Francisco Varela

Francisco J. Varela is a biologist/neurophysiologist and also a Buddhist. His theoretical work concerning perception as a cognitive domain – where what we perceive is created by our very own mental process – is certainly of interest to artists, since artists invariably have to deal with human perception as the principle vehicle of artistic experience. (p184)

Together with (Humberto) Maturana, Varela proposed the notion of the organism as an operationally closed system, whereby any knowledge about the environment is the result of internal processing of perturbations partly coming from the environment, but partly also due to the internal dynamics of the system. An organism can only know about its environment via changes the environment introduces into its own structure. Thus the old notion of representationalism – that there is a one-to-one relationship between the outside world and our internal image of it – is replaced by the notion of coherence. The viability of our image of reality is checked against the ‘truth’ of survival. If the match between the world and our image of it is not close enough, we will not survive. Any direct check against the ‘facts’ out there is only an illusion, since we only have access to those facts through the processing of neurophysiological events within our nervous system. From the point of view of the organism, there is only ‘itself’. The notion of an outside reality is a concept, an abstraction, based on repeated experience. How then can we be sure there is an outside world? In terms of traditional philosophy, this notion of operational closure might be referred to as solipsism or the idea that everything other than the self is only an idea, ultimately non-existent, that the self somehow dreams it up. At this point it is important to consider biology. Solipsism is an abstraction. It resembles a still photograph. It doesn’t incorporate time. In nature everything involves time. The logical abstraction ‘If A, then not-A’ may be a paradox in philosophy, but applied in nature it resembles the principle of an electric buzzer. The closing of the circuit (‘ON’) triggers a switch that breaks the circuit, resulting in a continuous ON/OFF-sequence. When time is introduced, paradox (static) becomes oscillation (dynamic). Varela describes the act of perceiving as a dynamic process. It deals with differences in time (on/off states in neurons). Also, perception as an evolutionary faculty has developed over time. Whatever I ‘see’ is determined not just by what happens in that very moment, but by my own structural coupling with my environment, both during my lifetime (learning and other social phenomena) and during the evolution of the human species, its learning process. Language is not just a ‘tool’, a ‘means to an end’ but a level of complexity, a ‘domain’ within which we exist and which makes us human. Varela, “Language was not made by man, but rather the other way around.” (pp186-187)

When I see something which seems to be out there, like a book or a shape or a colour, it is fact not something sitting out there waiting for me to recognise it as if I was somebody parachuted down from another planet. Rather there is a mutual history of what it appears as the world and what I am as a living being with brains and a body. We cannot separate these two poles of the reality equation. We are just beginning to apprehend the realities out there. Marvin Minsky said: ‘The human brain is a computer made of meat’. That is the main line of the Western tradition. We can broadly call it the rationalist tradition, wherein knowledge and mind are fundamentally about abstraction and reasoning and deduction and logic. When the cognitive sciences today try to understand simple things like seeing a colour or a shape, they find that this particular view of the mind that has dominated our tradition simply won’t do. (p188)

When we examine the processes of cognition and knowledge and we use computer metaphors, we are actually missing what is the most interesting part of cognition. Firstly, the fact that whatever it is that we know, it is not separate from what we do to know it. There is that inseparatability between knower and known which is not at all what happens in an engineering perspective, where the machine is supposed to know what you expect of it. Secondly the key is the question of creativity. For an animal, or a living being, the world is something that he actually shapes and creates in evolution and its own history. It is not something that is a given. Mind and cognition are fundamentally about being embodied into actions in the world. (pp190-191)

The way you and I as primates see what we call colour is not at all the way other species see it. It is easy for human beings to understand that different cultures have a different view of what beauty or justice is. We have no problem accepting that we live in a multiverse of social constructs. What I’m trying to show with this research is that multiversality carries on all the way down to how you feel and how you perceive. The proper cross-cultural comparison would be between humans and birds and fishes and insects, because each one of these groups has something that is proper to call colour-vision, but that is so different from ours that it cannot be accounted for as just another view of the same thing out there. It is in fact a different world. For example birds happen to have a different dimension in their colour space. Their vision of colour is as different as our perception would be to a creature that only has two dimensions. A third dimension in space is inconceivable for a flat creature. (p193)

Maniacally we want to solidify things, maniacally. If you don’t know that you have blind spots, if you don’t know that your understanding is not really profoundly grounded anywhere, then you are going to approach your life in a very different way. The Buddhist tradition has made its own discovery of this groundless nature of human reality which is one of the reasons why I’m so interested in it. It says that you cannot rely on some absolute truth or absolute judgement, that every form of knowing and every form of ignorance is contextual. If you don’t pay attention to what it is for you in your life to confront that lack of foundation, you are going to fall into the pitfall of nihilism. (p195)

Causality is not just out there. Causality also applies to your own mind. That is, what you know and what you ignore is also a matter of internal dynamics, of an internal cause pattern. What you call yourself – this is the key point – is also a result of causality. There is not something intrinsic and profound, and transcendental that you call ‘me’. What you call ‘me’ is a designation for something that has a cause and effect. Every time you try to decompose a process of mind, be it a memory, perception or awareness, you find a pattern that then gives rise to a certain process. It is the same as you find everywhere in the world. The mind itself can be seen as a process. (p196)

On creativity

Normally when we think of our mind we have the feeling that there is a great continuity, that it is a solid thing. But the creative process, and for that matter the spiritual process, is partly a process of learning to be much lighter. It means a light touch about what is happening in your mind. So there is a moment when you can just let go. And at that moment there is a break, a gap, and within that gap there is that open ground which is ‘Being’. Out of that comes the eternal source of novelty and insight. In fact insight is something that comes at the point of discontinuity. In the practice of meditation you see that very precisely. Artists know that very well too. They always say “Relax your mind. Don’t manipulate your state of mind”. If you want to really create something you can not be in control, you have to let go. (p197)


When we grow up and constitute this ‘it’ that we call ‘me’, this does not happen just inside my skull, because it happens among human beings as a constant process of exchange. We actually emerge and arise within language. Language doesn’t belong to you, to me or to anybody. Language in fact exists like air. It is a medium in which we all exist. It is not that we actually learn language, it is more like language learns us. It is very intimate, because my ‘self’ and your ‘self’ have exactly the same source, yet we human beings continue to exchange language as if it were just a process of ‘communication’. Without language it is just not possible to have that ‘you’ you call ‘you’. You have ways of exchange through all sensory modalities. The great novelty of language is that it actually allows an unbounded creativity of multiverses within it. Any of the other forms of sensory coupling do not have the capacity for self reflection. Colour cannot reflect upon colour. (p198)

Tisdall, C, Wijers, L, Kamphof, I (Eds.)(1990) Art meets Science and Spirituality in a changing Economy. SDU Publishers. Amsterdam.


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