Levinas and Heidegger Lecture 2

December 9, 2018

Levinas told his students, and everyone else, that you really need to read Heidegger, and especially, Being and Time, and he also tells us that he would have written a book on this work, after his book on Husserl, if the events of the war, and Heidegger’s complicity in them, had not intervened.[1] Indeed, without reading Heidegger, and especially Being and Time, much of what Levinas writes is incomprehensible, since Levinas’s own philosophy is written in dialogue with him. He simply takes it for granted that his readers have read Being and Time and know this text intimately. This does not mean that Levinas is a scholar of Heidegger, for then he would not be an original thinker in his own right. If you are looking for a detailed, nuanced, and even sympathetic reading of Heidegger, then you would not come to Levinas. But is that no true of any philosopher who has anything interesting to say. She only creates her own thought by misunderstanding or even caricaturing those who have preceded her, otherwise she would be, no matter how important they are to the dissemination of knowledge, only a scholar herself.[2] This lecture will mostly be about Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, and will end with a few brief remarks about Levinas’s disagreement with it. In next lecture on Levinas’s ethics, we will speak in more depth about his own philosophy.

Levinas’s writings, precisely because of the war, where he ceases really to engage with Heidegger’s later philosophy, are predominately focused on Being and Time. When Levinas’s speaks or writes of Heidegger’s concept of being, then he is, for the most part, referring to question of being in Being and Time.[3] It opens with a quotation from the Sophist:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed [Sophist 244a].

The situation is worse for us than it is for the stranger. For at least he was perplexed by the question of being, but we do not even hear it as a serious question at all. We don’t even know what someone means by the question of being. The reason, Heidegger, tells us, is because the history of philosophy has obscured this question. Either we think know the answer to it, being is the most general and obvious concept, or we think it is indefinable, and it is not a serious philosophical question at all.

Against this indifference, how will we renew the question of being? Heidegger’s answer to this question is that we must focus on that being whose being, whose existence, is an everyday concern for them, and that is us. Heidegger does not use the term ‘human being’ to designate us, because he thinks that it is too overloaded with metaphysical and scientific connotations that have concealed the question of being from us in the first place. Rather he describes us by the expression Dasein. Most translators leave this word untranslated, which gives it a kind of mysterious air, but Heidegger wants us to read it literally. In German, Dasein means ‘being-there’, rather than just the technical meaning ‘existence’ that we might find in a dictionary. What is unique to us, Heidegger will argue, is that our ‘being there’ matters to us, and it matters to us in a specific way that could be a clue to the meaning of being in general.

Science, and we do live in a scientific age, so we generally think that science has all the answers, investigates the meaning beings. Chemistry analyses and studies molecular structures, physics, matter, and biology, life. In each case, the being of these things, is not a serious question for them. If they worried about the being of these things, then they would not be doing science but philosophy. To do science, you must accept that these things exist to even get started. It is only when science goes into a crisis that it might start doubting the fundamental reality of the basic components of its scientific paradigm.

We can also think of ourselves as objects of scientific investigation. We can be studied biologically, psychologically, or even anthropologically. In each case, the human being is analysed as certain kind of being, as life, mind, or culture. Philosophy, however, for Heidegger, does not take for granted what kind of being we are, but asks a rather different question. It asks what kind of understanding of being already exists such that a being is taken to be in certain way. The first kind of study, the obviously scientific one, Heidegger calls ontic. It is the study of things as things without questioning their fundamental nature. If we were going to use a Kuhnian vocabulary, we might call it ‘normal science’.[4] The second kind of question is ontological.

The difference between us and things is that we already relate to our being, even if for the most part we do so in an unthinking way. A stone does not ask itself what it is to be a stone, nor does super nova, or dolphin. It is perfectly possible for me, at any stage of my life, or at any moment of the day, to wonder who I am. What is ontically distinctive about us, is that we are ontological:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it […]. Understanding of Being is itself a defining characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological [BT 12].

What Heidegger is not interested in is the way we might think of ourselves as the ‘dust of the stars’, since these scientific pictures of ourselves, common in much popular science, already smuggle in too much metaphysics. Rather what matters to him is how we appear to ourselves in our everyday lives. Philosophy is very much about the everyday for Heidegger, and this is perhaps what excited his students about his teaching.[5] How do understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as existence. Heidegger does not mean this in a technical sense, as when some says, ‘the chair exists’ or ‘black holes exist’, because these are ontical questions, rather than ontological ones, but existence as possibility. My existence, and it is always my existence, is made up of possibilities (shall I go the lecture today, shall I do the reading, should I take my studies more seriously, will I become a teacher and so on). Most of the time the existential structure of these possibilities, how I live my possibilities, is not visible to me. I just concern myself with the daily stuff of life (I must make sure that I buy my train ticket), or maybe with bigger projects (what will I do when I finish my degree?), but I don’t think about how these possibilities are. That is a philosophical question that Heidegger hopes to answer and forms most of Being and Time, which in the end remained an unfinished project.

If our existence is the object of investigation, what then is our method? How are meant to uncover the meaning of our existence? There are two sides to Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. One is negative and the other is positive. The negative side is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics was originally the study of biblical texts, but for Heidegger it has a very specific meaning.[6] It is the ‘destruction’ of the philosophical tradition handed down to us that obscured the meaning of being that he describes in the opening pages of Being and Time. This too has its own negative and positive side. On the one hand, it has to show how the philosophical tradition from Plato onwards has prevented us from thinking about being in a meaningful way, because it takes a certain meaning of being for granted, but on the other hand, in the very same tradition, it has to show how philosophy, sometimes in the very same text or page, fights against its own self-limitation.[7] Yet if we do not know what the phenomenon is that we are attempting to save from the tradition, how do we know what has been lost? Thus, we need a positive method that is distinguished from this ‘negative’ one, if that word is not in some sense inadequate. That is function of phenomenology for Heidegger.

Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology, like the rest of the book, is very peculiar. It is not a description of a technique, but of a way of doing philosophy. Rather than go back to Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, and explain phenomenology that way, he does through the etymology of the word itself. Phenomenology is made of two Greek words, φαινόμενων (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). The meaning of the first word is:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

A phenomenon is therefore something that show itself or makes itself visible. On the other hand, the word λόγος originally means ‘to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. The primary meaning of discourse is not judgement, but to ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The meaning of phenomenology is, therefore, a combination, of the original sense of these Greek expressions:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means…to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself…. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’ [BT 34].

To bring to light that which shows itself is not an easy task because it lies in concealment. What is closest to Dasein is its own being, but for the most part, it is this being which it is most in the dark about. I can tell you what a look like or what I do for a living, but if you were to ask about ‘being’, I might be left speechless. The phenomenologist should uncover what is ordinarily and nearly continuously in the dark. This covering up is even more difficult to expose, because the tradition that is handed down to us prevents us from seeing what is closest to us, either because it says that it is the most obvious concept (we exist in the same way that any other object exists), or is not a serious problem at all.

Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is directly linked to is conception of truth. Ordinarily we think of truth of as judgemental. There is statement about the world and this statement is either true or false if it agrees with a state of affairs in the world. I say that wall is blue, and if the wall is blue, then my statement is true. Heidegger does not disagree with this propositional idea of truth, but he asks whether that notion of truth is fundamental. Heidegger uses the example of someone who has their back turned to a wall and who makes the true assertion ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew’. The truth of the statement is demonstrated when the person turns around and sees that the picture is indeed askew. Assertion, then, is a way of relating to the world. To be able to assert something, I must already have a relation to that thing. In other words, the thing must be already visible to me in some way or other (which goes back to the original meaning of the word ‘phenomenon’ as a kind of original self-disclosure) such that I could make an assertion about them. This disclosure comes first and is the condition of the assertion. Truth must first be defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend), but uncovering is only possible because there is being whose relations to things in the world brings them out of their concealment. This being is ourselves. This ontological meaning of truth, as way of relation to things in the world, and bringing them to light, is the original meaning of truth expressed by the Greek word for truth as ἀλήθεια (aletheia).

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering […]. But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner […]. Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting the be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness) [BT 261-2].

If Dasein is understood as existence, and the meaning of existence is to be uncovered by the phenomenologist, how then does this existence show itself. Heidegger makes the distinction between the being of things and the being of Dasein. One, he calls categorical, which goes back to Aristotle, and the other existential. We continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically rather than existentially. We think that Dasein is a mysterious thing, which has a soul, or a thing like anything else, that is made up same stuff as the rest of matter. In the first case, we have a theological understanding of Dasein, and in the second, a scientific one, but what is common to both ways of understanding is that they both think of Dasein in a categorical way.

One way in which Heidegger thinks of the difference between categorical and existential being is the proposition ‘in’ (and propositions tell us a lot about how we are in the world). We imagine that Dasein is ‘in’ its world in the same way that water is ‘in’ a glass, but this is not the case. Such a way of thinking about Dasein in terms of the spatiality of things already requires an abstract way of thinking about the world. I am not in my world in this way. I do not live in Bristol in the way that water is in a glass. Rather I am familiar or at home in Bristol, and this ‘being at home’ is far closer to my way of being than the representation of space.

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as ‘thing’, as something ‘present-to-hand’ to use Heidegger’s vocabulary, but in that way it is being treated as a thing, and not as what it is primordially speaking and in its own way of being. We take being present at hand as the general meaning of being, such that we start interpreting ourselves as present to hand like everything else, but this way of approaching things has been handed down by tradition. It is not the way our existence reveals itself to us in our everyday being in the world.

Things and other people only matter to me because I care about them. They are not first representations, concepts or categories. This relation to things comes afterwards and is already reliant on the world in which I find myself and exist. The table is something to put my cup of tea on, the house for living in, the computer for writing this lecture on. In my involvement with them, these things are not present to hand at all, but ready to hand and disappear in their use. The door that I use every day to enter my house is not visible to me when I use it, still less, like some kind of AI, do I have to represent it to myself to use it. I enter the house and walk through it. It is part of everyday world, which I am comfortable with.

This world too is not a thing that contains the things of the world. Rather than a thing, it is my way of being. The world, then, or ‘being in the world’, is not categorical, but existential. The everyday world Heidegger calls the ‘environment’ (das Umwelt). Again, like Dasein, environment can sound like a highly technical term, but he means the world that surrounds us, the world that we feel at home in, and which we can lose, for example, if we go to a foreign county, and no longer know our way about, or is something unexpected happens to us, and we no longer feel comfortable where we live. In this world we don’t encounter things as perceptual objects, which is the way that philosophy likes to talk about things since Plato, as though perception were our original access to the world. We do not first of all perceive things. They are part of world as things we use. What Heidegger calls ‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ (das Zeug). I use the bed in order to sleep in, I use the shower to wash, the toothbrush to clean my teeth, the stove to make coffee, the ticket machine to catch a train in order to get to work. One characteristic of tools is that they are part of a series of ‘in order to’s’ that point to an ultimate ‘for the sake of which’. I have described to you my working morning whose ultimate ‘for the sake of which’ is that I am a teacher of philosophy. This role is the ultimate project that orientates my existential possibilities and this chain of ‘in order to’s’ is my world. When you ask me, perhaps you encounter me in the train station, ‘how are you?’, you are asking about this world. It is this world, Heidegger says, that I live in, and it would be a profound misunderstanding of this world, to think that I live in it as water is in a glass, or that this world is place on Google maps.

For the most part this world is invisible to me, which is why it is difficult, phenomenological speaking, to bring it to light. It is only when things do not work that the world can reveal itself. The bed is uncomfortable, the shower is cold, the oven does not light, the ticket machine does not work, and the train is late. Suddenly, after these disasters, my everyday existence and world can show itself to me, and I might even question my project of being a philosophy teacher that it the ultimate goal of all these activities.

In my world, I don’t just encounter things but other people. I might not buy my ticket at machine, but speak to a someone behind the ticket counter. Traces of others are there everywhere in my world, whether I pay attention to them or not. Heidegger’s describes the relation to others as ‘being with’ (Mitsein). I am not with others in the same way that I with things. We have seen that things are either ready to hand or present to hand, but other are not present in that way (that does not mean that others cannot be present in that way, but then I am precisely not relating to them as others at all, but as things). For unlike things, others have a world like me and because they have a world like me we share that world. Others, then, do not stand apart from me. I have intimacy with others that is not at all like the ‘being in’ of things.

By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me – those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too…. [t]he world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt) [BT 118].

We must distinguish between the ontological and epistemological relation to others. It is only in the epistemological relation to others that solipsism becomes a problem where I might wonder whether they are real or not, or whether there are ‘other minds’ at all. For Heidegger, at the level of your existence, you do not have to think your way to others, since you are already involved with them and my world is already something that I share with others. Even if I choose to live in isolation, then this is already decided in relations to others (in world without others, being solitary would not make any sense at all). The philosophical problem of how I bridge my existence to the existence of others is therefore a false problem, since ontologically speaking there is no bridge to be crossed.

For the most part my relation to others is a matter of indifference. This is not a moral issue for Heidegger, but just expresses our everyday being. Most of the people that I encounter in my world are not ‘there’ for me at all.

Being for, against, or without one another, passing one another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another – these are possible ways of solicitude. And it is precisely these last named deficient and indifferent modes that characterise everyday, average Being-with-one-another [BT 121]

There are, however, two ways in which others do matter for me. One is that I seek to dominate and control them, and the other is when I liberate them for their own possibilities. In this case we are speaking about others who are present to me in one way of other. The bus driver I get angry with because I am late, or the student who I hope to inspire by writing a lecture about Heidegger. Generally, Heidegger thinks that our relation to others is one of indifference. It is in this indifferent relation that others can come to dominate me, rather than I them.

This domination is a very different from the domination of control. It is not a matter of an action or result, but the insidious stripping away of possibilities. I begin to understand myself in terms of the anonymous others, such that I can lose the very sense of my own individuality. In this indifferent relation everyone becomes the same and we talk of others as the ‘they’ (das Man).

We take pleasure and amuse ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’ which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness [BT 126-7].

This closing down of possibilities to lowest common denominator Heidegger calls the ‘public’ (die Öffentlichkeit), and, if we are honest, for the most part, this is what our everyday existence is. Rather than authenticity, or individuality, being the way that we exist, we live lives that are similar or identical to the lives of everyone else, even though none of us are really sure when this way of life first began or originated. Being-with, then, is a kind of conformity. Yet if authenticity was not possible, then Being and Time would not have been written, since the authenticity necessary to writing philosophy, requires to some extent or other that the question of Dasein’s being becomes an issue to them, and this is precisely what is not an issue in everyday being. What matter there is merely what everyone else understands and takes for granted. This is the purpose of the famous analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein-Zum-Tode) in Being and Time. It shows how authenticity is possible.

The task of Being and Time, as we know, is to reawaken the question of being. But this question can only be formulated by that being whose being is an issue for it, which is ourselves. Yet for most of the time, as the description of the everyday being of Dasein shows, our being is not an issue for us. We are so involved with the world of things and others that our own being does not become a question at all. It can do so only if Dasein has an authentic relation to its being, but all that we have described, which Dasein for the most part is, is the inauthentic being of the everyday. We must show, then, how authentic being can rise out of inauthentic being as a modification of the latter. This is the purpose of the description of ‘being-towards-death’.

We have already shown that Heidegger understands the existence of Dasein as possibilities. My existence is nothing but my possibilities. Death too is one possibility amongst others, but how are we to think this possibility as way of uncovering Dasein’s authenticity? Death as a possibility is not an event like any other. In that way you are not thinking of death as a possibility at all, but an actuality. Death is a fact of life like other facts of life, one that is more extreme and frightening perhaps, but still nonetheless a fact. Every day when I read news, I hear of countless deaths as facts or actualities. This is not how Heidegger is thinking about death. He is not describing death as the end of a process that is still outstanding, but as a possibility. This is the meaning of ‘towards’ in the expression of ‘being-towards-death’. Rather than imagining death as fact that comes at the end of your life, you should be aware of it a permanent possibility that surrounds your life at any moment. In this sense, Heidegger says, my death is a peculiar possibility that is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ [BT 250].

What is revealed in this relation to death is nothing factual, but only the existence of Dasein as a whole. It is not death as fact that makes me anxious, this is rather an object of fear, but my existence that is revealed to me in ‘being-toward-death’. It rips me from the tranquillity of everyday existence and forces me to stand in front of my life as a whole. If I were to die now, in this instance, would my whole life have been a failure and a waste? It is this recognition that we flee from when we avoid death as a possibility. We can see that death as an actuality, something that happens at the end of my life and about which I do not have to concern myself now, is in fact a way of resisting and avoiding death as a possibility. Only through death as a possibility can I discover the courage to authentically be myself by seizing the possibilities that have been given to me.

To understand Levinas, and we will do so positively in the next lecture, rather than negatively in comparison to Heidegger, is to see how far he breaks with this ontological analysis of Dasein as it is presented in Being and Time. In one sense he agrees with Heidegger’s break with Husserl’s too cognitive understanding of consciousness, as though the only relation to the world were one of knowledge and representation, and he says so in his thesis on Husserl.[8] Yet he argues, in Totality and Infinity, whether this analysis goes far enough. The world that is described in Being and Time is the world of work where I have projects and outcomes, but is this really the first world in which I exist? Before I relate to the world as one of accomplishments, I enjoy the elements, the warmth of the sun against my face, the wind in my air. This world is not the world of my personal being as described in Being and Time, but the impersonal world of nature, where my happiness can be snatched away in an instant by floods and earthquakes. The house I build, which is described in Being and Time, as the example of the ready-to-hand’, is built against this world. It is second not first. Moreover, Levinas claims, this house depends on a radically different relation to others than the one described in Being and Time. Not one that is determined by me in relation to my own being, whether others matter or to do matter to me in terms of my own existential drama, but an ethical encounter where the other radically calls into question my existence and my place on this earth. This ethical other is not a being at all, in any ordinary sense, whether we mean by that categorically or existential being, but beyond being, what Levinas will call ‘transcendence’. If the other is not ontological but ethical, then my relation to death is not merely one of actuality or possibility. Why should it be the case that the death of other is merely a ‘fact’ for me of no more significance than any other fact in the world, and why should my relation to death be only one of authentically choosing my own possibilities. If death is the possibility of impossibility, it is not also the impossibility of possibility, where dying, through illness and suffering, strips me of the power to be, and where the discussion of being authentic makes no sense whatsoever (what would authentic being-towards-death be in a concentration camp)?

Levinas wants us to consider, whether ontology must have the last word and whether we can only speak in the language of ontology. If ethics does appear in Being and Time, then it does so only in marginal way and subordinated to the ontological question. This is even the case in Heidegger’s later work, when he says that until we know what it means to be a human being, then we cannot even begin to understand what ethics could be. Yet what if ethics were not an ontological category at all, and the other were not a being, neither present-to-hand, or ready-to-hand, and rather than appearing within my world, where to completely call this world into question, even beyond my death.

Works Cited

Derrida, J., 1978. Violence and Metaphysics, in: Bass, A. (Tran.), Writing and Difference. Routledge, London, pp. 97–192.

Gadamer, H.G., 1994. Heidegger’s Ways. SUNY Press.

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

Grondin, J., 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press.

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

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Levinas, E., 2012. Signature, in: Hand, S. (Tran.), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 291–5.

Lévinas, E., 2000. God, death, and time. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1973. The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Northwestern University Press, Evanston [Ill.


 

[1] For Levinas’s own autobiography of his intellectual journey, see (Levinas, 2012).

[2] The classic account of Levinas’s creative misreading of Heidegger, and other philosophers, like Husserl and Hegel, is still Derrida’s first, and highly detailed and complex, extended essay on Levinas’s work, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (Derrida, 1978). It too would be a misunderstanding of this essay to think that it was a mere critique.

[3] Levinas’s own lectures on Heidegger concern the arguments of Being and Time (Lévinas, 2000).

[4] In The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Kuhn makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary science’, which echoes Heidegger’s differentiation of the ontic and ontological basis of science in Being and Time (Kuhn, 2012). For a detailed account of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, see (Glazebrook, 2000).

[5] Gadamer, perhaps one of his most famous students, bears witness to the effect of Heidegger’s teaching, in his book on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Ways (Gadamer, 1994).

[6] For an good introduction to the history and meaning of hermeneutics from a Heideggerian perspective, see (Grondin, 1997).

[7] Some of the missing divisions and parts of Being and Time were meant to include these ‘destructions’, but we find them in many of the lectures that were published afterwards.

[8] ‘One can reproach Husserl,’ Levinas writes, ‘for his intellectualism. Even though the attains the profound idea that, in the ontological order, the world of science if posterior to and depends on the vague and concrete world of perception, he may have been wrong in seeing the concrete world as a world of objects that primarily perceived’ (Lévinas, 1973, p. 119).

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Heidegger and The Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

January 28, 2016

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.


Realism and Anti-Realism in Philosophy of Science –Lecture 6

January 24, 2016

higgs-simulation-3In a previous lecture we looked at Kuhn’s idea of history of science as broken by different paradigms that are incommensurable. Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, and Einsteinism, mark revolutions in the history of science rather than a smooth flow of one epoch into another which will some day reach an ultimate Truth when we can all stop doing science because what our theories say and what is are exactly the same and there will be no exceptions. What Kuhn reminds us is that when we think about what science is, rather than taking the philosopher of science’s word for it, we should examine what scientists do. We will find that the philosophical version does not much look like the real history of science, rather they are idealisations in both sense of the word: an abstraction and a kind of wish fulfilment. Kuhn is not sceptical of science as such, but the philosophy of science. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, marks the death knell of a particular kind of philosophical history of science, so that it can be replaced by the proper history of science, whose object is what scientists actually do, rather than what philosophers think they might do. In other words, the new object of this history of science is ‘normal science’, in all its messiness and vagueness, rather than an idealised science that has never existed except in the minds of philosophers like Ayer or Popper.

At this point, however, we are going to make a little detour back to philosophy, and that is to the question which should have been bugging us from the very beginning, which is what exactly is science about, rather than what is the history of science. Early on we characterised the difference between religion and science as the difference between belief and facts. We said that science is about reality, that it makes true description of real things that happen in the world. In a word, it is objective. On the contrary, religion is subjective. It does not give us a true picture of the world, but offers us a moral compass through which we can live our lives. To confuse religion with science is to undermine the importance of religion rather than to give it more intellectual support. There is no conflict between science and religion, because they are completely different discourses. One tells you what something is, the other how you ought to live your life.[1]

But what do mean when we say that science is about reality? Aren’t we being a little simplistic when we do that? What is reality after all? Everyone knows the old paradox of whether a tree that falls down in a forest makes a sound or not if no one is there to hear it. Is reality what we perceive or is it more than that? I would say that it would be absurd to say that there would not be trees, stones or stars if there were no human beings. As though human beings were to vanish the universe would vanish with them. The universe does not have any meaning, however, except for the fact that it means something for some being or other in the universe. A stone is not a stone for a stone. It is only a stone for human beings who understand what it is to be a stone. We’ll come back to this at the end of the lecture.

Both Chalmers , Okasha, and Ladyman (perhaps because they all belong to what can be loosely called the analytic tradition) seem very reluctant to address these questions head on (as though they were too philosophical and could be avoided. I would say that it is their hidden philosophical assumptions which allow them to avoid these questions).[2] For them, on the contrary, the important distinction is between realism and anti-realism, rather than whether reality exists out there as such and what we might mean by reality as a whole. Chalmers simply dismisses the idea that reality being formed by language (what he calls global anti-realism), through a Tarskian theory of truth, which begs the questions, because such a theory already has a commitment to a certain view of language, and a certain view of reality, which remains unquestioned by Chalmers himself. Investigating this presupposition, however, would take us too far from the subject of this lecture itself.

What then is anti-realism and realism in science? First of all it is important to note that both theories accept the reality of the world. So it is important not to confuse either with a thorough going scepticism. The difference between them has to do with the status of scientific theories, on the one hand, and observable phenomenon on the other. A strong realist would argue that both observable phenomenon and theories are true descriptions of the world out there, whereas an strong anti-realist would say that only observable phenomenon are true, and theories are neither true of false. All these authors, as far as I can see, occupy a position between these two extremes.

The common sense view, I suppose, would take it that both theories and observable phenomenon are true, so we are going to approach this question from this point of view. None of us would think that observable phenomenon are not real, that when I see a donkey there isn’t a donkey out there (again I am not so sure that both Okasha and Chalmers skip over this supposed reality far too quickly, but let us leave them to have that truth for now). What isn’t so certain is that theories really point to something out there. This is because much of the basis of a scientific theories actually point to phenomenon that we cannot observe. If we cannot see something, then how can we say that it is part of the world? From what vantage point would we say that it is real? Of course, as Okasha points out, many sciences do have as their basis observable phenomenon, such as palaeontology whose objects are fossils, but modern physics does not (Okasha, 2002: 59). We cannot literally see inside of the atom. We only have theoretical pictures of what they look like, and we do not know if at that level the universe really looks like that at all.

The anti-realist is not saying that there is no difference between science and someone who thinks that the earth is balance on the back of a turtle. Rather theories only give us structures or the scaffolding in which we can observe phenomena through experimentation, but it is only this literally observable phenomenon which we can take to be true. The theory itself we cannot prove is real or not, because there is nothing there to see which we could demonstrate as real or not. The history of science itself seems to bear this out, because there have been false theories that have actually brought out true observable phenomena, so there does not seem to be an analogy between the truth of a theory and the truth of observable phenomena. The example that Chalmers gives is the history of optics, which is littered with what we now understand to be false theories of light, and yet which provided correct observable phenomena. Thus Newton believed that light was made up of particles, then Fresnel believed that light was a wave in a medium called ether, then Maxwell, believed that light waves were fluctuating electric and magnetic fields in ether, then in 20th century we got rid of the ether and the waves were entities in their own right, then finally the wave theory of light was supplemented by the particle theory of photons.

It seems to go against common sense, however, to say that theories are just fictions on which we hang our experimental results. When we look at the history of atomic theory it does appear that we are getting a progressive understanding of the structure of atom, and it would seem entirely bizarre that the theory would predict what we ought to see, and at the same time being entirely false. One way of getting around this is by arguing that the anti-realist is making a false distinction between what is observable and what is not observable, since though we cannot see inside the atom, we can detect the existence of atoms by ionisation when they are passed through a cloud chamber. The strict anti-realist, however would say that, all we know is real is the trails themselves, and we cannot not know whether the atoms are real or not, just as we should confuse the trail that a plane leaves in the sky with the plane itself. In other words, we have to make a distinction between direction observation and detection.

The fundamental issue here is whether we can make a complete separation between theories, on the one side, and facts on the other. This is the real issue, rather than whether facts are observable and theories not. In fact it is the anti-realist and not the realist who is committed to the separation. Both Okasha and Chalmers, though in different ways, would criticise this separation. Chalmers returns to whether the history of philosophy really does prove that theories which were once taken as true are shown to be false by the next one, and so on infinitum, so that we can never know whether are theories give us an accurate view of the world, by arguing that each new theory takes up some aspect of the previous one which gives us a more and more accurate picture of the phenomenon we are attempting to understand. Thus a true theory (unlike the turtle theory) captures some aspect of the truth of the world, if only a partial one, which is then improved by the subsequent one (does this conflict with the Kuhnian view of science, since it implies an accumulative image of science?). Okasha, on the other hand, will claim that the problems that the anti-realist claims would undermine the possibility of claiming theories to be true, could also rebound against what we would think were observable phenomena, and thus would destroy the basis of all science altogether, since we could only claim to know what we could see now in this moment, and not past events, since again they are only known by detection rather than direct observation (this would be mean that the anti-realist argument would be like Hume’s problem of induction).

As I said at the beginning, I find both Okasha’s and Chalmers discussion of realism unsatisfactory and indeed both of their chapters seems to end without any kind of resolution as though they had both been exhausted by the discussion. What I think is left unthought in their views is that the only way we could access reality is through science, and thus if we cannot, then we cannot access reality. To me the discussion of observable and unobservable phenomena is a red herring. Nothing has meaning unless it has meaning for us and that is true of both observable and unobservable phenomena, but the real issue is whether our reality is first of all something that we observe. Here I would turn to the philosophy of Heidegger, who would argue that it is prejudice of a very old metaphysics that our first relation to the world is one of perception, what he calls ‘present-to-hand’. What is true both for the realist and the anti-realist is that they take reality to mean ‘present to hand’. It is just that one thinks scientific theories are speaking about something present to hand and the other does not. The world for Heidegger, on the contrary is not something, present to hand, but ready to hand. The world is first of all something that we orientate ourselves in, rather than perceive.[3] This context can never be investigated as an object, because it is what objects make possible. Even science itself must have its origin in this cultural context or background. It is only because science as an activity means something to us that we can approach anything in the world as a scientific object, and not the other way around.

As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, Newton’s laws are only true because we exist. If we were no longer to exist, and the world in which these laws made sense were no longer to exist, then it would be absurd to still say that these laws were true. This does not mean that things do not exist separate from us, nor that truth is relative. Newton’s laws really say something about things, because these things only are, in the sense of ‘true’, through our existence. This truth would only be relative if we really thought that there was a truth of things beyond our existence that we did not know. Things are only because they are there for us, but this in no way means that any assertion is possible. This would be to confuse assertion and the condition of assertion. The truth of reality is dependent on our existence, but this does not mean that you or I can say anything we like about this existence. For you or I as individuals are just as much part of this existence as anything else is. To be a scientist is to already accept what this existence means (what the world of science means, of which Newton’s laws are an example), and to refuse this is no longer to be a scientist.

Works Cited

Van Fraassen, B. (2006). Weyl’s Paradox: The Distance between Structure and Perspective. In A. Berg-Hildebrand, & C. Shum (Eds.), Bas C. Van Fraassen: The Fortunes of Empiricism (pp. 13-34). Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.


[1] It is a wholly other topic whether religion is the only discourse that can do this, but that does not undermine our distinction between it and science.

[2] Okasha, Samir, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2002, 58-76. A. F. Chalmers, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in What is this Thing Called Science?, third edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press, 1999, 226-46. Ladyman is more willing to discuss the philosophical issues in depth, but he does so from an analytic perspective. What is lacking in all these treatments is what I would call ‘ontological depth’, and I am going to turn to this in the next lecture which will look at some of the ideas of Heidegger.

[3] I think that this is what Fraassen is getting at when he says that a theory or model of reality is only useful when we locate ourselves within it, though I don’t think he is referring to Heidegger’s distinction here. (Van Fraassen, 2006, p. 31)


Heidegger and the Question of Technology – Lecture 3

April 9, 2015

Heidegger_4_(1960)_croppedRight at the end of The Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo makes a distinction between the ‘sensible world’ and ‘a world on paper’(Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.201). He is arguing that the true authority for our scientific theories is not what is written in books but what we can observe with our senses. I already implied at the end of the lecture on Galileo that we should treat this opposition with a little bit of suspicion since he might be guilty of rhetorical exaggeration. First of all, it is clearly not the case that Aristotle, or those who followed him did not use their senses, but equally, Copernicus’s idea hypothesis of heliocentrism was precisely that, and not something that one would come to simply by using one’s senses. Indeed, Descartes is being more honest than Galileo in this regard. He freely admits that the theory of nature, which is at the heart of the new science, that nature is uniform, homogenous, material quantity that is calculable mathematically, and what we see is a secondary phenomenon, cannot be proved by our senses. The opposite is the case. The basic principles of science are what we approach nature with rather than derived from experience. For Descartes, theories do not follow facts, rather facts follow theories.

For Descartes ultimately, science, or the ideas of science, find their culmination in the existence of God. Without the absolute power of God nothing would exist, but equally the beneficence of God guarantees that the most coherent conception of nature (which for Descartes are precisely the laws of the new science and the concept of nature as an homogenous material quantity) must be true of nature itself, despite the fact that I can never experience this ultimate reality.

What happens, however, once we give up this divine assurance? Heidegger’s answer is that Descartes, and Galileo’s, theory of nature is in fact a projection upon nature. We like to think that science describes nature as it appears, but in fact it already pictures nature in a certain way so that it can become an object for science. In other words, there is a determinate way that nature is experience in science, which would be different from how nature appears in art, for example, or when I go for a walk in the wood. Why do we take the scientific model of nature to be the only true account of nature? Perhaps because we are unaware of the historical basis of science or take it to be the natural or common sense way of viewing the world, though if we investigate it in any detail would we see that it is anything but natural in this sense.

What the idea of God hides, then, is that science is the mathematical projection of nature. Galileo conceals this by saying that what science describes is ordinary sensible nature. Descartes knows this is not true, since modern science explains nature through unobservable phenomena, but he conceals the mathematical projection of nature in a different way, by claiming, through the idea of God, that this is what nature is really, even though we cannot experience it.

The key difference between modern and ancient science is not that one is based on experience and experiment and the other is not (as Galileo polemically presents it), but that modern science is mathematical. Numbers are not found in things, nor are things numbers. What is mathematical has to be brought to nature, but for nature to be brought under mathematics it already has to be understood in a certain way. Mathematics provides the certainty (what Descartes thinks of as self-evident truths), but we must already think of nature as something that one could be certain about in the first place.

To think of nature as something certain is to think of it as homogenous. It is because Descartes already conceives of nature as extension (the corpuscular theory of matter) that it is mathematical. It is not because it is mathematical that he thinks of it as extension. Descartes claims that this idea has its validity in the idea of God. Heidegger would argue that this theory of nature is a projection, however useful it might be, of the scientist himself. This does not mean that what science describes is not real, as though its objects were ghosts, but that science never relates to nature empty handed. It only encounters reality within certain limitations. As we shall see when we look at the Question Concerning Technology later on, science sets up the object in advance.

This is why Heidegger will claim that the experiment is crucial to understanding modern science. Again this does not mean that there were no experiments before modern science, but that experiment was not crucial. What is important about the experiment is that it always sets nature up in a limited way. It constrains nature within the limits of the hypothesis that the experiment is meant to test. This is why it cannot be true, even when Galileo said it, that modern science is based simply on observation and experience, for the experiment precisely bypasses our ordinary perception of the world. It is clear, therefore, that the story of Galileo and the tower could only have been a myth. For in terms of the real world, which is not limited by the abstraction of the experiment, observing two balls hitting the ground at the same time is nearly impossible. What Galileo in fact did was, to demonstrate that a heavier object would not fall faster than a lighter one, was to release different balls from a ramp.

To say that the experiment sets up nature in a determinate manner, does not mean that the phenomena observed (the balls accelerating down the ramp) are false, or the theory of free fall is a fiction, but that nature here is experienced in a limited manner. The mistake is to think that the scientific explanation is a description of nature as it is. Heidegger would argue that this is not a scientific explanation but a metaphysical one, and this is why Descartes has to justify it with the existence of God. Once we give up such an idea, then we can see what science must be, which is a projection.

There is then no such as disinterested observation. This is not a criticism of science as being unscientific. Science is scientific because it is already an interested observation. It observes nature through a hypothesis which it then tests through an experiment. This relation between interested observation and experiment, however, is dependent on viewing nature as a whole as something calculable. This is what is common between Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, even though they have very different theories of nature.[1] Science already projects nature as quantifiable and for this reason it measures it. Experiments are only possible as tests of hypothesis because we already assume that nature is something that is measurable. The scientist shrinks the world so that it fits the experiment. But the world already is before we understand it as something measurable. The colour of the leaf already is before it is a wave of light that can be quantified. This does not mean that the quantity is not real for Heidegger, but he will ask us to consider whether the being of the leaf is reducible only to this quantification.

What science cannot do is get behind its own projection. If it were to do so, then it would cease being scientific. A scientist does not ask about the reality of the objects that it considers unless the science itself comes into crisis. I must accept the theoretical reality of the objects I study in order to test the hypothesis. If I were to do so, then I would never begin. Descartes, therefore, has take it for granted that the nature really is nothing but matter in motion, even though no such thing can be observed. What is interesting, historically speaking, is that unlike Galileo, perhaps because he is more philosophical, the projective nature of this theory is more visible to us because of the obvious artifice of the existence of God. However, generally speaking, all science is projection, and more so, when it claims just to be describing things as they really are. Just as much as Descartes metaphysical assumptions predetermine what nature is for him, then so too does the most extreme empiricist.

Although Heidegger is not criticising science as such, since modern science can only function as the limitation of nature by the experiment, what does worry him is the view that science is the only true explanation of anything that we experience and that our world is the very same as the representation of nature in science. Today, like the ancients would have looked for answers philosophy, or the medieval in religion, we now think that all answers are to be found in science. Science is now the ‘theory of everything’, and this everything also includes us.

Why does Heidegger think that such a conception of science, which has the same status as a religion, has hidden dangers? This is because concomitant with the view that nature is only something that is calculable or measurable is the conviction that it is something to be used up by us. Science, then, is not free of political and ethical interests in the broadest sense. This is what Heidegger means when he says that modern science and the essence of technology are inseparable.

The essence of technology and technological things are not the same, just as the tree and the essence of the tree are not the same, otherwise every tree would be identical to a particular tree. What we want to capture is the generality of the tree (Heidegger 1977). When we ask about the essence of something, then we are asking what it means to be that thing that it is. What then is general to technology. Heidegger says that we can think of technology in two ways: as a means to an end and as a human activity. Thus I use a mobile phone to text someone, and texting is something that human beings do. This Heidegger says is an instrumental way of thinking about technology and he does not disagree with this definition. He does not think, however, that it goes far enough. We use something to bring something else about. So we use a kettle to boil water and so on. At heart of instrumentality, therefore, is causality.

What has the history of philosophy to tell us about causality? The ancient, and the medieval, thought of causality in terms of 4 kinds of causality: material, formal, end, and, efficiency. The material cause of something is the matter from which it made, the formal cause of something is its design or plan, the end or telos, is the purpose or function of something, and finally the efficient cause is what brings it about. To explain the cause of something is to explain why something exists. Heidegger uses the example of the silver chalice. The material cause would be the silver it is made from, the formal cause would be the design the craftsman or woman works with, the end or telos, would be its function in some kind of ritual, and the efficient cause would be the work of the person themselves who hammers the metal and heats the fire. But even here, Heidegger suggests, we haven’t got to the deepest level, because why is their causality at all and why only four causes? The ancients and the medieval did not think of causality in the way we did as simply bringing something about, as the match brings about the fire, but being responsible for something. In each case the silver chalice is indebted to the causes. Without these 4 causes the silver chalice would not exist at all.

What is meant by responsibility here, Heidegger says, should not be thought of in the modern way, in terms of morality or ethics, as when we say someone is guilty of crime. The four causes are responsible because they make the silver chalice present. Without them it would not lie there before us, and we would not be able to hold it in our hands. Another way that Heidegger describes this is as ‘occasioning’. The four cause are the occasion of the chalice to be at all.

The way in which ancient philosophy through of this making present was through poiesis (where the English poetry comes from). It is not just poetry or handicraft that brings things into existence, but nature itself. Nature is the occasioning of things, as the apple tree is the occasion of the apple blossom. The craftswoman or man brings forth the silver chalice by making it present, as the apple tree brings forth the blossom by making it present. Something is made present that did not exist before. This making present Heidegger calls revelation or unconcealment, and is how the ancients experience truth.

The essence of technology is also a form of revealing or unconcealment, but it reveals nature in a very different way than poiesis. What Heidegger is emphasising is before technology is instrumental it revelatory. It reveals nature in a certain and determinate way. Rather than poiesis it is the ‘challenging forth of nature’ in which nature is something we use up as a store of energy. Such a way of revealing nature, Heidegger argues, is already hidden in the projection of modern science, which also only views nature as energy. When nature is viewed in this way it becomes a ‘standing reserve’. The river is no longer a course that flows through a valley, but a energy reserve to be used by hydroelectricity. The wood is only experience as a resource to produce cellulose or other industrial products. In the same way, human beings themselves are only seen as ‘standing reserves’ to be used up, such that nowadays it is quite common to hear people talking about human resources, as though there were nothing extraordinary about this.

The particular way in which nature reveals itself to us as something that we determine as standing reserve, Heidegger calls ‘enframing’ (Gestell). He is using this word in an original way. Normally, this word just means a ‘frame’, like in a picture frame. It sounds strange to use an ordinary word in this way, but no stranger than when Plato first used the word ‘idea’, which now sounds completely normal to us. What he means by ‘enframing’ is that nature as a totality must already be experienced by us in a certain way such that we experience both what we encounter in the world, and ourselves, as nothing but standing reserves. In the enframing, nature is reduced to calculation and manipulability. We can see therefore that modern science is at the heart of this process, and why we necessarily think, just as the medieval thought that everything was to be found in God, that science can answer every question. This does not mean that science creates the world around us. It means that since we only experience nature as calculable and manipulable, that science becomes the dominate world picture. This is not because a committee of scientists have decided that we should think like this, but this is generally how we experience nature as such, just as the medieval experienced everything through God, and no more decided this, than we decided our epoch.

Does not mean that Heidegger is anti-science? I think this would be a complete misunderstanding of his argument. Heidegger does not think that one can replace science by philosophy or another way of thinking (religion or spirituality or whatever way you might want to characterise it). On the contrary science only works because it limits nature to a sharply defined model that can be tested by an experiment. Heidegger’s worry is when we confuse this necessary limitation with the totality of nature and even more so when we think of ourselves in this way. But what is true of science is also true of religion in the medieval age or philosophy in the ancient one. What such an inflation of science conceals (that science describes nature as it is), is the political and ethical dimension of scientific and technological world view, where nature becomes only something that is to be consumed and used up. In the age of climate change and ecological catastrophes we might wonder whether such a relation hides a danger we have failed to foresee.

Bibliography

Galilei, G. & Finocchiaro, M.A., 2008. The essential Galileo, Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co.

Heidegger, M., 1977. The question concerning technology, and other essays, New York: Harper & Row.


[1] This is the great difference between Heidegger and Kuhn. Even though like Kuhn, Heidegger will also differentiate Aristotelian and Newtonian conceptions of reality (he does not think quantum physics is a decisive difference), nonetheless between these different epochs is the same principle of the intelligibility and calculability of nature.


Galileo and the Science of Nature – Lecture 1

March 6, 2015

GalileoWe are interested in science as part of intellectual history. We are not, therefore, concerned whether Galileo’s theories are correct or not in terms of the scientific conception of truth, however mistrustful we might be of such a way of thinking about truth. Nor do we need do pay attention to the specifics of Galileo’s theories, as though we were studying physics, though does not mean that details of his interpretations of nature will be of no concern at all. Rather, what matters to us is how, as non-scientists, our conception of the world has completely changed because of Galileo’s achievements. We live in a completely different world view because of the rise of experimental science in the 16th and 17th centuries, and this has profoundly altered the way we view nature. Galileo’s name, therefore, marks an epochal change in our history, and the present cannot be understood without it.

Before, however, we discuss what it is that is so important about Galileo, let us first say a few things about ‘intellectual history’ or the ‘history of ideas’, which we began to talk about last week. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, what do we mean by history? The fundamental basis of history must be time, for if we were not temporal beings; that is, had a sense of our own past, present and future, then our history as such would not have a meaning for us. Thus, we can talk about this history of rocks, but it unclear that rocks have a history for themselves. Likewise, we can talk about the history of lions, but they themselves do not have their own history.

The time of history is not the same as clock time, though it can be measured by clock time (we say that such and such an historical event happened at such a date and such a time), because it is our own experience of time that is the basis of clock time, and not clock time the basis of our experience of time. Human beings were already historical, have a sense of their own lives and death, and their place in the sweep of generations, long before clock time became the representation of lived time. If we first of all did not live in time, then there would be no calendars and clocks to measure it.

What do we mean by the past of history? It cannot mean just what once happened in the present and now has disappeared into past only to be retrieved in the present like a fish pulled out of the river gasping for air on the bank. In some sense, isn’t the past ahead of us rather than in front of us? Heidegger in Being and Time speaks of there being two meanings of history (1962, pp.424–55). One is the positivism of the past, which marches under the banner of the words of the famous German historian Ranke, who raised the study of history to a proper science, wie es eigentlich gewesen (the past as it actually was). The other, far more difficult to understand, and the sense of history that Heidegger will argue for, is the past as the possibility of the future. He asks what makes something preserved in a museum historical. We are not just speaking of statues and artefacts, but all the kinds of things the historian works with: letters, diaries, memoirs, eye witness accounts, government archives, treaties, and so on. For the positivist, these are the facts of history, and what makes history more than fables and myths. Heidegger does not dispute the reality of these documents nor their importance to the scientific study of history, but he asks a more difficult question: what is the ‘pastness’ of the past? Why, when I hold them in my hand, do I say they belong to the past. What is the status of these past artefacts as past, even though they belong to the present, since I holding these documents in my hands now?

What is at stake here is what we mean by truth, for it is the authenticity of these past documents (that they really belong to the past) that legitimate history and make it different from myth or storytelling. The historian isn’t interested merely in the fact that the battle of Waterloo happened on the 18th of June 1818, but that such an event can be verified by real witness accounts that have been written down and stored in archive. Just as clock time is derivate of lived time, since if human beings did not live in time, then we wouldn’t have clocks, so Heidegger thinks there is a fuller experience of history on which this narrower conception, however important and interesting it is, must rest. Why would we be interested in preserving this past, and why are some pasts more significant than others, since there are pasts that are absolutely lost, and some pasts that now that interest us (the pasts or women and the marginal, for example) that did not interest us before?

Heidegger answer is that the past matters to us because of our present. We can only interpret the past from the vantage point of the present, but this means we see the past in terms of our future. The truth of history is not the collection of supposedly true facts about the past, but how life can be breathed into them so that these lost documents might be retrieved and their burning embers illuminate our world in a new light. We study history because it reveals the present, but in so doing it shines a light forward into our future.

When we come to read Galileo, then, we are not interested in it as a dead object that has nothing to say about our present or our future, but precisely the opposite. The world we live in now is the world picture of Galileo, and the dangers of the future precisely spring out of this future. What is at the heart of Galileo’s projection of nature is mathematics. ‘The book of nature,’ he famously said, is written in the language of mathematics’.[1] Nature was not understood, as it was by the Ancient Greeks, and in the Medieval period, inspired as it was by the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, as made up of qualities, but as a quantity. What we see, colours, shapes, sizes and sounds, is not what is.

The ancient Greek word for nature is φύσις.[2] Rather than suggesting a mathematical homogenous reality, φύσις is related to the verb φύω, which means to ‘grow, produce or engender’. In latter medical texts of that period, φύσις began to mean not just the process of something (growing, producing, engendering, and so on), but the nature of something, what it is be that thing (Hadot 2004, pp.39–52). It is this notion of φύσις that we find in the works of Plato and Aristotle and which are passed down to our European heritage through the Islamic scholars by the 12th century. It is this intellectual world that is being rejected by Galileo’s hypothesis. Here nature becomes something very different, and its transformation is something that we still live with today.

It is in the next lecture that we shall investigate this transformation metaphysically and not just scientifically (for it is really Descartes who systematises Galileo’s approach and he understands more fully that it requires a whole different way of looking at nature). At this point we only want to describe generally how such a conception of nature is very different from before. It is no longer seen as a living being, but as a machine. It is the machine model of nature that opens it up to mathematisation. It is not that Galileo first sees nature mathematically and then subsequently understands it as a physical quantity, it is because he see nature as machine, whose parts can be explained purely physically, that it is open to the descriptive power of mathematics. It is this physical mathematical model that is still the basis of our modern physics, and affects the way that all view nature and ourselves. The aim of the new science of nature is to uncover those hidden mechanisms behind appearances using the new instruments (like Galileo’s telescope) and technologies, and constructing experiments through which they might be described mathematically.

What is at the heart of the new mechanical, physical, and mathematical model of nature is the belief that reality is homogenous. It is homogeneity of physical reality that is the real revolution of Galileo’s world view. For previously to Galileo, both in Ancient Greek thought, and in the monotheistic faiths, nature was heterogeneous and not homogeneous. Thus, the universe was divided into two distinct spheres, the physical and intelligible in Plato, which was then repeated in Aristotle’s double world view in the difference between the sublunary world and the heavenly spheres. The theistic division of the world into the earthly and heavenly was easily overlaid on top of these philosophical distinctions, such that in the long Scholastic period the one reinforced the other.

From the perspective of the Church, then, especially since there was no empirical proof for Galileo’s Copernicanism, since it was only a hypothesis, the judgement against Galileo was clearly justified. For it overthrew an image of nature that had existed for millennia. What this homogeneity of nature implied (as Spinoza knew only too well), was not that God did not exist, but that there was no unique place for man in the universe. As Freud remarked, the Copernican hypothesis was a blow to man’s pride, not God’s, since God was required to set such a nature in motion, but man certainly wasn’t (1973, pp.284–5). The universe is made of an infinite homogeneous matter, in which there are infinite stars and infinite planets, some no doubt inhabited by beings who equally mistakenly thought they were at the centre of the universe, but who quite obviously were not, just as man isn’t. That later on God dropped out of the model (‘we no longer need this hypothesis,’ as Laplace famously remarked), should not obscure the fact that it was the disappearance of man that led to the disappearance of God, and not the other way around.

You have to read The Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems with a healthy scepticism (which of course is always the way you should read) (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, pp.190–271). Galileo presents the Copernican system as though it were merely an mathematical hypothesis (which is how Copernicus himself understood it), whereas he believed he already had empirical proof that such a motion was real (he even argued erroneously that it was an explanation of the tides on the earth). What you have to understand is what the motion of the earth implied, however much it went against common sense, and why his opponents, who he represents as slaves to their learning and their books, rather than earnest observational study of nature (though it was his theories rather than his observations that were the source for his own hypothesis), were so adamantly against his views. Because to see the earth as in motion meant that there no difference between the earth and the other planets, and thus there was nothing at all distinctive about it.

As he writes at the very beginning of the second day, ‘Independent Mindedness and Aristotle’s Authority’, the traditional view was that the heavenly spheres were ‘ingenerable, indestructible, unchangeable and inert’, whereas the earth was the opposite of this, ‘elemental, generable, degradable, and changeable (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.193). Galileo’s argument was that there was no difference between the earth and rest of the universe because they were made of one and the same substance, and that the earth is the same as the planet Jupiter, which is clearly moving. It is important to note that Galileo does not get Simplicus (who represents all those who reject the heliocentric view) as not disagreeing with this hypothesis by putting forward a different one, but saying that it disagrees with the authority of Aristotle. Galileo is thereby opposing two different practices of science. One in which observation and theory is fundamental (though he probably overplays the observation, since he already entertained the hypothesis and constructed the experiments to prove them), and the other, traditional and hidebound by the interpretation of texts. The former, Galileo asserts, would have been more attractive to Aristotle than the latter, even though they claim to speak in his name, since he too was a scientist, and if he had looked through Galileo’s telescope would have agreed with him and not his opponents.

If we are going to reject Aristotle, he continues, we do not need another author. The only authority we need is our own senses. Our discussion as proper philosophers should be about the ‘sensible world and not a world on paper’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.201). As we shall see next week, however, it is precisely this world that we cannot see.


[1] He did not actually say this. The quotation is a gloss of a passage in The Assayer. ‘Philosophy is written in this all-encompassing book that is constantly open before our eyes, that is the universe; but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to understand the language and knows the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures; without these it is humanly impossible to understand a word of it, and one wanders around pointlessly in a dark labyrinth’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.183).

[2] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf. And for φύω, see http://goo.gl/oeZ43f.


Heidegger and The Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

February 1, 2015

Heidegger_1_(1960)We 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).


Realism and Anti-Realism in Science – Lecture 6

December 19, 2014

Stylised_Lithium_AtomIn a previous lecture we looked at Kuhn’s idea of history of science as broken by different paradigms that are incommensurable. Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, and Einsteinianism, mark revolutions in the history of science rather than a smooth flow of one epoch into another which will some day reach an ultimate Truth when we can all stop doing science because what our theories say and what is are exactly the same and there will be no exceptions. What Kuhn reminds us is that when we think about what science is, rather than taking the philosopher of science’s word for it, we should examine what scientists do. We will find that the philosophical version does not much look like the real history of science, rather they are idealisations in both sense of the word: an abstraction and a kind of wish fulfilment. Kuhn is not sceptical of science as such, but the philosophy of science. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, marks the death knell of a particular kind of philosophical history of science, so that it can be replaced by the proper history of science, whose object is what scientists actually do, rather than what philosophers think they might do. In other words, the new object of this history of science is ‘normal science’, in all its messiness and vagueness, rather than an idealised science that has never existed except in the minds of philosophers like Ayer or Popper.

At this point, however, we are going to make a little detour back to philosophy, and that is to the question which should have been bugging us from the very beginning, which is what exactly is science about, rather than what is the history of science. Early on we characterised the difference between religion and science as the difference between belief and facts. We said that science is about reality, that it makes true description of real things that happen in the world. In a word, it is objective. On the contrary, religion is subjective. It does not give us a true picture of the world, but offers us a moral compass through which we can live our lives. To confuse religion with science is to undermine the importance of religion rather than to give it more intellectual support. There is no conflict between science and religion, because they are completely different discourses. One tells you what something is, the other how you ought to live your life.[1]

But what do mean when we say that science is about reality? Aren’t we being a little simplistic when we do that? What is reality after all? Everyone knows the old paradox of whether a tree that falls down in a forest makes a sound or not if no one is there to hear it. Is reality what we perceive or is it more than that? I would say that it would be absurd to say that there would not be trees, stones or stars if there were no human beings. As though human beings were to vanish the universe would vanish with them. The universe does not have any meaning, however, except for the fact that it means something for some being or other in the universe. A stone is not a stone for a stone. It is only a stone for human beings who understand what it is to be a stone. We’ll come back to this at the end of the lecture.

Both Chalmers , Okasha, and Ladyman (perhaps because they all belong to what can be loosely called the analytic tradition) seem very reluctant to address these questions head on (as though they were too philosophical and could be avoided. I would say that it is their hidden philosophical assumptions which allow them to avoid these questions).[2] For them, on the contrary, the important distinction is between realism and anti-realism, rather than whether reality exists out there as such and what we might mean by reality as a whole. Chalmers simply dismisses the idea that reality being formed by language (what he calls global anti-realism), through a Tarskian theory of truth, which begs the questions, because such a theory already has a commitment to a certain view of language, and a certain view of reality, which remains unquestioned by Chalmers himself. Investigating this presupposition, however, would take us too far from the subject of this lecture itself.

What then is anti-realism and realism in science? First of all it is important to note that both theories accept the reality of the world. So it is important not to confuse either with a thorough going scepticism. The difference between them has to do with the status of scientific theories, on the one hand, and observable phenomenon on the other. A strong realist would argue that both observable phenomenon and theories are true descriptions of the world out there, whereas an strong anti-realist would say that only observable phenomenon are true, and theories are neither true of false. All these authors, as far as I can see, occupy a position between these two extremes.

The common sense view, I suppose, would take it that both theories and observable phenomenon are true, so we are going to approach this question from this point of view. None of us would think that observable phenomenon are not real, that when I see a donkey there isn’t a donkey out there (again I am not so sure that both Okasha and Chalmers skip over this supposed reality far too quickly, but let us leave them to have that truth for now). What isn’t so certain is that theories really point to something out there. This is because much of the basis of a scientific theories actually point to phenomenon that we cannot observe. If we cannot see something, then how can we say that it is part of the world? From what vantage point would we say that it is real? Of course, as Okasha points out, many sciences do have as their basis observable phenomenon, such as palaeontology whose objects are fossils, but modern physics does not (Okasha, 2002: 59). We cannot literally see inside of the atom. We only have theoretical pictures of what they look like, and we do not know if at that level the universe really looks like that at all.

The anti-realist is not saying that there is no difference between science and someone who thinks that the earth is balance on the back of a turtle. Rather theories only give us structures or the scaffolding in which we can observe phenomena through experimentation, but it is only this literally observable phenomenon which we can take to be true. The theory itself we cannot prove is real or not, because there is nothing there to see which we could demonstrate as real or not. The history of science itself seems to bear this out, because there have been false theories that have actually brought out true observable phenomena, so there does not seem to be an analogy between the truth of a theory and the truth of observable phenomena. The example that Chalmers gives is the history of optics, which is littered with what we now understand to be false theories of light, and yet which provided correct observable phenomena. Thus Newton believed that light was made up of particles, then Fresnel believed that light was a wave in a medium called ether, then Maxwell, believed that light waves were fluctuating electric and magnetic fields in ether, then in 20th century we got rid of the ether and the waves were entities in their own right, then finally the wave theory of light was supplemented by the particle theory of photons.

It seems to go against common sense, however, to say that theories are just fictions on which we hang our experimental results. When we look at the history of atomic theory it does appear that we are getting a progressive understanding of the structure of atom, and it would seem entirely bizarre that the theory would predict what we ought to see, and at the same time being entirely false. One way of getting around this is by arguing that the anti-realist is making a false distinction between what is observable and what is not observable, since though we cannot see inside the atom, we can detect the existence of atoms by ionisation when they are passed through a cloud chamber. The strict anti-realist, however would say that, all we know is real is the trails themselves, and we cannot not know whether the atoms are real or not, just as we should confuse the trail that a plane leaves in the sky with the plane itself. In other words, we have to make a distinction between direction observation and detection.

The fundamental issue here is whether we can make a complete separation between theories, on the one side, and facts on the other. This is the real issue, rather than whether facts are observable and theories not. In fact it is the anti-realist and not the realist who is committed to the separation. Both Okasha and Chalmers, though in different ways, would criticise this separation. Chalmers returns to whether the history of philosophy really does prove that theories which were once taken as true are shown to be false by the next one, and so on infinitum, so that we can never know whether are theories give us an accurate view of the world, by arguing that each new theory takes up some aspect of the previous one which gives us a more and more accurate picture of the phenomenon we are attempting to understand. Thus a true theory (unlike the turtle theory) captures some aspect of the truth of the world, if only a partial one, which is then improved by the subsequent one (does this conflict with the Kuhnian view of science, since it implies an accumulative image of science?). Okasha, on the other hand, will claim that the problems that the anti-realist claims would undermine the possibility of claiming theories to be true, could also rebound against what we would think were observable phenomena, and thus would destroy the basis of all science altogether, since we could only claim to know what we could see now in this moment, and not past events, since again they are only known by detection rather than direct observation (this would be mean that the anti-realist argument would be like Hume’s problem of induction).

As I said at the beginning, I find both Okasha’s and Chalmers discussion of realism unsatisfactory and indeed both of their chapters seems to end without any kind of resolution as though they had both been exhausted by the discussion. What I think is left unthought in their views is that the only way we could access reality is through science, and thus if we cannot, then we cannot access reality. To me the discussion of observable and unobservable phenomena is a red herring. Nothing has meaning unless it has meaning for us and that is true of both observable and unobservable phenomena, but the real issue is whether our reality is first of all something that we observe. Here I would turn to the philosophy of Heidegger, who would argue that it is prejudice of a very old metaphysics that our first relation to the world is one of perception, what he calls ‘present-to-hand’. What is true both for the realist and the anti-realist is that they take reality to mean ‘present to hand’. It is just that one thinks scientific theories are speaking about something present to hand and the other does not. The world for Heidegger, on the contrary is not something, present to hand, but ready to hand. The world is first of all something that we orientate ourselves in, rather than perceive.[3] This context can never be investigated as an object, because it is what objects make possible. Even science itself must have its origin in this cultural context or background. It is only because science as an activity means something to us that we can approach anything in the world as a scientific object, and not the other way around.

As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, Newton’s laws are only true because we exist. If we were no longer to exist, and the world in which these laws made sense were no longer to exist, then it would be absurd to still say that these laws were true. This does not mean that things do not exist separate from us, nor that truth is relative. Newton’s laws really say something about things, because these things only are, in the sense of ‘true’, through our existence. This truth would only be relative if we really thought that there was a truth of things beyond our existence that we did not know. Things are only because they are there for us, but this in no way means that any assertion is possible. This would be to confuse assertion and the condition of assertion. The truth of reality is dependent on our existence, but this does not mean that you or I can say anything we like about this existence. For you or I as individuals are just as much part of this existence as anything else is. To be a scientist is to already except what this existence means (what the world of science means, of which Newton’s laws are an example), and to refuse this is no longer to be a scientist.

Works Cited

Van Fraassen, B. (2006). Weyl’s Paradox: The Distance between Structure and Perspective. In A. Berg-Hildebrand, & C. Shum (Eds.), Bas C. Van Fraassen: The Fortunes of Empiricism (pp. 13-34). Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.


[1] It is a wholly other topic whether religion is the only discourse that can do this, but that does not undermine our distinction between it and science.

[2] Okasha, Samir, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2002, 58-76. A. F. Chalmers, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in What is this Thing Called Science?, third edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press, 1999, 226-46.. Ladyman is more willing to discuss the philosophical issues in depth, but he does so from an analytic perspective. What is lacking in all these treatments is what I would call ‘ontological depth’, and I am going to turn to this in the next lecture which will look at some of the ideas of Heidegger.

[3] I think that this is what Fraassen is getting at when he says that a theory or model of reality is only useful when we locate ourselves within it, though I don’t think he is referring to Heidegger’s distinction here. (Van Fraassen, 2006, p. 31)