Heidegger and The Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

Martin 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. (1993, 11).

Works Cited

Feyerabend, P., 1993. Against method. Verso, London; New York.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.


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