This unspeakable conscience

Modifié le : 2019/08/03

I have completed reading Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.

Its author, Giulio Tononi, psychiatrist and researcher, presents us with an original book. Instead of spreading his hypotheses in a learned way, he chooses to tell us, through multiple stories, Galileo’s peregrinations in his quest for a definition of consciousness.

You and I are both convinced that we exist because we are conscious. We simply know that. A priori, there is no point in discussing this. A dictionary will tell us: consciousness is a feeling, a perception that the human being has of himself, of his own existence, as well as of the outside world.

But what exactly does it mean to have a conscience? Could we explain this phenomenon? Could we quantify it? Are we alone on this planet to be aware? Are there degrees in consciousness? What part of the brain would be the seat of it? And then, when we dream, is it another state of consciousness? Is this a reality? These questions are quickly dizzying and not new. Philosophers, and sometimes scientists, have already studied the phenomenon, but they promptly stumbled upon it or dodged it with a stylistic twist.

Instead of approaching this subject and its many questions and mysteries with a learned language, Tononi offers us a fable, and it is the author’s first great masterstroke. This man writes very well. In small chapters, we meet various characters, we are introduced to multiple questions. Does a person whose brain is “cut in half” (even momentarily by frozen it) have two personalities? And if we end up bringing together the two brains, until then foreign, a new personality emerges? Does the body participate fully in consciousness? What happens to people who feel nothing, but remain conscious? What happens, on the other hand, to people whose bodies are alive but whose brains do not emit any signals? Is this real death? Is consciousness greater than the sum of its perceptions?

We start reading with reductions. The author thus seeks to identify what consciousness is not, and I was fascinated by this part of the presentation. Then, as we reach a fragile base of what consciousness is not, we must necessarily go into the field of what it is.

With expert “guides” and through multiple encounters, we set out, in the second part, to discover a definition. And that’s when it starts to turn, to slide. The reading is still fascinating and pleasant, but you feel that the author quickly switches to fable and intuition. Nevertheless, the author remains on course and proposes a model, a unit, the phi.

Some of the stories are really well written and striking. Others seem exaggerated. The beauty, however, of this book resides at the end of each chapter. The author takes some distance from himself, allowing him to criticize himself. He sometimes analyzes very clearly, and sometimes in a somewhat confusing way, tries to express what he has tried to explore. During the reading, we feel the author’s trial and error, which makes him all the more human.

Despite all this beautiful inventiveness, I ended up getting impatient in the third third third of the book. The author no longer seems to have any control over his subject. If he remains humble in his proposals, he does not deprive us of a more literary approach. If you don’t understand, why don’t you tell us about it? His arguments sometimes become very circular and stunning, as in these games of intellectual logic with which every philosophy student likes to gargle between two drunks.

Tononi has, at the very least, the courage to propose, to take steps. His book is full of illustrations. The book is beautiful, the author is elegant and his knowledge of human madness (he is a psychiatrist, let us not forget), colors his writings in a lively and incarnated way. This book is a kind of Divine Comedy from which he borrows the formula.

Then I went to read what we thought about it. Far from being unanimous, the author’s proposals are no less seriously discussed. Here are some links that explain better than I do what this is all about.

The picture is mine. It is a modification of a simple image: the traces left during the baking of bread on parchment paper.

He liked:

A good summary:

The scholarly aspect:

He is very critical of the approach: