Why a Science of Mind Implies the Transcendence of Nature

God and Computers: Minds, Machines, and Metaphysics (Part 5)

November 11, 1997

Have you ever wondered how your brain creates your conscious experience? Francisco Varela explores the intersection of science and spirituality, offering a fresh perspective on the age-old mind-body problem. Drawing inspiration from Buddhist teachings, he argues that our everyday human experience is the key to unlocking the mysteries of consciousness. Varela proposes a research program called neurophenomenology, which aims to bridge the gap between brain activity and subjective experience. Through engaging examples and insightful explanations, he demonstrates how the exploration of consciousness can lead to both scientific advancements and a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Presented at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.




Welcome, all, to the fifth lecture of the fall lecture series God and Computers: Minds, Machines, and Metaphysics. Let me first announce, like I always do: we have a discussion group going on in parallel to this lecture series, which is run by Professor Harvey Cox from Harvard Divinity School and me. And we meet the next time on November 24 at Harvard Divinity School at 12 o’clock. Harvard Divinity School is at 45 Francis Avenue over at Cambridge. For more information, please give me an email. My email address is annef@ai.mit.edu. When you visit my homepage or the AI lab event page, you can also find the abstracts for all the talks in the series. And please feel free to visit and to go around and watch.


Just to give people who are today here the first time a little hint where we are right now in the series, we have started with four lectures on where we kind of had from different angles—from an engineer’s angle, a mythology angle, a neuroscientist angle, and an AI angle—what the human factor is, what human intelligence is: what makes us special or what makes us not special.


We are right now in the second part of the series, where we have four different points of view where scientists present more or less personal accounts on how they deal with existential issues within and outside their research. Last week, we had a very personal account from a Christian perspective done by Federico Girosi, who is here at MIT. Today we will hear a Buddhist perspective. Next week, we will have a Jewish perspective. And in two weeks we will have a Hindu perspective—all on these questions.


And I’m now very happy, very glad, and very proud to welcome Francisco Varela, who is currently director of research at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience in the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. He studied, first, medicine at the University of Santiago de Chile, and later, biology at Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1970. He went later back to Chile, but was forced to leave after the putsch and went to Boulder, where he became director of epistemological research at the Naropa Institute.


What fascinates me specifically about his work, that he really always combines strict empirical research with philosophical reasoning. And so he was therefore enormously influential in both current epistemological theories and neuroscientific research. He even was influential for technology, because Rodney Brooks—the director of the iLab, who gave his talk two weeks ago—bases his technology on Francisco Varela’s work.


He wrote numerous books. I just want to mention two, which is The Tree of Knowledge, from 1987, and The Embodied Mind from 1992. And started (and this is also one of the reasons why I invited him today) many years ago to work intensively together with the Dalai Lama. He just edited a book called Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: an Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama, and published several other books on Buddhism and neuroscience. And I’m very glad and very happy that you came all the way from Paris to share with us your thoughts on cognitive science and Buddhism. Welcome.



Thank you very much. It is a real pleasure. I am not sure that I can live up to your very generous depiction of what I can or can possibly do. I am going to be quite a bit more modest in what I would like to share with you today, which is to address the question that is behind this entire series, God and Computers. As I said in my abstracts, I would like to put myself very comfortably right in the middle. Because I don’t believe particularly in a theistic or god position, nor am I a computer expert. However, what I would like to bring in—and that’s maybe where the Buddhist influence does show up in me—is that I do very strongly pursue and hold to the position that human experience (simple, ordinary, lived, everyday, direct, first-person human experience) is essential. And it’s essential, and that’s the main point today. For me, both—and there is no contradiction here, as far as I can see—both for the scientific study of mind today and for a quest for meaning, significance, in our own existence, which is what I consider spirituality, which is very much the take of the tradition of Buddhism.


So the challenge for me today is then to try and point out a couple of points where I see that these two perspectives—human experience being at the center—how does it enter necessarily, inescapably, into a good, modern cognitive neuroscience or cognitive science, and at the same time how, properly understood, this opens up necessarily (or inescapably also) into a quest for human values and meaning that is a religious or spiritual dimension?


So let me start with experience. Now, as you know, I’m not going to bore you with a lot of background, because it’s been in the media. It’s been in the literature. The question of consciousness—first-person or human experience—within the modern science or modern cognitive neuroscience, I should say, has been flaming up recently. Oodles of books. There’s sort of a book boom on the topic. The way I like to see it is by going back to a very interesting way of phrasing it by somebody from MIT, Roy Jackendoff, who, many years ago, published a very pioneering book on consciousness and the computational mind. And he phrased the question by saying, well, you have a computational mind, a process of sorts, then you have a body and a brain. That kind of circulation, we can get our hands on. That’s just good science. The real issue here is the relationship between the computational mind and the phenomenological logical mind. That is, here, the technical term phenomenology throughout my lecture, please understand it as being synonymous with direct access to human experience. Okay? So I’m going to use the Western tradition of phenomenology—i.e. post-Husserlian phenomenology—in the same sense as in the Buddhist tradition one actually addresses direct experience by direct examination, rather than by any other possible means. And as Jackendoff pointed out, there is really not a mind-body problem, there is a mind-mind problem: the computational phenomenological issue.


Now, the main point that I would like to sketch for you today is that what we need—and it is not so difficult to find—is to build a passage, or a circulation, between these two forms of mind; the computational and the phenomenological mind. Instead of considering them as absolutely opposite or impossible to blend, or forever apart—what is the famous words? “The twain shall never meet?”—the point here is that, yes, not only they can meet, they are in fact two aspects of the same reality. But in order to really make that productive beyond words, we need to avail ourselves with new tools, new perspectives, and particularly new methods.


The two points that are central for me is, on the one hand, to actually understand: how can we build an active circulation between the computational or biological or neurobiological side and the phenomenological side? That’s going to be the first part of what I’m going to say today. And the second essential resource we need to put back onto the table that has been thoroughly neglected—certainly within science, and by and large in the Western tradition—is a method for examination of experience that is a proper phenomenological method. So both things are going to lead me into (hopefully, in time) the end of this talk.


Now, please bear with me. It’s going to be, I think—I hope—a relatively tight argument that I’m going to try to develop. There is not much time. So please bear with me if it is a little bit too fast track, as it’s fashioned today. Let me just first of all start by giving an example of the kinds of issues that come up when you ask the question, “Is there a circulation?” So this is chapter one: reciprocal mutual circulation between phenomenological and neurocomputational mind.


What kinds of issues do we find here—just to fix ideas; just so that this is not so vague? I just bring this one, which is one particularly illuminating. Again, understand this just as a mere example, not as a demonstration on anything. Everybody knows the famous Necker cube. You perhaps don’t know, but there is interesting literature that shows that if you look into the Necker cube, it is a bi-stable perception that shifts back and forth. And it takes time to shift back and forth. And, in fact, it goes from front to back and back to front with certain periodicity, which is not like a clockwork, but it has a certain frequency. And in fact, here, for example, you have, in the lines, indicate the moment when the perceiver actually sees the flip. And he just indicates that with a button, so you have a time series.


The interesting thing here is that when you now keep doing the same experiment, but you change perspectives, you do an easy Necker cube, and you move into a more difficult Necker cube—that is, by changing the angle of rotation—what you have is a very different distribution of this interval, of the inter-shift intervals, as indicated here: this one for this one, this one for that one.


Now, if you have any kind of familiarity with the neural basis of these sorts of bi-stable visual perceptions, you know that this is a classical demonstration of the dynamical quality of a process that is relatively bi-stable. There’s quite a bit of knowledge known about the circuitry behind it. Last year, a beautiful paper by a couple of researchers, Leopold and Logothetis, even showed how, in fact, recording from single neurons could anticipate the flip by a few hundred milliseconds.


And in fact, when you study the dynamics of these kinds of neuronal events, you do find this kind of dynamical setting. Here the setting is given by choosing your perspective. So precisely that’s the point: a global, perceptual, experiential perspective—that is, how you see the cube; and it is you, the first person, who is seeing the cube—is setting up a context of the underlying base (the neuronal machinery, if you want), so that you actually influence that local neuronal machinery, and that’s reflected in the rate of flip-flop. And in fact, in the case of the Logothetis experiment with monkeys, the expectation of the monkey could influence how the rate of discharge of certain neurons in the visual cortex would occur.


So that’s the kind of flavor that I want to convey. The example is meant to just give you the sense that it’s hard for me to understand—and I honestly say it is hard for me to understand—why is it so hard to understand that, when you have a complete perceptual, cognitive, conscious, or aware experience (that is, you’re looking at the Necker cube), this is not separable? In fact, it is a mutual up/down, or downwards and upwards, causation with the actual details of the local computations. And that the circulation between the two not only should not be seen as an impossibility, in fact, we see it all the time.


Now, the usual argument to deny this is—by the way, this is what I like to call the research project of neurophenomenology. Neurophenomenology is just a key word that I’m throwing out to mean precisely: how can we actually constructively build a research project (which has yet to be fully fleshed out) between these two levels—that is, the phenomenological level and the neurocomputational level—in active passages? Both upwards (from the neural into the conscious or into the phenomenological), and also reciprocally (backwards from the phenomenological), constraining the local phenomena?


Now, the usual claim today from people who oppose the idea of such a project—and I’m going to take two minutes to say this, because it’s really crucial to crack what I think is sort of an optical illusion of the issue of experience of phenomenological mind in the field of cognitive neuroscience—is that, in the current debate of consciousness, there is a large majority of people who would oppose the existence of this first-hand experience or first-person experience, the phenomenological level, by choosing either, most typically, a form of neural reductionism, saying ultimately we can do away with consciousness or with experience as some sort of epiphenomenon. It’s really not that interesting, except as a correlate of something else. Or the more moderate ones, also a very popular position, à la Dennett and a few others, would be some form of functionalist—that is, it doing something, but in fact, in itself, we don’t have possibly any access to it, nor is it something that can be active within scientific research. So this is just to situate my position that here, we have a whole constellation of people working in this domain, where, in fact, the claim is quite the opposite.


The argument is usually that, since we know (and it’s true) that there are very precise neural correlates or neural bases for a number of cognitive phenomenological processes—such as perception, motion, and so on and so forth—therefore, that’s the only one that counts. Now, that, of course, only proves that there are some objects of research that are at that level. It doesn’t prove that it is the only object of research that it is the interesting one. The third-person position, as it is usually described—this being the first-person position—is an interesting slippage of sense by saying that because there are levels which are reducible, therefore everything is reducible. It’s a funny kind of shift. All I’m saying—it’s something that to me is almost common sense—which is to say, there are some things that are reducible, there are other things that are not. There are some levels of descriptions that I admit that kind of put downward projection, but there are some that are not. And the whole issue is to find the right level of description, depending on what are you studying. Not everything can be studied at the same level.


Basic advantage, I would say, of the position I’m defending is actually quite obvious, because we all have this strange, fascinating thing we carry around, which is the body. And every time we look at the body, every time I move my arm, every time I touch, every time I look and take this glass, this gesture—and it is only within the realm of the bonding experience that this happens, that you have two irreducible facts together, inseparably together. On the one hand, there is the motion of the arm. There is all of the external description that I can do of how this is done. At the same time, and also as part of the data that phenomena is proposing to me, I have my experience of seeing the glass and drinking it. Again, all I’m saying is that these two sets of data need to go together, and they are irreducible. There are some levels at which they touch. There are some levels at which they do not. If you ask me: do I have an experience? Do I have a possible access, conscious access, to the discharge of the neuron 125 of the motor cortex? Probably not. But if I have access to the perception of the glass, or the actual flip-flop of the Necker cube, the answer seems to be yes. Okay. So the body, to me, provides what I consider the most irreducible source of arguments for the inseparability of these two kinds of phenomena.


Now, in order to move just one step more into the direction I want to go, I need to again shift back into a mode of illustration, so that we move away from the very general statements into some—you have the flavor, a specific whiff—of the kinds of things that I try to do in the laboratory. How does this articulation of these two irreducible levels actually work out?


Now, here, one of the topics that is most interesting to illustrate what I’m trying to do is, in fact, a more profound and a more constitutive event than the flip-flop of a Necker cube, which is time. And therefore, let me just use as illustration the neurophenomenology of present-time consciousness. How is the time now actually seen from this neurophenomenological perspective? In order to do that, it makes sense we have to see a phenomenological side, and we have to see the neural side.


So let me start—again, time (here) is playing the role of one of those events where, by having a body, these two things are mixed together. This is not one of those objects that it is easy to reduce, nor is it one of those phenomenological events that has no link to actual neural substrates or bodily substrate. But the first contribution has to come—or if you will start with a contribution coming from phenomenology—we hit upon what I would say is already the announcement, the opening, into my second message here, which is that you say: what is now? We all understand how you experience grabbing a cup. But now you ask yourself the question: what is now? How do you experience right now? What is the nature of that experience?


Well, in fact, there are many examples in the literature. You can read, for example, the famous paper by Kinsbourne and Dennett, where—or in the book by Roy Jackendoff himself—where the whole issue is simply taken by saying: oh, time is just this point, and there is a little duration, there is a little glob, around it, but basically that’s what it is.


What phenomenology—and please, if you would like to take something home from what I’m saying, this might be one of the things that I would like to take home and consider—one of the messages from phenomenology, both Western and Buddhist, is the observation that when it comes to the study of experience, just a casual, cursory inspection is not enough. It is not enough to simply say: oh, I’ll just look. Because when you just look, in fact, you pretend to be an expert of something which you have never done. As if by listening to sounds, you would be automatically a musician. Or by having a body, you would be a doctor. That, of course, is nonsense.


For example of time it’s particularly beautiful, because when you do an analysis of time—and I’m taking this now straight from the phenomenological tradition of the Western philosophy; in this case, the late work of Husserl and a few other contributors later on—the structure of present time turns out to be an extremely complex and interestingly layered phenomenon. In fact, in particular, not only does it have what many people, including the casual inspection of say, à la Kinsbourne and Dennett shows, that the present—or William James, for that matter; the idea of the species present that he beautifully describes in chapter twelve, I think it is, of The Principle of Psychology. Why did he call it the species present? It is because it has this funny quality of having a center and a periphery. It is not like a continuous line. It has a center and periphery, much like the visual foveal and peripheral vision in the visual system. But that center periphery has, in itself, a structure, which is partly what he called the retentional threads, which make what I see still part of the present without invoking memory—which is still another phenomenon. That’s already an interesting distinction. And at the same time, the opening, or the setting, of the boundary conditions for what is going to come next. That’s what Husserl called the static or transversal intentionality, or the three-part structure of temporality. That three-part structural temporality is actually inseparable from the non-discontinuous, non-central periphery, or continuous flow of the possibility of time, where these moments of time emerge, which you can call the flow. And, in fact, when you examine the longitudinal intentionality of time, or the genetic constitution of time, what you find is that it is inseparable from affective dispositions, or affect, or emotional tone sets.


Now, you can say: how do you know all of that? Well, I’m not demonstrating it to you. But there is all kinds of published and to be published and ongoing research, like in any other literature, that will point to the kinds of observations that you can do to provide, to stuff up, to actually give the ground, for these kinds of conclusions. And I’m just bringing this as an example how, by applying in detail very precise analyses of experience that does not show up under cursory inspection, you can come up with a structure that is both surprising and interesting. Central periphery with these dynamical retentions of the just passed, and the opening into the future, and the constitution through affect, and the permanent flow.


At the same time, these kinds of observations can be mixed, with no, at all, immediately suggested the flip side of what neuroscience can tell us. Because when you do a third-person perspective (and then, again, I’m now going back to what comes from the cognitive neuroscience) it has been known for many years that time, indeed, has the behavior of animals—ethologists know this, and it is part of research that you can see, even in the old days of EEG—that time comes in globs which lasts about 500 milliseconds. It’s a rough estimate. In other words, it’s a perceptual frame what it takes to constitute a perception or a moment of behavior. For example, here, when an animal has an orienting reaction, you turn your head, and you foveate, because you hear a sound. And then, the next moment, once you reorient and foveate, I recognize a face. Neurobiologically, it has been known that takes about that kind of time. And again, I cannot go into the details.


What is interesting is that recently, there is a very interesting idea how that description can be provided with a mechanism of how that moment, those moments of cognitive present, arise through a specific mechanism, which is a process of very fast synchronization, or temporal coherence, in very distributed brain ensembles or brain assemblies, as is sometimes said, that might be dispersed throughout the nervous system. And it is one of the current hypotheses much studied by many labs today, including ourselves, how that kind of synchronicity—which is based on an actual electrical oscillation—can provide the glue for distributed assemblies to become what is under the constitution of this behavior, such as foveation and recognition.


And you can observe that—just to make things, again, concrete. These are some recent data from my lab. By looking at, say, human patients that have electrodes implanted into their brains because they’re epileptic, and they’re awaiting epileptic resection. Now, when you do that, these people are willing, sometimes, to work with us and provide answers to simple cognitive experiments, such as discrimination of visual objects, or simple working memory tasks. But at the same time, we have a whole bunch of electrodes in this case—about 24 electrodes—distributed throughout their brain, and we can actually study this exact process of emergence of their experience of the discrimination while they are doing it, under the hypothesis that what we are observing is titrating this constitution of the present through the establishment of synchrony.


Again, this is just a way of giving you a little whiff of the story of how you can then proceed to investigate neurophenomenologically by putting these two things together—in other words, the person actually engaged in the experience with his own account, his own phenomenology, and the results of the recordings and the phenomena that give rise to that moment of experience—this is just the kind of results you can get. Excuse me, it’s complicated. But you will see in a minute, it’s not that bad. These are four electrodes implanted in a particular patient: two that go all the way from the back of the head, through the limbic system, into the head of the amygdala, and these other two in the frontal that go through the frontal lobes, down into the cingulate cortex.


So what you have here, every point here represents widely distributed places in the brain. And you can see that this patient, while he’s recognizing an illusory contour, in this case—either recognizing it or not—when there is a red line, we have drawn a red line where you can find a statistically very robust synchrony between these very distant places—in this case, for example, the anterior hippocampus and the anterior cingulate gyrus of the other side of the brain. Far apart. Okay. Doesn’t happen everywhere. There are some local phenomena—in other words, adjacent places of recording—and it does happen between distant places. Some of you—






No. In this case are local field potentials. Because they are small; maybe a few millimeters in diameter local fields. You could do the same thing if you had access to the cells—which has been done, as you perhaps know. Thanks for the clarification. I know that those of you who are not into this kind of field, this doesn’t mean anything. Just take it as an example of the sort of thing that can be done if you are working in the lab with this kind of material.


Good. What does this buy us in terms of where we’re trying to go? Well, the main point I’m trying to set now, back to the general issue, is that when we think about the relationship between the mind–mind gap—the phenomenology and the computational mind—there are many ways in which from—and I’m going to move now from what I consider more or less trivial into more or less interesting ways of establishing the connection. The most classical, the most reductionistic way is of this kind. You can find it in any psychology textbook you care to examine. Where, if you have phi, here, it’s some kind of neurobiological terms—say, synchronicity between distant brain sizes and brain sites—and psi are some phenomenal terms, such as “I see the illusory contour.” And then the argument is usually—this is a formulation due to David Taylor. It says phi looks like psi, therefore it explains it. So the synchronicity looks like the constitution of a moment of perception, therefore that’s it. You’ve got it. Now that, again, would violate the irreducibility that I was referring to before.


A little better is what you might call a more soft path. That’s the hard path, if you want. A more soft path consists of just pointing at what you might call a phenomenal isomorphism, not an analytical isomorphism, where you establish the parallels, such as synchronous cell assemblies, temporal retention, for example. Okay? We’re back to the example I just mentioned. Or efference copy in the motor system and voluntary action. Or the perception of the other and these beautiful, recently described mirror neurons in the cortex described by Rizzolatti, where the neuron fires when the monkey moves the arm, but it also fires just as much when another monkey moves the arms in front of him. Okay? That’s why he calls them mirror neurons. And you say: oh wow, that’s great. So that is the neuronal basis of the perception of another.


Again, you can take that into the linking proposition mode and say that’s it, or, as many people do today—and this is again referring to the literature as it’s going on—they’ve taken more soft path and say: well, we don’t know. There is some kind of isomorphism. This is the old idea of the neurophenomenal duality. And you leave that with big question marks, and you stop there.


Well, what I’m trying to propose is that you can actually bridge that by building active constraints in both directions. And this is how it would go. You would take phenomenological data—but again, if you avail yourself with the right kind of precision that is required, and the right kind of fundamental adequacy of the method to unfold what is present within experience—that gives rise to some descriptive invariance. And I’ll come back to that when I go back to method in a moment. In other words, the data in itself is deaf, but you can actually describe that into patterns such as you saw, in the case of time, with the longitudinal transversional intentionality. That’s a pattern that comes from many, many observations. You build an invariance, and into a formal description that lends itself because it is an invariant and a description, to some models and descriptions—such as you can use in this case it’s very adequate dynamical models—which again leads itself into naturalistic implementations which could be artificial. In this case, the implementation is neuronal.


So there you have a way of actually not just saying these two things are next to each other, but of actually building the necessary passages that connect one with the other. For example, you could say—if you take this perspective—that you have to immediately discard any form of naturalistic implementation of time. That would be a continuous time flow, as in a classical computer system. That would be absolutely out from the beginning, if you respect the fact that this phenomenological data constrains the way the actual machinery could or should work. Now, of course, that’s not necessarily a problem, because it is immediately obvious that that’s not the case.


So again, to summarize that point again, it’s like saying that neural phenomenology, in this sense, has what I like to describe as a triple braid. On the one hand, you need a formal precision to make the passage possible between the two descriptions. The second is that you need to find the kinds of processes—and in the case at hand, it is the process of synchrony that would be the right candidate—which is situated at the junction between the phenomenological level and the biological sources. You shouldn’t go to, say, membrane properties, which are in themselves fundamental data. But you shouldn’t go to that level, because it wouldn’t be helpful for the junction. And then, third—and I’m back to this point—the explicit and pragmatic methodology of examination where the lived experience and the actual bodily base interpenetrate.


Okay. Take a breath. We’re going to the next part, which is—you’re going to ask me, I hope, at this point: so how do you do it? This is all great, but how do you do it? So far you’ve said you can do it. Now I’m going to spend the next ten or so minutes trying to say a few things about what is it that you do, and how that leads into the examination of experience in the way we need to touch upon here.


Now, first of all, let me say that the whole question of the phenomenology of experience, and I’ve said it before, is really a blind spot in the Western tradition. So to me, it’s really an absolute fantastic discovery to find that many of my colleagues, when they write about experience, can be so scholarly and so precise and so creative when it comes to describe naturalistic data, but can be so superficial when it comes to describe experience. And for example, while I can mention many examples, there is a book where it says, well, how are we going to solve the phenomenological descriptions to build a body of knowledge? It said, well, let’s just trust on human good will. And you say, well, that’s great. But what next? Okay.


Now, the reason we have to now ask that question in the flip mode, and say, why is it that it has been so much in the blind spot? And they think the reason is that it is not easy. And it is not easy because it takes a really solid retraining and relearning to do the appropriate discriminations that you need to do. So the negative side is that these things are not simple to do. Now, the positive side is that when you do them, you have an actual rich source of data that you can do, that you can mobilize, that you can put into the service of a program such as the neurophenomenology of time. Okay.


So what is it that you need to work with? And here again, I’m using both Western phenomenology and using a lot of the phenomenology of experience as it comes down from the Buddhist tradition. Because that’s—if you want—that’s their specialty. That’s what they have to contribute to the patrimony of mankind. The whole thing is, in fact, based on a—as it should—on a very ordinary human capacity, which is that, not surprisingly, of being all of a sudden able of becoming aware of, of reflecting on.


Now, let me make a distinction here between reflection and reflectiveness. Reflection is the usual sense: a thought, thinking upon a thought or an idea, associating an idea. What I mean about reflection is a different kind of mental capacity or human capacity, which is that there is a sudden suspension of the habitual association of thought into a mode where you say, aha. There is that discontinuity, and you say, in English, you become aware of. All of a sudden, you can say, you become aware of. There is a sudden interruption. That capacity for reflectiveness is a little bit like going to a movie. You can either watch the film go by, all of a sudden, you can step out and see, oh, the movie’s there, and this is the color of the cinema. And you can make some observations about the way the film on the screen is set up, and so on and so forth. Or if you’re studying, say, memory with a subject, you say, give me some evocations of your past, the first thing that the subject is going to do is to tell your stories about his past. Very rarely he will be in a position of actually examining what is it that he does when he brings memory back. Not the content, but the process. Okay? That’s the key to the notion of phenomenological reduction, is to move from content to process. To shift one level up.


That particular capacity, it is not a mysterious one. It is a very common and ordinary human capacity. What happens is that, like for music into musicians, like from walking into becoming skiers, it is not enough to have it. It has to be cultivated. It has to be pursued in a very systematic way. And the cycle—just trying to make a decision, because of time, what to skip here. You noticed? Okay.


So you can say: alright, great. I know it can reflect, so what do I do with that? Well, both in the phenomenological Western tradition and in the Buddhist tradition, what you’re asked to do is to actually cultivate that to become an expert into the following gesture, into the following fundamental gesture, which is, on the one hand, to induce those kinds of suspensions or breaks or bracketings. Those can be induced either spontaneously, or you can train yourself to induce them. That is like flipping out. The reflectiveness gesture. Then the next move is not just to establish yourself firmly—train that muscle, as it were—but then to actually work with that into the next step, which is that the process is not just a reflection of what is it that you’re looking, but actually, you do the second move, which is perhaps the more subtle one, which is of letting that position of being the observer be very relaxed. This happens all the time if you are a master skier or a master flutist. The beginner learns her technique and is all tied up. The master is the one who can do a gesture and then relax into it. And you cannot be a master unless you can relax with the purposeful, or the intentional, technique. In this case, in the case of reduction, phenomenological reduction is exactly the same thing. You have to learn how to induce the suspension, and then you have to learn how to let it go, to put it down.


And in that putting it down, what happens is something that happens to all of us—again, spontaneously, but the whole point is to cultivate it systematically—which is that whatever it is that you’re examining (for example, time) can be looked at now from many different variants or perspectives. It appears, it shows up, in a fresh, in a different way. It appears in ways in which you were not used to seeing. And that’s what we call intuition. That’s what we call insight. So, as Husserl said, you build up variance, or eidetic variance, on a given domain and a given set of data—time and motion, whatever it is. And then out of that set of variance you can actually extract the pattern. That’s what I referred to before as the invariances. And that gives you the possibility of, say, building up the kinds of diagrams that I showed.


Now, as a little summary there, so the first thing you need is the attitude of bracketing or suspending, which leads to intuition, the kind of intimacy of direct evidence that is proper to a direct examination. Which leads to invariance that can enter into next-level descriptions. But none of that is possible without a very solid training. The stability, the pragmatics that needs to develop over the course of time.


Now, it is said in the Buddhist tradition, for example, that although it is easy to start, it is very hard to become a real fluid practitioner. And by practitioner here, all we mean is a good phenomenologist. The reason, again, is simple. Anything that you need to learn requires that kind of engagement. And it just, again, befuddles me why is it that it appears that we should become instant experts about our own experience when we know we cannot be instant experts about anything—just about. We all need that kind of engagement.


But suppose that we have the interest and the stamina and the guts—by the way, Husserl was a real exception. Because you can say: where did he learn it from? Well, if you read his material, it’s amazing how much you can see this kind of reduction in action. He not only came up with fantastic descriptions about time, he also anticipated a whole bunch of things that we know today in neuroscience about space, about affection, affect, I should say, emotionality, intersubjectivity, and a whole bunch of other things. You say, how did he do it? Well, it seems that Husserl, you can see it in action, in fact, he was probably a very gifted person. Like, if I might say so, a bit of the Mozart of reduction. Now, not all of us have that kind of luck, and most of us have to work hard. And working hard for what? Well, it depends on what you want to do. But if you’re interested, I say, in neurophenomenology, that kind of training is necessary in order to actually understand how to mobilize the resources of your own experience.


But there is another motivation. And that’s where the Buddhist angle comes into here—and don’t worry, I will end in time—which is that when you take this attitude to your own experience of seeing that whatever it is that comes up in everyday, ordinary experience can be deepened, can be explored, can be unfolded, can be enfolded by applying a disciplined, sustained cultivation. Yes, you can do some interesting research. I hope that I have at least suggested that direction. But also, again, inseparable from that discovery of the structure of experience, you begin to discover a few things about yourself. In other words, it touches what you might call the existential dimension of experience. And that’s where, in the Buddhist tradition, there are not really scientists in that sense. They’re not interested in empirical accounts—although they might; in fact, they are, but not true historically. They’re much more interested in how that kind of training, that kind of discipline, leads to a human transformation, leads to a spiritual quest.


So you can say: well, tell me. How does it lead? Again, let me give you an example. When you carry on the process of systematic, sustained reduction into the observation, for example, of the question, how is your own identity constituted? What is it to be a you? Not what is it to be a bat, but what is it to be a you, what is it to be a me? One of the first things that comes up, and it’s considered to be sort of Buddhism 101, or practitioner 101 insight—and it’s readily confirmed whenever you engage sufficiently in this kind of training—is that what is interesting about the nature of myself, when I say, what is it myself? Where do I find it? How do I find it? What is its nature? What is its texture? Is that under eidetic variations, when you submit that process repeatedly under examination, what you see is that the nature of the self, as it is said, is precisely that it is unfindable. The nature of its unfindability: it is a sudden insight, intuition. You get this new realization which is not particularly abstract. It is very intuitive. It is very direct. It is very intimate. Into what? Into a realm of phenomena which is quite radical. Which is the non-findability.


In the old days you used to say, people used to translate this non-findability of saying, no-self. Well, it’s not quite no-self. It is unfindable self. And you can say: “Oh yes, I understand. My self is just an association of stories that I’m telling myself.” And you can have a very elaborate theory about how your self is a composite entity. Many scientists do. In fact, lots of people who write upon consciousness do. That’s not the point. The point is: why is it that we’ll continue to behave as if we had a very solid reference and a very solid fixed point of view to defend, to maintain, to sustain, to distinguish, and to create—in the ultimate analysis—a whole bunch of trouble for those around us?


The point here is that this kind of examination, it’s not the one that it is purely the intellectual analysis. The intellectual analysis leads to the motivation into the sustained examination that leads to an insight that is transformative. That, to me, the core of the spiritual path. The spiritual because the direct intuition, the direct examination, actually changes you—which doesn’t necessarily do the mere or the pure logical analysis.


There’s an old text from the fifteenth century where a man called Shabkar said, “not finding anything is an incredible find.” Or actually, the Dalai Lama these days, he uses a very quaint colloquial Tibetan expression to express the same idea. He says, [zug-zug zuza mindu], which means, literally, “Nothing where my finger can go,” “There is no place to put my finger on.”


Now, I’m trying here to make you have the sense that it is quite different to say that, which is an understandable statement—and you can even analyze it and be very smart about the logical composition of that kinds of sentences—and the fact that that kind of statement contains an existential impact once it becomes yours by that kind of immediate knowledge. So that’s the main point here: that it is the existential impact of that kind of analysis that creates the opening into the spiritual dimension.


So let me try and get to the roundup of my presentation by saying I gave you, I hope, the argument to say that the nature of experience is way more interesting than we think. On the one hand, I think we can do a pretty good job at understanding experience from a perfectly reasonable scientific point of view if we avail ourselves of the neurophenomenological perspective as a research program, and if we avail ourselves with the proper training and the proper methods to actually exploit what’s in there. Once those two things are in place, I personally see absolutely no problem, or no conflict, between science and spirituality because, in fact, we’re talking about the same thing. We’re talking about what is contained in the nature of experience. You can take that nature of the richness of that experience into a good bit of science, or you can take it into a transformative path for your own life. That’s, of course, not a contradiction in terms at all.


And once it’s, to me, established as a frame or as a possibility, what I can—inevitably, I think, we have to conclude—is that the naturalistic events, the brains, the bodies, the neurons, seen from the point of view of the more existentially deep understanding of the nature of self, for example, acquire a transcendence. The neurons, all of a sudden, are not just these little blips out there, yet they are. They are not denying that there are calcium-dependent, potassium-dependent voltage currents, and so on and so forth. But there is a communication, a translucency, or a transparency, into the more existential dimension. At the same time, the purely very indescribable, sometimes, existential depths of one’s own experience, which is sometimes unsayable because unfindable, finds a very natural connection into the roots of nature and into what science is all about. So from that point of view, the title that I gave to this talk, it’s why a proper science of mind—i.e. with these two new resources that we need to put in—implies the transcendence of nature. That is, where the material and the spiritual are certainly non-dual, but transparent to each other. Thank you.


Two minutes late. I’m sorry.



Thanks very much, Francisco. We have—actually, we have nearly fifteen minutes for questions. We have definitely ten minutes. So do you want to take the questions, or…?






Yeah? Okay.



No, please. You be the chairman.



Yes, please.






Yes. Thank you. It’s a great question. Because indeed, like there is different kinds of little self-analysis in science and different motivations for doing it, there are different levels of analysis in the Buddhist phenomenology. There is, at least, I would say, two extremes and the whole gradation in between.


One is the kind of tradition in Buddhism which gives rise to the whole corpus of say, the so-called Abidharma tradition, which is the detail, I would say today, phenomenological psychology. The components of experience. This is very minute appearing. How many emotions can we discriminate? How does time appear? What is the nature of, for example, the perception of the other, and so on and so forth. That leads very much into a kind of a scientific dimension. And that’s where it’s easy to have a dialogue between cognitive neuroscience and Buddhism.


Then there is the more existential schools, or traditions—such as the so-called Dzogchen or Mahamudra traditions in the Tibetan school—where, in fact, the whole emphasis is much more on non-findability. And that idea of non-findability—or, as it is sometimes translated, as emptiness, or śūnya in the original Sanskrit term—is taken into more and more radical degrees. There is progressive stages in the understanding of that emptiness.


The little example vignette that I mentioned today about the non-findability of myself is but one stage, and that can be cultivated further, like anything else, into a real, if you want, naked form of non-perception or emptiness, where, of course, you have to choose your style, and you have to choose your fate and your preferences.



Yes, please. Morgan.



I just had two technical questions about the brain evidence. The first one was when you showed the information where you did the statistical correlations, you mentioned that those were epileptic patients. Did they have their corpus callosum intact?






Okay. And the second one was the mirror cortical neurons. I’m not familiar with those. Can you give us a pointer to that work, or—



Yes. You just look at Rizzolatti, Science, 1995.



Are those the interior parietal lobe?



Yes, the interior parietal lobe. Correct.



Yes, please.



Professor Brooks said in another lecture that there’s no subjectivity, if I understood him correctly. Now you are saying there is no self. Now, I think that this is a critically important thing, if we could go into this a little more slowly. Could you tell—when is your examination of the self exhausted? That is to say, did you go into the nature of this eidetic reduction, for example, you are saying, at some point, you are certain that there is no self. Or what is the nature of exhausting this examination to find—



There is no exhaustion. It’s an open question, as far as I’m concerned.



How can you state that there is no self?



No. I state that there is no self—first of all, I didn’t say no self. I qualified that by saying that the self is not findable. Very different. We do have a self. I’m Francisco. Hi. How are you? I have no problem with that. Nobody is trying to convince anybody you don’t exist. The question is: what is the nature of that existence? We have a mode of existence that deserves a really precise answer. And what the examination and phenomenological analysis yields, at the first level, is something quite simple. That is that this composite—first of all, it is a composite, but we can also deduce that even from science. And second, that it is not findable. As Dalai Lama says: you cannot put your finger on it.


Now, you can say: what gives you the right to say that? It gives me the right, the same right, that anybody who does a good experiment, who says, these are my conditions and observations. I go, and this is my method. This is what I see. That’s what I’ve been trying to propose to you. I don’t think that that’s final. It is one proposition for examination where we’re trying to be honest with each other and say: this is how I do it. This is what I see. Why don’t you check? I know that you have. But what I mean is: it’s the same kind of routine as any kind of examination. So yes, I can say it. Do I hold to that as some kind of ultimate truth? No, of course not. To me, the whole thing is an open question.



And I also would like to add that Rod didn’t say that there is not such a thing like subjectivity. He said that it’s not something to distinguish machines from humans. That computers can have that as well. But he never said anything like that there is not such a thing like subjectivity. Just to clarify for the people who haven’t been at Rodney Brooks’ talk. I wouldn’t like him to be presented in that—yes, please.



I’m really fascinated with a lot of things that you said. And I’m thinking in the life of—



I think you’ll have to speak up for the people in the back.



I’m thinking, in the life of a scientist—in my case a neuropsychologist—my colleagues are of the same bent, of life is divided up into being very reductionistic in the laboratory to find the answers. And many will take weekends, days, evenings, or weeks off to get in touch with themselves, to meditate, to revive themselves, so that they can go back to do more reductionistic work. The point being that this separating the phenomenological with the reductionistic, where you seem to be saying—at least I hope you’re saying—is that trying to integrate that, bringing that sense in the morning, in the evening, in the laboratory if possible, because they really do correlate.



Thank you. That’s precisely the point. That I must be stupid or something, but I fail to see why is it that these two things should be in conflict. Now, they are in conflict. We just hear the way we have been taught or we’ve been trained because of the assumptions that we’ve been carrying on from the history of science and the history of Western tradition. That’s fine. Nobody says we have to stay there. And what I’m trying to say, just to complement what you just pointed out, is that it is not enough to notice that this is happening. We have to avail ourselves with new tools to actually produce the change, so that this interpenetration can happen.


Now, it seems to me, stands to be absolutely to reason, that if you’re studying brains and minds and psychology, that kind of presence of experience, both in its mechanism and in its existential depths, it’s inescapable. We’re bound to find it. We try to chase it out through the door, and it comes back through the window, as it is said. And in the history of psychology, it’s a compulsive repetition of the same kind of gesture. So yes. That is very much the kind of vision that I’m trying to develop. And again, I must say, I’ve been very inspired in this by the Buddhist tradition. Because, in fact, Buddhism, as the question before pointed out, is very diverse, but in its spirit it’s very much that. It’s the ordinary, but the ordinary, but the entire depth of ordinariness. And so morning, evening, and weekends—no different.



We have time for one more question. Yes, please.



I’m comfortable with the idea that computers have computational lives. What about the idea that they have phenomenological lives?






Rod, do you want to answer that?



My answer is obvious from my talk two weeks ago.



No. I was just being facetious. I’ll be very straightforward here. I don’t know. In other words, what do I mean by no, no, it’s not just a way of avoiding the question is: it seems to me an open question. In principle, I see no objection, or no logical, or a priori reasoning or conclusion or observation that would lead me to rule that out. So a cog might, one day, in its fifth, tenth, or fortieth generation, become aware and have the same kind of empty self. Who knows? We don’t know. There is—it’s an open question for me.



Unfortunately, we have to stop here. I’m very sorry.



Okay. Thanks for having me.

Why a Science of Mind Implies the Transcendence of Nature

Francisco Varela


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