Nature and the individual
Heidegger's Challenge

Carlo Rovelli

With my wanderings into areas where I am not competent, I spent last summer immersed in a difficult read: Being and Time, the main text from Martin Heidegger, published 93 years ago. It was the huge discrepancy in Heidegger's judgments that prompted me to undertake the reading. In Europe I have seen him presented as a great philosopher who inspired an important part of the thinking of the last century. In the United States I have come into contact with the part of Anglo-Saxon philosophy that considers him little more than a bum, who speaks obscurely, to not to say anything that really makes any sense. The difference is so extreme that I couldn't resist the curiosity to go see for myself.

Several reasons made it difficult for me to get close to Heidegger. The first is the horror at his very explicit support for Hitler's project and his bleak anti-Semitism, obvious from his Black Notebooks, published a few years ago. The second is his extremely convoluted and bombastic style, which gives the overall impression that doesn’t he wants to make himself understood. But these difficulties can be overcome. Even the people we hate can say interesting things, and the style didn't end up being so obscure. The book repeats the same ideas times over and over, and after a while you begin to orient yourself. On a second reading one follows along.

At least, I sensed I was following. And that is enough, because what I find interesting in the texts is how much they can communicate to us, that is, how much we can absorb that can influence, add, modify, counter, question, and therefore enrich our thinking. What exactly an author meant, however, is a question, in my opinion, of little interest, and in any case destined to remain unsatisfied: we will never enter the head of another. But that's not why we're interested in listening to others or reading a text.

The real difficulty for me in orienting myself to Being and Time was another. It is the fact that the philosophical perspective in which I found myself, that I deal with physics and am now 64 years old — and therefore I am necessarily rusty — is radically different from the philosophical place from which Heidegger speaks.

Actually, in Being and Time Heidegger asserts that he intends to rebuild metaphysics from scratch, bypassing two millennia of Western philosophy, but in fact he is the son of his age and under the heavy influence of German idealism, deeply influenced by the thought of Descartes and then Kant. These have put the subject — in particular the subject of knowledge — at the center of philosophical speculation. For me this perspective is not convincing, because I am immersed in the naturalism that dominates scientific thought, for which the subject is only a small part of nature, a fairly marginal part, in the great scheme of things, which only we care about because, precisely, that is where we are.

The reality for Heidegger, on the contrary, is first of all the direct experience of a singular subject, any of us, who knows, lives and exists. The great intuition on which Being and Time is based — as I understand it — is that this is not only a source of information for what we can know about the world, but also the experience that allows us to understand what it means to 'be', in the sense of 'to be there', 'to exist'. It allows us to understand what it means to exist, why we exist, and what it is to exist.

This is a radical leap from Descartes and Kant. They took it for granted that it was clear what it means that there is something, they wondered how we can know what exists, and that's why they brought attention to ourselves as a subject that knows. Heidegger, on the other hand, does not assume that it is obvious what "existence" means, and repeats Descartes' move to seek evidence from our own asking questions, but not, like Descartes, questions about what we can be sure of, but, more radically, about what it means to "be". This initial step reduces the understanding of the meaning of 'being' to the personal existence of anyone who asks the very question of what 'being' means. So being is reduced to being man (and here I am not saying 'woman': it would really be to betray Heidegger's language even more than I am already violently doing). To use his twisted language: Being is the being of the entity that asks the question of being, that is, man.

To reduce this starting difference to a simplistic image: I see reality as an endless universe of galaxies where near a marginal star a biosphere has grown within which there are sentient organisms and human beings that have developed a complex cultural system and a rich ability to reflect on the world. Whereas Heidegger sees a single human being with his direct experience of existing and interacting with something that is the world around him, made of things that matter to him. In a slogan, I think my experience is part of the world; Heidegger sees the world as part of his personal experience. There could be no more different starting points. But, after all, — and this is what I would like to try to say in this article — are they really irreconcilable points of view? Why then? They're both legitimate. They're just different ways to start thinking. It's a bit like two people want to describe a house and come in from two different entrances. Each person's account is understandable in the terms of the other, even if the starting points are different. There is, it seems to me, no real contradiction between the Heideggerian effort to understand being by relying on the being of the entity that asks the question of being, and naturalism, in which this same being (man) is a tiny particular mollusk in the great game of Nature.

Having said that, it is clear that I have betrayed the philosopher thoroughly, who would perhaps take refute my words immediately and look at me with contempt, reciprocating my contempt for his racism. Or maybe not, maybe he'd be curious too, I have no idea.

But this is the perspective that I ended up taking, reading Being and Time, a perspective, let me repeat, that I fear would horrify most Heideggerian devotees. But I don't have to pass a philosophy exam. I am at an age when I can think what I want. The point is that now Being and Time becomes extraordinarily interesting. because it is a genuine exploration of reality as it manifests itself to the subject, full of remarkable surprises. For example, in order to understand the relationship between the subject and the outside world, we must not focus on knowledge, as did— and here Heidegger convinced me — so much Western philosophical tradition. What matters is something else. What matters is, in fact, what matters to the subject. The 'outside' world is not for us what we see, just because it is out there. It's made from what we take care about, what's of interest to us. The things that are of no interest in us and are out there, are for us a residue, a waste product, compared to things that we have an interest in. I find that an extraordinary insight. Why? Because the easiest accusation to make against naturalism is precisely its difficulty in accounting for subjectivity. An understandable accusation, given that from a naturalistic perspective subjectivity is seen as the result of a complex process, the functioning of biological organisms and in particular of our brain, of which we still understand little. To make sense this, I think, we've focused too much on the cognitive aspects of subjectivity. Being and Time opens up a much more interesting perspective: it is not the cognitive aspects that underscore the relationship between the subject and the world; is relevance to the subject.

Biology is able to make a full naturalistic reduction of this relevance: this is the philosophical result of the Darwinian Revolution. Biological organisms are produced by chains of processes characterized by aspects — which we call relevant — which in fact determine their survival and reproduction. This relevance, or, in Heideggerian terms, 'cure', is what underscores the relationship between subject and world. For Heidegger, who enters the reality room from the subject's door, it's how the world presents itself to us. For me, it's a very acute indication to understand how a subject might have appeared in the world. It is Darwinian relevance, Heideggerian care, the relationship that highlights the distinction between subject and world. With respect to which the world is not "other", but constitutive of what Heidegger calls the "being-in-the-world" of the subject.

In the final part of Being and Time, time, in particular, is discussed. Heidegger does two things. First of all, he questions the Newtonian notion of time as a reality in its own right, and interprets time as the coming of events; then, since for him events are experiential, he reduces it to time lived. Reducing time to events is not his original idea. It is the pre-Newtonian conception of time, as found for example in Aristotle, which Heidegger obviously knows in depth. Science, meanwhile, has taken the same step: the Newtonian conception of time as an entity in itself has been overcome by the physics of general relativity, which returns to a conception of time as a succession of events, close to Aristotle. Nothing particularly interesting so far, then. But the focus on the experiential aspect of time, and above all on the temporal aspect of our experience as subjects, on the contrary, I found it of great interest. For example, it has convinced me that some of the current efforts in neuroscience, which seek to understand the mechanisms behind subjectivity in terms of instantaneous consciousness, lack an essential ingredient: time, in fact. Our conscience, our subjectivity, have not states, they are processes. We are 'beings-in-time'. Again, we're feelings, emotions, before we have knowledge.

I could go on, but the newspaper won't give me any more room than this. To me philosophy seems to be an extraordinary source of ideas and perspectives. The limit of so much philosophy, in my very modest opinion, is to mistake a single perspective on the only 'truth', seeking final certainties. The ambition to identify absolute starting points, which are regularly called into question in the next generation. In Heidegger there is also an effort to create an aura of profundity, to seek the ultimate roots alluding to ineffable experiences, like a philosophical shaman. Unfortunately, we also know that many shamans enchant our eyes, and the temptation to see things their way is strong. It wasn't easy not to think of him speaking for Hitler and anti-Semitic racism; or to untangle myself from phrases such as "The self-understood understanding, as it is with respect to whom it allows to meet the entity in the mode of being of involvement, is the phenomenon of the world". But the book is full of sharp ideas and I understand its charm: a maniacal attention to philosophy as a direct account of experience, of the experience of existence, tracing everything, starting from the notion of being, to ours. The reality lived from the inside, not from the outside. A beautiful intellectual adventure.

In my humble opinion, a one limited point of view remains: the limited point of view of a being who can only think of himself as the center. Like an only child who never realized that he's not the center of the world. There are other human beings, too. And the animals. And the plants. And the mountains. And the stars. And galaxies. And if all these things are part of my being there, even more so, as I'm the one who's part of it.

Corriere della Sera - 6 Dec 2020