The Ultimate Constituents of Matter

Source: Bertrand Russell, ‘The Ultimate Constituents of Matter’, in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917), pp. 128-129

Text: My meaning in regard to the impermanence of physical entities may perhaps be made clearer by the use of Bergson’s favourite illustration of the cinematograph. When I first read Bergson’s statement that the mathematician conceives the world after the analogy of a cinematograph, I had never seen a cinematograph, and my first visit to one was determined by the desire to verify Bergson’s statement, which I found to be completely true, at least so far as I am concerned. When, in a picture palace, we see a man rolling down hill, or running away from the police, or falling into a river, or doing any of those other things to which men in such places are addicted, we know that there is not really only one man moving, but a succession of films, each with a different momentary man. The illusion of persistence arises only through the approach to continuity in the series of momentary men. Now what I wish to suggest is that in this respect the cinema is a better metaphysician than common sense, physics, or philosophy. The real man too, I believe, however the police may swear to his identity, is really a series of momentary men, each different one from the other, and bound together, not by a numerical identity, but by continuity and certain intrinsic causal laws. And what applies to men applies equally to tables and chairs, the sun, moon and stars. Each of these is to be regarded, not as one single persistent entity, but as a series of entities succeeding each other in time, each lasting for a very brief period, though probably not for a mere mathematical instant. In saying this I am only urging the same kind of division in time as we are accustomed to acknowledge in the case of space. A body which fills a cubic foot will be admitted to consist of many smaller bodies, each occupying only a very tiny volume; similarly a thing which persists for an hour is to be regarded as composed of many things of less duration. A true theory of matter requires a division of things into time-corpuscles as well as into space-corpuscles.

Comment: Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a British philosopher, logician and social commentator. The essay from which the above is an extract was originally an address to the Manchester Philosophical Society in 1915. Henri Bergson used cinema as an analogy for the illusory qualities of perception (‘the cinematographical mechanism of thought’) in his book Creative Evolution (1907). Later writers, notably Gilles Deleuze, have criticised Bergson for not properly understanding the nature of the moving image. Bergson’s book makes no reference to going to a cinema.

Links: Available on the Internet Archive (American edition)