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CLEA SEMINAR. Teleology: All Goal-Directed Systems Have the Same Architecture (?) - by Daniel McShea

Location: VUB campus Etterbeek, room D.1.07 + online
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In a 1954 paper, the philosopher James Feibleman wrote:

“In any organisation, the lower level is directed by the higher. … That is to say, in an object which extends over more than one level the higher level furnishes the direction of the lower. Just as the mechanism of an organisation is furnished by its lower levels, so its purpose is the product of its higher levels.”

Purpose, teleology and goal-directedness all lie within the domain of hierarchy theory. In this seminar, Daniel McShea offers a theory of goal-directedness which takes inspiration from the work of hierarchy theorists like Donald Campbell, Herbert Simon, Bill Wimsatt, and Stan Salthe, as well as Feibleman. His central claim is that goal-directedness arises in physically nested hierarchical systems when a lower-level entity is directed by a higher-level “field” in which the entity is immersed. For a sunflower tracking the sun across the sky, the entity is the sunflower, and the field that directs is the “light field” coming from the sun. Various mechanisms within the flower cause the flower head to turn, but it is the light field that directs and tells the plant which way to turn. During the seminar McShea will argue that all goal-directed systems have this 'entity within a field' architecture, from simple organismal tropisms to organismal physiology and development, to the process of natural selection, to animal affect (“wanting”), to certain artefacts like self-driving cars. Outrageously, the theory accords a certain amount of goal-directedness to simple physical systems with this same architecture, such as a charged particle moving within an electric field.

Daniel McShea will also discuss a number of technical and philosophical issues arising in connection with this theory, arguing along the way that the theory is “externalist” (in contrast to Aristotelian internalism), that it points the way to a theory of function (one that is consistent with the etiological view of function), that goal-directedness is not all-or-none but comes in degrees, and that implicit in the theory is a new view of “freedom.”

About the speaker

Daniel McShea is a paleobiologist with a long-standing interest in evolutionary trends, especially the putative trend in organismal complexity. Most recently, he developed - along with Robert Brandon - an evolutionary law called ‘the zero-force evolutionary law’ which predicts a tendency for complexity and diversity to increase over the history of life. In the past ten years, his main interests have been goal-directedness, purpose and teleology. His theory, which he calls “field theory”, is that goal-directedness arises in hierarchical systems when a lower-level entity is directed by a higher-level “field” in which the entity is immersed. In the past couple of years, he has been collaborating with Gunnar Babcock to work out the details and consequences of this theory which includes a new view of freedom (as a consequence of hierarchical structure). Daniel McShea has a PhD from the University of Chicago and currently, he has a faculty position at Duke University, Department of Biology, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Philosophy. McShea has taught courses on evolutionary theory, macroevolution, philosophy of biology, ethics, and happiness.


The CLEA seminars are taking place simultaneously at the VUB campus in Etterbeek, Brussels, and online (via Zoom) and are open to everyone interested!

When. Friday September 30, 2022 from 14:00 until 16:00h

Where (live). VUB campus Etterbeek, room D.1.07

Online. You can follow online via Zoom:

Daniel McShea seminar 30.09.22