Our plastic essence

India’s characteristic is « evanescence, » wrote Hegel. This image may surprise us if we confront it with the contemporary Indian reality. But Hegel was aiming for something else: to capture the spirit of India’s ancient religion.

Between transience, brevity and immateriality, evanescence is a terminal transformation, a final metamorphosis. Within the world, at the heart of reality itself, the evanescent form becomes subliminal, gradually impalpable. It constantly dissolves until it disappears completely. In this way it is likely to serve as a visible metaphor for invisible transcendence. Hence the idea of India.

Evanescence challenges matter, its weight, its durability. It escapes any assimilation, any seizure. In short, it is the exact opposite of what happens in any vital process. In the life of nature as in the life of the spirit, the essential thing is assimilation, the transformation of what comes from the outside into something internal, the ingestion of the other into the same. What is evanescent cannot be ingested, assimilated, by life, since it is nothingness that primarily absorbs it, engulfs it.

Evanescence is intended to be total, complete. But for a long time, from the « vanished » thing, there is still a small remnant, which no longer offers enough material for assimilation, and which resists nothingness. The evanescent weakly signals that something has happened, that something has almost completely disappeared, and continues to wave, in the form of a shadow, echo, effluvium, or some imperceptible nuance affecting the background of the set.

By refusing to resist its disappearance, evanescence gives hope for reversibility. It retains a potential for regeneration, reactivation.

Under certain conditions, the evanescent can indeed regain form, return to the world, return to life.

Evanescence is an eminently plastic metaphor. Everything dissolves and everything takes on a new form.

This is why we may be tempted to compare it to another metaphor, that of « genetic plasticity », which often serves as an image for the fundamental plasticity of life.

The implementation of the genetic program is not a linear process. RNAi (i for « interfering ») has the property of « interfering » with protein coding. We must abandon the notion of a « genetic program » that is too mechanical, too determined.

Even more surprisingly, it is now necessary to recognize the possible reversibility associated with the program. Already adult cells can continue to be transformed, de-differentiated, deprogrammed and reprogrammed into new stem cells to obtain either totipotent cells (embryonic cells), multipotent cells (adult cells from the same tissue) or pluripotent cells (adult cells from other tissues).

Until recently, this plasticity of life was unsuspected. The consequences are staggering. We can awaken the sleeping potential of adult cells, reprogram them to behave like totipotent cells. Stem cells can be made by diverting olfactory bulb cells to fight Parkinson’s disease, in order to regenerate the areas of the brain affected by the disease.

The « plastic » possibilities of these genetic interference mechanisms are infinite.

Just over 25,000 genes in the human genome code for proteins. They represent only 2% of the genome. But there are also thousands of genetic sequences encoding RNAi whose function is to regulate the expression of these 25,000 genes encoding proteins. It can be assumed that these genetic sequences can themselves be regulated by similar mechanisms. And so on and so forth.

The genome is therefore not a « program », stable, determined in the cybernetic sense of the term. It is eminently mobile, plastic, metamorphic. It has all kinds of means to reprogram itself, and therefore to modify its coding action, means and ends, according to the conditions encountered. The metaphor of the « programme » is not suitable to account for this complexity, which escapes determinisms, and which never ceases to leave all their place to contingency, fortune, hazards, without however being durably dominated by them.

It is as if a higher intelligence or a deep instinct, apparently unconscious, constantly took full advantage of the chance thus systematically produced, and thereby constantly shaped the new means of survival, and perhaps even the new ends of life.

The metaphors of totipotency, pluripotency and multipotency refer to the concept of « intermediate » (in Greek: metaxu), in the sense given to it by Plato in the Banquet. The genome is a kind of metaxu, capable of all metamorphoses. It contains, hidden in the entangled regulatory cycles, a potential for variation that never ceases to apply to itself, varying the conditions of variation of the variation, transforming the conditions of transformation of the conditions of transformation, to infinity.

We can only describe from the outside, and very approximately, this phenomenal stacking, and seek to observe through experience some of its actual possibilities. But we are unable to grasp its deep essence.

Is it already a little better to try to grasp this essence than to call it a « mystery », for want of a better word?

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.