|01-09-2012 - Traces, n. 8
TOPICS / NEUROSCIENCE
Where in finally lies my “I”?
The answer to this simple question is anything but obvious. Rather, it is one of the challenges inspiring researchers to push to frontiers never before explored. We offer here a report on an exchange of ideas that has only just begun.
Admitting the existence of the infinite is not just a question of galaxies. It means admitting the profundity of which life is made, the existence of a “second level,” as Tat’jana Kasatkina, a Dostoevsky scholar and one of the protagonists of the Meeting, said. “We are talking about the presence of something that is not openly given to us, but that nonetheless exists in a clear, distinct, and present manner.” The common theme of the week was this profundity, in history and current events, in art, in relationships, and first of all in the enigma of how the human person is made, our dual nature of matter and spirit. For this reason, the Meeting could not fail to look to the frontier of neuroscience with the question: Wherein lies the “I”? It seems simplistic to ask this, but the answer is anything but obvious. It is one of the greatest challenges research sets before us, and in this respect, neuroscience is on the cutting edge. So, at Rimini, among various talks on biological evolution, the problem of the unity of the “I” was also faced, “the miraculous sensation of something that we perceive as whole,” as articulated by the linguist Andrea Moro, introducing the dialogue between two different perspectives, that of the philosopher of the mind, Michele Di Francesco, and that of the physician, Giancarlo Cesana.
Why is this unity a problem? Because the latest scientific results reveal increasingly well the activities of our brain, exploring the myriad mechanisms that act in us, including unconscious ones, studying sensations, but fail to “localize” the point that holds everything together. And yet there remains in us “the intuitive image of a unified entity,” as Di Francesco said. This is so true that “consciousness anticipates this problem on the linguistic level,” Moro explained. “One of the first words a child speaks is ‘I.’ Then, ‘you.’ Only much later does ‘we’ come.”
Software and freedom. The mystery that we are calls into question the widespread theory that the “I” is confined to the brain. “Are we so sure? I’m not,” stated Di Francesco. He explained the growth of our knowledge about brain function, especially in the sub-personal mechanisms found in daily life (a banal example is when we are driving and miss a stop sign because we are distracted, and yet we continue to have “control” of the car). We dissect the “I,” “but it is increasingly less easy to find it”—even under the lens of nuclear magnetic resonance. He went on to document reductionist positions that range from the most popular to the theories of the “detractors” of the “I,” such as Daniel Dennett, who considers the brain “a somewhat patched together aggregation of specialized brain circuits” and the “I” a sort of “software that produces a narrative center of gravity”–in other words, an artifice. The progress of experimental sciences thus challenges our experience, and the dominant scientific approach tends to dissolve the “I” “because it drastically reduces the weight of consciousness, in the sense of awareness,” continued Di Francesco, above all because it clashes with the strongest factor that undercuts reductionism: freedom. “It is the word that most defines the nature of the ‘I’ as experience,” added Cesana. Freedom defines the “I” as relationship “because the ‘I’ does not depend only on me, but on what fulfills me.” Then he said, as a provocation, that he could not wait for the outcome of scientific research “to know whether I exist.” Very true, but this does not mean that the outcomes of neuroscience fail to make us think. Rather, as Javier Prades explained in his talk on the theme of the Meeting (see p. 14), they show “how surprising our nature is,” and ask anew the question about “the foundation of reason.” This foundation cannot be the situation we chance to experience, because “scientific reason that reduces the human being to pure matter can no longer give a reason for its own meaning.”
Resuming the journey. Thus, in facing the question of the “I,” science throws the question wide open, even in spite of itself, even when it tries to close it; it ends up throwing it wide open. This is the first sign that we are dealing with something mysterious. In denying it, the very object and the instrument of research both suffer; in fact, they dissolve.
For this reason, comparing ideas on these themes is fruitful if “it reactivates the problem of meaning from within research, operatively,” explained philosopher Costantino Esposito, among the guests of Rimini and also of the Euresis Symposium, which has been held in San Marino in collaboration with the Meeting for several years now, bringing together scholars of international standing in a lively comparison of ideas and, above all, an encounter among women and men. “The personal relationship, that is, interest not only in the research of other people, but in the person of the other, is where the greatest contribution happens,” said astrophysicist Marco Bersanelli. “Without each person’s wonder at the existence of reality, without being in love with truth, analytical knowledge is only a tumor that grows unstoppably, because it no longer has its meaning.”
The destiny of science itself depends on the wonder Prades spoke of “before the exceedingly mysterious unity that makes each of us what we are.” He said that we need to resume the journey to discover amazement at our own selves. “Each of us must be moved in the face of our own human makeup.”