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).