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An experiment in revivifying biology

“Toward a Thought-Full Teleology” — Video and Notes
A talk by Stephen L. Talbott

Above is a video of my talk (in mp4 format), delivered at an online conference sponsored by the Linnean Society of London. The conference, titled “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems”, was held June 28-29, 2021. Information about the conference is available here. Videos of all the talks are expected to become publicly available soon. Also, please note that my talk, like a number of others, was recorded in advance of the conference.

A few words about the conference, as I experienced it.

There is a rapidly growing willingness within some biological and philosophical circles to think of organisms in terms of agency and purposiveness, and to think of evolution in light of the active contributions agent-organisms make to their own evolution. This way of thinking is not yet mainstream, even if it involves very many (and ever more) highly qualified scientists and scholars in positions of influence. It certainly seems to be a positive development — one that has clearly been gaining momentum over the past few decades.

And yet, I worry a great deal about this state of affairs. One way to glimpse the nature of this worry is to consider that title, “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems”. The scare quotes around “On Purpose” are routinely employed in contemporary discussions in order to signal that one is not really talking about purposiveness, but rather about an appearance of purposiveness. And the substitution of “teleonomy” for “teleology” signals that this appearance stems from the operation of organisms conceived as machines or programmed devices whose purposes, such as they are, have been programmed into them by human beings. It is a surreptitious form of intelligent design argument.

The aim underlying this usage, which can be almost palpably felt in current discussions about evolution and about the character of organisms in general, is to avoid reference to anything like the interiority of living beings — for example, the thought, will, imagination, and intention with which we humans carry out our conscious purposes. What is widely ignored is the fact that our conscious purposes are inseparable from the very evident purposiveness of our unconscious activity, all the way down to the gene expression in our cells. These look very much like all the other cells in the living world, including the simplest, one-celled organisms.

The situation reminds me of the way in which twentieth-century behaviorism died out during the second half of the twentieth century, giving way to the so-called “cognitive revolution”. For the behaviorist, even an oblique mention of the interiority of living beings, including humans, was strictly taboo. And, yes, after the revolution one was exhilaratingly free to talk about the human interior, including our thinking. One could, it seemed, finally take such things seriously.

Well, not really. One was really only speaking of “apparent” thinking. The cognitive revolution was inspired by the ascendence of computational machines, and in this new context one was not actually referring to thinking or thought as you and I know it directly, but instead to machine states — or (in the case of “wetware”), brain states. And this remains pretty much the case today. It all looks rather like what is happening now to “agency”, “thinking”, “purposiveness”, and “consciousness” within this new movement in biology.

So the question is whether we are making progress toward a true reckoning with thought (and other interior realities), or instead seeking a still more subtly and strongly fortified defense against those very realities.

This was my concern going into the conference. My aim, accordingly, was to do what I could to bring attention to the interiority of living things, while noting the distinctions, as well as the connections, between conscious human capacities, the capacities of the cells in our bodies, and the capacities of other organisms. I am convinced that recognizing the connections between conscious human activity and biological activity in general is fully as important as acknowledging the distinctions.

In any case (as things turned out), the taboo seemed to have been fully in effect throughout the Linnean conference. No one else dared to suggest that, in talking about the biological reality of purposiveness and agency, there might be a need to mention thinking or any other aspect of living interiority. One of the things I glancingly pointed out in my talk was that, paradoxical as it might seem, this aversion to interiority reflects a modern and entrenched form of Cartesian dualism.

But no need to go into that here. Any who are interested can listen to the talk for themselves, and come to their own conclusions about what I had to say.

On my part, I am still hoping that the renewed interest in biological purposiveness and agency portends a freeing of biology from old, materialist dogmas, even as I experience a strengthened fear that what we are really seeing may be a further entrenchment of those dogmas.

This document: https://bwo.life/news/linnean/talk_notes.htm

Steve Talbott :: Toward a Thought-Full Teleology — Video and Notes