The Meaning and Origin of Goal-Directedness: A Dynamical Systems Perspective

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
317 Downloads (Pure)


This paper attempts to clarify the notion of goal-directedness, which is often misunderstood as being inconsistent with standard causal mechanisms. We first note that goal-directedness does not presuppose any mysterious forces, such as intelligent design, vitalism, conscious intention or backward causation. We then review attempts at defining goal-directedness by means of more operational characteristics: equifinality, plasticity, persistence, concerted action and negative feedback. We show that all these features can be explained by interpreting a goal as a far-from-equilibrium attractor of a dynamical system. This implies that perturbations that make the system deviate from its goal-directed trajectory are automatically compensated—at least as long as the system stays within the same basin of attraction. We argue that attractors and basins with the necessary degree of resilience tend to self-organize in complex reaction networks, thus producing self-maintaining “organizations”. These can be seen as an abstract model of the first goal-directed systems, and thus of the origin of life.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberblac060
Pages (from-to)370-387
Number of pages18
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation as part of the project ‘The Origins of Goal-Directedness’ (grant ID61733), under its research program on ‘The Science of Purpose’. I thank my VUB colleagues collaborating on this project (), and in particular Evo Busseniers, Shima Beigi and Tomas Veloz, for many inspiring discussions on the concepts presented here. I also thank Peter Corning and Richard Vane-Wright for inviting me to the Linnean Society meeting ‘Evolution “On Purpose”’, where this paper was first presented, and where I discovered a number of related approaches summarized here. My article is thus a contribution to the special issue on Teleonomy in Living Systems, guest edited by Richard Vane-Wright and Peter Corning, based on this meeting. I have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Linnean Society of London. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


Dive into the research topics of 'The Meaning and Origin of Goal-Directedness: A Dynamical Systems Perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this