The Emergent Self
[Chapter 12 in The Third Culture by John Brockman]
[Francisco Varela:] 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.
As a consequence, I'm interested in the nervous system, cognitive science, and immunology, because they concern the processes that can answer the question of what biological identity is. How can you have some kind of identity that simultaneously allows you to know something, allows cells to configure their own relevant world, the immune system to generate the identity of our body in its own way, and the brain to be the basis for a mind, a cognitive identity? All these mechanisms share a common theme.
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.
Regarding the subject of biological identity, the main point is that there is an explicit transition from local interactions to the emergence of the "global" property — that is, the virtual self of the cellular whole, in the case of autopoiesis. It's clear that molecules interact in very specific ways, giving rise to a unity that is the initiation of the self. There is also the transition from nonlife to life. The nervous system operates in a similar way. Neurons have specific interactions through a loop of sensory surfaces and motor surfaces. This dynamic network is the defining state of a cognitive perception domain. I claim that one could apply the same epistemology to thinking about cognitive phenomena and about the immune system and the body: an underlying circular process gives rise to an emergent coherence, and this emergent coherence is what constitutes the self at that level. In my epistemology, the virtual self is evident because it provides a surface for interaction, but it's not evident if you try to locate it. It's completely delocalized.
Organisms have to be understood as a mesh of virtual selves. I don't have one identity, I have a bricolage of various identities. I have a cellular identity, I have an immune identity, I have a cognitive identity, I have various identities that manifest in different modes of interaction. These are my various selves. I'm interested in gaining further insight into how to clarify this notion of transition from the local to the global, and how these various selves come together and apart in the evolutionary dance. In this sense, what I've studied, say, in color vision for the nervous system or in immune self-regulation are what Dan Dennett would call "intuition pumps," to explore the general pattern of the transition from local rules to emergent properties in life. We have at our disposal beautiful examples to play around with, both in terms of empirical results and in terms of mathematics and computer simulations. The immune system is one beautiful, very specific case. But it's not the entire picture.
My autopoiesis work was my first step into these domains: defining what is the minimal living organization, and conceiving of cellular-automata models for it. I did this in the early 1970s, way before the artificial-life wave hit the beach. This work was picked up by Lynn Margulis, in her research and writings on the origins of life, the evolution of cellular life, and, with James Lovelock, the Gaia hypothesis. Humberto Maturana and I invented the idea of autopoiesis in 1970. We worked together in Santiago, during the Socialist years. The idea was the result of suspecting that biological cognition in general was not to be understood as a representation of the world out there but rather as an ongoing bringing-forth of a world, through the very process of living itself.
Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It's specific to the cellular level. There's a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organizing network of biochemical reactions produces molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produced the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what's unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn't require an external agent to notice it, or to say, "I'm here." It is, by itself, a self- distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics.
The idea arose, also at that time, that the local rules of autopoiesis might be simulated with cellular automata. At that time, few people had ever heard of cellular automata, an esoteric idea I picked up from John von Neumann — one that would be made popular by the artificial-life people. Cellular automata are simple units that receive inputs from immediate neighbors and communicate their internal state to the same immediate neighbors.
In order to deal with the circular nature of the autopoiesis idea, I developed some bits of mathematics of self-reference, in an attempt to make sense out of the bootstrap — the entity that produces its own boundary. The mathematics of self-reference involves creating formalisms to reflect the strange situation in which something produces A, which produces B, which produces A. That was 1974. Today, many colleagues call such ideas part of complexity theory.
The more recent wave of work in complexity illuminates my bootstrap idea, in that it's a nice way of talking about this funny, screwy logic where the snake bites its own tail and you can't discern a beginning. Forget the idea of a black box with inputs and outputs. Think in terms of loops. My early work on self-reference and autopoiesis followed from ideas developed by cyberneticists such as Warren McCulloch and Norbert Wiener, who were the first scientists to think in those terms. But early cybernetics is essentially concerned with feedback circuits, and the early cyberneticists fell short of recognizing the importance of circularity in the constitution of an identity. Their loops are still inside an input/output box. In several contemporary complex systems, the inputs and outputs are completely dependent on interactions within the system, and their richness comes from their internal connectedness. Give up the boxes, and work with the entire loopiness of the thing. For instance, it's impossible to build a nervous system that has very clear inputs and outputs.
The next area of significant work involves applying the logic of the emergent properties of circular structures to look at the nervous system. The consequence is a radical change in the received view of the brain. The nervous system is not an information-processing system, because, by definition, information-processing systems need clear inputs. The nervous system has internal, or operational, closure. The key question is how, on the basis of its ongoing internal dynamics, the brain configures or constitutes relevance from otherwise nonmeaningful interactions. You can see why I'm not really interested in the classical artificial-intelligence and information-processing metaphors of brain studies. The brain can't be understood as a computer, in any interesting sense, and I part company with the people who think that the brain does rely on symbolic representation.
The same intuitions cut across other biological fields. Deconstruct the notion that the brain is processing information and making a representation of the world. Deconstruct the militaristic notion that the immune system is about defense and looking out for invaders. Deconstruct the notion that evolution is about optimizing fitness to live in the conditions present in some kind of niche. I haven't been directly active in this last line of research, but it's of great importance for my argument. Deconstructing adaptation means deconstructing neo-Darwinism. Steve Gould, Stuart Kauffman, and Dick Lewontin, each in his own way, have spelled out this new evolutionary view. Lewontin, in particular, has much appreciated the fact that my work on the nervous system mirrors his work with evolution.
My fourth area of concentration — the most recent one — consists of using the same concepts to revise our understanding of the immune system. Just as conventional biology understood the nervous system as an information-processing system, classic immunology understands immunology in military terms — as a defense system against invaders.
I've been developing a different view of immunology — namely, that the immune system has its own closure, its own network quality. The emergent identity of this system is the identity of your body, which is not a defensive identity. This is a positive statement, not a negative one, and it changes everything in immunology. In presenting immunology in these terms, I'm creating a conceptual scaffolding. We have to go beyond an information- processing model, in which incoming information is acted upon by the system. The immune system is not spatially fixed, it's best understood as an emergent network.
I've also carried out empirical work corresponding to these intuitions. These ideas are incarnated into new experiments, and provide new results. For example, in classical immunology you were dealing with an external response system that was always watching out for invaders. If this made sense, the system would shrink to nothing if there were no invaders. Yet when mice are raised in milieus free from external challenge, their immune systems are normal!
Classical medicine remains baffled by the spectrum of diseases known as autoimmune diseases. Why? Because autoimmune disease is outside the paradigm of immunology. There's nothing to vaccinate against; there's no bacteria coming from outside. It's something that the system does to itself. AIDS is a dramatic case of the deregulation of this coherent emergent property, much like ecological dysfunctioning. People think AIDS is an infection. This is, of course, true, but not true in the sense that once the system is infected with AIDS it triggers a condition of self- destruction of the immune system. HIV triggers a deregulation, which then amplifies itself and becomes its own nightmare. Thus when you look at the urine of an AIDS-infected patient, less than 5 percent of the dead lymphocytes are HIV-infected.
This is typical of an autoimmune condition: the system eats itself up. Consequently, it's beginning to dawn on people that looking for AIDS vaccines is a complete waste of time. From my point of view, the right approach is first to understand the nature of this global regulation. One hint of how to do this is to look for ways to reconnect the system. In this regard, autoimmune diseases are seen as a deregulation, a condition that cries for more connectedness, rather than as a condition susceptible to treatment with a vaccine. For example, look at drug addiction in terms of a social disease: Drug addicts are in some sense an autoimmune disease of society, because they end up destroying segments of society. What those people need is to be given support, jobs, and family care; you reconnect them back into the society. One approach we study is to provide new, normal antibodies that help to re-create the network. We are researching more sophisticated ways of doing this, but we need to have a pointer on where to go. Vaccines are not the answer.
I'm interested in establishing empirical correlations between a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice and scientific work. Western tradition has avoided the idea of a selfless self, of a virtual self. This egolessness, or selflessness, is truly the core of Buddhism. Over the past two thousand years, the Buddhists have developed philosophical, phenomenological, and epistemological sophistication, and they have invoked this intuition in a very hands-on way. We can use these insights much like people in the Renaissance used Greek philosophy to try to understand the science of Galileo.
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. People today have the leisure and sophistication to practice what before was only practical for monks. Buddhism affects Western culture through the individuals who practice it, through people who occasionally take it up as an escape. Buddhist ideas are prevalent throughout our culture — in physics and biology, for example, the basic ideas are Buddhism in disguise.
My view of the mind has been influenced by my interest in Buddhist thought. Buddhists are specialists in understanding this notion of a virtual self, or a selfless self, from the inside, as lived experience. This is what fascinates me about that tradition. Dan Dennett, incidentally, has come to the same conclusion in his own way. But while Dan focuses on the cognitive level, my own approach is to think about several biological levels, as I have mentioned, perhaps because I'm influenced by the broad idea of nonrepresentationalist knowledge. In my reality, knowledge coevolves with the knower and not as an outside, objective representation.
I see the mind as an emergent property, and the very important and interesting consequence of this emergent property is our own sense of self. My sense of self exists because it gives me an interface with the world. I'm "me" for interactions, but my "I" doesn't substantially exist, in the sense that it can't be localized anywhere. This view, of course, resonates with the notions of the other biological selves I mentioned, but there are subtle and important differences. An emergent property, which is produced by an underlying network, is a coherent condition that allows the system in which it exists to interface at that level — that is, with other selves or identities of the same kind. You can never say, "This property is here; it's in this component." In the case of autopoiesis, you can't say that life — the condition of being self-produced — is in this molecule, or in the DNA, or in the cellular membrane, or in the protein. Life is in the configuration and in the dynamical pattern, which is what embodies it as an emergent property.
I find it fascinating to apply this same line of analysis to my own mind, in the cognitive domain. My own sense of self, "me," can be seen in the same light. I have to be relentless to hold on to my identity. These ideas help us to come to a real appreciation of what it means to have an identity — to comprehend what we think of as our own mind. My mind has the quality of "being here" so I can relate to others. For example, I interact; but when I try to grasp it, it's nowhere — it's distributed in the underlying network.
Let me add that this emergence and nonlocality has nothing to do with the current hype about quantum mechanics and the brain. That stuff is perhaps an interesting hypothesis to entertain, but it has no scientific evidence behind it. On the other hand, I'm talking about thirty years' worth of results in cognitive science. I'd go one step further and dispute the typical physicist, who believes that he or she is dealing with fundamental reality. A physicist will say that we're made of atoms. Such statements, while true, are irrelevant. The statement "You're looking at me" doesn't have the same weight as statements concerning the cellular level. There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions. We have to abandon the enormous deadweight of the materialism of the Western tradition, and turn to a more planetary way of thinking.
STUART KAUFFMAN: 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.
The work Francisco is doing on the core immune network, which is representing self, and the peripheral system, which is responding to an outside world, is very intriguing. I'm not sure whether he's correct in his thesis that the immune repertoire evolved as a means of representing self, and that an evolutionary consequence was the capacity to recognize and ward off nonself. Whether or not one agrees with that sort of ontological and evolutionary argument, the work he's doing is very nice. It's imaginative, it's tied down to facts in places where it can be tied down. He is very smart, utterly charming and graceful, and his capability in any one of a large number of languages astonishes me.
I first got to know Francisco, indirectly, in 1983, when I met Humberto Maturana in India. They'd come up with their theory of autopoiesis, which was considered gobbledygook by many tough- minded scientists if they paid any attention to it at all. After listening to Humberto, I returned to my work on autocatalytic sets, which I'd begun in 1971 and then set aside. I believe that my autocatalytic-polymer-set story is the clearest instance I know of, in terms of a formally described model, of what they mean by autopoiesis.
It's likely that 99 percent of serious biologists have never heard of Francisco. This is for two reasons. First, he's not American or English, and the bulk of serious molecular biology is done in America and England, with some being done in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Francisco, after all, comes from South America. He's not from the "right" part of the world — that is, the kind of place that usually produces biologists. Second, Francisco is a good theoretical biologist, and theory in biology is in low repute. He's done detailed simulations of immune networks and neural networks that actually function — at least on the computer — so it's good solid theoretical biology. It ties in with our work at the Santa Fe Institute on emergent collective phenomena.
I'm less florid than Francisco. Although his theoretical style may appeal to some of us theoreticians, it wouldn't appeal to tough-minded colleagues, or even to more facile experimental colleagues, who wouldn't see what the next experiment is.
This is a problem that's hard to get your mind around, if you aren't trained as a biologist. Unlike physics and chemistry, which are concept-driven and theory-driven, biology is essentially experiment-and grungy-fact-driven. Organisms are complicated, ad-hoc contraptions. That's been our view since Darwin.
Organisms are ad-hoc solutions to design problems. The standard view is that there are no deep theories of the deep meaning of ad-hoc contraptions. You take the things apart and find out how they work. Most biologists adhere to that view. Notions of underlying deep principles are not an anathema to them — they're just considered foolish.
Francisco is a philosopher, in a way. He and Humberto Maturana are right about their idea of autopoiesis. But he hasn't had a large impact in the United States. The main reason he's dismissed is that he's seen just as a philosopher. Along with Francisco, I'm among those who hold that such deep principles exist, and I'm trying to find them. I have a hard time being heard by my experimental colleagues. I would expect that Francisco has almost never been heard. In the pantheon of biological scientists, he's probably unknown.
W. DANIEL HILLIS: I used to think Francisco Varela was a mystic, because I couldn't understand his ideas. As I came to know him, I began to realize that he's actually fishing for some of the same things I am. He's trying to understand how emergent properties come from simple interactive systems. It's hard to express that question without sounding like a mystic. Cisco does not help things by genuinely being a mystic on some other issues, and hanging out with the Dalai Lama, but he's trying to get at the same issue I am. I think he's on to something, with his theories of the immune system; he's trying to look at network properties — things like attractors of the system, and so on — and trying to get above the level of looking at the chemistry of the immune system. It's yet to be seen whether that approach will actually explain anything, but I'm supportive of his quest.
Cisco clearly is a symbol for Marvin Minsky — a symbol for a set of things that Minsky is angry about. It's true that you lose perfectly good AI people when they go off into philosophy and stop doing anything useful. I think Minsky is very annoyed that one of his favorite students, Terry Winograd, started out by writing perfectly good computer programs and then went off and wrote a book on hermeneutics. That bugs Minsky, because he sees philosophy as a black hole into which his students are falling. In Marvin's mind, Cisco is a symbol of that black hole.
CHRISTOPHER G. LANGTON: Varela is one of those people who has such an engaging, articulate style of talking that when you sit and listen to him, you find yourself nodding your head and going, "Yes, yes, yes, this is all great." Then once you get out of the room, and out from under his very significant personal charm, it's hard to figure out exactly what it was he said. This is one of my problems with the field of autopoiesis. The contribution it makes is that it allows you to talk about a set of phenomena known to us from biology in a different kind of language, and sometimes just changing the language can make you look at things in a new way.
Some people who come across phenomena such as self- organization for the first time through the writings of Varela and Humberto Maturana become real advocates of autopoiesis, because it's in the context of that language that they first come across those phenomena. I came across those phenomena in the world of biology, and in the language of biology and physics, and so I'm used to thinking about them in that language, and I don't see any benefit for someone like myself in mapping them over onto the language of autopoiesis. I don't think it adds anything to our understanding of phenomenology. Once one has gone through the translation, there's no value added. It's just another way of describing the same phenomena — a way that's not particularly useful to me.
Varela would claim that he is adding something to the scientific discussion when he casts all these phenomena in his language, but whatever it is he adds always seems to slip away from me whenever I try to pin it down. I was troubled when a friend of mine pointed out that he could go through one of Varela's papers and replace the phrase "autopoietic system" with the phrase "living system" and it wouldn't change anything; in fact, several of the statements simply became tautologies. In other words, autopoiesis doesn't get me anywhere I haven't already been.
I know a lot of people, especially in Europe, who are very influenced by autopoiesis, and who are very careful in the way they describe this principle. However, I've also found that many of Varela's most ardent followers are flaming vitalists, who have found in autopoiesis a way to get beyond what they consider to be the reductionist agenda. They feel that autopoiesis allows for higher-level organizing principles in a way that what they call strict reductionist science cannot. That's epistemology, not science. The question is whether or not it's good epistemology. I don't know. Many people think it's very good, and I can't blame Varela or Maturana for the abuses wrought by their followers.
DANIEL C. DENNETT: Post hoc ergo propter hoc! "After this, therefore because of this." Francisco Varela is a very smart man who, out of a certain generosity of spirit, thinks he gets his ideas from Buddhism. I'd like him to delete the references to Buddhist epistemology in his writings. His scientific work is very important, and so are the conclusions we can draw from the work. Buddhist thinking has nothing to do with it, and bringing it in only clouds the real issues.
There are striking parallels between Francisco's "Emergent Mind" and my "Joycean Machines." Francisco and I have a lot in common. In fact, I spent three months at CREA, in Paris, with him in 1990, and during that time I wrote much of Consciousness Explained. Yet though Francisco and I are friends and colleagues, I'm in one sense his worst enemy, because he's a revolutionary and I'm a reformer. He has the standard problem of any revolutionary: the establishment is — must be — nonreformable. All its thinking has to be discarded, and everything has to start from scratch.
We're talking about the same issues, but I want to hold on to a great deal of what's gone before and Francisco wants to discard it. He strains at making the traditional ways of looking at things too wrong.
NILES ELDREDGE: I was driving in a car with Francisco in Italy once. I was just starting to watch birds, partly as a hobby and partly because so much evolutionary biology has been done on birds. I said that one neat thing about birds is that you can hear their songs, and you can also see the same color spectrum they do, so you can look at the differences in their feather patterns, and these are precisely the things that birds use to sort each other out. He got very angry and very firmly and quickly corrected me, because he had been doing a lot of research on the physiology of the vision and hearing of birds. He assured me that birds can see and hear in spectra that are way beyond human capabilities. I said I knew that, but on the other hand it was a levels problem. I was more interested in the fact that we tell the difference between birds by the songs of different species and sometimes individuals, just with our own ears, and birds are indeed using that to sort each other out — to find the correct mate, and all that.
Francisco was very formal, and impatient with the somewhat sloppy level of discourse I seem to be content with. He's interested in physiology and morphology first, and then the transformation of them, in an evolutionary sense. To me, that's where everybody has always started from, and that's why I walked away from that thirty years ago, and only got back to it tangentially. I've been studying adaptation only obliquely, being concerned mostly with the context of adaptive change. I don't intersect with his mode of thought that strongly.
BRIAN GOODWIN: The first time I ever heard of Francisco Varela was when he sent me an article on autopoiesis. He was still in Chile at the time, and I looked at it and thought it was far too abstract. I was obviously in an antiabstract phase at the time, and I put it to one side and paid no more attention to it. Then I met him.
Francisco is extraordinary in terms of the clarity of his thinking and the quality of his research, because he implements his more abstract ideas in very high-quality research work. He's an exceptional combination of a precise thinker and an imaginative thinker. Since he's in theoretical biology, he's not universally known. Anyone working in immunology will be very aware of his important contributions in that context, but his main contributions are in the realm of theory.
LYNN MARGULIS : I know some of the work of Francisco Varela, but he often talks a language I don't understand at all. I don't know if it's just me, or if he is really obscurantist. His recognition of the importance of autopoiesis, which comes from collaboration with his teacher, Humberto Maturana, involves deep understanding of living systems and how chemical self-maintenance and self- formation intrinsically define life. One part of an organism cannot be privileged over another. DNA can't be more important than membranes, because without either DNA or membranes the cell does not exist. All the components of the living system make and constantly define that system. Autopoietic systems — whether cells, organisms, or communities — are run from the inside.