Perhaps even the simplest organisms have an elemental self-awareness in the sense that they “feel alive” and react to the environment around them. There is still a lot to understand about what “feeling alive” means. Biology and cognitive science are working on it. And inevitably they face an even more difficult challenge than was previously reserved for philosophy: what self-awareness is, that is, “knowing that you feel alive” with all the profound consequences that come from it. The most important thing is what free will is – and whether it exists. Shows.
An inevitable theme
Developing a rigorous science of self-awareness – or metacognition – is the latest in neurobiology. Psychologist Stephen M. Fleming, director of the MetaLab of Experimental Psychology at University College London, discusses it in “Knowing oneself” (translation by Silvio Ferraresi, publisher Raffaello Cortina, 276 pages, 24 euros). It is a stimulating and suggestive reading, but above all I would add “inevitable”, as the self-awareness that is most clearly expressed is the human, and it seems very difficult to insert something similar in the various forms of artificial intelligence, including the most advanced ones operating with deep learning.
Two points for reflection
This article is not the right place to analyze the many food for thought that Steven Fleming’s book suggests. I will limit myself to two.
The first connects self-awareness with uncertainty. It seems paradoxical, counterintuitive. On the other hand, being insecure is one of the most important clues to metacognition. To demonstrate this, Fleming tells of an exemplary episode which, incidentally, while in Ukraine there is fighting and Putin is agitating the nuclear threat, is very topical. One morning in September 1983, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union, which today no longer spoke to each other, Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov monitored the Earth’s space with special satellites to detect a possible attack. to the surprise of the American side. The “first strike doctrine” was valid then as it is today: In a nuclear attack, it is considered crucial to strike the opponent first and surprise. Intercontinental missiles take 25 minutes to reach the target: during these minutes, the opponent must decide whether he will respond to the attack before they have suffered potentially irreparable damage.
Petrov saw five tracks on his screens that could have been American ballistic missiles. He should have immediately reported it to his superior, who would have informed someone else and so on. In a few moments, the chain of command would trigger preventive retaliation. Petrov did not: he was in terrible insecurity, but concluded that a US surprise attack was less likely than a malfunction in the surveillance system, and the world was saved from a nuclear disaster. Petrov’s insecurity, Fleming points out, is the ultimate expression of self-awareness. It was a metacognition – the confrontation between two uncertainties – that made him make the choice that turned out to be the best.
Side note: therefore we value our uncertainties, they are expressions of intelligence, good information and ethical values. Unfortunately, online security dominates from flat ground to no-everything (Silence, Tap, Vaccines, Incinerators, etc.).
To learn to learn
The second point applies the idea of metacognition to learning and can be summarized in the words “learning to learn”. What is not new – Maria Montessori, Piaget and Reuven Feuerstein built their pedagogy on learning to learn – but today of vital importance and extraordinary topicality.
The school born from the first industrial revolution, which was to be functional for the “factory”, was based on the teaching of “facts” and concepts to remember. In 1817, physicist and mathematician John Leslie argued that children should remember “timesheets” up to 50 times 50. “But in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world,” writes Fleming, “it becomes knowing ‘how’ to think and learn. “as important as ‘how much’ we learn. As people live longer, have more jobs and engage in new pastimes, learning becomes a lifelong occupation.”
With the words of an article published in 2017 in “The Economist”, the school must “teach children how to study and think. A special focus on ‘metacognition’ will make them better at learning skills later in life.” And here we stop , but think about how important the idea of metacognition is in democracy, from personal choices to political decisions to the development of “intelligent” machines.
The problem of freedom
Self-awareness involves an even more complex and delicate issue, namely the will and freedom to exercise it. Are we really free in our decisions or are we misleading ourselves that we are?
Fleming evades the crucial problem of free will. Arnaldo Benini (Professor Emeritus at the University of Zurich) faces this in another book just published by Raffaello Cortina in the same series, which hosts Fleming’s essay on metacognition: “The Neurobiology of the Will” (154 pages, 15 euros) .
The free-will dilemma has been a matter of religion and philosophy for millennia. Today, says Benini, it’s a purely scientific question. We come from a long dualistic tradition that separates mind and brain, soul and body. Descartes was its greatest exponent who theorized “res cogitans” separate from “res extensa”: the former is an intangible psychic reality that deepens thinking, ethics, the concepts of good and evil; the second is a material reality that acts as a simple support for the first.
The dualism from Descartes to Eccles
Nobel laureate John Eccles (1903-1997), whom I was fortunate enough to know quite well, was the last authoritative proponent of dualism. But today, the vast majority of the scientific community believes that there is only the brain – 1350 grams of neurons – and that the mind is an “emergent” quality that is indistinguishable from brain matter. Will and free will, good and evil, ethics thus again become “emerging” aspects of this materiality, “illusions” explained by the evolutionary advantage they bring to the human species from a Darwinian perspective.
In 1964, the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) struck a very hard blow against free will by demonstrating in an experiment that when we become aware of a decision as an act of the will, that decision has already been made half a second before. without us knowing it. I’m counting (top drawing). In short, when I press the trigger on a gun, the murderous choice has already been made. The (unconscious) motor action precedes the (conscious) thought. In Libet’s experiment, repeated in numerous and more accurate variants, he undoubtedly proves the neural activity measured with an oscilloscope, an electroencephalograph, and an electromyograph. Generating the illusion of freedom would be the extremely complex machine of the human organism and its brain, but under the illusion, at the bottom of the complexity, there would be exclusively a machine made of cells, molecules, neurotransmitters, atoms, electrical signals. Materia, that is, Descartes’ res extensa, which deceives itself into being cogitans. It would be interesting to know what Fleming means. In any case, it is advisable to read together (and reasonably review) Fleming and Benini.
“At present,” writes Benini, “the many studies of cognitive neuroscience are converging on the reduction of mind, self-awareness, and will to the electrochemical activity of brain matter.” But then the war in Ukraine is also the result of molecular reactions. And also the insecurity of Petrov, who in 1983, at the time of the Cold War, avoided nuclear confrontation. It turns out that the philosophers will return to the scene.