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FRANCISCO VARELA (1946 - 2001)*
June 6, 2001 10:47 PM   Subscribe

FRANCISCO VARELA (1946 - 2001)* One of the more quietly influential thinkers of our times. A neuroscientist turned immunologist whose formulation of the theory of autopoiesis (with Humberto Maturana) has challenged conventional thinking in areas as diverse as Artificial Intelligence, Ecology and AIDS research.
The mathematics of self-reference involves creating formalisms to reflect the strange situation in which something produces A, which produces B, which produces A. That was 1974. Today, many colleagues call such ideas part of complexity theory.
On 28th of May, Varela's own autopoiesis ceased.
*pointer via fmh
posted by lagado (7 comments total)

 
Autopoesis was one one of my favorites, though I could never find an in-print version I could legally purchase.

Tree of Knowledge is a good introduction to his and Maturana's ideas.
posted by bison at 8:07 AM on June 7, 2001


Wow, he was young. I never realized that. Very sad. He had a lot left to contribute.
posted by rodii at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2001


Is the Autopoesis you are referring to a book, bison? I read Tree of Knowledge some time ago and found their approach very interesting.

Unfortunately while searching the web I found that I couldn't dig up a nice and easy summary of autopoiesis to go with the link. Apart from quite a number of inpenetrable phd theses which make reference to their work, I was surprised at how little these ideas have penetrated into the body of usually very good amateur science of the web. This is particularly surprising given the best-selling popularity of Artificial Intelligence, "A-Life", Chaos and Complexity theory etc etc.

I guess there are no nice and easy summaries for Autopoiesis.

Amongst other things Maturana and Varela helped turn Cognitive Science and AI research on its head by arguing against models the classical AI approach of using "repesentation" in models of the mind.

In Good Old Fashioned AI (GOFAI) (which still has failed to deliver on its grand program) it is held that the mind carries around a map or model of its environment with it and it is this representation which informs all of its actions. Classical AI is about building that map from sensory input and then using that map to drive actions. It's been described as the sensory-symbolic binding "problem".

Autopoiesis is a "situated" approach (ie includes the envoronment where the organism is situated as an integral component) and denies the existence of this modelling. Instead of seeing the brain as a black box with "inputs" and "outputs" the argument goes that it is a self contained or closed network of self reference which is modulated by its coupling with its environment.

In this theory all knowledge is constructed (rather than input as "information"). There is in a sense no difference to the mind between a hallucination, a dream and a real experience. "Reality" makes itself tangible through reinforcement.

Like I said I couldn't find any good summaries and this certainly ain't one.

It's at its core a theory of life and yes he was certainly too young to have passed away.
posted by lagado at 7:48 PM on June 7, 2001


Varela's home page at the Centre de Calcul Recherche et RĂ©seau Jussieu in Paris.
posted by lagado at 7:56 PM on June 7, 2001


Autopoeisis and Cognition was published as part of a series called Synthese (if I remember right). I think Kluwer is the publisher. Synthese is a huge collection of monographs on logic, linguistic philosophy, logical positivism, philosophy of mind and the more mathematical areas of linguistics and psychology. It sells mainly to libraries, so Kluwer keeps it in print about ten minutes after publication. Everyone I know who has it (including me, somewhere) has a photocopy.
posted by rodii at 8:06 PM on June 7, 2001


Oops, sorry, not even close, the publisher is Reidel, and the series is BSPS. Very like Synthese. Very expensive and out of print. Also very technical and jargon-laden, not very accessible. Tree of Knowledge is probably more useful anyway.

Autopoiesis and Cognition : The Realization of the Living (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, V. 42)
posted by rodii at 8:15 PM on June 7, 2001


Thanks, rodii. I'll see if I can find it (preferably on the web).
posted by lagado at 9:35 PM on June 7, 2001


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