Mi è capitato di passare alcune ore all’interno della biblioteca centrale di Milano Bicocca, dove ho potuto apprezzare la notevole disponibilità di testi relativi alle neuroscienze, alla filosofia della mente e alle problematiche dell’Io, della coscienza e del libero arbitrio. Tutte storie molto di moda qua dentro, you know. In particolare ho sfogliato alcune pagine de Il tunnel dell’Io di Thomas Metzinger, lavoro che per un motivo o per l’altro non ho mai fatto mio e che, prendendo in esame scoperte scientifiche e nuovi dati sui meccanismi neurali umani, ci mostra (dalla quarta di copertina):
che siamo solo macchine evolute, dotate di un cervello in grado di modellare noi stessi e il mondo, facendoci credere che percepiamo cose fuori di noi e che siamo in contatto diretto con un io dentro di noi. Non si tratta di una semplice illusione, facile da smascherare. È il modello di realtà entro cui da sempre siamo, il tunnel da cui non possiamo uscire, perché di questo è fatta la nostra vita cosciente. Occorre dunque resistere alla “superstizione” dell’io, aprendo la via a una nuova riflessione sul significato della nostra identità e del nostro essere con gli altri.
Nello specifico son rimasto affascinato da alcune delle conclusioni delineate nelle ultime pagine.
Il pezzo Una nuova immagine di Homo Sapiens, per esempio, tira le somme in maniera lucida e allo stesso tempo visionaria (ho rintracciato solo la versione in inglese, sorry: la incollo qua sotto). Ci suggerisce che sta emergendo, o emergerà, una nuova versione di Homo Sapiens. Il primate che, sulla base delle informazioni accumulate da diverse discipline, saprà di non essere che una spettacolare e illusoria macchina dell’Io. Ciò rappresenterà, secondo Metzinger, un ulteriore passo evolutivo. Forte, no?
A NEW IMAGE OF HOMO SAPIENS
It is clear that a new image of humankind is emerging in science as well as in philosophy. Increasingly, this emergence is being driven not only by molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but also by the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness and the modern philosophy of mind. At this critical juncture, it is important not to confuse the descriptive and the normative aspects of anthropology. We must carefully distinguish two different questions: What is a human being? And what should a human being become?
Obviously, the evolutionary process that created our bodies, our brains, and our conscious minds was not a goal-directed chain of events. We are gene-copying devices capable of evolving conscious selfmodels and creating large societies. We are also capable of creating fantastically complex cultural environments, which in turn shape and constantly add new layers to our self-models. We created philosophy, science, a history of ideas. But there was no intent behind this process — it was the result of blind, bottom-up self-organization. Yes, we have the conscious experience of will, and whenever we engage in philosophy, science, or other cultural activities, we experience ourselves as acting intentionally. But cognitive neuroscience is now telling us that this very engagement may well be the product of a self-less, bottom-up process generated by our brains.
Meanwhile, however, something new is happening: Conscious Ego Machines are engaging in a rigorous expansion of knowledge by forming scientific communities. Gradually, they are unraveling the secrets of the mind. The life process itself is being mirrored in the conscious selfmodels of millions of the systems it created. Moreover, insight into how this became possible is also expanding. This expansion is changing the content of our self-models — the internal ones as well as their externalized versions in science, philosophy, and culture. Science is invading the Ego Tunnel.
The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognizing they are self-less Ego Machines. The biological imperative to live — indeed, live forever — was burned into our brains, into our emotional self-model, over the course of millennia. But our brand-new cognitive self-models tell us that all attempts to realize this imperative will ultimately be futile. Mortality, for us, is not only an objective fact but a subjective chasm, an open wound in our phenomenal self-model. We have a deep, inbuilt existential conflict, and we seem to be the first creatures on this planet to experience it consciously. Many of us, in fact, spend our lives trying to avoid experiencing it. Maybe this feature of our self-model is what makes us inherently religious: We are this process of trying to become whole again, to somehow reconcile what we know with what we feel should not be so. In this sense, the Ego is the longing for immortality. The Ego results in part from the constant attempt to sustain its own coherence and that of the organism harboring it; thereby arises the constant temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favor of emotional well-being.
The Ego evolved as an instrument in social cognition, and one of its greatest functional advantages was that it allowed us to read the minds of other animals or conspecifics — and then to deceive them. Or deceive ourselves. Since our inbuilt existential need for full emotional and physical security can never be fulfilled, we have a strong drive toward delusion and bizarre belief systems. Psychological evolution endowed us with the irresistible urge to satisfy our emotional need for stability and emotional meaningfulness by creating metaphysical worlds and invisible persons.1 Whereas spirituality might be defined as seeing what is — as letting go of the search for emotional security — religious faith can be seen as an attempt to cling to that search by redesigning the Ego Tunnel. Religious belief is an attempt to endow your life with deeper meaning and embed it in a positive metacontext — it is the deeply human attempt to finally feel at home. It is a strategy to outsmart the hedonic treadmill. On an individual level, it seems to be one of the most successful ways to achieve a stable state — as good as or better than any drug so far discovered. Now science seems to be taking all this away from us. The emerging emptiness may be one reason for the current rise of religious fundamentalism, even in secular societies.
Yes, the self-model made us intelligent, but it certainly is not an example of intelligent design. It is the seed of subjective suffering. If the process that created the biological Ego Machine had been initiated by a person, that person would have to be described as cruel, maybe even diabolic. We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened — foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against — not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.
One of the most important philosophical tasks ahead will be to develop a new and comprehensive anthropology — one that synthesizes the knowledge we have gained about ourselves. Such a synthesis should satisfy several conditions. It should be conceptually coherent and free of logical contradictions. It should be motivated by an honest intent to face the facts. It should remain open to correction and able to accommodate new insights from cognitive neuroscience and related disciplines. It must lay a foundation, creating a rational basis for normative decisions — decisions about how we want to be in the future. I predict that philosophically motivated neuroanthropology will become one of the most important new fields of research in the course of this century.