We would require a minutely detailed natural history in order to grasp what an extraordinary innovation the emergence of mind was in the evolution of the human race, and above all to clarify the scope of those behavioural models which rewarded the individuals who were best able to respond to the unforeseeable events that took place around them and to cater for their own essential requisites.
We have to admit that it is extremely difficult to imagine how the mind evolved from the inflexible laws of matter. Was it a fortuitous occurrence in the course of evolution, whose meaning is not clear to us, or was there something else? And how are we to account for the progressive increase in the human brain’s complexity?
However we look at the circumstances that have led to our present state, the progress has been anything but linear. We do not even know whether man, in his present state, represents the crowning achievement for the species. We only know that the integration of entities that were previously separate is a constant feature of our universe. Fundamentally the (relative) certainty that our fellow men are endowed like us with consciousness is merely based on the similarity of our brains. This is really as far as our certainties go. What will never be in doubt is that the genesis of thinking matter is the most surprising event of all in evolution. Is there not something miraculous in the fact that molecules which are so different from one another should have come together to form a being that is conscious of himself and of the world? When compared with the slowness of the physical and chemical processes governing matter, intelligent life really does seem to be something of an exception.
For over a century now, scientists working in various disciplines all over the world have been trying to throw light on the secrets of the brain. But the better we become at tracing its labyrinths, explaining its mechanisms and mapping its geography, the more arduous is the task of explaining it. The nature, plasticity and unrepeatability of the brain’s organization now appear much more dynamic and complex than anything we had ever suspected. To insist that the basis and substance of life is to be sought in simple matter, with all the rest being considered as merely accessory, risks leading the discussion into an impasse. Not only would a concept like ‘human liberty’be nonsensical; it would be like reducing Michelangelo’s Pietà to the marble it is made from.
So what does lie behind thought processes, feelings, consciousness and the highest activities of the human mind? There can be no doubt about it: every mental event, even the most abstract, is correlated to events in the brain. Just as there is no question that lesions of specific areas of the brain cause loss of, or a deficit in, some of the mental faculties which are correlated to those areas. Besides, each specific area is inevitably involved both in the vital functions (acting, breathing, walking and so on) and in mental activities (remembering, dreaming, thinking), which only partially involve motor action. Moreover, not all mental activities can be easily located. For example, many faculties which are essential to survival, like memory, are based both in the cortex and in the subcortex. Other more general and abstract faculties – decision making, reasoning, judging – which are correlated to metabolic variations in the limbic and prefrontal areas, are even more difficult to locate. Even our relations with other human beings, like the elaboration of sensorial sources and the relative behavioural responses, appear to be mediated by processes scattered across the brain; specific areas become expert so that they can ‘flexibilize’ the inborn predispositions in the interests of a progressive, albeit relative, emancipation of the organism’s behaviour patterns from environmental constrictions.
If this is the case, why is the materialistic viewpoint, even in its most rational and responsible guise, unable to determine what is taking place in the brain, bogged down as it is in unresolvable aporias (the etymology is complex, but “perplexity” is a good starting point). The materialistic viewpoint fails to convince because it is not able to describe the complexity of the brain; it presents an image which is too simplistic and static to provide an insight into the brain’s extraordinary fundamental mechanisms.
Materialists believe that all of this can be traced back to the brain and, in an infinite regression, to the cell nucleus, chromosomes, and so on. Yet it is not as simple as this. Of course, the brain is the outcome of a rigid genetical coding: its functioning depends on the interaction of an unlimited range of neuronal connections that are constantly being manufactured, on its plasticity, and on the elaboration of ever new sensorial inferences. Nonetheless, however sophisticated it may be, no genetic programming would ever be able to connect up the billions and billions of neurons in intercommunicating networks used to carry out our sophisticated mental activities. These activities depend on interaction with the external environment. And it is this relationship, along with innumerable others, that decides which connections will survive and which perish.The brain does not just decide how to interact with the environment, it also facilitates the structural coupling between sensorial data and neurons, freeing the latter from their original ‘ignorance’. This is the key to its approach to the world in terms of creation and invention. How could the shifting geographies of such a huge number of neuronal territories ever be mechanically reproduced? The structure and functions of the brain are continually influenced by all sorts of unpredictable factors (sensorial poverty or richness, quality and intensity of perception) which condition its development and connections. This is an ancient process that had already begun in the first phases of hominization, when maternal care and cultural interaction gave a strong impulse to the growth of the neuronal connections in the brain. Without these dynamics it would have been quite impossible for language, that formidable regulating principle of thought and representation of reality, to develop. For it is language that provides the procedures for classifying, abstracting and transforming objects in concepts. Thanks to language, too, perceptions are turned into abstract values, generalizations and moral judgements. How does all this come about? Above all, what relationship is there between language and the brain? It seems quite likely that the development of the cortical areas involved in communication was a consequence of the increasing part these areas played in the (apparent) control over the world.
But what is it that gives form and order to the world? What recovers the data and, through the senses, interrogates the external phenomena? What are the grounds for the innumerable interactions between the individual areas, the exchange of sensorial traces and data among highly intricate neuronal networks, the constant re-elaboration of pre-existing information, the collaboration and competition between the cortical and subcortical structures? What biological algorithm can govern the effects of contingency and historical irreversibility, the action of non-linear processes, artistic creation, ethical systems or the scientific vision of the world? Surely only consciousness can fulfil this. Prior to being the premise for awareness, consciousness is living matter, indeed, a “living body”. Our thoughts spring from the body, or rather from the brain, which is first and foremost body. Certainly, the cortex, the physical location of fantasy and our capacity for abstraction, plays a crucial role in our relational existence, but it is consciousness that is the most authentic expression of the complexity that matter has reached in the course of its evolution.
It is only our inability to recognise our biological and psychic existences as a single whole which nurtures old and new dichotomies and prompts us to give more credit to the ambiguous messages that come from the world around us than to ourselves. Only an ideology, or faith in a particular world view, can make us deny the existence of facts and things that go beyond the physical world. Materialism – meaning literally belief in the existence only of matter – does not explain reality. What objective forms of knowledge, what epistemology based on the brain, can provide me with information about the experiences of a being who is different from me? The more I distance my “self” from myself, to ensure the objectivity of my criteria and judgements, the more my perception of things becomes hazy. Even the hypothesis of the identity between mental and physical states begins to seem fallacious. For to maintain that a mental state is a physical state requires arguments that are more convincing than a mere understanding of the workings of the verb “to be”. If we fail to get to grips with materialism’s theoretical hypothesis, this will continue to be an obstacle on the path to a fruitful knowledge of consciousness.
We are a bit like mariners obliged to carry out repairs to their vessel while at sea, with only a few virtually useless tools to hand. We do not know if we will be able to construct a new science of consciousness, but there is no doubt that nothing will be as it was before. Relating consciousness to the body means recognising the unique complexity of the path nature has taken to date. But, even more crucially, it means admitting that the truly remarkable miracle of our universe is the existence of nature itself, that nature which we know is subject to the implacable laws of physics and chemistry. From the very start matter has been constituted in increasingly complex forms. In its formidable mutations it has learnt to assimilate and transmit information, to become an exceptional vehicle for the non-material, whether we are speaking of stars, galaxies or human beings. Matter decays and is transformed, is renewed and divides. On the contrary, information is constantly expanding, leaving its mark in basic aggregates of molecules, and above all generating an inconceivable increase of sense in the history of the universe. If we do not recognise all this, we are bound to remain trapped in the age-old dichotomy of matter and spirit.

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