Thursday, May 3, 2018

Cosmicism and Heideggerian Authenticity

Academic philosophers typically regard existential philosophy as an outdated fad. The major texts of existentialism aren’t rigorous enough, according to analytic philosophical standards. In turn, though, continental philosophers and nonphilosophers (nearly all educated persons outside the academy who know something about philosophy) think that analytic philosophy departments and journals are redundant since they’re quasiscientific institutions and add little to actual science, and that the science-centered or naturalistic “philosophers” ignore the real, perennial philosophical issues. These issues have to do with the meaning—as opposed to the empirical truth—of being alive as a person, and as such they touch on the stuff of daily experience which isn’t dictated by reason. The experience of freedom, creativity, purpose, morality, power, anxiety, alienation, and absurdity require intuition and faith to help make sense of them, and those two nonrational elements of cognition, in turn, are welcomed by the arts, not so much by logic, analysis, or experimentation. Existential philosophy ventures more into artistic, literary territory than analytic philosophers are comfortable with and even than some of the great existentialists (such as Heidegger) would be willing to admit. Others, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre recognized the need for literary provocations to address the deep nonrational problems of human experience.

Still, to what extent can existential ideas be naturalized, that is, applied to a naturalistic worldview that begins not with a neo-Cartesian, phenomenological interpretation of conscious experience, but with the physical world that science explains? Can some bridges be built between existentialism and naturalistic philosophy? This is the first in a series of articles on where some major existential concepts fit into the cosmicist upshot of a science-friendly worldview. By “cosmicism,” I mean not just H.P. Lovecraft’s insight that science is a preeminent source of horror, but the pessimistic philosophy that follows from science’s disenchantment of the world, from its thwarting of our myths and intuitive preferences. Pessimistic philosophy from Schopenhauer to Lovecraft and beyond is, in fact, already a bridge, and to appreciate the relevance of existentialism, we need sometimes only to relax the dogmatic attachment to the phenomenological method or language that obscures the insights. This is the case with Heidegger’s concept of personal authenticity, and so here I’ll try to explain his early philosophy without relying on his jargon.

Heidegger’s Existential Ontology

One way into Heidegger’s thesis in Being and Time is his interest in defending a form of First Philosophy, a privileging of philosophy at the expense of science and naturalistic conceptions of life. Indeed, Heidegger wants to show that almost the entire of history of Western philosophy has been counterproductive in reaching for superficially-rational or objective ways of understanding things, instead of emphasizing the need for an existential foundation. This foundation, says Heidegger, is an appreciation of Being in general, the fundamental whatness of things or how things differ not from each other in their particularities, but from nothingness. Instead of appealing to empirical evidence to support his philosophy, then, Heidegger turns to the method of phenomenological analysis, which he applies not just to the structure of consciousness, but throughout metaphysics. So while Kant defined philosophy as meta-epistemology, or as the search for the transcendental conditions of knowledge, Heidegger practices philosophy as a hyper-formal version of ontology, one rooted, though, in an analysis of human life, which is what makes his philosophy existentialist.

This distinction between naturalistic and ontological methods of inquiry takes us to a fundamental divide in his analysis, between ordinary, inauthentic life and the existentially-elevated kind. The former is debased by preoccupation with the world of material objects and their utilities. Drawing from Christianity, Heidegger calls this the fallen state of human affairs, but contrary to the biblical notion of the fall from Eden, Heidegger’s point isn’t that we regress from a prior state of perfection. We tend to fall into our involvement with our personal projects, but this involvement with objects that are thus “ready-to-hand” and are treated as utensils or as things with familiar uses, is the primary human experience. Scientific descriptions of things that are “present-to-hand” or that have independent objective reality as explained from a scientific standpoint build on that primitive, intuitive experience. Heidegger’s distinction here is similar to Wilfrid Sellars’s between the manifest and the scientific images of the self in the world. The manifest image is how things seem to commonsense: we interpret things as good or bad from a self-interested, normative position, and we act on the basis of our assumption that we have meaningful beliefs and desires as we try to make sense of things and to find some happiness for ourselves. Sellars’s main point was that because the manifest image is inherently normative or value-laden, it can’t be reduced to the scientific world picture even though that latter picture is primary. Heidegger reverses the order of primacy since he rejects naturalism, and he offers a much deeper view of the commonsense experience.

Perhaps the most striking feature of that deeper account is the idea that when we become too absorbed with our instrumental relations to things, we lose our true self and identify with the anonymous “One,” “Everyman,” or “Them.” Thus, we say we might act “as one does” in such a situation, in which case we merely defer to social conventions without feeling the existential weight of what’s always happening to each of us. This is a mark of personal inauthenticity in Heidegger’s account. We fall out of our true self and into our social functions. Heidegger affirms the unavoidable social context of our personal identity, but he holds out the options of ignoble and redemptive ways of relating to that context. What, then, is the alternative to ignoring our true self and to welcoming the publicly-expected form of behaviour which lends the phenomenal world its familiarity? Instead of the world as depicted by instrumentalist, technoscientific, or empirically-anthropocentric reason, the authentic relation between self and world is the one discovered, of course, by Heidegger’s ontological analysis. In addition to the natural self, to the person whose behaviour is empirically explained or that’s conventionally presupposed, there’s the metaphysical or existential structure of human life. The authentic self, then, is the one that lives with that structure always somewhere in mind.

In particular, this structure is temporal, which is why the book is called Being and Time. Our essential confinement to the dimension of time is a way of saying that we’re necessarily finite, which means that our death is inevitable. More than that, however, we’re thrown into the world to die; we depend on our past which confines our options by contextualizing our identity and by tempting us with a familiar about which we tend to care. In fact, things matter to us because our main convictions and interests are established during our formative years, and so the past limits our freedom and makes the world important and intelligible to us. But our identity is also open as a range of options which project into the future, and at each moment we reconcile those opposites in ourselves, the past and the future, our social or historical contexts and our freedom to individuate ourselves with more or less authenticity. We either fall into our creaturely habits, like the boy who forgets his mission in the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, or we live out the existential structure of human life so that the underlying dynamics play out on the surface, as it were.

Specifically, says Heidegger, the authentic self anticipates death to confirm her transience for herself; instead of pretending our inner self won’t one day cease to be, by identifying with longer-lasting public structures such as a religion, nationality, business, or family, we can keep always in mind that we’re finite and also that everything we rely on in the intuitive, instrumental world-picture will end. Death or time makes everything ultimately meaningless and so it’s a shame when we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by such hollow attractions. This warning seems similar to the Buddhist insight that we err in identifying with our ego as though we were independent and self-sufficient, since everything is temporary and interconnected. But whereas the Buddhist proclaims that this mistake is the source of suffering, Heidegger would speak of the dehumanizing comforts of inauthenticity. In addition to anticipating death, the authentic self doesn’t seek distractions from dread or anxiety, since that peculiar, all-encompassing fear proves that we’re living in the existential dimension, that we’re cognizant of our ontological structure as beings capable of uniting the aspects of temporal flow, by owning our sprawling identity.

Heidegger also writes of the authentic self’s resoluteness and of its openness to conscience. This isn’t, however, a moral point for Heidegger, but an ontological one. On the contrary, the moral conscience consists of received wisdom that tempts us with inauthenticity, by calling us to submit to some external creed. A mark of authenticity, of living out our ontological reality is to recognize that we’re all guilty of being anomalous in our capacity to transcend creatureliness and objectivity. Our deep structure inclines us to reveal, as Heidegger says, the nature of Being in general by bringing out in our life the form of questioning our nature. We’re open to conscience in Heidegger’s existential sense when we understand that authentic human life is a transgression, that we’re necessarily guilty as soon as we attempt to fulfill our potential as free creatures, because our inevitable death makes our life tragic and turns all our ambitions to dust. By contrast, the inauthentic self may bask in morality, condemning this or that enterprise from some lofty perch, but in so far as she identifies with a preconstructed role, she’s in dereliction of her existential duty simply to be herself, first and foremost.

In a nutshell, then, and returning to the book’s title, Heidegger’s main point is that our temporal nature, our finitude reveals the meaning of Being, that the authentic self whose life exhibits that ontological structure most transparently is closest to Being in that she’s poised to glimpse things as they ultimately are, instead of losing herself in the phenomenal circus. Heidegger’s view of Being is mystical in that he argues that ultimate reality veils itself as soon as it reveals itself. We can glimpse how things really are only indirectly, by identifying with our ontologically true self, which enables us to appreciate the tragic and poetic aspects of all doomed things.

Heidegger on Authenticity

Heidegger’s account of existential authenticity is paradigmatic, although it borrows from Kierkegaard, Dilthey, and some others. But is the concept still viable? This question almost amounts to asking whether authenticity can be naturalized, because naturalism presents perhaps the greatest challenge to his philosophy. It’s hard to credit philosophy, let alone phenomenological analysis with being deeper than science. Metaphysics itself has fallen out of favour. Scientific theories may presuppose more general concepts, but we’re free to take that meta level of description on a pragmatic basis. Science-centered skeptics would point out that intuitive analyses of human experience, such as you find in phenomenology are bound to be prejudiced, and that no theory is ultimately adequate to the facts, so that Heidegger’s emphasis on the formal precision of his philosophical language is futile. The originality of his invented language which is supposed to recover esoteric, Presocratic wisdom has, at best, literary or some other artistic value.

Moreover, the fallen world he describes, of the self’s engagement with ready-to-hand tools, is the naturally evolved default way of viewing the world. That is, although Heidegger’s descriptions may be inspired, his account isn’t a revelation of Being; we do tend to think pragmatically about the world because that’s likely how our ancestors survived for tens of thousands of years. Far from having the luxury of detaching ourselves from nature and thinking abstractly about ontological essences, we had to make intuitive leaps of logic and familiarize ourselves with the survival-enhancing parts of the world that we could readily understand, so that we came to treat those parts as extensions of ourselves, thusly minimizing the time needed to take action in a crisis. In other words, that inauthentic mode of life was foisted on us by natural selection, as our brain was conditioned to make snap, holistic judgments, taking into account our intuitions, emotions, and memories rather than relying so much on the slower, more methodical system of sequential (step-by-step) logic.

Interestingly, Heidegger doesn’t idolize the proto-human, nomadic and egalitarian vision of nature that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years until the cognitive and agricultural revolutions. According to the liberal, feminist or socialist revival of the Judeo-Christian fiction, that utopia lay in our past, not in a God-given paradise but in an unmanly social arrangement, and was foisted on our hunter-gatherer ancestors not by an angry God but by natural selection. Heidegger, however, condemns the pragmatic aspect of such experience. Perhaps egalitarian societies are more peaceful than individualistic ones, but if the equality is sustained by an obsession with efficiency, by a Borg-like calculation of utilities throughout our environment, that fairer way of life amounts to a flight from our ontological reality, as far as Heidegger is concerned. The insight here is Heidegger’s connection between the intuitive and the more sophisticated, materialistic cultures, the connection being pragmatism or instrumentalism. Natural selection would have us think instrumentally about everything, and as the Frankfurt School points out, the Baconian Scientific Revolution ran with that same impulse and thus didn’t de-mythologize the world after all.

Heidegger doesn’t exactly prescribe the authentic style of being a human person, because he takes himself to be describing our ontological options, but “inauthentic” is pejorative. Why, then, is being true to our finite nature better than resorting to pretenses that conceal the truth? Why should the metaphysical truth be made known? Heidegger’s later philosophy switches from emphasizing our individual freedom of choice, to depicting Being as revealing its attributes whether we like it or not. Our job becomes that of a patient watcher who searches for clues especially in the history of metaphysics where Being is supposed to leave traces of itself in those secular myths. This essentialist philosophy is indeed at odds with naturalism. In particular, by stressing metaphysical necessities instead of natural accidents, Heidegger’s account of our relation to Being isn’t governed by cosmicist concerns. Granted, his enthusiasm for the Nazis was apocalyptic, as he conflated those utopian political expectations with Being’s historical unconcealment of its inner nature. The Lovecraftian interpretation might be that Heidegger wrote as a crazed cultist who went mad from staring into the inhuman abyss too long and thus underestimated the danger of philosophical revelation.

Thus, again, the question must be asked whether, assuming there is some dichotomy between being faithful and being false to our inner selves, it’s wiser to focus on the deep truths of our nature. If we take the science-centered perspective and appreciate the role of chance in our evolution, there’s no guarantee that even an indirect confrontation with Being would be edifying. If we have these options of living as utilitarian animals or as free and better-informed persons, the question remains whether we ought to prefer personhood, especially if that means, as Heidegger admitted, dealing with lifelong anxiety. John Stuart Mill said, in effect, that animals would prefer to climb the Elizabethan chain of being, that if a pig had the chance to live as human, with the potential for more intellectual pleasures, the creature would prefer to remain as a person than to be turned back into a pig. Alas, Mill’s hedonistic conception of personhood was still beastly, from the existentialist viewpoint. So the real question is whether the pig would prefer to be a haunted, self-tortured existentialist than a blissfully-ignorant animal. The fact that, for their peace of mind, even most people who ever lived prefer what Heidegger would call inauthentic, animalistic life and ignore the existential dimension suggests a negative answer.

But perhaps this isn’t the main question, after all, since there’s no need to speak for everyone or to search for essences. Existential enlightenment may not be for everyone, regardless of their theoretical potential or common ontological structure. So a more relevant question might be whether this enlightenment is good even for the minority that’s evidently fit for it. As Heidegger appreciated, the conventional sense of goodness shouldn’t be presupposed, since that would be similar to evaluating human culture from a pig’s perspective. The point here is just that we should assume at least that animals and people are incommensurable, as are inauthentic and authentic people. The question at issue, then, is whether one of those classes is also superior to the other. Conventional good and bad are defined inauthentically, according to our partiality to our public roles, so of course deviation from those roles will count as dysfunctional, according to the herd’s standards. However, are some dysfunctional individuals elites in light of more refined, perhaps posthuman criteria? Is existential authenticity a higher way of being or are its principles just the ravings of mad men?

If a rarefied lifestyle becomes valid only by becoming normalized, the evaluation must proceed with hindsight; otherwise, the initial dysfunction or detachment from worldly concerns would be ambiguous, at best. This is because this originality isn’t handed down from on high, but arises partly by accident or by some absurd natural development. In other words, only time tells whether a deviation becomes a norm, so that what was once scoffed at as perverse becomes wisdom that’s taken for granted. Prior to that historical judgment, the countercultural way of life is ambiguous, since it might be forever forgotten or at some point adopted as a zeitgeist. Dominant cultures may begin from the elite lifestyle of a minority of trend-setters, but many more cultural variations must be forgotten with the death of those in the vanguard and thus are consigned to the historical memory hole.

In any case, the assumption that normalization matters seems to appeal fallaciously to popularity. The number of people who subscribe to a lifestyle isn’t decisive in determining the lifestyle’s merit from a standard that might have the clout to condemn a whole culture. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of imagining an ideal that’s so far been unpopular and thus unrealistic throughout history or even one that will never be widely adopted but that still ought to be so. In this lies the moral force of Christianity, for example, since technically radical altruism is possible but tends to be unworkable, given our selfish inclinations. The mystique of Christian ethics, therefore, is due to the fact that although Jesus’s altruism is unnatural and thus unpopular by design, Christians feel that his ideal world, his Kingdom of God would be superior to antichristian societies.

Heideggerian authenticity is supposed to be worthwhile, based on what amounts to faith in Being. But is it wise to entertain an ideal that calls for such faith? By rejecting scientistic naturalism, existentialists tend to regard rational judgment as an insufficient guide for human experience. Reason helps us solve many problems but not all of them, and especially not those that matter most. Again, reason itself—or more specifically, biology—predicts that we would sometimes favour holistic or intuitive judgments, since our brain evolved that capacity as a defense mechanism. Let’s assume, then, that even cocky rationalists or secularists exhibit something like faith in their fundamental life choices, that no worldview or lifestyle is wholly rational or even fact-based (since the idealistic component looks beyond the facts). Is it wise, though, to put our faith in the essence of Being that underlies everything in the universe, even when the universe’s scale is plainly inhuman? Here Heidegger’s anthropocentrism comes to the fore, since this faith seems less of a devil-may-care leap if we allow that understanding human nature amounts to understanding Being. By contrast, the cosmicist suspicion is that there’s no such happy match, that our nature doesn’t speak for the cosmos, despite the fact that everything in nature shares some physical composition and ultimate origin in the Big Bang.

Naturalizing Personal Authenticity

To return to the earlier question, though, is there a worthy naturalistic version of personal authenticity? The root meaning of “authenticity” is genuineness or having a basis in reality as opposed to being a copy or some other kind of fake. So Heidegger says the genuine person must be true to our ontological reality. The problem is that there may be no such essence of human nature. Even if there were some relevant properties we all have in common, to say that those who are truer to those properties are thereby superior to the deviant people would run afoul of the naturalistic fallacy.

In any case, one natural kind of authenticity would be grounded in intellectual integrity. Those who work out a coherent worldview stay true to our rational capacities and have a genuine philosophy if only by default, as opposed to having inconsistent ideas that reduce the worldview to absurdity and thus to nothing. Existential authenticity, though, would require that the worldview be both logically and emotionally coherent, meaning that the intellectual viewpoint must reflect the person's total self, her ideas as well as her character and experience. For that reason, the worldview would receive extra points for its originality: each person is unique and so an authentic worldview will be personalized; moreover, a set of ideas that derives mainly from some hackneyed social conventions would be phony in that it wouldn’t express the believer’s creative potential and it wouldn’t likely follow from her personal judgment. For example, she might accept the popular ideas due to the ulterior motive of wanting to belong to a certain crowd. This is, of course, part of the attraction of trusting in any of the major religions. Also, even more bonus points would be awarded to a worldview that stays true to reality, as far as we can discern the facts especially from science, since a pure fiction or delusion would be false in the epistemic respect. This is to say, roughly, that the worldview should, at a minimum, be naturalistic. Finally, full existential merit would go not to hypocrites but to those who faithfully apply the principles of their worldview.

Notice that this fourfold account of existential authenticity doesn’t presuppose any ontological essence, meaning that authenticity would be relative to a personal worldview. Existential authenticity is mainly about being true to yourself, and the best way to do so might be to develop a worldview and to reflect on it as you'd look into a mirror, to learn about your beliefs, attitudes, and deepest convictions through your personal philosophy. The worldview's merits and deficits thus speak to the originator's ethical status. The existential elites should agree on the basics of naturalism, but they’d be free to work out different philosophies from that starting point, and so the criteria of validity here would have more to do with internal coherence than with correspondence between symbols and reality. For Heidegger, authenticity is about basing our lifestyle on the metaphysical facts of our nature. A more reliable reality-check on a worldview, though, is philosophical naturalism, which encompasses Heidegger’s discourses on our finitude (temporality) and on our pragmatic inclination to “fall” into our involvements (the latter being naturally selected, as I said).

However, naturalism by itself is too broad a basis for discriminating between ways of life. Nietzsche’s worldview is naturalistic, but so is Marx’s. You can say that elitism is natural, since dominators are stronger and thus superior to cowards, and you’d have to tinker with the worldview to get around the naturalistic fallacy. Or you can say that looking towards a rational communist paradise is natural, since nature includes emergent levels of being which allow for egalitarian progress, and reason dictates we should seek a sustainable way of life which rules out patriarchy, crony capitalism, and the like. So naturalism alone doesn’t get us far, especially since there’s also disagreement about what exactly counts as natural. Still, this condition does rule out fraudulent or grossly-superstitious worldviews. In any case, Heidegger doesn’t escape from the foregoing relativism, since a phenomenologist could begin the analysis with a different aspect of intuitive experience and thus pick out an alternative metaphysical essence. Kant, for example, focused on our rational autonomy. Whatever facts you think are fundamental, tallying them up won’t provide you with a philosophically-worthy worldview. What’s meritorious is the art of creatively making sense of those facts, of interpreting them to achieve some intriguing goal. Our artistic creativity, however, isn’t supernatural in any worrying sense, since cognitive scientists are well aware of human nonrationality. The existentialist point, then, is that we shouldn’t dismiss the nonrational aspect of art, but should learn to interpret even worldviews and personalities as art projects and thus as sources of meaning.

Heidegger had great insights into how elitism might be based on fundamental differences of attitude, depending on whether we identify with our metaphysical nature or with our fleeting projects. I share his existential framework but not his methodology and not his entire conclusion. Much of his analysis of human experience is valid, including his interpretations of instrumentalism and angst, but I would naturalize existential authenticity and put a cosmicist spin on Being. Faith in Being is thus precisely the opposite of what Heidegger intends, given the folly of anthropocentrism: if Being in general is largely alien to us, as is most of the universe, to trust in Being is to betray our humanity and thus, if anything, to align with some deeply inhuman process. At some level, we are inhuman, since humanity in the honourific sense emerges by complexification. We are repulsed by our finitude and by the inevitability of death, but it’s doubtful that any cosmic or transcendent property redeems these conditions of natural life. What dignifies them, at least, is something anomalous rather than universal, not Being but the virtual miracle of our intelligent selection of events, our anti-natural ability to build and retreat to subworlds that we create. Heidegger warns that we shouldn’t forget our existential purpose and lose ourselves in the more trivial aspects of those artificial creations, but neither should we trust in anything beyond our creative powers to rescue us. 

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