Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

The following is lifted from my old blog at Gaia.com, which has since shut down. Sorry of some hypertext doesn’t work!

I first want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. The intersection of integral spirituality and enactive cognitive science is, for whatever reason, one of my passions, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to engage others about these ways of thinking and living.

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking down the topics of enactivism and integralism (specifically Ken Wilber’s integralism) as they relate to one another. I’ll do so in two separate sections, the first on the biology of cognition and communication as described within the enactive paradigm, and the second on biology and enactivism as perceived and appropriated by Wilber. I hope to highlight a few areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and to lay down what I think the most promising path of synthesis might be. If you are not too keen on abstract philosophical discourse, please bear with me, as these sections may qualify as exactly that (feel free to skip to part 3 if you must!).

The last section will be more concrete and, hopefully, poetically evocative. It will focus on what an embodied and integral spirituality might look like, contrasting it with the unfortunate developments in the contemporary New Age community. Popular but shallow spiritual salesmen (and women) have developed clever marketing campaigns geared toward convincing people that they can “create their own reality.” While this idea is not entirely false in some contexts, it is grossly misleading and requires quite a bit of unpacking before it begins to bear any resemblance to reality. With the help of some of Varela’s ideas, I hope to offer a vision of the potential of being human in the creative cosmos we all call home.

Circularity (Escher)

Part 1: Enactivism and the Biology of Cognition

1-A: Co-gnosis, or “Knowing-with”

If one had to distill the central tenet of enactivism, as developed by Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, it would be that “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1988, p. 27). An observer is any language-using being, specifically a human being. We human beings use language to describe the world we inhabit with others. Typically, we describe without explicitly referencing ourselves as observers. Enactivism (I’ll use this term even though it is Varela’s; Maturana, though not directly associated with it, would probably not be opposed to the label) suggests that self-referentiality is always implied, as to speak a language with others is to bring forth a world of shared significance whose relation to an independent reality outside the one we constitute with and for each other is irrelevant.

This holds true for all modes of language, whether colloquial or scientific. When molecular biologists investigate the structure of cellular organelles, they come to know what they see through their microscopes by agreeing upon appropriate linguistic abstractions and relations between abstractions. These abstractions designate the important features of reality as distinguished by those with the skills and training required to do so. Even when the science being practiced is physics, our descriptions amount to consensual agreements about the nature of the world under investigation (shaped also by our biological structure and organization, which are not arbitrary choices but historical necessities resulting from our evolutionary inheritance; more on this below). This may be hard for materialists to swallow, but one of the core suppositions of enactivism is that science, as a form of languaging, is indeed a social activity embedded in a particular historical situation bearing the marks of the prejudices that affect every other human sphere of life, whether political, religious, or otherwise.

“A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms,” says Varela. “Such statements, while true, are irrelevant… There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions” (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/varela/varela_p4.html).

The reality of life and death that Varela here refers to is that of our embodied existence as conscious observers. There is a tendency in the sciences to assume that the knowledge brought forth by the scientific method amounts to an objective representation of reality as it exists independent of human subjectivity. Maturana and Varela want to replace this notion with that of “objectivity-in-parenthesis.” Their aim is to avoid the transcendental objectivism which results when the observer “…implicitly or explicitly assumes that existence takes place independently of what he or she does, that things exist independently of whether he or she knows them, and that he or she can know them, or can know of them, or can know about them, through perception or reason” (Maturana, 1988a, p. 28).

Remember, for enactivism, “everything said is said by an observer.” This is to remind us that all of our descriptions come from a particular perspective. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as pure objectivity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, pure objectivity amounts to a “view from nowhere,” which, when taken literally, is contradictory. Conceptually, we can certainly imagine reality and ourselves outside our embedded perspectives; but such mental exercises remain a function of ouroperationally closed (more on this later) nervous systems. In other words, our imagined objectivity is still a product of our embodiment, and so remains an “as if” objectivity; or, as enactivism suggests, an “objectivity-in-parenthesis.”

To be clear, though, as Bruce pointed out last week, Varela and Maturana do not mean to replace objectivity with a form of solipsistic idealism, nor a form of complete social constructivism. On the contrary, they want to call our attention to empirical biological realities. We will now shift from what has primarily been a discussion of language into a discussion of the “bio-logic” underlying it.

1-B: Bio-logic

There is a bit of a scandal in the biological sciences. After nearly 400 years of what might be considered modern scientific investigation (and 3,000 years of natural philosophy), a widely agreed upon definition for the central object of study, life, has yet to be produced. There are plenty of qualities that have been ascribed to living systems, but (arguably) the only serious attempt to define it was Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis. Briefly, an autopoietic system is a unity easily distinguishable from its surrounding environment, containing components that continually produce and maintain both themselves and the unity. The term is a literal translation into Greek of “self-producing.”

There is a more technical definition of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, I won’t get into it. Click the hypertext above if you are interested. The reason the autopoiesis –or self-producing organization— of organisms is important for this discussion is the extent to which it helps us see how the nervous system brings forth both our individuality and our world. The term is meant to apply specifically to the organization of a cell, but it applies equally well (with a few caveats) to multicellular organisms, which biologist Leo Buss has appropriately called “somatic ecologies.” Why the term is appropriate may need some unpacking. From the point of view of autopoietic theory, the process of living is synonymous with cognition. So even a single bacterium flagellating up a sucrose gradient is bringing forth a world based on its own internal dynamics. When evolution gives rise to multicellulars, the worlds of each cell must somehow be coordinated such that “…potential conflicts between cells and the individual [are mediated], while the organism is simultaneously interacting effectively with the extrasomatic environment” (Buss 1987). Varela was fascinated by just how this mediation was pulled off. It drew him into immunology, where he attempted to improve upon the traditional understanding of the immune system as a kind of military defense against intruders by redefining it as a “self-referential, positive assertion of a coherent unity” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 9). But what interests us is his investigation into the “somatic ecology” of the nervous system, which along side the immune system allows a network of trillions of cells to function as a coherent whole.

Varela put it thus: “The fundamental logic of the nervous system is that of coupling movements with a stream of sensory modulations in a circular fashion” (Ibid.). Let’s break this down. The first thing to notice about this “neuro-logic” is that perception becomes an active process. We know the world by moving around within it. Bruce alluded to an experiment with kittens validating this in a comment under his essay. In this sense, the term “perception” is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies the passive reception through the senses of an already constituted reality. This brings us to the second important feature of Varela’s neuro-logic, which is that perception is a circular process generated by ongoing sensorimotor coupling. This is true both at the level of individual neurons (dendrites are sensors, axon terminals are motors) and at the level of the whole organism (eyes, ears, skin, etc. are sensors, muscles, tendons, etc. are motors).

This circularity is why enactivism posits the “operational closure” of the nervous system mentioned earlier. We know only the world the structure and organization of our nervous systems allow us to know. As Varela says, “The neuronal dynamics underlying a perceptuo-motor task are… a network affair, a highly cooperative two-way system, and not a sequential stage-to-stage information abstraction” (Ibid.). In other words, the typical linear notion of information picked up by the senses from a pregiven world, processed into perceptions, and then translated into appropriate motor responses is not just a simplification, but is actually wrong. What we perceive is based more on the ongoing operations already taking place in our nervous system prior to any perturbations by the environment. If we now reconsider the first point about active perception, we see that “all doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).

This concludes the section on enactivism, but we will revisit and further explore some of the concepts discussed above, as well as introduce a few other important features of the enactive paradigm (such as intersubjectivity and groundlessness) as we go along.

(Click here for a video of Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind, on 1st personal consciousness, and a much younger Varela speaking about objectivity.)

Part 2- Wilber, Biology, Enactivism

I’ll assume that most of you are already familiar with Ken Wilber’s work. For our purposes, a general grasp of his AQAL model will suffice.

As Bruce has already pointed out last week, Wilber embraces Varela et al.’s attempt to move beyond the gross reductionism of the representational paradigm in cognitive science, which sees the mind as essentially identical to a sophisticated computer. As Wilber says, “From the field that claims to be the final authority on such matters, what we learn about consciousness and lived experience is this: basically, it doesn’t exist” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 564). Part of Varela’s project is to find a place for conscious experience in the scientific worldview. But Wilber’s support for enactivism as presented by Varela et al. is not without a few important reservations. While he applauds them for deconstructing and replacing the notion of a pregiven world found in the representational paradigm, he argues that they fail to fully appreciate the subjective dimensions of organisms. To be more specific, I refer you to the diagram below:

Wilber’s drawing

We see above in what is labeled figure 3 that each quadrant has both an interior and an exterior aspect, each with its own appropriate epistemological methodology. Varela is credited with rightly correcting the traditional Darwinian idea that something called “Nature” is responsible for singlehandedly sculpting the evolution of species, selecting which traits live on and which don’t. This idea, while not entirely wrong, fails to appreciate the degree to which organisms participate in their own evolution based on their autopoiesis, or self-organizing properties. Varela’s is a biology that emphasizes the autonomy of the organism, whereas most evolutionary biology sees the organism as the victim of a pregiven environment. In other words, organism and environment (or Nature, in Darwin’s terms) co-determine one another. Wilber further explains: “… autopoietic theories remind us that the objective organism is not merely a strand in a Web, but also a relatively autonomous agent enacting its environment, an environment that is not a pregiven Web but is rather brought forth in part by the autopoietic regime of the organism itself” (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/intro-1.cfm). Wilber suggests, though, that Varela “…escapes the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world” (Ibid., p. 714).

Wilber is here arguing that Varela’s approach remains focused only on the upper right, objective quadrant. Autopoietic organization represents the inside of the exterior of organisms, but according to Wilber, fails to fully appreciate the subjective, phenomenological experience of organisms.

I don’t disagree with Wilber’s analysis here, as I think Varela’s work could certainly benefit from a more in depth exploration of subjective development. Nonetheless, I think Varela is very much aware of the lifeworld of organisms, which is evidenced by his exploration of Buddhist meditation in The Embodied Mind, as well this statement which directly acknowledges the role of agency in organisms: “[an organism] isn’t related to its environment ‘objectively,’ that is, independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 11). Granted, this description is still a third person account of a lived reality, which can only be directly accessed with “I” language. “The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment,” as Wilber says (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/notes-1.cfm).

Wilber accuses enactivism of being “heavily grounded in a biologistic bias” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 712). To the extent that Varela et al. were aiming to remain scientific, this is true. But I wonder if Wilber has fully appreciated the scientific realities brought forth by a thorough investigation of the biological world…? As Julian discussed in one of his blogs earlier this year, Wilber seems to look to theorists associated with the intelligent design movement when asked about what an integral biology might look like. In one of his books, he makes the following specious argument: “It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg–a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing–you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal–also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings” (Wilber, 2000, A Brief History of Everything, p.20). If you showed this passage to a biologist, after they finished laughing, they’d explain that wings most certainly could evolve gradually.

It’s not that I don’t share Wilber’s distaste for the neo-Darwinist paradigm in evolutionary biology. I just think he would be more respected in scientific circles if he did not make outrageous claims without any supporting evidence whatsoever. There are plenty of other approaches to understanding evolution in a non-reductionist way that are entirely scientific and don’t require any such exaggeration, among them Varela’s co-determining theory, which Wilber seems to know well but so often neglects to mention when asked about evolutionary biology. If anything like intelligent design is true, science would become impossible, as positing a demiurge as the designer of nature makes any human attempt to know reality akin to a cartoon character suddenly realizing they are an artist’s drawing. It ain’t gunna happen.

To sum up this section, we can say that Varela’s ideas would definitely benefit from a greater appreciation for the depth and developmental scope of subjective experience, as Wilber has rightly argued. But Wilber, on the other hand, could equally benefit from a more realistic engagement with the findings of objective biological science. Varela is no longer with us, and so we will never know how he may have appropriated Wilber’s criticisms; but hopefully Wilber will reevaluate his seeming support for intelligent design by fully embracing the truths brought forth by an empirical, systems-oriented approach to biological evolution.

Part 3- Embodied Spirituality

I’d like to begin this section with a few words from Varela himself. This video was shot just before his death in 2001 as part of a documentary entitled “Monte Grande” released in 2005.

It pretty well speaks for itself, reiterating several points I hope were adequately made in the first two sections of this essay about the co-emergence of subject and object. What struck me as significant, though, was what Varela said towards the end about abiding in the questions that strike us as especially mysterious, rather than rushing to pass judgment for or against them. Maybe it is just a reflection of my and Varela’s Buddhist frame of reference, but it has always seemed to me that being spiritual essentially means being unattached. This doesn’t mean we should not love deeply those we share our lives with, quite the contrary. Letting go of our attachments allows us to relate to others more genuinely than when we have specific ends in mind. What non-attachment suggests is that we be constantly on the lookout for the various manifestations of certainty that tend to crop up in our thoughts about the world. Almost always, an unyielding conviction about this, that, or the other is the result of some kind of repression or psychological wound we have yet to fully face and allow to heal.

In The Embodied Mind, Varela repeatedly emphasizes the groundless nature of existence. Even that most universal of spiritual values, love, so often eludes all our attempts to possess or comprehend it. Whether it is our own personal experience of being conscious, or our sense of the world around us, a penetrating investigation reveals no firm foundation upon which to rest our tirelessly seeking minds. The path seems endless, not necessarily because it is long and filled with difficult challenges, but because it is constantly swallowing itself like an Ouroburos.

Holding this image in mind, what are we to make of the many New Age belief systems offering “secrets” (for a fee) that supposedly give us anything we desire? I see in these systems only clever advertising and predation upon those with weak minds. There is not even the hint of anything genuinely spiritual, in the sense that spirituality means letting go of our own wants and desires to focus instead upon compassion and loving kindness. Seeking great spiritual insights from something like the “law of attraction” tarnishes the meaning of the word “insight.” To genuinely see into our condition, we have to forgo the “Cartesian anxiety” that compels us to chase after various forms of security and stability, be they a grandiose sense of self, a youthful appearance, a six-figure salary, or transcendental knowledge of and control over reality itself. When we turn our attention inward, we discover that the self we think we are, with all its desires and wishes and ideas, is rather fragile and impermanent.

Realizing this can lead in one of two directions:

Either we avert our introspective gaze and distract ourselves with kitschy offers of instant enlightenment for 3 easy payments of $19.95, or we go deeper and realize that our lack of an essential self is an opportunity to engage reality on a level more rewarding than anything we could have dreamed of before.

I quote Varela at length:

“The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that’s what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love –all of the different modes of being together– appear when the self is decentered. Now that, to me, is a great gift of the universe. Since we are not solid and private and centered, the more we get close to all our reality, the more we are who we are. That is, both you and I. Not just me, but the ‘us-ness’ in us. Which is another way of saying that my mind is not my mind. It is a mind that requires that interbeing. There is naturally that kind of concern and care and solidarity. But it is not just how nice I am, or how good a guy I am. It has nothing to do with this. It has to do with how real things are, in reality, that non-distinction between the intersubjective network of things” (http://www.dialogonleadership.org/varela-2000.html).

Varela is here suggesting that our true nature is to be compassionate, not because we are “nice guys,” but because our very identity as individuals arises out of our transactions with others. This, and not the possibility of magical powers, is what an integral and embodied spirituality offers.

To even believe for a moment that our thoughts will bring us whatever we want, we have to already be completely encased and blinded by a lonely solipsistic shell, not recognizing that every other person around us is also hoping and wishing for their own fantasies to be fulfilled. Who is going to end up on top in this struggle for personal happiness? There can only be so many lottery winners… Again, maybe it is just my Buddhist bias, but who can deny that life is suffering? We are made through an act of carnal love in the pursuit of fleeting bliss, grown in the womb at the behest of the crystalline death records of untold generations prior, and born as naked, delicately woven bodies, our intricate dynamics hardly noticed until something goes wrong. And when it does, we’re faced with that ultimate uncertainty– with the completely unknowable, unfathomable reunion with that from which we came.

But could it be any other way? Could our bodies be so capable of deep feeling and intimate contact without also being so prone to disease and decomposition? Life is suffering, but so is suffering bliss. It is our perpetual lack that moves us to love, that guides us into the future where unending forms of life will result from the creative spark that is our being-towards-death. We cannot overcome the circle of becoming, of continual rebirth, but we can embrace it, celebrating the opportunity we so easily forget we have.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Zen koans entitled, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” with a comment at the end by Zen master Mumon. Zen is great for cutting through spiritual excess and getting right to the point:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?’

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: “The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.” For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?’

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.’

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,’ he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.’ The he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. `No one was sick in the infirmary,’ wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?’

After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?’

Hyakujo said: `You come here near me and I will tell you.’

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher’s face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. `I thought a Persian had a red beard,’ he said, `and now I know a Persian who has a red beard.’

Mumon’s comment: `The enlightened man is not subject.’ How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.’ How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?

The same dice shows two faces.

Not controlled or controlled,

Both are a grievous error.

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One thought on “Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

  1. Pingback: Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice? « Footnotes to Plato

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