Heidegger on Atoms, Hammers, and People

As I read him Heidegger thinks there are three kinds of things we run into in our lives.

Things Like Hammers and Other Tools

We don’t tend to think about them because they disappear into the background of whatever we are doing with them.  They form interrelated groups.   Example: hammers.

Things Like Atoms

These are items we encounter when we try to figure out the laws for how things work abstracting from what our own needs and perspectives are.  Example: atoms, sets, enzymes.

Things Like People

These are things for whom what they are is an issue for them.  If you find yourself asking the question “What am I and what should I be doing with myself?” you are one of these.  Heidegger’s word for this is “Dasein.”

In a sense, a single thing can be all three depending upon how we run into it.  So my hand might be at the same time a collection of atoms, a tool for me to scratch my back, and a part of me which I am challenged to interpret.  There are definitely weird border-line cases as well.  Is a sickness — say a malaria infection — a free-standing scientific phenomenon or a drag on my ability to get things done?  You might say the first — it’s just a bunch of plasmodia running around after all — but that wouldn’t get the “sickness” aspect of it.  If those plasmodia were not interfering with my life, we wouldn’t call them a sickness.

When we do computer programming we are viewing the interaction of atoms in our computer as a tool.

When we view DNA as a computer program we are naturally using our language for interacting with tools to get a handle on cells and their history.  That makes sense because it’s one of our fundamental ways of getting a grip on something.  But it also doesn’t make sense because when the DNA first started evolving in the primordial soup there was nobody around who was using it as a tool.

What is the DNA really?  It’s part of our history which we are challenged to get a grip and understanding because that’s the kind of thing we are.

Can we make an artificial Dasein?  In a sense we always are.  Part of how we interpret ourselves is by endlessly making new versions of ourselves, through art, and projects we solicit others to participate in.  Dasein interprets itself by producing and projecting new versions of itself, and by responding to challenges to do so. It has to do so within limits — it has limited time and limited resources to do so — and that’s what makes it fun.  Of course it also makes it scary.

Heidegger calls death “the possibility that there will be no more possibilities for Dasein”.  That’s part of what it means for Dasein’s being to be an issue for it.  If there were endless possibilities of more possibilities, with no possibility of the possibilities running out, then Dasein would have no need to interpret itself and interpretation would have no meaning, or mattering.  An interpretation is always saying — this thing is like this and not like that — a family is a dictatorship and not a democracy for example.  With limitless time and no death we could say a family is a dictatorship and a democracy and a duck pond and etc. etc.  We would have no need to fix an interpretation to live with and that would mean what a family is would not be at issue for us.

This is an optimistic interpretation of death, because it means where there is no death there is no Dasein.  It’s only because of the possibility of the end of possibility that we can be what we are.  Maybe the end of possibility can also be seen as the final resolution of the issue of what it is to be Dasein — a heaven-like, nibbana-like state of bliss.  Or maybe that makes no sense!



One thought on “Heidegger on Atoms, Hammers, and People

  1. Interesting points. I’ll have to think about them a bit.

    Certainly, what we count as a thing, or as a particular kind of thing, differs depending on the purpose and the context. I wonder if a lot of metaphysical disputes start with taking a thing from one purpose/context, dropping it into a different purpose/context, and then wondering what the heck happened to it since it now seems so wrong.

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