Varela’s modes of explanation and the teleonomic

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m now diving deep into Francisco Varela’s Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979). Chapter 8 draws on his paper with Maturana, “Mechanism and biological explanation” (1972) (html). Chapter 9 draws heavily from his paper, “Describing the Logic of the Living: adequacies and limitations of the idea of autopoiesis” (1978) (html).

I am finding this work very enlightening. Somehow it bridges between my interests in philosophy of science right into my current work on privacy by design. I think I will find a way to work this into my dissertation after all.

Varela has a theory of different modes of explanation of phenomena.

One form of explanation is operational explanation. The categories used in these explanations are assumed to be components in the system that generated the phenomena. The components are related to each other in a causal and lawful (nomic) way. These explanations are valued by science because they are designed so that observers can best predict and control the phenomena under study. This corresponds roughly to what Habermas identifies as technical knowledge in Knowledge and Human Interests. In an operational explanation, the ideas of purpose or function have no explanatory value; rather the observer is free to employ the system for whatever purpose he or she wishes.

Another form of explanation is symbolic explanation, which is a more subtle and difficulty idea. It is perhaps better associated with phenomenology and social scientific methods that build on it, such as ethnomethodology. Symbolic explanations, Varela argues, are complementary to operational explanations and are necessary for a complete description of “living phenomenology”, which I believe Varela imagines as a kind of observer-inclusive science of biology.

To build up to his idea of the symbolic explanation, Varela first discusses an earlier form of explanation, now out of fashion: teleological explanation. Teleological explanations do not support manipulation, but rather “understanding, communication of intelligible perspective in regard to a phenomenal domain”. Understanding the “what for” of a phenomenon, what its purpose is, does not tell you how to control the phenomenon. While it may help regulate ones expectations, Varela does not see this as its primary purpose. Communicability motivates teleological explanation. This resonates with Habermas’s idea of hermeneutic knowledge, what is accomplished through intersubjective understanding.

Varela does not see these modes of explanation as exclusive. Operational explanations assume that “phenomena occur through a network of nomic (lawlike) relationships that follow one another. In the symbolic, communicative explanation the fundamental assumption is that phenomena occur through a certain order or pattern, but the fundamental focus of attention is on certain moments of such an order, relative to the inquiring community.” But these modes of explanation are fundamentally compatible.

“If we can provide a nomic basis to a phenomenon, an operational description, then a teleological explanation only consists of putting in parenthesis or conceptually abbreviating the intermediate steps of a chain of causal events, and concentrating on those patterns that are particularly interesting to the inquiring community. Accordingly, Pittendrich introduced the term teleonomic to designate those teleological explanations that assume a nomic structure in the phenomena, but choose to ignore intermediate steps in order to concentrate on certain events (Ayala, 1970). Such teleologic explanations introduce finalistic terms in an explanation while assuming their dependence in some nomic network, hence the name teleo-nomic.”

A symbolic explanation that is consistent with operational theory, therefore, is a teleonomic explanation: it chooses to ignore some of the operations in order to focus on relationships that are important to the observer. There are coherent patterns of behavior which the observer chooses to pay attention to. Varela does not use the word ‘abstraction’, as a computer scientist I am tempted to. But Varela’s domains of interest, however, are complex physical systems often represented as dynamic systems, not the kind of well-defined chains of logical operations familiar from computer programming. In fact, one of the upshots of Varela’s theory of the symbolic explanation is a criticism of naive uses of “information” in causal explanations that are typical of computer scientists.

“This is typical in computer science and systems engineering, where information and information processing are in the same category as matter and energy. This attitude has its roots in the fact that systems ideas and cybernetics grew in a technological atmosphere that acknowledged the insufficiency of the purely causalistic paradigm (who would think of handling a computer through the field equations of thousands of integrated circuits?), but had no awareness of the need to make explicit the change in perspective taken by the inquiring community. To the extent that the engineering field is prescriptive (by design), this kind of epistemological blunder is still workable. However, it becomes unbearable and useless when exported from the domain of prescription to that of description of natural systems, in living systems and human affairs.”

This form of critique makes its way into a criticism of artificial intelligence by Winograd and Flores, presumabley through the Chilean connection.