“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Purpose in Living Systems

Levi Bryant and I have been going back and forth over at Larval Subjects about the role of formal and final causation in the explanation of living systems. He argues that Darwin forever banished teleology from nature, or at least showed how the apparent purposiveness of organisms is a result of an entirely non-teleological process. I’ll paste my latest response to him below:

You are still construing the argument I referenced at #6 [it is not so much “my” argument as it is Varela and Thompson’s (see “Life After Kant,” 2002, and Mind in Life, 2008)] as though it refers to the purpose or function of distinct traits or variations. That was never my claim. I fully accept that the function of an organ or a trait usually comes after its formation, and that in the course of evolutionary history, the same organ can come to have entirely unforeseen functions. The argument has to do with the immanent teleology of biological individuals, not with the contingent function of their parts. Darwin’s genius was to discover a non-teleological mechanism to account for speciation at the phylogenetic level due to chance variation and inheritance at the ontogenetic level. There is nothing in his theory, or in any additions to his theory in the last 150 years, that explains the existence of biological individuals with immanent purposes. Systems theory has offered descriptions of biological individuals in terms of attractors, but these are descriptions of behavior and not causal explanations. Efficient causality cannot offer a complete explanation for the sentient behavior of living beings. It is of course part of any explanation, but cannot be the whole explanation unless we are willing to ignore the distinct phenomenology of living systems by reducing them to the neutral language of physics (neutral in regard to the taking into account of the perspective of the system one is studying). As Etienne Gilson brilliantly argued (see From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, 1984), no defender of teleology in nature has ever done so in order to deny the role of mechanism (efficient causation); it is only the mechanists who deny teleology. From Gilson’s perspective, while mechanistic biology can perhaps explain the specifics of the functioning of individual organisms (which is what you have been arguing), they cannot explain the existence of such individuals as such. To account for the existence of biological individuals requires a principle of immanent teleology. You’ve made reference to the reductionistic promissory notes that eventually an explanation in purely efficient terms will be provided for how DNA and RNA replication got started, thereby bypassing Varela/Thompson’s argument about the explanatory priority of autopoiesis; but as I understand the arguments of systems biologists like Stuart Kauffman (see Reinventing the Sacred, 2008), any account of nucleic acid autocatalysis, due the inherently recursive nature of such reactions, will already be in terms of formal and final causes.




27 responses to “Purpose in Living Systems”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    You’re doing a fantastic job–I took a look at the comments you linked.

    Efficient causality alone is insufficient. I’m amazed that we’re still having the arguments from the 1880s on mechanism vs. organicism.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Yes, I am frustrated. Based on the language in his original post, he is setting it up so that anyone who finds final causes in nature must be a homophobic IDiot. And he calls me a conspiracy theorist!

      He consistently collapses a Whiteheadian reading of formal and final causes into the ID/Creationist reading. Its just sloppy. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I might be more allergic even to a panentheistic conception of the relation of God and the World if I lived in Texas surrounded by fundamentalists. But alas, I live in San Francisco surrounded by psychedelic shamans and new age Buddhists. Once in a while I run into an Episcopalian.

      I would really like to hear from the other SR/OOO thinkers on this issue. I can’t imagine Tim Morton, Graham Harman, or Iain Hamilton Grant being very sympathetic to his argument…

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        I do not understand the antipathy, especially since we both agree that the version of teleology we are talking about is a re-developed and re-deployed one. There is no way a “thing is supposed to be;” that’s Aristotle and not contemporary teleology.

        As I put it when we discussed this months ago, as an abductive or even transcendental argument, nature must have some kind of affordance or tendency that leads to habitual or law-like behavior, else we cannot explain order at all. We do not even need to talk about life, but the possibility of structure or organization period. But you know this. I think Kant is wrong; we do not suffer an antinomy between the purposiveness of human experience and the mechanism of nature.

        Any chance I can talk you, and perhaps others, into a summer internet reading group for Deacon’s Incomplete Mind? Another treatment of emergence and this issue? It’s been a popular discussion on the Peirce discussion list. I’m trying to get caught up on contemporary work.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Incomplete Nature, you mean? Yes I’d be very interested in reading that.

      3. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Whoops, yes. Perhaps we can talk some of the local blogosphere into a scheduled blog discussion, an online reading group?

      4. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Strangely enough, I found out today that I’ll have the opportunity to meet Deacon this coming Wednesday (4/25) at CIIS. He will be speaking about his new book. Guess it was meant to be. I’ll be ordering it very soon.

      5. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I met Deacon tonight, spoke with him briefly about Whitehead, and was able to pick up a copy of the book. I’ve only read 9 pages. I am amazed how relevant his discussion of “absential” features of reality is relevant to our recent discussion of eternal forms. Value, feeling, purpose, consciousness… these he describes as non-physical but as having physical effects. They are the negative features, or absent constraints that make an actual physical system what it is. They sound a lot like the definite possibilities/eternal objects of Whitehead. Do you have the book yet?

      6. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        It’s been sitting on my desk for awhile waiting for the semester to be over.

  2. goldenagebeyond Avatar

    Hmmm, there is certainly a lot of comprehensive terminology and referencing going on in this thread but Darwin did not forever banished teleology from nature, nor for that matter did he really show how the apparent purposiveness of organisms is a result of an entirely non-teleological process (although such a process might none-the-less be imagined to have currency by the non perspicacious mind). Be that as it may….

    Obviously (?) since organisms consist of matter then matter (apparently) preceded organic form (or arose in parallel therewith). Forestalling the parallel expression for the moment, matter must carry within its “potential” the capacity to express itself (to be expressed as) organic form. Darwin merely adduced/deduced an objective mechanism to govern the expression and elaboration of life from matter alone which was centered around the notion of efficient and productive use of energy (as an objective function, so to speak). This carries the superficial appearance of non-teleological mechanistic progress but only if one overlooks the presence of a capacity within matter to realize this appearance in the first place. Oops! Process of anything within the physical plane/world/universe cannot be imagined without assuming the capacity of such to exist prior to its expression. Drat! nothing exists without being to suppose it.

    I am a biologist (practical experimental ecologist and evolutionary theoretician). Darwin produced a brilliant and operational cause and effect theory that nicely explains the “how” of biology – all of biology. It is a fantastically sound cornerstone but it does not in itself obviate teleology as intent. Both the world and all therein arise through intent with the only reality constituting the source thereof. Source en-trains matter, matter realizes itself through life. The whole is a pre-programmed expression of nothingness as being One only (no thing happens by chance) but by all manner of means call it evolution if you will.. or creation if you must…

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      A quick response and perhaps more later.

      I am sure that the discussants can clean up the language and easily handle your concerns about how the points are phrased, as I am convinced its merely a matter of careful phrasing and not misunderstanding. I thank you, for my part, in being more circumspect about diction than myself.

  3. A.R. Avatar

    (i) purpose resulting from compounded ‘errors’ within mechanisms that have themselves come into existence in a similar fashion, those winnowed by circumstance and environment being ‘fortuitous’, though without admitting the existence of such a thing as ‘purpose’; except in a metaphorical sense (though often enough using the metaphor itself as the explanation while at the same time denying it has any ontological validity).

    (ii) looking at the interaction of the presumed mutations and the local (within the organism) and environmental contexts in which they arose in terms of a dialogue, which might require an enlarged conceptual model of creative capacity and ‘purposiveness’ that incorporates such a thing as ‘mutation’ or error as species of archytypal experiment, or ‘creativity’. This does not exclude any model that infers mind existing outside it’s traditionally accepted location. And for those denying such a thing as ‘mind’, would it be really so objectionable that a pre-existent mechanism operating much like any solely mechanistic brain-mind might exist, having plodded along for aeons as an archaic antecedent to later and more efficient centrally located versions within an organism ? Contrariety of ‘pupose’ (eg; predator/prey) of course wouldn’t affect this, as the particularisation of species and individuals would be just a specialisation within the same general, though more nebulous, formula.

    I’m with Barfield, personally, in believing the phenomenal world being ‘man’s unconscious laid out objectively before him.’ And John Moriarty, in his autobiography ‘Nostos’ laid out something similar through mantra-like quotation from a corpus of eastern and western thought.
    Perhaps it’s just a realignment of the traditional lines of demarcation between those advocating positivism and those believing in the a noumenous consciousness or Spirit, but if so that is because it looks like that is where the real antagonism lies.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I am quite fond of your definition of creativity: “archetypal experiment.” It is one of those turns of phrase that Barfield speaks of in Poetic Diction that reverberates in my soul almost as if it were there forming a new organ of perception.

      I think (ii) is quite brilliantly stated all the way through.

      1. goldenagebeyond Avatar

        There is no “winnowing” by cirumstances (that is an “ignorance” argument). The SELF alone is determinitive, The Self “keeps count” – NOTHING happens “by chance”. Nothing! (sad to say). Big shock it was to see that……..

  4. Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] A few weeks back, Jason/Immanent Transcendence asked me if I’d like to start a reading group with him this summer for Terrence Deacon‘s new book. A few days later, I found out he’d be lecturing in San Francisco… I was impressed and hope to encourage more of you to join our reading/discussion group! […]

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  10. Starlarvae (@Starlarvae) Avatar

    Teleology in biological nature is no stumbling block, once evolution is understood to be an instance of development. http://www.starlarvae.org

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Certainly in terms of ontogenic development of individuals, at least teleonomy is impossible to do without. You can’t even begin to describe, much less explain, how individual organisms move from zygote to adulthood without conceiving of it as an end-directed process. With phylogenic evolution of species, however, things get far more controversial. Does the evolution of species have some global end in mind? I tend to think so, but neo-Darwinists would lump me in with Creationists for saying so.

      1. Joseph Ratliff Avatar

        I’m curious what you think the “global end” you refer to, is?

        I’m sure you don’t think the process of natural selection somehow ends with Homo sapiens sapiens, do you? Or, do you?

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        That was a clumsily phrased statement. “Does species evolution have some global end in mind?” I tend to think more in terms of plural purpose, or teloi, now. As a process thinker in Whitehead’s lineage, I’d make some room for a “global” or cosmic end in terms of the consequent nature of God. This isn’t a pre-established or fixed end, however. It is a hope or a longing for divine embrace that goads all creatures onward toward an uncertain future.

  11. Angus Avatar

    Have you considered and examined perceptual control theory, PCT? Bill Powers. It provides a precise explanation of behaviour and requires a functional teleology. And a second science, ternary cybernetics, Stewart, implies more weakly the necessity of teleological purpose. Since decisions are based on imparity of information, an outcome is selected (I will have the capucicino please) as a future. Cybernetics generally recovers teleology. PCT is very significant

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Thanks for the lead. I’m not familiar with these particular theories. I’ll dig into them.

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