Telos: A Lost Cause? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Putting purpose back into the universe
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Telos: A Lost Cause?

Before life, there's no evidence of intent — no evidence of searching for food or a light source or a mate. With life, intent actually changes the behavior of matter. hide caption

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Before life, there's no evidence of intent — no evidence of searching for food or a light source or a mate. With life, intent actually changes the behavior of matter.

"We must understand our world in such a way that it will not be absurd to claim that it has produced us"
Ilya Prigogine

If you're reading this on a computer, lets start there. There are millions of computers on our planet. Have they always been this common?

When we say always, we mean the longer always, the entire 13.5 billion year history of the universe. Scanning way back in geological time, long before life here or anywhere, computers weren't just uncommon, they were as close to impossible as unlikely ever gets.

The laws of physics and chemistry produce galaxies, planets, black holes and dust but not computers. No matter how incredibly long the ten billion years before life, no inanimate, non-cognitive spontaneous, physical or chemical process anywhere in the universe could produce a computer's vastly improbable combination of materials, much less lead to millions of nearly identical computers being produced within a few short years of each other.

Computers are so new, so how about that coffee mug you are holding? Cups have been around a long time. And yet, again, in the first ten billion years, the chance of millions of them being produced, much less with the image of Garfield on them is vanishingly small.

And, yet, they're everywhere. What has happened to make the impossibly improbable become so probable that it's now a reality?

It's not just computers and cups. It's everything made by organisms -- houses, nests, hives, webs, books, cars, wagons, gardens, everything.

It's as though something happened to alter the laws of causality. There has been a phase shift. Before life, causality worked one way; now it works that way but also another way. Life somehow alters the behavior of matter in ways that we have yet to explain.

Step way back out of the particulars to think about matter in motion. Since the big bang matter's movement has followed the laws of physics and chemistry. Chief among these laws is an overwhelming tendency for order to become disorder. It's referred to as the second law of thermodynamics. It's the universal tendency for random interactions to dissipate concentrations, de-correlate correlations and disorganize organization. Things fly apart with time.

Let's then take the matter that is your computer on a trip back through time. Here it is on your desk, organized into a computer in precise intricate working order. Roll back time and there it was, matter collected from all around the earth, a bit of silicon from here, steel from there, petroleum from over there. Go further back and for billions of years, it's just molecules in aimless physical motion.

Aim is the difference. Someone aimed to produce your computer. Before life there's no evidence of intent -- no evidence of searching for food or a light source or a mate. With life, intent actually changes the behavior of matter.

For all of our scientific and technical advances we have allowed the mystery of intent to remain unsolved.

Rewinding your computer from order to disorder is more of what we would expect from the laws of physics and chemistry. Somehow with the phase shift, the process is reversed. Whereas the second law creates disorder, life's processes generate order.

Aristotle distinguished four modes of causality: material, efficient, formal, and final cause. In carpentry, for example, material cause is what determines the structural stability of a house; efficient cause is the carpenter's modifications of materials to create this structure; formal cause is the plan followed in this construction process; final cause, or "Telos" in Greek, is the intent of the process, i.e., producing a place to live. It's the intention that motivates the building of a house, a computer or a coffee mug. Telos is that 'for the sake of which' something is done.

Aristotle's successors assumed that everything had its telos or intent. Final cause could explain any and everything, albeit with a kind of circular logic. Why did acorns become Oak trees? Because it was their inherent telos or aim that made them do so.

But where did their intent come from? Scholars of the Middle Ages weaving Aristotle with Christianity could always ground purpose in God. God's telos was to produce the acorn's telos. For a long time, that was explanation enough. Indeed today when we say "It's God's will," or the more secular "It was meant to happen," we are evoking this kind of universal explanation.

By the Enlightenment, as the laws of physics gradually began to come into focus, final causality became a suspect species of explanation. Bacon argued that teleological explanations were redundant to physical explanations of things.

Spinoza questioned the literal sense of final causality, since it was nonsensical to think of future states producing present states. These influential thinkers and others recognized that such an ephemeral and non-material thing as an intent required a physical account of its implementation.

How could an intent, a non-thing, cause matter to move? An intent, conceived as the "pull" of some future possibility, must be illusory.

Eliminating appeals to final causality forced thinkers to pay more attention to the physical and chemical, or in Aristotle's system, the efficient and material cause, and science flourished. Scientific achievement made it all the more obvious that teleological explanation could be dispensed with.

The universe was merely complex clockwork, or by modern standards a computer, merely the complex but predictable mechanistic movement of matter. Most scientists since have considered the replacement of teleological explanations with physical, chemical or mechanistic explanations to be both their mission and their mission accomplished.

Lightning is not aimed by God, it is the arcing of an electromagnetic charge. Hearts are not the seat of our truest aims, they are mechanisms for pumping energy, like the transformer on a computer.

Except we still can't explain how computers, or their aim-filled builders and users, came into being.

In our research, we aim to explain phenomena that scientists have spent much of the past several hundred years trying to explain away, and in future blogs we'll explore this mystery from many angles.

But it won't stay a mystery.

Progress, especially in the last few decades, makes a solution seem within reach, an explanation for the emergence of intentionality that is as plausible and indeed as understandable as our current explanation of lightning.

Terrence Deacon is Professor of Anthropology and Neuroscience at the University of California Berkeley. His most recent book, Mind from Matter: The Emergent Dynamics of Life, will be published by W.W. Norton in Fall 2010. Dr. Jeremy Sherman is a science writer and Deacon collaborator. They are the guest bloggers of Ursula Goodenough.