MIRROR NEURONS

From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”

Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.

Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.

The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”

Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.

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TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free.  In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times.  In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.

The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed.  Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free.  He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together.  He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity.  The result is modern Humanism.

Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same:  there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect.  When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions.  They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away.  True fulfilment lies in changeless things.  An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.

We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith.  Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another.  There is no predetermined harmony between the two.  The examined life may not be worth living.

The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion:  he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’.  Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death.  In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.

If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience.  Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.

The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good.  Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free.  They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species.  By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free.  But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible.  The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.  To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

An example is the theory of memes.  Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do.  In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive.  Unfortunately, memes are not genes.  There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.

In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth.  Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side.  When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics?  If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?

Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction.  More often it is a disadvantage.  Deception is common among primates and birds.  As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else.  Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication.  Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright.  A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise.  In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage.  The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.

If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken.  Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error.  Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’.  As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.

In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:

only
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth.  Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.

Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life.  The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.  Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin.  History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe.  In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss.  When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.

These are not flaws that can be remedied.  Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.  Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers.  It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness.  These are not just inferences from history.  The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.  Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.

Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible).  Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational.  They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable.  Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.

John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

 

SEEING DOUBLE

Like all genuine questions, the question about identity will never die. Such questions do not have answers, in the sense of a single definitive statement that eliminates the need to ask the question again. Yet that does not mean that talking about such questions is an endless and meaningless game, merely going back and forth over the same positions, more cleverly expressed. Instead, at crucial moments in this long conversation, something emerges that reveals a new truth, perhaps implicit in what has gone before but only now expressed. Because of that insight, everything appears in a new light. Such questions and conversations are living things; they are fascinating because, at any moment, something so compelling may emerge that nothing will be the same again.

At such moments, we realize the narrowness of our preconceptions. Hamlet was right: our philosophy is ignorant of most things in heaven and on earth. As Socrates found out, many people do not easily bear the sting of knowing their own ignorance. He tried to show that this was not hurtful, but helpful, purging our false assumptions and narrow opinions. If there is more than we know, eventually we may know more. In this, modern science should continue Socrates’ controversial project of examining, testing, and improving human opinions through searching conversation and reasoned inquiry. As a young man, Socrates turned away from natural philosophy because it did not inquire into why the world is as it is, and not otherwise.

This question haunted Kepler and Einstein; it should continue to haunt us also. In the story of individuality, contrasting visions confront each other. The individuality of each person and macroscopic object is unique, like Hector’s shining helmet. Yet that helmet, like each of us, is made of electrons that blend and merge. The world as we experience it calls us to reconcile these views; vast numbers of identical beings can form structures whose complex configurations give them the appearance of uniqueness. Here we return to the question raised throughout this book, whether the individuality of persons really touches the individuality of things. I may be like the ship of Theseus, a phantom haunting itself, for on the atomic level I have no individuality.

Because of this lack of individuality at the quantum level, it may be important to maintain the sense of strangeness that separates the quantum realm from the human. The mind all too easily assimilates the world into itself, while ignoring what may be truly foreign. If that is so, it is strangely beautiful that human individuality rests on anonymous quanta.

Nevertheless, it is possible to find certain correlates between human experience and this radical merging of individuality. Human individuality is more like a field than isolated, atomic selfhood. If Jean Piaget is correct, each of us begins with no firm limit between our self and the “outside” world. Perhaps one might be able to touch again some of that original wholeness. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl used the phrase participation mystique to describe the ardent investment of the self in another object or person,as when a Zuñi dancer becomes the god whose mask he wears: “To exist is to participate. . . . Without participation, one has no existence.” Human identity emerges in the intense identification that Lévy-Bruhl calls participation.

In this view, what we feel is not so different from the behavior of our electrons, whose resonance and interference reflects their shared identicality and perhaps ours also. Crowds of people experience such moments of constructive or destructive collective feeling, merged in ecstatic communion or blood lust. But even when solitary, one can experience the truth of Walt Whitman’s observation, “I contain multitudes.” Sometimes the boundaries of self seem to expand past the limits of self-interest. My sphere of concern grows and shrinks in a way that suggests that I do not end at the edge of my skin, but may extend outward into other persons, other things. At one extreme is the utter destruction of self that is psychosis. Yet even in more tempered moments, the self merges into someone or something beyond itself.

Looking out his window, John Keats felt identified with the sparrow pecking at the ground outside: “I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” Poetry and music call us beyond the narrow limits of the self and so does science. Here Spinoza’s vision may be the closest: each individual is really a mode of a single universal substance, the field. Feeling the complex interweaving of identity that joins us, each of us may be an aspect of the other. Such attenuation or extension of identity is crucial to love, but it also marks the smallest movement of attention or imagination that stirs the self. If identity is found when it is lost, it may be regained when surrendered. In that case, the strange identity of electrons may give us an image of our own inwardness. Imagine, then, two snowflakes on a winter evening. Consider you and me. Consider us.

Peter Pesic, Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature