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Project: The Origins of Goal-directedness

A formal scenario based on chemical organization theory and cybernetics


This is an ambitious, transdisciplinary research project performed by a team of the Center Leo Apostel at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel over the period 2020-2023. It is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, under its program on “The Science of Purpose”.


This project intends to develop a scenario for the self-organization of goal-directed systems out of networks of (chemical) reactions. Related scenarios have been proposed to explain the origin of life starting from autocatalytic sets, but these sets tend to be too unstable and dependent on their environment to maintain. The new formalism of Chemical Organization Theory (COT) shows mathematically under which conditions reaction networks self-organize into self-maintaining, autopoietic “organizations”. Through computer simulations, we investigate what is needed to make an organization resilient, i.e. able to reach its goals in the face of environmental challenges. Using specially developed algorithmic tools, we will randomly generate and perturb computer-generated organizations, and select the ones that survive these perturbations, thus evolving increasingly resilient organizations.

The theory of cybernetics specifies the conditions that support goal-directedness: reference levels for goals, negative feedback, requisite variety of actions and knowledge, hierarchical structures, feedforward and buffering. We will express these conditions mathematically in the language of COT, and then check in how far the evolved organizations satisfy these conditions. This will allow us to develop a taxonomy and space of resilient organizations.

To test and refine these theoretical results, we will apply them to data about existing goal-directed systems, including metabolic networks and social systems. We will then determine the trajectories through the resilience space that are easiest to evolve, while comparing them with known evolutionary transitions. This should result in a realistic, step-by-step scenario for the evolution of goal-directedness, thus providing a theoretical solution to the age-old question of the origins of purpose.



This project aims to show that purposefulness or meaning is a natural outcome of the evolution of the universe, and therefore a fundamental constituent of reality.

The view that science reduces everything to inert pieces of matter and meaningless, mechanical processes is truly outdated. The most forward-looking scientists are aware of that, but still find it difficult to express this intuition in the more precise, formal manner that will convince their colleagues. That is because the standard models of mathematics and physics make it very difficult to explain how something that is initially merely mechanical and determined by external causes can acquire the autonomy that makes it able to pursue its own goals, and thus achieve some form of independence from these causes. 

On the other hand, the new "chemical organization theory" from which this project starts provides a simple and general mathematical model of such a transition. The principle is that elementary reactions enter into a synergetic relationship out of which a more complex, goal-directed "organization" emerges. The project intends to elaborate this model in much finer detail so that it would be able to explain the origin of the more complex and subtle aspects of agency and goal-directedness that characterize organisms, minds and social systems. Achieving that would provide a solid scientific foundation for our "spiritual" intuition that life is intrinsically meaningful, and that goal-directedness is truly part of fabric of the cosmos.

This research addresses the JTF program on  “The Science of Purpose” and its proposed investigation of the emergence of target-oriented behaviors, providing a rigorous conceptualization of such "agentic" behaviors and their evolution.  More generally, our project explores how a better understanding of the mechanisms of self-organization and adaptation that govern the universe may help us to discover meaning and purpose in life. We propose that human behavior too may be conceived as the course of action performed by an autonomous, autopoietic agent, striving to maintain and develop its identity within a complex, challenging environment, by using various cybernetic and resilience strategies as investigated by our project. We also hope that our project will help us to better understand the origin of cooperative social systems as resulting from the synergy between interactions that together constitute a self- maintaining whole characterized by a shared, emergent purpose.



We see the origin of goal-directedness as the origin of self-producing (i.e. autopoietic) organizations. These organizations (typically organisms and social systems) implicitly aim at maintaining themselves. To achieve that in an unpredictable environment, they must be able to counteract perturbations, which otherwise are likely to destroy their organization. That makes them to some degree autonomous: they follow their own course, not allowing the environment to make them deviate from that course. Thus, they exhibit agency: instead of being passively subjected to external forces, they themselves act so as to counter or exploit these forces in the service of their encompassing goal of survival and growth. More specific goals, such as finding food or evading a danger, are subordinate to this overall goal of self-maintenance. 

Evolution produces self-maintaining systems simply because natural selection eliminates all systems that aren’t able to maintain themselves (i.e. that cannot survive). The origin of self-maintaining systems can be understood very simply as the self-organization of a so-called “chemical organization” in a sufficiently rich network of reactions. This process is easy to model mathematically and computationally. However, these models do not take into account changes in the environment that act as perturbations. To cope with these, the organization must also be resilient, i.e. able to bounce back to a self-maintaining regime after some of its constituent processes have been disrupted. The project is focused on understanding the features of organizations that make them more resilient. Our general hypothesis is that evolution through variation and selection will equip organizations with gradually more effective means to combat perturbations, thus developing a an increasingly sophisticated cybernetic control structure.



The following people are working on this project:

Project leaders:

  • Prof. Dr. Francis Heylighen (cybernetic theory)
  • Dr. Tomas Veloz (COT modelling)

Senior Scientists:

  • Dr. Shima Beigi (resilience)
  • Dr. Evo Busseniers (mathematical modelling)
  • Dr. Marta Lenartowicz (social systems)

Junior Scientists:

  • Pedro Maldonado (simulation)
  • Alejandro Bassi (programming)

Student researchers

  • Fionn Daire Keogh (programming)
  • Simon Hegele (programming)

Coordination & Communication:

  • Nathalie Degraide
  • Jasmine De Bruycker


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