Heidegger and the Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

January 27, 2014

HeideggerWe have thought about science as being different from religion. Science has to do with facts, and religion with beliefs. Increasingly, as we have gone through the different views of what science might be, this simple opposition has become less and less believable. For a start off, it is not at all clear that science has to do with facts, if we mean by that that facts are simply lying around for a scientist to construct a theory from. On the contrary, facts are theory dependent. What is taken to be a relevant fact is given by a scientific theory, and this theory cannot be justified by appeal to them alone otherwise we would be lost in a circular argument. Is it possible then to define science simply by theories alone without recourse to facts outside of them? Popper certainly attempts to do so through this principle of falsifiability in his initial starting point. What makes a theory scientific as opposed to non-scientific, and thus what distinguishes science from religion, is that it can be falsified whereas non scientific theories cannot. But when we examine the falsifiability theory in detail, it is very difficult to show, in concrete terms, how they are falsified. Rather than anomalies causing scientific theories to collapse, they seem quite happily to carry on regardless, and because scientific theories are so complex, it is difficult to discern which hypothesis has to be falsified in order for the theory itself as whole to be so. In other words, the fact problem still rears its end, but now at the point of falsification rather than at the point of the construction of a theory. Because of these problems, philosophers of science like Kuhn will argue that we shouldn’t be arguing about science as such, or the ideal nature of science, but investigating what scientists themselves do. What we find then is not a smooth progress of science from one theory to the next getting ever nearer to the truth, but a discontinuous series of revolutions that he called ‘paradigms’.

Although we can speak of different paradigms, surely it is the same reality that is beneath them all? The question of reality is particularly pressing in science because the basis of modern scientific theories, since Galileo and Newton, is unobservable phenomena. If science of the 16th and 17 century posited nature as made of tiny particles of matter in motion of which all that we observed we its effects, this did not mean that anyone could see such corpuscles. How then did we now that such a theory was real? The whole of Descartes philosophy was to answer this question, and his answer, which not many philosophers after him were satisfied, was that it was God’s justice than ensured that what our theories said was real was in fact what reality was, even though we could not see it. The whole debate between realists and anti-realists in the philosophy of science is whether we can commit to such a reality or not without God or any other transcendent guarantee (or indeed whether it matters or not, whether it can be proved to be real).

At the end of the discussion of realism and anti-realism, I introduced the philosophy of Heidegger. Many will argue that he does not have a philosophy of science, but I don’t think that is right at all. Indeed, one could say that the whole of his philosophy is a sustained debate with science (Glazebrook 2000). For Heidegger, science is a restricted not a full account of experience. We take science to be describing the way that things are, but for Heidegger, it is only a certain way of approaching things, and not necessarily the truest. In Being and Time, he distinguishes between the present-to-hand, and the ready-to-hand (Heidegger 1962). Science, which has its roots in a certain metaphysics, relates to things as present-to-hand, but this is not how we relate to the world that is nearest to us. Our fundamental relation to things is ready-to-hand. We use them. We open the door to enter the room, we enter the room and sit at the chair, we place the books on the table, we look at the screen on which a picture has been projected, or we look at the words written on the board, or down at the book in our hands, and so on. What we do not look at, is little particles of matter, or atoms. Why, Heidegger, would we take this world not to be real, and the scientific world to be more real?

When we related to things as ready-to-hand, as opposed to present-to-hand, then it is clear to us that these things relate to our world. The world is the context is which making use of things makes sense (there is the world of the classroom, and this world is part of bigger world in which something like a classroom makes sense). This world is not a thing. It is not a container in which something is enclosed (like water in a glass, to use Heidegger’s example). Rather, it names the cultural context or background in which something like sitting in classrooms and listening to lecture’s makes sense. Even the activity of science itself, with its abstract picture of things, is not possible without this world, since science is something that human beings do, and can only occur where this activity already has a meaning.

In section 3 of Being and Time, ‘The Ontological Priority of the Question of Being’, Heidegger speaks explicitly about science. He says that every science has its own area of things that it studies. Thus physics studies matter, chemistry, elements, and biology, life, and so on. Yet for any of these sciences to function, they have to take for granted that the things they study actually exist. Thus, Heidegger says they all presuppose a understanding of being that they do not question. The physicist accepts that matter exists, the chemist, elements, the biologist, life. If they did question the existence of these things, then they could not actual do science at all, because they would come to a stop at the threshold of the investigation and never get any further. If I don’t accept that these things exist, then how could I do physics, chemistry or biology? What Heidegger here calls a ‘regional ontology’ is similar to what Kuhn calls a paradigm, the ‘ontical questioning of positive science’ to normal science. It is only when a science goes into a crisis does the ontology that it presupposes come into question. This is when, again in Kuhn’s vocabulary, does the existence of the very fundamental nature of the objects of a science become doubtful and only at this point does science have to turn to philosophy for its answer.

What philosophy discovers is that science is a projection onto nature. This does not mean that nature does not exist for Heidegger (if human beings ceased to exist, there would be still planets, but there would not be Newton’s laws of motion). What modern science projects onto nature is mathematics. Nature is only what can be described mathematically. Galileo and Newton onwards, this is understood in terms of efficient causality rather than final causality. For Aristotle, nature is defined teleologically. Nature has a purpose, goal and direction, whereas in modern science it does not. This is why for Heidegger technology is the essence of modern science, because it means, through its mathematical projection, nature is totally subsumed to human purpose. Because nature has no purpose or value in itself, its only value is for the sake of us. It becomes, to use Heidegger’s phrase, a ‘standing reserve’. The big difference between Kuhn and Heidegger, is though both understand science historically, Heidegger does not think that the image of nature in Newton and Galileo is that fundamentally different from that in quantum physics. Though they are a different mathematics, nonetheless both view nature mathematically. The fundamental split them is between final causality of Aristotle and the efficient causality of modern science that culminates in technology.

For Heidegger, the basis of mathematical projection of science is the experiment. It is therefore a fundamental misunderstanding of science that it simply experiences things as they are and then comes up with a picture of the world (a picture which is meant to be what things really are). On the contrary, through the experiment, the scientist already interprets experience mathematically. It is the mathematical model that gives meaning to the experience and not experience meaning to the mathematical model. This again is the big difference between Aristotelian and modern science. For Aristotle, science is based on experience, for modern science it is not. Mathematics is first, not experience, but we still speak about science as though it was about experience, and somehow the things that we directly experience around us were the diminished and restrictive one, and not science. As though we were living in the abstract world and the mathematical projection of science were the full blooded one.

That meaning is the subject of science is what the history of science teaches us. We see that the world of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein, is not one and the same world a series of ruptures, breaks and discontinuities. Although the reference of these theories is one and the same, the meaning of the reality they refer to is not. What mass means in Newton, therefore, is not the same as what it means in Einstein. To use Kuhn’s word these worlds are incommensurable, since there is not a perfect translation between one and the other. You will only think that objectivity is threatened by this picture, if you believe in a metaphysical reality that is beyond human experience but which at the same time we can know. Reality is not outside of us, it is something that we construct through our institutions and discourses. The difference between astrology and astronomy is not in terms of a method, as Popper might have us believe, that one is tested by facts and the other is not, since when we investigate the history of science, we see that a theory will ignore those facts that do not fit its paradigm, but it does not have the virtues or practice of objectivity. The problem with astrology is that it explains too much and not too little. Truth, if we might put it this way, is a practice, a way of being, rather than a mirror to a reality that stands outside of us eternally the same. It is the creation of concepts to problems that are forever changing, and it is through problems that we grasp reality.

Rather than grand narratives, the study of the history of science concerns the details. What scientists say and do. For this reason we cannot impose an image of science on its own reality. What we discover is that reality is not identical through time but constructed from different aspects that are only relatively stable and which can always dissolve into a new regularity that might take elements from the previous paradigm but would transform their meaning by placing them in different relationships. It is not reality which explains how science changes, but the changes in science that explain reality, just as it is not the chair that defines sitting, but sitting the chair. The correct question is therefore not what reality is, but how do we understand and interpret reality. What changed in the nature of scientific experimentation such that reality was perceived in a different way? What changes is not reality, but how we perceive and understand, and what changes this perception is the practice of science itself, its discrete methods and discourse that would be only visible to us through historical investigation. The subject of such a history is what scientists do. We reject the idea of hidden telos, as though all scientific activity were heading in the same direction that reveals a reality that had already been there from the beginning but simply unknown by us. Science is made up of actions of scientists and nothing more. The meaning of reality does not belong to some intrinsic definition but to a practice that leads to a certain and definite objectivity over a period of time, but which can subsequently dissolve as a new objectivity emerges. Reality is only a correlate of a practice and only has a meaning as such in relation to it. We can therefore distinguish between the practice of science and non-science, but there is no absolute ahistorical meaning of science, and still less a reality that is eternal and unchanging. Science is not about reality per se, but problems.

What Heidegger calls ‘projection’ Feyerabend calls a ‘belief’ (Feyerabend, 2010, 10). We think that science is just an explanation of what common sense already knows. But the opposite is the case. Science, since Galileo, moves in in another direction than common sense. It is by moving in the opposite direction to ‘contemporary reason’, that the new science develops new instruments and new experiments. If it had not done so, if it stuck by the old rules and methods, it would not have developed such a new way of looking at and understanding reality. It is only subsequent to the emergent of the new beliefs that evidence can be found to support them. We tend to think the opposite. That the new beliefs emerged because the evidence demonstrated their truth, but the opposite is the case: it is the new beliefs that made the evidence even visible. This is why subsequently we can say that ‘Galileo was on the right track’, because now there is enough evidence to support the theory, but if we had waited for the evidence before hand, the theory would never have got off the ground. As Feyerabend continues:

Theories become clear and ‘reasonable’ only after incoherent parts of them have been used for a long time. Such unreasonable, nonsensical, unmethodical foreplay thus turns out to be an unavoidable precondition of clarity and of empirical success. (2010, 11).

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From Descartes to Spinoza – Lecture 6

January 25, 2014

XIR26256For Spinoza there is only one substance and this substance is God. God, too, is central to Descartes’ philosophy, for without the proof of the existence of God his whole metaphysics would collapse. But to some extent he still has a theological conception of God. God is understood as separate and transcendent in relation to the world such that Descartes splits substance between the infinite and finite, and finite substance itself is split between extension and thought. Spinoza is precisely rejecting this split when he writes in the Ethics that: ‘God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18). We can understand Spinoza’s metaphysics as deducing the necessity of there being only one substance from Descartes’ principles. Therefore it is not simply a matter of Spinoza rejecting Descartes’ philosophy, but of demonstrating that following his own principles he too must agree that there can only be one substance and that this substance must be God.

The relation of Spinoza and Descartes to the idea of God is itself ambiguous. On the one hand they both agree with the essential definition of this idea that God is supremely perfect and infinite being. This means that God cannot be conceived as limited in any way since he would be less than perfect if he were so. Already in this idea, therefore, lies the necessity of one substance. For if, like Descartes, we do make a split between infinite and finite substance, then we are limiting God, namely by contrasting and opposing God to the created world, which has its own independent existence (and must do if we are to call it a substance). The only way Descartes can get out of this contradiction is by producing another one by arguing that finite substance must be dependent on God’s power for its own existence, which would mean that finite substance would be both dependent and independent at the same time. For Spinoza the very idea of a dependent substance, following from Aristotle, is a contradiction in terms.

We can still see, however, that even with this abstract definition, which is the same for both Descartes and Spinoza, Descartes’ philosophy is still caught within a theological definition of God (a human fiction for Spinoza, following the appendix of the first part of the Ethics). This is because Descartes is still willing to talk about God in terms of divine attributes, such as omnipotence and omniscience that distinguish God from the created world. There is a separation between what is created and the creator. God is special kind of substance in relation to the substance of the world. Thus the idea of creation is still central to Descartes’ metaphysics, which would be completely meaningless for Spinoza. In fact we might think of Spinoza’s metaphysics as the final expulsion of any idea of creation from philosophy (in the appendix to Part 1, Spinoza writes about this idea through the fiction of final causes, where nature is imagined to be created for the benefit of humankind by a tyrannical God, as opposed to being considered in terms of its essence).

Descartes still exists in the theological conception of an absolute separation, division or opposition between the world, on the one hand, and God, on the other. For Descartes, therefore, God cannot be extended, because God and the world are entirely different substances. How would Spinoza counter this theological conception? Again, following the appendix to the first part of the Ethics, he would say that we must start with the essence of things, rather than what people might imagine things to be, and that this is the same with the idea of God, as of anything else. What many people say of God – He is good, omniscient, omnipotent, and so on – are properties, but they do not say what God is in terms of attributes; that is to say, in terms of his essence. Take, for example, of omniscience. This is a property of God, but it cannot be a ‘fundamental property’, since it presupposes the attribute of thought on which it is dependent (it is impossible to conceive of an ‘all-knowing being which does not think).

Descartes would probably not disagree with this argument, but it is clear that he would not accept that God could be conceived of in terms of extension, since extension is not infinitely perfect for Descartes. This is because extended matter is divisible, and it is clear that God cannot be. Why does the divisibility of matter imply imperfection for Descartes? This is because divisibility is the destruction of matter, and destruction is an imperfection. Spinoza’s argument against this is that divisibility of matter is merely a mode, and in essence, matter is not divisible. This is because following 1P5 there can only be one extended substance, since two or more substances cannot have the same attribute, since they would not be anything that would distinguish them: ‘In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.’[1] If there is only substance, can we really say that matter is being destroyed? Even if I divide extended substances into different parts, nonetheless these different parts still exist as part of the one substance, which has not been destroyed at all. The leg that I cut off the horse is no longer part of the horse, but both the horse and the leg are still part of one and the same substance, and therefore I have not separated this substance, when I have separated the horse from its leg. If this were the case, then the separated leg would no longer belong to extension at all. In fact the horse’s leg is just a portion of extension that is qualified in a certain way. We should not, therefore, confuse the disabling of matter with its destruction. It is also means that extension is as infinite and eternal as thought, and it is only a theological prejudice of Descartes that prevents him from saying that it is just as much a ‘fundamental property’ or attribute of God as thought.

Spinoza’s philosophy is not a refusal of Descartes’, but is a thorough logically worked out consequence of his thought, which Descartes could not himself go to the end of perhaps because of a theological prejudice which prevented him from understanding these consequences. For Descartes, each substance has one attribute which constitutes its essence. For minds it is thought, and for bodies, extension. He calls these ‘principle attributes’. Knowing what the principle attributes are would tell you what you are dealing with, and what you should expect. Thus, you would not be led to the mistake of confusing and thought with a thing. One could say for Descartes, therefore, that what is important is not substance, but attributes, since attributes are the ‘principles of explanation’. For Spinoza it is the other way around. It is substance itself which is the principle of explanation, and not attributes, since it is not limited to the two attributes which Descartes describes, but must contain infinite attributes. Since to argue otherwise would be to limit substance and thus contradict its infinite essence, as Spinoza writes in IP8: ‘Every substance is necessarily infinite.’

For Descartes each separate attribute, which must be conceived in itself, since we do not need to know what thinking is to know what extension is, and vice versa, implies a separate substance, since he understands substance through attributes. Why, then, does Spinoza argue that we should think reality the other way around, and say that there is one substance with infinite attributes? In response to this we might ask whether it is possible to think of one substance with infinite attributes, perhaps because we tend to think in the same way as Descartes. Spinoza’s answer to this question is that we already do so through the idea of God. Since God is by definition infinite, He must contain infinite attributes, since if he did not, then He would lack something, which would contradict his infinite essence. Moreover if God did lack something then there must be something that caused God to do so, which again would contradict his essence and the very meaning of substance as independent.

We might not be convinced by Spinoza’s argument at this point, but Curley says that there is another way to get to the same conclusion. If each attribute is conceived through itself, it must, therefore, also exist in itself. If it existed in something else in order to exist, then we would need to be able to conceive such a thing before we could conceive the attribute. If an attribute is conceived in itself, and exists in itself, then it satisfies the definition of substance in 1D3 (‘by substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself’). But if we have infinite attributes, each conceived and existing in itself, wouldn’t we then have an infinite amount of substances, rather than just one, as Spinoza believes? Curley’s answer to this question is to say that Spinoza’s substance is a ‘complex of very special elements’ (Curley 1988, p.30). If each attribute is conceived through itself, they must also exist in themselves, and must also exist necessarily. If this is the case, then no single attribute could exist without the others, since they all necessarily exist: ‘The existence of each one of the attributes implies the existence of all the others’ (Curley 1988, p. 30). Substance, therefore, is not anything different from attributes. It isn’t something that lies behind attributes, as some kind of separate and distinct cause, which would lead us straight back to the transcendence we are trying to get rid of. God, therefore, is nothing but the existence of an infinite plurality of attributes, and nothing else.

Work Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.


[1] Ethics, p. 3. See also IP13. To make matter divisible is to divide it into parts, but that would either mean that these parts would not be the same as substance, which would cause substance not to exist, or there would be many substances with the same attribute which would be absurd.