Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I had a thread for Francisco Varela on the old version of this forum, and after coming across a couple websites this weekend with some good resources on his work, I decided to recreate a thread for him here. His work developing the enactive model of cognition, of course, has had a significant impact on the articulation of integral postmetaphysical theory.
Laying Down a Path in Walking (Click "Open the Francisco Varela player and site")
From Autopoiesis to Neurophenomenology: A Tribute to Francisco Varela
(Audio and Video links)
"Francisco Varela was born September 7, 1946 in Chile. As a child and teenager, he received a strong classical education from the German Lyceum in Santiago, which instilled in him a deep and lifelong appreciation of literature, art, philosophy, and science. He received his M.Sc. (Licenciatura) in Biology in 1967 from the University of Chile in Santiago, where he studied with the neurobiologist Humberto R. Maturana (well known for his classic work with Jerome Lettvin on the neurophysiology of vision in frogs and for his subsequent work with Varela on autopoiesis). According to the story Francisco was fond of telling, as a young undergraduate he one day burst into Maturana's office and enthusiastically declared that he wanted "to study the role of mind in the universe." Maturana responded, "My boy, you've come to the right place."
From 1968 to 1970 Francisco followed in the footsteps of his mentor Maturana by pursuing graduate studies in Biology at Harvard University. His doctoral thesis, "Insect retinas: information processing in the compound eye," was written under the direction of Torsten Wiesel (who shared a Nobel Prize with Davd Hubel in 1981).
With his Ph.D. in hand at the young age of twenty-three, Francisco declined a position as researcher at Harvard and another as Assistant Professor at another American university, choosing instead to return to Chile to help build a scientific research community. It was during these years of 1970 to 1973 that Varela and Maturana, now colleagues at the University of Chile, formulated their famous theory of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela 1973, 1980; see Varela 1996a for a personal recounting of this time and work). According to this theory, living systems are autonomous systems (endogenously controlled and self-organizing), and the minimal form of autonomy necessary and sufficient for characterizing biological life is autopoiesis, i.e., self-production having the form of an operationally closed, membrane-bounded, reaction network. Maturana and Varela also held that autopoiesis defines cognition in its minimal biological form as the "sense-making" capacity of life; and that the nervous system, as a result of the autopoiesis of its component neurons, is not an input-output information processing system, but rather an autonomous, operationally closed network, whose basic functional elements are invariant patterns of activity in neuronal ensembles (see Varela 1979). These ideas, dating back to the early seventies, not only anticipated but laid the groundwork for ideas that were to become prominent much later in the nineties, in scientific fields as diverse as the origins of life (Fleischaker 1994), the chemical synthesis of minimal living systems (Bachman et al. 1992), artificial life (Varela & Bourgine 1991), theoretical immunology (Varela & Coutinho 1991), dynamical neuroscience (Varela et al. 2001), and embodied cognition (Varela et al. 1991).
When Francisco returned to Chile, he arrived on September 2, 1970, two days before the election of Salvador Allende (the first Marxist politician ever elected in a free election). Three years later Chile was in turmoil, and Francisco, a strong supporter of the Allende government, was forced to flee with his family after the military coup of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende goverment on September 11, 1973. They fled first to Costa Rica, and then eventually to the United States, where Francisco took up a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. There he taught and pursued his research until 1978. In 1978-79, he spent a year in New York at the Brain Research Laboratories of the NYU Medical School, and as scholar in residence at the Lindisfarne Association, and then returned to Chile in 1980, staying there until 1985 (with a year spent in 1984 as a Visiting Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt). In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he was based at the Institut des Neurosciences and at CREA (Centre de Recherche en Epistemologie Applique). In 1988, he was appointed to be a Director of Research at CNRS (Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique), a position he held until his death.
Francisco's years in Paris, up until the very month of his passing, were remarkably full and productive by any standard; that he suffered from Hepatitis C from the early 1990s onward, including receiving a liver transplant in 1998, makes his life and work during this time truly wonderful and inspiring.
During these years Francisco pursued two main complementary lines of work: experimental studies using multiple electrode recordings and mathematical analysis of large-scale neuronal integration during cognitive processes; and philosophical and empirical studies of the "neurophenomenology" of human consciousness (see Varela 1996b).
In a 1998 study published in Nature, Francisco and his colleagues in Paris showed for the first time that the human perception of meaningful complex forms (high contrast faces or "Mooney figures") is accompanied by phase-locked, synchronous oscillations in distinct brain regions (Rodriguez et al. 1998). In an important review article published one month before his death, in the April 2001 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Francisco and his colleagues presented a new viewpoint on what they call the "brainweb": the emergence of a unified cognitive moment depends on large-scale brain integration, whose most plausible mechanism is the formation of dynamic links mediated by synchrony over multiple frequency bands (Varela et al. 2001). In addition to these studies, Francisco published numerous technical, experimental and mathematical papers on the nonlinear dynamical analysis of brain activity, including groundbreaking studies on the prediction of seizures in epileptic patients prior to the onset of symptoms (Martinerie et al. 1998; see also Schiff 1998).
Francisco also firmly believed, however, that such scientific research needs to be complemented by detailed phenomenological investigations of human experience as it is lived and verbally articulated in the first person. To this end, he published a number of original and innovative phenomenological studies of aspects of human consciousness (e.g., Varela 1999; Varela and Depraz 2000), including a profound and moving meditation on his own illness and the phenomenology of organ transplantation experience (Varela 2001). He also co-edited two important collections, one on phenomenology and cognitive science (Petitot et al. 1999), and the other on first-person methods in the science of consciousness (Varela and Shear 1999).
Since the mid-seventies, Francisco was a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and a student of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. His conviction that this tradition and Western cognitive science have much to gain from each other provided another, ultimately spiritual and existential dimension, to his work. This dimension was the subject of his 1991 book (co-written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch), The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. He was one of the key members of the Advisory Board of the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes private meetings between Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and Western scientists (see Varela 1997). The ninth and most recent of these meetings was held May 21-22, 2001, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the theme of "Transformations of Mind, Brain, and Emotion: Neurobiological and Bio-Behavioral Research on Meditation," directed by Professor Richard Davidson. This meeting was a dream-come-true for Francisco: the best of Western brain science and Buddhist meditative practice and psychology brought together in the context of cognitive neuroscientific research on the cognitive and emotional effects of meditation evident in long-term practitioners. Francisco was to present his studies and findings using EEG and MEG methods at the morning session of May 22, but sadly was unable to be there because of his illness. His Ph.D. student, Antoine Lutz, presented the material in his stead, and a live web-cam was set up so that Francisco could watch the proceedings from his apartment in Paris.
Although the passing of Francisco, especially at a time when his rich and diverse research program was coming to such fruition, is an immeasurable loss, the spirit of his unique and exemplary style of research has never been stronger, and will continue to inspire many of us for years to come.
Francisco was an active and enthusiastic supporter of many interdisciplinary groups devoted to the study of consciousness. In the seventies and eighties, he served on the faculty of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and was a Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association in New York City. He was a founding member of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) and was actively considering hosting the 2002 ASSC meeting until shortly before his death. He was a strong supporter of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona at Tucson, and served on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He was also instrumental in the creation of a new journal, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, and was to serve as its Consulting Editor." ~ Evan Thompson
Enaction in a nutshell from Varela's "Whence perceptual meaning":
"The kingpin of cognition is its capacity for bringing forth meaning: information is not pre-established as a given order, but regularities emerge from a co-determination of the cognitive activities themselves."
What I also find interesting about the above referenced paper is how the general P2P (and evolutionary) zeitgeist of distributed networks organizing via interconnection (like we're seeing expressed in the progressive economics and Rifkin threads for example)* manifests in Varela's cogsci. For example, these passages from section 4 of the paper:
"At the Macy conferences, for example, it was argued in actual brains there are no rules or central logical processor nor is information stored in precise addresses. Rather, brains seems to operate on the basis of massive interconnections, in a distributed form, so that their actual connectivity changes as a result of experience. In brief, they present a self-organizing capacity that is nowhere to be found in logic" (242).
"In this approach each component operates only in its local environment, but because of the network quality of the entire system there is global cooperation which emerges spontaneously, when the states of all participating components reach a mutually satisfactory state, without the need for a central processing unit to guide the entire operation" (243-4).
* And unlike we're seeing in kennilingus with its formal logical base and attachment to individualism, authoritarianism and capitalism.
Brief tangent into the evolving P2P meme of which Varela is one example, from Michel Bauwens' "P2P and Human Evolution":
"Russ Volckman...wondered why it was that the Integral Theories that he was familiar with, such as those by Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics system, did not seem to talk at P2P at all, while for me, P2P is nothing less that the most likely next civilisational stage.
"So in my view, it is a mix, there is a kind of center of gravity, which draws together green/yellow/turquoise types, while making it uninteresting for orange 'capitalist' types, and difficult to adhere to for blue 'fundamentalist' types. But that does not preclude IBM from supporting Open Sources and fundamentalists from enthusiastically using blogs. Life is clearly more complex than any totalizing system's efforts to bring it into neat categories. And as John Heron, one of the pioneers of participative spirituality notes below, the problem might be with the nature of Spiral Dynamics [and kennilingus] theorizing itself, which is based on a individualist notion of spiritual [and economic, etc.] development."
This article by Glenn Smith places Varela in the progressive zeitgeist that is creating a positive vision for that worldview. Smith notes that it took a conservative worldview going too far to galvanize progressive resistance, but it also led them to understand they needed a positive vision to promote, heretofore absent. An expression of this is Arianna Huffington choosing The Empathic Civilization as the Post's book of the month. This vision captures the balance between individualism and cooperation, or as it might be suggested, includes and transcends the best of conservative and liberal. Among those championing such a vision Smith names the following: George Lakoff, William Connolly, Franz de Waal, Marco Iacoboni, Francisco Varela, Drew Weston.
He discussed the biological roots of empathy as prerequisite for democracy. And how this is resisted by both capitalism and Marxism via the rational, scientific worldview:
“It’s also no accident that the rise of the scientific worldview and rationalism rejected empathy as dangerously emotional. Rational management and historical determinism, in both Marxism and capitalism, became hallmarks of the modern democratic era.”
It is with honor and distinction that Varela is part of this progressive, evolutionary movement taking us forward into our integral future.
In this interview Varela is accused of a variety of the performative contradiction. It begins as a discussion of subject-object duality, which he doesn't accept. In so doing he makes a truth claim about "truth" and it is here the supposed contradiction occurs, since he just defended the notion of variable truths depending on different embodiments.
Poerksen: But if we, as you suggest, begin with our perceptions and experiences, we immediately see: there is a subject and an object. Both appear separated. That is the fundamental insightwe gain. It should actually lead us back to realism again.
Varela: You are now speaking of common, everyday experience, which is formed and shaped by a whole set of theories and metaphysical presumptions. I do not propose to trust that kind of experience. On the contrary, it is the very duty of philosophy and natural science to question and challenge ordinary perception and everything that seems self-evident, and to confront it with new approaches. These may contradict common sense but that is no problem for me at all and quite irrelevant; the crucial question is whether they fit, whether they are true. The reference to common sense does not prove anything.
Poerksen: What do you mean by “fitting,” “true” approaches? If truth is the goal of your researches, then you definitely assume a realist position, after all. Of course, there are people who believe that we could keep truth as a kind of ideal and a distant goal because we can never do more than approximate it step by step, anyway. But that thesis seems contradictory to me, too. If we want to establish whether we have achieved some partial understanding of the absolute or come closer to the truth, we must be able to compare our partial understanding with absolute truth itself. However, this comparison of realities presupposes the possibility of apprehending absolute truth—otherwise the claim of its approximation remains undecidable. My thesis is that we can only maintain the idea of truth as a goal of human knowing, however distant, if we assume an extreme realist position at the same time.
Varela: The attempt to characterize my position as clandestine realism and a masked belief in truth is due to the definitional decision you have taken, which I certainly do not accept. You are working with a concept of truth that is based on correspondence: truth is the correspondence between theory and reality. Such a position will inevitably make you a realist. Let me just point out that there are many ways of speaking about truth. My own concept of truth, which is inspired by phenomenology and the philosophy of pragmatism, is best understood as a theory of coherence: what counts is the consistency of theories, the coherence of viewpoints. Truth is, the motto of pragmatism proclaims, what works.
Thanks for the great links (hyper and conceptual), Ed. Here's a brief passage from an interview conducted with him by Otto Scharmer:
“I wish that insight about the distributiveness of what we call a subject would be taken more seriously. Because there are lots of people who know that, but it stays at the level of the know-what. Developing a know-how, that you really incorporate into your blood and bones in day-to-day behavior, that is the process of transformation that needs the discipline and the methodologies that we’re talking about. There are lots of people who understand that, but that doesn’t make them change, because their habitual patterns are still there.
You cannot be a virtual self unless you have this constant creation of letting go. That is the nature of virtuality. What this is saying to me is if you really want to get closer to understanding what it means to be a subject, you’d better understand that this is the constant generator of what that subject is all about … since it is not a stable, solid entity, since it is not within the head, since it is not just in language. It’s in none of those dimensions, it’s somehow in a figure of multiple levels of emergence, but it is always fragile. Virtual is a more "engineering" way of speaking about fragility, which is more philosophical or ethical. But it has exactly the same connotation for me.
An excellent example of Varela's exploration of 1st person meditative methodology and what it will (not) find. For comparison I offer Wilber's critique of Varela on exactly this point, from footnote 3 to Excerpt C:
"This is not to say that autopoietic and systems approaches cannot be applied to interiors, as we will see, but only that when they are, they still capture only the third-person aspects of those interiors.
"The autopoiesis paradigm of Maturana and Varela is often mentioned as a "postmodern epistemology" because it strongly denies the existence of a pregiven world (i.e., it denies the "myth of the given"--the myth of the Mirror of Nature--the myth that the world is a given territory that we are supposed to map and mirror accurately [see The Marriage of Sense and Soul for a discussion of the myth of the given]). According to Maturana and Varela, the representational or mirror-of-nature epistemologies naively assume that there is a single biosphere or natural world--the great Web of Life--and that we are to live in accord with that Web, which itself is the myth of the given. The autopoietic approaches point out that "nature" and "the world" actually consist of various enacted worlds brought forth in part by the autopoietic regimes of the organisms perceiving them. There is no "biosphere" or "nature" or "the natural world" except in the rationalized cognition of some human beings, a cognition not shared by 99.9999% of biological organisms.
"The enactive point that Maturana and Varela make is true enough, and to that extent, the notion of autopoiesis is indeed postmodern. I share an agreement with most of its important features; but my point is that the autopoietic version of this interpretive component of world-making is still addressing only the insides of the exteriors, not the insides of the interiors (see fig. 3). It is, if you will, a postmodernism of the UR, not the UL. Obviously this is an important perspective that we would want to include in any integral methodological pluralism, but again, only if shorn of absolutisms.
"(Demonstrating this inadequacy--which means, not wrongness but partialness--of the autopoietic paradigm is the burden of several critical endnotes in SES which specifically address the strengths and weaknesses of the typical enactive paradigm, which--as with Whitehead--could be called "the partial enactive paradigm" as opposed a more "complete" or "tetra-enactive paradigm." For a critical appraisal of Francisco Varela's work, see numerous endnotes in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, second edition [CW6], particularly note 1 for chap. 14, beginning with subheading "Francisco Varela's Enactive Paradigm," pp. 734-741; this note also gives references to several other notes in the book discussing these themes.)
"On a very positive note, Maturana and Varela speak of biological and even physical phenomenology--that is, they fully acknowledge the existence of the UL (or interior experience or proto-experience) going all the way down to, and including, physical holons. They also acknowledge that these interiors: (a) can be known from within, (b) can be described (or reconstructed), or (c) can be known from without (by observing behavior). I definitely agree. The problem is that when they attempt to reconstruct (which is item "b") the inside experiences (which is item "a"), they actually slip into (c) realities.
"For example, they correctly maintain that organisms have an inside to the extent that they have structural memories and co-evolve (or structurally couple) with their environments. Structural memories represent the enacted history of an organism's cognitive choices via structural coupling with the exteriors. But those cognitions are pictured/described in third-person terms, not first-person terms: they are the "insides" of exteriors, not the insides of interiors (see figs 2 and 3). Actual prehensions represent the felt-meanings of interiors as they touch their preceding feelings, which do not represent cognitive choices with nomic intent (i.e., "biological identity and survival"--which is Maturana and Varela's definition of cognition), but rather the felt presence of the holon in its bit of exuberant élan vital and joie de vie (to put it more poetically, which is the better language for the UL anyway). The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment. I agree with what they say about structural coupling, but, as explained in SES endnotes, it does not cover the actual UL very well at all; rather, autopoiesis looks at the organism in third-person terms (which is fine; this is science), and then attempts to explain what goes on inside that (exteriorly-viewed) organism as it enacts and brings forth its world: hence, the insides and outsides of the exterior, neither of which actually includes first-person realities as such.
"Varela has attempted to integrate first- and third-person perspectives in his "neurophenomenology." Again, this is an important move toward a more integral stance, but one that is flawed, in my opinion, by a lack of inherent second-person perspective and a lack of waves and streams (i.e., it fails to include quadrants, levels, and lines). See Integral Psychology for a critical appraisal of neurophenomenology. Varela's reliance on, e.g., Merleau-Ponty's version of felt phenomenology makes it more difficult for his theory to easily cover intrinsic intersubjectivity as well as waves and streams."
A key to kennilingus distaste for, and misapprehension of, the P2P matrix in which Varela is embedded is revealed in footnote 2 to Excerpt A. He is talking about the difference between individual and social holons, how the former has a boundary and dominant monad whereas the social holon does not. He says:
"Confusing these two is a calamitous fallacy that, among other things, is the very definition of fascism, whether political fascism or ecofascism or values fascism, because the collective is treated as an individual with a single will, value, and intentionality, which enslaves all real individuals to that system and its dominant monad; and this occurs in everything from mere theories, such as Maturana and Varela's autopoiesis, to actual politics, such as Louis XIV's famous L'etat c'est moi, "I am the State," and therefore all people in the State must do as I, its dominant monad, command."
Here autopoiesis is compared to a dictatorship! We see this played out in today's US politics where liberalism is equated with the Marxist dictatorships. And all of which arises from a formal operational and correspondence theory that just cannot get outside its dualism long enough to see the kind of distributed, nonlocal and nondualistic ways in which our (3rd person) brains and (1st person) consciousness operate through (2nd person) P2P. Mark Edwards' critique of this very thing in his 3-part essay "The depths of the exteriors" is most instructive.
Yes, I was re-reading that critique of Varela the other day. But, regarding Varela's so-called non-inclusion of intersubjectivity or the second person, check out the following (from the same interview with Scharmer, "Gestures on Becoming Aware," on the interactive Varela site I linked in my first post):
III. Second Person
"Now, with respect to the second person, to make this work, you really need the mediation of the other, right? And the other comes in here in different flavors. I like to call that the second person. Because it is not a simple first person, right? The third person is what you find typically in classical science. The first person acts and plays a new role. The second person is somebody who is not in the first person having direct access to the experience, but is interested in that first-person access. So, for example, you are the expert. You know things that I don't know. We want you to be able to teach others, so we are going to [develop] a process of trying to make explicit what is implicit. This is an old goal of many people in many fields. Now the point there is that I put myself in the position of the second person because I don't just observe you purely externally, but I don't have the first access. So what I do is to become your partner in the process.
This partner can have two modes. One is a mode which is slightly closer to the third-person position. That is verbal reports. It is what many cognitive scientists do. They place themselves in the position of admitting that you have the mind, that you can have access from the first person to what I just showed you. So they admit the position of first person, but at the same time they remain a little bit removed. They are content with taking notes and noticing whatever it is that you say. In contrast, a more interesting second person is really empathetic. He admits that you have in your mind an access to your experience, but this person himself knows the kind of experience you're talking about and therefore acts as a coach. The good sports coach cannot be somebody who hasn't done the sport. The coach must have first-person access to his own experience that perfectly resonates with yours. For example, in Buddhism, you have to advance and progress in this cycle with a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher is who? A second person. Because he can then make the process work through mutual resonance and correct it.
In our book The View from Within4, there is an interesting study on intuition by Claire Petitmengin-Peugeot. She tries to understand the intuitive experience by working as a coach on an explicit technique of coaching people who say they just choose what they think is an intuitive experience. And then they try to work through it in this coaching mode she induces by taking the second-person position.
Is this very confusing, or is it --
COS: It's not at all confusing. But I'm not 100 percent sure whether I'm really in the --
Francisco Varela: The second person?
COS: Yeah, your second point, which is that this process only works if there is a second-person relationship.
Francisco Varela: Well, only very, very gifted, extraordinary individuals can carry this out in a productive manner. The access to experience seems difficult to most people because it is. To go beyond just this purely impressionistic account of what one is experiencing is not easy. If you don't mobilize these tools in detail -- and that requires that kind of mediation -- then it just doesn't work. Do you see what I mean? The whole first person is just too demanding for most people. Human beings are not spontaneously very gifted for this process. So the social mediation is absolutely fundamental. You might say it's not surprising; it's also essential for language, and so forth. It's also essential for certain essential values --
COS: -- and for social learning.
Francisco Varela: -- social learning. But it's not obvious that basic learning, such as admitting that the other is equal to you, is something that is spontaneous; it really needs to be mediated by the social context. Is that more clear?
COS; Yes, that makes absolute sense. Probably it's also true that without the other, the experience of the other, you could never perceive your self.
Francisco Varela: Absolutely. So this is a very important antidote to the myth or the belief or the dogma that anything that has to do with introspection or meditation or phenomenological work is something that people do in their little corners. That really is a mistaken angle on the whole thing. Although there are some reasons that it is a very common mistake. This is perhaps the greatest difficulty within science. The first reaction people have is that [the first person is] just a personal thing. That it's private. But the notion that the first person is private is a disaster. The first-person access is as public as the third person, okay? When you have a third-person point of view, clearly you need a first person who does the measurement and does the writing, etc., but [provides] a social network to which it is going to be addressed. So a key point is that it's really not very meaningful to speak about consciousness or experiences being private. There is a quality to experience where you need a mode of access that you might want to call the first-person access. That doesn't make it private. It's just as social as everything else. And that's something it took me a long time to discover. I had a blind spot on that like everybody else."