I’m reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and it makes me so angry I can’t sit still. It isn’t entirely his fault – I have developed serious issues with the entire tradition of Western philosophy. They basically take an idea that has been around forever, explain that it as completely unknown and unknowable, completely transcendent, and then write a very heavy book about it.
Heidegger deserves special scorn for several reasons. He says that anxiety (in the face of death) gives rise to the inauthentic self, which is close to Being in today’s-ness. In other words, fear and worry freeze the actual experience of your life; the awareness of your existence. But if you anticipate death, and become aware of your inauthentic self, then you gain “Anticipatory Resoluteness”.
An easy way of translating this into English is “Stop and smell the roses.” Now philosophers will argue that Heidegger is presenting a completely revolutionary logical system, universal in it’s application and based on pure reason. However, I think we should be able to compare a Philosophical System with its intended claims and stated benefits. Heidegger is suggesting that mental strife interrupts our perception and awareness of our experience in time, our Being in Time. He would have us believe that we must first read his books, understand rationally and become aware of his philosophical concepts, recognize their limitations in our own lives, and finally begin to change them. The main problem is that he used thousands of hours of intellectual contemplation to arrive at his conclusion, and that we may need to use several thousand more hours to reach the same conclusion (or at least to read Being and Time, which is a nightmare.) All this seems counter-intuitive to the main message of the book, which, as I said, can be summarized as “Stop and smell the roses.”
If Heidegger’s book was a medicine, and the illness was lack of conscious appreciation for life – would his book actually be the best remedy? It’s like saying, “I’m too fat. I’m going to eat McDonalds everyday until I puke my guts out, get stomach cancer, and can’t eat anymore.” An alternative to Heidegger would be the person who puts a bumper sticker on his car that says “Stop and smell the roses” and who, everyday, inspired by that message, actually takes time to enjoy life more. It works a lot faster. It gives the same intention. Heidegger is trying to prove the necessity of his system, but does anyone, anywhere ever doubt the cliche “Stop and smell the roses?” No! It is intuitive. Everybody knows what it means, everybody knows why it is important. A philosopher might try and find out the specifics of being and time, just for fun, but certainly not to improve the quality of life for himself or for anyone around him.
If we are looking for meaning in life, the simplest texts are usually the best. In Carlos Castanada’s novels about Mexican Shamanism, he explains Heidegger’s function of DaSein so much clearer than Heidegger does. (Death is always on your shoulder, always waiting. Every decision you make is a life and death decision – so always act with conscious deliberation and awareness.) While Heidegger takes a lifetime to tell us, “Don’t think too much,” parables from the Zen tradition don’t need to speak at all to clarify this point. (And really, can could you ever expect to explain the limits of linguistic explication using language?) A student asks a question, the Zen master slaps them, or throws them out a window, or asks another, completely nonsensical question in return. It’s not about intellectual comprehension!
Philosophy is like going to the beach with a one-gallon jug and trying to measure the ocean. I can see that it is unfathomably large. But I want to measure it. I want to hold it in my 1-gallon jug and understand its essence, its true nature.
There is one thing about Heidegger that fascinates me, and opens a whole can of worms into the Western epistemological tradition. Philosophers before and after Plato (all philosophers, ever) have been trying to get from this world, the world we can physically perceive, to the real world, which we think is ‘out there’ somewhere. For mystics, that real world is already inside us. It exists, objectively, and we can tune it to it. We can experience it – and the experience becomes our knowledge of the transcendental. The real world is responsible for creating and maintaining this world, and so we can become aware of it through our awareness of nature. Taoism, for example, shows the Tao as the union of polar opposites. These opposites generate the world through construction and destruction. The Tao is the real, it is the true. A wise man will understand the Tao and live with it, no resistance, allowing the Tao to manifest in him and take control of their actions.
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher from Ephesus, described almost the exact same philosophy in 600BC. He called it the Logos. He said the world was run by “Love and Strife”. In a fragment that is more insightful than Heidegger’s entire treatise Being and Time, Heraclitus’ said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” This Logos was the supernatural, pre-existent, generating essence of the universe. It is the same Logos that is used in John’s Gospel, which assigns the identical qualities to Jesus Christ. You can be IN Jesus Christ. You can let Jesus Christ take you over and transform you, you can live in accordance with the Holy Spirit and become “saved”.
But… the Greek gospels were translated into Latin. And then into French, German, Italian and English (we didn’t get an English bible until the 1600’s!) The “Logos” became “The Word”, identifying the lingual function with the act of creation. This was hugely important for Western theology. God SAID, “Let there be light,” and there was light. In Genesis, Adam is given the task of NAMING all the animals, trees and fruits, all of which were given to him alone, to be used for his own purposes. He said, this is a fish, and I will eat it. This is a tree, and I will cut it down to make houses.
Western philosophers borrow from this tradition, but it is Heidegger who first made it explicit, by translating Logos as “discourse”. Being and Time is essentially a matter of discourse, not objective reality. The statement, “There is a chair,” is a complicated hierarchy ontological priorities – my realization of the existence of the chair is predicated by my intentions towards it, my own being, and my conscious understanding of my own existence. I actualize the meaning of the things around me, by disclosing them, by “naming” them.
This is like in “The Never-Ending Story” the boy becomes not only a participant but the creator of the story – he has to give the princess a name, or she will cease to exist. Why? The book, the story, only has meaning for the reader. Without a reader, without an observer, who proceeds chronologically and assembles the events in the book in his imagination, the book is just a lot of funny symbols on paper.
While spiritualists at one point had to connect with the bridge, the Tao or Logos, to get to the universal reality, Heidegger has given humans complete power. WE control discourse, which defines our perception of the world. In the movie, “The Matrix”, Neo has to learn from the little boy that “There is no spoon.” The spoon doesn’t exist. It is only Neo’s mind that puts together the common metallic substance into one object, and then identifies it as an eating utensil, and then names it “Spoon.” Neo learns to bend it by unnaming it. But how many of you can actually bend a spoon with your mind? Sure, we all like to think its possible, because we’ve seen the Matrix and because we’re part of the dominant Western ideological tradition which Heidegger founded, by making humans the very center of Truth and Meaning. This influenced Nietzsche, (God is Dead = There is no objective reality outside of myself) and finally the Post-Modernists, who focuse entirely on the subjective human experience and our method of producing meaning, rather than looking for metaphysics.
In the dominant religion of Western Ideology, Christianity has also transformed from a religion of piety and submission to divine will into a faith of trite statements. We have free will. Our eternal salvation, Heaven or Hell, is dependent on us making a very simple, very quick statement of purpose. “Yes, God, I accept Jesus in my life.” I believe in Jesus. Jesus IS Lord. Jesus IS the Son of God. Based on these statements of belief, these creeds, we are either accepted into heaven or not. Some may argue, but everything is in God’s hands! We can’t save ourselves, we can’t do anything for ourselves. This is not true. God has given you the CHOICE – which means, he cannot save you. Only you can save yourself, by saying “Yes.”
The obvious problem with Christianity is that, given everyone were aware of the existence of eternal suffering or eternal happiness, given that they were convinced it was true, OF COURSE everybody would say “Yes”. Would you like reward or punishment? Something good or something bad? Would you like ice-cream or dog-shit? The question is ludicrous. If anybody ended up in Hell, then it would not be the cause of a deliberate, conscious and well-informed decision; and of course God would already be aware of that. Psych wards routinely tie patients down so that they won’t hurt themselves. Freedom is taken away when it becomes obvious that a person is not in control, and cannot make safe decisions. If you offered someone ice-cream or dogshit, but they got confused, or lost their glasses, or were just plain dumb, and reached for the dogshit, would you stop them? Is there any justification for a God who would do less?