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A number of key concepts that many regard as central to the distinctiveness of living systems—agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, purposiveness—are difficult to translate informatively into empirical research contexts. One strategy in response to this situation is to eliminate them altogether and to speak of “apparent purposiveness” or “the illusion of agency,” in part because these ideas can represent (and have represented) problematic metaphysical commitments from the perspective of contemporary science. Although this strategy has certain advantages, the elimination of these concepts—and especially the phenomena that seemingly correspond to them—has never been fully successful. Researchers repeatedly return to them in one way or another, though typically elaborating them theoretically and sometimes labeling them very differently. As J.B.S. Haldane quipped, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.”

One of the most strikingly successful investigative strategies in contemporary biology is the use of simple or standardized model systems (material or computational) that exemplify phenomena of interest. Insights have emerged from two-locus models in population genetics and the experimental study of bacterial gene expression or soil roundworm ontogeny. Some of these models exemplify more than one phenomenon and have been redeployed repeatedly to address different questions. Some investigative models are chosen precisely because they offer a unique window on a particular biological question. August Krogh famously formulated this as a principle: “for a large number of problems there will be some animal of choice, or a few such animals, on which it can be most conveniently studied.” Researchers recognize that these model systems do not correspond to the full complexity of biological detail under scrutiny and yet they are strategic in revealing key principles or insights about genetic evolution, nervous system function, or deeply conserved molecular mechanisms, as well as fostering the development of new technologies. In fact, one might argue that this modeling strategy reigns supreme in providing an understanding of processes distinctive to the biosphere, such as physiology, development, and evolution. Can we identify and characterize new investigative models on purposiveness or agency that yield distinctive and illuminating empirical insights?

Potential Questions

  • What simple or standardized models could be developed that specifically exemplify one or more aspects of traditionally complex concepts such as agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, or purposiveness? For example, in what ways might viruses be a strategic candidate for modeling aspects of agency or goal-directed behavior?
  • Are there advantages to exploring a model that is material but not “alive” (e.g., heat-seeking missiles)? To what degree can we learn about agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, or purposiveness by attempting to construct or engineer it in particular ways?
  • To what degree should computational models be utilized to fulfill this investigative strategy? For example, if we could demonstrate principles of open-ended evolution in silico, would that yield novel insights about evolution in vivo? Are there distinctive handicaps in attempting to discover general principles in a substrate-neutral fashion? Can multiple models be combined fruitfully?
  • Are there particular strategies for studying agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, or purposiveness indirectly in simple or standardized models, such as by investigating constraints on the manifestation of different aspects of autonomy or purposiveness?
  • Should we expect that different simple or standardized models will converge on similar features or a few key explanatory principles? Why or why not? How else might different models uncover different modes of agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, or purposiveness (i.e., what would the knowledge look like if it was not in the form of general principles)?
  • What simple or standardized models have been tried and found wanting? What can we learn from these failures (if anything)?


Compelling responses to this research track will prioritize clear, bold and actionable projects. This excludes existing or new theoretical models of what agency, autonomy, directionality, goal-directed behavior, or purposiveness is. The aim is to identify and characterize new investigative models for scientific research that can fruitfully explore the associated empirical phenomena and/or their distinctive features. Some potential respondents may believe that their previous work has already addressed one or more of the overlapping questions posed above. Such individuals are encouraged to apply, providing they address both why such answers have yet to gain broader traction within the relevant scientific communities and how they propose to increase such traction. Successful outcomes will not only fuel increased insight, but garner sufficient attention to change the status quo of scientific thinking on these frontiers.

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