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Heidegger and Technology by Daniel Goldsmith

Author: Daniel Goldsmith

Last Updated: December 23, 2011

Heidegger and Technology

By Daniel Goldsmith

The question of technology is going to be the guiding theme of this discussion, in the light of evolution. I am going to try to draw a connection with Sri Aurobindo’s thinking, although I expect that others here will be able to help me with this. I am somewhat familiar with the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother but I am not an expert and I am also here to learn. Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo are remarkably similar in a number of ways, even though it is kind of odd to think that they apparently had no communication with each other, yet they were practicing the same kind of enquiry into the essential questions of existence. I feel that Heidegger is the best example of modern philosophy in the West, and Sri Aurobindo is the best example in modern eastern philosophy, dealing with the same questions.

Heidegger says at the very beginning of his work on the question of technology that the essence of technology is nothing technological. This is the phrase that we are going to be driving at, to try to understand why Heidegger says that the essence of technology is not technological. Heidegger thinks that we can’t get to what technology is by examining all of its endless examples; he thinks that something else is at work, giving rise to all of the technological objects around us. His method, in asking this question, is called “phenomenology”. It is a method of approaching knowledge of the world that was pioneered by his teacher Husserl, whose major work, titled Ideas, was published in 1906. He was active around the turn of the century, although he did significant later work, titled The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which is well-known. And he died in 1936.

His famous dictum was “to the things themselves”. When we say phenomena, what do we mean? We could take anything, and ask what it is. What is the chair in front of us? We could say it is an object made for sitting. But if we really want to know what that object is we need to go deeper. What is it made of? We say, plastic. And where did that come from? From an industrial process using oil, petroleum. And that came from under the ground in the Middle East. There is a chain of questions that results when we begin to open the box. The phenomenological way of looking at things tries to see all of the conditions that make something possible. We would then need to include the history of science, of oil exploration, of politics, in the discussion. And we begin to see how we can take one entry point into the question and it opens up the whole world. If you are familiar with Indra’s Net in Hindu philosophy, it is an image of twelve gems, and when you shine a light on one it reflects the light in all the others. All the phenomena in our world are interconnected. We can get a hint from this image, perhaps, of what Heidegger means by saying technology is not something technological. We need to examine it for what it is and not what we assume it to be.

Husserl was a philosopher of mathematics, and he is sort of famous for making some bold statements like, “we cannot authentically count beyond the number seven”. When we use concepts, such as number, they are supposed to represent objects in the world. Husserl felt that once we get beyond seven we lose track of what the number actually refers to and we begin to deal with it abstractly. If we talk about twenty elephants, we may be able to fill out a chart of animals in a game preserve, but we find that it is really difficult to make a concrete connection between the number twenty and twenty elephants. He saw that the people around him in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, especially among the physicists, were becoming detached from the reality they were trying to describe. They made long, intricate equations that could be put to use in developing technology, but he thought those numbers were separate from the physical reality, and he was alarmed by this tendency. And he would have seen that, with the outbreak of World War I in European society, this was the crisis that he had anticipated and that resulted from not examining the ethical implications of scientific thinking. He thought that we could use thinking in a different way and ground what we do in real life.
He was Heidegger’s teacher and we can see how Heidegger owes his methods to Husserl.

So, Heidegger took the method of phenomenology and applied it to the question of Being. Throughout his career he is fascinated by what he calls “recollecting the question of Being”, which he believed had been forgotten in the history of philosophy. It is something that had ceased to interest philosophers. Philosophy in the 17th to 19th centuries was primarily about how we know things, with epistemology. But in order to understand how we know things, there is a question that is primary. In order to know something we (and they) must first “be”. We must be alive before we know anything. And this “being” is something that he says needs to be questioned first, before asking how knowledge occurs to this being.

Da-sein is a neologism created by Heidegger, meaning the being for whom ‘being’ is a question, which is the human being. He says somewhere that his preferred translation of the term is “openness to being”. It means being-there, in the world, which makes knowing possible. We are an aperture through which being examines itself; and that’s what a human being is: we can ask ourselves the question of Being. In Being and Time he examines many of the things that we are, in order to come to an understanding of what “being” as a whole is. In fact his major work, Being and Time, was never finished, in terms of the goal he set for himself in the book. But some say that the rest of his career was in a sense the finishing of the questions or explorations first presented in that work.

Now, if we go back to the phenomenological idea, when we examine the question of being, some would say it is a question that has no answer and no meaning. We know we exist, but we don’t need to say anything more about it. In Being and Time, Heidegger tries to bring this phenomenon into view, and develops a philosophical method of meandering through many concepts of experience and ideas of philosophy, such as the idea of objectivity and subjectivity for example; then in later work he approaches the question through the lens of metaphysics. And again later, he will look at the question of Being through language, and through art. Each of these stages or entry points in his thought highlights something that was not there before. Finally, in the last phase of his career, he raises the question of being from the point of view of technology, and especially in the work we are going to focus on here, published in 1955, called The Question Concerning Technology. There is something about the phenomenon of technology that highlights or reflects something about Being that he hadn’t articulated in his previous attempts.

One commonality, or characteristic, we can say, about this phenomenon of being, is something the Indian sages said millennia ago, when they described Maya and Lila: there is something in our everyday existence that is veiled and illusory. There is something fundamentally playful, like a hide and seek in the nature of being. For example, in my meditation, sometimes suddenly some feature of myself will become crystal clear and I will understand why I have been motivated to do something. Then when I return to the ordinary routine of life, the experience is forgotten. But I come to another similar realization after a period of time and I compare it with notes made a couple of years earlier and see I had the same realization. I feel I am discovering something new, but it was there before and somehow became covered up or concealed. Heidegger frequently speaks about this interplay of revealing and concealing in the nature of being. Through our immediate awareness of this chair, for example, something is revealed about its existence, but there is a lot of its being and history which is concealed.

This nature of things comes to an interesting culmination in Heidegger’s work on technology. But we need to recognize here that whatever understanding we have is always partial. If we are trying to get the phenomenon of technology into view, it can be useful to look at all the ways in which it is concealed. This was a common idea in medieval philosophy, in the form known as the via negativa, or trying to define what something is by what it is not.

What I would like to do now, after this introduction to the course, is to start working on our everyday conception of technology. If I ask the questions, what is technology, and what is evolution, and how are the two related, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Response 1: We know what evolution is, in plants and art, it’s a change for improvement, towards the unknown. The ways things change. And one way we humans have evolved is in a technological way. It is an aspect of our evolution. And at the same time it is almost the opposite of evolution. The products of technology are destroying life. But because of technology we may get to something else. …Technology’s failures are leading us somewhere. Even if it looks disastrous, there may be a reason for it.

Response 2: I’d say evolution is the main push of life, trying to find better ways of adapting to the environment. And technology would be the mind’s ways of getting ahead and finding solutions to the problems of adaptation. …The human species is quite weak in many ways, but we have a mind which creates things that ensure our survival.

Response3: Darwin said that nature is working constantly and insensibly on the improvement of each organic being. I would carry this biological notion beyond organic beings and say that it is the limitless energy of emergence. Because energy can’t go backwards in time, it’s a necessary onward movement of novelty, the emergence of novelty. Some biologists would question the idea of improvement and progress. But this idea of emergence doesn’t necessarily require a value judgment. On the other side of the paradigm, I would say that human technology is the external demonstration of this principle of emergence. It can’t go backwards, it always moves forwards, and it always expresses something new.

A key aspect of what technology is, in the way the Greeks understood it, which is of special interest to Heidegger, is the word they used - techne, which is anything that humans have brought forth. It encompasses more than we usually give it credit for, such as art and poetry. These are part of the same process. We are trying to bring forth something with techne which is not already given.

Heidegger will say that an essential part of technology is that it is characterized by the absence of an “end” or goal. Whatever it is, it is not bringing us to some stage in which it is finished. I was pondering a question, asked by Sri Aurobindo, whether the earth will be the place of the manifestation of the supramental consciousness, and I thought, what if it is not? What if our destiny is to destroy ourselves with our tools? It could be that some other being will evolve and learn from our mistakes. We cannot know. We can only impose causality on things which have happened in the past. We have no idea of the future.
**************

Asking, as we have done, what is technology and what is evolution, we need to realize that it is important to get our commonplace understanding of terms out in front, even though it may not be adequate or complete. If we look at evolution as the emergence of the new and novel, out of what is already there, we see that technology seems to do this as well. It brings forth something that is not already given. This idea of bringing forth, is the Greek word techne, which encompasses more than physical nature. It includes art, poetry, language, and for the Greeks it was related to phusis, as the movement of energy; there was a similarity between the production of energy in nature, and the human production of art, tables, utensils. But when we question most people, there is an implicit assumption that there is a difference between the works of man and of nature. There is a human world and a natural world. There is the assumption that the human world is fundamentally parasitic on the natural world, or one that takes the raw material of nature and transforms it into something useful for the superior creatures. Either way, there is an assumption that there is an essential difference between the natural and the human world. But the Greeks didn’t make such a distinction, and Heidegger is interested in bringing us towards this understanding. But there is a long road to follow between where we are now in our everyday understanding, and learning to see human creation as a bringing forth in the same manner as nature’s. He leads us through thought to see techne, and all human creation, as a form of art, and the similarity between what the force of nature is for, and what art is for.

There is a quote from one of Heidegger’s later works, called The Discourse on Thinking, in which he said, “For the way to what is near, is always the longest and thus the hardest, for us humans”. We have to peel back the layers one by one in order to get to what is
omnipresent and close.
Human technological creation often has a direct effect on our physical evolution. For example, the discovery of fire and cooking; according to a book recently published titled Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the author demonstrates that we find changes in human anatomy around places where fire was first used, and he postulates that the oven did a lot of the work of digestion, and freed up energy to do other things. So technology can speed up evolution and evolution can speed up technology. Another interesting contemporary example is the internet, which is, in a sense, an extension of that first movement present in fire to externalize our stomachs. You can see the object of technology as the way the human being has found to overcome limitations. We are not very strong but we can invent tools; we are not very fast but we invent bows and arrows to hunt animals. We use technology as a prostheses. The internet is a prostheses of our mind. People carry around an iphone where you have the internet in your pocket, and if you want to find information about anything you have access to our digital mind. And it is independent of the individual mind. The digital revolution is going to be something on a par with the invention of fire. A futuristic writer named Kurzweil has speculated that at some point in the not too distant future man and the machine will merge. He calls it a singularity point because it is something we can’t see beyond. We are just at the emergence of this phenomenon now, with the invention of microchips that are inserted in the brain to control tremors or in the bloodstream to detect cancer. And this underscores the importance of asking these questions.

This would be a good time then, to bring up the distinction I wanted to get on the table today, made by Heidegger, between what he calls calculative thinking and meditative thinking – the two ways the human being can comport himself toward the world. Heidegger would say that the discussion of new technologies remains in the sphere of calculative thinking. We are too busy manipulating beings to be open to the mystery of Being. The issue of calculative thought is nearly synonymous, for Heidegger at least, with technology. He understands that calculative thought is very useful and produces results. There is nothing really wrong with calculative thinking; Heidegger isn’t condemning or praising technology, but describing what it is. It is necessary in many ways for our survival.

His definition of calculative thinking is that it is largely defined by results – ‘thus calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates. Such thinking remains calculation even if it neither works with numbers nor uses adding machines and computers.’ We should therefore dissociate our normal understanding of ‘calculative thinking’ from something that has to do with numbers and mathematics. ‘Calculative thinking computes ever new and more economical possibilities.’ It’s about economy and efficiency; it’s about bringing forth something not given, with the least amount of energy. ‘Calculative thinking races from one process to the next.’ Something closely related to efficiency is speed. If something can get the job done faster, then it is better. Questions about whether this is a good thing don’t arise in the context of calculative thinking. ‘Calculative thinking never stops and never collects itself.’ It desires its goals and processes, but it is not efficient to stop and ask philosophical questions about them. If you are manufacturing or doing research into some new material it is inefficient and uncompetitive to stop for a few days in the week to ask about the nature of the thing you are doing, or the nature of the mind that allows this activity to take place. ‘Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is.’ There we get the idea that meditative thinking is concerned with the underlying meaning of things.

In this and other of his works in the 50s and 60s, Heidegger could foresee quite astutely that calculative thinking would come to dominate as the sole way of thinking. It will edge out meditative thinking altogether. Even by having this discussion we are still participating in the calculative way of thinking. But by considering the question, as Heidegger suggests, we can begin to prepare the ground for meditative thinking, which for him is our essence. But for true meditative thinking to actually take place, the rational mind has to see its own limitations and surrender itself to what is beyond it.

Wouldn’t this be against our evolution? If evolution is, as it was in the past, merely trying to accomplish the goal of brute survival, then, Yes. But if you take Sri Aurobindo’s definition of what evolution is, then meditative thinking is absolutely essential to our future evolution. If you take the evolution of consciousness and the awareness of the Self as the goal, if the Self is constantly caught up in manipulating objects, it never has a chance to recognize its true nature. You could say that, the reason why evolution did all that it has done in the past to produce the human form was in order to get itself to the point where it can become aware of itself in the process. You could see meditative thinking as the culmination of a certain evolutionary process.

But it may be a mistake to think that meditative thinking is not active and dynamic, and that ‘being’ is just an emptiness. Heidegger says, ‘Meditative thinking does not happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking. At times it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time. To await, as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen.’



(adapted from lectures recorded on Sept. 19 and Sept. 26, 2011, at Savitri Bhavan in Auroville)

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