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SEHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind
Updated July 23, 1995

Heinz von Foerster, the scientist, the man

prologue to the interview

Francisco Varela

the scientist

As the dust settles with time, the role of Heinz von Foerster in contemporary science becomes sharper and more vivid. This Interview takes us with ease and humor into some of the background and the grounds for this statement.

Heinz was the right man at the right time in the role he played during those now mythical meetings known as the Macy cybernetics gatherings, as he amusingly relates in the interview. These meetings and their participants (most centrally Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann) must be seen as the cradle and birthplace of most of what we know today as computer science and AI, complex systems theories, artificial life, and cognitive science. Yet this amazing story has been told only haltingly. In the case of cognitive science, for instance, the well-known account by Howard Gardner makes it seem as if the computationalist option established in the 1960s was born like a deus ex machina. Worse still is Mitchell Waldrop's account, in which complexity is claimed to be born bright and ready to walk from the magical fields of Santa Fe. Well, the reader be warned: such lack of historical perspective and philosophical depth is paid with a heavy price in science, and the above-mentioned disciplines should take stock. Steve Heims's recent book about the cybernetics group attempts to redress the balance somewhat from the perspective of the social critic. Luckily, the recent book by Jean-Pierre Dupuy finally raises the standard by providing us for the first time with an in-depth reading of the Macy transcripts in light of the modern controversies in cognitive issues, social studies, and complex systems.1

Being the editor of and an active participant in that unique founding event would be enough to make Heinz a memorable figure. But lest we reduce his role to a historical point, the reader should be aware that over the many years when he directed the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1960-1975) Heinz was directly or indirectly a creative contributor to some key ideas that have stayed for good. Perhaps the most famous one is that the role of noise in a complex system might well lead to further organization, in a paradoxical effect Heinz dubbed the order-from-noise principle. More recently, students of self-organization have repeatedly developed this idea in what is now known as "stochastic resonance." Another important advance was to notice the key role that fixed points or "eigen-behaviors" play in the explanation of cognitive phenomena and complex behavior. More broadly, Heinz von Foerster is the real architect of what can be called second-order cybernetics, which deals with the pervasive role of self-reference in all these domains, including the inevitable second-order observation of the observer. The reader who wishes to trace these ideas in more detail than I can provide here should read Observing Systems, a collection of his papers published a few years ago.2 An edition of the complete papers of Heinz von Foerster still awaits.

As Franchi brings up in the Interview, shortly after 1975, when Heinz left the Biological Computer Laboratory at University of Illinois, the wind of funding blew heavily in the direction of a very dogmatic form of cognitive science and classical AI, or what Daniel Dennett has called "High-Church computationalism." Almost all forms of studies of complex systems were put aside as transdisciplinary noise. Only the 1980s brought a new wind of discovery for American researchers, in the form of the connectionist schools and what is now called complex systems research, as well as non-computational strategies in cognitive science, including a style of robotics already practiced at BCL a decade before. That young scientists ignore some major European roots of the history of the concepts on which they stand is sad, but understandable, given the intellectual scope that tends to dominate American science. But that a major US institution such as the BCL, which was active until 1975, has been royally ignored in every account of modern day popular and academic texts is taking this parochialism to an extreme. I am thus not surprised that when Franchi arrived at Illinois in 1985 nobody had any idea of what BCL was; that has been my consistent experience since then. Luckily, history has its own way of settling scores with trendy writing, and the role of Heinz von Forster's BCL as an absolutely remarkable and pioneering scientific center will be given its place, alongside the central place slowly being claimed by the preceding wave of the early cybernetics group and the Macy Meetings.

the man

I cannot write about Heinz without saying that I owe him a lot not only intellectually but also personally. As the interview recounts, in 1962 he met Humberto Maturana, a Chilean neurophysiologist who was to be my undergraduate mentor in 1965-68. Thanks to that (for me) lucky encounter, I found laying on table counters articles by Heinz with such titles as "A Circuitry of Clues for Platonic Ideation" when I arrived at Humberto's lab in Santiago. It was to have similar effects on me as that recounted by Heinz in encountering Scheminsky on artificial life: it sent my imagination flying into a hyperspace of ideas and style of work from which I have never recovered. Besides, Heinz's style is one of posing questions and main principles in a concise form, which made his writings intellectual zettels I had in my pockets by the time I arrived as a graduate student at Harvard in 1968. By then, the wind had begun to blow in the opposite direction: I found virtually nobody to talk to about these issues. McCulloch had already retired from MIT, and the AI Lab was under the dominance of Marvin Minsky, who excelled at exorcising what we saw as "unproductive stuff" (from today's perspective, that is quite ironic). Heinz kindly invited me to come to Illinois a few times during the time I was in Cambridge, and each time I was touched by the humor and openness of this Viennese.

After returning to Chile in 1970, we developed with Maturana the notion of autopoiesis, and the first paper published on it owes a tremendous amount to Heinz's comments and corrections during a long stay in Chile during June-August 1973, when the rumblings of civil war were only too evident.3 Heinz was perhaps the first who recognized immediately the interest of this idea at a time when almost everyone else wanted us to drop such idle speculations. A similar experience was to be repeated in 1974 when Heinz was again instrumental in making my calculus of self-reference quickly accepted and disseminated, when I was stranded in Costa Rica after escaping Pinochet's Chile.4

Since then and until today Heinz has been an untiring ear and friendly advisor. His ethical and human qualities are impeccable, and they have been a source of much needed inspiration. Thus, this is the right place for me to restate all my enormous debt towards him. Without his influence and his presence for the last 30 years, my life would have lacked a deep, joyous, and nourishing dimension. I call him Heinz the Great. Previous Next Up  Comments


1 See, respectively, Howard Gardner, The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution, (New York: Basic, 1985); Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos and Order (New York: Simon, 1992); Steve Heims, The Cybernetics Group, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991); Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Aux origines des sciences cognitives (Paris: La Découverte, 1994).

2 Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems: Selected Papers of Heinz von Foerster (Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1981).

3 Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana and Ricardo Uribe, "Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, Its Characterization and a Model," Biosystems, 5 (1974) 187-196.

4 Francisco Varela, "A Calculus for Self-reference," International Journal of General Systems, 2 (1975) 5-24.