Outside Neuroscience

« The divine in the heart of man! Summon him, it exists. Abandon it, it disappears. »i

This is a very old idea. It’s found in Mencius(孟子), and also in Confucius (孔夫子).

In Chinese, the word for « divine » is 神, shen. This word can also mean “soul, spirit, mysterious, alive”, and is also used to designate God. « Heart » is 心, xīn. It is a “radical”. A “root” sign. An ancient “key” for the writing system. For unlearned eyes: 心 represents three tears around a blade. Or three showers in the mountain. Or three gushing drops.

The heart 心 is liquid. It melts into the divine 神. The divine 神 swims, frolics in the heart心.

By « summoning » 神, man has the power to make 神 « exist ». Man then stands at the border between heaven and earth, and he can bridge the gap – according to the wise man.

Yang Xiong, in a compact, incomparable style, explains:

« The question is about the divine 神.

– The heart – 心.

– What do you mean?

– Immersing itself in the sky, it becomes heaven. If it is immersed in the earth, it becomes earth. Heaven and earth are unfathomable, divine clarity, and yet the heart plunges into them as if it is going to probe them. »ii

What is « heart », then?

An explanation is given in Taixuan (« Great Mystery »), in a commentary on the tetragram « Feed ». « The heart hidden in the depths, beauty of the sacred root. Divination: the heart hidden in the depths, the divine is not elsewhere. »iii

This sort of insight comes from quite ancient times.

Nowadays, neuroscience, which prides itself on asking the question of the origin of consciousness, talks about the “brain”. Never about the “heart”. And about the brain, neuroscience is interested in its « inside », never its « outside ».

« While working on the brain, I discovered that contemporary biology challenges us to develop a new approach to meaning that never breaks with matter and thus offers precisely no outside. »iv

Catherine Malabou claims to be a materialistic philosopher, and proudly asserts herself as one of the few « professional philosophers » interested in neuroscience. Hence a slightly arrogant tone:

« The brain is the organ of the senses, since all cognitive operations originate in it. I aim at the impossibility of transgressing biological matter.”v

The impossibility of “transgression” is total, absolute. It leads logically to “the impossibility to make a distinction between biological and spiritual life.”vi

Then, for neuroscience, nowadays, the wisdom of the prophets, the dream of Jacob, the visions of Dante, the inspiration of the poets, the intuitions of the greatest scientists, are only biological artifacts, made possible by a few synapses assembled by chance, transmitting arbitrary sparks, emanating from neuronal cells, suitably arranged.

God, art, love, alpha and omega, all of these originate in « biological matter » according to the new catechism of neuroscience.

One day this new dogma may be refuted, by new findings from fundamental research.

For the time being, let us evoke, against « the impossibility of transgressing biological matter », another paradigm: the possibility of spiritually connecting our own brain, and potentially all brains, to the transcendental world, the one that people like Abraham, Moses, Confucius, Plato, have had the opportunity to take a glimpse of.

This hypothesis deserves to be studied in depth. It even has already a name: the « theory of transmission », proposed by William Jamesvii. The brain is not only an organ of thought production. It is also an organ of « transmission », through which we are all linked to the transcendental world. In transmission theory, ideas do not necessarily have to be produced, they already exist in the transcendental world. All that is needed to perceive them is an unusual lowering of the threshold of sensitivity of the brain, to let them pass and reach our consciousness.viii

The materialist paradigm, hyper-dominant nowadays in neuroscience and in the philosophies that blindly follow this trend, is based on the assumption that the brain is hermetically sealed in on itself, and that nothing ever reaches it from « outside », except physical “sensations” of course. Never the slightest idea or intuition, never any dream or vision, coming from outside the brain, can interrupt the internal soliloquies fomented by its myriad synapses.

In reality, other paradigms than the materialist one are possible.

For example, the brain may indeed « produce » thoughts by itself, but it may also receive, bursting in from « outside », dreams and images, flashes of light, intuitions and revelations.

This, I believe, is what will (paradoxically) make AI the greatest metaphysical adventure of humanity. AI is like the caravels of Columbus. While really missing Indies, AI will allow us to discover some abstract paths to synthetic and improbable Americas, non-biological worlds, only accessible to the internal logic of searching paradigms…

By analogy, we may then start to give credit to our own over-sensitive brain, potentially able to explore the immense world that only the heart 心 can sense.

iYang Xiong , Fayan (« Master Words»). Chap. 5, « Questions about the divine ».

iiYang Xiong , Fayan (« Master Words»). Chap. 5, « Questions about the divine ».

iiiYang Xiong (53 BC – 18 AD).Taixuan, 太玄 (« Great Mystery »)

ivCatherine Malabou. Que faire de notre cerveau ? Bayard, Paris 2011, p.31



viiWilliam James. Human Immortality : Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine. The Ingersoll Lecture, 1897

viiiIbid. « On the transmission-theory, they [the ideas] don’t have to be ‘produced,’ — they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through. » 

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.