A fragmented discussion about thinking, with elliptical remarks about science

Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy. Those who idolize “facts” never notice that their idols only shine in a borrowed light. […] But idolizers and idols are used wherever gods are in flight and so announce their nearness.

— Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (1953)

If something cannot be proven by way of an experiment, then is it merely an opinion?

Should philosophy abandon its opaque terminology and concern itself instead with being spoken plainly?

What, if anything, might these two questions have to do with one another?

To establish why philosophy might require some opacity, we need to consider the hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger, a controversial 20th century thinker who continues to have a profound impact on philosophy and on the social sciences.

If thinking is to be understood as having a point—not in the sense of a target, but rather of an essence—then for Heidegger that point is to meditate on what is. Often, this involves bringing a distant mystery close.

Calculative thinking

We can get a handle on what Heidegger had in mind by way of a comparison with our default mode of thinking: calculation.

Calculation collects inputs, performs a calculus on them, and produces an output. It is parsimonious, and it always has a target. It allows us to automate our affairs without ruminating on their manifold meanings. But by the same token, calculation is forgetful. It leaves most of those meanings concealed, and it thereby threatens to condemn them to oblivion.

Cooking from a recipe is an example. We may not have an appreciation of a dish’s flavor combination, or of the chemistry responsible for its mouthfeel, or of its cultural genesis. We could mount the solid argument that knowing any of this is irrelevant to the recipe’s execution and to the visceral experience of consuming its product. Yet those who love to cook tend to probe for these features. They meditate on the dish, on how the recipe might be tinkered with to more fully express its essence. The recipe—a calculus which yields a desired output when supplied with the correct inputs—is deconstructed by the cook, and perhaps entirely remade in the process. Cooking as a creative endeavor is therefore not beholden to any particular recipe. Yet neither are recipes the arbitrary outcomes of its occurrence.

In an era saddled with often divergent notions of authenticity, we should steer clear of mistaking calculation for something artificial, superficial, or appropriative in the pejorative sense. After all, calculation reveals something about the world; it lets us in to a particular experience. But instead of dwelling on the world, calculation enlists it in various projects. Calculation is a willful act aimed at controlling, manipulating, or producing things, not at understanding them in the fullness of their being. It asserts itself through the exercise of its particular calculus, its logic. It is the most conservative form of thinking, because it always rests on this prefigured structure.

Logical thinking

Logic is another example of calculative thinking. Formal logic is a calculus, the ossified relic of a meditation on thinking itself. It aims to formalize the structures of reasoning, which it identifies as the essence of thinking. The result can be understood as a kind of recipe for reasoned thinking.

While it may be fashionable to declare thinking formless without logic, Heidegger would contend that the converse is true. Although the structures of formal logic seem to underlie reasoned thinking, they also emerge from it. Thinking, like cooking, is a hermeneutic circle: it doesn’t begin with logic, but neither is logic an arbitrary outcome of its occurrence. After all, unreasoned thinking is possible, and it need be neither irrational nor mistaken: artistic or poetic thinking, for example, are more aptly described as freely-associative than deductive or inductive. This type of thinking cannot be ‘wrong’ in the modern true-or-false sense. It gains its sway by drawing attention to our pre-rational commitments, and to the vast interstitial spaces concealed by the rational nodes of modern life.

Reasoned thinking, when thought meditatively, reveals itself in the principles of formal logic. Yet one must first be able to think in order to be let into logical thinking. Logic is not, therefore, the prime mover of thinking. Rather, logic is moved—it is first thought—because we can think. This in no way entails that logic is arbitrarily or freely constructed, nor does it elevate thinking to the status of a first cause. Heidegger instead conceives of thinking as the mode of access to un-concealment (from the Greek αλήθεια, transliterated aletheia; literally ‘not-oblivion’—a combination of the privative a- with the river Lethe, a mythological symbol for forgetfulness). He contrasts this with the common binary conception of truth as a correspondence between ‘representations’—generally thought to be entertained by some knowing subject—and ‘reality’, the objective world of phenomena.

Despite our reliance on calculation, it would seem that most calculative endeavors begin meditatively. The first person to attempt any calculation must dwell on the object of their interest for long enough to secure a calculative grip. This suggests that the root of thinking, the place where thinking rests and returns, is meditative dwelling: a thinking without producing, a simple abiding with what is. Calculative thinking might afterwards and quite innocently conceal the understanding born of this dwelling; but calculation remains possible only if, and only to the extent that dwelling has first occurred. That we use the calculative products of others’ initially meditative thinking is a ubiquitous feature of modern life.

Meditative thinking and science

The modern positivist would assert that science is an exercise in incremental evidence collection, and that it is explicitly dispossessed of any conceptual framework biasing its interpretation. Science proceeds by way of facts and logical inferences constructed from those facts. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s opening remarks in the modern remake of Cosmos tersely articulate this view. Science is a calculative enterprise.

Yet each decisive turn in the history of science has involved meditative thinking. Moreover, science is stringently factual precisely because it must make non-empirical determinations in advance of any experiment. Heidegger provides an explanation of this by way of Galileo in an essay called Modern Science, Metaphysics, and Mathematics.

Galileo’s famous (and possibly apocryphal) experiment at Pisa did not suggest that all bodies dropped from an equal height should hit the ground at the same time. His data implied the opposite: lighter bodies hit the ground later than heavy bodies did. But in the scientific culture of his time, ‘nature’ was conceived as an essence belonging to bodies. To Galileo’s contemporaries, his experiment validated a long-held hypothesis: bodies having the nature of ‘heavy’ fall downwards—towards the place they belong—while bodies having the nature of ‘light’ fall upwards. The particular mix of these two natures in any body determines the rate of its falling or rising.

Galileo’s audacious hypothesis resulted from his jumping ahead of the factual data, and then refuting it. He first surmised a new way of thinking about bodies: not as belonging to a particular privileged location in space, but as having no such preference whatsoever. In this subtle step, ‘nature’ as a concept changes irrevocably. Nature no longer signifies something inhering in objects, thereby rendering them knowable. It now points to an indifferent order encompassing all objects. Nature is not a unique identifier; it is the grand normalizer.

This new determination of the natural arose from a meditative rather than a calculative thinking: it required Galileo to think beyond the scientific logic of his time. He proceeded, on the basis of the hypothetical equivalence of all natural bodies, to suggest that any two falling bodies should behave identically regardless of their mass. His hypothesis therefore arose from an alternative interpretation of the facts. All bodies do indeed fall at the same rate, if only we could rule out the resistive influence of air.

Yet the preceding ‘if only’ is an empirical impossibility. There is no perfect vacuum occurring anywhere on earth or in space. Galileo’s purely ideal conception of an unhindered body—the forerunner of Newton’s first law that a body maintains a state of uniform motion unless it is acted upon by an unbalanced external force—is at the root of his new determination of ‘nature’. Hypothesizing in this way is non-empirical, as it invokes unrealizable experimental conditions in the mind, and it is radical: it posits an axiom of nature in advance of or against any available evidence. The stringency of science’s experimentation is a corollary of its radical, non-empirical origin in the hypothesis. Since it jumps ahead of the facts, it must submit nature to rigorous questioning in order to assess whether it was justified in doing so.

There was nothing intrinsic to Galileo’s bodies producing the behavior he observed. Against the inconspicuous horizon of a new conception, bodies are no longer vested with natures; they are simply natural. But this was not a conclusion reached by the dispossession of any conceptual framework and the simple observation of facts. Had Galileo not presciently rejected the logic employed by the science of his time, he would simply have confirmed it. Galileo thereby re-appropriated science by instantiating its essence: to dwell on the natural world. His thoughtful dwelling burst through the structure which both enabled and contained it. Every genuine scientific endeavor rouses science from the slumber it finds in its logic, but only a few revolutionize science and therefore remake that logic.

The death of philosophy

Why should intelligibility be suicide for philosophy? For the same reason that scientific logic without intuition or any of its attendant conceptions—bold and hypothetical though they may be—would bring about the death of science. If it was indeed Galileo who first thought nature in the way the Newtonian revolution would later take as a fundamental axiom, then he did so by bringing a distant mystery close, not by settling for the merely intelligible.

Intelligibility is a well-worn road. It takes us in the direction of what is already illuminated instead of leading us into darker, more distant places. Philosophy and science probe what is generally thinkable and naturally knowable, respectively. To submit the former to the flattening requirement of intelligibility, and the latter to the rigid structure of a particular logic, is to suggest we have no foundational progress to make in either discipline. It is akin to declaring the way to truth definitively prescribed and beyond questioning.

But how might we dwell on things meditatively? Since I am inclined to believe meditative thinking has no definite structure, it’s difficult to outline any course of action to get us there more dependably. Such a prescription would be calculative by nature—an attempt to meditate so as to extract a profit of some kind—and therefore not genuinely meditative.

The hallmark of meditative thinking is its grace. It seems to befall us sometimes, if we are lucky. It leaves us with the impression of having been let into something wondrous. But I would not chalk this up to divine favor. Such a feeling attends the experience of thinking something for the sake of thinking it, without a readymade purpose in mind. The thing so thought presents itself not merely as what it might do, but as what it might be.

To think meditatively is to will without willing. It is active and directed, yet the thinker is conspicuously absent from the process. The willing in the thought is of, from, and through it; it is not a willing imposed by the thinker. We might say that we think meditatively when our cues come from the thoughts themselves, not from what we want those thoughts to accomplish; when we, as the thinkers of those thoughts, become afterthoughts.

A practical example might serve us here. Consider Zen koans—terse, often paradoxical statements upon which disciples are meant to meditate. There can be no progress made in resolving them. They are intended to expose the limits of reason, to reveal to disciples the foolishness of the will to calculate one’s way out of every conundrum. The disciple is drawn instead into a kind of practical reasoning. Modest and bound to the context of the koan, this way remains sensitive to the paradox without willing it into submission.

We can think such paradoxes, while logic cannot. Evidence, perhaps, that logic truly is subordinate to thinking—and not the other way around.