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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.
Bibliographical noteFunding 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.
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