Mimesis as Make-Believe (5): Participation
Game Design as Make-Believe (5): Participation (ihobo)

Heidegger's Time vs Spacetime

Spacetime Martin Heidegger, the most celebrated continental philosopher of the twentieth century, places at the centre of his thoughts the notion of “being in time” - indeed, his magnum opus is called Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). For Heidegger, time was more important to our existence than space. But how should Heidegger's idea be understood in connection with Einstein's theory of spacetime?

The contents of Being and Time are notoriously difficult to appreciate, and doubly so for non-German speakers since Heidegger draws frequently upon grammatical features of his native language that don't always translate into other languages. The centrepiece of his ideas is Dasein (often translated as “being-there”, although Heidegger denied this was accurate). A shorthand for understanding Dasein is that it means the experience of being aware of time, of the consequences and the circumstances of being positioned in a history we can look back upon, and aware of our death ahead of us. We think of this kind of perspective as being uniquely human – while other animals are certainly beings, only humans are Dasein as far as we know. It is vital to Heidegger's idea that Dasein is always already embodied in time – there is no question of considering human consciousness as a separate subject for him. We humans are thrown into time as Dasein, and it is thoroughly fruitless to doubt external reality, we simply must attend to our 'throwness' as it comes.

For the purpose of this discussion, the key point to raise is that for Heidegger time was more important to Dasein than space. Where we are born in the world can become quite irrelevant as we move through our lives, as we can relocate, learn from other cultures and so forth. But we cannot move through time in this way – when we are born is of critical importance both to who we are and whom we can become. If we were born in ancient Greece we could not possibly become an astronaut, for instance, whereas if we were born into an Amazonian tribe we could still potentially become an astronaut (however unlikely) as long as we were born in this time.

A challenge the physicist may want to raise is that this separating out of time and space is misleading, since what we are really existing within is spacetime, a four dimensional continuum in which treating time and space as separate is misleading. But it is the physicist here who is misled – they have mistaken a mathematical model as having precedence over the actual terms of our existence (or our Dasein, in Heidegger's term), mistaking a scientific model as being necessarily of higher importance. It's the same kind of error a theist makes when they mistake their concept of God for truth – one may very well claim that God has access to universal truth, but that does not warrant any claim by the believer in God to any such access; to do so is tantamount to blasphemy in conventional religious terms. The physicist's prioritising of the spacetime model over humanity itself engages in a similar kind of immodesty.

Recall Hannah Arendt's commentary on Heisenberg's notes as to how quantum physics changed our understanding of science: the experiment remains a “question put before nature”, and as such the answers of science always remain questions asked by people. We are confused over what is “objective” when we assume that there can be answers without questions and a question-asking being – a Dasein, in Heidegger's terms. Dasein comes first and it alone is primordial to our experiences and knowledge. Science is a set of tools for thought and action that depend first and foremost upon Dasein, upon our being in time. There can be no science without thinking beings to conduct it.

Spacetime, then, is a tool that can be at hand for us to use as Dasein (in understanding the nature of the universe as we observe it, for instance) but it does not mean that the concept of spacetime is more fundamental than the notion of time in the context of being and existence. We all too frequently mistake our scientific tools for objective truth because the modern paradigms of science trick us into thinking that our experimental results, and the theories that organise these, are meaningful independent of humanity. But this is far from the case: they are a product of our being, our Dasein. Another kind of being would not necessarily derive the same theories. A hypothetical entity whose awareness was embodied within spacetime (rather than time) could not arrive at anything like Einstein's theory of general relativity, which has its sense precisely because space and time are separately measurable for us.

Yet Heidegger may yet have spoken too soon when he said that time was more important to Dasein than space, for this assumption rests securely on the idea that when we talk of spatial separation we are talking solely of distances upon our world. Heidegger never entertained the possibility of sentient beings elsewhere in the universe – of non-terrestrial Dasein. And if this is allowed, then spatial separation could be far more radical than temporality in changing the nature of how Dasein is thrown into the world...

But perhaps we would be wise to heed Daniel Dennett's caution to be wary of science fiction thought experiments, because the strong intuitions they form may be illusory (a warning also hinted at by Wittgenstein). Whether or not there is alien Dasein doesn't matter for us at the moment because there is no question or possibility of our being thrown into their world – we are always already thrown into this one. And for all of us, as Dasein here on Earth at this time, the question of when we live has truly become vastly more important than where.


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Whether or not there is alien Dasein doesn't matter for us at the moment because there is no question or possibility of our being thrown into their world – we are always already thrown into this one.

Are you assuming their world and ours are mutually exclusive, rather than (say) their world being a superset of ours?

Peter: What I'm assuming is that we are both on the same planet, and always already were. :)

We could imagine being thrown into "their world", just as we could imagine, say, being born in Tibet. But that isn't what happened. We're already here. The question of whether we *could* have been born into a different world is a thought experiment unlikely to yield anything reliable, since it rests on a strange premise of what it would mean for one person to be someone else (or in this case, something else!)

Hope that makes sense! :)

Is there an internal inconsistency here, where in the original piece you use "we" as in "We humans..." but in the comment you compare aliens and native Tibetans?

Are the differences between you, me, an arbitrary native Tibetan and a (putative) arbitrary alien qualitative or quantitative? If qualitative, at what point out from you would you place the qualitative boundary and why?

I think the only place I could defend a qualitative boundary would be between me and not-me. Anything else is a matter of degree. But happy to be educated!

Peter: the only place you could defend a qualitative boundary would be between you and not-you? So your relationship to me is no different to your relationship to a banana? I doubt this, unless you're secretly sneaking off to play boardgames and socialise with bananas. :)

This kind of solipsism is expressly denied by Heidegger, and indeed he calls it the "tragedy of philosophy" that so many intellectuals have spent so much time entertaining it as a serious problem. Rather than tease this point out of his generally indecipherable prose, however, let me offer this quote from Mary Midgley:

"A rational being is someone who sees himself as a unit among others, not as the core of the universe... our ordinary notion of sanity requires this idea. It is also involved in the insistence of modern linguistic philosophers on the publicity of language, which is at last getting rid of the solipsistic temptations introduced by Descartes. Certainly I think therefore I am – But I also speak, therefore you are too. Indeed 'I' makes no sense without 'you'."

The point here is that since we can converse (and indeed we are doing so!) it makes no sense to doubt the existence of other persons. If there were no other persons, it would make no sense for there to be language at all!

Along similar lines, the emotional (and thus experiential) structure you and I operate within are closely related - after all, we are the fruit of the same evolutionary tree. In fact, one need not stop at the human here, as the emotional structure of the lives of humans and other mammals are closely related, and one can trace some of these ties back to the amphibians, in some cases even further.

In this sense, I believe there are distinct qualitative distinctions to be made between, on the one hand, you, me, a Tibetan (and, in a slightly different sense, a dolphin or a squirrel), and on the other hand a banana, a table or an alien species about which we can say nothing at all.

I would place a qualitative boundary between those beings we can have a two-sided relationship with, and (to follow my earlier example) a banana. I can understand a squirrel by observing its behaviour and indeed by interacting with it. I cannot communicate with a squirrel the same way I can with you, but I *can* communicate with it (for instance, I can show it that I am not a threat, that I can provide food, play with it etc.) The banana will not offer me the same possibility of communication in any meaningful sense.

I would place another clear qualitative boundary at that point where our ability to know anything at all runs out. In respect of this boundary, we could hurdle it by *inventing* a specific alien species and its circumstances... but it is precisely this kind of speculation which I am suggesting is possible only in fiction, and cannot inherently be considered empirical in the way we usually use this term.

As Wittgenstein says at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "Of what one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence."

Thanks for teasing out this interesting tangent! :)

Thank you for this elegant juxtaposition

Interesting topic. For a person who considers continental philosophy (except Adorno) to be the spawn of the devil, I shall consider a more charitable perspective. I have two responses, one is really a more elaborate version of the other.

Short version: lolwut?

Longer version: I feel this kind of analysis is exactly what continental philosophy is fundamentally confused about.

1. It is an interesting psychological insight to acknowledge that we as human beings are often focused in a large way towards acknowleding that we are mortal.

That such an insight is fundamental seems to equivocate what 'time' and 'fundamental' may mean. If we read Heidegger to say that being in time was a fundamental capacity; we may further pose questions such as: to the locus of whom?

It is one thing to make a phenomenological insight into the nature of human existence as we see it; its another to speak of foundations of reality that may be present even if humans don't exist.

2. Fundamentality (is a made up word). Philosophers are interested in 'fundamentals' and 'foundations'; scientists and physicists are not.

Physicists are interested by contrast, in taxonomy; taxonomies such as the standard model of particle physics. There does not seem to be a legitimate question of 'what is the fundamental of reality/the universe'. As the physical universe consists of many different kinds of phenomena; speculation on the nature of such kinds enters a newer speculative level. I do not think that the candidates (time, space, matter, energy) are very good unifiers. Energy some people think has some currency but the onus is on such a reader to draw out that argument.

As an aside, and perhaps a complete contradition. I think the notion of 'information' may become the new 'fundamental' of our universe; digital data such as bits may be the 'code' of the quantum universe, and as it is such a powerful notion; humanity has based itself on the notion of information and data to construct its great achievements in technology, bureaucracy and scientific theories (like the notion of the gene, or
the species concept).

I suspect that Heideggers' phenomenological outlook did not have Einstein in mind; and he's worse off for it.

Michael: your ire towards continental philosophy is well known to me, of course! :)

There seems to be something about English-speaking nerds that inevitably draws us into analytic philosophy... the clean lines and logical structure of most thought in this school is more obviously akin to science - but this can be a blessing or a curse. I have a suspicion that the more poetic influences at work in continental philosophy are more akin to art - and I believe it is healthy to have different human endeavours feed into the philosophical endeavour. There is, in my opinion, already too much of a scientistic bias in much Western philosophy... if philosophy has become science's bitch, it won't fulfill its own potential.

"1. It is an interesting psychological insight to acknowledge that we as human beings are often focused in a large way towards acknowleding that we are mortal."

Actually, Heidegger's claim is rather that we are often focused in a large way on *denying* or trying to ignore that we are mortal. But this is tangential to this piece.

"That such an insight is fundamental seems to equivocate what 'time' and 'fundamental' may mean."

Firstly, "fundamental" was my choice of word, not Heidegger's, so your critique may be aimed at me rather than him. :)

Secondly, it only equivocates if you presume that "time" and "fundamental" must be taken in the same sense they are used in empirical science. But science is still a human activity; the idea that the concepts generated in science are somehow more fundamental than the lives of the species behind that endeavour is something of the "Wizard behind the curtain" in modern science. Hence my example of beings embedded in spacetime for whom the notion "spacetime" would be incomprehensible. The confusion as to where to position one's fundament is not resolved by an appeal to science unless one has already decided to grant science primacy, and the attempt to create a fiat that enforces this view (which certain people appear to pursue) is something I find particularly troubling.

"It is one thing to make a phenomenological insight into the nature of human existence as we see it; its another to speak of foundations of reality that may be present even if humans don't exist."

Well this may well be a major locus of confusion on this issue, to be sure. Making the human experience fundamental *to humans* is not making a deeper ontic claim. It is exposing something incredibly obvious we are nonetheless wont to ignore.

"2. Fundamentality (is a made up word). Philosophers are interested in 'fundamentals' and 'foundations'; scientists and physicists are not."

I do not agree, and I speak as someone who started out as an Astrophysics undergraduate. Physicists are, to be sure, interested in a great many things, but they are certainly interested in fundamentals and foundations - and generally more so than their other scientific brethren! Listening to Professor Brian cox recently I was terribly amused at his use of the term "the Laws of Physics", which one could have replaced in his script every time with "God" with almost no loss of meaning! :) You should have heard what "the Laws of Physics" made and did... ;)

"Physicists are interested by contrast, in taxonomy; taxonomies such as the standard model of particle physics."

The standard model of particle physics is not, as such, a taxonomy (and neither for that matter is the periodic table of the elements, although it is closer to the form). But let us not get held up on this term, as it is the other terms you are really interested in.

The Trivipedia has this to say as its opening sentence on the standard model:

"The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory of three of the four known fundamental interactions and the elementary particles that take part in these interactions."

*Fundamental* interactions and *elementary* particles... but you said physicists weren't interested in fundamentals? >:)

(Actually, to be fair, it is rather reductionists who are interested in these things - and both philosophers and scientists may be reductionists, of course.)

"There does not seem to be a legitimate question of 'what is the fundamental of reality/the universe'."

I find it hard to believe that there is no legitimate question to "what is the fundamental of reality", since I would answer this allegedly illegitimate question quite comfortably with "perception". No perception, no concept of reality. That the universe would be here without beings capable of perception (which can only, after all, be a hypothesis, no matter how compelling and obvious it might be!) is neither here nor there since there is nothing we could call "reality" without a being to experience or imagine it.

Now "fundamental of the universe" is tougher... but concepts such as "quantum foam" were invented precisely to serve this role, of course (and this is not the only candidate). The Trivipedia will suffice once again to support my claim:

"The [quantum] foam is supposedly the foundations of the fabric of the universe"

*Foundations*, see? Physicists are just as prone to digging towards the bottom of the ontic well as philosophers - often more so! :)

"As an aside, and perhaps a complete contradition. I think the notion of 'information' may become the new 'fundamental' of our universe"

The attempt has certainly been mounted. I believe it will fail, in the sense of fail to produce a consensus, but it will give us new perspectives to draw against, and that could be positive. One of the problems with information approaches is they run up against the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness, at which point if you are inclined, like Dennett, to ignore consciousness you can go on with your information model, and if you are inclined, as many of us are, to recognise consciousness, you cannot easily do so. There is a big difference between information and consciousness acting upon information, and it cannot necessarily be reduced to information on its own.

Doesn't it strike you that recognising information in a fundamental role is admitting to a form of substance dualism - information and matter? How do you reduce matter solely to information?

But I digress...

This is a really interesting tangent, but perhaps best left for the future! :)

"I suspect that Heideggers' phenomenological outlook did not have Einstein in mind; and he's worse off for it."

Well of course the whole point of this piece is to suggest that Heidegger was no worse off for not considering Einstein's models, and that indeed the physicist who objects to Heidegger's positioning of "time" is being mislead by their attachment to a specific theoretical framework.

There is tremendous power in our scientific models, but that power is a tool afforded to humans. Without humans, there is no science. That the entities scientists study exist without humans is neither here nor there in the perspective Heidegger advanced, which placed the human at the centre of attention precisely because we are human - or rather, we are Dasien (being situated in time) - and to pretend that our theories are more important than ourselves is a very strange space to be in!

I always enjoy discussing philosophical matters with you, and hope you have found my rebuttal entertaining. :)

Best wishes!

the topic interests me greatly, I am a student of undergraduate and my thesis I plan to do it on another. ¿Influenced the theory of relativity in Einstein's conception of time in Heidegger?. I would be very useful if you could give me a bibliography to address this issue in greater depth. excuse my English, I'm Chilean and my native language is Spanish

Camilo: I'm really sorry but I don't have a bibliography to go with this one - this was just a random set of thoughts I wrote after reading a short introductory book about Heidegger philosophy (I wasn't ready to tackle Being and Time as it's a monster!). There are links in the above you can use, though - sorry I can't be more helpful!

I am student in physics and for a long time I was thinking about considering time in a way equivalent to spacial dimensions. When I encountered with that first, I agreed on that and it sounds reasonable, however after years one day I realized that there is a misleading and I start to think about that. I appreciate your work on this topic. Do you have any articles/papers as advice to read to go into deep further?

Hi Ceyda,
This is the only thing I've ever written that intersects with conceptual questions concerning spacetime, I think, although I have spent a lot of time thinking about it (I was an astrophysics undergraduate for two years before jumping ship to computer science).

Thanks for your comment, and sorry I haven't anything more to offer!


Thanks for your dialogue between Einsteinian and heideggerian relativity perspectives.

Heidegger made effort to analyse fundamental level of our consciousness and
shows some problems of intentionality and understanding of things. Heidegger used the word
“Die Befindlichkeit” as a spatial metaphor of mood. In German language the term
“finden”, which is etymological root of “die Befindlichkeit”, refers to verb “find” and so
“die Befindlichkeit” means something like “to be situated”. It is a matter of course that each man is in each moment anyway situated. And so situation is always and already
present and man is always in any situation similar to how we are in any attunement. We can tell that we are always already in a mood because this mood can change.
To be situated is a kind of “position” of a subject which is kept in the whole of the universe. It is no mistake that any position (our being in the world, whether we are experiencing as a chief executive officer, belonging in relationship to family & community, or whether it be lonely, in sickness, scared, and cold, or as a hungry preverbal infant, or as a university professor, and so on and so on, determines our interpretation of reality. Some positions (moods, being -in-the world) enable us to see some things or aspects, other not. When we look at
thing, we cannot see any things or aspects because they are hidden by another thing. We
can see mutual relations between object and object and, more importantly, their
fundamental relationship towards us as subjects. This moment is very similar to the
Einsteinian principle of an observer in the special theory of relativity. To sum, because our position in the world forms a referential frame for our understanding and judging objects.
Each situation makes the world present according to its specific position. “Die
Befindlichkeit” is the position which characterizes the “point of view” of a subject to its world. The take home message, for me, is that perception is relative. Relative to your being and time, relative to how you find yourself in the world, your throwness (whether into a rich family, born with a disability, etc) and your time. Because our possibilities for perception/ understanding are relative, it follows Truth/ Reality and Time, rather than being absolute are relative! And to presume otherwise is to mask a socio -political agenda.
Truth claims are the alibi of power. WOW!

Hi David,
Many thanks for your commentary here - I am always interested on accounts from those more familiar with Heidegger since, like the late Mary Midgley, I have found the denseness of his terminology rather off-putting (although I have enjoyed my engagement with his short essays very much).

For me, the truth in relativity is that expressing a truth involves finding how seemingly disparate viewpoints converge upon a common understanding. I am uncertain what Heidegger would make of such a claim.

Much appreciated,


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