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

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Here is a link to a quickview of a PowerPoint presentation relating to Otto Scharmer's Four Levels of Listening, which is what got me looking at his site yesterday.

I don't know if/how one can upload PowerPoint files to this forum, but this one can be accessed here (top of the page).

Thanks for these additions, Lol.  I appreciate Scharmer's work -- -- and find a number of points of overlap in it with my interests in Integral, Bohmian dialogue, Varela's enactive epistemology, and my TSK and Buddhist practice(s), among other things.  I have his book, U Process, and have read the first third of it, but unfortunately, it has gone the way of all my other "books-for-pleasure-and-not-work" purchases in the past few years:  I only get part of the way through and have to leave it aside.  But I do hope to return to it at some point.

Varela has reemerged in another thread in relation to Bitbol and QM, where Bitbol was accepted as consonant with Tom's interpretation of Bohr's QM and consciousness. So let's explore Bitbol's article "Is consciousness primary?" in NeuroQuantology, 6:1, 2008, 53 - 72. A few excerpts follow. This one lays out the general theme:

The view according to which consciousness derives from a material basis (that it is so to speak secondary to special arrangements of material entities) turns out to be much weaker than what is currently believed. I will try to show that its scientific and philosophical credentials are indeed highly disputable. But in the end, I will not try to endorse any alternative metaphysical view such as “consciousness is some self-existent stuff independent from matter”, or “consciousness and matter are aspects of a common underlying stuff”, which would not be easier to support than their opposite. In line with Francisco Varela, I will rather advocate a radical change of stance regarding objectivity and subjectivity (1).

This one specifically challenges the Penrose-Hameroff theory:

Their root assumption is that quantum mechanics is a theory describing the objective world, and that every single alteration of the formal elements of the theory is to be ascribed to a change in the objective world.... Some of the latter interpretations, from Bohr’s to Quantum Information, even challenge the underlying belief that quantum mechanics is aimed at describing anything “out there”....far from being a picture of the world construed as detached from us, quantum mechanics would be a picture of
the bounds of detachment in physics.

Microphysical phenomena adhere to the contraptions in which they arise; they are not independent of the experimental situation which makes them manifest; accordingly, they cannot be said to “reveal” an underlying independent property.... Just as microphysical phenomena adheres to experimental device and cannot be detached from them, conscious experience adheres to conscious beings and cannot be detached from them.... Just as there are no true “quantum properties” but only “observables”, there are no experiential properties, but only “livables” (13 - 14).

This one ties the above to Varela:

Can we go further? Should we say that conscious experience is ontologically primary?... I am
reluctant to take this additional step. Indeed, the negative arguments I adduced are not sufficient to support any such thesis.... Instead of an alternative thesis, what is then needed is an alternative framework of thought, or even better an alternative stance....the “Varelian stance”...as “mutual generative constraints" (16 - 17).

Also see this post claiming that Bohr's last phase was a return to the type of objectivity we see in Penrose-Hameroff:

 

Bohr developed his ‘late’-period objectivism, which proceeds with an attempt to restore the standpoint of a pure ‘spectator’ or, in his own term, a “detached observer.” By means of the mechanism of ‘conceptual containment,’ he thus seeks again to privilege the standpoint of the ‘spectator’ over that of the ‘actor,’ or, in other words, to reestablish the hierarchical binary oppositions of detachment/involvement, objective/subjective, and so forth. From a deconstructive point of view – such as Bohr’s own earlier one – this may be characterized as nothing other than a return to the metaphysical tradition.

The links on the audio and video site don't work for me.  Does anyone else have that problem?
Hi, Infimitas.  I just checked and was able to open the audio files I clicked on.  I remember, awhile back, there were a couple links I found there that weren't working, but most appear to be.

None of them work for me.  I just checked again, this time with with Chrome and IE -- in both, the downloads stop after about 200k.

 

Know any other good video sites?  Given recent discussions, I was hoping to watch that Bitbol lecture on downward causation.  I'll google it and see if I can find it somewhere else instead.

Hi t and others - I have just been tucking more into Varela and related conversations/people with this thread. Good stuff for me.

After the introduction I only made it cursorily through the 6 arguments, but in general I am digging the eliminating this, and then that, to such a fine grained extent that the assumptions and convention are made mute if not disreputed.

I like the last paragraph quote you placed t.

I also like this conclusory paragraph, and was drawn especially to the highlighted sentence:

"Clearly, this program made of a set of prescriptions rather than theoretical statements (i.e. made of “ought” rather than “is”) does not solve the “hard problem” of the physical origin of conscious experience. However, the reason for this non-solution is not that the problem is too difficult, but that in the proper stance it does not even arise. **It does not arise because the physical world is no longer the standard of being, and objectivity is no longer the ultimate standard of method.** In the alternative stance, the standard of being is underpinned by a standard of self-evidence, and the methodological standard of objectivity is expanded into a more general standard of intersubjectivity. Then, in the same way as, according to Wittgenstein, “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem” (Wittgenstein, 1994), according to Varela, the solution of the hard problem of consciousness is found in a certain stance and research program wherein the problem vanishes."

I think I like this highlighted sentence because it forms a concise and short-cutting response for conversation/argumentation about consciousness and many related things. It may just be a beginning point of the pause or challenge, but on its own it feels solid. "Well, where I come from in myself, this is not the standard for ..." Huh?

And so on - nice piece.



theurj said:

Varela has reemerged in another thread in relation to Bitbol and QM, where Bitbol was accepted as consonant with Tom's interpretation of Bohr's QM and consciousness. So let's explore Bitbol's article "Is consciousness primary?" in NeuroQuantology, 6:1, 2008, 53 - 72. A few excerpts follow. This one lays out the general theme:

The view according to which consciousness derives from a material basis (that it is so to speak secondary to special arrangements of material entities) turns out to be much weaker than what is currently believed. I will try to show that its scientific and philosophical credentials are indeed highly disputable. But in the end, I will not try to endorse any alternative metaphysical view such as “consciousness is some self-existent stuff independent from matter”, or “consciousness and matter are aspects of a common underlying stuff”, which would not be easier to support than their opposite. In line with Francisco Varela, I will rather advocate a radical change of stance regarding objectivity and subjectivity (1).

This one specifically challenges the Penrose-Hameroff theory:

Their root assumption is that quantum mechanics is a theory describing the objective world, and that every single alteration of the formal elements of the theory is to be ascribed to a change in the objective world.... Some of the latter interpretations, from Bohr’s to Quantum Information, even challenge the underlying belief that quantum mechanics is aimed at describing anything “out there”....far from being a picture of the world construed as detached from us, quantum mechanics would be a picture of
the bounds of detachment in physics.

Microphysical phenomena adhere to the contraptions in which they arise; they are not independent of the experimental situation which makes them manifest; accordingly, they cannot be said to “reveal” an underlying independent property.... Just as microphysical phenomena adheres to experimental device and cannot be detached from them, conscious experience adheres to conscious beings and cannot be detached from them.... Just as there are no true “quantum properties” but only “observables”, there are no experiential properties, but only “livables” (13 - 14).

This one ties the above to Varela:

Can we go further? Should we say that conscious experience is ontologically primary?... I am
reluctant to take this additional step. Indeed, the negative arguments I adduced are not sufficient to support any such thesis.... Instead of an alternative thesis, what is then needed is an alternative framework of thought, or even better an alternative stance....the “Varelian stance”...as “mutual generative constraints" (16 - 17).

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