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Investigating the nature and varieties of long-term directional trends and agential, goal-seeking processes in the natural world.

This priority supports research that seeks to clarify and test notions of apparent agential, goal-directed, and even purposive processes in the sciences, as well as empirical and theoretical projects that explore two broad streams of inquiry across a range of disciplines (e.g. physics of life, chemistry, and biology):

  • Target-oriented behaviors. Many biotic and even some abiotic systems might be said to display “agentic behaviors” that appear to be self-correcting and target-oriented. How do such processes emerge, and how are they maintained? Are these behaviors best understood in terms of non-reductive explanations? Can purposive behaviors be conceptualized in rigorous ways that help to advance empirical investigations?
  • Long-term directional trends. The emergence of life is one of the biggest mysteries in science. Somehow, increases in molecular complexity lead to gains in information, self-regulation, autocatalytic efficiency, and robustness. How might the physical laws that govern the evolution of the cosmos support the emergence of life? Are there principles or constraints in nature that operate at the abiotic-biotic interface or give rise to directional trends in evolutionary transitions?

The Foundation’s 2020 Ideas Challenge received over 250 unique ideas submitted from applicants across the United States. We awarded 50 prizes of $1,000 each to U.S. residents with novel ideas for advancing the science of goal directedness. View the winners and their ideas here.

The Foundation’s Science of Purpose Funding Initiative, which ran from September 1 through October 31, resulted in hundreds of applications from across the world. Check out our featured grants below to see research that is advancing the science of goal-directed phenomena in nature.

Featured Grants

Natural Sciences
Project Leader(s): Robert Hazen, Henderson Cleaves
Grantee(s): Carnegie Institution of Washington
Natural Sciences
Project Leader(s): Francis Heylighen, Tomas Veloz
Grantee(s): Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Natural Sciences
Project Leader(s): David McCandlish
Grantee(s): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Natural Sciences
Project Leader(s): Matthew Wills, Marcello Ruta
Grantee(s): The University of Bath