Dasgupta, S. (2023) Tracing the Untraceable: Metaphysics, Neuroscience, Semiotics, and Precision Education Governance

Author: Sayantan Dasgupta, PhD Researcher, Doctoral Programme in Philosophy, Arts, and Society, University of Helsinki

“Too much information, and yet… not enough. In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists.”
– Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland


On 30th September this year, we had a lecture on precision education governance. From the question of managing the future to the theme of ‘future-proof’ education, the lecture dealt with a variety of issues connected to the emerging idea of precision education governance. As a researcher dealing with metaphysics, the absence of abstract concepts from PEG and the possible impossibility of its inclusion (as evident from the post-lecture discussions) were very much noticeable. In this essay, I shall try to make an argument in favour of metaphysics as an important field when dealing with the idea of governance in education.

Firstly, to clarify what I exactly mean when I speak of metaphysics in PEG, it is important to point out the difference between “conquest” and “gift” when we talk about freedom (i) and whether education as an investment can survive without metaphysical attention. Freedom entails something that is a part of a being ́s quest for completion. It can neither be perceived by someone from the outside nor it can be created as a myth for that individual. Freedom is ́the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion ́ (ii). Therefore, when speaking about a subject becoming ́a sum of measurable values, which can be calculated, enhanced, predicted and manipulated ́ (iii), a gap remains. This gap entails a specific condition in a child that cannot be treated as a manipulative presence as it was not installed in the child from the outside as a ́gift ́. Therefore, this quest for freedom, as an abstract presence, needs metaphysical treatment.

Now, if  ´education is seen as an investment in both future markets and society, with promises of returns of investment and profit ́ (iv), it is essential to differentiate that this investment has a metaphysical side to it to avoid commodification of students ́ skills that may interrupt their future development.


To elucidate my points, I shall use two separate methods from two seemingly distant fields: neuroscience and semiotics. In neuroscience, I shall be speaking about mirror neurons to explain why the quest for a child ́s freedom has a lot to do with the way a child is being treated. The freedom of a child to express the way she feels in different situations through mirror neuron activation entails thoughtfulness towards that child ́s self-development and helping that child to understand what is best for her without manipulation.

In semiotics, I shall be applying the distinction between ́me ́ and ́self ́, as formulated by Eero Tarasti in existential semiotics. To quote Tarasti, “In “me” the subject appears as such, as a bundle of sensations; in the “self” the subject appears as observed by others, as socially determined.” (v) What exactly does that mean? The difference between ́me ́ and ́self ́ is the difference between the way attributes, desires etc are developed in an individual (me) and the way that individual gets influenced and affected by society (self). This distinction is important in the sense that societal/outside manipulation must not ignore the way a child ́s inner developments work.

Mirror Neurons and Existential Semiotics: The Determination of Metaphysical Aspects

The study of nervous system and the question of a child ́s inner developing freedom may seem to have a clear-cut line between them and in many aspects, one may keep them separated from each other. However, the rationality of explanation depends not on the basis of superiority based on Influential power, but on the way a topic can be explained for further and deeper understanding. Here, the question is not about disrupting the ongoing research in a particular field, but to show how a particular observation could lead us to different platforms in the need of explanations. Adhering to a particular field is fine, but sometimes answers are hidden in places that may seem far-fetched, but it is necessary to find out. In this part, what I am planning to do is to show how the observation of the activation of mirror neurons has a lot to do with the observation of a child ́s individuality as a symbol of freedom. If we speak about releasing a child “from emotional and behavioural burdens and guide the means for how the life and the self should be actualised and obtained in order to optimise the potentials of life” (vi), that potential has to have a balance with the idea of freedom being a link between a child ́s individuality and universality. Therefore, the concept of mirror neurons will explicate that freedom in a child ́s development.

Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero described mirror neurons as “A category of stimuli of great importance for primates, humans in particular, is that formed by actions done by other individuals. If we want to survive, we must understand the actions of others. Furthermore, without action understanding, social organization is impossible. In the case of humans, there is another faculty that depends on the observation of others’ actions: imitation learning. Unlike most species, we are able to learn by imitation, and this faculty is at the basis of human culture.” (vii)

One example of the activity of mirror neurons could be “when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, Motor Neuron A (which also happens to be a Mirror Neuron) fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. When you watch your friend pick up his own cup of coffee, Motor Neuron A also fires as if you were also picking up his cup of coffee, even if your hand is not moving at all.” (viii)
In the case of existential semiotics, the point is simply to observe the activation of mirror neurons to understand the gap between a child ́s response to different occurrences to realize the line between a child ́s individuality (me) and her interaction with the world (self).

Eero Tarasti stated that crossing boundaries between me and self are ́not necessarily fixed´ (ix). The oscillation between them depends on factors like situations, dialogues, type of interaction etc. For a child, interacting with the world is not just an act of communication or a linguistic phenomenon, it is equally a learning experience for the child to know her comfort zones, interests, dislikes etc. which eventually creates an understanding within the child about her.

The child is born with certain attributes, which are very individualistic, before she comes in contact with the society. These attributes have a presence of their own that cannot remain dormant. They need to be nurtured in order for them to thrive and for the child to become a social being. Here, the child needs guidance so that her development remains in synchrony with her individualistic attributes. However, how would it be possible for a teacher or a tutor or an educator to understand those attributes that are seemingly abstract values for them, which are somebody else ́s individualistic values? These frameworks cannot be bult upon assumptions. There must be some concrete evidence to follow. Here, the mirror neurons can be of help for the teacher to determine certain things.

If we start by seeing the child as an individual with certain attributes that are not knowingly manipulable, what is one way of understanding those attributes is to observe the child ́s behaviour in changing situations as those situations also denote the likes and dislikes, interests and annoyance of the child. These understandings are windows to the child ́s core and traces to the child ́s future.

To give an example, the child may behave cordially with the teacher at home or at a playground but may have a serious manner when meeting the same teacher at a classroom or in an online environment. On the other hand, the child may seem disinterested in a topic even in a situation she is very much familiar with or an informal situation like a playground but may seem engrossed in a different topic in a classroom scenario. What would these scenarios teach us?

All these situations are examples of activation of mirror neurons in relation to both the child ́s individualistic attributes and her interaction with the world. Firstly, when it comes to a formal or an informal situation, it is basically about the child ́s zone of preference or familiarity. The place that does not look formal may provide the child with certain confidence. However, it becomes interesting, when the child overlooks the formal situation on her own as soon as she hears something that interests her. The location remains the same but what changes is the topic. This is where a teacher must find a window to the child ́s core. This is where abstract values start to become slightly apparent.

When the child seems disinterested in a topic, that is because her mirror neurons that are connected to the child ́s individual attributes (me) do not trigger, even if the environment is familiar to the child. Now, one question may arise regarding the limited competence of the child to have any previous knowledge of the topic that the teacher is introducing. If the child has limited knowledge, then what triggers mirror neurons in the child? As said previously, it is the ́me ́ in the child that comes into play here. The child already had attributes in her before encountering the society (teaching is a very important way for the child to encounter the society). The triggering of mirror neurons happens when those attributes in ́me ́ encounters something that matches with those. For the child, the topic that interests her has triggered mirror neurons as a result of the presence of connected attributes in the child’s  ́me ́ part. So, when the child finds interest in something, it does not indicate whim but mirror neuron trigger. The interest results in the child opening up her individualistic self (me) to the societal sphere (self). Thus, this encounter is a neuroscientific way to understand a child ́s metaphysical aspects.

To reiterate briefly, the attributes (me) in a child that are individualistic belong to that child as aspects of personality development. These remain in the child as abstract values and only come out or get realized when they encounter something that trigger them through mirror neurons. This is how the child learns to become a societal being (self). For a teacher, it is important to get to that abstract value by providing the child with a situation and scenario that has the possibility to trigger the child ́s mirror neurons and, thus, making it possible for the teacher to learn about the child from a metaphysical point of view.

Metaphysics in Precision Education Governance

One of the aspects of PEG is its emphasis not only on ́future-proof ́ education but on the ́changing education governance ́ (x). When we talk about precision excluding the metaphysical aspects in a child, it may proceed to deliberate suppression of a vital part of a child ́s development. The metaphysical aspect in a child is the soul of her individuality. Suppressing or ignoring them would be to deny the attributes that are there even before the society arrives to intervene. This ́double-consciousness ́ (xi) would turn the child vindictive and susceptible to the feeling of deprivation. This deprivation is not materialistic but metaphysical, where the child cannot develop the ́me ́ part in him but gets to the   self ́ with a suppressed essence. Therefore, through the combination of neuroscience and semiotics, the precision would be more precise as it considers the individuality of a child which is a distinctive aspect.

PEG takes into account global and local situations (xii) and that entail the importance of encounters and relationships. A child may be born in a particular human-made culture that exists at the place of her birth, but a child is not innately a part of that culture by birth. The metaphysical aspects that are inside her are not results of her encountering the culture she is born into as she is yet to encounter that culture. Therefore, they are pre- cultural aspects (me) that later come in contact with the culture (self) outside. Culture is a human-defined general phenomenon (xiii) that fails to understand the individuality of the child. The metaphysical aspects defy culture in the sense that they resist against the generalization of individuality or take into account the Nietzschean argument against the superiority of alikeness (xiv). Therefore, when we talk about cultural encounters in PEG, that must be understood keeping in mind the precariousness of the idea of culture(s). A child is an individual being with certain individualistic metaphysical aspects that are yet to encounter any outside culture. On the other hand, culture could have an imposing introduction for the child and, therefore, the possibility of generalizing the child ́s personality development becomes high, which can only result through thoroughly ignoring the child ́s individualistic aspects. As an alternative, the basis could very well be humanistic rather than cultural. Considering the child as an individual human being with certain aspects may give the child a sense of beyond-cultural solidarity. The inclusion of pre-cultural individuality before cultural encounters in considering ́education assemblages (xv) in PEG would free the child from the burden of suppressed identity.

The methods in PEG resemble ́the key principles of precision medicine ́xvi as they conduct ́measurable and evidence-based education ́. In precision medicine, the emphasis is on ́genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person ́ (xvii). However, human beings, unlike commodities, cannot be endowed with fetishism as with ́metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties ́xviii. The metaphysical aspects in a child are the features (me) of that child that enable her to encounter the society (self). So, unlike commodities, the question of measurability in a child cannot be a materialistic process that neglects the individuality that is part of every human being. One thing that differs medicine from education drastically is the fact that while medicine, whether precise or general, looks to look for the disease and applicable personalized treatment to cure a person, education does not look to treat anything malignant. Precision medicine works when a person can be examined to be suffering from something or in emergency need of something (like blood transfusion).

Education, when it is precise, is not a personalized treatment or diagnosis but an enquiry and an understanding. An understanding calls not just for what is a visible or diagnosable but what is suppressed, like metaphysical aspects. So, it is not a look into how to put data into structure but how to bring out the suppressed aspects that are apparently invisible and neglected to understand the individuality of a child. These metaphysical aspects are the child ́s contribution to the process of learning, in this case precision education governance.

Coming back to the idea of commodity fetishism, a person ́s metaphysical aspects are not something that have been imposed upon or attached to them externally; there is no capitalist interest in them. Those aspects make a child human being against a robot whose full diagnosis is possible without taking into account the abstract attributes. That happens because a robot is human-installed, while a person is not. In PEG, the metaphysical aspects would help to give it a more balanced picture of education governance that includes both what can be measured and what can be understood. While measured data provides knowledge on how the precision education governance must be analyzed regarding the child (from the teacher ́s or researcher ́s side), understood data gives access to the why of that knowledge (the ́why ́ question belongs to the child. It can also be stated as the source of the measurable data).

Concluding Remarks

If everything depends on the visible and measurable, then the world would be too transparent a place and influencing someone through different manoeuvres would become common. What restricts generalization are the aspects that are unreachable for another and this unreachability results from the gap that exists between two individuals. On one hand, while this gap denotes diversity that helps in resisting any kind of authoritarianism, this may also entail the impossibility of human beings to understand each other. In PEG, when we talk about self-enhancement, the understanding of self becomes a crucial point in the whole procedure, whether that self can only be analyzed through genetic or non-genetic traceable factors and/or when it encounters societal factors or if the connection between the individualistic self (me) and societal self (self) can be understood.
Now, when the question is how to trace the untraceable metaphysical attributes, there has to be present ways not just to locate the gap beyond which these metaphysical aspects are but also to find a way to have an idea of them. Therefore, I suggested two different fields as a possible way to reach that realm. While mirror neurons in neuroscience would help to trace both performance and observation, existential semiotics would analyze the trace to understand what could be behind those mirror neuron activation that makes a child unique. This uniqueness is not a superiority factor but a helpful observation that helps to understand the individualistic needs that are needed to guide a child towards future.

The ideas and possible methods mentioned in this essay are outcomes of what I believe would be complimentary to ‘becoming the best possible self’ in PEG. In this scenario, the profit would be wholesome, where the child would benefit as it would help in understanding and nourishing what the child is about beyond societal encounters or genetic factors and how there would be balance between an individual and society without neglecting one for the other. Therefore, further research in these fields could make it easier for us to go deeper into the realm of human understanding. This was just a glimpse of what could be achieved if we understand the relevance of combining different fields without distorting any of their credibility.

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i Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

ii Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. ii Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

iii Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila.

iv Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila; Feeding young people to the social investment machine: the financialisation of public services by T De St Croix, I Mcgimpsey, and J Owens.

v Sein und Schein by Eero Tarasti

vi Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila; Hooked on a feeling: Education, guidance and rehabilitation of youth at risk by Kristiina Brunila.

vii The Mirror-Neuron System by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero.

ix Sein und Schein by Eero Tarasti.

x Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila.

xi The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

xii Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila.

xiii We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

xiv The Dawn of Day by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

xv Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila.

xvi Educating for the future? Mapping the emerging lines of precision education governance by Katariina Mertanen, Saara Vainio, and Kristiina Brunila. Precision education initiative: moving toward personalized education: precision education initiative by S. A. Hart.

xvii Help Me Understand Genetics: Precision Medicine from U.S. National Library of Medicine. xviii Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1 by Karl Marx.