Francisco Javier Varela García (September 7, 1946 – May 28, 2001) was a Chilean biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist who, together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute to promote dialog between science and Buddhism.
Life and career
Varela was born in 1946 in Santiago in Chile, the son of Corina María Elena García-Tapia and Raúl Andrés Varela-Rodríguez. After completing secondary school at the Liceo Aleman del Verbo Divino in Santiago (1951–1963). Like his mentor Humberto Maturana, Varela first studied temporarily medicine at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile to graduate in biology at the University of Chile, and later obtain a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. His thesis, defended in 1970 and supervised by Torsten Wiesel, was titled Insect Retinas: Information processing in the compound eye.
Varela became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970s, initially studying, together with Keun-Tshen Goba, with the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Vajradhatu and Shambhala Training, and later with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a Nepalese meditation master of higher tantras.
In 1986, he settled in France, where he at first taught cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique, and neuroscience at the University of Paris. From 1988 until his death, he led a research group at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).
In 1987, Varela, along with R. Adam Engle, founded the Mind and Life Institute, initially to sponsor a series of dialogues between scientists and His Holiness The Dalai Lama about the relationship between modern science and Buddhism. The Institute continues today as a major nexus for such dialog as well as promoting and supporting multi-disciplinary scientific investigation in mind sciences, contemplative scholarship and practice and related areas in the interface of science with meditation and other contemplative practices, especially Buddhist practices.
Varela died in 2001 in Paris of Hepatitis C after having written an account of his 1998 liver transplant. Varela had four children, including the actress, environmental spokesperson, and model Leonor Varela.
Varela was primarily trained as a biologist, and was fundamentally influenced by his teacher and fellow Chilean, Humberto Maturana, also a biologist with a strong philosophical orientation.
Varela wrote and edited a number of books and numerous journal articles in biology, neurology, cognitive science, mathematics, and philosophy. He was a founding member of the Integral Institute, a thinktank dedicated to the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines.
Varela was a proponent of the embodied philosophy which argues that human cognition and consciousness can only be understood in terms of the enactive structures in which they arise, namely the body (understood both as a biological system and as personally, phenomenologically experienced) and the physical world with which the body interacts. He introduced into neuroscience the concepts of neurophenomenology, based on the phenomenological writings of Edmund Husserl and of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and on "first person science," in which observers examine their own conscious experience using scientifically verifiable methods.
- Cartesian anxiety
- Molecular Cellular Cognition
Varela wrote numerous books and articles:
- 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
- 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. North-Holland.
- 1987 (rev 92, 98) (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
- 1992 (with P. Bourgine, eds.). Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems: The First European Conference on Artificial Life. MIT Press.
- 1992 (with J. Hayward, eds.). Gentle Bridges: Dialogues Between the Cognitive Sciences and the Buddhist Tradition. Boston: Shambhala Press.
- 1993 ( with D. Stein, eds.). Thinking About Biology: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology. Addison-Wesley, SFI Series on Complexity.
- 1997 (ed.). Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying. Boston: Wisdom Book.
- 1996-99. Invitation aux sciences cognitives. Paris: Seuil.
- 1999. Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. Stanford University Press.
- 1999 (with J. Shear, eds.). The View from Within: First-Person Methodologies in the Study of Consciousness. London: Imprint Academic.
- 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.
Sarat Maharaj & Francisco Varela in conversation: "Ahamkara". In: Dombois, Florian, Mareis, Claudia, Meta Bauer, Ute, and Schwab, Michael, eds. Intellectual Birdhouse: Art Practice as Research. London: Koenig, 2011. ISBN 978-3-86335-118-2.
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- Intimate Distances An autobiographical essay written shortly before his death
- Francisco Varela: In memoriam:
- The Embodied Mind:
- "Escher, enaction & intersubjectivity."
- "Why the mind is not in the head" The Cosmos Letter, Expo'90 Foundation, Japan
- Franz Reichle, 2004. Film Monte Grande - What is Life?