether the self, having traversed the path M O and decided in favour of X, could or could not choose Y: I should answer that the question is meaningless, because there is no line MO, no point O, no path O X, no direction O Y. To ask such a question is to admit the possibility of adequately representing time by space…this figure represents a thing and not a progress…how could it give us the least idea of the concrete movement, the dynamic progress by which the deliberation is issued in the act?”10placeholder We must return to the time of choice.

At the time of choice, we have a picture of the world in which the agent is at the leading edge of an utterly indeterminate reality. The kind of free will we get here is not the sort in which the agent ‘could have done other than they did’ in some situation because this description relies on the notion of a prior isolated ‘free act’, which is an abstraction from life lived. Instead, “freedom is the relation of the concrete self to the act which it performs. This relationship is indefinable, just because we are free.”11placeholder In other words, in the living moment, the agent, at all times, can do. Freedom is a basic irreducible fact of human life and action rather than a property obtained and analysed at specific times. Moreover, we have this freedom because the future is in no way determined; we determine it. Thus, we have a new formulation of free will:

Free Will: The ability of agents to create absolutely novel reality.

For me to choose to buy a long black rather than a flat white is to create the world such that in it, I brought a flat white. To tread some path is to create and be the creator of that path. Of course, after the fact, there is only one way things ‘could’ have been in a trivial sense. But this is an irrelevant objection. It merely amounts to saying the past that has occurred, has occurred. And since there can only be one past, the determinist assumes an illusion of necessity. From the point of view of the present, as we have shown, this past was by no means necessary. Moreover, it is not merely that some agent could have done otherwise in certain states. It is that in the living course of the agent’s life, they can, at any present duration, act and create as they wish. The universe is a free and indeterminate evolving movement, and we are parts of it, steering it forwards into the horizon.

You are probably not convinced that I have established this just yet, even though determinism is the only thing that warrants you denying the possibility of free will. You might object in a few different ways. There may be no future as I say, but are we not still substantially determined by the past? Are there not psycho-chemical and environmental determinants forcing us in one direction? We may travel the path, but are we the willing, originating, creators of it? If determinism is false, how is everything not just random, where we would remain just as powerless? In the next section I go over some criticisms and flesh out the view.


The Two Selves and Their Environment

This view is relatively like the traditional libertarian approach, but it begins from a revised metaphysics instead of ending up there, making its foundations stronger. Nevertheless, it is subject to similar criticisms of the kind of free will it purports to offer. Critics respond that the falsity of determinism (if you’ll grant me that) does not necessarily guarantee free will. Thus, in replying to such criticisms, we are offered a chance to strengthen and expand on the view. Libertarian indeterminist views might be deemed implausible for two reasons.

Firstly, any account of free will that endorses a version of indeterminism must give an account of why indeterminism is any better for free will than determinism. They must show why action is both not random (how the agent is in control) and how the resultant choice is directly traceable to the agent in the relevant way. Secondly, it seems we are not ultimately free in a colloquial sense from our environment. Physical, social, psychological – in sum, environmental – conditions that we do not choose constantly bear on our action. All actions seem entirely or at least primarily determined, even in a local sense, by these antecedent environmental conditions and not by the agent’s absolute will to do as they please.

In the first case, the response is simple. It is almost trivial that the decision to buy a flat white instead of a long black is directly traceable back to the agent’s action and not a particular pterodactyl screeching one day. No one would deny that the agent’s choice is the immediate link between Rowan without any coffee and Rowan enjoying a long black. This is also trivially not random. Rowan deliberated and chose to create this one reality, and this is the most apt description both from the first and third-person perspectives. Of course, the determinist replies: this is not sufficient for freedom because Rowan was not in control of the relevant antecedent conditions which actually produced this action. Thus, we see how the first objection collapses into the second: how can the agent be said to control independent of their environment? If we can plausibly answer the second objection and make room for free action, we can vindicate free will.

Regarding the second objection, we can get two replies out of Bergson’s philosophy. The first comes from Time and Free Will where he argues that agents appear to be determined due to it being useful for our survival to have rigid habits, yet we retain a deeper level of the self that is fundamentally free from these forces. The second comes from his later work and is a rough, slightly apocryphal, synthesis of things he has said in Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution. Human agents have evolved in such a way that their complex internal constitution is able to decouple itself from the environment and act free of mechanical influence.

While freedom is an irreducible fact, truly free acts are the exception, not the rule. We are creatures of mechanical habit, acting according to spatial images and signs that repetitive associations congeal into habits. These signs, states, and things help us as organisms navigate the world and coordinate our lives with the lives of others. This is what we mean when we say that, in much of our lives, we are ‘going through the motions.’ Bergson talks about this as a sort of spatialised habitual self, forming on the ‘crust’ of the free agent. (I should note here the distinction between the self as a crust and the deeper self is not a metaphysically substantial one, it is just a description of how we normally act.) “The self, in so far as it has to do with homogenous space, develops on a kind of surface, and on this surface independent growths may form and float.”12placeholder Indeed most of our lives are constituted by such actions: getting up to one’s alarm clock, walking to work and turning corners according to each habitually associated landmark. In these cases, Bergson thinks we are ‘conscious automatons’ and that this process is necessary for living.

He sums up such associated habituation as follows:

“This impression and this idea have in the end become tied up with one another, so that the act follows the impression without the self interfering with it. In this instance I am a conscious automaton, and I have everything to gain by being so. It will be found that the majority of our daily actions are performed in this way and that, owing to the solidification in memory of such and such sensations, feelings or ideas, impressions from the outside call forth movements on our part, which though conscious and even intelligent, have many points of resemblance with reflex acts…we will grant to determinism that we often resign our freedom…we allow this same local process to run its course.”

These acts, their repetition, ubiquity, and usefulness are what makes local determinism of action seem plausible. The constant conjunction of these repetitions fools us into thinking that they are the primitive metaphysical reality in the same sort of way Hume showed us that the repetition of similarity gave us the idea of cause and effect or the success of the physical sciences made us think their symbolism is reality. However, they veil the truth of the matter.

Sacha Kolin, Untitled, (1961)

The truth of the matter is that such habitual association makes the same error as the spatialisation of duration. We are not a string of causally determined events (as this is to abstract away from reality). We are a living and free duration that adopts such repetition for everyday practical purposes. The fact of the matter is that, at any moment, “at the very minute when [some] act is going to be performed, something may revolt against it. It is the deep-seated self rushing up to the surface. It is the outer crust bursting, suddenly giving way to an irresistible thrust.”13placeholder At any given moment, we can suddenly decide to create some reality other than what our past habits and repetitions have indicated or tended to. This is what the metaphysical picture sketched earlier tells us, where agential habits and repetition explain the apparent local determinism that most actions are made up of. Freedom consists of the absolute ability for an agent to create a reality that was, until then, unable to be explained by a standard deterministic story.

The thing we call the character of an agent just is the public, spatialised, habituated acts according to social mores, expectations, and times. For example, it is almost trivial that I could do absurd things that are within my power, such as lying on the floor, rolling around and barking like a dog, in an important meeting. The only thing holding me back in exercising that freedom is the mechanised and habituated social expectations that explain why I do not. However, it is a basic fact that we have the freedom to create the reality in which we do commit such absurd acts. Thus, acting out of character is rather the starkest expression (and proof of concept) of the agent’s creative ability, of the self at a metaphysical level as sketched out above: forging new paths, at the leading edge of determinacy.

Thus, we can reply to the supposed constraint that we are locally determined by events immediately preceding action by showing this point of view to be a metaphysical illusion. While it is true that the way that we are in some given situation is entirely determinate, the future is not, and we are immediately acquainted with the fact that we can do as we please in the living duration. The agent can choose and thus self-determine reality to be a certain way according to that choice, which antecedent states of the universe at no point necessitated.

One still may be sceptical that this picture is sufficient for agential control in the flat, durational ontology set out so far. If reality not being decomposable into states and the future being inexistent guarantees freedom for humans, a nagging question remains: how come a vast majority of the world seems determined? It is not enough to merely wave this seeming determinacy away as an illusion. When a rock is dropped, it has no choice to resist its fate. What makes humans any different? Here we can draw out a difference in degree between entities, without a difference in kind.14placeholderWhile rocks have the same kind of being as humans and live on the leading edge of reality in the same way, they are disorganised and lack complexity. Thus, they are merely cogs in the universal machine, almost precisely described by physical laws.

However, organised and complex bodies, the zenith of which, we think, is the human, are highly individuated entities. The degree of individuality in some entity is the level of independent decoupling or internal autonomy it has from its environment. I call this environmental decoupling and it comes in degrees. It is precisely this feature of complexity humans have that allows us to represent a virtual set of possibilities to ourselves and break the demands of strict mechanism.

Engaging in this process (as opposed to just going through the motions) accounts for and, in fact, just is the deliberative, self-reflective, and felt but real control we have over our environment. For example, in approaching two seemingly equivalent paths, our evolved perceptual apparatus represents two possible actions: path one or path two. It is entirely indeterminate which one we take because there is no fact of the matter about the future. Thus, the complex evolved organisation of our bodies grants us the autonomy to categorically (in the second sense) make that choice in the way a rock could not. It is up to us to originate and create that reality. Sure, we cannot choose exactly who and what we are, but no theory of freedom could ever guarantee that (nor would we particularly want that).

The surge of the past, while it determines the general character of reality, evolves in such a way that some of its aspects crystallise into beings that, at least partially, break its strict confines. Those beings are us.


As a Theory

To finish off I would like to point out some virtues of the theory as a theory of free will, the way I have presented it, rather than merely being ‘Bergson’s view.’ Firstly, it is agnostic about theory of mind. For example, a physicalist can still accept the critiques of determinism and thus an open future. They could then posit that some organism has freedom insofar as it has sufficiently complex apparatus that delivers a virtual platter of possible action upon the agent’s immediate environment. Here, since all actions are undetermined, especially those that break free from the mechanical habits of duration, they are free. Since it works even for the physicalist, it works all the same for idealist, dualist, and panpsychist alternatives.

Secondly, it does not have to posit the agent as an irreducible substance to ground the agent’s power to choose like many other accounts of libertarian free will; it recovers freedom without appeal to such substances. Bergson thinks both that reality cannot properly be carved into discrete substances and the event-causal model of reality that merely appeals to matter and laws is false at a fundamental level. Therefore, Bergson does not require any metaphysical substances. He just needs there to be some aspect of this reality, here a biological organism that is of sufficient organisational complexity to offer a platter of virtual suggestions to itself, that, decoupled from the environment, is able to be actualise these suggestions in whatever way it wishes. This is not far from the event-causal picture, nor necessarily from scientific accounts of biological organisms, it hardly requires a recapitulation of the natural sciences, nor any strange substances, and it saves the intuition that we seem to choose and create reality categorically, not just according to some path drawn by antecedent mechanical states.

Thirdly, a benefit of this view is that it does not require a sharp jump to ‘reason’ or some other anthropomorphic requirement for freedom from animals to humans. It says loosely that organisational complexity (plus a non-existent future) will be proportional to some entity’s freedom. This does not preclude aliens, animals, or even sufficiently complex AI from, in principle, acquiring free will (even if no other beings we know of have this capacity now). Freedom is a fact, it comes in degrees, and to this novel duration we inhabit, we may contribute a verse.

Rowan Anderson is an honours student of philosophy studying at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Most of the thinkers and ideas he is interested in he pursues outside of formal education for its own sake. You can find his informal writings on philosophy and film at his blog.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Dover Publications, 1912.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt Company, 1911.

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 174-175.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 174-175.


‘Reason’ here is synonymous with ‘cause.’


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 179.


Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Dover Publications, 1946. 73-86.

He makes this argument in the essay “The Possible and the Real” which is also an argument for indeterminism and absolute novelty, which is argued for in the next section. Buying this point is not strictly necessary for his point of view, but it does clarify his (admittedly) possibly opaque critique of libertarianism here.


Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Dover Publications, 1912. 251.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Dover Publications, 1912. 246-254


Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt Company, 1911. 304-306.


Of course, once some future appears, there will also only be one, but always by this point it will have become past. Many determinists conflate there being ‘one future’ with determinism being true, especially because of the kinds of representations of action as given in the diagram given above. Analysis must proceed from the present.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 180-181.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 219.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 166-167.


Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910. 169.


Bergson writes in Creative Evolution that there is in fact a difference in kind between animals and humans, however I think he means in terms of lines of evolution, not as a substantive metaphysical thesis. He seems to agree with something like the Chomskyean view that there was some evolutionary break for humans to come to be the way we are. I’m pretty sceptical of this, I think we can cash these things out in terms of a continuum or of degrees, without positing a difference in kind. At a purely metaphysical level Bergson’s view would seem to agree with me, certainly the picture he paints pre-Creative Evolution, but it becomes ambiguous after that I would say. Regardless, its not that important here.


August 2021


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