Reality, Pushed From Behind

Teleology” is a naughty word in certain circles — largely the circles that I often move in myself, namely physicists or other scientists who know what the word “teleology” means. To wit, it’s the concept of “being directed toward a goal.” In the good old days of Aristotle, our best understanding of the world was teleological from start to finish: acorns existed in order to grow into mighty oak trees; heavy objects wanted to fall and light objects to rise; human beings strove to fulfill their capacity as rational beings. Not everyone agreed, including my buddy Lucretius, but at the time it was a perfectly sensible view of the world.

These days we know better, though the knowledge has been hard-won. The early glimmerings of the notion of conservation of momentum supported the idea that things just kept happening, rather than being directed toward a cause, and this view seemed to find its ultimate embodiment in the clockwork universe of Newtonian mechanics. (In technical terms, time evolution is described by differential equations fixed by initial data, not by future goals.) Darwin showed how the splendid variety of biological life could arise without being in any sense goal-directed or guided — although this obviously remains a bone of contention among religious people, even respectable philosophers. But the dominant paradigm among scientists and philosophers is dysteleological physicalism.

However. Aristotle was a smart cookie, and dismissing him as an outdated relic is always a bad idea. Sure, maybe the underlying laws of nature are dysteleological, but surely there’s some useful sense in which macroscopic real-world systems can be usefully described using teleological language, even if it’s only approximate or limited in scope. (Here’s where I like to paraphrase Scott Derrickson: The universe has purposes. I know this because I am part of the universe, and I have purposes.) It’s okay, I think, to say things like “predators tend to have sharp teeth because it helps them kill and eat prey,” even if we understand that those causes are merely local and contingent, not transcendent. Stephen Asma defends this kind of view in an interesting recent article, although I would like to see more acknowledgement made of the effort required to connect the purposeless, mechanical underpinnings of the world to the purposeful, macroscopic biosphere. Such a connection can be made, but it requires some effort.

Of course loyal readers all know where such a connection comes from: it’s the arrow of time. The underlying laws of physics don’t work in terms of any particular “pull” toward future goals, but the specific trajectory of our actual universe looks very different in the past than in the future. In particular, the past had a low entropy: we can reconcile the directedness of macroscopic time evolution with the indifference of microscopic dynamics by positing some sort of Past Hypothesis (see also). All of the ways in which physical objects behave differently toward the future than toward the past can ultimately be traced to the thermodynamic arrow of time.

Which raises an interesting point that I don’t think is sufficiently appreciated: we now know enough about the real behavior of the physical world to understand that what looks to us like teleological behavior is actually, deep down, not determined by any goals in the future, but fixed by a boundary condition in the past. So while “teleological” might be acceptable as a rough macroscopic descriptor, a more precise characterization would say that we are being pushed from behind, not pulled from ahead.

The question is, what do we call such a way of thinking? Apparently “teleology” is a word never actually used by Aristotle, but invented in the eighteenth century based on the Greek télos, meaning “end.” So perhaps what we want is an equivalent term, with “end” replaced by “beginning.” I know exactly zero ancient Greek, but from what I can glean from the internet there is an obvious choice: arche is the Greek word for beginning or origin. Sadly, “archeology” is already taken to mean something completely different, so we can’t use it.

I therefore tentatively propose the word aphormeology to mean “originating from a condition in the past,” in contrast with teleology, “driven toward a goal in the future.” (Amazingly, a Google search for this word on 3 February 2014 returns precisely zero hits.) Remember — no knowledge of ancient Greek, but apparently aphorme means “a base of operations, a place from which a campaign is launched.” Which is not a terribly bad way of describing the cosmological Past Hypothesis when you think about it. (Better suggestions would be welcome, especially from anyone who actually knows Greek.)

We live in a world where the dynamical laws are fundamentally dysteleological, but our cosmic history is aphormeological, which through the magic of statistical mechanics gives rise to the appearance of teleology in our macroscopic environment. A shame Aristotle and Lucretius aren’t around to appreciate the progress we’ve made.

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66 Responses to Reality, Pushed From Behind

  1. Hey Sean, you should read “Mind from matter” by Terrence Deacon. It is a very ambitious book in which he tries to make the connection. I found it very interesting. Best wishes from Spain.

  2. “However. Aristotle was a smart cookie, and dismissing him as an outdated relic is always a bad idea.”

    Not necessarily. Despite having been married twice, he claimed that women have fewer teeth than men. Wasn’t he supposed to be “Mr Observation”, as opposed to “Mr Theorist” Plato? Perhaps his scope was too limited (like Freud, who said little which was correct about humanity in general but much which was correct about upper-class women in the Vienna of his time), and I can see the negative reaction of research in the field when confronted with the “open up, I’m a philosopher” asked to women he met in the street.

  3. Giotis says:

    aphormeology is not good from Greek point of view and also it doesn’t sound good. I would suggest the word ‘Ekinology’ or ‘Ekinisiology’ from the Greek word Ekinisi (Εκκινηση)which is used basically when something starts e.g. exactly when an athlete starts running after the start signal. It has the same root with the word kinetic.

  4. Joel Rice says:

    Behavior is also a matter of what is Possible, and whatever determines that.

  5. jayman777 says:

    Aristotle appealed to final causes in order to explain the regularity in the world. That something has a final cause does not entail that the subject has psychological states. Science describes the regularity we observe and so does not rule out Aristotelian teleology.

  6. Marcoli says:

    @ Pablo E-R: Do you mean “Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter”?

  7. DEL says:

    The only feature of reality that saves physics from unwittingly accommodating teleology is quantum uncertainty—strict Laplacian determinism is no less teleological than it is “aphormeological,” regardless of the arrow of time. Here is why.

    Any deterministic system, including an entire deterministic universe, may be represented by a system of differential equations and a sufficient set of initial conditions, which together constitute a well-posed problem. Right? Yes, but not necessary. One can replace the set of initial conditions with a compatible set of final conditions and get the same solution. In other words: if the state of the universe now determines its state at any time in the future, then the two views, i) that it’s the present that pushes the evolution towards the future or ii) that it’s the future that pulls it, are equivalent and physically indistinguishable. The choice between them is a matter of utility, convention, taste, or even faith—if one wishes.

    Let’s play theology, tongue-in-cheek. An almighty, omniscient God (not necessarily that of Christian mythology) has a goal for the universe. She set up the equations and the target final conditions and ever since the universe has been obediently evolving to meet them. “What’s wrong with that?” a WLC-type might ask in a debate. “Quantum uncertainty, which precludes determinism,” a Sean-type can answer.

    Interestingly, classical mechanics, when cast in the form of a variational principle such as Hamilton’s, looks suspiciously teleological.

  8. Pingback: Telos is Greek for end. So nice. « Invariance Publishing House

  9. chemicalscum says:

    Coincidentally I am currently reading Thomas Nagel’s rather pathetic little book: Mind and Cosmos – why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is almost certainly wrong”. For an analytic philosopher , what is pathetic is that his argument boils down to nothing more than gut feelings and intuition.

    I was thinking over this morning, where he goes wrong in his faith (I use the word intentionally) in teleology. I came to the conclusion is that he totally ignores thermodynamics and information theory. The (local) universe currently has a directionality towards ever greater complexity and that this is due to the presence of far from equilibrium thermodynamic states. This in turn derives from the initial extremely low entropy of the early universe.

    It looks like I came to the same conclusion as Sean, I guess this is due to reading “From Eternity to Here”

  10. Hi Sean,

    Some interesting points here, including valuing the connection of physics to biology more – which would be via chemistry.

    Actually I hypothesize that chemistry is much underestimated as a link, as its extends from a Big Bang of neucleosynthesis in the first three minutes to create 25% helium and 75% hydrogen for supernovae to eventually finish off the Periodic Table, which we have in approximate proportions on our planet from supernova creation in a regular solar system from a rotating disk when the supernovae explode to disperse.

    Simply stated as above, the formation of the chemical elements from decaying neutrons after an expansion event at ‘Escape Velocity” (using Steve Weinberg’s words) leads to earth type landscapes quite naturally in my view. No need to worry about an arrow of time, because it is evident in the potential of repeated neutron particles to aggregate in a void upon freedom at Escape Velocity (whatever that may have been). Pre-existing potential is in repeated constituents that do no more than aggregate using gravitation to eventually settle as earth type planets.

    I have never understood technical objections to an arrow to predetermined evolution on that level – to landscapes on earth- when it is simply, pre-existing potential eking itself out observably as above. Why neutrons have that potential and why they reach Escape Velocity are open issues, but I have ideas about them in my free book at my site (geometrical, not spiritual design). I extend the arrow to include human life evolving on ‘such landscapes’ using chemistry from physics (above) more intricately.

    I realize my previous post with a brief explanation of my work was voted out, but I received no specific comments from anyone, so it might be an error. The title looks suspiciously spiritual and people are very sensitive to that, but I’m sure the above makes “some sense” even though that simple way of approaching the issue might seem deceptively “simplistic”.

  11. Joe Dickinson says:

    It seems to me that the connection between purposeless physical underpinnings and purposeful biosphere is, in fact, quite well understood. It’s called natural selection. And a comment about the Stephen Asma article that you link to. He remarks that (gene) regulation (e.g., controlling development) only recently has been targeted by biologists. Interesting news since that is precisely what I worked from graduate school in the 1960s through retirement.

  12. It occurred to me you may be concerned there is a lot of waste in my simple arrow explanation above, but like any process with an inevitable developmental arrow extending from a pre-set potential, it would zero in to refinements as earth-type landscapes and life. Again that might seem convenient, but that’s an inevitability of any process – refining down to product that might be an end-product in a course of evolution that will in many billions of light years disperse particles themselves as their constituents detach. Along that course symphonies are written, so to speak, only to fade in the inevitable Arrow to a peak and a trough. A lot of waste for intermittent symphonies in otherwise lifeless gigantism (which can do your head in, but its not interesting).

  13. Troy McConaghy says:

    The Principle of Least Action bothers me because it seems to say that, for example, a particle evaluates all possible future trajectories and then does one which minimizes the action (an integral over the whole trajectory). That feels like doing something to achieve an end goal.

    I realize that the name “least action” isn’t exactly right because the actual trajectory might maximize the action, or in general, the actual trajectory is one which is stationary — where the first variation of the action is zero.

    Still, that seems like some sort of goal-seeking behavior.

    Maybe it’s just a weird coincidence. I don’t think the principle obtains for nonholonomic or dissipative systems.

  14. Excellent insight Troy, while I am still at the site. It is impetus or momentum at every moment in the Arrow. Cause and effect must exist strictly either side of every moment if it is directed by an arrow of time or it cannot “hold together” as a sequence from an origin and to a product. In the universe I suspect it is by the fine balance of a neutron from being contained one second to decay into, basically, a contained hydrogen atom capable of aggregating for the Periodic Table under gravitation.

    Impetus in a setting of neutralized gravitation ( a Flat Universe) by neutrons would be to eke out, to no more than slip along in momentum towards the Periodic Table on earth type planets. But, formally speaking, to be a causal sequence, there would be an unbroken arrow of continual moments of impetus from cause to effect.

    In physics it is an arrow from decay, as “causal” containment decaying as “effect” of containment (action-reaction) and always with impetus to containing that effect towards building the Periodic Table and expressing the Table on earth type landscapes. Impetus at all times, but a meandering path from a mere slip between cause and effect enshrined in the random slip of decay from containment in a void.

    Very fine, but by that logic, the potential in the good old neutron is released along the Arrow and stays true to it its origins to extend as chemical potential from hydrogen (and helium) atoms aggregating into more and more types of contained atoms released in that ability by effect following cause at random statistical decay. A fine edge driving the Arrow contained aggregations into atoms and compounds and eventually into landscapes.

  15. If you seed a child next year, the child will not “originate from a condition in the past” until after it is conceived. Future photons from the Sun will only be born after future nuclear events. So, things do indeed originate from conditions in the future, and perhaps the correct word would be seminology.

  16. Allen says:

    Question #1: What is the probability that a randomly selected set of initial conditions and physical laws will give rise to beings who are able to even approximately discover those initial conditions and physical laws?

    Question #2: Does “evolution by natural selection” add any explanatory power to “initial conditions plus physical laws” – or do “initial conditions plus physical laws” ultimately explain everything about the present that can be explained?

    Question #3: If evolution by natural selection does add something extra to initial conditions plus physical laws – what is that extra bit? Doesn’t biology ultimately reduce to physics, and by physics we just mean “initial conditions plus physical laws”?


  17. paul kramarchyk says:

    2¢ —- Nothing is “directed” by the arrow of time. The arrow of time is directed by the statistical probability of what is likely to happen next given the conditions at any instant in time. A tornado blown through a junk yard may assemble a Cadillac in the process. Not likely. But still a nonzero probability of occurrence given a junk yard with the requisite parts. So as our tornado works its way through the junk yard the result may be a bigger mess or a Cadillac. A mess is far more likely. Same is true of any event or sequence of events not deliberately controlled by some external intelligence. Example, I can make air in a room at atmospheric pressure collect in a high pressure cylinder by appropriate use of a control device, a compressor.

  18. John Call says:

    I like what Giotis said, “Ekinology.” You could go the mythology route with the Fates. “Moirai” in greek, or the specific one dealing with controlling the pattern of ones future, “Clotho.” Using Clotho would lend a bit of poetic justice to the term I should think.

  19. Joe Dickinson says:

    Paul Kramarchyk, I think, does not understand evolution. Variation is random (in the special sense that it is not biased in favor of useful variants), but natural selection (not controlled by “some external intelligence”) gives direction.

  20. piledHighAndDeep says:

    some commentators above have mentioned the Principle of Least Action as teleological. But the action is the phase of the wave-function which undergoes destructive interference for paths for which the action is not extremal. So instead of having foresight, the particle travels along every path, but all the “wrong” paths cancel each other out.

  21. piledHighAndDeep says:

    with regards to Allen’s questions:
    1) calculating probabilities require a measure without which “randomly selected” doesn’t mean anything. Different measures will produce different distributions and hence different expectations.

    2) this is an interesting question of emergence. I can only restate the question: as we scale up do new laws emerge? The answer is obvious, but I have to get back to work.

  22. mpc755 says:

    How do you know the particle does not always travel through a single slit in a double slit experiment?

    You don’t.

    You choose to believe the particle does not always travel through a single slit so you can make stuff up like ‘many worlds’.

    There is evidence of the aether every time a double slit experiment is performed; it’s what waves.

  23. DEL says:

    Troy, in my comment I said Hamilton’s principle “looks suspiciously teleological.” That it ain’t necessarily so, that looks might deceive, stems from the fact that Hamilton’s principle is equivalent to Newton’s laws of motion, which certainly do not look suspiciously teleological.

  24. Josh says:

    I fear I’ve missed out on why teleology is absolutely “out.” I recognize that if the universe has an “agenda,” it may well deceive our attempts to rationally understand it. I also recognize that there seems no reason so far to largely claim it, as nature has consistently reduced itself to simpler laws. But isn’t taking an explicit stance on teleology like disproving god or attacking a negative? It would seem to me that there always exists room for some sense of it (even though grandiose and awkward it may be), and thus a more thorough view would be to just remain “atheistic” towards unless given reason otherwise.

    DEL’s comment I think also deserves some questioning. Couldn’t the arrow of time be considered a teleology of sorts in that way? If even a “dumb” one? Perhaps we’re more interested in striking out the premise of any consciously or morally motivated teleology?

    And Sean, that “debate” with Hans was freaking exceptional precisely because of the lack of “debate” feel to it. Why can’t we broadcast “discussions” instead anyways? I have a feeling your audience probably went home thinking more then than any of the big atheist vs Christian clashes would inspire. The feel was very self-evaluative (for both naturalism and theism), which I think helps pull any viewer off the defense and allot for more introspection.

  25. Hi Allen,

    1. If randomly selected, I assume it would be next to zero.

    2. Specific (non random) initial conditions with laws that play out as an arrow of time are all that is needed. It appears unpredictable (random mutation and novel variety) in Selection but the arrow of particle evolution is to landscapes of elements across the Periodic Table. Those landscapes themselves actually prescribe for life by arranging chemical elements for use by DNA for anatomical construction (non-living from living). In fact Selection is only the unpredictable side of a predictable story from particle evolution to landscapes because anatomies are literal embodiments of pre-existing landscapes of non-living elements. So it is driven all the way to humans. You can read about this in my free book at

    3. My answer to 2 covers it, Selection adds very little other than the brute fact that anatomies must be supported by environments once they randomly mutate, or else die out (including Sexual selection). In fact, mutations do not appear random from Epigenetic findings, and a pre-existing non-living environment exists for construction of literal embodiments (your body is liquid by heart, gaseous by lungs, solids being digested in falling through, and so on ad infinitum in connection to non-living chemical behaviour literally shaped by DNA into anatomies – because that’s what anatomy is – DNA doesn’t re-invent the wheel of chemical behaviour when making anatomies). This is not understood at all as a principle in current science, despite its simplicity and consequences.