Cartesian Anxiety: Francisco Varela: The Emergent Self and Its Implications for Eastern No-self

At 23 Francisco Varela received his PhD in biology from Harvard. An extremely original thinker, a theoretical and experimental biologist, he disagreed with the traditional view in which an organism represents a model of a world existing independently from it. Instead, the world is non-representational and depends on organisms for its existence.
Living systems cannot be reduced to atomic structures as objects in the world. As analogy, consider the internet. No component starts or ends it. Interconnected, components compose a whole structure. So, too, living systems are a web of interdependencies. A component structure depends on neighbors. The neighbors depend on neighbors. The structure evinces circularity.

Scientific research into mind requires that cognition be used to explain itself. X must be used to explain a presumption about X, a circular process. How to avoid circular investigation? Francisco Varela and his mentor, fellow Chilean Humberto Maturana focussed on the question and arrived at self-production, or autopoetic theory, which does not explain atomic units in an objective world but regards organisms as living systems.*

The traditional view of the world as external obscures or denies that we cannot explore or explain cognition without the very faculties we want to explore or explain. As living systems, we exhibit cognition. We occur within this circularity of X explaining itself.

Autopoetic theory does not duck the inherent paradox in its approach. It has two maxims:

~ Everything said is said by an observer. ( X must be used to explain itself. There is no Y available.
 ~ All knowing is doing and all doing is knowing. Knowledge is not separate from the actions involved in cognition.

Observations are couched in physical terms without assuming component properties are described. (In his interpretation of quantum observations, Niels Bohr took a similar approach because he could not know what was happening at the quantum level.) Concerned with the organization of living systems, the theory focuses on the relationships and processes between components.

Varela, et al.: "Minds awaken in the world. We did not design our world. We simply found ourselves with it; we awoke both to ourselves and to the world we inhabit. . . . . We reflect on a world that is not made, but found, and yet it is also our structure that enables us to reflect upon this world. Thus in reflection we find ourselves in a circle: we are in a world that seems to be there before reflection begins, but that world is not separate from us." The Embodied Mind

Varela sees as human malaise the overwhelming desire for some fixed ontology, some reference point for all knowledge. People fear that without a fixed point chaos becomes the only alternative. He and his colleagues call the malaise Cartesian Anxiety, after René Descartes, French philosopher who split the modern world into mind and body, self and other.

Because no world exists "out there" in his theory, the process of living brings forth the world. This accords with Buddhist and Hindu thought and experience. Similarly, the emergent self implies that human cognition arises through self-organized processes that span and interconnect brain, body, and environment in reciprocal causal loops. Things happen "upward" into personal consciousness as well as "downward" to nerves and body.

This emergent self remains evident so long as one does not look but it cannot be found when introspecting. Why not? Because it is not a phenomenon in consciousness? No. Because it is completely delocalized. It doesn't exist at a particular neural location. Various circular processes contain different identities, from one for body immunity to one which cognizes for social purposes. If you experience a migraine headache, a cerebral-neural identity arises.**

Is this emergent self real? Yes, even if it does not have a center or substance. It is real in that it provides a "surface" for interaction but an "I" does not substantially exist and disappears when sought. In other words, it is real in the same sense that the taste of coffee is real, or as real as the pleasure in watching a sunset.

The emergent self, then, is the sense of self. Not specific, this sense arises in interaction with the body and the world. (John Donne: No man is an island.)

I am reminded of a Buddhist parable in which interaction between body and world is literally experienced. While crossing a bridge, a Zen master said that the water did not move under the bridge, but that the bridge moved under him. Also, see Suzanne Segal's description. Here is part of her narrative: "I was driving north to meet some friends when I suddenly became aware that I was driving through myself."

Western cognition science, according to Varela, doesn't know enough about experience. Part of the problem is that its traditional methodical approach levels a playing field for all researchers. Regardless of differing abilities, researcher A must be able to reproduce the same results as researcher B.

Varela on scientists and experience: "It's like karate science. You've got to distinguish between the kid who just came for the weekend and the eminent master. . . . people will have to work. In experiments you . . . determine the level of competence that people need. . . . 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. . . ."

Suspension of habitual mental patterns reveals new features of experience. Of this suspension, Varela said, "Buddhism has explored [it] thoroughly. You put your ass on the cushion and you move one level above your habitual engagement and see from an aerial perspective. But . . . when many people do that nothing much happens. . . .[and they] say, 'This introspection thing doesn't work. . . .' [But] the whole point is that after suspension you have to tolerate that nothing is happening. Staying with it is the key."

Varela uses virtual self to refer to "selfless" selves. He says we are composed of many virtual selves, a cellular identity, an immune identity, a cognitive identity. (Recall the migraine headache in a paragraph above.) These identities shaped evolution from local parts to emergent properties in life forms. He refers to cellular automota and bootstrapping, in which cells draw up their own boundaries (identities), communicating them to neighbors, eventually "leaping" to an emergent property.

With his survival of the fittest, Charles Darwin would never have thought of evolution this way. He had inherited the Cartesian model of the universe and saw external forces acting on a species, and would have regarded emergent properties as some kind of god in the machine, although it offers simpler solutions. Accepted by many modern biologists, emergent properties allow some aspects of evolution as a kind of benign cooperation, without nature always red in tooth and claw.

Compassion. Varela referred to the Buddhist view of letting go: "a life of wisdom is to be constantly engaged in that letting go. . . . When you are with somebody who really has that capacity to a full-blown level, it affects you. . . . the whole process is not individual, it's not private, and you enter into that kind of resonance." He also spoke of compassion, social service in developing the virtual self, that his mind was not "his" mind but requires an "interbeing," and that it not a case of how nice he is, but "it has to do with how real things are. . . . So you see the Buddhists have a wonderful message, saying that compassion is the natural condition of what one really is."

This brief article doesn't do justice to Varela's thinking. It is far more complex. More
* (Autopoeisis, or self-production, is a concept with many implications but it essentially means that all living systems such as you, me, the bacteria in our bodies, are organized so that the overall autonomous structure is continuously maintained with clear relations among components even while the structure or its material undergoes changes.)
** (A short explanation: identities are living systems with circular networks persisting in an original or different environment, bodily or "geographically.")

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