Heidegger's "Unfaith"

...I want to look at some remarks of Heidegger which concern how faith relates to the question "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?"

Heidegger's "Unfaith"

Thank you for your patience. I'm still doing job applications, I had to get a flat tire fixed, I'm dealing with a flooded apartment, and I have to move.

Today I want to look at some remarks of Heidegger which concern how faith relates to the question "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" Before I quote and comment, there are two readings I'd like to recommend.

Previously, we spoke about what spirit these lectures require in order to be understood. Then we commented on the fundamental question of metaphysics-- "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?"--asking how exactly it is supposed to work. We noted several emotional states can be seen as manifestations of the fundamental question.

Even before Heidegger mentions it explicitly, it does sound like he calls those who do philosophy to an experience resembling faith. Here, however, is a statement of his that there is a contrast:

"...anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth already has the answer to the question 'Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?' before it is even asked: beings, with the exception of God Himself, are created by Him. God Himself 'is' as the uncreated Creator. One who holds on to such faith as a basis can, perhaps, emulate and participate in the asking of our question in a certain way, but he cannot authentically question without giving himself up as a believer, with all the consequences of this step. He can act only 'as if'--. On the other hand, if such faith does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience." (IM 8-9)

Heidegger is almost firm that the fundamental question does not ask for faith. Faith, as he says, can "emulate and participate in the asking of our question," but an authentic questioning is not possible through it. That seems clear enough. However, Heidegger immediately says that faith needs to "expose itself to the possibility of unfaith" to be more than a "convenience."

It is very easy to glide past a contradiction here. Nearly everyone wants to say that true faith is open to doubt but can work past it. Nearly everyone also wants to say that there are questions which have such depth that they shake us out of every thought we've ever had. The contradiction isn't quite in the term "faith" versus the term "doubt." Of course there can be a fight over whether using the word faith should even imply doubt. E.g. "If you really believe, why would you ever doubt?" I don't think that's a terribly interesting argument to pursue.

The argument in which I'm more interested centers on the character of doubt. It is useful to go back to Descartes' Meditations at this juncture. Descartes doubts and throws the bodily, external world away. But then he works through the logic of "cogito ergo sum:" "I think, therefore I am." Because he doubts, he thinks, and since he thinks, he knows he exists. When he reaches other truths that cannot be doubted, e.g. mathematical truths, he builds to a metaphysics requiring divine power and eventually returns to reality. (1)

Descartes posits a form of doubt far from existential dread. He's running a thought experiment. His question is something like this: How might apologetics be reconciled with the sciences? His rhetorical task in the Meditations is to convince clergy to accept his peculiar arguments for God's existence, arguments which lend themselves to asking lots of questions. Some of those questions advance knowledge of the material world.

I know a few will say that Descartes is unphilosophic. He uses philosophic rhetoric to pursue a specific set of goals. He's simply uninterested in a fundamental question which supposedly resounds with meaning and dictates our emotional lives. However, I'd rather say Descartes is philosophic in a different way than Heidegger. It was a challenge to get people in the early 17th century to believe science and technology were beneficial at all. Many would rather not ask questions; quite a few were happy to be drafted into random sectarian wars of religion. Descartes has to show his audience how math and biology can be conceived as useful. That they can be part of a coherent set of thoughts which others can accept. The impersonality of Cartesian thought is hiding its radical nature.

However, even if the whole of Descartes has depth, it does feel like his notion of doubt is narrow. Technical. It does have the advantage of avoiding Heidegger's contradictory talk about "faith" and "unfaith," where it isn't clear what the relation between faith and philosophy is.

To be clear, Heidegger does not say "doubt." He speaks of something much heavier, "unfaith," and says true faith has to expose itself to the possibility of it. Let's think about "unfaith" a bit more. We've known people who have switched their beliefs in profound ways. For example, becoming Buddhist after time as an extreme Catholic. Believing, perhaps, that acceptance of the changability of all things provides more stability for oneself than an elaborate moral code. This sort of thing is significant. The worst person turns into the person everyone wants to be. The best people are suddenly better. Is this "unfaith?" After all, an entire faith was switched.

I don't think this counts as "unfaith," even though we should learn from those who have found ways to be more moral. What we want to know is just how much a question can shake us. What exactly will happen if we truly question? Here is where I believe Heidegger has something to offer. Authentically ask "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" and you have a claim on the future:

"All essential questioning in philosophy necessarily remains untimely, and this is because philosophy either projects far beyond its own time or else binds its time back to this time's earlier and inceptive past. Philosophizing always remains a kind of knowing that not only does not allow itself to be made timely but, on the contrary, imposes its measure on the times." (IM 9)

"Philosophizing... does not allow itself to be made timely... [it] imposes its measure on the times." This, to echo a theme we have been hinting at all along, sounds providential. And it is a bit irritating. Isn't Descartes, narrow conception of "doubt" notwithstanding, changing how humanity thinks? Isn't that speaking the future? How does one authentically ask "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing," anyway? If amazingly moral people who can change their mind and change the world don't need to ask the question authentically, what use is it?

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We need to imagine what asking this question is like. Heidegger at another point in Introduction to Metaphysics responds to a famous passage of Nietzsche's (IM 4). Nietzsche asks us to think about what rationality actually means. Here we are, on this planet, and we've called ourselves rational. We're making amazing things, reshaping the planet, and then one day the sun explodes and we all die and all traces of our achievements are lost. What good was our intelligence, in that case?

Nietzsche, on Heidegger's terms, is asking the fundamental question of metaphysics. He's asking why is there anything at all. Because he does this, he offers space for a completely different way of valuing everything. The fundamental question transcends Nietzsche's skepticism. To give an answer that will sound trite but really isn't, imagine an alien species realizing a world like ours was even possible. There is unity in wonder, unity in possibilities.

This is, I posit, the deep reason why asking the fundamental question echoes experiences of faith but is not itself a matter of faith. For Heidegger, there are world-historical possibilities at stake. I myself am partial to a quieter notion of philosophy, where significant moral change depends on an appreciation of being. But I don't think I'm really talking past Heidegger.


(1) This argument is fairly controversial. The typical approach to Descartes involves focusing on Descartes' statement that God can change eternal truths however He likes. However, I rather like the approach of Richard Kennington in "The Finitude of Descartes' Evil Genius" (1971) – it is that paper I'm relying on for this commentary.


Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.