Francisco Varela

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Francisco Varela in 1994

Francisco Javier Varela García (September 7, 1946May 28, 2001) was a Chilean biologist and philosopher who, together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology.


  • If everybody would agree that their current reality is a reality, and that what we essentially share is our capacity for constructing a reality, then perhaps we could all agree on a meta-agreement for computing a reality that would mean survival and dignity for everyone on the planet, rather than each group being sold on a particular way of doing things.
    • Varela (1975) in: Anne Waldman eds. (1975) The Coevolution quarterly. Nr. 8-12, p. 31
  • There is a strong current in contemporary culture advocating ‘holistic’ views as some sort of cure-all... Reductionism implies attention to a lower level while holistic implies attention to higher level. These are intertwined in any satisfactory description: and each entails some loss relative to our cognitive preferences, as well as some gain... there is no whole system without an interconnection of its parts and there is no whole system without an environment.
  • A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations. However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a truly vibrant community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. But if the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. In such a community information and ideas flow freely through the entire network, and the diversity of interpretations and learning styles-even the diversity of mistakes-will enrich the entire community.
    • Maturana and Varela (1987) The Tree of Knowledge as cited in: Fritjof Capra (1996) The Web of Life. p. 330
  • I hope I have seduced the reader to consider that we have in front of us the possibility of an open-ended quest for resonant passages between human experience and cognitive science. The price however is to take first-person accounts seriously as valid domain of phenomena. And beyond that, to build a sustained tradition of phenomenological examination that is almost entirely nonexistent today in our western science and culture at large.
    • Varela (1996) "Neurophenomenology : A methodological remedy for the hard problem" in: Journal of Consciousness Studies, J. Shear (Ed.), June 1996. Cited in: Francisco J. Varela 1946 - 2001 on, 2013
  • [T]he last 15 years have witnessed the ascent of an alternative view, that of embodied or enactive cognition. This new wave arose because the computationalist doctrine failed to account even for the most elementary coping with the world: walking, perceiving object in a natural setting, imagination. Slowly the cards turned into considering that the basis of mind is the body in coupled action, that is, the sensory-motor circuits establish the organism as viable in situated contexts. From this perspective the brain appears as a dynamical process (and not a syntactic one) of real time variables with a rich self-organizing capacity (and not a representational machinery). So in this sense the mind is not in the head since it is roots in the body as a whole and also in the extended environment where the organism finds itself.
  • The emergence of a unified cognitive moment relies on the coordination of scattered mosaics of functionally specialized brain regions. Here we review the mechanisms of large-scale integration that counterbalance the distributed anatomical and functional organization of brain activity to enable the emergence of coherent behaviour and cognition. Although the mechanisms involved in large-scale integration are still largely unknown, we argue that the most plausible candidate is the formation of dynamic links mediated by synchrony over multiple frequency bands.
    • Francisco Varela*, Jean-Philippe Lachaux*, Eugenio Rodriguez, and Jacques Martinerie (2001) "The brainweb: phase synchronization and large-scale integration" in: Nature Rviews Vol 2. (April 2001). p. 229 (online)
  • It is actually by experience of our teleology – our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects – that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle... before being scientists we are first living beings, and as such we have the evidence of intrinsic teleology in us. And, in observing other creatures struggling to continue their existence – starting from simple bacteria that actively swim away from a chemical repellent – we can, by our own evidence, understand teleology as the governing force of the realm of the living. Theories about the living can only be conceived from the fragile and concerned perspective of the living itself.
    • Andreas Weber and Francisco Varela 2002. "Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of individuality". Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2, 97–125. p. 110; as cited in: Evan Thompson, "Life and mind: From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology. A tribute to Francisco Varela." Phenomenology and the cognitive Sciences 3.4 (2004): 381-398.

Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living (1980)

H.R. Maturana, F.J. Varela (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living
  • By autopoietic organization, Maturana and Varela meant the] processes interlaced in the specific form of a network of productions of components which realizing the network that produced them constitutes it as a unity.
    • p. 80 as cited in: Lee O. Thayer, George A. Barnett (1997) * Organization-Communication: Emerging Perspectives, Volume 5:. p. 193
  • The relations that define a system as a unity, and determine the dynamics of interaction and transformations which it may undergo as such a unity constitute the organization of the machine.
    • p. 137

The Embodied Mind (1991)

Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch (1991) The Embodied Mind; Cognitive Science and Human Experience, MIT Press
  • As Buddhist teachers often point out, knowledge, in the sense of prajña, is not knowledge about anything. There is no abstract knower of an experience that is separate from the experience itself.
  • The cybernetics phase of cognitive science produced an amazing array of concrete results, in addition to its long-term (often underground) influence:
    • the use of mathematical logic to understand the operation of the nervous system;
    • the invention of information processing machines (as digital computers), thus laying the basis for artificial intelligence;
    • the establishment of the metadiscipline of system theory, which has had an imprint in many branches of science, such as engineering (systems analysis, control theory), biology (regulatory physiology, ecology), social sciences (family therapy, structural anthropology, management, urban studies), and economics (game theory);
    • information theory as a statistical theory of signal and communication channels;
    • the first examples of self-organizing systems.
      This list is impressive: we tend to consider many of these notions and tools an integrative part of our life...
    • p. 38
  • all our suffering is associated with this pre-occupation. All loss and gain, pleasure and pain arise because we identify so closely with this vague feeling of selfness that we have. We are so emotionally involved with and attached to this "self" that we take it for granted.
    • p. 63
  • [M]any people would accept that we do not really have knowledge of the world; we have knowledge only of our representations of the world. Yet we seem condemned by our constitution to treat these representations as if they were the world, for our everyday experience feels as if it were of a given and immediate world.
    • p. 142
  • The possibility for compassionate concern for others, which is present in all humans, is usually mixed with the sense of ego and so becomes confused with the need to satisfy one's own cravings for recognition and self-evaluation. The spontaneous compassion that arises when one is not caught in the habitual patterns - when one is not performing volitional actions out of karmic cause and effect - is not done with a sense of need for feedback from its recipient. It is the anxiety about feedback - the response of the other - that causes us tension and inhibition in our action. When action is done without the business-deal mentality, there can be relaxation. This is called supreme (or transcendental) generosity.
    • p. 249

The Emergent Self (1995)

    • Varela (1995) "The Emergent Self". In: John Brockman (ed.) The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. Ch.12 (online)
  • I guess I've had only one question all my life. Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? This phenomenon is something so productive that it doesn't cease creating entirely new realms: life, mind, and societies. Yet these emergent selves are based on processes so shifty, so ungrounded, that we have an apparent paradox between the solidity of what appears to show up and its groundlessness. That, to me, is a key and eternal question.
  • I'm perhaps best known for three different kinds of work, which seem disparate to many people but to me run as a unified theme. These are my contributions in conceiving the notion of autopoiesis — self-production — for cellular organization, the enactive view of the nervous system and cognition, and a revising of current ideas about the immune system.
  • I'm interested in establishing empirical correlations between a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice and scientific work.
  • Buddhism is a practice, not a belief, and every Buddhist is, in some way, lay clergy — involved in the way a scientist is involved in his or her work, or in the way a writer's mind is involved in writing, present in the background, all the time.

About Varela

  • Francisco Varela is amazingly inventive, freewheeling, and creative. There's a lot of depth in what he and Humberto Maturana have said. Conversely, from the point of view of a tied-down molecular biologist, this is all airy-fairy, flaky stuff. Thus there's the mixed response. That part of me that's tough-minded and critical is questioning, but the other part of me has cottoned on to the recent stuff he's doing on self- representation in immune networks. I love it.
    • Stuart Kauffman in: John Brockman ed. (1995) The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. p. 209 (online)
  • Francisco, an experimental and theoretical biologist, studied what he termed "emergent selves" or "virtual identities." His was an immanent view of reality, based on metaphors derived from self-organization and Buddhist-inspired epistemology rather than on those derived from engineering and information science.
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