Article

Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 663-684

Upper-directed systems: a new approach to teleology in biology

  • Daniel W. McSheaAffiliated withBiology Department, Duke University Email author 

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Abstract

How shall we understand apparently teleological systems? What explains their persistence (returning to past trajectories following errors) and their plasticity (finding the same trajectory from different starting points)? Here I argue that all seemingly goal-directed systems—e.g., a food-seeking organism, human-made devices like thermostats and torpedoes, biological development, human goal seeking, and the evolutionary process itself—share a common organization. Specifically, they consist of an entity that moves within a larger containing structure, one that directs its behavior in a general way without precisely determining it. If so, then teleology lies within the domain of the theory of compositional hierarchies.

Keywords

Teleology Goal-directedness Hierarchy Purpose Evolution