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.