Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Absolute Chasm Between Human and Nonhuman Animals


It always surprises me when animal activists or biologists attempt to downplay the differences between human and nonhuman animals. They inevitably point towards recent discoveries in animal behavior and claim that there is nothing separating humans from nonhumans. They say that Homo sapiens was originally the rational animal until we found evidence of rational behavior and even rudimentary thought in nonhuman animals, especially apes, dolphins and some bird species.


Or the activists point out that humans have been dethroned as the “communicating animal” when we discovered evidence of complex signaling in other animals and clearly, apes communicate through complex gesture and body language, as do many animals. Humanity was also thought to uniquely possess culture until we discovered nonhuman animals passing down behavioral traditions from one generation to the next.


Moreover, Homo sapiens was also known as the “handy man” until we saw apes and birds utilizing tools in order to get food or achieve a difficult task. We are no longer the only user of tools then. Humans were also thought to have unique “mind reading” skills until we discovered this ability in great apes and some monkeys. Humans are also not the only animal with a complex system of morality and normative structure for monkeys and apes also have a conception of social justice. And finally, humans are also not alone in having personalities and complex emotions.


So what is the difference? Where is the chasm? I hope my point is now obvious. Just look at the above photos, at what humans have accomplished through sheer force of will! We have constructed a giant device, 17 miles long, 570ft under the ground, colder than deep space, designed specifically in order to understand how the universe works at the sub-atomic level. Am I the only one floored by this? Whenever people point to chimps using sticks (tools) in order to dig out insects as evidence that there is no great difference between human and nonhuman animals, I am always taken aback. Are they simply not aware of what humans have achieved? That we have landed robots on Mars? That we have sent our machines beyond the confines of the solar system? That we can hurl individual protons at each other with enough energy so as to recreate moments shortly after the big bang?

There are many similarities between humans and nonhuman animals, no one can deny this, but the differences in magnitude along the various dimensions are so incredibly vast that it strikes me as constitutive for a sharp, rather than continuous break. Humans are not just tool users, but ultra tool users. We are not just thinkers, but ultra thinkers, ultra minds. We don’t just have communication, but ultra language, capable of infinite complexity, mathematical modeling, and sweeping beauty. We are not just animals then, but ultra animals, in charge of our own destiny.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

Who and What is Dasein?


For Heidegger, Dasein is an entity with a special mode of being. A human being is this entity and it is human beings in general who enjoy this singular kind of being, which can be referred to as Existenz, or existence. It is a general motif for Heidegger that human existence is existential in contrast to existentiell. The latter connotes a third person perspective of objectivity (ontic) whereas the former is in terms of a first person perspective of lived experience (ontological).

Furthermore, Existenz is constituted by several unique phenomenological features. Perhaps the most crucial of these features is being-in, which designates the way in which a human entity is always in-a-world. A world for Heidegger is a totality of referential significance wherein the entities encountered have a special salience in terms of our bodily comportment and self-understanding. Rocks do not “have” a world although they can be said to crudely “exist” in the world ontically. Moreover, in every case, Dasein is “mine” in the sense that humans – tautologically – are always individuals and thus cannot exist as two individuals simultaneously. If a human is defined as an entity, then an individual Dasein cannot be two separate entities (two individuals) at once. I think this structure of “mineness” is based on common sense notions of individuality and does not constitute any special connotation of egotistical existence. It simply states that Dasein is an individual human entity capable of being distinguished from other human individuals.

Moreover, a rock’s existence is qualitatively different than the existence or Existenz of humanity. A rock exists in the world merely in terms of a spatial or ontic arrangement. It is “next to” or alongside everything else in the world but it does not dwell in the world in the same way humans do. The rock does not have a “home” in the world nor is it familiar with the world it exists in. By contrast, in virtue of the referential structure of significance, humans can be said to live or dwell within a wordly world that they are for the most part familiar with. To use a classic example, humans do not experience a hammer as if it were an objective conglomeration of materiality but rather, we see it as something-for-hammering. It is familiar to us in terms of a referential web of usability.

However, our relation to these phenomenal worlds are not just in terms of a tacit understanding of how to use equipment; there is a component of explicit understanding. Heidegger refers to this crucial feature of Dasein as its understanding of being. We understand entities in terms of their “what” and their “that”. That is, we understand the world in terms of entities as entities e.g. we explicitly understand that, conceptually, hammers exist and we tacitly understand what it is: something-for-hammering called a “hammer”. This understanding is done tacitly on the level of pragmatic usability but it is also done explicitly in terms of our capacity for conceptual language. A useful model for this tacit-explicit dynamic is the postulated dorsal and ventral neural streams in visual processing. Roughly speaking, the dorsal stream is for tacit motor reactivity and the ventral stream is for more explicit object-recognition The understanding of being is also evident in our basic grammar for we utilize the structure of “is” in order to make sense of the world. “Today is Saturday.” “The cat is on the mat.” Thus, a central feature of Dasein’s uniqueness is our special mode of grammatical language wherein the world becomes perceptually structured in terms of thatness and whatness i.e. in terms of an understanding of being, understanding entities as entities.

Furthermore, Dasein can be distinguished as an entity with a special mode of being in terms of the existential structure of its being. The structure is generally referred to by Heidegger as “care”. Care-structure can be defined in terms of a human being-ahead-of-itself and being-already-in-a-world. Being-ahead simply means that humans routinely think and act in terms of future-oriented projects. We live for future possibilities and as Heidegger sometimes says, we are our possibilities. This capacity to live “in the future” constitutes one of the most basic existential structures of human existence and is exemplified by phenomena such as marriage and parenting, wherein our everyday behavior is structured by future possibilities. Moreover, we also live through our past as when Heidegger says “the other ‘end’ is the ‘beginning’, ‘birth. Only the being ‘between’ birth and death presents the whole we are looking for.”

Being-already-in-a-world simply means that humans always find themselves in a world of signification. Worldhood is not subjectively bestowed upon the world by our consciousness, but rather, is an a priori determination of phenomenal reality by virtue of the referential web of significance given through the milieu  of public language and practice.

Lastly, we can distinguish Heidegger’s conception of humanity from the classical tradition of substantive metaphysics. This tradition has always sought to define humanity in terms of an ever present ground e.g. the One, God, self-knowledge, transcendental subjectivity, etc. Heidegger’s approach is in stark contrast to these metaphysical approaches in the sense that he does not isolate a continually present substance that grounds the human self but rather, locates the constitutive features of humanity in terms of their thrown involvement in a public world with a dynamic body. There are no founding “onto-theological”  structures to Dasein’s existence because human being is always shifting dynamically in accordance with the complex, changing world we occupy. Because Dasein is a thrown possibility, and not a given presence, the “essence” of Dasein lies in its existence i.e. being-in-the-world, Existenz.


Filed under Philosophy

The Phenomenology of Deconversion

From here

“For my whole life there had been this giant eyeball looking at me, this god, this holy spirit, this church history, and this Bible. And not only everything I did but everything I thought was being judged: Was God pleased? I realized that that wasn’t there anymore. It occurred to me, ‘I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I’m thinking right now. There’s no fear of hell, no fear of judgment, I don’t have to be right or wrong, I can just be me.'” It felt as if charges had been dropped for a crime for which he had been falsely accused. It was exhilarating and frightening all at once. “When you’re ready to jump out of an airplane to skydive, you can be terrified but excited at the same time,” he says. “There’s a point where you go, all right, let’s do this.”

-Dan Barker, author of the Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (which I highly recommend)

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Be Water

Dasein is always its possibility.

-Heidegger, Being and Time

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Thinking With the Body

The Boston Globe has a cool article on the embodied mind and metaphorical cognition.

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In Defense of Heidegger – Meillassoux's Problem of Ancestrality


In this neat little paper (warning pdf), Quentin Meillassoux raises the problem of how continental philosophy can account for scientific statements concerning events which happened before the dawn of humanity. For example, if Heidegger really claims that being and time is dependent on humanity, how can we account for scientific statements concerning a period of time when there was no subject, no Dasein?

To me, this is a very important question that immediately gets to the heart of the realism/anti-realism debates that occurred earlier this year in terms of Lee Braver’s excellent book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. The standard line of attack leveled against Heidegger is that, thanks to his anthropocentric views of humanity, he is barred from discussing “arche-fossils” as Meillassoux puts it.

That is, by virtue of his “correlationism”, Heidegger is incapable of talking about the natural world as independent of human disclosure because ancestral statements are merely subjective representations of the past. Accordingly, we can never escape anthropocentrism if we insist that being and time both issue out of humanity’s unique disclosure of the world. That is, if the mode of present-at-hand is dependent on human disclosure then we will immediately run into a problem when we attempt to talk about stars and fossils. For Heidegger, the world can only “be” independent thanks to Dasein. The presentation of the world as independent is paradoxically a mode of being of Dasein since Dasein-independence is assigned by Dasein. Thus, we never escape from correlationism. Or do we?

Beings are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension, through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined. But being “is” only in the understanding of that being to whose being something like an understanding of being belongs. Sein und Zeit 183

This passage presents quite a problem for the Meillassoux’s account of Heidegger. If rocks exist independently of the “experience, cognition, and comprehension” of rocks, then it is not surprising in the least that scientists are capable of producing ancestral statements concerning stars and fossils. This is common sense. After all, if rocks are independently of human disclosure, then it is obviously not problematic to discuss their existence at a time before humans ever came about. We simply use the methodological tools of science to do so.

What is the problem then? Where do all these accusations of correlationism come from? Probably from the second line of the above quotation, which states that being “is” only in the human understanding of being. This idea is probably most famously articulated in the statement that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, only as long as an understanding of being is ontically possible), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). But is this position inconsistent with the ontic realism of the first sentence? Definitely not. Taylor Carman explains why:

Being is…inextricably bound up with Dasein’s understanding of the intelligibility of entities as entities, but it is emphatically not an entity brought into existence by Dasein. Without Dasein there would “be” no being, which is to say there would be no understanding of being, so that that and what entities are would add up to nothing intelligible. But occurrent entities would still be, nonetheless.

To say that entities exist independently of us is not to assert the being or existence of anything like being or existence, as if too were a kind of entity, that is, something that is alongside or in addition to the entities themselves. It is consistent, then, to say that although being consists solely in our understanding of being, occurrent entities are independently of us and our understanding.

What more needs to be said? The human understanding of rocks allows us to understand the rocks as rocks (rather than pure behavioral affordances). In this sense, the being of the rock as a thing which exists independently of human disclosure is dependent on human access (as per correlationism) but this doesn’t logically entail that the rock is actually dependent on human access for its occurrent existence. The rock has been here for billions of years, long before humans ever came around and started understanding rocks as rocks. Thus, the “Dasein-dependency” of presence-at-hand is purely in terms of the intelligibility of the independent world as an independent world. But this doesn’t mean that if humans were wiped off the planet tomorrow that rocks and stars would stop existing. That is a patently absurd and scientifically ignorant statement. To level it against Heidegger is in my mind to insult his intelligence and capacity for common sense.

It seems then that Heidegger is perfectly capable of answering Meillassoux’s problem of ancestrality. The fossils existed independently of human disclosure but it is only human disclosure that intelligibly understands them as fossils which exist independent of us. Problem solved (I hope).


Filed under Philosophy