Epistemic Space: Mapping Time
13 October 2009
In the early twentieth century Henri Bergson was a name to conjure with. He was an intellectual celebrity not unlike, say, Foucault before his death: both men could pack a hall with excited Parisians eager to hear the intellectual developments of the most advanced mind of France. Bergson was a man of sharp, angular features, a large bulbous forehead, and deeply set eyes, the overall effect of which reminds one not a little of Count Orlock played by Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu.
As a philosopher who made crowds swoon, he inevitably attracted the enmity of other philosophers, Bertrand Russell especially, for whom Bergson was his bête noire. I can imagine that Russell might have chuckled at the idea of Bergson as Count Orlock. But for Russell the chuckle would have been mixed with a sense of disquiet because Bergson represented to him much that Murnau’s symphony of horror represented to its audience: the irruption of the irrational within an ordered world, the rejection of reason in favor of Dionysian indulgence, the mind subordinated to natural forces in their most horrific appearance (not unlike Pentheus in The Bacchae). For Russell, Bergson represented the forces of Chaos and Old Night let loose upon the world (in an intellectualized form), just as an early cinema-goer might have seen the story of Nosferatu as Chaos and Old Night let loose upon the world (in a dramatically cinematic form).
Bergson is no longer a name with which to conjure, but when he is remembered, one of the themes for which he is remembered is that of the spatialization of time. For Bergson, intellectual activity cannot reconcile itself to time as it is actually experienced, so that it must create surrogates for time, and it does so, according to Bergson, by assimilating time to space. The mind creates images and representations of time that employ the constructions of geometry. So it is that we represent the continuity of historical time by a line cut by dates. This manner of representing history is so common we never think twice about it.
Are we forced to choose between Russell and Bergson? Both have valid points to make. While I am sympathetic to Russell’s rationalism, I think that Bergson had a point in his critique of spatialization, but Bergson did not go far enough with this idea. Not only has there been a spatialization of time, there has also been a temporalization of space. We see this in the contemporary world in the prevalence of what I call transient spaces: spaced designed to pass through but not spaces in which to abide. Airports, laundromats, bus stations, and sidewalks are all transient spaces. The social consequences of industrialization that have forced us to abide by the regime of the calendar and the time clock by the very fact of quantifying time into discrete regions and apportioning them according to a schedule also forces us to wait. The waiting room ought to be recognized as one of the central symbols of our age; the waiting room is par excellence the temporalization of space.
The modeling of real world phenomena by quantifiable means — be these phenomena spatial or temporal — involves at least two known unknowns: finite precision errors and finite dimensional errors. The former (finite precision errors) occur when decimal expansions are arbitrarily cut off at, say, six decimal places or eight decimal places or whatever the model demands. Our finite computing systems cannot calculate real numbers with infinite decimal expansions, so they must be terminated at some point or we cannot even begin our attempt at modeling. The latter (finite dimension errors) occur when a continuum of possibilities must be broken down into discrete units. A rainbow is a continuous gradation of color, but for the sake of our conceptual schematism we break it down into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (some recitations leave out the indigo). The familiar rainbow color schematism involves finite dimensional errors.
Ordinary experience is overwhelmingly continuous and only occasionally quantized. The application of flow charts that map the epistemic spaces of our lives to matters of experience involve countless finite dimensional errors. We accept these errors as the price of systematically extrapolating our knowledge, but we ought always to employ such extrapolations with caution. Just as the map is not the territory, so too the extrapolation is not the knowledge itself. Every flow chart and every algorithm embody and reify finite dimension errors. Since it is in their nature to do so, we do not think of these as errors, but should we confuse the map of life with the territory of life we would be compromised.
Conceptual schematisms are routines of the mind, and we all know how easily we slip into routines. A routine, whether a habit of body or of mind, is an algorithm for life, a finite decision procedure by which those individuals who would otherwise be without purpose determine their course of action and thus manage to fill the vacant hours of the clock. It is a recipe for life, to be sure, but it is not a recipe for anything other than mediocrity in life, and perhaps a guarantee of it.
The mapping of time as an epistemic space, as in a flow chart, is not without consequences. A distinctive feature of algorithms is their finitude. The mapping of life’s paths with discrete, finite alternatives limits options to a few pre-determined alternatives. Any individual of ordinary critical capacity, capable thinking for themselves, will quickly reject any such attempt to limit their options in life, but many among us are unable to see beyond the roles embodied in society. Sartre called this the spirit of seriousness. Finite dimensional errors represent the spirit of seriousness necessary to the practice of science.
If, as I have argued elsewhere, freedom is a form of infinity, subordinating our lives to a finite, algorithmic regime not only results in an inauthentic life, it robs us of the freedom that makes us human. Without our freedom, we become automatons. And there seems to be an intuitive understanding of the danger that industrialized society poses in terms of regimenting life to the point of transforming life into a hollow, mechanistic exercise. We discussed this at some length in Fear of the Future.
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