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Todi Week 2019 – A summary in big brushstrokes

by CortonaFriends | September 26th, 2019

What does “being human in a technological world” mean? The theme of the 2019 edition of Todi Week, concluded few weeks ago, was formulated not by chance as an action: the human being is realised only under the constant reiteration of the conceptual, anagrammatic, action of being human. And since such an action requires a context, the wish of this edition was to attack from different angles the action of being human in the world as we know it today: how the context challenges the action, in which way it changes the nature of that action, or, more pragmatically, what being human means today and how the environment we live in has shaped and transformed our human disciplines, be them academic or related to life and society at large. Given the breath of the theme-question, the answers to it given by of the invited speakers and workshop leaders, their “reactions”, were, unsurprisingly, many and varied.

 

Two of the answers were formulated focusing on the relation between the human body and the surrounding world, both in its “natural” and “artificial/technological” aspects. The historian of life sciences Benjamin Hurlbut discussed in particular how the revolutionary progresses in genome editing appear under the conceptual, moral and political points of view, and how they are regarded, evaluated and marketed, by the corresponding actors. What emerged from this analysis is that most often, due to the burgeoning activity of the scientific community on one side and a society lagging behind on the other, the decisions that can potentially impact society at large move from within science, have consequences on technology, and ultimately are suffered by society, along a line of reasoning that predicates that “if something cannot be done, perhaps it should not be done; but if it can be done, perhaps it should be done and will be done“.

The biologist and physician Ernesto Burgio stimulated us to reflect on another important facet of the relation between the human body and its surrounding environment, and in particular the effect of the latter on the prenatal development. Challenging the idea that the DNA unidirectionally determines the functions of an organism, and thus is at the origin of a large set of dysfunctions — among which cancer and obesity, allergic and autoimmune diseases, as well as neurodegenerative diseases — hologenomic research offers increasing evidence of the fact that some diseases might instead be provoked by external chemical and physical factors (pollutants, toxins, radiations, etc.) which act epigenetically on the gene expression, rather than on the coding genome itself, and to which the foetus is especially vulnerable.

 

One of the mornings of lectures was dedicated to artificial intelligence, with two different speakers intervening on the issue. On the one hand, Federico Faggin, physicist and inventor of the world’s first microprocessor, embarked on the challenging task of comparing human and artificial intelligence, and drawing a distinction between the two on the ground of consciousness. Starting from the hypothesis that consciousness is elementary, rather than something arising from other elementary processes, it is the peculiar organisation of the physical hardware, Faggin maintained, that enables humans to attribute a meaning to symbols, while not allowing this same operation in artificial intelligence.
On the other hand, the philosopher of science Luisa Damiano discussed the growing emergence of robots with social competences, the challenges of embedding artificial empathy in such robots, and the prospects of their interaction with humans. After having outlined the paradigm shifts in the approach to consciousness that characterised philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences throughout the last century, Damiano discussed how such views have transformed, and continue to transform, the approach of artificial intelligence to emotions; and how these investigations, by forcing rethinking of the human’s social and ethical mechanisms, are investigations on ourselves and, independently of the risks and benefits of social robotics, present first of all an opportunity of self-knowledge and moral growth.

The first and the last day were, as usual, dedicated to panoramic reflections on existence and our place in society. The burden and honour of the first lecture was given to Brother David Steindl- Rast, an old Benedictine monk, who took the audience on a stream fusing his deep religiosity with introspective enquiry, and poetry used both as an explanatory tool and a testimony to the human attempt at grasping mystery and peak experiences. And while the actuality (rather than the reality) of mystery and peak experiences escapes our grasp, it is though possible to understand — in the sense of stand under, rather than trying to stand over — such actuality if we let the mystery interact with us, guide us. It is this cooperation with the it, without ever mystifying it, the constant “listening where there is (apparently) nothing to be heard” that enacts the being human in every circumstance; while turning away from it makes us feel that, as Brother David suggested quoting the ancient Indian mystic Kabir, „everything we do has a weird failure in it“.
Kamran Mofid recounted his parabola as a student, a doctorate, a professor of economics, to its realisation that the discipline of economics, as it is thought nowadays in an increasing number of universities and business schools, while it instructs exhaustively on how to make money, it does not equally well link such skills to the more profound and fundamental questions of what is the sense and use of wealth, and what to do with it – so, essentially, the why. The lack of questioning wealth in its life purpose’s and ethical dimensions, framing it in the broader perspectives of philosophy and theology as well as compassion and sympathy, reduces economics from a study of people to pure econometrics and money-making, merely doing justice to the material wing while neglecting the spiritual counterpart to the point that „the bird cannot fly, and ends up running around flapping one wing until it falls dead“.

The closing day was assigned to ethical and educational norms in the realms of life, technology and scientific research. Alexander Laszlo, a system scientist, expounded on what it means to apply system thinking and thrivability (as opposed to sustainability) to social innovation and technologies so that they can connect us with life and environment at large, to create the conditions for the emergence of health and authentic communities, from the local to the regional dimensions, to national and global.
The astrophysicist Franco Giovannelli took the audience on few parallel vertiginous journeys: across the scales of the universe from the nano to the planetary and cosmic scale, emphasising the intimate connections and analogies between phenomena at the different scales; through the publication and reproducibility crisis that the sciences are presently facing as a consequence of wrong metrics employed; and through the conflicts between populations and ethnic groups that have characterised humankind throughout its long history. The common lesson we can draw from these different threads, Giovannelli advocated, is that only a “human revolution” — above and beyond the various scientific, artistic, political, industrial revolutions that have marked history — can render the world a better place transforming people from inside and endowing them with compassion and an authentic altruism.

Marko Pogacnik and Luis de la Calle shed light on the relationship between science and art through two talks, different in kind and theme but both equally striking the audience’s inner chords. As sculptor and land artist, Pogacnik has cultivated an acute spirit of observation and sensitivity for landscapes. Both in the talk and in the workshop he held in the town of Todi, he recounted his experiences of perception, imaginative associations stimulated by places that he has visited along his path; and how he envisions the future of the planet, articulating an alternative perspective on climate change which regards it as an opportunity for the evolution of the human culture.
Luis de la Calle instead took the audience to retrace his own educational path around the world motivated by the fire of music. Seamlessly interspersing explanation and narration with passionately-executed musical pieces, de la Calle drew from the pan flute “oral” tradition of the Peruvian Andes, the Japanese music learnt from a master of No-theatre, the Indian ragas, down to the “written” European classical tradition he apprehended in the last phase of his path.

Another morning of lectures was dedicated to the neuroscientists Cliff Saron and Tania Singer, who reported their long experiences in understanding meditation from the perspective of modern science. Saron, as a director of a years-long multidisciplinary investigation of the effects of intensive meditation on physiological and psychological processes, spoke to us critically about the distortions that the engagement with contemplative practices in the West has provoked. From the invasion of meditation-tracking smartphone applications to narratives promising immediate and tangible benefits with little effort, modern societies — to which science partly contributes — have marketed traditional practices as problem-solvers aimed at the individual’s benefit, thus twisting the objective at their very base. To correct this aberration, Saron offered his critical view on the limits of current scientific investigations on meditation, tracing what can be known through lived experience and cannot be addressed using the existing research tools.
With a similar awareness of the limits of reducing mindfulness to its scientifically-provable effects, the other neuroscientist, Tania Singer, discussed the outcomes of the ReSource project, a large- scale longitudinal study directed by her on the effects of meditation and mental training practices on brain plasticity. Aimed at a distinction between the measurable benefits of one set of practices over the other and advancing a classification of them, the study, for instance, investigated if and how significantly the cortisol hormone released in stressful situation changes from a control patience to one that underwent one or the other targeted practice.

With regard to primary education, the pedagogist Patricia Jennings — a leader in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindfulness in education — reported the results of an empirical investigation on the effects of mindful awareness and compassion training given to primary school teachers, detailing in particular what are the appreciable benefits encountered in leading a class, reducing stress burnouts both on the teacher and students’ side.
The Indian sociologist Renuka Singh discussed her ongoing studies on cross-cultural marriage. Using the peculiar methodology of collecting and analysing subjective experiences through written reports, Singh recognised in trends, currently experienced by the Indian society, like atomisation of the families, liberation and secularisation the main motivating forces behind cross-cultural marriages; and traced a general picture from significant cases. A topic well-known to the new generations, not only in India but worldwide, the study stimulated the audience to reflect on the phenomenon at large: how much the cultural difference, the language and the societal structure, can strain a cross-cultural union.

The morning dedicated to topics in history and philosophy of science featured two tandem talks. Mauro Bergonzi and Roberto Ferrari, both with a high expertise in the theoretical and pragmatic aspects of phenomenology, respectively discussed the Eastern and Western approaches to the discipline. Going over the three stages of the Western phenomenological method leading to the “pure I”, Ferrari discussed the insights that come from phenomenological exploration from a neuroscientific, cultural-epistemic and existential points of view, underlying the virtues of the enquiry in and of the direct first-person experience as complementary to the scientific investigation, which instead treats nature and consciousness as objects. Moving from the idea that any objective experience in the third-person presupposes a epistemologically prior first-person experience, Bergonzi explained how ancient Indian philosophy traditionally recognised ordinary experience and perception as being mediated by concepts (the Sanskrit nama-rupa, literally name&form, was coined to indicate that form is perceived only through name), and consequently devised a procedure to remove all the filters that prevent the access to un-mediated experience. Such procedure, embodied from ancient times in the meditative observation, allows to access the ultimate bits of experience ceaselessly flowing (in Sanskrit abidharma) and is in fact the oldest known form of phenomenology.

Varun Agarwal and Vasudeva Rao, two Hindu monks respectively with backgrounds in aerospace engineering and computer science, held a tandem talk on the relation that mathematics and computer science entertain with spirituality. Agarwal began by recognising how the tools of mathematics and spiritual practices both aim at deciphering a reality far and hidden from our direct experience; and articulated, drawing directly from the primary sources, how in fact brilliant mathematicians from Euler to Gauss, Boole to Brouwer and Gödel all attempted to tackle the notions on God, soul, after-life, constructing reasonings and arguments for all these notions. Rao presented the concepts of mind, intelligence, the false identification (ego) and the real ‘I’ as they are conceptualised and experienced in the spiritual tradition of Vedanta, by drawing illuminating analogies with a computer simulated game. As an expert of both, Rao efficaciously transmitted the sense of these concepts through the idea of identification of the player with the fictional character, the engagement with the reality and time flow within the game.
All the talks, to which the mornings were dedicated, were accompanied by an hour of lively discussions in which both lecturers and participants took part: after the two lectures, the audience would convene around one of the moderators in groups of seven to eight people to discuss the contents of the two talks. In the tighter, more informal atmosphere of the groups both the shyest and the more outspoken voiced those thoughtful reflexions which had remained latent and unprovoked in the regular question time.

An integrating part of the week, to which the early mornings and the afternoons were dedicated, are the workshops, which are conceived to act as specular counterweights to the theoretically- oriented lectures. Whether they experienced sculpting marble or alabaster, drumming in groups or attentively guided into the listening of cello’s pieces, learning Islamic calligraphy or discussing selected literature on complex sciences, being led into deep breathing, experimenting a psychodrama session or learning to dance folk music, the participants, when asked by the end of the week, could not mask their deep satisfaction and joy that derived from the “discoveries” or rediscoveries they had made during each of the various processes they had selected.
What is striking of the Todi week on the whole is a seamless mingling of the human and the professional aspects, a parallel and silent working of both. An important part of it consolidates outside of the lecture hall, be it over the dining table, during the workshops or in the moments of distension, and is just due to progressive setting in of an extraordinarily rich intergenerational transfer as the week advances. Watching the growing intimacy developing between the lecturers, workshop leaders and the young and old participants from sharing questions, answers, opinions, innermost thoughts, exchange is seen flowing easier and more copious; and the atmosphere spontaneously fills up with an ineffable glow. It was “just” the product of a hundred individuals assembling in one place for one week. Where is the magic?

Rocco Gaudenzi


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