Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Francisco Varela

Balder started a thread on this originator of "enactivism" at the IPS forum. After some historical introductions I commented as follows. For the ongoing discussion join us there.

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.

From Varela's article "The emergent self":

"In my epistemology, the virtual self is evident because it provides a surface for interaction, but it's not evident if you try to locate it. It's completely delocalized.

"Organisms have to be understood as a mesh of virtual selves. I don't have one identity, I have a bricolage of various identities. I have a cellular identity, I have an immune identity, I have a cognitive identity, I have various identities that manifest in different modes of interaction. These are my various selves. I'm interested in gaining further insight into how to clarify this notion of transition from the local to the global, and how these various selves come together and apart in the evolutionary dance.

"I see the mind as an emergent property, and the very important and interesting consequence of this emergent property is our own sense of self. My sense of self exists because it gives me an interface with the world. I'm "me" for interactions, but my "I" doesn't substantially exist, in the sense that it can't be localized anywhere. This view, of course, resonates with the notions of the other biological selves I mentioned, but there are subtle and important differences. An emergent property, which is produced by in underlying network, is a coherent condition that allows the system in which it exists to interface at that level — that is, with other selves or identities of the same kind. You can never say, "This property is here; it's in this component." In the case of autopoiesis, you can't say that life — the condition of being selfproduced— is in this molecule, or in the DNA, or in the cellular membrane, or in the protein. Life is in the configuration and in the dynamical pattern, which is what embodies it as an emergent property.

"Let me add that this emergence and nonlocality has nothing to do with the current hype about quantum mechanics and the brain. That stuff is perhaps an interesting hypothesis to entertain, but it has no scientific evidence behind it."

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.

* * *
His response, that the contradiction only arises if you accept the premise of a correspondence theory of truth, is exactly Nagarjuna's response to the Nyaya and Derrida's response to Habermas. And yet we have the kennilinguists accusing the green meme of this contradiction because they are indeed imposing their Kantian and Murtian interpretation of Nagarjuna, i.e., the dual nondualism of a separate absolute and relative realm thrown together in a "higher synthesis," all with its implicit basis in Cartesian dualism and the correspondence theory. And to which cognitive level is the correspondence theory ascribed? I think I'll rename the "mean green meme" meme the shadow correspondence theory, since the embodied, enacted, pragmatic and pluralistic notion of "truth" is beyond its "ken"(nilingus).

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.


  1. FYI: a new book

    Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science (2011), By Ezequiel DiPaolo

    “Enaction offers an alternative to cognitive science's classical, first-generation Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). Enaction, first articulated by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch in The Embodied Mind (1991), breaks from CTM's formalisms of information processing and symbolic representations to view cognition as grounded in the sensorimotor dynamics of the interactions between a living organism and its environment. A living organism enacts the world it lives in; its embodied action in the world constitutes its perception and thereby grounds its cognition."

  2. Thank you very much. It is a must read on my list.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.