My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!

francisco_varela

When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

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My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!

juergen-habermas

Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

My Heroes – Ancient Philosophy: Nagarjuna

I guess it has become very obvious in all my previous letters that I am much closer to ancient Asian philosophies than to European philosophical traditions. I find the classical Indian and Chinese exegeses on holistic and non-separative ontology, constructivist and naturalistic epistemology, and especially the pragmatic and psychologistic (in contrast to many Western meta-ethicists, for me that is something positive) ethics conceptualisations  much more plausible and convincing than the premature and naïve Western realism, dualism, substance metaphysics and transcendentalism. The most famous figures in ancient Asian philosophy are certainly Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Laozi (even though it is not certain that this was one real person) and Kongzi (Confucius). They are regarded as the founders of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively. However, in each schools of thought, there are other thinkers that achieved much greater insights than their predecessors: Zhuangzi put the Daoist philosophy on more solid grounds, Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi sophisticated Kongzi’s ideas substantially, and Nagarjuna is without any doubt the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher before it became a modern academic discipline! His enormous merits in advancing the insights on Sunyata (emptiness), Satyadvaya (Two Truths), Madhyamāpratipad (the Middle Way) and Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) make him my personal hero in the category Ancient Philosophy!

nagarjuna

Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Chinese: 龍樹) lived in South India around 150-250CE (widely shared scholarly view). According to the legend, he received the Prajñāpāramitā sutras from mystical creatures called “Naga” (a mix of snake and dragon) who kept in on behalf of the historical Buddha at the bottom of a lake. His name means “white snake”, and he is often depicted with snakes (an Indian symbol for wisdom) around his head. The historical record of his works is incomplete and still vividly debated among contemporary scholars. Some of the text attributed to him might be from other philosophers. It is widely acknowledged that his major contribution is the Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, a treatise of 27 chapters on The Middle Way.

After the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his followers split, basically, into two groups: The worshippers who focused on the practices taught by Buddha, and the scholars who wanted the Dharma (transferred in the sutras of the Pali canon) to be understood as philosophical wisdom. The former can be regarded as the religious interpretation of Buddhism, the latter as the philosophical school. For around 400 years, it seemed that the worshippers were the predominant group. The theoretical schools divided further and further and disputed with one another about who represents the true Dharma and who understands Buddha’s teachings in the best and most appropriate way. By the time of Nagarjuna, the original philosophy conveyed in Buddha’s doctrines were at the risk of being lost. Nagarjuna’s analysis of the concepts mentioned above formed a new firm connection between our philosophical understanding with Buddha’s original accounts. He is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

Mahayana_lineage

As pointed out earlier, I regard the 12 links of interdependent co-arising as the core of Buddhist teachings, even more fundamental than the Four Noble Truths or the Eight-fold Path (which are rather easy-to-understand doctrines of folk Buddhism, in my humble opinion). Once familiar with this model, it is easy to understand the difficult notions of sunyata (emptiness) and the practical implications of a Middle Way philosophy (which is the center of Nagarjuna’s teachings). Thanks to Nagarjuna we have today a better and philosophically more grounded idea of these important elements of Buddhist worldview. I can see how it applies to many daily life situations and how I can make use of it to increase my life quality. For a philosophical Buddhist (but probably also for religious ones), Nagarjuna’s writings are essential reads, but there is also a lot of good and insightful secondary literature about him and his teachings (see a list in this article by Jan Westerhoff in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you want to gain deeper insights into Buddhist thinking, there is no way around Nagarjuna, but it is definitely a way that is worth the time and effort!

My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.

max-frisch

However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

My Heroes – Science: Samuel Stupp

I started studying chemistry at university in 2002. In 2011 I finished my PhD course. During that time I have attended countless symposia, conferences, workshops and special lectures with invited speakers. The by far most impressive talk that I witnessed was given by the Costa Rican scientist Samuel Stupp (Professor at Northwestern University in Chicago). It was in 2007 at an event at CenTech Münster (Germany) where he gave the first presentation of the day and left everyone stunned. The poor presenter after him started his talk with the sentence “After Prof. Stupp’s talk, we can pack our things and go home. Everything has been said!”. What makes his research so impressive? Why do people bet that he will be awarded a Nobel prize someday?

Prof. Stubb combines profound knowledge and expertise from various fields. Having educational background in chemistry (Bachelor degree from UCLA, PhD from Northwestern University), he started his academic career on an appointment in material science and engineering (with chemistry and bioengineering) at UIUC. After returning to Northwestern University as a Board of Trustees Professor of Material Science, Chemistry and Medicine, he was appointed the director of the newly formed Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine. So, basically, he covers the three usually distinct fields of chemistry (as “basic research”), engineering (as “applied science”) and medicine.

His major contribution to scientific knowledge in biomedicine is the discovery of peptide amphiphiles that have the ability to self-assemble into nanoscale filaments. When these molecules are designed well – and this is the most impressive skill of Prof. Stupp – these filaments can mimic components of the extracellular matrix in living organisms, for example wire-like structures that allow the regeneration of nerve transduction in the neck after accident-caused paraplegia.

stupp-amphiphiles

from Chemical Reviews, volume 108, issue 11, 4776. Copyright © 2008, American Chemical Society

The molecules that self-assemble into these rod structures need to fulfil several conditions. The outside of the filament has to be bioactive so that the organism “accepts” it. The other end of the molecule has to be designed in a way that it allows desired functionalities like conductivity or mechanical stability. Here it becomes obvious why it requires in-depth understanding of chemistry, engineering AND medicine! Stupp’s amphiphiles revolutionised the field of regenerative medicine. They enable bone and cartilage regeneration, angiogenesis for ischemia or peripheral artery disease, therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and many others that have been labelled “untreatable” before. See more details in this video:

Information about his research and his group at Northwestern can be found here.

By the time that I met him, I was wondering about the paradigms of “expertise”, how they changed and what would be the best way. In the early days of science, the most famous and most respected “scientists” were generalists. Think of Galileo or Da Vinci, who both had a wide spectrum of interests and were able to see the whole picture. Then, over the course of the centuries, more and more knowledge has been elaborated, more and more specific disciplines with distinct characteristic methodologies and terminology (microworlds) came up, and more and more highly specialised scientists with profound knowledge in very narrow confinements entered the scene. The new paradigm was collaborative interdisciplinarity (we might call it team work). It was regarded as inevitable that scientists know much about little, so that the larger picture can only be generated when these experts contribute their respective pieces of the puzzle to a collective endeavour. However, Samuel Stupp is different. I have the impression that his ground-breaking achievements are only possible because there is one guy that combines multiple disciplines to one innovative and creative cognitive process. He is not a narrowly confined specialist, but also not a generalist in the classical sense, but a multi-specialised visionary! I am quite sure that not many people on this planet have the intellectual and cognitive capacity to acquire this skill. Therefore, quite certainly, Prof. Stupp will have his place in history!

My Heroes – Politics: Nelson Mandela

Apparently, this “my heroes” thing is a series of posts. To disclose the secret: It will be seven, altogether. There won’t be a category “sports”, because I am not much interested in sports. For the same reason, there won’t be actors, cartoon characters or PC and smartphone inventors. I am also not much interested in politics. However, when reflecting on who impressed me positively and who is an outstanding historical figure with inspiring and idol-like vita, the name Nelson Mandela always comes to my mind.

Nelson Mandela

I believe there is no need to introduce him. He might be one of the most famous political leaders in contemporary history. After years in prison, as president of South Africa, he contributed a lot to overcoming the long grown hatred and racism (“Apartheid”) that split the population. Awarded with a Nobel Prize of Peace in 1993, internationally respected and admired, he was honoured with very special tributes after his death in 2013. If you want to learn more about him, watch the movie “Invictus“.

What makes him so special? I believe it is, above all, two things: His impressive capability of forgiveness, and his farsightedness in overcoming hatred and ideological division. They are best captured in a statement made by him on his release from prison:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

He would have had many reasons to hate his suppressors, tormentors and humiliators. But he didn’t! His only concern was “to build the nation” (of South Africa). To realise this vision, as he knew, it would be absolutely crucial to break the vicious cycle of hatred, resentments and revenge. He embodied many characteristic virtues of Buddhism, I think: Forgiveness, not being attached to the past, not giving in to “the dark side” of aggression and bitterness. He famously cited William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”. This also became one of my mottos. We become who we cultivate ourselves to be. We create karmic potential with everything we do, so we better reflect mindfully on what we do, what effect it would have and which of the options we may choose from is best in line with our values and visions. Mandela was a very wise man! He knew that his goal of a unified nation would only be realisable when the circle would be broken. By this, he mastered his fate, and – at least for his era – the fate of his nation.

My Heroes – Music: Jon Lord

It might be expected from a compassionate drummer that his “musical hero” would be a drummer. Indeed, I have some idols, of course. Billy Cobham as an extraordinarily versatile and technically supreme drummer has always been an inspiration for me. I liked Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater until I found that he is not that special after all. Thomas Lang presented an extremely mind-blowing drum workshop at a music fair in Frankfurt that I have visited (in 2001, I think). Other big names in different genres are certainly Jack de Johnette, Virgil Donati, Gavin Harrison, or Marco Minnemann. However, the most “complete” and outstanding personality in music, in my opinion, is not a drummer but the British piano, organ and keyboard player John Douglas ‘Jon’ Lord (1941-2012).

jon_lord

He is best known as founding member of hardrock pioneers Deep Purple, but also as composer of orchestral works, almost purely “classical” music. Not only was he extraordinarily skilled and technically on a top level, but also was he described by most of his companions and collaborators as a decent, humble, kind and gentle person. He was dedicated to his sound and the musical value of what he produced, hard-working and “stubborn” (according to Deep Purple’s drummer Ian Paice), but never aggressively overambitious or uncomfortable. Perhaps the most significant reason for choosing him as “my music hero” is his unique level of originality. He didn’t want to sound like “anybody else”, he didn’t care about genre boarders or expectations. He wanted to merge classical approaches to playing key instruments (piano, organ) with the typical features of rock music. He famously combined Hammond Organs (B3, C3) with Lesley amplifiers to create a unique organ sound that harmonises with a rock band setup and that can compete with the dominant extraverted expression of a Ritchie Blackmore (the guitarist of Deep Purple). At the age of 27/28 he wrote the “Concerto for Group and Orchestra”, an unprecedented but highly successful and impressive attempt to combine a rock band with a full orchestra, a milestone in music history! Sadly, in 2012 he died from pancreatic cancer, leaving many scores and musical ideas unfinished and unrealised. As his friend Rick Wakeman (himself an outstanding rock organist) said: Sad to think what we have missed! But on the other side: How happy what we have got from him in over 40 years! To get an impression about him, watch this great documentary and tribute by Rick Wakeman:

I’d like to quote from an interview with Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich because I couldn’t have said it better:

We can all be guilty of lightly throwing adjectives like ‘unique,’ ‘one-of-a-kind’ and ‘pioneering’ around when we want to describe our heroes and the people who’ve moved us, but there are no more fitting words than those right now and there simply was no musician like Jon Lord in the history of hard rock. Nobody. Period. There was nobody that played like him. There was nobody that sounded like him. There was nobody that wrote like him. There was nobody that looked like him. There was nobody more articulate, gentlemanly, warm, or fucking cooler that ever played keyboards or got anywhere near a keyboard. What he did was all his own.”