There are things that an educated human is supposed to know about the world. Like that the Earth is spherical and that it revolves around the sun.

But there are things we are supposed to know also about ourselves. Most prominently, we are supposed to know that we are animals, one of the primate species.

The question I’m pondering is this:

  • Can we have knowledge about ourselves in the same way that we have knowledge about the world?

I have noticed a tendency among those who straightforwardly answer this question in the affirmative. They marvel at the fact that evolution produced a species that understands the evolutionary process that produced that species.

It is as if the world finally bit its own human tail and thereby became closed as a natural world and nothing but that natural world.

And since the bite was achieved by the science that the human species produced, the closure of the world as nothing but a natural world is celebrated also as the closure of science. Science finally knows itself as a product of the world it knows.

Science is the world’s self-knowledge.

I’ve been reading Martin Heidegger, who has a different kind of answer to the question under discussion. His answer is: yes and no, depending who “we” are; for there are two ways of being human.

In one way, human beings are among the living beings that inhabit the world, and they can be scientifically studied as such. Heidegger would hardly reject biological knowledge about life and about human beings as one of the animal species on Earth.

But does biology also reveal a more profound fact, namely, that the world is nothing but a natural world so that all the things we are supposed to know about the world must be reinterpreted as the world’s self-knowledge? – Reinterpreted by whom? By the world? Can the world think? Can it rethink science as its own self-knowledge?

“No one can jump over his own shadow,” Heidegger wrote (in a slightly different context). But that is the weird feat that is celebrated when the world finally is supposed to understand itself.

Heidegger reminds that we are not just one of the living beings on Earth. We are also the beings for whom there is world; for whom there is Earth and sky; and for whom there is science accumulating knowledge about the world. Talking about this nearest way of being human, he emphasizes not closures but openings.

The nearest human is the opening up of a world (with living beings that can be studied scientifically).

The alleged completion of the history of the universe through the world’s self-knowledge is not produced by evolution, or by the science that a product of evolution produced. It is produced by people who forget the simplest and nearest way of being human, and who thus are led to such old-fashioned metaphysical absurdities as “the world’s self-knowledge.”

– And yet, Heidegger’s “nearest” human being can hardly be purified as unaffected by the world, or by what is known about human beings as part of the world.

Heidegger identifies a vital problem, but I believe that the relation between the two ways of being human is messier than in Heidegger’s elegant philosophical poetry.

I do not quite recognize the connections with the world, and with the animals, in Heidegger’s attempt to uncover the authentic way of being human in the age of science.

Who dares a renewed attack on these messy relationships?

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking