A moment without how or why

“Synaptic plasticity” is one of the contemporary metaphors of the plasticity of nature and culture. In the past, deities were also plastic. Ovid or Apuleius poetically described their « metamorphoses ». Among the Greeks and Latins, Zeus or Jupiter could take all forms. The idea of the plasticity of God is therefore not new. But among Christians, this idea is pushed as far as possible, with the paradoxical form of « kenosis ».

Madness for the Greeks, scandal for the Jews: Christ is a man and he is also God.

He is not the God of the Hosts, but the God in his glory, the Lord on the right hand of the Lord, the Messiah of the end times.

Madness, scandal, is that this God in all his Glory is also a God ignored, humiliated, tortured, mocked, crucified as a stateless slave.

Madness, scandal, is an infinite God, eternal, creator of the worlds, reduced to the state of a human wreck, a pantelante, dying on the wood, in the midst of rotten corpses.

Kenosis, from the Greek kenoein (to empty), reflects this strange idea of the descent to earth of a God emptied of himself and his power.

Who can do more can do less. Hegel did not hesitate to use divine kenosis as a metaphor for a kind of philosophical kenosis. Without fear of any celestial lightning, Hegel put the former at the service of the latter.

Kenosis is a free erasure of divinity in favor of human freedom, and this erasure is part of the divine project. This paradoxical idea of kenosis can also illustrate, according to Hegel, the philosophical process of voluntary self-dispossession, the dispossession of subjectivity.

Divine kenosis signalled the possibility of a space and time of transcendental emptiness. Philosophical kenosis now applies to man himself. Man is no longer a fixed substance, he is a disappearing subject.

To make an image, Hegel multiplies the figures of God’s exit from oneself. The German language is rich in possibilities in this field: Ent-zweiung, Ent-fremdung, Ent-aüsserung. These forms of exteriorization, and even alienation, are not to be taken lightly from a God who fills the world, or who envelops the world with his thoughts and his Word.

By philosophically recycling an eminently theological concept, Hegel wants to « bring to light the kenotic essence of modern subjectivity, » comments Malabou.

Hegel is ready to bend any wood, including cross wood, to support his speculation.

But in what way is « modern subjectivity » kenotic? How does it mimic the divine recess? By its own emptiness?

The emergence of the concept of kenosis on the philosophical level indicates that Christ first became a noetic representation. For Hegel, it represents, it embodies a speculative idea, that of « absolute truth ». « If Christ is to be only an excellent individual, even without sin, and only that, the representation of the speculative idea of absolute truth is denied.

The Christ who died on the cross, descended to the bottom of the abyss, represents « the negativity of God relating to himself ».

God denying himself represents the absolute truth of his own negation. Is this not the figure of a « plastic » God, par excellence?

« Plastic » refers to what can take on a shape, but then resist deformation to a certain extent. In the philosophical context, what is more « plastic » than the mind? νοὖς (noûs), in its passive reception state, is « the sleep of the spirit, which, in power, is everything » says Hegel in his Philosophy of the Mind. Plasticity contaminates everything. If the mind is originally plastic, as its epigenesis shows us, then the very concepts it can express must also be plastic in some way. The mind is characterized by its innate ability to receive forms, but also to give forms. He extends this property to his own form, which he can deform, reform, reform, transform, transform, by epigenesis, by work or by any other appropriate operation.

Thinking, by its very nature, takes itself as an object of thought. This « thought of thought », this noesis noêseos, this notic plasticity, is the philosophical translation of what was originally a primordial neurobiological property. Thinking is a kind of living being, a being independent of the one who thinks it, and who in this own life, takes itself for form and for future transformations. Thinking takes itself and expands itself freely. Hegel uses the word Aufhebung, which can be translated as « divestment ». Aufheben combines the senses of Befreien (to liberate) and Ablegen (to get rid of).

This withdrawal movement is reflexive. It can be applied to itself. There is always the possibility of a succession of the succession, a divestiture of the divestiture. But who is the subject of this second degree succession? Who decides to divest himself of his act of divestment, and to do what with it?

In other words, what can be generated by a moment of true freedom? What can we hope, at best? Another moment of pure freedom, with no connection to any of the above? The establishment of a new causal chain, imposing its own determination until another possible free moment “arrives”, a moment without how or why, and where, for reasons that are not reasons, would another moment of pure freedom follow?

In reality that is a mystery.

The origin of the transcendental

C. Malabou’s Critique of Neurobiological Reason is an anti-Changeux charge. Neurobiology, with its young arrogance, has proceeded to a « capture of metaphysical ideas ». Neuroethics takes on the discourse on the Good, neuro-aesthetics the discourse on the Beautiful. All this may worry the professional philosopher. Neuroscience has become « an instrument of philosophical fragmentation ».

Immediately the image of cluster bombs tearing up bodies in Vietnam comes to mind. We are still going astray, no doubt.

But Malabou hammered the point: « The emergence of neuroscience is a pure and simple threat to freedom – the freedom to think, act, enjoy or create. « It’s a kind of « mental Darwinism ». Epigenesis selects synapses. The size of the brain increases four and a half times after birth. The genesis of the synapses extends to puberty, and during this time education, the family, social and cultural environment, are part of the nervous system. Our brain is therefore largely what we do with it, it results from life itself, day after day, with its hazards, its surprises, and its hazardous wanderings.

So is synapse development determined or not? This is the great philosophical question that runs through the time, symbolized by the battle of the Titans. Einstein versus Planck. The ultimate interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Malabou sums it up: « The object of science has undoubtedly become freedom ».

This debate is actually very old. To stick to the modern, he began with the acrimonious diatribes between Erasmus and Luther. We didn’t get out.

The gene adds a new stone to the concrete of determinism. The content of the DNA is apparently invariant. Hence the idea of code, of program. Mice and humans alike are genetically programmed. But then, how can we account for the surprises observed during the epigenesis, if only the determinism of a code and a program are involved? Epigenetic plasticity raises delicate questions, which the overly simple image of the DNA « program » is unable to address. Changeux proposes to abandon the notion of a genetic program in favour of interaction between cells and « cellular communications ».

But if we leave a simplistic determinism, how far can the field covered by neurobiology go in theory? This field covers a wide field, and extends to society and culture. These are also consequences of the synaptic plasticity of the nerve networks of millions and billions of people. Conversely, societies and cultures favour the epigenesis of brains. An entire research programme could be based on the exploration of the biological foundations of culture. For example, moral judgment would only be the brain’s translation of the neurobiological phenomenon of empathy. Another feature of neurobiological origin specific to humans is the existence of a sensitivity to the « beauty of parsimony ». This trait would be useful to the species because it allows the detection of shapes, groups, ordered distributions. From this, Malabou deducts a conclusion, which brings us closer to our initial question: « Epigenetic freedom appears precisely today as the very origin of the transcendental. »

Epigenesis is the condition of freedom; and freedom is the foundation of the very transcendental idea. Hence this question: freedom, a possible window on transcendence?

The free brain is able to reflect on itself, and to provoke actions and experiences that affect it in return. In the not too distant future, it can be expected that human brains will be able to design and carry out structural modifications on human brains, first experimentally and then on a large scale.

Could we consider changing the level of consciousness, could we awaken men to other forms of experience through neurobiological modifications? The practices of shamans from different periods and different regions of the world during the initiations show us that the ingestion of sacred plants can cause such results. So why not an equivalent with psychotropic drugs, specially sharpened for this purpose?

If there is indeed a « neural man », there are also, iobviously, a social man, a cultural man, a spiritual man, who cannot be reduced to heaps of genes and neurons. There is also a free man, — a critical man, who can and must exercise his mind in order to « freely criticize » the conditions of his own evolution, be it material, neural and perhaps psychological.