Truth is what works : Francisco J. Varela on cognitive science, buddhism, the inseparability of subject and object, and the exaggerations of constructivism--a conversation

Journal of Aesthetic Education 40 (1):35-53 (2006)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:The Journal of Aesthetic Education 40.1 (2006) 35-53 [Access article in PDF] "Truth Is What Works": Francisco J. Varela on Cognitive Science, Buddhism, the Inseparability of Subject and Object, and the Exaggerations of Constructivism—A Conversation Francisco J. Varela Bernhard Poerksen Institut für Journalistik und Kommunikationswissenschaft Universität Hamburg Francisco J. Varela (1946-2001) studied biology in Santiago de Chile, obtained his doctorate 1970 at Harvard University with a dissertation on the insect eye, and worked there for some time in the laboratory of Torsten Wiesel, the later Nobel Laureate for medicine. From his scientific beginnings as a researcher in biology, he not only studied and practiced biology but, resisting the dominating mainstream, pursued a research program that ignored and broke down traditional disciplinary boundaries. This research program is best characterized as experimental epistemology, a concept introduced by the neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician Warren S. McCulloch. Francisco J. Varela's great aspiration was to examine and answer the philosophical ur-question of cognition with scientific precision and with the help of the best possible theoretical framework. [End Page 35]Having obtained his doctorate, he went back to Chile to work as a professor of biology together with Humberto R. Maturana. He contributed to the writing of the theory of autopoiesis, which was to cause a furor in the world of science as a universally applicable explanatory model. After the overthrow of Allende and the installation of the dictatorship by the putsch general Pinochet, Francisco J. Varela first escaped to Costa Rica, then became a professor at the American University of Colorado and University of New York, and finally returned in 1980 to the University of Chile in Santiago for five years. Temporary positions as guest professor for neurobiology, philosophy, and cognitive science in Germany, Switzerland, and France led him to Paris in the end, where he worked as research director of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique until his death on May 28, 2001.In his research work embracing cognitive science, evolutionary theory, and immunology, Francisco J. Varela, constantly inspired by his fundamental interest in the key questions of epistemology, gave the epistemological debate a new orientation. In his thinking he refuses to accept the strict separation of subject and object, of knower and known, which as a rule unites realists and constructivists alike. Francisco J. Varela rejects the fundamental dualism dividing mind and world, which had shaped Western philosophy from its earliest beginnings. He does not subscribe to the idea that human individuals can invent their own realities—blindly and arbitrarily, and without experiencing any resistance from the external world and all other things given. He equally distances himself, however, from the diametrically opposite position that overstates the eigenpower of the world of objects. The external world and all other things given cannot determine what happens in an organism. Varela's claim is that individual and world create each other. The Computational Model of the Mind Poerksen: The ancient key questions of philosophy are at the center of modern cognitive science. What is the essence of the mind? Do our conceptions represent a given world, which is independent from our minds? What is the formative power of external objects over our perceptions? How does cognition function? The search for an adequate answer and an improved understanding of the human mind has led many cognitive scientists to entertain the assumption that the brain is actually a kind of computer. Memory is taken to be a store. Thinking and perceiving are understood as data processing in the sense that an independent external world is computationally transformed into symbols and represented in the organism in this manner. You are very critical of this view. Why?Varela: If the brain is considered as a kind of computer, then cognitive research is limited to discovering certain self-sufficient shapes—the symbols—together with the rules [End Page 36] governing them—the programs. But this search for symbols and programs will never be profitable because it...

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