This is a transcript of episode #101 on Martin Heidegger. Check out the episode page HERE.
So just like last episode, I want to begin today all the way back in antiquity. Back in the days when it all began…the days when Heidegger thinks so many of these wrong ways of looking at…the world…and our existence and so many other things…this is back when the seeds were planted for all of those ideas that eventually got us so far off track.
Now let’s assume for a second… that Heidegger’s right… and that philosophers have been making massive assumptions from the very beginning that have been clouding our ability to see existence clearly…you know…shame on you Descartes…but should we really be shaming Descartes? Should that be our attitude? Looking back, can we really be so disappointed with these thinkers and the conclusions that they arrived at?
Quick thought experiment: put yourself in the open-toed sandals of somebody living all the way back in antiquity. What would that be like? What would it feel like to be a human being back then? When you’re in a thinking mood and you go on a walk… and you look around yourself pondering all things existence. Think of how absolutely chaotic and random the natural world might seem like to you not knowing what we know now. On the other hand, think of how well-ordered and obviously governed… the natural world might seem like to you. You know it’s so easy to conflate our experience of the world in 2017 with theirs in 400 BC…it’s so easy when you try to imagine yourself as someone living back in antiquity to just assume that what it would be like for me to live in ancient Greece…basically the same as my experience of the world right now…except I’d be an olive farmer…or working at one of them gyro stands.
But seriously put yourself in the shoes of Plato and Aristotle for a second…they don’t have encyclopedia Britannica, they don’t have Google when they’re confused about something, they don’t even have Plato and Aristotle. No, what happens is they just find themselves… immersed in this profoundly mysterious, enormously complex framework of existence…of being. So…what do they do about it?
What are you gonna do if you find yourself in this place…sit around and marvel at it the rest of your life? Well what THEY did…is they created these very human methods of being able to make sense of what we’re all experiencing….things like philosophy and science…and over the years up until Heidegger…people have all had pretty much the same sort of strategy…and while on one hand… science is great at making sense of things and helping us feel a little less confused about the universe…but considering that it’s a method created by humans…is it a method of inquiry that’s necessarily…capable of fully understanding this, again, profoundly mysterious, enormously complex thing known as being that we find ourselves in?
Well if the answer to that question’s even potentially no…doesn’t take away the value of science as the best thing we’ve come up with so far…doesn’t inspire vitriol towards Plato or Aristotle or anyone else throughout history that’s used science and philosophy to try to make sense of things. But I’ll tell you what it does inspire…it inspires a thought in Heidegger’s mind…that in the beginning…in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of all the mystery of being…people just did the best thing they could think of…they created things like philosophy and science and conducted these traditional philosophical and scientific experiments…the goal being to try to understand the world around them in this… existence thing that they’re a part of. And they measure things and they find out what this thing’s made of and how it relates to that thing over there and they record the shapes of things and the mass and the volume… and all sorts of other stuff… and then all of that’s combined into an ever-changing, ever-evolving scientific picture of being.
But Heidegger would ask: is there something more to being than just how much something weighs or what velocity it’s traveling..is what were doing truly understanding the totality of being? Or… is this us conferring some cold, mathematical human method of inquiry in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of the mystery out there not unlike a Plato or an Aristotle? Is science really helping us understand being? Or is it just giving us this temporary set of empirical facts that make us FEEL like we understand being more?
Again, love me some science. Nobodies saying we shouldn’t do science, but we have to understand what we’re doing when we conduct science. Science…and philosophy as it’s conventionally been done… have certainly produced useful results in their own way…but in terms of truly understanding existence or being…all they’ve really done to Heidegger…is produce this set of facts… you can tell kids in school that give them this false sense that we’ve come so far in our understanding of being… hey, because look! now we understand how entities relate to each other…in other words Heidegger thinks…science and philosophy… the longer they’ve gone on… have progressively alienated us from that original state where we questioned the true extent of the mystery of being…and they’ve replaced that state with a state of…sort of arrogance clinging on to the rudimentary description of being… that science and traditional philosophy can give us.
You know as we talked about last episode…throughout the history of science and philosophy…existence has pretty much always been looked at as this spatial and temporal realm that we all exist in that’s FULL of entities…entities like buffalo and mountains and nebulae… all spatially and temporally relating to one another…the strategy for understanding existence…was to try to understand everything about… these entities and how they relate to each other.
Now traditionally, to be a human being was to be just another one of these entities in this realm spatially and temporally relating to things…and TRADITIONALLY…this assumption… has raised a lot of questions about this mysterious thing that we often refer to as consciousness…in other words…if what existence is…is just a bunch of spatio-temporal entities relating to each other…where does consciousness fit into that? Is consciousness an entity? Are thoughts entities?
These questions… have been mysteries in science and philosophy from the very beginning…and look, it doesn’t really bother the average person that consciousness doesn’t seem to fit that paradigm…you know it’s easy to tell ourselves…look, scientists are out there…they’re working on it…alright, they’re gonna figure it out eventually…you know, deepak chopra and eckhart tolle are gonna have a baby and it’s gonna solve all the mysteries of the universe…first word’s gonna be quantum. But Heidegger would ask: What if this idea of existence being this realm of entities relating to each other…you know an idea that at one point… it was just some human being coming up with it desperately trying to make sense of things…what if that’s wrong?
See, Heidegger never uses words like consciousness…or subjective experience…because to even use words like consciousness to describe what we have… is to imply that consciousness… is it’s own thing separate from the world…no being and the world are a united thing…dasein…and that if we’re going to try to understand the answer to this question: what is being? Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to come up with an objective, mathematical way of looking at the entities of the world coming at it from an outsiders perspective. Maybe we should approach it from a more insider’s perspective…instead of analyzing entities…maybe…as the famous line goes “We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.”
Again, instead of asking a question as an outsider like philosophers have always done…asking a question like, “What is a human being?” A more insiders approach…a Phenomenological approach to answering that question would be to ask, “What is it like…to be a human being?” In other words, what is it like to be the being for whom being is an issue at all?
Now this question is much easier asked than answered. We’re all human beings, we all feel like we understand what it’s like to be a human being. But when you ask that question it’s so easy to confuse what it’s like to be a human being with what it’s like to be you. To think it’s asking…you know…what kinds of activities to you like or not like to do…or what do you think right and wrong are?…you know these things that have been culturally conditioned into us since birth that wouldn’t apply to all human beings that have ever lived. Now, make no mistake…understanding that cultural context that you’re born into IS extremely important to Heidegger, we’re going to talk about it next episode…but when you remove the culture…when you remove all the conditioning…what is common about what it’s like to be a human being between someone born today…versus the 1200’s…versus 10000 BC? What is the Dasein that underlies all of the other stuff?
Now an easy assumption to make is to say, ok well the way I live my life right now isn’t tantamount to what it’s like to be a human being…I’m just one iteration of what it’s like to be a human being…but look I’m still a human being…all I gotta do is look at the person from 10,000 BC…find the similarities between us… and I will have arrived at what it’s like to be a human being. But Heidegger thought this was a mistaken way of looking at it because it doesn’t account for the possibility of you being robbed of what it means to be a human being.
Heidegger thought…that there are various aspects of our modern world… that have rendered us… kind of sick at the level of being…not well…and I’m not calling out any particular way of looking at the world or lifestyle or set of behaviors…but you can at least look around at people in the modern world… and you can see that often times the behaviors that people engage in seem to be trying to fill some void that they have…as though they’re not living the sort of life they were intended to live and there’s something missing.
They seem sort of spiritually sick. Most of us seem sick to Heidegger…and because I’m doing this episode in 2017 and not in 10,000 BC…before we even BEGIN trying to talk about the nature of Dasein and what it’s truly like to be a human being…I need to explain to you why Heidegger thinks our modern societies have alienated you… from what it is to be a human being…one of the primary culprits to Heidegger: our immersion into and fixation with Modern Technology.
Few common ways of looking at modern technology that Heidegger wouldn’t agree with…one’s the sort of techno-Jesus attitude of, well we have all these problems as a species…people are killing each other, widespread poverty, ice caps are melting…but you know what? I have faith…there will be a second coming of Steve Jobs…and given enough time technology and the internet will save everything. Heidegger wouldn’t agree, in fact… he’d think that in a weird way…technology’s a co-conspirator when it comes to why we have these problems in the first place. Another common way of looking at technology’s that it’s not inherently bad not inherently good…technology’s sort of this… neutral, disinterested thing that happens and that technology can be used for good or it can be used for evil, our choice..our job’s to try our hardest to make sure it’s used mostly for good. Heidegger wouldn’t agree with that either.
To understand why he doesn’t agree with these outlooks on Modern technology…we have to understand a distinction he makes right there…between technology in general…and MODERN technology.
So I guess the place to start is just to ask the question: what is technology? Well when we think of it we think of iPhones and rocket ships and nuclear power plants…but it really goes all the way back to the very first crude tools that human beings created…Heidegger says the sort of agreed upon definition about what’s similar between technology like the wheel and technology like the computer…is that all technology… is a tool that provides a means to complete some task…and means to some end… usually having to do with human activity. A cup, for example… is a piece of technology…and you can use it as a means to bring about various sorts of ends, most commonly… to drink liquid out of it, but you can do other things too…you can stack things on top of it, you can roll it down the driveway, anything you wanna do with that cup.
In fact if you’re indoors right now…look around you and just consider for a second…practically everything you see at one point… was cutting edge technology. Most of us live our lives completely immersed in this soup of technology without even realizing it…we’re absolutely surrounded by things that are means to bring about some end for us. But that said…important thing to realize: just because a chair’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task… and a computer’s a tool that provides a means to complete some task…that doesn’t mean that they’re the same type of thing.
No, Heidegger thinks there’s something VERY different… about these two types of technology…and while he would agree with that definition… that technology’s a tool that’s a means to carry out some task… that definition may be correct…but it’s not complete… it’s not sufficient…and that to understand why Modern technology… is so different from other technology… and’s ultimately contributing to a sickness we have at the level of being…we have to look deeper…we have to look at what the ESSENCE of technology is.
Heidegger says that where ever you have the notion of something being a means to some end…one presupposition there is the notion of causality. In the case of technology: Something causes some technology to come into being… and that technology’s used as a means to some end.
Now for Heidegger’s next trick: to try to dismantle YET ANOTHER assumption about the world… that seems to stem from the time period of Descartes…if you remember it was right around that time that people largely stopped thinking about causality in terms of Aristotle’s four causes… and started thinking about it only in terms of the efficient cause of things. For example. If there was a cup. Sitting on a table in front of you. And I asked you what is the cause of that cup…the vast, vast majority of us would say…well, it was whoever or whatever made the cup. In other words… we would point to only one of Aristotle’s four causes… the efficient cause… or the thing that brought the cup into being. The other three causes that we’re leaving out would be the material cause, or what the cup’s made of…the formal cause, or the appearance or shape of the cup…and the final cause or the function or purpose the cup was created for…but we don’t really think of these other three causes as…causes…right?
I mean, first and foremost we have the efficient cause…the dude that whittled this cup out of wood. Then in the middle we have these formal and material causes but these aren’t causes…what the cups made of and what form it takes didn’t CAUSE that cup. And then beyond that we have the even MORE distant FINAL cause… which really doesn’t have anything to do with the physical cup at all…it’s just the reason… the efficient cause decided one day to cause this cup to come into existence. But Heidegger would say, hold on…think about what we just said there. If it wasn’t for the final cause…the efficient cause would never have had the slightest motivation to bring this thing into being… in other words…if you weren’t able to drink liquid out of it or stack stuff on top of it or roll it down your driveway…what person…no matter how crazy they are whittling wood in 2017…what person would ever whittle something into the shape of a cup?
Point is, in a strange way…in terms of what caused the cup to be…the final cause starts to seem more important than the efficient cause…but… this isn’t the point Heidegger’s ultimately trying to make…he’s saying that it’s insufficient to only think about that cup in terms of its efficient cause… and that if you look closely at all four of these causes…not only are all of them necessary but there’s an interconnectedness to them…they’re all “responsible” for each-other he says and that in a world before cups ever existed, it wasn’t until… a Dasein conceived of the final cause of a cup… in correspondence with the formal and material causes…it wasn’t until that coalition of four was born… that the idea of a cup… was revealed… as something that can potentially be.
This is an interesting way to think about it. I mean look around you at all the trees, all the metals…all the rocks. Look at this stuff all around you and consider the fact that lying latent within all of these things…lying latent within nature…are seemingly endless potentialities to be revealed. I mean consider the fact that at one point in history in fact the MAJORITY of human history…nobody ever looked at a tree…imagined the final cause of a rolling pin…and then transmuted it into being from the tree. For the vast majority of the time human beings have been looking at trees…the final cause of a wooden rolling pin…wasn’t even on the table…yet at some level… that rolling pin has always been a possibility…at some level the potentiality for a piece of that tree to become a rolling pin… has always been there hidden within nature. Also consider the fact…that in the extremely unlikely event we don’t destroy ourselves in the next 300 years…think of how much more we’re going to be able to do with trees that we have no idea about right now…think of all the possibilities that are latent, hidden within these trees all around us.
Now I chose a tree as an example on purpose…it’s a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come and let’s be honest…none of you people ever get emotionally attached to rocks…you’re just not as compassionate no matter how delicate of a geode it is…although to Heidegger there is an attachment we should feel with both rocks AND trees all of us united under the common umbrella of being….but anyway, we’ve arrived at the essence of technology in the sense of the Greek word Techne…the essence of technology is revealing…revealing the things in the world that already do exist and can potentially exist in the future…technology is the art of bringing forth… the potentiality of the wooden rolling pin latent within the tree…or bringing forth… the potentiality of the marble statue latent within the giant piece of rock. This is as true of the wheel as it is of the iPhone…but something’s very different about this process of revealing in modern technology.
“The revealing that holds sway in modern technology does not unfold of a bringing forth in the sense of Poiesis.”
Poiesis is a Greek word derived from the term that means “to make”. And the distinction that he’s marking there is he’s saying that for the majority of human history, the relationship between human beings, technology and nature… has been almost like an artisan producing something…it’s a craftsmanship. A Dasein will have certain raw materials…they’ll have a certain final cause in mind…and they’ll arrange or dissect these raw materials in order to bring about a chair or a cup or any new piece of technology. There was a special, personal relationship between Dasein and tree where the tree was looked at in a particular way as a being.
But in the case of modern technology, we’ve fundamentally shifted the way we look at the natural world…when it comes to modern technology…
“It’s a challenging…which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.”
and that Science and technology:
“Sets upon Nature… Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield oxygen, the earth to yield uranium… Even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command … the revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of setting upon.”
In other words…Heidegger’s not against modern technology like he’s your grandpa saying in my day you looked a man in the eye when you face timed him…no he’s saying modern technology has fundamentally shifted the way that we look at and ACT UPON the natural world.
Remember at the beginning when we talked about science being something that no question makes the world a much more intelligible and understandable place…but the more we measure and weigh things and understand how entities relate to each-other…the more we have this false sense of understanding of what being is and the more progressively alienated we become to the true mystery of being…modern technology to Heidegger.. can be seen as a natural byproduct of that process. We’ve assigned such a cold, detached value to these other beings like rocks and trees and the oceans…that we don’t even look at them as beings anymore… we look at them as just…objects…that we can study…and manipulate and then exploit for commercial purposes. Technology CHALLENGES nature in a way.
“The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field.”
And what he’s pointing out is that we used to have a much more respectful, almost symbiotic relationship with the world whereas now we “enframe” the world…that’s the word he uses and it means to look at the natural world only in terms of how much utility it has for human purposes…don’t worry about the soil…question should be how can I process this soil so that it produces the maximum YIELD for me as a human being. The world is valuable only insofar as its valuable to human beings.
We turn the natural world… into what he calls a “standing reserve”…or a sort of back-stock of inventory just sitting there waiting to be used and consumed by human beings. Now you may be saying, well what’s wrong with that? We’re human beings…fact is.. we have to consume nature to survive…whats the problem with having a little extra lying around? Heidegger would say there’s nothing wrong with it…no question a peasant probably has a little extra firewood than they need…it’s the way we’re LOOKING at the natural world that’s the problem…the peasant looks at that additional firewood and sees it as pieces of a tree that bring warmth into their existence…modern technology looks at that tree… and goes, okay is there any way we can grind the tree up, cut it with some baking powder and get 612 IKEA coffee tables out of it instead of only 588? It’s seen MERELY as a resource at our disposal. And while I don’t think Heidegger ever explicitly predicts this happening, you can kind of see where this is going. If were willing to look at the natural world as merely a resource at our disposal…aren’t human beings… a part of the natural world too? Doesn’t this outlook on being get us uncomfortably close to treating human beings as merely an exploited resource? Don’t we see glimmers of this already… when it comes to how some companies view an employees work and production? Is it that crazy to think it might one day extend onto humans beings as people?
This is another example of how the answers to these pointless, completely academic ontological questions about being…have VERY REAL impacts on the way that human beings are treated and engage with the world.
Now when it comes to science and technology being a 2000 year process of alienation…there are of course philosophers who disagree with this. John Dewey, contemporary of Heidegger’s…little bit older than him…he sees the progression of technology not as a process of alienation, but one of LIBERATION! You know, where was your bleeding heart when we were being controlled by NATURE. Remember my grandma’s feet? Black from frostbite? Yeah, rubbing them together really fast didn’t work. Nature did that. Look…the metaphysical reality of nature… is that it can be studied, understood and manipulated for strengthening human potential! That should be exciting to you! Look at how much more we can do! Look at the infant mortality rates! Look at my phone! I have instant contact with practically anyone in the world…I can call my grandma… on thanksgiving…I can have the same disingenuous conversation with her for the four hundredth time…I don’t even gotta get off the couch. That’s incredible…
Heidegger would agree…all that stuff is pretty incredible…he’d agree that technology has liberated us from the shackles of nature…but at what cost? Yeah, technology’s liberated us from nature…but it’s also liberated us from a piece of what it means to be a human being. Not all liberations deserve a statue in their honor.
Heidegger thinks that at our core we are ontological beings…we’re the kind of beings that ask questions about what it means to be or why things are the way they are…we’ve all been there before. We’ve all been out on a walk…stopped…looked at a mountain…or a lamppost or something… and just been smacked in the face by the profound mystery of being. Why things are they way they are…why things exist at all…how we fit into that picture…we’ve all been there.
So let’s return to the example at the beginning of the episode: if you lived in antiquity as opposed to 2017…in fact lets go back even more just to further illustrate the point…if you were a human being born in the year 10,000 BC and you find yourself thrown into this…thing that were all thrown into called being. Your experience of being…in a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…would be MASSIVELY different than your experience of being in 2017.
Think about it…when you’re walking along one day… and you look out at the horizon… and suddenly there’s this giant explosion and lava is spewing everywhere or giant columns of ash are shooting into the sky and blotting out the sun…10,000 BC…you cant just go to google and type in what in God’s name was that? When you’re sitting around and it’s pouring rain…and all of a sudden this giant bolt of electricity shoots down from the heavens and destroys a tree right in front of you and you can smell the ozone. 10,000 BC…You can’t just go down to the library and ask, what did that tree do wrong to deserve that?
In a pre-science, pre-philosophy world…your existence would be a constant face to face encounter with the profound mystery and enormous complexity of being. And faced with that mystery, by default as an ontological being, you would ask these sorts of ontological questions.
Maybe this is what’s missing, maybe this is part of the reason we seem so sick. We’ve forgotten to be engaged in the world and aware of the profound mystery of being that is all around us, constantly, and we’ve replaced it with 2000 years of philosophical speculation and scientific measurements.
Maybe the reason we seem so sick is because instead of seeing ourselves as beings in the world… a world full of other beings that we are fundamentally united with under our common being… a world with deep mystery that goes far beyond mass and volume and velocity and cogito ergo sum…maybe instead of that world we’ve been born into a world that tells us we’re a consciousness…navigating a seemingly disinterested universe…full of entities…entities that are separate from us… objectified entities that we study and manipulate for whatever we humans want to do next. If you’re young and you look at a tree and your confused about some element of it don’t worry…don’t sit there in that confusion don’t go too deep down that ontological rabbit hole…here’s how much it weighs, here’s what color the leaves are and hey here’s a family of trees that we’ve decided it’s a part of! Maybe the way we look at being…changes everything.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.