An essay in today’s Times by Lawrence Berger fascinated me. Titled “Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters,” it explores what it means to be “fully human” by comparing the approach of cognitive scientists with the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger.
Berger argues that cognitive scientists tend to reductionistic (as is the case with many scientists). They prefer to see humans as “information processors rather than full-blooded human beings immersed in worlds of significance.” Thus, they explain human experience “on the basis of physical and physiological processes,” which is the domain they consider “ultimately real.” Some even go so far as to claim that “we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.” From this perspective, we don’t have direct contact with people and things, but only “bits of information” that “represent” reality.
Heidegger affirms not only that we are in direct contact with reality through “being in the world.” He also declares that “our presence matters for how they are made manifest — how they come into presence….” One instance is that “when we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface.” As one who has long been profoundly concerned about the decline in the art of listening, I found that formulation very striking.
Heidegger and Berger assert that before we formulate ideas that represent reality, we filter the onslaught of stimuli that bombards us with the mechanism of attention, which is “how things come into presence for us.” By “staying with” what we encounter,” we influence how those entities are “made manifest” and are able to discover “a deeper revelation of its nature.” And our relationships change over time as a result.
Such dynamics apply event to relationships with inanimate objects, like a stone. “Acute attentiveness can lead to a sense of an entity that goes beyond the way it is typically experienced. I can feel something more deeply because I come in direct contact with it in my worldly presence.”
With a tree: “which dimensions of the tree are considered to be real: the tree viewed at the cellular level, or as a mechanical system of sustenance, or is it the tree as we experience it? Indeed, how does science derive the authority to opine on such matters?”
This attitude is reminiscent of Buddhist mindfulness. “This means that staying with the experience of the tree enables it to come to full fruition, and that such experience matters…. For we are more deeply alive and in profound contact with all of the entities that we encounter when such a state is achieved, which means that we participate more fully in this universal process of manifestation.”
Heidegger does not separate the mental and the physical. For him, subjective experience does not take place “in a private realm that is cut off from the rest of reality.” Our presence affects the being of material objects.
“The experience of the stone that I come to is part of the process of its manifestation in all of its possibilities. In this manner we are intimately related to the stone in our worldly presence…. The claim is that the being of the stone itself is not independent of such an event.”
Whereas “the prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws,” Berger asserts, “We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.”
We are not fundamentally cut off from the world. “We are in direct and potentially profound relation with the people and things that we encounter. On this latter view there is unlimited potential for what can be made manifest ….There can be little doubt that our presence matters if this is any indication of our true vocation.”
What is our “true vocation?” In “Our Purpose,” I offered some thoughts on that question and concluded, “Life seeks to survive and evolve. Our calling is to contribute to human evolution.” Heidegger and Berger suggest a broader frame: fully paying attention is at the heart of helping to unfold life’s potential and contribute to the evolution of Life itself.