SCIENCE AS A MODE OF HUMAN COMPORTMENT (PART ONE: THE NATURE OF TOOLS)

beach-cave

Nature is often referred to as blind, and blind first of all to its own existence. As the object of science, nature knows nothing about physics, chemistry, or biology. Science, on the other hand, is explicit and intentional knowledge about nature. A mere expansion of our focus, however, reveals that nature does know about physics, chemistry, and biology after all. It even practices these disciplines, for we ourselves are natural beings. Science is therefore knowledge about nature but also knowledge that nature itself has acquired through human—that is, through its own—ingenuity.

As knowledge about something, science presupposes a knower as well as something known. Nature becomes aware of its own existence within this bifurcated structure. It lives, so to speak, within it. If we take science itself (as a system of knowledge) as our theme, we begin to incline toward epistemology. That philosophers like to develop knowledge about knowledge can be gleaned from Kant’s description of his own project:

 I call that knowledge transcendental which concerns itself in general not so much with objects as with our manner of knowing them, insofar as this must be a priori possible (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason).

The Critique is an investigation of the limits of pure reason. What can we legitimately know? In the chapter he calls “The Antinomy of Pure Reason,” for instance, Kant gives examples of illegitimate knowledge, “transcendental illusions” which he plays off against each other as thesis and antithesis, giving them equally compelling proofs.

The transcendental antithetic is in fact an investigation of the antinomy of pure reason, its causes and its results. If we apply our reason, not merely to objects of experience, in order to make use of the principles of the understanding, but venture to extend it beyond the limits of experience, then there arise sophistical doctrines, which may neither hope to be confirmed nor fear to be refuted in experience. Every one of them is not only in itself free from contradiction, but can even point to conditions of its necessity in the nature of reason itself—although, unfortunately, the assertion opposing it can produce equally valid and necessary grounds in its support.

He sounds a bit like Francis Bacon. Bacon, however, did not altogether approve of the task of concerning ourselves “not so much with objects as with our manner of knowing them.” Bacon says of the scholastics that

[they] did, out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit, spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit (The Advancement of Learning).

If we take what Bacon says here strictly, we’re forced to conclude that the “wit and mind of man” is not only not a fit subject for thought but that it is not God’s creation at all. He goes on to criticize the practice of deducing knowledge about nature from principles deemed sound by human reason without consulting nature itself as a corrective. Thought is better off anchored to the stuff of the world, which keeps it tethered to reality. For Bacon, the ultimate end of knowledge is “the Glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” To achieve this, he calls for “contemplation and action” to be “more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been.” We want to pay special attention to the fact that, although Bacon calls for closer ties between theory and practice, he nonetheless distinguishes them. The behavioral basis of science is, for him, contemplation. It is just that it should serve to practically improve the lot of humankind, therein redounding to God’s glory.

Now we come to phenomenology. To what is it tethered? As declared by its founder, Edmund Husserl, “to the things themselves!” According to Heidegger’s formulation, phenomenology is àpophaínesthai tà phainómena, “to permit that which of its own accord manifests itself to reveal itself as it is.” At first blush, this description seems like it could just as well refer to the act of discovery as conceived and practiced by the physical sciences. After all, science seeks to determine nature as it is in itself. Notice, however, that phenomenology focuses on what nature is specifically as manifest. It therefore considers nature in its relevance to human life, and first of all as it discloses itself proximally and for the most part, without any explanatory theory being introduced.

We easily see that the “manifest,” the “permit,” and the “reveal” in Heidegger’s elucidation presuppose an agent by means of which entities are disclosed. But he is interested in things specifically as beings. This entails that they be revealed not just to any living organism at all but to a being who has some understanding of being, however vague that understanding might be. Human beings have the capacity to realize that they exist, and this capacity gives rise to a specifically philosophical form of questioning. For Heidegger, this vague but undeniable human comprehension that things exist distinguishes human beings from other entities. By virtue of the kind of beings we are, nature is there for itself. As those beings through whom nature comes to grips with its own existence, we are always an aspect of the phenomenon under consideration. The underlying phenomenon of phenomenology is therefore not a thing, an object, but an event of (self-)disclosure. Through us, nature realizes its own existence, and now things emerge as being there explicitly. This explicitness makes philosophy and science possible.

Obviously, we’re not talking about mere perception here, which even worms and insects possess, but nature disclosing itself specifically by way of an understanding of its own being. The agent through which this happens Heidegger calls Dasein, a German word that normally means “existence” but which he often hyphenates to elicit a more nuanced meaning (There-being). For Heidegger, the central function of human life is to reveal a There, a world, in which things can be what and how they are, not, indeed, as part of an undisclosed nature without any relevance to the disclosing agent but specifically as things involved in human affairs. By disclosing things, we free them to be what and how they are within and as part of a meaning-infused life-context. That is, we bring them into relevance.

Proximally and for the most part, however, we encounter the world not as a number of things to be observed and studied, as we would from a scientific standpoint, but as entities related to in a “handy” way. This is the case even with the ground we walk on, which we use as a “tool” for walking, crawling, standing, and resting. In other words, we proximally discover the earth practically. But we don’t usually think of it that way because thinking is not the right mode of accessing and disclosing the nature of equipment. The wont of tools as tools is rather to recede. When being used, tools don’t present themselves as objects for observation and contemplation.

If you’re sitting down, try thinking about the chair you’re on, but try to think about what and how the chair is when you’re not thinking about it, when your attention is fixed on something else. Since your attention isn’t focused on the chair, you’re not turning it into an object that is there for you in your capacity as a knower or an observer, much less as a thing to be taken apart and dissected. The chair is simply serving its purpose, playing its part in the world as a chair. Indeed, this is when its specifically chair-like quality is actually being expressed. To understand the chair as a practical phenomenon, the goal is to try to not objectify the chair (or anything else), to not single it out as something to observe or study. Once you single out the chair as an object, you begin sliding into the theoretical-scientific kind of thinking and of relating to the chair, which is just what we’re trying to avoid.

Now imagine that you take the chair and, so to speak, shine the spotlight of your attention on it. You begin studying, observing, speculating, probing, measuring, weighing, taking apart, calculating. You have ripped the chair out of its practical context, in which it properly is what it is, and placed it in a theoretical context, and you’ve done so simply by changing your way of comporting toward it. The way you now relate to the chair discloses the chair differently than when you were simply using it. In terms of the nature of the world and its practical phenomena, you’ve now turned the chair precisely into something it’s not: an object of contemplation and investigation. The important point is that science does this with the world in general; it basically turns it into something it’s not.

Our claim obviously isn’t that what science discovers is false, as if an objective investigation of the chair would merely uncover untruths. On the contrary, we would learn a great deal in the process. We would even be able to turn around and apply the knowledge we acquired (for instance, by reengineering or modifying the chair). Nevertheless, we have distorted what the chair is as a chair, and have done so in quite a fundamental way.

In short, science distorts what the world is as world. The observationally oriented way of relating to the chair is out of whack with respect to what the chair is as a chair. Such is the case when we turn the whole universe into an object of scientific investigation, all the while downplaying or outright ignoring the transformative importance of its self-manifestation, the fact that through us the universe comes to realize its own existence, perhaps for the only time in infinity. Taking the world as the correlate of an observational disposition, science discovers it as ta phusika, a term about which we will have more to say. For now, we simply state that not only do positivist and physicalist modes of thought confuse ta phusika with a world, they even go so far as to present it as the real world. The specifically worldly character of the world has, however, been all but emptied out.

Let’s get back to Heidegger for a moment as we near the end of this first installment. For he considers how Western grammar and logic originated in ancient Greece with respect to the practical and theoretical ways of disclosing nature.

Thus the two terms onoma and rhēma, which at first indicated all speaking, narrowed their meaning and became terms for the two main classes of words [substantives (nouns) and verbs]…In the sphere of beings we may distinguish between pragma and praxis. The former are the things we have something to do with, the things with which we are always concerned. The latter is doing and acting in the broadest sense, which also includes poiēsis [production]. [Now, according to the basic division,] words are either of two kinds. They are dēlōma pragmatos (onoma), a manifestation of things [specifically as pragma] and dēlōma praxeōs (rhēma), a manifestation of a doing. Wherever a plegma, a sumplokē (a construction that weaves both together), happens, there is the logos elachistos te kai prōtos, the shortest and (at the same time) the first (real) discourse. But Aristotle is the first to give the clearer metaphysical interpretation of logos in the sense of the propositional statement. He distinguishes onoma as sēmantikon aneu chronou (signifying without reference to time) and rhēma as prossēmmainon chronon (indicating time). This elucidation of the nature of the logos became the model and measure for the later development of logic and grammar (What is Metaphysics? [Bracketed interpolations are my own]).

In the transition mediated by Aristotle and developed by the ensuing intellectual development of the West, the originally pragmatic nature of the noun (onoma as dēlōma pragmatos) and–albeit to a much lesser extent–of the verb (rhēma as dēlōma praxeōs), has been obscured. With the elimination of the pragmatic character of the phenomena, the stage is set for the theoretic-scientific way of considering the pragma as mere objects:

When does the formation of logic begin? When Greek philosophy comes to an end and becomes a matter of schools, organization, and technique. It begins when eon, being, appears as idea, and as idea becomes the ‘ob-ject’ of epistēmē (scientific knowledge).

Hence logos itself now becomes the object of knowledge. But it is even more than that. The principal way of relating to the world in epistēmē gets crystallized by logic in the making of assertions, which themselves become a way of disclosing the world in a theoretical manner. In logic, the preeminent way of disclosing the world has traditionally been the statement that asserts or predicates something about reality. We have completely crossed over into the observationally oriented disposition of a theoretically inclined intelligence. Instead of Hand me the hammer, the predicative statement about reality says, The hammer is such and such, it weighs such and such, it is made out of such and such. The world has been whittled down to an object about which assertions are made.

In conclusion, we can say that observation and contemplation offer us an entirely different way of relating to (and hence of revealing the world) than the primordial way of praxis. The different ways of revealing affect the way the world presents itself, and this means what it is taken to be. Observation is not only the basis for the scientific manner of disclosing things; as such, it marks science’s limit as a way of revealing the world. While engineering often builds on what science discovers, it is, as praxis, a more fundamental and immediate way of disclosing the world as world. We see this historically by the fact that the manipulation of nature, the creation of tools, structures, monuments, etc., preceded the development of the physical sciences and might yet outlast them.

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