Causality and Teleology in System Perspective

Another point I would like to mention is the change the scientific world picture has undergone in the past few decades. In the world view called mechanistic, which was born of classical physics of the nineteenth century, the aimless play of the atoms, governed by the inexorable laws of causality, produced all phenomena in the world, inanimate, living, and mental. No room was left for any directiveness, order, or telos. The world of the organisms appeared a product of chance, accumulated by the senseless play of random mutations and selection; the mental world as a curious and rather inconsequential epiphenomenon of material events.

The only goal of science appeared to be analytical, i.e., the splitting up of reality into ever smaller units and the isolation of individual causal trains. Thus, physical reality was split up into mass points or atoms, the living organism into cells, behavior into reflexes, perception into punctual sensations, etc. Correspondingly, causality was essentially one-way: one sun attracts one planet in Newtonian mechanics, one gene in the fertilized ovum produces such and such inherited character, one sort of bacterium produces this or that disease, mental elements are lined up, like the beads in a string of pearls, by the law of association. Remember Kant’s famous table of the categories which attempts to systematize the fundamental notions of classical science: it is symptomatic that the notions of interaction and of organization were only spacefillers or did not appear at all.

We may state as characteristic of modern science that this scheme of isolable units acting in one-way causality has proved to be insufficient. Hence the appearance, in all fields of science, of notions like wholeness, holistic, organismic, gestalt, etc., which all signify that, in the last resort, we must think in terms of systems of elements in mutual interaction.

Similarly, notions of teleology and directiveness appeared to be outside the scope of science and to be the playground of mysterious, supernatural or anthropomorphic agencies; or else, a pseudoproblem, intrinsically alien to science, and merely a misplaced projection of the observer’s mind into a nature governed by purposeless laws. Nevertheless, these aspects exist, and you cannot conceive of a living organism, not to speak of behavior and human society, without taking into account what variously and rather loosely is called adaptiveness, purposiveness, goal-seeking and the like.

It is characteristic of the present view that these aspects are taken seriously as a legitimate problem for science; moreover, we can well indicate models simulating such behavior.

Two such models we have already mentioned. One is equifinal- ity, the tendency towards a characteristic final state from different initial states and in different ways, based upon dynamic interaction in an open system attaining a steady state; the second, feedback, the homeostatic maintenance of a characteristic state or the seeking of a goal, based upon circular causal chains and mechanisms monitoring back information on deviations from the state to be maintained or the goal to be reached. A third model for adaptive behavior, a “design for a brain,” was developed by Ashby, who incidentally started with the same mathematical definitions and equations for a general system as were used by the present author. Both writers have developed their systems independently and, following different lines of interest, have arrived at different theorems and conclusions. Ashby’s model for adaptiveness is, roughly, that of step functions defining a system, i.e., functions which, after a certain critical value is passed, jump into a new family of differential equations. This means that, having passed a critical state, the system starts off in a new way of behavior. Thus, by means of step functions, the system shows adaptive behavior by what the biologist would call trial and error: it tries different ways and means, and eventually settles down in a field where it no longer comes into conflict with critical values of the environment. Such a system adapting itself by trial and error was actually constructed by Ashby as an electromagnetic machine, called the homeostat.

I am not going to discuss the merits and shortcomings of these models of teleological or directed behavior. What should be stressed, however, is the fact that teleological behavior directed towards a characteristic final state or goal is not something off limits for natural science and an anthropomorphic misconception of processes which, in themselves, are undirected and accidental. Rather it is a form of behavior which can well be defined in scientific terms and for which the necessary conditions and possible mechanisms can be indicated.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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