Online and in person at Upaya Zen Centre, Santa Fe, NM, USA 

Varela International Symposium 2024

“Sentience and Intelligence: AI, the More-Than-Human, and Us”

The Varela International Symposium is a joint collaboration between Mind and Life Europe and Upaya Zen Center and is offered in 2024 as an informal hybrid gathering.

The symposium is led by an interdisciplinary faculty who will offer a philosophical, cultural, and scientific exploration of “Sentience and Intelligence” with our community. The informal presentations will also include contemplative practice.

The symposium honors and is named for the seminal contributions of neuroscientist, philosopher, and Buddhist practitioner, Francisco Varela, who, with colleagues Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, initially challenged the then-dominant models in cognitive science, establishing the groundwork for the research and scholarship that the symposium faculty will explore.

We hope you’ll join us for this unique weekend program.


Onsite: Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD; John Dunne, PhD; Molly J. Crockett, PhD; Adam Frank, PhD.

Online: Luc Steels, PhD; Gábor Karsai; Amy Cohen Varela; Richard Davidson, PhD; Evan Thompson, PhD; Kristin Andrews, PhD.


This gathering will begin on Friday, May 24 at 7:45 p.m. U.S. Mountain Daylight Time and will conclude on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. MDT.

Kristin Andrews

Kristin Andrews, PhD, Kristin Andrews is York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Professor of Philosophy at York University in Toronto and CIFAR Fellow on the Future Flourishing project. She is the author of several books on other animals, covering topics including social cognition, personhood, and consciousness. These include How To Study Animal Minds (Cambridge), Chimpanzee Persons: The Philosopher’s Brief (Routledge) and Mindreading Animals: Toward a New Folk Psychology (MIT). Andrews is currently writing a book about social norms in animal cultures. She is on the Board of Directors of the Borneo Orangutan Society Canada. Dr. Andrews brings empirical and theoretical expertise to questions about the similarities and differences between humans and nonhuman animals in terms of their cognitive, affective, social, and cultural capacities. She has developed novel frameworks for social and normative cognition that can be used to investigate these capacities in other animals. Professor Andrews is currently engaged in a number of projects related to social norms. She is writing a book on the evolution of social norms, and proposes that they existed before humans developed language. She is also exploring whether social norms form part of animal cultures in a range of species, and is developing the implications of these findings for animal conservation and welfare efforts. Professor Andrews also writes on animal consciousness, animal ethics, animal morality, and legal status for animals. More at: https://www.kristinandrews.org/.

Molly Crockett

Dr. Molly Crockett is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. Crockett’s lab investigates moral cognition: how people decide whether to help or harm, punish or forgive, trust or condemn. Their research integrates theory and methods from psychology, neuroscience, economics, philosophy, and data science. Crockett’s recent work has explored moral outrage in the digital age and trust in leaders during a pandemic. Outside the lab, Crockett is a practitioner and teacher of Samatha meditation.

Richard Davidson

William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Founder & Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has been at Wisconsin since 1984. He has published more than 390 articles, numerous chapters and reviews and edited 14 books. He is the author (with Sharon Begley) of "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" published by Penguin in 2012. He is co-author with Daniel Goleman of "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body", published by Penguin Books in 2017. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his research including the William James Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society. He was the year 2000 recipient of the most distinguished award for science given by the American Psychological Association – the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. He was the Founding Co-Editor of the new American Psychological Association journal EMOTION. In 2003 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2006. He serves on the Scientific Advisory Board at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences from 2011-2019 and current member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Mental Health. In 2017 he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine. His research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing including meditation and related contemplative practices.

John Dunne

John Dunne (PhD 1999, Harvard University) holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also holds a co-appointment in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, where he currently serves as department Chair. John Dunne’s work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialog with Cognitive Science and Psychology. His publications, including Foundations of Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy (2004) and Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics: The Mind (2020), appear in venues ranging across the Humanities and the Sciences; they include works on Buddhist philosophy, contemplative practice, and their interpretation within scientific, philosophical, and cultural contexts. John Dunne speaks in both academic and public contexts, and he occasionally teaches for Buddhist communities, most notably Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. His broader engagements include the Mind and Life Institute, where he is a Fellow and former member of the Board of Directors, Mind and Life Europe, where he is an Association Member, and the Ranjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu, where he serves in an advisory role.

Adam Frank

Astrophysicist Adam Frank is a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun, and his computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science,” he is also committed to showing others the beauty and power of science, and exploring the proper context of science in culture. His research is in the general area of Theoretical Astrophysics, and in particular the hydrodynamic and magneto-hydrodynamic evolution of matter ejected from stars. Current research topic include jets from Young Stellar Objects, bipolar outflows from evolved stars such as Planetary Nebulae and Massive stars. Investigations are carried out though the use of large scale numerical simulations. For more detail, see the Theoretical Astrophysics page. Professor Frank is also active member of the department’s Plasma Physics program, which is part of the University’s interdisciplinary program in High-Energy Density Plasmas. In collaboration with faculty at the University’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (an Inertial Confinement Fusion facility), he is conducting plasma astrophysical research on topics such as magnetic diffusion in interstellar clouds and the evolution of solar magnetic flux tubes. Professor Frank is also actively involved in science outreach as a popular science writer. He has contributed articles to Discover and Astronomy magazines. He received the science-writing prize from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in 1999.

Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, is a Buddhist teacher, anthropologist and author. She is co-founder of the Mind & Life Institute, founded the Ojai Foundation, the Prajna Mountain Buddhist Order, is Abbot and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center, and co-founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order. She is a pioneer in the end-of-life care field, and is well known internationally for her work in engaged Buddhism. She was an Honorary Research Fellow at Harvard University and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress.

Gábor Karsai

Gábor Karsai, based near Budapest, Hungary, is a long-standing member of the MLE Association, and presently serves as Rector of the Dharma Gate Buddhist College in Budapest, as well as Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Gabor has undertaken Ph.D studies with a focus on process philosophy (A. N. Whitehead), phenomenology and Buddhism. Over the last 15 years, he has had extensive management engagements, including as a deputy CEO at Bankar Holding Plc. (Hungary), Director of the Spirit of Humanity Forum (Iceland), the Education for Peace Foundation (Switzerland) and as CEO at the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society (Taiwan). He combines practical experience in running a not for profit organisation together with a deep appreciation for contemplative practice and science as well as the values and vision which MLE embodies.

Luc Steels

Luc Steels is Professor Emeritus in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Brussels (VUB) in Belgium. He studied linguistics and philosophy at the University of Antwerp and computer science and artificial intelligence at MIT (US). He founded and directed the VUB Artificial Intelligence laboratory in Brussels from 1983 and the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris from 1996. From 2011 he was research professor at the Institute for Evolutionary Biology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Currently he is scientific director at the Venice International University and senior strategy advisor at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. Steels worked in many areas of AI from computational linguistics, expert systems, and knowledge representation to neural networks, cognitive robotics and value-aware AI. He is primarily interested in using AI as a tool to investigate embodied mind, meaning, language and consciousness. In 2022 Steels received the Distinguished Service award of the European AI Research Association, the highest award for AI in Europe. He is currently chair for natural sciences of the Royal Flemish Academy for science and art in Belgium. Luc Steels has also been active in the performing arts as a composer of operas and theatre. His latest opera Fausto (performed in Brussels and Paris) was about transhumanism and the limits and dangers of using AI in attempts to gain immortality.

Evan Thompson

Dr. Evan Thompson is a writer and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, where he is also an Associate Member of the Department of Asian Studies and the Department of Psychology (Cognitive Science). He works on the nature of the mind, the self, and human experience. His work combines cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially Asian philosophical traditions. He is the author of Why I Am Not a Buddhist (Yale University Press, 2020); Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy (Columbia University Press 2015); Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind (Harvard University Press, 2007); and Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge Press, 1995). He is the co-author, with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991; revised edition 2016). He is currently working on two new books: Dying: Our Ultimate Transformation (Columbia University Press), and with Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser, The Blind Spot: Experience, Science, and the Search for Truth (MIT Press). Thompson is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Past President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association.

Amy Cohen Varela

Amy Cohen Varela is Chairperson of the Mind & Life Europe Board and involved with Mind and Life since its inception. She is also a clinical psychologist specialized in psychodynamic therapy and philosophy. Amy studied comparative literature at Brown and Columbia Universities before moving to Paris in the early '80s, where she received her degree in clinical psychology at the University of Paris 7, with a specialty in psychodynamic theory and practice, and in parallel, completed psychoanalytic training.

Event info
Varela International Symposium 2024

24-05-2024 07:45 PM
26-05-2024 12:30 PM
Online and in person at Upaya Zen Centre, Santa Fe, NM, USA 

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