“Openness and imagination: the human future towards freedom and uncertainty”, Roberta Consilvio

17.04.2021 - Rome, Italy - Centro Mundial de Estudios Humanistas

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“Openness and imagination: the human future towards freedom and uncertainty”, Roberta Consilvio
(Image by Daniel Alvarez)

We publish here the paper presented by Roberta Consilvio, researcher at the Salvatore Puledda World Centre for Humanist Studies, in the framework of the International Symposium held virtually today Friday 16 April, tomorrow Saturday 17 and Sunday 18.


Good Morning everyone. Let me thank the many people who made this Symposium possible, in this new interconnected form.

My speech today is about the human being, highlighting some of the characteristics that distinguish its psychic functioning and its relationship with the environment that surrounds it. In this way I would like to arrive at the conclusion that the human being, as an individual and as a species, is constitutively able to create new realities, changing the conditions in which he finds himself acting: he, or rather WE, are therefore capable of creating not only a new world but also a new human being.

Talking about the human being is not just about discussing it as an object of philosophical study, as if it were a natural entity to be observed from the outside. On the contrary, the invitation is that everyone does feel personally called to connect to the discourse, because I will talk about each of us, of our daily experience, of our inner knowledge, of how we perceive and articulate our existence.

In order to do it, I will ask myself some questions, from which I will start to unfold the many elements that I need to arrive at the conclusion.

  1. How does the human being relate to the environment? Or how does consciousness get in touch with the world and how does this contact manifest?
  2. How does the ability to create mental images work for evolution?
  3. How does the past affect me? And what about the future?
  4. How much freedom can I get compared to what limits me in my life today?

My answers find their roots in the work of Silo[1], literary pseudonym of Mario Rodriguez Cobos, Argentine thinker who founded the current of Universal Humanism and who also conceived this Symposium in 2008. Let me also thank all the scholars who have explored his themes and made further contributions.


I will therefore go into the heart of what I want to discuss. The first question is: In what way does the human being relate to the environment? That is, how does consciousness get in contact with the world and how does this contact manifest itself?

Here I use the word consciousness in a psychological sense, not in a moral one. With the word consciousness I mean the internal apparatus that makes us perceive the external world and organizes the responses that we give to this outside world. Consciousness does a great job: it continuously receives inputs from all the external and internal senses, it processes them by combining with those in memory, and organises actions. Consciousness aims at maintaining homeostasis of the functioning of the psychophysical unit of which it is an expression. So far we would not be very different from our cat.

What is the nature of the elaborations of consciousness? What does our consciousness  exactly do? It portrays the outside world, then plays a bit with these representations and at the end of the game does it come up with an action to do? Consciousness in this perspective would operate a reproduction of the world, as if    it were a passive entity in front of it, and it would mechanically devise solutions to the problems that the world poses.

It is not so simple; consciousness is not passively waiting for some signal from the external world. As Brentano, Husserl and Silo state, consciousness is incessantly in activity, searching relentlessly for mental objects, that is, the representations that best complete the acts it has launched. I represent the world to my inner self not because I find it in front of me, but because my consciousness does a continuous work of active construction. Inside of me I have no photographs, but original and unique elaborations.

This constructive and subjective process of consciousness is so real that, in the judiciary field for example, studies are carried out on the reliability of the testimonies given during trials or interrogations, since there are huge differences between the accounts of people who report the same event: everyone structured the event differently, with details that were even absent in the scene to be described.

So, we are active creators of reality, each of our own.

Ironically, if I had no perceptual or mnemonic data about the world, what would remain in me, as mental material to make my consciousness work? Very little: consciousness would have no representation and the world, ultimately, would not exist for me. Nor I would even exist, since my elaborations are based on my data of the world.

As a conscious being, I start to develop while I am still in my mother’s womb, in relation to the world I live in, intended as a material and as a social world. There, my peculiar way of perceiving is intertwined with the way I am perceived by other beings like me, and I interact with a world that exists only insofar as I can grasp the salient aspects of it – for my life, for my senses and for my consciousness.

I build the reality of my own world, and I can do it through what of the world is available to me. I am, ultimately, a world-consciousness structure in constant activity. The boundary between me and the outside world, that I can physically establish where the tactile limit of the skin is, represents an elastic, or rather theoretical, boundary that can be defined as a communication between open spaces.

Silo explains this concept with the term “landscape”. There is an internal landscape, given from all my mental representations, and an external one, the world that I can perceive, and it’s in the intertwining of these two landscapes that my world-consciousness structure unfolds, allowing me to learn (by acquiring new data from the interaction with the external landscape) and to operate on the external landscape through the action of my body – which is included in the process.

Grasping the inescapable embrace in which these two landscapes continually interact is part of a training, in order to grasp a particular internal register, the one of the gaze.

Another siloist concept, the internal gaze is the register we have of the observation point from which we see consciousness and all its acts. Any change of the gaze reflects on the way in which landscapes carry out their action.

This awareness of the gaze is very important if we want to change something about the situation of widespread violence in the world today. All the motivational books, such as “get back control of your life” emphasize the human capacity of becoming aware of the gaze and of modifying it in a desired way. The same approach is used in psychotherapy: the self-fulfilling prophecy is the clearest example of how the gaze affects our actions and the events we let occur.

The internal gaze is not only the individual one – on oneself and one’s landscape, but even that of entire categories of people, for example scientists. Starting from physical sciences, today in all fields of knowledge the anthropic principle is advancing, that is, the consideration of the role of the observer in the construction of reality.

We are abandoning the illusion of objective knowledge, in favor of a perspective that puts the interaction between the human being with its means – and the world to know – at the center of interest; from the microscopic level of subatomic particles to the macroscopic level of cosmology.

Taking into consideration the gaze of the human being, a new vision of the Universe emerges, one that is far more complex than a 100 years ago: the physicist Carlo Rovelli defines “a world that doesn’t exist in space and doesn’t evolve in time. A world only made of interacting quantum fields who teem with other quantum to generate, through a dense network of reciprocal interactions, space, time, particles, waves and light “[2].

The concept of interaction is becoming central to all sciences. The epistemic categories and their boundaries, useful until recently, today are an impediment for us to understand the nature of the new vision emerging from the current knowledge.

What I believed so far must now collapse, so that a new way of seeing things can rise. Facing this “new” complexity of the gaze, I understand how European explorers of the sixteenth century must have felt, discovering lands never even imagined before.

The Hubble telescope that captures the hundreds of thousands of galaxies of the deep universe, definitely puts on a side the geocentric perception of the world I have lived in so far. Suddenly, the Universe is infinite and unfolds thanks to my gaze that captures it.

Human consciousness on this small outlying planet becomes important because it ultimately represents, for the moment and according to what we know, one of the possible levels of interaction and one of the ways of building knowledge, but certainly the only one we have access to.

This reflection is affecting all fields of human knowledge, which must reconsider the epistemic foundations of the disciplines and elaborate a new cognitive program in which the gaze of the human being is included as a central element of the method.

We now come to the second question: How does the ability to create mental images work for evolution?

The world-consciousness dynamic is expressed through the activity of representing, that is, producing images, as they are commonly defined in psychology. Pictures are synthetic reconstructions that consciousness produces as a result of its own activity, therefore they are original, unique, although education and sociability constantly operate so that mutual communication of images is possible. Since we are young and throughout life, thanks to language we share concepts, that are meanings that we associate with our images.

It’s in the failure of actions and communication, in ambiguities and errors, that we notice the subjectivity of our images and our landscapes, and this forces us to agree, to find again a consensus on the pre-dialogue beliefs underlying our conversational exchanges. It is the nature of our knowledge, as Edgar Morin writes: “Each knowledge carries with it the risk of error and illusion”[3].

Historian Harari talks about “imagination constructs” that have accustomed people from birth to adapt to certain behaviors and to think in a certain way, thus creating “artificial instincts” which we call culture[4]. Beliefs are complex and prescriptive images, difficult to recognize due to their subjective character, because culture has a cooperative form based on large numbers and the evidence we have of it is proper the opposite: it is the “truth” since everyone believes it. Fortunately, many brilliant thinkers went against the current, they questioned what was believed to be true and they thus allowed access to new knowledge.

The images are flexible: they are continually reconstructed, changed, updated, to allow the adaptation of the psycho-physical structure to the physical and social world, and vice versa, to adapt the physical and social world to one’s desires. This reciprocal adaptation activity points to an evolutionary direction, since it operates through the instrument of the body, at the same time subject and object of the material and social world, to transform landscapes in the direction of overcoming physical pain and mental suffering. This basic intention of our species guides us from the earliest hominids, as the same conditions of finitude and lack are the engine of evolutionary intention.

We can then say that it is an implicit direction of Life itself, from its own simpler forms to the most complex.

This direction of the human being acts by articulating a time horizon in the consciousness, in which the past, the present and the future are intertwined with each other, but where the construction of the future excels, for the same intentional mechanics of the consciousness, always reaching forward in search of new mental objects. Therefore, we will call imagination the activity of representing in the direction of the future; what allows new contents to emerge, which overcomes old beliefs by discarding them or by integrating them into broader visions.

Giordano Bruno writes: “Every time we believe that some truth remains to be known, some good to reach, we always seek another truth and aspire to another good. In short, investigation and research will not be satisfied in the attainment of a limited truth and a defined good”[5].

This whole process, on an individual and species level, translates into a continuous change, and those positions that claim to preserve a present balance, or even worse to return to past situations that you considered positive in distant moments, are shortsighted.

And now the third question: How does the past affect me? And what about the future?

The temporality of consciousness arises from the articulation of the three times that we can build: past, present and future. The past is all that is memory, landscape of training, and always comes into play in the construction of new images. The past defines me: I am an historical being soaked in the culture in which I grew up. It also defines me as a social being, since it’s in the interaction with the intentions of others that I have configured my intention. The past predominates the more I accumulate in the memory. Yet the future prevails: it’s the planning dimension of existence, the program of my actions, it’s the intention that manifests itself in the body and in the world. The present is the crossing point of the images coming from the memory and the images resulting from the imaginative processes in which I project myself into future situations. It’s in the present that I act, I feel, I think, whereas I include the past, I am pushed into the future, expanding, in this way, the gaze that observes temporality in action.

And now the last question: How much freedom can I get compared to what limits me in my life today?

The push towards “futurization”, coming from the evolutionary direction that wants to transform the given conditions, corresponds in human history to a process of personal and social liberation in which we are, each of us, called to make our contribution. This liberation takes root in the body with actions to remove the pain and approach to pleasure; and as needs and possibilities have expanded, human beings have fought against disease and poverty, and the fear that generates suffering. The body itself can emerge transformed in this process of liberation: surgery, prosthesis, assisted fertilization are some of the ways in which we intervene on our body when this represents a limit to our intentions.

The process of human liberation has just begun. Last appeared on the planet, its evolution was fast, and in a virtuous feedback circle, the more it changed the more he was able to change. Representative possibility has accelerated even more the development of his abilities, since he didn’t have to go for trial and error, but he imagined situations and found solutions.

John Stewart, development of consciousness scholar, defines two fundamental characteristics of the human being: self-evolution and systemic self-management.

The first is the ability to get rid of the biological and cultural limitations of the past in order to choose what is necessary for the benefit of the future; the second is the ability to develop mental models of interaction between oneself and the environment, which allow to identify useful actions for the evolutionary future[6].

These abilities are present in all human beings as intrinsic possibilities in the functioning of consciousness itself. But only in the presence of an intentional choice we can become aware of them, develop them, put them at the service of improving the individual and collective life. What qualitative leap would human and non-human life have developed on this planet if everyone acted to free themselves from the limits imposed at each level?

This symposium is a moment of meeting and circulation of ideas that want to illuminate a part of the liberation path that awaits us in the future; to free ourselves from the tyranny of money, for example with the universal basic income; to free ourselves from the destructive threat with a reduction of weapons and the elimination of nuclear power; to free ourselves from gender disparity and in general from all kinds of discrimination; to free ourselves from the threat of an ecological disaster and to free ourselves from the violence that affects so many aspects of human life.

How far can we go on the path of liberation? Clearly, from the present where we observe, we can only glimpse in the distance crossroads that we could take and crossroads we hope to avoid, but the path is not defined in any way. From Heisenberg onwards, in the scientific field (but with consequences of epistemological relevance on the whole human knowledge), uncertainty described the non-mechanistic and non-deterministic behavior of some physical phenomena, to generalize this acquisition to the far more random phenomena of life e of the human.

Pico della Mirandola poetically describes this immense freedom that the human being has in front of him: “I have made you neither celestial nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine”[7].

Certainly this dimension of uncertainty fascinates and scares at the same time. Sometimes it can take the concrete form of the question: “Will we become extinct or will we be able to transform our species and our environment in ways that we still don’t even imagine?” Abysses and bright perspectives coexist as a possibility to shape.


In conclusion, let me briefly recap.

The characteristic of the human being is openness, since its consciousness, intertwining the constructive activity in the interaction with the world, structures and shapes itself and the world. The ability to create images and project them into the future in the direction of overcoming pain and suffering, is the basis for the transformation of limited conditions in which he acts. The transformation takes place in the gaze that he uses to observe, both the internal and external landscapes that constitute the world. He has already encoded right through himself, his own destiny of personal, social and spiritual liberation.

This is all very important today. In the words of Hugo Novotny: “In the current historical moment, it has become essential for the human species to take on a protagonist role in overcoming the actual crisis and in passing to the future evolutionary stage of life on our planet; and for this to be possible, the intentional leap cannot be postponed towards a new level of consciousness, towards a new ethics and a new spirituality”[8].

The “superior orders whose life is divine” of Pico della Mirandola and the new spirituality of the next stage of human evolution, refers to the mystical dimension that the human being has been exploring for some thousands of years, looking for a way to a new level of consciousness and knowledge. The limits of individual identity are boundaries within which the register of the consciousness itself is contained, but there is a deep river with no banks, which relates to the contact experiences with the ineffable world of universal meanings.

Sasha Volkoff accurately describes the meditation process that can be used to reach it: “To the extent that silence is made and consciousness is emptied, the moment occurs when, with no content to use, consciousness looks inwards and records itself; at that moment, when the subject meets itself, the level break occurs. The consciousness finds itself ’empty’ and then sees itself not as an object but directly as the subject”[9].

The further step in the liberation process we aspire to is being able to imagine our own evolution beyond the limit of the death of the body. In the mystery and faith that accompany this passage, mystics of many religions have mentioned the path of the spirit, beyond the physical body and regardless of the ego we identify in life with,       that undertakes the way of transcendence.

I conclude with a beautiful quote from Silo’s story “The clay of the cosmos”:

“Thus, the visitor was expecting a new birth within that species in which he recognized the fear of death and the vertigo of destructive fury. He had observed how those beings vibrated with the hallucination of love, as if they felt anguished by facing the loneliness of the empty Universe, as they imagined their own future, as they struggled to decipher the first footprints left on the path where they had been thrown. Sooner or later this species, made with the clay of the cosmos, would take the path that will lead to discover its origins, but that path would be unpredictable”[10].

Thanks for your attention”.

[1] Silo, Complete Works, vol. 1 and 2, 2000-2003, Multimage, Florence.

[2] Carlo Rovelli, La realtà non è come ci appare, 2014, Raffaello Cortina, Milano.

[3] Edgar Morin, I sette saperi necessari all’evoluzione del futuro, 2001, Raffaello Cortina, Milano.

[4] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. Da animali a dèi, 2017, Giunti, Milano.

[5] Giordano Bruno, dalle Opere Latine, citato in Vincenzo Spampanato, Vita di Giordano Bruno, 1988, Gela editrice, Roma

[6] John Stewart, Evolution’s arrow, http://users.tpg.com.au/users/jes999/EvArrow.htm (April 10th 2021)

[7] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Della dignità dell’uomo, 2000, Multimage, Firenze.

[8] Hugo Novotny, Luce gravità e tempo, 2019, Parchi di Studio e Riflessione Carcarañá, Rosario.

[9] Sasha Volkoff, L’identità intenzionale, 2018, Parchi di Studio e Riflessione Odena, Barcellona.

[10] Silo, Il giorno del Leone Alato, 1991, Multimage, Firenze.


Translated by Flaminia Giuncato

Categories: Humanism and Spirituality, International
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