Purpose, biosemiotics and the complexity sciences

Telos is otherwise known as final cause, one of four causes identified by Aristotle’s natural philosophy: Material cause describes how the physical properties of matter determine what a thing is and how it will react with other things. For example, an ivory ball will roll differently than a wooden ball, as the density and weight of the material determines how much resistance it has. Efficient cause describes how the agent (person, animal, or even a moving object like a billiard ball) acting on something determines what happens. For example, the pool player, the cue stick or ball hitting another ball at rest is the efficient cause of the latter’s moving. Formal cause describes how the “blueprint” or the natural laws of form determine what can be. Some forms are physically impossible; others are very probable. Experienced pool players have learned that certain types of moves can be expected to result in certain types of outcomes, and they may apply their knowledge of geometry to their game.  Final cause describes how the “end,” or the function something ultimately serves, determines what happens or how something develops. The ball was struck so that the pool player might win the game and further develop his abilities and reputation.

These causes can be applied to events in nature whose efficient cause is not a living agent. For example two of the material causes of a plant are cellulose and chlorophyll. Some of the efficient causes acting on the plant, causing it to move or change, may be sunlight, water or wind.  The formal cause is the type of flower, bush or tree it will grow into, and the structure of a plant does indeed follow geometric principles for proportion and efficiency. The final cause of the plant may be to be beautiful to bees, bear fruit for seed-distributing birds, give off oxygen, process carbon dioxide, or whatever it might do in order to preserve itself, make more of itself or adapt to work better.

Only the first two kinds of causes, material and efficient, are used by science these days to describe natural processes. Although some might argue that Natural Selection is final cause, most Neo-Darwinists believe On the Origin of the Species replaced teleology with a theory that deals only with physical (material or efficient) causes.  Contemporary science has a difficult time understanding how types of formal designs or types of purposes can affect things. This difficulty is quite understandable as types are idea-like.

In teleology, I should note, formal cause and final cause are often confused and conflated. There are good reasons for this, which I will address in a later chapter (On Directionality and Originality). Suffice it here to say that formal cause is behind the creation of structure, making the parts of a system work together in a harmonious whole: this is self-organization.  Only when that whole becomes part of a larger whole is the structure under the influence of final cause.  To put it another way, only when the whole goes beyond merely creating and maintaining itself and it adapts, is it fully teleological. It must spontaneously form and also change fortuitously. It’s also important to remember that all telic phenomena involve not only formal and final causation, but material and efficient causation as well.

Final cause is sometimes called reverse cause because it seems the ultimate purpose the end state happens to serve is supposed, somehow, to determine its beginning. For instance, a pseudo-teleologists might say, “The first brightly colored flower mutation occurred in order to attract bees.” That is not the way I will be defining final cause here.  The future does not affect the present. The “future” is just a word we have for something that doesn’t actually ever exist, and telos certainly cannot be “in” the future.

But a “whole” does exist, and it does affect the parts, and wholes, as such, do have effects in the larger world. A flower is made of parts that work in cooperation for the good of the whole and the whole reciprocally forms the parts. A flower’s matter and form help preserve and further the flower.  When we talk about organization and design, we are talking about the functional arrangement of parts to a whole. This is what we mean by “end.”  We do not mean the end of a sequence in time that is supposed to affect the beginning.  The “end” for a teleologist is a whole that affects the parts. There is no time travel involved in a teleologist’s life, and we never try to get around the laws of physics which, we pretty much agree, work in one temporal direction.

A “whole” is defined as something that is more than the sum of its parts.  For instance, a human being is made up of molecules that each in themselves behave predictably enough, but the human as a whole sometimes behaves in ways that no scientist or even supreme intelligence could predict. We say human actions and/or personalities are emergent.  To a lesser extent, the development and/or adaptations of plants are emergent. We cannot predict exactly how a flower will develop, and we cannot predict how its species might adapt and evolve.

A “whole” is kind of dynamical entity that by constantly changing its parts remains more or less the same. Humanness. Flowerness. There is no one static definition of any whole; it is a class or category with fluid boundaries. If a whole is different from the sum of its parts, if it is something fluid and indefinable that doesn’t have quite the same kind of “thingness” its material parts seem to have, then a “whole,” as such, is not something that any other thing can directly interact with. We can only interact with or “know” traces of a whole, you might say. Signs of it.  In fact, we can only theorize that wholes exist at all because of their otherwise inexplicable effects we observe in their parts (or a sample of their parts’ actions).

For example, molecules that are part of a systemic whole behavior differently, in a more constrained way, than those same molecules would if they were free.

You can tell something of the wholeness of a person by some of his or her actions, which are usually more or less characteristic or that person. People have a wealth of options available to them, but they only consider a small sample, a sample that reflects the character and past of the person.

Individuals that are organized together and interacting, like birds in a flock, tend to behave in ways that are more orderly than they would if they were separate. The parts of a whole are constrained by that whole.

A species is a concept that is impossible to define exactly and there is no pre-existing essential nature of, say, a human being.  But we can infer that species exist because offspring conform to a general type that emerges in the process of development and evolution.

We say, then, that the whole is represented (or known) in the relatively orderly parts.

It is in this way that I bring in the notion, mentioned above, that something like mental concepts are involved in teleological phenomena.  I came to think of the constrained behavior of the parts as a sign of the whole through Crutchfield’s influence.  He claims the limited or more regular behavior of a part of a complex system is a “model” of the whole. The model or sign is idea-like because signs are not material things but relationships between things. If a sign relation is involved in the causal process, then we have a different kind of causality than efficient or material causality.

James Lovelock’s notion of our ecosystem as a self-organizing entity that purposely regulates itself—so named Gaia—may be used as a test case for semiotic purpose. In what he and Andrew Watson called the “daisy world simulation,” it was argued that biological organisms work together, much like the parts of a thermostat, to maintain a particular overall temperature range. Our ecosystem does this on its own, without an engineer, and thus it’s self-organizing (and, as we shall see, semiotic) not mechanistic as a thermostat is.  Lovelock stripped down the biological thermostat model to two parts: black daisies, a type of plant that can grow in cool temperatures whose color happens to absorb heat thus slightly warming its surroundings, and white daisies, which are able to grow once the black daisies have become sufficient in number to warm the environment, and which reflect heat away, thus cooling their surroundings.

When it gets sufficiently hot for white daisies to appear, the black daisies continue to flourish and increase the temperature. Finally, it gets too hot for black daisies, and while the relatively few white daisies do fine, the black daisies begin to diminish. As the black daisies diminish, their doing so is a sign, we may say, of the holistic temperature, which is too high for them. Their diminishing indicates high temperature (an “index” is a type of sign in semiotic discourse). As the now rapidly growing heat-loving white daisies cool down the planet, the black daisy growth rate may pick back up, while the white daisies’ rate begins to slow. The white daisies’ and the black daisies’ growth rates are constrained by the whole temperature, which they help create.

A temperature equilibrium is reached, and we may say that black and white daisies have synchronized to become part of a holistic emergent system—stable temperature.  We can argue that “Gaia” exists as a stable regulating entity because we can see signs of this “system” in the constrained daisy growth rates. Of course, our ecosystem is infinitely more complex than daisyworld, balancing numerous differences: chemical gradients, pressure gradients, and etc. all interacting to form, not a delicate balance, but one that, owing to this complexity, is an extremely robust one.

The inclusion of semiosis (the study of signs) and incorporating semiosis into complexity science’s theory of self-organizing wholes distinguishes my argument for purpose (or free will) from , most others, from, for example, that of Compatibilists, like Daniel Dennett, and from that of their opposition, Libertarians. This is not the usual argument for free will. This is a relatively unknown and new argument, but not entirely original. Gregory Bateson, Alicia Juarrero, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Robert Ulanowicz, Stanley Salthe and others have been doing similar work in this area for thirty years or more and it has deep roots in age-old holistic thinking.

I don’t want all this talk about holism to align me with new age spiritualism, crystology, and ambient electronic music.  My kind of holism comes out of the complexity sciences. No doubt there are incense burners among complexity scientists, but perhaps no more than in any other academic discipline. In this book, I promise I will try to demystify telos without killing its beauty or voiding everything about it that makes it a special kind of cause. The health of teleology today depends upon finding a scientific understanding of  “wholeness,” not a warm fuzzy one, and a clearer understanding of  “representation,” of what it means to be a sign of something that is beyond complete description.

–from my forthcoming book, The Biologist’s Mistress


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