The unbearably human “what if” attitude

painting by Bertha Wegmann

The word “human” is often referred to as the conscious being and probably so far, the only one. Consciousness, as the French philosopher Henri Bergson defines it, is historicity. It is the capacity of being aware of time. Moreover, humans live consciously in the time and have a special relation to it. This is why, we invented the watch, the calendar and timetables; but also we have deadlines, memories, projections and so on.

Consciousness is memory, a link between the past, the present and the future which allows us to go back and forth and to anticipate the future while looking back at the past. in Bergson’s words:

“In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically … the pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory”.

Is this ability a heavy weight? Isn’t the cause of constantly saying to ourselves “what if”?

Mainly there are two consequences of this: resentment or pro-activity.

Resentment is the sum of negative feelings like regrets, remorse, jealousy and persecution. What if I did this instead of that? What if people hate me? What if I am fundamentally stupid? What if I will never make it? All are legitimate questions which can become psychologically lethal if one is entangled in this obsessive attitude, feeding all kinds of negative feelings. We can easily desire to be constantly feeling bad.

On the other hand, these questions can become the way to a better living only if there is a desire to change and face the new. Bergson said it better:

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly”.

Henri Bergson: the theory of the inner relativity

painting by Steve Hester 

Henri Bergson was a French philosopher (1859-1941) and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. His philosophy revolves around motion, change and evolution.

His work in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness showed the fundamental difference between time as perceived by consciousness (la durée or duration) and the objective mathematical time read on a watch. Consciousness doesn’t perceive the instant or the objective present, for it is infinitesimal. It perceives a duration which can be very long or very short.

For example, if I am working unwillingly for one hour on my blog, time doesn’t fly. On the contrary, if I love what I am doing on my blog, I will not feel the time passing by. Although, the time, in both cases,  is one hour and the same according to the watch, I live it, thus perceive it,  differently.

Bergson analyzed the awareness that man has of his inner self to show that psychological facts are qualitatively different from any other, charging psychologists in particular with falsifying the facts by trying to quantify and number them.

Based on this analysis of the subjective time versus the objective time, he somehow criticized Albert Einstein for keeping the theory of relativity external to the human mind without taking into consideration one’s inner perception of the time, which is also relative.

Consciousness is memory and therefore a link between past and future through its duration. This empirical complexity is what makes human free beings, forever preserving the past and anticipating the future.