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 :