Reality and the Emergent Self

In this 2011 interview with Edge, Francisco Varela explored the concept of “emergent selves” or “virtual identities” that create worlds in various contexts, from the mind/body level to cellular and transorganism levels. He believed that these emergent selves were based on processes that appeared solid but were essentially groundless. Varela’s work encompassed three main areas: autopoiesis (self-production) in cellular organization, the enactive view of the nervous system and cognition, and a rethinking of the immune system.

Varela’s interest in Buddhist thought influenced his views on the mind, which he saw as an emergent property without a substantial, localized existence. He believed that the mind’s sense of self allowed it to interface with the world, much like other biological selves. This view aligned with his non-representationalist knowledge perspective, where knowledge coevolves with the knower.

Editor’s Note: Francisco Varela’s groundbreaking exploration of emergent selves, autopoiesis, and the dynamic nature of identity challenges conventional paradigms in biology, cognition, and immunology. His work opens new avenues for understanding complex systems and the interconnectedness of life and mind. Varela’s contributions continue to shape diverse fields, emphasizing the importance of embracing emergent phenomena and questioning established frameworks.

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