Friday, June 3, 2011

Heidegger's Tool Analysis and the “Error Detector”

  In order to properly understand the philosophical approach of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to school of Phenomenology it is necessary to raise the main question for Heidegger, which was, “what is the meaning of being?” A major temporal ecstasy for Heidegger was the present. The present is referred to as the state of “fallenness” for Heidegger. This involves Being alongside other entities including other dasein. Dasein is Heidegger’s term for a human being in the world. Being presents itself in its totality.
  Heidegger’s approach to the meaning of being is a radical critique of the traditional metaphysical view of presence. Being is the play of “absence within a presence”. Pre-predicative experience is always projecting itself to the future. What is absent is more real than what is present.
  All of this is another kind of “knowledge”. This can be described as an original collection of “Many into One”. The principle of collection many into one is originally stated in Plato’s theory of Forms which explains how different entities (trees, houses, women, etc.) can participate in the Form of Beauty. According to Plato’s theory, everything we see in the world (the real world) around us is actually an image of a Form which exists in the real-real world (Plato’s name for the world of Forms). For example, when we see a chair it is actually an image of the Form chairness which exists in the real-real world, according to Plato.
  The many entities (particulars) are gathered into one Form (universal). For Heidegger, this collection takes place pre-scientifically and pre-philosophically.
  Our experience of nature is mediated through artifacts. We understand the world as a collective whole. For St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) the whole comes first as well. We always know particulars through knowing universals. For example, the human face is seen as a whole rather than as individual parts. All physical reality is seen as a whole.
  Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), known as the father of Phenomenology, referred to the world in which we live as the Lebendswelt (life-world). This life-world is historical as well as social and cultural. Modern science is not geared to study the life-world. For modern science this “life-world” must be empirically provable in order to be real.
  Phenomenology helps us to account for things such as ethics and values which cannot be empirically proven. If modern science is simply based upon reason, then the western world is in crisis given the enormous impact which modern science has had and is having on our world.
  For Heidegger one must begin his or her discussion of being by looking at the world around us. Things are perceived from a sense of concern for the world. “Understanding” is a new interpretation of imagination. Imagination opens up the realm of the possible to us. The thing most primordially experienced in the world is equipment. We never have direct access to mere things or direct knowledge of them. Being is not pure presence for Heidegger, but involves an existential engagement with the world.
  We must use things in order to be able to understand them. A pen is understood through writing rather than through scientific examination. Dasein is the place where being happens. The traditional vocabulary of philosophy must be put out of play to allow a pen to appear as it is. Heidegger uses terms such as “in-order-to”, “ready-to-hand”, and “present-at-hand” to describe this reality and these terms will be defined later.
  What is the essence of equipment? There is no one piece of equipment for Heidegger since all equipment is relational to the totality of equipment. Keep in mind that Heidegger believes that things go from whole to parts. Dasein understands being in a pre-predicative way. He refers to this pre-predicative way of understanding as “wonder”. Every piece of equipment has an “in-order-to” quality. We use a pen in order to write.
  This equipment is relational to things around it. In the same way that man is a relational being who does not exist in a vacuum, tools have a relational quality. However, it is important to note that Heidegger does not consider dasein to be tools in any way. The meaning of a pen is found between the pen and other pieces of equipment in totality.
  The world is technological with regard to the mediation through equipment in the world. There has always been a prejudice toward theory and against practice. Aristotle, in The Metaphysics (Book I), deals with the issue of theoretical knowledge (theoria) vs. practical knowledge (praxis). Theoretical knowledge is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Praxis has a much more “practical” dimension. This does not mean that praxis is purely utilitarian, by nature. Aristotle states that “By nature, man desires knowledge.” This is evident with regard to the fact that one of the most often asked questions by a child is “Why?”
  According to Aristotle, hearing and seeing are two ways to come to know something. Man has memory (even some animals have sense memory); however, what makes man unique from all other animals is art and reason. Man can ask “Why?” Another topic discussed was the value of experience over theory. People who simply have experience may not know the cause of something, but they can explain it to others. People who have theoretical knowledge understand causes and very often can teach; however, they lack practical experience. The best is a blend of both.
  For Heidegger, praxis is more important since it involves existential engagement with world. Theoria (theory) is another kind of praxis. It is another kind of “seeing”. As Heidegger’s Tool Analysis is discussed further the importance of “seeing” will become more evident.
  Heidegger’s insight that the world is technological was a response to Karl Marx. Labor, for Heidegger, is approached from the standpoint of metaphysics. Heidegger’s theory is both holistic and ecological. The “in order to” quality of tools provides an understanding of the relationship between things and the fact that the world is seen as a whole instead of a collection of parts clearly demonstrates this holistic approach to philosophical thought. For Heidegger, the meaning of tools is found in the space between one tool and another within the totality. Spaces are what are genuinely experienced.
  Dasein operates out of a sense of “concern” for the world around him. The world matters to us so our understanding of the use of tools is subordinate to our concern for the world. Knowledge is in regard to concerns or interests. A hammer can only manifest itself to us as a hammer when we use it. Tradition says, according to such philosophers as René Descartes (1596-1650), that the only way to “know” a hammer is to step back and view it objectively (disinterestedly).
   Being is substance for Aristotle. Heidegger states that being can only be “ready-to-hand”. Reflecting upon a pen is “present-at-hand”. Ready-to-hand is a much fuller knowledge than present-at-hand since it involves existential engagement rather than mere reflection.
  The notion of forms for Plato comes from tool use according to Heidegger. However, Plato never considered what Heidegger refers to as “ready-to-hand”. A tool conceals itself when it is ready-to-hand. The tool must withdraw from our explicit attention. Tools have to be absent otherwise they are present-at-hand. Beings are both present and absent for us according to Heidegger. Once considered, this is all based upon human experience and is quite logical.
   Heidegger is shifting sight from the eyes to other parts of the body. Sight is in the hands through tool use. This is a pre-predicative looking around (knowing). Understanding of being is pre-scientific at the level of tool use. Hands could not use equipment if they did not have this “sight”.
   The sight in the hands is in the work to be done. This involves circumspective concern. It lies at the basis of seeing. We look around at the environment. We want to know the world because we have a concern for God. Being is only present if it is absent.
   A pen’s being exists as ready-to-hand as long as the pen conceals itself. Work gathers many pieces of equipment into one whole. At the level of theory, one can have a re/collection of his overall experience.
Being participates in beings through readiness-to-hand. There is no subjective coloring. Man does not see something as present-at-hand and then give it meaning. Meaning is found through tool use. Cognition puts readiness-to-hand out of play.
   While tool use involves readiness-to-hand, are there circumstances under which tools become present-at-hand at the praxis level on a daily basis? The answer is yes! There are three main events which could take place to cause this. First, a tool breaking makes the ready-to-hand relationship noticeable since the tool then lacks the “in order to” quality. Secondly, missing tools can do the same thing and for the same reason. Thirdly, when one tool becomes an obstacle for another tool, the first tool becomes present-at-hand to the craftsman immediately. The breaking of a tool is a manifestation of a lack of determinacy. A lack of determinacy leads one to ask the question, “Why?” There is no motivation to look and see in terms of the approach of modern technology since there is rarely a lack of determinacy. Predictability causes one to operate on automatic pilot.
   According to Natalia Bekhtereva, a Russian scientist, there is a new type of “seeing” which she refers to as error detectors.  The new type of “seeing” works, as follows, ' The error detector ' constantly compares those events were are presently occurring, to the 'proper' stereotype laid in memory and if something is not right it sends out a 'disturbing' signal. Here a classical example of how it works: A person leaves the house and suddenly has the sensation that she has forgotten to take something or left something on. She does not remember what it is that she may have forgotten, but in her mind it is as if this signal 'lights up' and says ' Stop! '. Going back inside, she detects, that she has left the lights on, for example, or is even worse, an iron.1
   We might conclude that this is an example of intuition; however, Professor Bekhtereva is saying that this disturbing signal is actually a part of our brain chemistry.  It appears, that in our brain there are populations of cells which respond to errors. They are located in different areas, namely, in the sub cortex and cortex of the brain.
    We have felt that we came across an interesting phenomenon which is part of our basic brain mechanism, akin to conditioned reflexes, according to Professor Bekhtereva, tells, but at the same time we were afraid to admit it to ourselves.  We did not trust that such could things could occur within us, it sounded too good to be true.  At once we named this phenomenon ' the error detector ', but in our first article we did not dared mention it. 
    This was astounding phenomenon for which Russian scientists received little, if any credit. Scientific inquiry is meant to be a search for the truth, regardless of where such truth leads us or who discovers this truth.  Even though this phenomenon was discovered in 1968 in Russia, most American and other Western scientists do not reference the work of Professor Bekhtereva in their journal articles. 
     One such example is from a letter sent to Professor Bekhtereva by Don Tucker, a research scientist at the University of Oregon: “Dear Dr. Bekhtereva, I thank you for the list of the published works of your laboratory which you sent us. I regret that we have not quoted them in our article. I knew about your researches; however, have not had time ' to catch ' the employee prepared our material for publication.  By all means, next time we shall try to make mention of your work in our article.”  I cannot imagine any American or other western scientist who would find this answer acceptable.  Russian scientists do not find this acceptable either; however, they have no one to turn to in order to protest. 
   In regard to Heidegger and his work, Professor Bekhtereva and her colleagues discovered a new way of “seeing”.   Such seeing not only takes place in the eyes and hands, but now, according to Professor Bekhtereva is actually part of the makeup of the human brain.  This “seeing” takes place instinctively.  A person walks out of their home and has a sense that they left something on.  One way to describe this experience is that the mind is “seeing” that there is something wrong and alerting the body to this. 
   In his Tool Analysis, Heidegger writes about the fact that when we are engaged in some form of work we operate on automatic pilot (my phrase).   It is only when something takes place which interferes with our work that we become aware of everything around us.  For example, a person is driving in their car when suddenly they hear a strange noise coming from the engine. Prior to hearing this noise this person was simply driving along as if on automatic pilot.  However, now she has heard this noise she becomes aware of every sound that her car is making. The “error detector” operates in the same way as that strange engine noise.  It alerts us to the fact that something is wrong and we become more attuned to the world around us.  
    The concept of the “error detector” is a fascinating scientific discovery which has ramifications not only in the area of science, but philosophy as well.  It gives us a new insight into how the human mind works and shows us that “seeing” is a multi-dimensional process. This concept provides us with an additional tool which we can use to discover the truth.

                                                            End Notes

1)     “Error detectors of Natalia Bekhtereva”  "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" - federal issue № 3448

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