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)!

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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 – 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.

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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!

Nutshell Buddhism

There is a difference between “the actual world” and our idea of the world in our minds. Despite the scientific realists’ claim that scientific knowledge resembles real (natural) entities, many philosophers of different epochs and cultural realms concluded that we can’t be that certain of what we believe is the “reality”. This ranges from Daoists (the Dao stands for the ultimate reality that is in contrast to the human world that is perceived, explained and communicated by names (language)), to Indian (Hindu) worldview with two truths (ultimate reality and phenomenal (common sense) reality), to Kantian metaphysics (things-as-they-are (Dinge-an-sich) and forms-of-view (Anschauungsformen)), to constructive realism a la Friedrich Wallner (actuality vs. lifeworlds and microworlds). Nobody, however, expressed this difference more aptly than Gautama-Buddha, mounting in the First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering“). I understand suffering (dukha) in the Buddhist sense as the deviation between our idea of the world as the result of our deluded minds and the world as it really is. This is what he means with ignorance. Let me elaborate a little further on that.

In my tree of knowledge, I depicted our mental and cognitive features (and all they entail) including the experiences we make through them as the roots, the process of sense-making and meaning-construction as the channels in the trunk of the tree, and the manifestations of our worldviews, beliefs and values as the branches. This can be a powerful illustration to explain the essence of Buddhist worldview. The core of Buddhist philosophy is the scheme of the “12 links of interdependent co-arising“. Basically, it teaches that due to our ignorance we believe in the permanence of isolated separated entities, including ourselves (or: our self). We believe that “what we see is really there” (which, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably helpful for survival), which arouses our desires in a way that we judge what is “good” or “bad” for us so that we seek for some things (attachment) and avoid others (resistance). The desirability and non-desirability of things, however, is an illusion. It is formed by the framework of our past experiences and our vision of the future (driven by the fear of death). Buddha, here, elaborates on the roots (in my picture): He claims that the roots are grown in a rigid and inflexible way. We rely on perception tools that are limited (six senses, each limited to certain ranges of physical properties such as wavelengths (seeing), frequencies (hearing), molecular concentration (tasting and smelling), etc.). We are aware only of what fits our experiential margin. Emotions and desires are shaped by forces that are beyond our control. Therefore, relying on our roots is the first factor of suffering.

Then, he explains what the flaws are with our choices of channels for meaning-construction. We are driven by concepts and intellectual reasoning, external forces like dogmas and paradigms, or psychological punishment- and reward-systems. Same as the roots, they are all deluded by the illusory conviction that our mental reality is identical with the actual reality. Society with all its institutions (science, politics, economy, organised religion, etc.), culture (with its modes of identification in separation from other cultures), and also individual personality (as the branches of the tree) are all built on this level of reality. Things are, however, different. There is nothing permanent and separated. Everything is connected in a complex net of conditionality, non-deterministic, non-teleological, non-reductive, non-dualistic, and therefore: empty. Shunyata (“emptiness“), as understood by Nagarjuna and later the Chinese Mahayana schools Huayan, Tiantai and Chan, is the fundamental metaphysics of the world. This is the ultimate reality. The worldly features that we create on the basis of our deluded “roots” deviate from this underlying ultimate reality to certain extents. The bigger that deviation the stronger our suffering.

Now, there are two ways to overcome this suffering. One works on the roots. We may plant seeds for the roots to grow in different ways. To use the metaphor of a famous movie: This means to “exit the matrix” of the mindlessly grown roots and actively form new sources for experiences and cognitive access to reality. The other way – but most often both ways have to be applied together – is a change of meaning-construction, or in terms of the picture: choose a different channel through the trunk. This is meditative contemplation and mindful awareness. In order to get closer to the ultimate reality, we need to let go of concepts, deluded rationality, mindless following of doctrines and rules (acquired through education and socialisation), and especially the illusion of an independent self that dominates our psyche. Only then will we be able to see through the complex network of cause-effect-relations (karma) and set ourselves free in (not from) its matrix. The Diamond sutra may help to understand the important point here: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.“. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is a rhetoric tool to describe the indescribable. Form (the things we perceive as independent objects or substance on the level of (deluded) common-sense reality) is actually empty (not outside the karmic cause-effect-conditionality), while it is exactly this metaphysical conditionality that brings about all which we interpret as form. This ontological understanding, with ourselves interwoven into the ever-changing web of the world fabric, will change our approach to life fundamentally! While the more traditional Indian Buddhists (Theravada schools) would probably state that there will be no more branches since enlightenment (that ontological break-through) leads to the other-worldly nirvana, I share the Mahayana view (esp. Tiantai) that enlightenment and nirvana are this-worldly phenomena from which we benefit within our lifetime. With an enlightened mind, our roots, the trunk and the branches all transform. We see our personality traits, emotions, fears, desires, and worldviews in the context of our past, our local surrounding (society, culture) and our cognitive capacities. We see how our past experiences form layers around our very core personality, the Buddha-Nature. In the next step, we disconnect the causal chains that control our decisions and choices. We see how sense and meaning are constructed in our mental processes and gain the ability to step back from it, question the strategies, apply different ones and get less dependent on the pre-shaped ones. Many branches, then, lose their significance and shrink. We see how others construct meaning and why they act like this or that within the thematic margins of certain branches, and we gain the empathic skills of compassion and loving-kindness.

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by Alex Grey

Gotta go fast!

Western and Eastern Philosophies are, in some respects, fundamentally different. One of those obvious differences is the idea of how to describe the world. Basically (without the slightest claim to be complete), the Western philosophers were and are realists that tried/try to use language as a high precision tool to come as close as possible to the reality (which often is equivalent to truth). On the contrary, the Eastern thinkers knew that language is a construction that can never suffice in capturing all features of the world. Therefore, they recommended to give up even trying. Most ancient texts sound like poetry to us. This is because it was believed that a narrative approach using poetic stories that trigger our imagination and feelings is more potent in explaining the unexplainable. This is aptly illustrated by the first two lines of Laozi’s (老子) Daodejing (道德經):

道可道,非常道。The Dao that can be talked about is not the eternal Dao
名可名,非常名。The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The core idea of Daoism (as far as I understand it) is the incongruity between the actuality and our perception of it (and, hence, our communication about it). We simply cannot reach the Dao. Whenever we get active (which includes thinking, speaking, feeling, etc.) we construct “world” by spanning up poles (Yin and Yang) that bring us further away from the central point of harmony (the Dao). It draws a clear argument against intellectual reasoning as a tool to get closer to the Dao, since words as cognitive constructions obscure the real Dao (which is beyond any construction including language) even more. Here, Daoism overlaps with Buddhism: The way to the Dao (to enlightened harmony) is mindful awareness that is best practiced as wuwei (無為, a kind of “finding comfort in doing nothing”, or “going with the flow”), comparable to meditation that facilitates the attempt to free oneself from ignorance and attachment. In simple (Western) words, that could mean that art serves the goal of enlightenment better than philosophy (in Eastern understanding, art is a legitimate tool of philosophising). Don’t talk, just let the impressions stream into you freely, and you will know! I stumbled across this illustration, that describes this line of thought perfectly:

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The Dao (the whole perfect image) doesn’t need many words. Now, there are two ways to go on from here: (1) The more words we use, the more the image gets blurry and ugly, or (2) the more we get away from the Dao the more words we need to compensate the lack of clarity that is created by our drifting away from the Dao. I am especially a friend of the second interpretation, as also noticeable in my letter on complexity. Since I am not a good artist or poet, I need many words to make my point, being fully aware of my distance to the Dao. At this point, I try to avoid a prescriptive statement on whether it is “better” to overcome language and reduce the word count in favour of stimulating images and illustrations, or whether it is wrong of western philosophical approaches to spend so much time on language clarification. Probably, there is not “the (one) right way” that could legitimately disqualify all other ways as inappropriate. However, this central thought of Chinese philosophy which is very much in line with contemporary constructivism makes pretty much sense to me and is worth reflection in order to sharpen awareness of the flaws of our language usage. Not here, in this letter, but in daily life, every day, everywhere. Gotta go fast…

A Simple Letter on Complexity

I wrote a long letter to you because I had no time to write a short one.

This quote, probably first written by French philosopher Blaise Pascal in a letter to a friend (source: “Letters to a friend in the provence”, Letter No.16: “Jesuit Defamations”), can be taken as an “excuse” for my long letters to you. Do they always have to be that long, 4000 words or more, like academic essays? Well, we can say it negatively: Unfinished and deluded thoughts require more space than clear, finished, concluded thoughts. My elaborations are simply not “round”, yet. I just note down what comes to my mind. Look at other letters (for example other people’s blogs or facebook entries). Some post a photo, often a meme with a wise statement, and write a few reflections on it, straight to the point, simple, clear. However, to my defense, I have to say that the topics I choose to write about are simply not simple. It is impossible to reflect on Buddhist philosophy, constructivism, love, life, etc. by stating platitudes and simplistic prescriptions. The depth and complexity of life and other issues requires a certain degree of precision and a certain amount of information and knowledge. The only discipline that manages to say a lot without many words is poetry. But I am not a poet. I can’t create a whole big world of imagination and clear vision inside your mind with just a few words that induce emotions and atmospheres. Let’s see it positively: More words increase the chance that at least some of them make sense to you (or whoever reads or hears them). A good teacher will also explain a complicated issue in different ways in order to make sure that all types of learners (visual, auditive, kinesthetic, etc.) have a chance to understand it.

I am very critical with recent developments in our society: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other “social media” platforms promote a simplistic and dumb entertainment culture. People scroll through posts, photos and videos and pay attention to mostly visual triggers that promise short-term fun and simple food for the brain. More than 5 lines to read? “Go away with that!”. People have the same questions as ever since: “What’s this all about? Who am I and why? What shall I do?”. They expect answers in memes and platitudes, but are not willing to read through a meaningful essay or even a book. They watch cat videos and, at best, 10 minutes TED talks in which decades of research and insights are condensed into populist, easy to understand, narrowed-down, entertaining information. As an effect, people pre-form meaning and construct experience from it (superstitions, religious beliefs, dogmatism, scientism, etc.), instead of constructing meaning from experience. The rise of the “secular age” was a huge step forward from the “clerical age”, the dark age of religious delusion and uneducated incapable society. But now, in the “post-secular society” which we might call “information society”, people fall back into old patterns: too lazy to read, too hedonistic to challenge the intellect, too busy with profanities to spare time for actively searching for meaningful inspirations for increasing life quality.

answers

World constructions are complex. Talking about them requires complexity, too, if we don’t want to lose all their facets and richness out of sight. There is nothing wrong with entertainment and fun, but without learning and open-minded interestedness it makes you dull, in the same way as eager studying and narrow-minded intellectual focus without joy makes you frustrated and careworn. Both extremes are not desirable. However, I am firmly convinced that it is a good idea to encourage you to read books and to talk about insights and ideas, and to motivate your curiosity and interest in everything that is going on around you. There is never nothing going on. I hope, the complexity of the world is positively challenging and astonishing rather than frightening and scary for you. The generation of fools staring at screens and looking for simple answers (if asking at all) is already big enough. We need people who enjoy encountering the complex contemporary challenges of mankind and this planet and who are willing to acquire knowledge by reading through long texts. Seeing through this complexity is the first step towards a clearer (and therefore somehow “simpler”) mind, for your own life quality and that of the planet.

So, what about the initial quote? Now, there are two ways of interpreting it: First, it means that short, condensed, clear and yet deep texts need more reflection and more time to be written. In a very literal sense I have no time for that, next to my actual job and taking care of you. But I also don’t want to condense my thoughts but let them all out and bombard you with the full load of ideas. Second, in view of my statement about complexity and complex topics requiring a certain length, I also have no time to write “short” texts on meaningless or shallow things in the sense that it would be a waste of time. I’d rather sometimes spend more time on something meaningful than often a bit of time for something shallow. Someday you may decide whether you appreciate that or not.

Book recommendations:

J Kluger, “Simplexity – Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)“, Hyperion, 2009

V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini (eds.), “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity“, Kluwer Academic, 2003

C Gershenson, D Aerts, B Edmonds (eds.), “Worldviews, Science and Us: Philosophy and Complexity“, World Scientific Pub., 2007