Vittorino Andreoli, the world-renowned psychiatrist, has been the director of the Department of Psychiatry of Verona – Soave and is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He has published dozens of essays. Among his latest published works we can mention ”Our Fears” (2011), ”Praise of Error” (2012, with Giancarlo Provasi), ”Money in the Head” (2012), ”Education (im)possible” (2014) and the very recent ”Homo Stupidus Stupidus”.
«We are no longer giving importance to principles, with the result that we are progressively plunging into barbarism. Civilization is not a foregone conclusion, but a conquest that passes through the transmission of values and behaviour. Thus, from sapiens sapiens, today’s man runs the risk of becoming a “stupidus stupidus”, an easy prey to a new loneliness as well as a victim of an increasingly widespread disease: digital autism.
The latest essay by Vittorino Andreoli (Homo Stupidus Stupidus, published by Rizzoli), one of the most famous Italian psychiatrists, always a careful observer and scholar of the complex social dynamics that go through the contemporary world, should make us reflect.
Professor, as you write, man seems to have lost the “benefit
of the neocortex”. Why is our species doing everything to “deserve” the unflattering attribute of “Stupidus Stupidus”?
First of all, we must understand a basic fact: the civilization that
we have laboriously achieved over thousands of years of history is based on principles and behaviours practised and learned. It means that if we do not succeed in passing on certain values and styles of behaviour to the next generation, we are destined to lose everything that we have mistakenly considered to be a definitively acquired heritage. Neuroscience is very clear about this.
What do you mean?
Simply because the degree of civilization that we have conquered with great effort, is not contained in our genes. It is not realised due to the instinctual practice of a mechanical behavior., It is an important result achieved by that part of the brain “plastic” that is formed on the basis of experience and that presides over learning, creativity, which is then the real engine of our intellectual activity. It means in concrete terms that the neurons of this portion of the neocortex come together in circuits, in a sophisticated structure that presides over the mnemonic touch, the idea, the so-called superior faculties. So if we no longer give importance to the dimension of values and principles, to respect for life, regression becomes, not a vague hypothesis, but a certain perspective.
As Alessandro Baricco denounced in his celebrated essay “The Barbarians”, does it become possible to return to barbarity from provocation?
Let me quote you. Neuroscientist Paul Donald MacLean claims we have three brains. The first is that of the instincts, proper to the reptilians, the second is that of the emotions, possessed by the mammals, the third is that of the thought understood in the highest sense. We know from the most recent studies that while the first two are printed and foreshadowed from birth, as if it were a PC that already has the software defined, the third is formed within us, as a result of a process. The exceptional discoveries made by man are the result of continuous evolution, this is our greatness, but also our weakness because this is not an irreversible path, the danger of triggering a backtrack is always around the corner. The criticalities emerge when, as the many current cases show, the lack of respect for the other is gaining ground and the values are trampled underfoot, at which point it will no longer be the high brain that dominates, but the low one, the one that presides over the low instincts. This is how one plunges into what Gianbattista Vico called the “wild condition”. Everyone will tend to take possession of everything they want, the many injustices practised out of blind jealousy, violence against children and the most defenceless beings, show that there are no more rules, the other person is an enemy to be overcome. Can we define “sapiens sapiens” as a reduced humanity in this state?
Is the technology, this prosthesis that should fill our imperfection, that generated a kind of danger «illusionism» mainly responsible for this backtracking?
Technology, I am thinking for example of the development of the digital brain, has enabled great achievements. Without the PC we would not have discovered the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, engineers and physicists now constitute the corpus of collective intelligence that will take us to new heights. The problem arises when you make a distorted use of these tools. Let me give you an example: we’re losing the use of number memory. To call a friend or parent we click, without doing any exercise to remember the number. This means that we won’t be able to make any more calculations in a while, the world of numbers has actually disappeared. A more serious example can be made for semantic memory. When we speak we are used to associating a sound with a meaning. In ordinary language we use about 150 words, few compared to the thirty thousand indicated by Treccani, this decline already denounced by linguists is likely to get worse, because most people communicate with signals, using the PC. The risk that looms is that of not speaking anymore, we will arrive at the DIGITAL AUTISM, a closed universe, populated by many who do not communicate. The PC reinforces this tendency to schematization: we use the finger up if someone likes and down when it doesn’t like. What dominates is binary logic, no longer rational logic which, at least from Aristotle onwards, is the foundation of Western thought and civilization.
The «constants of destructiveness.» In addition to the progressive “fall of principles”, the essay denounces the escalation of some “constant factors of destructiveness”, such as: violence, wars, the will to defend territory. These are elements that have always characterized the human species, in a constant struggle for survival. Today, however, the stakes are even higher: the entire Western civilization is running towards the abyss. What can we do?
The risk exists and must be denounced. I am not apocalyptic, there will always be man to emerge, in other historical and geographical contexts the post-human philosophers are making their way, which will open new glimmers of thought for reflection. It is Western civilisation in check if we cannot find adequate countermeasures. The issue is not so much about violence, which is purpose oriented behaviour, and as such, it can be reduced and defeated. Destructiveness worries me much more, the blind desire for power that overwhelms everything, global terrorism is the dramatic example that can make me understand what I am referring to. Everything is run over without an end, the body becomes a weapon, which swallows everything. So we destroyed ancient cities, museums, meeting places, libraries. It is difficult to find an antidote in front of madness, which no longer has a logic, a horizon of meaning.
Power, among the factors of destructiveness listed, is perhaps the most ambivalent term. How can it be defined in the context of a global society that is experiencing a profound change in the very concept of democracy?
When I speak of power, I mean power as a “verb” because the noun includes the concept of authority, becoming something else and must be handled with care. Power as the verb means, I do because I can. As in the case I remembered of destructiveness, there is also a power that is exercised without purpose. Plato argued that power should have as its supreme goal the happiness of all. Today none of this is happening: the dynamics are also very well seen in politics, where often the other is contradicted only in the spirit of propaganda without ever going into the merits of the issues. Power as an end in itself is, in short, the “dominant verb” of this era full of contradictions.
The condition of contemporary man, uncertain and confused, no longer understands power, it just seems to be undergoing it, don’t you think?
The human condition is characterized by fragility, which is given by
the need for the other, by the desire to know, while power needs the other only to dominate it. This is the humanism of fragility, which marks and will mark our lives.
The net and the «masters of humanity». In spite of everything, the individual is able to rise again. The “broken man”, he explains in the essay, can find serenity again. Should we be optimistic?
I call myself an active pessimist. The risks are those that we have tried to identify, but we must continue to seek the best without stopping. In the long journey of our evolution, we have deserved the double nickname of “sapiens”, if we think of poetry, of Paradise’s Canto XXXIII, of science, of great discoveries we remember how many wonderful realizations man has been and is capable of. Behind “the broken man”, whom I studied with the greatest interest as a psychiatrist, I have always found this greatness of which each individual is the bearer, so I continue to look forward with confidence. “
“Digital neo-humanism” is the perspective that we are hoping for from many quarters, as the latest writings by Morin, Sennett, Ceruti, Sen, and Baricco himself mentioned earlier, remind us. Does this seem to you to be a really workable way out?
Provided you return to a new humanism, that you look at the other as a value, where there is a sense of the limit, that it banishes that stupidity, that it doesn’t know the wisdom. The stupid is considered perfect, the wise cultivates doubt, so he has margins for growth. All our civilization is based on doubt, Plato’s dialogues have this root that is the same that informs the “Socratic humility”. We defend what is human. Not ashamed of that fragility that leads me to need the other, in the awareness of that mutual utility, which reinforces the need for relationship and confrontation.
In short, we would need to reaffirm the centrality of a more balanced individual, certainly not a “man without measure” who lives the reversal of the Protagorean dimension, which saw the subject as the expression of a supreme harmony between spirit and nature. Will we be able to regain the right balance in an increasingly polarised society, with growing poverty, fears and growing insecurity?
We can succeed if we commit ourselves to shake off the double attribution of “stupidus”, “studidus”. I still use this term in the sense of amazement, because I am amazed to see how man can fall so low, after having been the protagonist of so many extraordinary conquests. Unfortunately, we lost the plot. I’m going back to talking about technologies and their use. The Internet is an exceptional tool, unfortunately today it is increasingly in the hands of a few people, who are not entrepreneurs but exploiters. The linguist Noam Chomsky has in a recent essay called them “The Masters of Humanity”, they are unscrupulous individuals who make fun of man, so they enter their lives, violate privacy, without any restraint. The recent case of Cambridge Analytica should make people think about data security.
Values and the digital society The tendency to simplify, means that words such as “Truth”, “Religion”, “Beauty”, “Friendship”, “Reason”, complex terms that have engaged scientists and philosophers for centuries, are no longer problematized. The “dominant thought” seems to have every interest in simplifying by denying the density and depth of a conceptual fabric, which belongs to our history and civilization. What are the reasons for this attitude?
It is a widespread tendency that aims to singlemindedness, to deny difference and pluralism. Let’s think about religion. Beyond the different confessions, let us remember that a God exists for all because there is an imprint of the sacred. We know all this but we stop to comment only on small facts, marked by external superficiality. Yet religious sentiment is part of the essence of man. Only individuals conceive transcendence, they perceive a verticality, which chimpanzees can neither feel nor conceive.
At the end of the essay, it evokes “Fear and trembling”, the famous work of the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. What makes a psychiatrist tremble and what terrifies him who, during a long and brilliant career, has been able to measure himself against so many manifestations of evil, exorcising him?
Measure yourself against the size of the absurd. What Kierkegaard describes in “Fear and trembling” is worthy of study for the man of all time. God, as is well known, suggests to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Anonsense, something unacceptable to any parent. Abraham still manages to find a solution, goes beyond the absurd, follows the rule he has learned: he knows that God is there, he has had experience of it. We, in the face of the contradictions that grip contemporary man, unlike Abraham, do nothing, we run away. The great conflict, the drama is precisely this: there is a road indicated by civilization that leads us upwards, on the contrary, there is another that leads us towards regression. We must never stop fighting to enter into this contradiction in order to overcome it, because it is the tension towards objectives of progress and human and civil growth that prevails, because, believe me, we have an extreme and desperate need for this.
Author: Massimiliano Cannata