We cannot adequately contemplate the meaning or context of the deepest metaphysical questions, questions about the nature of reality or truth itself, without giving proper consideration to modern science.[i] This “we,” from whom proper consideration is due, extends far beyond those who practice science: physicists, biologists, engineers, physicians, and others. On the most practical score, those responsible for making policy changes on global issues of concern—such as stem cell biology, neurocomputing, or climate science—the wider communities that charge them with this responsibility—will not largely be scientists.[ii] On a deeper but still very real note, our relationship to science and technology has altered and accelerated human evolution in ways that Charles Darwin would not have predicted, even by analogy. Does Heidegger’s understanding of technology have anything to offer us today?
In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” (retitled from the 1949 lecture called “Enframing”), Martin Heidegger writes that humans have a desire to question technology “in order to bring to light our relationship with its essence” (23). He was especially concerned with man’s relationship to Being (“what is given to thinking to think”), since Being presences and is known through man—and technology is a mode of presencing, productive like Being of beings and therefore of their finite realities. It is never the case that Heidegger sees technology as a presencing that is only damaging or destructive of life, including human life. As he reminds us, technology comes from the Greek word technē, a skill that includes both art and science, but from often benign beginnings, we have emerged through history to an historical time when technē, through man’s calculative engineering, created such enormities as Hiroshima and Nagaski, gas chambers, and mass starvation (often by design) in the name of mechanized agriculture. Despite these catastrophes, Heidegger would nevertheless argue that fear (here, of technology) drives humans to meditative thinking (see Heidegger, “The Memorial Address”), and however marginal its manifestation, however its enlightenments, this at least is a very good thing.
Just as Heidegger invents language to fit his own philosophical project, modern science now reimagines the possible in a language of zero/one (i.e., computer programming). This system of on/off switches is now paradigmatic, what Plato might call “idea of the ideas,” for how scientists model and understand thinking as neuronal signaling in the brain—a paradigm because neuronal signaling (as the “action potential”) is also an all-or-nothing event. This does not imply that overall signaling cannot be graded or refined; inhibitory potentials smooth and shape information flow. Nevertheless, binary code is at the frontier of brain science, and is engaged in by scientists and non-scientists through “crowdsourcing” events[iii]—together forming a modern-day Greek chorus, or collective.
If we are simply our neurons, as Francis Crick hypothesizes in the Astonishing Hypothesis, then what reasonable objection do we have to full-body transplants, which Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has announced is on the horizon for as early as 2017. But, if human Being is indeed reducible to human brains, what then happens when the human brain is matched or surpassed by computing technology itself? After all, the human brain as cultural archive has been surpassed by computer code and technology.[iv] Although still largely technological, “memory” preservation has in return coopted biology: digital data can now be stored and retrieved by means of sequencing DNA bases.[v] Contemporary data science is rewriting the language of code, so that the notion of “everywhere we look we see only ourselves” has become quantitative.
Along with the benefit of storing large quantities of memory, or data, it is telling that this technology has been called “apocalypse proof”—promising that we may “faithfully store” Shakespeare’s words well after we have seen the end of days.[vi] What is the use of a message, even in this sand, if it is only left for life from other planets? How is this question of technology related to the question of consciousness and self-consciousness even when applied to the neurons that may be all we are?
As Heidegger tells us, the danger of technology is not technology itself, but rather the essence of technology, for which he invents/discovers the term “Enframing” (Das Gestell). That the essence of technology is not technological is difficult to understand, but nevertheless reveals something true about the relationship created between ourselves and Being in the world. We tend to think of technology as instrumental, as something that helps us get something done, but this is an error in our understanding of causality Heidegger tells us—we are not masters when we “make it better,” but are rather the mastered. The danger of the essence of technology (i.e., of Enframing) is that it inhibits genuine thinking—which in turn blocks poiēsis, and obscures truth (alēthia)—hidden, not unhidden—by silencing every other possibility of revealing (27).
From the start of the essay, it is clear that “the question” concerning technology is not actually in question. In other words, he does not ask, “Was ist das?” (as he does of philosophy). Instead, he presents and shapes an understanding of Enframing and suggests that a “saving power”—an idea taken from the poet Höderlin—exists alongside the danger of Enframing. This saving power is technē. While it is not a logical necessity that a saving power exists just because a danger exists, as an instance of the technē, of poiēsis, it is nevertheless a satisfying denouement, and in its swerve toward satisfaction, clarifies what Heidegger understands to be the relationship of art and science within technology.
Enframing endangers man “in relationship to himself and to everything that is,” making it the case that “it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” as through technology he imagines that he is—an engineered being (Heidegger 27). The source of this idea comes from the physicist Heisenberg, from his book, The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (Heisenberg 22).[vii] But Heidegger takes this narcissism further to mean that man cannot separate himself from Nature or other things. Thus he cannot engineer Nature without also engineering himself. Enframing “demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve,” but when everything in man’s world becomes a standing reserve for engineered presence, man becomes a standing reserve as well. As Heidegger says, this is akin to a river being made a standing reserve of energy by a hydroelectric plant (23).
That Heidegger’s Enframing renders everything as standing reserve is a useful metric to analyze whether science of the Information Age is a decisive change from previous technology, or just “an extension of old handicrafts” (Heisenberg 17). Heidegger doesn’t state explicitly what is special about modern physics, but, Heisenberg does; he writes, “atomic technology is exclusively concerned with the exploitation of natural forces to which there is no entry at all from the world of natural experience” (18). There has been increasing comfort (or at least imperceptible discomfort) with increased abstraction, with the lack of entry from the world of natural experience. In this regard, we might see current science as “just an extension” of what modern physics heralded. It is still the case that science is instrumental—that it is good not in and of itself, but rather good for something else (which is also reflected in the name, “standing reserve”).
Both Heidegger and Heisenberg write of the intereffect of technology and science. The physicist writes, “technology has always been both the starting point and consequence of natural science” (17). Yes, this is still true, but the time between the starting point and the consequence has shrunk to practically no time at all; the feedback is now engaged in what we would deem “a runaway process” or infinite loop. Symptomatic of this change is the language we now use to speak of science and technology, which is one of increasing intimacy: I am thinking of the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, who uses the word technoscience as an evolution of “technology and science” or even of “technology-science,” whose intermediary hyphen was a short-lived chaperone that delayed, only temporarily, real intimacy between partners. The reciprocity between technology and science, especially as it stands today, influences our language, our thinking, and I would also argue, our compassion. Despite the recent scientific discovery of mirror neurons, which fire an action potential when an animal acts, as well as when it sees the same action “mirrored” by another,[viii] compassion is still yet a type of poetry, is not zero/one. Like myth, the poetry of this science tells us something true, and is revealing.
If the question concerning technology is not marked as a question, then what is? Many of the questions in Heidegger’s essay are rhetorical or are in some way in service of commentary. Some of the more charming questions he asks are, “Can anything be more strange?”—in reference to using the word Enframing—as well as the extremely thoughtful, “What does it mean ‘to save’?”—a question that stays with this reader long past its articulation (28).
Within Heidegger’s technology essay, I see two major shifts that shape the argument in palpable ways. The first turn occurs after a type of prelude, where early in the essay he asks another wonderfully cheeky question, “But where have we strayed to?” (12). We have strayed or swerved to alethēia, truth, by talking about the ways in which technology reveals. This question, posed as a question, gets us directly to the heart of his thesis, that the danger of technology is, at its core, a blocking of the revealing of truth. The second reframing or repositioning I see happens through the words of the poet Höderlin: “But where danger is, grows/The saving power also” (Heidegger 28). Heidegger uses poetry in this very direct way, through citation, to have us appreciate poetry itself is a revealing of truth. The question concerning technology (i.e., “What is the danger?”) demands of us to inquire whether there are any solutions. What this reframing seems to reveal is how saving power grows as a poetic turn.
These two shifts in the essay are points of entry that lead us to situating poetry as the reframing of the essay’s search for truth. We see the fullness of his argument embodied in this final turn: In response to the question of technology, truth reveals itself, as it did for the ancient Greeks, only by combining methods found in both the arts and sciences.
For obvious historical reasons having to do with the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, the “herald of Enframing” is said to be modern physics (Heidegger 22). One of my questions in studying Heidegger’s essay has been to ask whether a new era of science—science of the Information Age—offers new insight into the danger of Heidegger’s Enframing. Overall, I see his essay as a core text that can be used to engage in dialogue with both the arts and sciences.
But, beyond this initial cosmetic assemblage, the poetics of Heidegger reveal that human beings, themselves something technological and something poetical, dance with both the danger and the saving power, and I see this as a message of a certain type of responsibility. We have the responsibility to think meditatively.
Heidegger’s saving power is taken from the poet-thinker Höderlin’s poem “Patmos” (1808). Both Heidegger and Höderlin were enthusiastic admirers of ancient Greece. The poem is notoriously long and difficult, and has as its ostensible subject the Apocalypse of John (Huddlestone “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin”). As Höderlin became a worsening schizophrenic in his thirties, he overturned “every eschatological implication” of his earlier poems (Haverkamp 5). In “Patmos,” the poet takes us through an imaginative landscape that finds its way through Asia, the Greek Islands, and the Holy Land; past, present, and future are encapsulated in a moment. This conflation of time is also present in Heidegger, where what is chronologically first is not necessarily that which is historically first, and this is how we might envision a saving power as coexisting with the danger of Enframing.
The good news, here, according to science, is that biology is responsive to its environment: neurons and their synapses are “plastic” so that neuronal activity reshapes and reconnects in response to experiences like learning. Yet, the saving power, art, is also becoming more technological/scientific,[ix] which was not addressed or perhaps anticipated by Heidegger—does this delimit the utility of the saving power, if it is less artful? To answer this, I think we must (logically) answer poetry with poetry to understand that it does not. As long as we have an uncertainty, we have a desire to question. There is perhaps a parallel to be drawn between the dual core of Enframing (a danger alongside a saving power) and a technē that embodies science and poetry. These pairs only appear to oppose one another.
[i] All science tests through observation and conceptualizes, attempting to be both objective and reproducible. It is generally appreciated, although argued against by more recent historians of science, that ancient science starts from concepts, whereas modern science starts from facts.
[ii] Beyond these implications, it is now possible that in the near future those of us who are scientists may not be able to contribute in meaningful ways to inform governmental policy changes. See: http://inhabitat.com/house-passes-bill-that-prohibits-expert-scientific-advice-to-the-epa/
[iii] I am thinking of the computer game EyeWire (eyewire.org), which comes from Sebastian Seung’s lab at MIT. By 3D mapping neurons in a retina, users help researchers understand how neurons connect and communicate.
[iv] It may also be fruitful to consider in parallel the devaluation of cultural elders in society (many examples are possible), as a commentary on a seemingly higher valuation for “faithful” data retention rather than human relationships.
[v] Every byte (an 8-sequence string of ones and zeroes) is represented by a word of five letters that are each A, C, G, or T. First accomplished in 2012 by the George Church laboratory at Harvard University; long-term stability of DNA-encoded data reported in 2015 by ETH Zürich.
[vi] Perhaps we might also choose to store what humans have thought about Shakespeare’s sonnets over the ages, lest that magic be lost.
[vii] Heisenberg writes, “Modern man confronts only himself…in previous times man felt that he confronted nature alone….we are always meeting man-made creations, so that in a sense we meet only ourselves” (22-23).
[viii] Interestingly, this is not something that is distinctly human, but has been found in several primates.
[ix] The artist Oron Catts of the University of Western Australia comes to mind: He uses living cell culture tissue in sculptures to present not-moving “aliveness” in living. (http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/residents/catts)
Haverkamp, Anselm. Leaves of Mourning: Höderlin’s Late Work. Trans. Vernon Chadwick. New York: SUNY, 1996. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. and Ed. William Lovitt. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Print.
Heisenberg, Werner. The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik) Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958. Print.
Höderlin, Friedrich. “Patmos” in “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin.” Trans. Robert Huddleston Likestarlings, June 2012. Web. 20 March 2015.
Huddlestone, Robert. “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin” Likestarlings, June 2012. Web. 20 March 2015. http://www.likestarlings.com/on-translating-holderlin/
Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Thomson, Helen. “First human head transplant could happen in two years” NewScientist, 25 February 2015. Web. 25 February 2015.
Yong, Ed. “Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare’s sonnets” Nature News, 23 January 2013. Web. 15 January 2015.