The Origins of Goal-directedness (ORIGO):
A formal scenario for the origin(s) of goal-directedness
based on the Chemical Organization Theory and Cybernetics
How do chaotic processes evolve into resilient organizations that can autonomously reach their goal of self-maintenance (survival), even when faced with perturbations? Finding a solid scenario for the emergence and evolution of self-organization and resilience in random reaction networks, described in mathematical terms, could unravel the origin of goal-directedness. Moreover, it could open a whole new perspective on reality, cosmic evolution, consciousness, life and its meaning, while exposing the limitations of a purely mechanistic, scientific worldview.
Starling murmuration - Image: Soren Solkaer
The list below is an overview of all available information angles on the research project 'The Origins of Goal-directedness' both on this webpage and related subpages.
- ABOUT. A brief research context. See below.
- SUMMARY. A short introduction to the project. See below.
- RESEARCH STORY. A narrative account of our major lines of research, serving as an accessible entry point for our publications. See ORIGO research story.
- LEXICON. A glossary explaining the key concepts we use within the project context. See ORIGO lexicon (under construction).
- TEAM. The people behind the project. See below.
- TOOLS. Open-source collection of algorithmic tools for exploring organizations. See below.
- EVENTS. A selection of events related to the research project (seminars, workshops and symposia). See ORIGO events.
- PUBLICATIONS. See ORIGO publications.
‘The Origins of Goal-directedness’ (ORIGO) is an ambitious transdisciplinary research project carried out by the Center Leo Apostel at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel over the period 2020-2023. It is supported by the John Templeton Foundation under its funding program The Science of Purpose investigating the emergence of goal-oriented behaviour.
With the project "The Origins of Goal-directedness" we want to address a striking gap in evolution theory and ‘origin of life’ scenarios. None of these theories clarify how the first living systems could become goal-directed at survival or ‘self-maintenance’. Evolution theory explains how living systems become better at maintaining their goal of survival, but not how this primary goal emerged. Existing scenarios for the origin of life are also in the dark about the origin of goal-directedness or "agency". They have difficulty to explain how chaotic, ephemeral reaction processes evolve entirely spontaneously, into complex, resilient, organized systems that autonomously achieve goals like self-maintenance, even in harsh conditions.
To unravel this major transition from purposelessness to purpose, a new interdisciplinary approach is needed. We decided to combine relevant ideas advanced by Cybernetics or the "science of goal-directedness", Dynamical Systems Theory and the new formalism of the Chemical Organization Theory (COT). Integrating these theories and languages allows us to develop a formal scenario that describes how goal-directedness in any system - living but also artificial, social or even extraterrestrial - can emerge and evolve, step-by-step.
Because goal-directedness is an abstract property, we had to find a way to observe (and explain) it by looking for a related, less abstract, more observable property: resilience. Our hypothesis is that goal-directed behaviour emerges together with chemical organizations, and manifests itself in a more enduring way in resilient organizations. Chemical organizations are networks of reactions that self-organize by becoming closed and self-maintaining. Resilience means that these organizations are able to remain as such even when faced with perturbations. In essence, all organizations are “goal-directed at self-maintenance” from the moment they exist. You could say that through their mere existence, these organizations "bring along" the concept of goal-directedness together with the primary goal of self-maintenance or survival. In other words, wherever we observe the emergence of organizations from a random network, a primary form of goal-directedness emerges as well. Of course, the slightest perturbation may cause fragile organizations to “collapse” into a non-reactive or “dormant” organization. In order to maintain their goal-directed behaviour in the presence of (more) perturbations, organizations need to become (more) resilient. To investigate the origin and evolution of goal-directedness, we thus need to understand the origin and evolution of self-organization and, especially, of resilience.
Through COT software simulations we discovered that organizations spontaneously emerge when reaction networks are sufficiently large and complex, but we are still looking for parameters such as the exact network size and degree of complexity needed. By adding Cybernetics and Dynamical Systems Theory, we can study how these organizations become increasingly resilient.
A resilient organization can undergo several perturbations that don’t make it collapse but evolve into a new organization (with a new structure). One hypothesis is that the more of these perturbations an organization undergoes in time, the more resilient the evolved organization will be. We are currently refining our models to arrive at a plausible formal scenario for the origin and evolution of goal-directedness that can be applied to a variety of systems.
The implications of finding such a scenario would be vast. It would suggest that goal-directedness tends to self-organize out of any sufficiently rich substrate of chemical, physical, informational, social or other interactions. This would imply that goal-directedness is not a mysterious concept but a fundament of reality, which would open up a whole new perspective on cosmic evolution. Another consequence would be that science can no longer reduce everything to inert pieces of matter and purposeless processes without agency. This would bring the mechanistic scientific worldview more in line with philosophies that seek purpose and meaning in life. A formal scenario could serve as a basis for a new "science of purpose" that is fully compatible with the laws of physics, but also offers a scientific foundation for our intuition that life is intrinsically purposeful.
Detecting the origin of goal-directedness early in evolutionary history would also help us to better understand the emergence of life on Earth. Goal-directedness being an essential part of all living systems would imply that an organism doesn’t need human intelligence, conscious intentions or even a nervous system to display goal-directed behaviour. This would turn the origin of goal-directedness into a more fundamental question than the origin of consciousness, which seems to be rooted in goal-directedness instead of the other way around. Lastly, a realistic step-by-step scenario for the origin and evolution of goal-directedness would also throw light on the emergence of more complex aspects of goal-directedness or "agency" that characterize organisms, minds, human behaviour and their complex social systems.
If you want to further explore the origins and evolution of goal-directedness, we recommend reading the research story before diving into our list of publications. We are also building a lexicon to explain the concepts we use. Furthermore, we organize events to exchange ideas and deepen our insights. If you want to share your thoughts, have a research question or an interest in collaborating, you are welcome to contact our research team at email@example.com.
The following people are working on this project:
Dr. Shima Beigi (resilience)
Pedro Maldonado (simulation)
Alejandro Bassi (programming)
Fionn Daire Keogh (UI)
Simon Hegele (data analysis)
Coordination & Communication
Jasmine De Bruycker (research storytelling)
Part of the research was developing an open-source library of algorithmic tools for generating and analyzing resilient organizations. The result is a Python library (pyRN), which is open source and freely accessible in github. PyRN is a collection of tools that allows the user to create and analyze reaction networks from the lens of our theory. It contains modules to perform multiple kinds of calculations about the structure of the reaction network, their dynamical evolution, as well as their evolution and resilience.
In order to simplify its use and access, we developed two specific products:
- For researchers. A set of notebooks in jupyter notebook format. It contains all important functions required to create and analyze reaction networks by using simple examples, so the user can get an idea of the capabilities and syntax of the library. There is also a mybinder platform associated to the platform. These tools are developed with researchers in mind.
- For users with less experience. An intuitive user interface that you can download and run directly in any operative system. It allows you to load reaction networks from a file, calculate and visualize their organizational structure, run dynamical evolutions and see some basic structural properties related to resilience. This tool is meant for users that have no knowledge on programming and want to get introduced to our approach, as it is developed specifically to visualize basic concepts rather than develop complex analysis.
On the ORIGO events page, you will find more information about the public events related to the ORIGO research project. We regularly organize these events to exchange ideas and deepen our insights on the multitude of topics related to the origins of goal-directedness.
- Systems At Play: A Self-Organising Symposium on Self-Organisation. International ArtScience Symposium, CLEA+VUB (Brussels, February 2023)
- Origins of Goal Directedness Workshop at the ALIFE 2022 conference (Trento, July 2022)
- Workshop on Goal-directedness (Granada, February 2022)
- COT x Music Seminars
- Other Seminars
Why Emergence and Self-Organization are Conceptually Simple, Common and Natural. Heylighen, F., 2023, (Submitted) Proceedings of the Science Week on Complexity, UM6P, Ben Guerir, 2023.
A contemporary interpretation of Teilhard’s Law of Complexity-Consciousness. Heylighen, F., 2023, In : Religion, Brain & Behavior.
Modeling Autopoiesis and Cognition with Reaction Networks. Heylighen, F. & Busseniers, E., 2023, In: BioSystems. 230, 104937.
(*) Relational agency: a new ontology for co-evolving systems. Heylighen, F., 2023, Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems. Corning, P. et al. (ed.). MIT Press, (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology).
(*) An Analytic Framework for Systems Resilience Based on Reaction Networks. Veloz, T., Maldonado, P., Busseniers, E., Bassi, A., Beigi, S., Lenartowicz, M. & Heylighen, F.,In: Complexity. 2022, p. 1-29, 9944562.
Modelling Worldviews as Stable Metabolisms. Veloz, T., 2022, In: Entropy. Special Issue Complexity and Evolution.
(*) The Meaning and Origin of Goal-Directedness: A Dynamical Systems Perspective. Heylighen, F., 2022, In : Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.
The Method of Humanity. Lenartowicz, M., 2022, Reflective Coiling: The Noosphere Outside In. Lenartowicz, M. & Eggers, J. (eds.). Bright Hall Publishing
The Role of Self-Maintaining Resilient Reaction Networks in the Origin and Evolution of Life. Heylighen, F., Beigi, S. & Busseniers, E., 2022, In: BioSystems 219, 104720.
Beyond planetary-scale feedback self-regulation: Gaia as an autopoietic system. Veloz, T., Rubin, S. & Maldonado, P., 2021, In : BioSystems Journal. 199, 104314.
Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: healthy or toxic? Beigi, S. & Heylighen, F., 2021, Computational Collective Intelligence: ICCCI 2021. Nguyen, N. T., Iliadis, L., Maglogiannis, I. & Trawinski, B. (eds.). Springer, Vol. 12876. p. 81-93 (Lecture Notes in Computer Science).
Goals as emergent autopoietic processes. Veloz, T., 2021. In: Frontiers in Bioengineering.
Goal Directedness, Chemical Organizations, and Cybernetic Mechanisms. Busseniers, E., Veloz, T. & Heylighen, F., 2021, In : Entropy. 23, 8, 15 p., 1039.
Reaction Network Modeling of Complex Ecological Interactions: Endosymbiosis and Multilevel Regulation. Veloz, T. & Flores, D., 2021, In : Complexity. 2021, 12 p., 8760937.
Toward endosymbiosis modeling using reaction networks, Veloz, T., 2021, In : Soft Computing.
(*) Chemical Organization Theory as a modeling framework for self-organization, autopoiesis and resilience, Heylighen, F., Beigi, S. & Veloz, T., 2015, ECCO VUB, 29 p. (ECCO Working Papers).