The Mirrors of the “I”

Reading time: 16 minutes

Translation by AB – September 10, 2020


The physical and cortical “increases” (prosthetics, implants…) are only told today as technical progress, as more artifacts. A crucial aspect is thus missing: these devices can affect, more or less dramatically, our identity, this “feeling” that we have when we say “I”.

Body improvements are part of history (medicine, aesthetics…) and have always shaped our identities. But here we are talking about the radical technical transformations that are possible today (we will see some examples).

After some necessary philosophical reminders, we will build on the reflections launched by Francisco Varela (Francisco Varela the heterodox) in 2001, shortly before his death. He himself had undergone a “radical technical transformation” which had temporarily dissolved his identity. His “experience” helps us understand the questions that will arise when the technique will practice on our bodies new “incisions” and will send us multiple images of “I” that we will have to collect.

It is therefore with the body that we must begin…

Lived body

The two main scientific paradigms about the mind, “cognitivism”1 and “connectionism”2, locate the development and manifestation of phenomena of the mind (intelligence, memory, consciousness …) in the brain. But this localization is twice problematic. First, these phenomena could result from a “resonance” between individuals, from network effects, and never occur (as we envisage them) in an isolated brain (About artificial consciousness). But above all, these phenomena are probably diffuse in the body. However, cognitivism and connectionism attribute no role to the body, except that of a simple action / reception “interface” with the world3.

This position seems strange: we are all more or less aware that our identity, which undeniably participates in the phenomena of the mind, is articulated and sedimented around our body. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century and Edmund Husserl that a complete philosophical system, called “phenomenology”, repositioned the body in the hitherto “sacred” field of the phenomena of the mind. Thus, appeared the concept of “phenomenal body” or “lived body”4:

Our body, we experience it as part of ourselves. We call “body” both what we can perceive and what without which we cannot perceive. As far as I can perceive it, my body is one thing in the world: it is the objective body; as it is a condition of my perception, I cannot perceive it: it is the “phenomenal / lived body”.

Science takes care of the first (medicine, neurosciences, sports, implants, prosthetics…) and ignores the second. It therefore ignores its consequences on our identities, built both on the perceived body and on the lived body.

Interiority, exteriority

This phenomenal body is, as the French philosopher Pascal Dupond recalls, both “me” and “mine”5:

The “phenomenal body” or “lived body”, […] is at the same time “me” and “mine”, in which I understand myself as the exteriority of an interiority or the interiority of an exteriority, which appears to itself by making the world appear, which is therefore only present to itself at a distance and cannot close in on pure interiority.

Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl, founder of “phenomenology”

These words may seem a bit obscure to a non-philosopher, but it must be recognized that language is difficult when it comes to describing the place of “I” in consciousness and the role of the body in the perception of our identity. However, we must try to say these phenomena because technologies allow us today to consider new extensions and modifications of the objective body. The “phenomenal body” will then make a comeback that is still difficult to imagine but which will probably be at the heart of our philosophical, ethical and political thoughts.

It is at the verge of these reflections that we come now. Between Edmund Husserl and ourselves, we find Francisco Varela, a Chilean researcher who has managed to stay at an equal distance from science, philosophy and ethics.

Structural coupling and historical contingency

Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela

Coming from biology, Francisco Varela has never stuck to the cognitivist school of thought making man a computer processing information, nor to the connectionism which also considers that we act on the basis of the congruent representation of an external and predetermined world (which would make us say: a “cat” is a cat). Varela laid the foundations for a concrete interpretation of phenomenology with this fundamental principle (we underline)6:

The dynamic relationships of a living system with its environment constitute its “structural coupling”.

It is no longer a matter of body on one side and mind on the other, but of an organism, an integrated system that integrates its environment. In this system, objective body and lived body are no longer separable. A living system has neither inputs (“information” from the outside world) nor outputs (decisions of actions, for example), as suggested by cybernetics. He undergoes disturbances (indistinctly external or internal) and constraints (temperature, light, stress, pain, pleasure …) which force him to permanently select a possible structure for himself (we underline):

With this notion of structural coupling, the historical dimension, not only quantitative but also structural, of any living system is emphasized.

It is along this historical dimension that the contingency, the “I could have been different” that characterizes life, inevitably appears.

“I” does not exist

Thus, to say that “reality” is grasped by a “mind” by means of a “body” is only a language game still suitable for the digital and AI industry (that’s why she should refrain from talking to us about ethics). But there are not three distinct things: it is the internal organization of the organism, resulting at all times from its structural coupling, which plays a determining role in cognition. The organism “constructs” reality (“enacts it” as Varela said) according to its own organization. For example, seeing / perceiving “red” does not represent (in one’s brain) the “redness” of an object from the outside world. There is nothing like a “red” object. Rather, there has been the construction of a sensation of “redness” coinciding with the proper organization of the human organism which, for example, bleeds and associates this bleeding with a colored “sensation” and pain. The feeling of “redness”, which makes us say “red”, is an immanent phenomenon in our organism and not a production of our only brain confronted with a reality by the intermediary of a body.

“I” is no exception to this rule: there is nothing like “I”.

Let us now come to the “experience” of Francisco Varela, on which he stated a reflection inspired by what we have just introduced: the importance of the body and the fragility of identity during an intense “structural coupling”.

Intimate distances

Shortly before his death, on May 28, 2001 in Paris, Francisco Varela wrote an essay entitled “Intimate Distances – Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation7. He was fighting the complications of hepatitis which had progressed to cirrhosis and then to liver cancer. He was temporarily saved by an organ donation. It is the observations and reflections drawn from this trying experience that he recounts in this text that inspires us here.

Jean Luc Nancy

Jean-Luc Nancy

They echo the own experience of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who benefited from a heart transplant in 1992. Jean-Luc Nancy reported his thoughts in “Corpus” in 1992, then later in “L’Intrus” in 2000, whose central theme is revealed by this commentary by the philosopher Michela Marzano8:

An unusable heart. A surgery. A transplant. A heartbreaking feeling of strangeness. An endless questioning around his own identity. […] Beyond suffering and the struggle to survive, the philosopher testifies to the almost impossible path that one must walk when an “intruder” enters his own body. What is at stake in “The Intruder” is the difficulty of accepting the rise of otherness within identity.
However, “within our very identity” it is now entire technical systems that arise and not a “simple” organ whose only permanent technical trace is the poisonous effect of immunosuppressive treatments.


Faced with the same “borderline experience”, Francisco Varela observes himself attentively and draws on this astonishing source of reflection.
What does the experience of transplantation – lived in pain and abandonment to the medical staff – tell him about the living human organism considered as an “autopoietic machine which continuously generates and specifies its own organization“? Because in this situation, this “machine” is clearly no longer autonomous in its generation and continues its existence at the heart of an unimaginable network of dependencies: the donor, the medical team, the machines, the legislator, the science, the beloved ones…

You have to look at yourself from the outside and observe yourself “from every angle”, in all the mirrors, to grasp what remains of your own identity in this situation but also what new generation we are witnessing. Jean-Luc Nancy himself pursues this path of thought in “The Intruder”:

The philosopher seeks to know if his “I” with a foreign heart is always the “same”, if “his” body is always “his” body.

The mirrors of the “I”

We must not deny the effects of physical ordeal and incessant dependence on the medical staff in this extreme feeling of otherness, bordering on communicable. Francisco Varela however tries this to communicate and invites us to share his experience:

We are looking at the scene from the side, you and I. And yet for me alone is echoed in multiple mirrors of shifting centers each of which I call ‘I’, each one a subject which feels and suffers, which expects a word, which is redoubled in a scanner’s image, a concrete fragment that seems to partake with me of a mixture of intimacy and foreignness.

To these fragments we could add: a photo on a passport, an unexpected conversation where people talk about us, our sweater placed on a chair, love in his/her eyes, an Instagram story…. Only “I” can both observe (exteriority) and collect (interiority) these multiple images.

Today, twenty-five years after Varela’s death, the digital world offers us countless other intrusions and mirrors. We are in another moment of historical contingency but the questions of Varela and Nancy are more prevailing than ever.

The monkey and “his” arm

In 2008, a team of researchers published in the journal Nature the results of their work concerning the control of a robotic arm by the cortex of a monkey. Food is presented to the macaque, who manages to grab it (his arms are shackled):

In 2008, a team of researchers published in the journal Nature the results of their work concerning the control of a robotic arm by the cortex of a monkey . Food is presented to the macaque, who manages to grab it (his arms are shackled)9:

This is a “Brain Computer Interface” (BCI) experience. There are more recent and more spectacular ones but it is probably one of the first to cross this threshold (we underline):

The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time.

The artificial arm is connected to the shoulder of the monkey. It has an elbow and a gripper. The researchers implanted a grid of electrodes on a neural zone controlling the movements of the arms and hands. This grid has around a hundred tiny electrodes, each connected to a single neuron and controlled by computer. The computer analyzes the activity of these neurons and translates them into mechanical arm movements.

We can schematize the situation of the monkey by separating what (for a cognitivist) constitutes the “reality” (the outside world with the banana), the “body” (the objective body of the monkey with his eyes and his mouth… but also the robotic arm) and the substrate of the “mind” (the brain … but also the computer):

Body Mind Reality

What happened?

The animals were apparently freelancing, discovering new uses for the arm, showing “displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment,” the researchers wrote.

More precisely:

“In the real world, things don’t work as expected,” said the senior author of the paper, Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh. “The marshmallow sticks to your hand or the food slips, and you can’t program a computer to anticipate all of that. “But the monkeys’ brains adjusted. They were licking the marshmallow off the prosthetic gripper, pushing food into their mouth, as if it were their own hand.”

In a way, the internal organization of the monkey ended up incorporating the robotic arm. He integrated this arm into his phenomenal body. This coupling takes time because there is no a priori possible specification.

BCI techniques thus make it possible to conceive of so-called “deep” increases, which can lead to completely new integration (structural coupling) processes.

Let’s see two last examples.

I think, It speaks

In a recent article, a team of researchers recounted their work of making a prosthesis speak by controlling it “by thought”10. Here, the equipment connected to the brain is not an arm but a “vocoder”, an instrument for synthesizing the human voice. In two words: the thought of saying a word (“red”) activates the elocution of this word by the vocoder. The initial objective of this research is obviously medical: the purpose is to restore a capacity of speech for severely paralyzed patients.

Imagine having such a prosthesis, diverted with this simple “enhancement”: being able to state in any language a thought in English. This new “functional possibility” can cause a feeling of “enthusiasm”, “relief”, etc. or spark the imagination of a problem to which this new solution can answer, etc. It is first seen as technical progress. But we don’t think anything, first of all, about what this increase would do to our own identity. Here’s what might happen…

First, this voice that we would hear, a little mechanical, would seem foreign to us. We would have the feeling of the object and the awareness of its belonging to the outside world. This feeling would be reinforced by the presence of the technical team, busy with the adjustments and with our learning. But gradually, the device would eventually become one with us (embodiment), like the robotic arm with the monkey. This mechanical voice would then become ours. And our organism would end up enacting its world according also to this prosthesis and to its very particular functioning.

Despite this, this prosthesis would never be fully internalizable (our own body can never close in on pure interiority). We would have to recharge the batteries, have it checked regularly, it could malfunction and no longer obey us, it might be connected to the cloud and would constantly offer new “experiences” (automatic adaptation to the speaker’s language, vocabulary enrichment, etc.). It could return to the objective body for the time of an update but our lived body would keep track of it forever.

The Swedish chips

Here is a last less prospective example.

Perhaps you have heard of these Swedes who have microchips implanted in their flesh, between the thumb and forefinger, in a warm atmosphere of conventions of “flat-earthers”. These “implant parts” are said to be all the rage11:

In a corner near the elevator, which is called by the button “press here for superpowers”, Jörgen Linder, for 1,800 crowns (170 euros), offers a new service that has become very popular in recent months. This professional piercer injects microchips into the hand of cyborgs apprentices tired of having to deal every day with badges, gym cards, tickets, cafeteria tokens. Their ideal: being able to do without a wallet and roam the city with nothing in the pocket…

Puce main Suède

Let’s not say that these chips change the identity of the wearer. But when later, in our digital natural environment (Emergence of a digital natural environment), the artefacts will react to our bodies, then to our “thoughts”, to what (or rather to whom) will result our “structural couplings” and which world will enact us? We can imagine that this integration into the “I” takes time. How fast can structural coupling take place? How far will we consider it reasonable, or just simply possible, to increase the human without his identity being dissolved? After how many increases and after how long?

A new field of study?

In “Intimate Distances”, Francisco Varela wrote that our natural history, the fruit of our structural coupling, and the phenomenal experience, that is to say the sensations in consciousness, are the two intimately mixed sides of “sentience”. Now, from his point of view, science has separated the natural (“objective”) from the phenomenal (“subjective”) and has grasped it as the only object.

The Belgian philosopher Alphonse de Waelhens also declared12:

When an individual serve as an experimental subject in a psychology laboratory, by what right is it argued that what he experiences is purely subjective (that is to say, uncontrollable, free and without scientific significance), instead that the reactions he manifests are said to be objective because they are perceived by the observer, which amounts to claiming that the perception of the observer is objective while that of the observed is decreed subjective.

We thus think about the neurosciences, which grasp the electromagnetic micro-movements in the brain on one side, and correlate them on the other to a supposed phenomenal experience (joy, pain, consciousness…). On the one hand the objective observer, on the other a subjective interiority.

This is why the wish of Francisco Varela would probably have been to integrate in the same discipline, which remains to be invented, the design of technical prostheses which will belong to the functional history of the patient and, not “its effects on” but ” its coupling with “the phenomenal experience of the patient, the universe of his sensations”.


Let’s take a few words from Francisco Varela’s “inclusion”:

I can see it: all of us in a near future being described as the early stages of a mankind where alterity and intimacy have been expanded to the point of recursive interpenetration. Where the body technologies will and can redesign the boundaries ever more rapidly, for a human being which will be ‘intrus dans le monde aussi bien que dans soi-meme’ [ intruder in the world as well as in oneself ]…

Technology is now ready to expand our bodies like never before, to open them to all “proxies”. We do not yet know very well what the effects of these overtures will be on our identities. Because it is not only a matter of local technical openings (a suture, a prosthesis, an organ, etc.), but of incisions offered to the entire Technological System. Through it therefore comes the technique but also the culture.

Francisco Varela also develops at length the cultural and ethical aspect of the gesture from which he benefited, of this gift which connects him eternally to the donor through a vast contingent chain of causes and effects (the donor, the law which authorizes, the medical profession, transporter, morals…). It is then a question, not only of (re)building its identity around its new body and its extensions, but also of integrating the authentic “social network” which will participate in this new identity.

Francisco Varela quoted in his text the words of Jean-Luc Nancy on this subject:

I feel it, it is much stronger than a sensation: never did the strangeness of my own identity, which was so vivid to me, touch me with such acuteness. “I” has clearly become the formal index of an unverifiable and intangible sequence. Between me and me, there was always space-time; but now there’s the opening of an incision, and the irreconcilable of an upset immunity.

It is a starting point for thinking that our identities will not adapt so easily to the multiplication of technical mirrors of the “I” by these openings. But perhaps we are already facing this problem. Perhaps we are already struggling to preserve an integrated and meaningful “I”.

1. Cognition would be an activity of manipulation of symbols, the symbols “coding” an aspect of the outside world (the symbol “red” for example coding for “what is red”)– See Wikipedia – Cognitivism
2. Connectionism views mental processes as emerging from networks of interconnected units, artificial neurons – See Wikipedia – Connectionism
3. Fortunately, this conception is evolving with biology and the progressive understanding of the complexity and depth of living systems like plants
4. Wikipedia – Lived body
5. Pascal Dupond (in French) – 2001 – Le vocabulaire de Merleau-Ponty
6. J. Theureau (in French) – 1999 – Cours d’Anthropologie cognitive & ingénierie à l’UTC
7. Francisco Varela – 2001 – Intimate Distances – Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation
8. Michela Marzano / Cités, vol. 21, no. 1, 2005, pp. 57-60 (in French) – Lorsqu’un Intrus occupe le corps. Notes autour du livre de Jean-Luc Nancy
9. Benedict Carey / The New York Times – May 29, 2008 – Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own
10. Hassan Akbari, Bahar Khalighinejad, Jose L. Herrero, Ashesh D. Mehta & Nima Mesgarani – Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 874 (2019) – Towards reconstructing intelligible speech from the human auditory cortex
11. Karl de Meyer in Les Echos – March 22, 2019 – Suède : au pays des cyborgs vikings

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