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A Spiritual Meditation on Possibility, Probability & Purpose
Telos has a bad reputation.
Goals, I’m told, used to be quite respectable. Back in them olden days, philosophers considered that the purpose of a process was among the main reasons WHY it happened. Sure, a soccer ball goes into the soccer net because it was “pushed” by the force of my kicking — of course! — but also I was trying to score a goal.
Many forms of doingness appear to make no sense without, at least, the possibility of a successful outcome. Telos? Even plants, I’m told, prefer certain conditions (thriving) to other conditions (wilting). And, who knows, perhaps the plants inherited that preference from minerals?
Or from space-time itself?
This is a tremendously interesting and dangerously seductive way to think. However, its philosophical legitimacy was ruined by institutional mythic-monotheists. No surprise. They ruined a lot of things! In this particular case they made a big fuss about how everything only has one (easily known) purpose — God’s Purpose. Birds sing because He just decided that he wanted that. He wrote this particular purpose down in his Big Book at the beginning of time and all this plays into His very specific plan for the End of Times!
Very engaging poetry about reality. It does, unfortunately, have a certain limiting effect on our conscientious attempt to understand how things work in the real world. And centuries of people who wanted to think more clearly and independently about how the world actually worked ended up being harassed, ridiculed and marginalized (including killed) by the agents of official, bureaucratic and mass-popular orthodoxy.
Trauma sets in. A kind of cold war breaks out between Open-Ended Science & Religious Teleology. Rational people decide that telos is stupid. A very liberating mood! Initially this opens up a whole world of new insights into the dynamic mechanics & blind forces of existence. People saw all kinds of wonders. Very illuminating. Cigars all around!
Yet science was just getting started. These were still early days. More and more wonderful wonders began to accumulate, faster and faster, with new vistas of clarity and functionality that left behind many naive empirical and mechanical assumptions.
James Maxwell taught us that infinitely distributed “fields” are steering the iron ball toward the magnet. Norbert Weiner described the self-regulating target-oriented feedback processes of cybernetic systems. Albert Einstein declared that gravity is not a force that pushes things around but rather the geometric slope of reality — a invisible “downhill” toward which all masses are falling. Benoit Mandelbrot visualized complex fractal processes and discovered that within seeming chaos there are strange attractors toward which the random computations are constantly reaching. From many different sciences there once again emerged the haunting spectre of the directionality of processes.
But we’ve got to be cautious…
So there are attractors, targets, end-states & success conditions. That is still NOT the same as the pre-rational assertion of fixed mythic purposes. Fair enough. We must be much more nuanced now.
Any half-way capable lover knows that successful outcomes are —actually possible but not inevitable. Adequate outcomes require adaptive mutuality. Riding a horse to your destination requires that you simultaneously hold on tight & loosely. The old tendency to view goals as simple and fixed is simply not adequate. Nature does not work that way. Human beings do not work that way either not matter how much their propagandize about their “will.”
A purpose must be understood as a negotiating a satisfying range of possible aesthetics that constrains the interactions between two sets of processes.
On a good day, we might accept the neo-metaphysical idea that the underlying syntactic preconditions for any telos-like instance of successful “docking” are somehow implicit and ubiquitous, but… but we must also accept that every actual success condition (that could be our purpose) is a locally-defined approximation.
Success varies from person to person and moment to moment. It also does not mean the absolute attained of a perfectly known, pre-given outcome. If we can still accept telos today, we probably have to think of it as the adaptive negotiation toward a set of outcomes that better approximate an idealized relationship.
This is even how Darwinian evolution is imagined to work. Through the processes of experimentation (mutation) and pruning (selection), species are fine-tuned to reach a minimal degree of successful fittingness with their local geological, biological, energetic and social niches. Success! Adequate matching! Telos?
Everything can be described as if it were trying to get “into the zone.” But perhaps we are getting carried away. Should we be even more cautious? Astro-biology describes a Goldilocks Zone where a planet is close-enough-but-not-too-close to its star so that a biosphere can flourish. Its emergence depends on being in the zone but surely planets do not hang around wanting that outcome?
Words like “trying” seem to smack of anthropomorphism.
We don’t want to childishly imagine the world as overly human-ish! Just because WE have goals does not mean that the universe has goals. Perhaps we have just been superstitiously projecting our own psychological traits onto our perceptions to make a nice story?
Okay. That’s possible. Probably even likely. We should be critically alert for areas in which we might be doing this too much. But let’s not get too carried away in the other direction. Do we really know the nature of intentionality so well that we can narrow define its only possible range of operation?
Isn’t our concern about anthropomorphism even weirdly anthropocentric?
Perhaps it is just our self-centered gullibility that makes us assume that our basic inner functions are possessed ONLY by us. No other beings or things get to have them. They belong solely to humans looking at their reflection in the mirror. That’s kind of like thinking our planet is the center of the solar system. The pre-Copernican fallacy.
It is entirely plausible that most human traits got into the human beings from the pre-human universe and that they are, at least in their most minimal and general form, much more widely distributed. Not possessed only by us. So it is at least possible that our sense of GOALS is something that we partially borrow from the rest of the universe?
A nice idea. But even if it were true — what even is a goal?
A goal is a condition, or intersection of conditions, that satisfies some set of design parameters such that it provides an experiential “match”. In human beings this is often conceived as a matching up between desire and circumstantial outcome. However, if we were generalize the notion of goals into the nonhuman, we might include all sorts of match ups. The key clicking into the lock. Two muskrats mating. A release of excessive electrons along an conductive medium. The genes have a goal of replicating. Equations have answers. Systems have attractor conditions.
Is this poetry or fact?
Regardless, we are herein conceiving of telos in a very abstract, flexible, circumstantial and multifarious manner. It is not the realization of a symbolic purpose or a fixed utopia. Telos describes the local approximation of satisfaction between structures. And in this sense it has a lot to do with flow states, peak experiences and what Schopenhauer called the transcendent dimension of aesthetic appreciation.
A telos is… just right.
A telos… checks out.
A telos… really hits the spot.
It does not seem problematic to me that such perceptions are intrinsically relative in nature. Everything in modern physics is dependent upon the choice of inertial frame and measurement. The great variety is how the underlying universality expresses itself. Universality is the explanation of relativity — not its opposite.
Speaking of physics, (I dare you to) consider the much ballyhooed situation of quantum mechanics. Regardless of which weird interpretation of the quantum world you personally prefer, we are inevitably dealing with some situation in which the equations describe a seemingly infinite array of possible realities that end up becoming one actual point-event in the universe in which we are observing.
It is as if the wave-equation ripples through all possible universes to figure out which types of outcomes are more probable in this universe before selecting, in tandem with the quantum states of the measurement devices, the outcome that is most probable — an actual event. At least in this universe.
When it locks in place (decoheres or gets entangled) with the rest of this narrative of reality, then it fits. It gets confirmed by measurement. This confirmation of the one point-event out of the many possible histories is like the production of destiny. Once it occurs, it could have occurred no other way. At least not in this universe.
There is a tremendous matching of the wave-equation to the knowable world. You could say that the world, or this slice of the world, provides a constraint upon the possibilities. That constraint enables a narrowing. The narrowing (whether we imagine it as a collapsing wave, a nonlocal input or the entanglement of information into one of the Many Worlds) proceeds toward a specific condition of satisfactory matching.
And then this result, this local telos, informs the whole world-system such that the next step must build on the form of reality that is already established. The next iteration of the computation works from the current layout of the pixels.
You can’t build a second floor unless the house has a first floor but, once you build a second floor, you now have a “two-storey house.” The definition has changed. This is very common. Not mysterious. The goal has preconditions and, if it is achieved, it reconfigures reality in way that constrains the next goal.
Telos is local, adaptive, approximate and involved recursive feedback.
Holarchy & Probability
I just told a story about quantum mechanics in which there was a process starting with infinite infinite possibilities, narrowing to a local wave of probabilities and landing on a most probable outcome — which causes the other possibilities to vanish from this universe. We start with all the possibilities and no special probabilities. We end up with the most probable thing that limits the possibilities of what can happen next.
No surprise, right?
As probability goes up, possibilities go down. Each person who drops out of your Reality TV contest increases the chances that you will win. Increasing probability is distributed over decreasing possibilities in a given context.
The weird, bald American philosopher Ken Wilber believes that reality is built out of “holons.” These are whole things made of parts that can be parts of new emergent whole things. In his list of things that are true about the holarchy, he say:
“Tenet 6 — The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.”
That sounds like what we’ve been saying. You start with basic possibilities and they get constrained by probabilities at the next level of reality. The presence or absence of a first floor in the house determines whether it is possible to build a second floor. But building a second floor makes some versions of the first floor more probable than others. For example, the first floor is almost certainly going to have stairs or an elevator IF you build a second floor. Those odds go up.
Likewise, adult human consciousness is only “possible” because we go through the immature childhood consciousness upon which it rests. But it is also “likely” that immature human infants will tend to evolve into adult human consciousness.
At first, anything could happen. As certain things do happen, the number of things that could happen locally decreases. That means that some possibilities get more and more likely. The layers of constraint funnel the possibilities toward outcomes that are more probable. The most probable (i.e. actual) outcome satisfies the largest number of local constraints. It matches best. A telos-like event.
We are not terribly impressed by the telos-like matching that accompanies an electron hooking up with the nucleus of an atom. Perhaps we should be? All matter, after all, depends on such successes. But at more sophisticated biological, neurological and cultural levels, this same basic process starts to seem transcendent & revelatory.
Wilber imagines a whole series of enfolded “wholes” that make the universe more and more significant. The scale of holons (emergent structures or operating systems) is imagined as a kind of natural hierarchy of inclusion.
Each “level” preserves existing functions while adding a set of emergent qualities. So we get this tidy little lineage of subatomic > atomic > molecular > cellular > plants/organs > neuro-mobile organisms > techno-neuro-mobile organisms. The brings us up to human civilization and a few other tricky mammals. Wilber then joins many other developmental philosophers in connecting this to generalized stages of cognitive development in human (and spiritual) maturation.
Does each one of these steps present a situation in which the “higher determines the probabilities of the lower, the lower determines the possibilities of the higher?” It’s plausible, I guess.
Cells define the opportunities available to biological organisms. Without cells you have no opportunity to be a biological organism. And when the cellular teams stops operating you no longer count as a living being. However, the whole organism does largely determine what the cells are likely to do. It can take all of them into the kitchen. More importantly it can tell new “stem cells” which part of the body they should adapt to serve. Stem cells are directed to stylize themselves for functioning in accordance with processes that they cannot see (quarks don’t know about sharks). Those processes belong the level of organs and organisms which determine what the cells will probably end up doing.
Those who first take seriously the idea of developmental stage model of the cosmos are likely to join Teilhard de Chardin in speculating that the universe is becoming more deeply conscious and more structurally complex.
This is very optimistic. It seems to offer one hand to Darwin and the other hand to Religion. And why not? We do see hierarchies of containment or enfoldment operating throughout nature and increasing over cosmic history. Something seems to be building up and increasing from level to level.
Eric Chaisson has described how the complex variable of “energy-rate density” has increased with each new major regime of structure in the 14 billion year story of this universe. Most evolution merely adapts (or fails to adapt) to local niche conditions but this process is punctuated by the periodic emergence of new types of structures that can relatively stably supervene upon previous structures. It’s direction…ish. And maybe, as its range of capacities increase, it becomes more able to approximate the completeness of the telos that is implied by all other teloses?
Is there a movement toward a more intense telos? A generalized cosmic super-telos? Well, there seem to be three ways to look at this:
a) The most universal telos is already presented in the minimal syntactic architecture of computation upon which every particular goal is elaborated. This can be clarified but not amplified. There is no change or progress.
b) All goals, being adaptive to changing local circumstances, are equal in intensity. There is change, periodic local progress, but no accumulating or overall progress.
c) The combination of increasing ranges of action, universality and constraint provides trajectories toward the increasing generality and intensity of goals toward more more complete and potent approximations of a supra-goal.
I suppose the next question (at least for me) is whether or not there exists a form of description of these three options that renders them structurally identical?
You know, I personally find it very difficult to thing of telos without imagining “holographic distribution.” A hologram, as you probably know, is composed of a vast array of slightly different versions of the main 3D image. If you shatter the glass, each piece shows the whole picture (holo-gram) from a different angle. Each local perspective demonstrates the entire pattern but in a matter than be collectively aligned to present that pattern in a supra-dimensional sense.
I am in the habit of viewing these as indistinguishable. Wherever I see a local “docking procedure” I also see the “face of God.” Some mystic Sufis have argued that the most purely nondual way to embrace the inseparable divinity of all things is to worship it as a Divine Beloved from whom you are eternally separated. Anything else, of course, would set up shallow dualism between Duality and Nonduality.
I fear I am precisely the kind of tantric renegade who must endorse such arcane positions in order to even approximate my recurrent perceptions of subjectively validated supra-meaningfulness. There is, I should like to say to anyone who cares, a perfectly already completed basic pattern that underlies every actual instance of purpose and satisfaction but which also “prefers” those which maximize an adaptive trajectory toward an emerging, ever more completely realized meta-goal which can never be perfectly realized but which can enter into such a degree of constraint and wiggle room (probability and possibility) that it haunts and hovers in a maximally perfected endzone whose commonality with all particular “matchings” is vastly more obvious that it has hitherto historically been.
The “end of history” does not seem to me like the production of a particular solution but the maximization of access to the set of solutions whose aesthetic architecture clarifies, refines and amplifies the valuableness of all local “adequate interactions” or “dockings.”
So there is a kind of endzone. A set of parameters or design constraints that define the architecture or set of aesthetics which constitute the maximum fit for the next telos given all the current circumstances. And then that telos helps define the next situation. Novelty supercedes and integrates the whole moment of reality, setting the stage for the next iteration.
This is a flexible, negotiated mutualistic telos insofar as it depends upon the dynamic interplay of possibility and existing actuality to work out their best fit match for the current circumstances. But it is singular in the sense that the overall architecture of the process is constant and aims at a distinct form of “success” typified not by the particular form of the outcome by the qualitative match between the outcome and the parameters that determine the integrity of the system.