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The body of a pregnant mother mammal changes in ways that promote successful birthing, including preparation of the placenta, an increase in the elasticity of ligaments, increased blood volume, weight gain, milk production, and more. This suite of changes can be thought of as directed toward the goal of a healthy birth. That is, the system is goal directed in a causal, dynamical sense, tending to converge on a particular outcome despite perturbations and variations in initial conditions. This property of convergence was central in 20th century philosophical discussions of goal directedness.

Such goal-directed convergence occurs in least seven categories of system:

  • Embryological: e.g., development of cells, tissues, whole organisms
  • Physiological: internal regulation in organisms, e.g., homeostasis
  • Behavioral: tropisms and taxes, e.g., bacteria swimming up gradients, photosynthetic algae moving toward light
  • Evolutionary: lineages moving toward adaptive peaks driven by natural selection
  • Motivated psychological states, e.g., wanting, preferring, seeking, intending in humans and other animals
  • Technological: goal-directed machines, e.g., thermostats, homing torpedoes, certain artificial intelligence systems
  • Physical (non-biological): various attractor-driven, far-from-equilibrium systems, e.g., hurricanes and certain chemical systems

Convergent behavior can look quite magical. A goal-directed system seems drawn toward a state that does not yet exist – the magic of future causation. This research track asks if there is a shared structure, dynamic, or set of principles that operates in many or all of these systems. What is going on behind the magician’s curtain? How is the trick done?

Potential Questions

  • Commonalities among systems
    What are the commonalities among the seven? Do subsets – pairs such as embryological and psychological goal directedness or triplets such as behavioral, technological, and evolutionary goal directedness – share a common structure or dynamics? Can they be explained by some single model or shared theoretical framework? More boldly, does a common structure or dynamics underlie all seven? Is a general theory of goal directedness possible? Or, can it be shown that no unity or no general theory is possible? What sort of data might be needed to answer these questions?
  • Commonalities across temporal, spatial, and hierarchical scales
    Goal-directed processes occur at a variety of temporal scales, in living systems ranging from reflexes to embryological development, to life-history trajectories and ecological succession. Goal directedness also occurs at various spatial and hierarchical scales, ranging from molecules to single cells, to whole multicellular organisms, to mutualistic associations, social groups, and perhaps populations and ecosystems. For example, in development, gene and protein networks exhibit attractors that enable them to pursue goals, returning to their original patterns of interaction following perturbations. And at a larger scale, in regulative development and regeneration, cells and tissues move, proliferate, differentiate, and remodel to achieve a consistent target morphology despite injury and environmental changes. Certain artifacts and evolutionary processes may also be goal-directed at more than one scale. Does goal directedness work differently at different scales? Are there explainable regularities in the way the processes governing goal directedness change across scales? Is a general theory possible?
  • A “Turing test” for goal directedness, applicable to multiple systems
    Some systems respond reflexively, automatically, robotically, stereotypically. Consider the knee-jerk reflex. Goal-directed systems respond more flexibly. A homing torpedo responds to changes in the position of the target ship. Is there some way to empirically distinguish purely reflexive behavior from goal-directed behavior in some or all of the seven categories of system? Or if goal-directedness is a matter of degree, varying continuously, is there a way to measure the degree of goal-directedness in a system?And then, more narrowly, within goal-directed systems, is there some way to distinguish behaviors that are guided by a fixed program from those that are motivated? A moth circling toward a light adjusts to changes in the location of the light, but appears to do so by following a fixed set of rules, a rigid program. In contrast, a cat stalking a mouse is motivated. The cat must choose her tactics, because the motivation specifies the goal – catching the mouse – but not the precise motor activity. Is there some way to empirically distinguish rigidly programmed goal-directed behavior from goal-directed behavior that is driven by wants, preferences, or intentions? Or is there some way to measure the degree to which goal-directed behavior is driven by wants, preferences, or intentions?
  • Exploratory versus controlled dynamics
    Goal directedness occurs in two modes. In the “controlled” mode, a single entity pursues an end state and then calms when it reaches that state. A dog shifts in her sleep to stay in the warmth of a ray of sun. A circulatory system compensates for a drop in blood pressure. In the “exploratory” mode, a population of entities explores alternatives. Immune systems and natural selection are goal directed in this way. In exploratory systems, individual entities constantly fail, but they succeed as an ensemble when surviving entities nearer the system’s goal thrive or multiply. In which mode do systems in each of the seven categories generally work? For what sorts of goals does each of the two modes of goal directedness work best? Do some systems use both? Do the two always work together, or do they sometimes work against each other?


Applicants should be sure to explain how they understand the term goal directed, ideally in a way that makes it operational, or nearly so. Likewise for any other critical technical terms. This research track does not seek contributions to ongoing debates about how to define goal directedness. That is, the concern is not with finding necessary and sufficient conditions. Nor is it concerned with how goal-directed systems arise, about their origins, whether by natural selection or human design. Rather, it seeks projects for research addressing how goal directedness works in certain systems, how it works causally or mechanically. In the header for their submissions, applicants should be sure to identify which of the four topics they are addressing and which of the seven categories of system their project would unify.

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