Analyzing the outline of the endless literature on consciousness, the separation between science and philosophy rather than being overcome, seems to come back in different shapes. According to this point of view, the hard problem seems to be how to study consciousness while avoiding a slip back to the old dualism. This article outlines the advantages of the phenomenological method. This method, more than getting over the mind-body separation, anticipates it through an open gaze, able to bring back the human presence as something structurally “ambiguous.” Reintroducing Husserl’s scientific project in a complete way, Francisco Varela opened up a research area yet to be explored, which promises to be fertile for neuroscience, provided that we accept that radicalism essential to phenomenology.
Baerveldt C. & Verheggen T. (1999) Enactivism and the experiential reality of culture: Rethinking the epistemological basis of cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology 5(2): 183–206. https://cepa.info/2414
The key problem of cultural psychology comprises a paradox: while people believe they act on the basis of their own authentic experience, cultural psychologists observe their behavior to be socially patterned. It is argued that, in order to account for those patterns, cultural psychology should take human experience as its analytical starting point. Nevertheless, there is a tendency within cultural psychology to either neglect human experience, by focusing exclusively on discourse, or to consider the structure of this experience to originate in an already produced cultural order. For an alternative approach, we turn to the enactive view of cognition developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their theory of autonomy can provide the epistemological basis for a cultural psychology that explains how experience can become socially patterned in the first place. Cultural life forms are then considered as consensually coordinated, embodied practices.
In his 1996 paper “Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy for the hard problem,” Francisco Varela called for a union of Husserlian phenomenology and cognitive science. Varela’s call hasn’t gone unanswered, and recent years have seen the development of a small but growing literature intent on exploring the interface between phenomenology and cognitive science. But despite these developments, there is still some obscurity about what exactly neurophenomenology is. What are neurophenomenologists trying to do, and how are they trying to do it? To what extent is neurophenomenology a distinctive and unified research programme? In this paper I attempt to shed some light on these questions.
Context: Seventeen years ago Francisco Varela introduced neurophenomenology. He proposed the integration of phenomenological approaches to first-person experience – in the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – with a neuro-dynamical, scientific approach to the study of the situated brain and body. Problem: It is time for a re-appraisal of this field. Has neurophenomenology already contributed to the sciences of the mind? If so, how? How should it best do so in future? Additionally, can neurophenomenology really help to resolve or dissolve the “hard problem” of the relation between mind and body, as Varela claimed? Method: The papers in this special issue arose out of a conference organised by the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in Bristol, UK, in September 2012. We have invited a representative sample of the speakers at that conference to present their work here. Results: Various papers argue that the first-person methods of phenomenology are distinct from, and more robust than, the failed “introspectionist” methods of early modern psychology. The “elicitation interview” emerges as a successful and widely adopted method to have emerged from this field. Phenomenological techniques are already being successfully applied to neuroscientific problems. Various specific proposals for new techniques and applications are made. Implications: It is time to take neurophenomenology seriously. It has proven its worth, and it is ripe with the potential for further immediate, successful applications. Constructivist content: Varela’s key aim was to develop a non-dualising approach to the science of consciousness. The papers in this special issue look at the philosophical and practical details of successfully putting such an approach into practice.
The attempt to define living systems in terms of goal, purpose, function, etc. runs into serious conceptual difficulties. The theoretical biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela realized that any such attempt cannot capture what is distinctive about them: their autonomy and unity. Goal, purpose, etc. always define the system in terms of something extrinsic, whereas living systems are unique because they maintain their unitary continuity of pattern despite the ceaseless turnover of their components. So, system-closure is a prerequisite of their adequate conceptual comprehension. Maturana and Varela themselves found that system-closure pertains exclusively to their organization, i.e. the set of relations among system-components which unify them. For living systems this comprises the relation between the system-components and the processes which they undergo. This relation is self-referential because it is closed, i.e. it essentially (re)produces itself. \\While this model worked very well in the biological domain, attempts to extend it to the social domain met with serious conceptual obstacles. The reason for this is that Maturana did not make a consistent enough application of it. He understood the components of social systems biologically (individuals, persons, etc.) and the relations between them socially (language). This inconsistency ruptured the system’s organizational closure. Consequently organizational closure (autopoiesis) can be maintained only when both the components of social systems and their processes are of the same type: social. This interpretation can be found in the work of Niklas Luhmann who recognizes that the components of social systems are not persons, individuals, actors or subjects but communicative actions themselves. This preserves the organizational closure of the system and permits the concept of autopoiesis to be used as a powerful instrument of social analysis.
The Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, is a landmark attempt to integrate biology, cognition, and epistemology into a single science, reversing the dualism of fact and value, and of observer and observed, that has haunted the West since the seventeenth century. The authors see perception as a reciprocal and interacting phenomenon, a “dance of congruity” that takes place between a living entity and its environment. This, they argue, implies a relativity of worldviews (there are no certainties), as well as the existence of a biology of cooperation going back millions of years. Recognition of a lack of absolutes, and of the nature of perception itself, they assert, make it possible for us today to change things for the better, as a deliberate and conscious act. What is overlooked in this discussion, however, are the origins and nature of conflict. By being pointedly apolitical, the authors wind up implying that one worldview is as good as the next. Cognitively speaking, the substitution of Buddhism for politics is a serious error, leaving, as it does, too many crucial questions unanswered. It is thus doubtful whether the biological argument being advanced here can stand up to serious scrutiny, and whether the dualism of modern science has indeed been overcome. Yet The Tree of Knowledge remains an important milestone in our current efforts to recognize that science is not value-free, and that fact and value are inevitably tied together. We are finally going to have to create a science that does not split the two apart, and that puts the human being back into the world as an involved participant, not as an alienated observer.
Bersini H. (2002) Self-assertion versus self-recognition: A tribute to Francisco Varela. In: Timmis J. & Bentley P. J. (eds.) Proceeding of the first international conference on artificial immune system (ICARIS-2002). University of Kent, Canterbury: 103–108. https://cepa.info/4354
Ten years ago, a group of researchers, led by Francisco Varela, were proposing an alternative vision of the immune system main behavior and function. I was part of this group. This new vision saw the immune system not as behaving distinctively with self and non-self or according to any dichotomy imposed a priori and from outside (the self-recognition vision), but rather as behaving in a unique way. From this indifferent behavior, any external impact would progressively been treated in two different ways, reactive and tolerant, but now, consequently and from inside the system (the self-assertion view). This paper will recall, through a very artificial simulation, the difference existing between these two visions. Also at that time, we believed that, from an engineering perspective, this new vision, emphasizing more the adaptability and the need for endogenous constraints than the recognition and the defensive ability, although less obvious to accept than the classical defensive one, should be more beneficial. These last ten years proved that we haven’t been convincing enough, and in this paper I resume the crusade.
Bich L. (2006) Autopoiesis and emergence. In: Minati G., Pessa E. & Abram M. (eds.) Systemics of emergence: Research and development. Springer, Berlin: 281–292. https://cepa.info/2320
Autopoietic theory is more than a mere characterization of the living, as it can be applied to a wider class of systems and involves both organizational and epistemological aspects. In this paper we assert the necessity of considering the relation between autopoiesis and emergence, focusing on the crucial importance of the observer’s activity and demonstrating that autopoietic systems can be considered intrinsically emergent processes. From the attempts to conceptualize emergence, especially Rosen’s, autopoiesis stands out for its attention to the unitary character of systems and to emergent levels, both inseparable from the observer’s operations. These aspects are the basis of Varela’s approach to multiple level relationships, considered as descriptive complementarities.
An approach which has the purpose to catch what characterizes the specificity of a living system, pointing out what makes it different with respect to physical and artificial systems, needs to find a new point of view – new descriptive modalities. In particular it needs to be able to describe not only the single processes which can be observed in an organism, but what integrates them in a unitary system. In order to do so, it is necessary to consider a higher level of description which takes into consideration the relations between these processes, that is the organization rather than the structure of the system. Once on this level of analysis we can focus on an abstract relational order that does not belong to the individual components and does not show itself as a pattern, but is realized and maintained in the continuous flux of processes of transformation of the constituents. Using Tibor Ganti’s words we call it “Order in the Nothing”. In order to explain this approach we analyse the historical path that generated the distinction between organization and structure and produced its most mature theoretical expression in the autopoietic biology of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. We then briefly analyse Robert Rosen’s (M, R)-Systems, a formal model conceptually built with the aim to catch the organization of living beings, and which can be considered coherent with the autopoietic theory. In conclusion we will propose some remarks on these relational descriptions, pointing out their limits and their possible developments with respect to the structural thermodynamical description.
When he formulated the program of neurophenomenology, Francisco Varela suggested a balanced methodological dissolution of the “hard problem” of consciousness. I show that his dissolution is a paradigm which imposes itself onto seemingly opposite views, including materialist approaches. I also point out that Varela’s revolutionary epistemological ideas are gaining wider acceptance as a side effect of a recent controversy between hermeneutists and eliminativists. Finally, I emphasize a structural parallel between the science of consciousness and the distinctive features of quantum mechanics. This parallel, together with the former convergences, point towards the common origin of the main puzzles of both quantum mechanics and the philosophy of mind: neglect of the constitutive blindspot of objective knowledge.