final causes of living systems

There definatly seems to be some logic in all the biological patterns and sequences throught out nature. Plain observations of living systems impose the idea of a conscious finalism of some sort: for example we know what will happen to an egg, and everything seems to happen as if the developement of the egg toward the adult form is determined by the final state as much as, by the previous state. The question of course is how to explain this. Now we could look for some physiochemical causal phenomena of cause and effect or assume some vital force. The problem for me is I dont want to accept the idea of final causes as part of an explanation of living systems. The reason I dont want accept final causes is because it implies the impossibility of newness, the imposibility of unexspectedness and I think this has vary bad disadvantages. I prefer a more chaotic or random explanation. Any suggestions or comments?

I think there’s stuff in complex systems theory, chaos theory and the science of emergence which, though they don’t deny causality, give certain measures of freedom as to how things evolve.

For instances sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that even in a pure mechanical or Laplacean universe you need so much precision in placing all the “atoms” absolutely precisely before they even move - that it quickly becomes an mathematically intractable problem to predict where they will go.

I’m no expert in this stuff of course - you’d want to talk to mathematicians or statistics heads.

You might find something useful in an aging ILP discussion here (i am bigging up my contributions of course)


Just because every thing is caused doesn’t necessarily mean that the causes (which may by myriad and muti factorial) can be known or sorted and certainly doesn’t mean that things are necessarily predictable

(I’m not even going to touch determinism and ?compatabilism? with even a really long fork!)

  • The current economic crunch is yet another example of where economist’s “models” were way off reality both in the timing, size and even the potential existence of a massive world wide credit crisis.
    Yet now - we can all see and can, indeed, be dinner table experts on the causes of the crunch…

    On the other hand
    its arguable if there is true absolute randomness any where in the universe. It certainly doesn’t exist in maths tho’ you can generate pseudo random sequence a hint of pattern always emerges long term.
    Even such things as so-called genetic drift have causes (small isolated populations, no selection pressure etc) - how ever the causes may not here be explained by primary scientific model - Darwinian evolution…


This is an intro to a talk a mathamatical friend of mine gave on Complex Systems Theory a few months ago:

[i]Complex systems theory is a scientific theory coming out of a tradition of catastrophe theory, chaos theory, control theory, systems theory and cybernetics. Complex systems theory arises as a rejection of the traditional programme of reductionist science. It rejects reductionism as being both unnecessary and intractable. Traditional physics has attempted to find fundamental laws at the smallest granularity possible. However, it is now known that because of the nature of interactions at very detailed granularity, it can be computationally intractable to predict behaviour of aggregate systems.

Water, for instance, is best described (under most conditions) with fluid flow equations which describe aggregate behaviour with relatively simple (non-linear) equations. Attempting to describe it as an aggregate wave function of 10^26 interacting quantum particles is totally impossible. Instead complex systems theory attempts to describe systems at a natural granularity that allows for tractable prediction of behaviour.

One of the fundamental notions in complex systems is the notion of emergent behaviour. That is, from a system with a large number of actors with simple rules, can emerge complex behaviour. This is an echo of the notion of a Metasystem transition * which was expressed by the cyberneticists. Some of the earliest descriptions of emergent behaviour actually comes out of the Austrian school of economics and can be seen in the writings of Ludwig Von Mises, where he describes the aggregate behaviour of capitalism being as a type of optimisation which arises as a result from self interested actors.

There are a number of theorems that systems theory gives us in terms of understanding actors and the emergence of aggregate actors (metasystem transitions). If you have a simple system interacting with a complex environment it will have a low probability of maintaining its identity, that is, its internal structural integrity. Complex systems can interact with a complex environment in such a way that they have a higher probability of survival. We see that simple organisms in nature often have a strategy of massive reproduction because of the low likelihood of survival, which is in contrast to the the method used by humans.

(the emphasis on the water example is mine!)

Here’s the good old wik Wiki intro

Hi kossie.
Randomness is not a true absolute, and neither is Order. (even if it can be eleganly expressed in mathematical formula.) Natural drift seem to be more about randomness than order, and there is order from noise in communication theory. I also think the coherance of the organism is affecting its own evolution. Meaning what happens to it is not so much what gets into it (its medium) but how it is structured.I think random perturbations can effect change, not just destoying organization but also reorganization and restructuring. I think its to broud a topic. to much to muddle through. You think we should narrow it down?

If some order cannot be expected in a random universe, how do we call the universe truly random?

Or, to get really philosophical, even a broken clock is right, twice a day.

For what constant force keeps things random in every location?

And what is a location?

Life itself is the source of all randomness and order. At certain levels of organization location becomes hard to determine even impossible.

location is a segregated, and therefore ordered, portion of reality. to be a thing is to have a location and vice versa. the more difficult it becomes to determine the location, the more difficult it is to define the thing - thus the “problems” of quantuum physics - thus the question of the existence of mind - etc

aye, and that’s the rub…

a broken clock is only “broken,” or for that matter even a clock, when there is a human mind positing value upon said time measuring device…

order is a human invention and measurement… so is chaos for that matter…

what we call it and what it actually is is a noumenal question…


You believe in noumenal realities?

Organisms managed to organise themselve in their embryology with two eyes on either side of their nose without humans, in fact evolved into them.
The only thing a clock has in common with life is that it is structure determined.

Wow a reply coool!!

Surely you’re right but where to start!
Definitely not with absolutes – don’t like them in Philosophy and don’t think any good or serious practicing scientist would take the idea of absolute answers seriously…

Oh man – I dunno it seems to me that there’s neither absolute randomness or absolute order and that things work some where in between the two. I wish I could be more precise!!

(Does remind me of a great quote by Noel redding of the Jim Hendrix experience where he said holding onto the bass between Jimi and drummer Mitch Mitchell was “like standing in a tight rope between two cyclones” and of course there’s comrade Nietzsche with “I tell you – you must have the chaos in you in order to give birth to a dancing star” but neither fun quote will yield us any hard info on the randomness and order in the universe per sae!!)

Was life built into the universe from the get go?– A mysterious “principal” or something that arises later from complex chemistry or what ever. Most scientists seem to see it as a late arrival – of course then we get into definitions of life etc! Maybe the universe was “alive” from teh big bang on – maybe it was even fecking conscious though seems unlikely?

Hmm good old Kant and another very old question – I dunno talking to maths heads i know – when ever they stumble on something new it always seems like it was some how out there and then chimed with some thing in their heads. Yea maybe we need to narrow it down – I’d certainly be more with Hume then Kant…


No sense damming up the river with absolutes. Lets meander.

Does there have to be “the get go” or “teh big bang”?
Anyway, there is a beginning to life here on this planet, and it has been involve with regulating the atmosphere and shaping the composition of structures and chemicals. Each life form has paved the way for the next. Life should be expected under certain conditions, and complex dynamic non living systems should be expected everywhere.

I dig your optimism spyder- they still have some candidates for primitive life even within this solar system - I think a moon of Jupiter’s called Titan is the red hot favourite - here’s hoping.

My vague memory from biochemistry many years ago is that life evolves towards increasing complexity and information density but simultaneously creates chaos all around it - it sort of walls itself off from the second law of thermodynamics but pays for it by increasing randomness outside its membranes! Of course ultimately that same law claims that the universe is heading towards heat death - a thin soup of randomly moving luke warm molecules - go figure…

Sorry I’m as vague as ever - we need some harder science or maths heads - I’m all for the meandering though - some times these discussions turn into a flame war over the meaning of the word “is” or some thing equally stoopid - way to early on!!!


ps - is that a Hugh Jackman buzz y’all have going on there?

Hi krossie
My Dad used to say “Its all good but bad.” I think he meant have fun but be mindful.

Ive always been skeptical about life in our own solar system, mainly because life should be obvious. What I mean is, you would have to take a vary small sample in a vary remote area to find non-life here on Earth. To have to look so hard on the other planets and moons dosnt seem right.
Life seems to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics as well as some aspects of quamtum theory. I mean, what does life do to time? Is it reversed everytime a baby is born? It also seems to be tied to the whole creationist thing of a beginning and an end.
Meandering is fun. I can see why a river does it.
Did he play Wolverine?

he sure did!

True but you do find patches of really weird things like them sulfur based creatures in volcanic vents deep in the ocean. They can only survive where they are and no where else.
There might also have been a stage in the earth’s history where life was just clinging on in small areas - As it goes on it tends to alter the chemistry and improve its own conditions - in the way all earth is now teeming…

But on Titan or other places might just be beginning or just hanging on - I don’t know if everywhere might be as lucky or have had as long to build up as here…


Catastrophe may actually may be good for a system. To begin with, the evolution of the solar system as a result of a supernova or collapse of a binary star; then move into a closer focus on Earth itself to consider that one of the greatest catastrophes that accured was the shift to an aerobic atmosphere, when oxygen became a universal poison for the well established anearobic life on Earth. Then on down to the cretaceous extinction. If it werent for certain catastrophes we might not even be here. So much for nature behaving like an English gentleman. More like a vulgar punk rocker with sudden upheavals, disturbing the mythic notion of progress.

Life meanders. It dosnt take the most direct route towards any thing in particular.
Maybee we could consider organization as the uninterupted process of disorganization. It seems that order at any given moment is truly disturbed by disorder. Huh.

Excellent can’t but agree with this - long periods of stasis/stabilising selection into niches and then massive shake ups -
I dunno if you’ve encountered Dan~ on this board yet yet?!


No, havent had a Dan encounter yet. Maybe will meet in some eddie and attempt a canoe ride though some exciting stretch of the river.

He’d be well up for that - tho’ haven’t seen any posts from him for a while - keep paddling :slight_smile: