How does the brain work? We’re bombarded with research and discoveries, but we’re always left with more questions. There is a revolution happening in cognitive science that’s on par with that of Galileo. Michele Di Francesco, philosopher of the mind, explains what it means.

“We’ve discovered the area linked to moral choices.” “This is how memory is born.” “We have photographed emotion.” These are just a few newsflashes from the frontier of neuroscience. Born as the study of the nervous system, today it is a funnel for a field of investigation that is ever more articulated and interdisciplinary, from imperceptible movements of the eyes to the question of where (and what) consciousness is. Great attention is paid to this field, not only in the form of the enormous investments that governments, led by the United States, are making in research projects, but also in the form of popular interest, due to the endless fascination about the mystery of our mind.

Michele Di Francesco

Our aim here is not to probe the multifaceted panorama of neuroscience, but to become more aware of the ongoing revolution, which, for philosopher of the mind Michele Di Francesco–Chair of the Philosophy Department at Milan’s Vita-Salute San Raffaele University and Rector of Pavia’s School for Advanced Studies–“is comparable to that of Galileo.” Since the news almost always refers to individual discoveries, we wind up infatuated with simplified explanations and the conviction that they carry more than their actual value. On this slippery slope, confusion easily occurs between the data from neuroscience and the tentacular “neuroculture” that derives from it–an anthropological vision that is on the rise, for which man is a “cerebral subject” and the brain is the location of the Self, according to the well-known phrase, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons,” coined at the beginning of the 1990s by Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick.

In that same period, writer Tom Wolfe perceived “the chill that emanates from the hottest field in the academic world,” elucidating, “We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal. And the issue this time around… is… the nature of our own precious inner selves.” And yet, precisely because of the issue at stake, the risk is to give up on understanding the scientific successes because we do not want the mysterious greatness of being men to be nullified. So, at this unique historical turning point, faced with the powerful intellectual challenge that neuroscience poses, we must first of all “know how to approach it.”

Professor Di Francesco, why the comparison with the Galilean revolution?

Just as, with Galileo, the foundations were laid for a revolution in knowledge of the physical world, we are now in the midst of a revolution that allows us to understand the functioning of the human mind–for the first time in history. But this is not only thanks to neuroscience, as it is only a part of the great endeavor of the cognitive sciences, which also include cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and other disciplines. The cognitive revolution began in the 1960s and ’70s, when the behaviorist approach was no longer held to be sufficient. It considered the mind an unknowable “black box,” and the only experimental and scientific understanding was the relationship between environmental stimulus and human response.

Now that the study of the brain is going full force, thanks also to the neurotechnologies that allow cerebral mapping, what is the dominant model?

Today, neurocentrism, espoused by many contemporary materialists, enjoys fame and authority. It attributes mental phenomena to the nervous activity of the brain and confines them to the cranial box, to the point of coincidence between being a person and having a brain. But progress is being made by models that insist, in various directions, on a conception of the mind not only as a product of the organism’s internal mechanisms, but also as a dynamic system, open to the world and immersed in it. In any case, the point is that we are facing a new attempt at rewriting the boundaries of the mind: How do neurochemical mechanisms produce consciousness and thought? This is the enigma that the cognitive sciences want to resolve, and the neurosciences are the most spectacular of these.

Why are they more striking?

There is a capacity for attraction that comes from the type of communication that they allow. They are easily broadcast, easily simplified. If I show you a nice image taken from a functional magnetic resonance, where you can see the activation of a cerebral area, and next to it I write, “We’ve discovered the area linked to moral choices,” then this is a message that comes through very powerfully. That’s not to say that the discovery does not have a real, effective importance. But the challenge is always to take a good look at what it demonstrates. And in any case, the real reason for the attention that neuroscience receives and deserves is that today it constitutes the most promising frontier for great breakthroughs.

Clinical breakthroughs?

In the first place, yes. When faced with an aging population, the theme of neurodegenerative diseases becomes of primary importance. We are living longer and longer, but the period of life that we “gain” is often lived in conditions that are difficult to accept and deal with–we don’t want to live for 100 years if in the last 20 we are incapable of understanding and wanting. We want to live well. The problem is not to extend life, but its quality. It is for this reason that we rely so heavily on neuroscience. At the same time, man’s life is more and more filtered through his cognitive capacities, the capacities for thought, and therefore the equation that springs up is: the more we know the mind, the more we know human beings.

The data in itself does not fully coincide with a true and total vision of the world and of man, although this claim is made by interpretive theories. In your opinion, what are the elements of the current discoveries that we cannot ignore?

The first is that consciousness is less central than we’ve always thought, because our action is made up of a myriad of sub-personal processes: a large part of our cognitive life is made up of automatic mechanisms, processes of elaboration about which we are in the dark, because they are subconscious. Like when we are driving, lost in thought, and yet we still stop at the stop sign. Or when we have that sensation of total mental blankness–we go into a room, our thoughts are elsewhere, and at a certain point we stop because the mechanism is interrupted: “What was I doing?” That said, it’s not possible to conclude that consciousness counts for nothing. This is reductionism’s unjustified leap.

What other overarching results can’t we ignore?

Those that have to do with introspection. We have an instinctive trust in our self-explorative capabilities: we think that when we look within ourselves, we acquire a knowledge that cannot be cast into doubt. Instead, the results today oppose the Cartesian model, the idea according to which we know our mind better than the external world.

How do we know that introspection is misleading?

I would give two examples. On the one hand, research on decision-making processes shows that rational deliberations are influenced (unbeknownst to us) by “prejudices” that are even unconscious, removed from introspection. For example, classic economics idealizes human beings as purely rational agents, while we have cognitive prejudices, sentiments, passions… Or rather, our decisions are built-in and rationality is a “social” product just as much as–and even more than–a cerebral product. The world in which we live and build is not determined only by our biological constitution. Second example: not only is the Cartesian ego, the res cogitans, untraceable introspectively (as Hume had already noted), but today we also know that internal knowledge of ourselves is as fallible as the external kind. Science tells us that psychological and neurological processes occur in a way that doesn’t correspond to what we represent to ourselves. To perceive is not to create a static representation of the external world; to remember is not to create a static archive of fixed and immutable memories. Both of these processes are dynamic, and combine with the evolution of our relationship with the world–just as reasoning correctly is an activity that necessarily requires the contribution of emotions, and so on.

You have reported about the debate in America regarding the model of the “extended mind,” formulated by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998. This notion of the mind does not reject the personal and phenomenological dimension of the experience of self, and poses the question: Where does the mind end and the rest of the world begin?

This is the rejection of an ontological and epistemological identification of mental and cerebral. The subject is a mixture of biological thought and cultural development. Neuroscience, therefore, can help us more and more to understand the biological basis that makes possible this capacity to employ many environmental resources in order to develop intelligence, but we still do not have answers about this interaction, about why the brain is made in such a way as to allow its own expansion.

And so, what is the challenge?

It is to interpret the correlation between mental life and neurophysiological processes. The most substantiated scientific image is that, if you take away the brain, then you don’t have the mind–but if you take a person and remove his relationships, then, in the same way, you don’t have a mind (or a genuinely human mind). A child who grows up alone will have very serious dysfunctions, an altered consciousness, a shattering of the mind. Therefore, the mind, its unity, is not produced solely by the brain. It’s like the two poles of a magnetic field: if you take one away, you don’t have half a field. You have nothing.

The issue at stake, therefore, is the concept of reason. If it is limited to the biological dimension, the paradox is that science would deny itself first of all; it would deny the “first person” experience that mediates knowledge.

The world is not conceivable if the total dimension of being a person is erased. When we apply a certain type of materialist conception to reality, a prejudice is unveiled: the idea that there is scientific proof of the fact that there exists somewhere a description of reality that is perfect, clear, impersonal, and disembodied–to which the living principle of the human being must necessarily be reduced. This would be a description that allows us to resolve the “tension” between natural and spiritual, absorbing the personal side into the impersonal one. Yet this tension is among the cognitive limits of our species. It’s not resolvable.

Perhaps it’s not a limit, but the sign of greatness.

It is a tension that has been evident since human beings started to build an image of the world on scientific results. I will emphasize only one thing: if there is a theme that continually resurfaces, it is that of freedom. We ask ourselves if we are more free than mice, and we answer “yes” because we can choose more. But we say that we are not free in the absolute sense. And what would that mean? To act without a reason? I act only on the basis of one reason: I act according to some motives to which I adhere.

The neurosciences study “neural correlations,” the cerebral states that correspond to experiences. What does this tell us about experience?

We could say that it doesn’t add anything, but that would be mistaken: neuroscience can and must integrate itself positively with phenomenology, but I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. For example, would it make sense to describe the activity of writing a novel solely by talking about what happens in the brain? The interaction with what I have in front of me is continual: I write, I erase, I look, I go back. A broader system is constructed, which includes me and what I am writing.

If our experience is irreducible to a neuronal function, then what horizon do the correlations open?

They offer great possibilities that must be evaluated, in their ethical, political, and legal impact, and in the representation of ourselves. Let’s suppose that I succeed in identifying certain forms of psychological unease that have a precise cerebral state as a correlation. And suppose that I produce a molecule that intervenes in that unease. It would be of great importance. But that’s not to say that it would be the solution.

Why?

It could be that that unease, though it has a cerebral basis, derives from a difficulty in relations. If I reduce social behavior to neurobiological bases, then I contribute to an impoverishment of human nature. In America, they give psychopharmacological drugs to the child who is too agitated, because it’s easier to give someone a pill than to construct a school that is capable of taking care of him. But is it right? We need to be able to ask ourselves that question.

What do you answer?

I say that the idea of taking a “happy pill” in order to be happy is not good for us. Why? Perhaps because we have a broader vision of the human being. Perhaps because we do not coincide with “I have a certain functional equilibrium at the neural level.” If it were like this, then the pill would be fine. But being a person, human dignity, is something else. We want to be happy in the right way.

Which way?

We don’t want the neural state that corresponds to the experience of happiness. We want a happiness that is made as it should be.

This interview was originally published as “New Horizons of the Mind” in Traces – International Magazine of Communion & Liberation. Vol 15. No. 9. Republished with permission. All rights reserved.