Dysteleological Physicalism

As a special behind-the-scenes tidbit for loyal blog readers, I will reveal here that The Pointless Universe was actually my second entry in the Edge World Question Center. My first, making the same point but using different words, was entitled “Dysteleological Physicalism.” To me, that kind of title is totally box office, and I’m happy to take credit for coining the phrase. (Expect T-shirts and bumper stickers soon.) But apparently not everyone agrees, and it was gently suggested that I come up with something less forbidding. Here is my original version.



The world consists of things, which obey rules. A simple idea, but not an obvious one, and it carries profound consequences.

Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things. Our notion of what constitutes a “physical thing” can change as our understanding of physics improves; these days our best conception of what really exists is a set of interacting quantum fields described by a wave function. What doesn’t exist, in this doctrine, is anything strictly outside the physical realm — no spirits, deities, or souls independent of bodies. It is often convenient to describe the world in other than purely physical terms, but that is a matter of practical usefulness rather than fundamental necessity.

Most modern scientists and philosophers are physicalists, but the idea is far from obvious, and it is not as widely accepted in the larger community as it could be. When someone dies, it seems apparent that something is *gone* — a spirit or soul that previously animated the body. The idea that a person is a complex chemical reaction, and that their consciousness emerges directly from the chemical interplay of the atoms of which they are made, can be a difficult one to accept. But it is the inescapable conclusion from everything science has learned about the world.

If the world is made of things, why do they act the way they do? A plausible answer to this question, elaborated by Aristotle and part of many people’s intuitive picture of how things work, is that these things want to be a certain way. they have a goal, or at least a natural state of being. Water wants to run downhill; fire wants to rise to the sky. Humans exist to be rational, or caring, or to glorify God; marriages are meant to be between a man and a woman.

This teleological, goal-driven, view of the world is reasonable on its face, but unsupported by science. When Avicenna and Galileo and others suggested that motion does not require a continuous impulse — that objects left to themselves simply keep moving without any outside help — they began the arduous process of undermining the teleological worldview. At a basic level, all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics. These rules take a definite form: given the state of the object and its environment now, we can predict its state in the future. (Quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component to the prediction, but the underlying idea remains the same.) The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.

Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology” to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase “dysteleological physicalism” (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it.

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52 Responses to Dysteleological Physicalism

  1. Rick says:

    I believe Carl Sagan said it best, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you first must invent the Universe.”

  2. Zeno says:

    Many of my students tell me that the manifest purpose of the universe is to make them flunk their math classes. (I wish they didn’t insist so often on fulfilling their “destiny.”)

  3. Len Ornstein says:


    The view you put forward here seems to be a version of classical Platonism.

    What logic and science teach us is contrary to such a model:

    We can only experience ‘reality’ through our senses. And experience, especially when ‘translated’ for communication, will always be incomplete. Therefore our models of ‘reality’, and of those experiences, will always be – to some degree – uncertain.

    ‘Reality’ is better perceived of as a set of models, hopefully made decreasingly less fuzzy as the result of science’s best efforts of refined modeling and ‘testing’.



  4. Dan P says:

    It’s great that we’ve dumped teleological language. But I wish the anthropomorphic-legalistic language would get dumped too. “all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics”. It sounds like physical material is like people, ‘obeying’ something that has set out the ‘rules’ and ‘laws’. Yes, these are metaphors. But I wish there were other ways of saying these things.

    Stuff happens. As scientists we’re able to find patterns in these happening and, with luck, come up with compact descriptions of these patterns. To talk about these things as objects ‘obeying laws’ just seems so medieval to me, and no less medieval than saying “this mass wants to accelerate this way because of this electric charge over here”.

    Also, there is another related revolution that went hand in hand with the move to ‘dysteleology’ that I think is just as important. That was the separation of value judgements from facts. I think this was probably kicked off by Galileo too. It meant people no longer found it acceptable to argue “this person got sick because they were evil” or “celestial objects are perfect so they can have no blemish on them”.

  5. Naught says:

    But where do the rules come from?

  6. Jason says:

    “The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.”

    So Hitler, and Stalin had no chiice in the matter?
    …no matter what anyone does, it is inevitable because of the state of the universe at an earlier time…?!?!?!

  7. max says:

    I’ve long hated teleological reasoning, so thanks for putting this forward. Although, you don’t even need to be a strict physicalist to see the virtue in abandoning it.

    Jason, I think morality is pretty compatible with this type of world-view. You just have to take a Humean (I think, it’s been a while since I looked at this stuff) view of free will. If you want to do something and you can do it, then you have free will and should be held morally responsible for your actions. Your desires and circumstances may be completely predetermined (ignoring the randomness of the quantum world), but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have acted differently if you had so desired.

  8. Dan P says:

    > So Hitler, and Stalin had no chiice in the matter?

    Choice is something that emerges as a result of physical and chemical processes in the brain and body. Saying that physical and chemical processes display certain types of regularity (ie. ‘obey laws’) doesn’t change that.

  9. AnotherSean says:

    It seems to me required to describe the universe in something other than physical terms. Lie groups, dualities, Hilbert spaces and other abstract notions are the foundations of science, and it surely makes no sense to call them physical in the traditional use of the word.

  10. Joshua Fisher says:

    They had a choice in the same way we all have choices. But the decision they made was a product of their brain chemistry reacting with their brain structure. Any of our choices could be accurately predicted with physics and enough information.

  11. Matt S. says:

    It gets confusing when you talk about determinism in a human/social context, because the terms used are loaded with confusing/unintuitive ideas. But what it boils down to, yes, Hitler and Stalin couldn’t have chosen otherwise, because they were Hitler and Stalin.

    You can’t “choose” to not follow the rules of nature and somehow end up with an “alternative” future (whatever the HECK that even means).

    The present is the present and a succession of “presents” is what we later see as history, there is no room for alternate histories or alternate futures. The phrase “could have chosen otherwise” is absolutely devoid of meaning.

    “Just happens.” It sounds like such a simple statement, but the human brain has so much trouble comprehending it.

    So this article is much needed, great job Sean!

  12. Joseph Smidt says:

    @#5 Naught,

    Exactly. And what is interesting is people will quickly say this is a stupid question because…. they and science can’t answer it. (If they could they would *gladly* provide you an answer but since they can’t they will try to philosophize why the question must somehow be fundamentally a bad one to ask.)

    Science is awesome and can explain so much but one thing it apparently cannot do is explain where the rules come from in the first place.

  13. max says:

    Continuing with the question of morality, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that everything nonphysical in the world (i.e. “purpose and meaning”) is something that is artificially created. Looking at math as an easy example, there is a category of shapes called triangles and a category called squares and although these don’t physically exist in the world, the categories themselves do exist independently of their discovery by humans. It would still be true that triangles and squares are different from each other even if no one had ever thought of them as different concepts. The same could be argued for moral concepts. Perhaps the idea that lying is a moral wrong is just as independent of people as the concept of a triangle. I don’t want to say that this is necessarily so — it’s a very long argument to go either way on this — but just that you don’t have to completely embrace moral subjectivity if you’re going to espouse dysteleoligical physicalism.

  14. psmith says:

    This seems to be no more than an elaborate semantic sleight of hand. Teleological reasoning is replaced by law driven reasoning. First it happens because a purpose is driving it then it happens because a law is driving it. All we have done is make the terms seem more abstract but there is no increase in explanatory power. That is because we do not have the slightest idea where the laws come from, what the laws really are or why they drive every detail of the operation of this universe, everywhere and all the time, with such dependable precision. Changing the terminology does nothing to explain this.

  15. Gregory Gustafson says:

    Hegel, if I understand his work correctly (it has been over 40 years since I actively studied his philosophy), would argue that these physical rules (immanent from the relationships between things) ultimately coalesce into a coherent system (called “logic”) and that the origin of the universe (nature) is the first movement in the actualization of logic, the second movement being the progress to science (the role of consciousness) with the word science standing for the full development of logic into a completely realized system of thought and things. By this argument the only purpose of the universe is to come to a full knowledge of itself and is therefore not pointless.

    Forgive me if my brief summary is flawed.

  16. Joseph Smidt says:

    @#14 psmith,

    I think your “sleight of hand” is an intelligent observation. People have shifted the “mystery” of the universe from some teleological purpose to some laws that “just exist because they do end of story so don’t ask why”. This doesn’t explain anything except shift the mystery from one thing to another.

  17. FUG says:

    But, sir! You need not worry that my rejection is couched in terms of a meaningful universe! Anyone alive and honest understands that there is no meaning or purpose in living. 😉 (I kid, I kid. But I do want you to be aware that this is not where my rejection is coming from)

    However, if you could explain what you mean by this word “object” and “rules”, and how it is that they have ontological import, I would feel better about your argument. Your argument, at present, is that this is a necessary conclusion from our scientific research to date, and that many philosophers and scientists are physicalists. The second argument is not an argument, and your first argument is as old as the hills: Everyone and their mother says that their opinion is the necessary conclusion from their time period’s respected epistemic framework. If you could show me how this is so through an argument from science to ontology then I may be convinced. Right now you’re clarifying what it is that you believe, but I don’t think you’re justifying it.

    For example: Why is it that you’re beginning at physics? What justifies small things to have ontological importance? Perhaps the physicists are simply solving puzzles of their own invention. I think in terms of chemistry, and give ontological import to atoms over primal forces. However, I do admit that this is an acquired habit of mine, a sort of occupational hazard, as opposed to ascribing ontological import to atoms as a necessary conclusion from science. Can you justify your reference to objects, rules, and not just the very small, but the smallest?

  18. Dan P says:

    > there is no increase in explanatory power

    Since we abandoned teleological arguments we have explained more about the universe than at any time before. Just look at the technology that we have available to us today because of our increased ability to explain phenomena.

  19. GMH says:

    There’s something wrong with the terminology here. If Haeckel wanted to say that the universe has NO purpose or goal, he should have called his doctrine “ateleology.” The term “dysteleology” would mean that the universe has a purpose, but it is a bad or malignant one, which is not what Sean wants to say. “Pointless” is much better. Stick with pointless.

  20. the clayton peacock says:

    The edited and published version is far better.

  21. Tom says:

    > there is no increase in explanatory power

    No, but abandoning the teleological phrasing reduces the chances it will trick or lure our human psychology into false conclusions and contradictions. Language can shape thought, so it’s best to stick to a system that appears to support ideas which do not coincide with reality.

    How many people that are products of our education system thing species actively try to evolve and become more fit? Evolution simply happens, it isn’t a “goal” on the minds of the participants.

  22. FUG says:

    @ 18: An increase in “technology” does not show that we have explained more about the universe than at any time before. “Technology” is a broad word that essentially cashes out as ,”Stuff that humans did that we think is cool”. How is that connected to a broader understanding of the universe? It could be the case that we’ve had more time to make random guesses about the universe (as our species has the ability to transmit knowledge), and that the more transmittable random guesses are the ones we ended up with. This is plausible in light of the fact that we often speak of scientific descriptions as partial descriptions of the world to account for their fallibility, which would allow for other possible partial descriptions of the world that counter our currently accepted frameworks: The patterns we learn to manipulate the world may work, but since there are other possible descriptions which yield the same pattern of behavior (such as comparisons between Galileo and Ptolemy), it’s not necessary for our descriptions to mirror the world.

    Further, maybe people in the past thought other things were cool. This is especially plausible if we’re accepting the thesis that it is we who create meaning in the world.

  23. Jim Cross says:

    To say that all that really exists is physical is little different from saying all that really exists is mental. In both cases, all and physical (or mental) become synonymous. If mental is really physical (or physical really mental), the statement becomes nonsensical and devoid of value. Without a distinction between physical and mental it is the same as saying everything is everything.

    Science cannot prove all is physical no matter how useful it may be as a working methodology to look for search for causation by reducing complex phenomena to simpler ones. The reductionist approach leads inevitably to explaining mind by neurons, neurons by chemistry, and chemistry by physics. Even though nothing at each stage of reduction explains fully the behavior of the systems at the higher level, the reductionists have faith (yes, akin to the religious kind) that they will eventually succeed in the enterprise of explaining if only they can gather more knowledge. Yet even now, when the final reductions are made, we arrive at not “objects”, but waveforms, driven not by “rules” but by probability.

  24. Sam says:

    > there is no increase in explanatory power

    But of course there is.

    Take two people… one person believes fire behaves as it does because it desires to go up into the sky. The other person believes fire does what it does due to convection and its heat. Which of these two people do you think would most accurately be able to predict how fire would behave in a microgravity environment?

  25. Dan P says:

    > How is that connected to a broader understanding of the universe?

    I’m a bit confused as to how anyone in the modern world can ask this question. I have used our broader understanding of the universe multiple times in my job, say, to develop technology. I use my knowledge of optics and electronics on an almost daily basis. Others I know use their knowledge of solid state physics, and of classical electromagnetism, knowledge of chemistry and of genetics, knowledge of materials science and Newtonian physics. I daily use devices that depend for their working on scientific knowledge as diverse as general relativity and endocrinology. These items of technology didn’t just land in someone’s hands because of some random process. They got there because people studied science. We have more technology today than at any other time in the past because we have more science than at any other time in the past. The connection between people trying (and succeeding) at describing the universe around them, and the appearance of technology, is undeniable.

    I also have no idea what coolness has to do with this. This drug is good because it works and saves me suffering, not because it’s cool.