Philosophy of alternative stable states: teleonomy meets teleology

Underlying many of the approaches to “systems change” is teleology – “a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal”. Moving beyond social systems into other domains (e.g. biology, ecology) raises questions about whether nature has an end or purpose.

An alternative philosophy is based on teleonomy – “the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms”. This came up in a recent meeting. I then had some online communications with @Zemina .

The philosophy of science that I’ve taken on is not teleology – goal-directed behavior – but teleonomy – that essentially means that you don’t work from the future-backwards, but that you are able to program options for your future.

Here’s the most tangible example. My sons each, after graduating from high school, applied to a Canadian university. Upon acceptance, they requested deferment and went to Renmin University for 2 years, studying Mandarin language and learning Chinese culture. Coming back, they really know they’re Canadian, so identity issues fixed. They then all completed university (and #1 Adam did a master’s).

All of this was not working towards a goal, but ensuring options for the future.

This led to a practical next step, for deeper understanding.

If you’re interested in Teleonomy, here’s some homework for you. Please don’t get intimidated by the scope of the whole work, bur take a look at …
… and only section …
9.6 Philosophy of alternative stable states: teleonomy meets teleology
… not just the text, but also the footnotes.

In the PDF version, that’s pp. 263 to 267. (If you like ePub better, the Kobo version is best, and it’s free for download with the app).

To encourage others who might be interested, here’s a snippet of the beginning of that section

9.6 Philosophy of alternative stable states: teleonomy meets teleology

Building a normative theory of OIL portends becoming in nature, in the way that child-rearing attempts to be place young learners on the right path: enfolding seeds for development may or may not later unfold as fruit. Becoming preceding being. Philosophically, there’s an opportunity for teleonomy to learn from teleology. A larger context in which to consider these philosophies is in the science of alternative stable states, from ecology, shown in Table 9.5.

Table 9.5 Teleonomy learns from teleology

The book is available in PDF and ePub forms, free of charge from

Thanks for posting this, David!

It was a very enlightening discussion and very interested in learning more about this.

I am curious on the details regarding the “program”:

  1. Can the program also be considered the context?
  2. Does a human being create this program or does the program naturally emerge?

On the “program”, I searched through Open Innovation Learning to see if I had written something about that. In Section 6.3 (p. 156-157 in the PDF), is:

A program is used here in the sense [202] of a set of related measures or activities with a particular long-term aim. A program has a purpose and an organization [203] , more than projects it contains, in a context of a portfolio that contains it. A program has an authoritative mandate [204] , and may integrate multiple services. In architecture and design [205] , both problem-seeking [206] and problem-solving [207] may be involved in developing a program.

[202] The Oxford English dictionary provides this more specific definition of program, e.g. a nuclear power program, as a subentry under “a planned series of future events, items or performances”. It also includes the computing sense of a program as “coded software instructions”, which is not the focus here.

[203] The Project Management Institute defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”. In managing projects, programs and portfolios, “programs usually represent entities that have a deter mined purpose, predefined expectations related to the benefits scheme, and an organization, or at least a plan for organizing the effort. A program is set up to produce a specific outcome that may be defined at a high abstraction level of a ‘’vision’” (Artto and P. H. Dietrich, 2007, p. 5). A portfolio of projects can be defined as “as a group of projects that are conducted under the sponsorship or management of a particular organization” that “compete for scarce resources” (Artto and P. H. Dietrich, 2007, p. 4).

[204] In government, both programs and services have outcomes provided to target groups with needs. They are, however, distinct. “A program is a mandate and resources conferred by legislative or administrative authority to achieve outcomes within a jurisdiction and based on a strategy. Programs provide an essential management structure for services. Programs are delivered by services but are not synonymous with a collection of services. Programs provide the rationale for packaging services together into integrated solutions for clients on the demand side and the basis for developing accountability structures, business processes and resources on the supply side” (Government of Ontario Ministry of Government Services, 2010, p. 16).

[205] Architecture and design involve assessments of goodness of fit. “The ultimate object of design is form” (Alexander, 1964, p. 15). Synthesizing form may happen in two ways: “I shall call a culture unselfconscious if its form-making is learned informally, through imitation and correction. And I shall call a culture selfconscious if its form-making is taught academically, according to explicit rules” (Alexander, 1964, p. 36). Towards improving goodness of fit, conceptual hierarchies (i.e. semi-lattices) can be constructed with graphs (G) of misfits (M) and links (L). “… I shall really be trying to show that for every problem there is one decomposition which is especially proper to it, and that this is usually different from the one in the designer’s head. For this reason we shall refer to this special decomposition as the program for the problem represented by G(M,L).
We call it a program because it provides directions or instructions to the designer, as to which subsets of M are its significant ‘pieces’ and so which major aspects of the problem he should apply himself to. This program is a reorganization of the way the designer thinks about the problem” (Alexander, 1964, p. 83).

[206] Problem-seeking has been described earlier in the main text of this chapter. It is important to note the publication date of Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander, 1964) precedes Problem-Seeking (Peña & Focke, 1969) by 5 years.

[207] In the early 1960s, the thinking on architectural programming as evolving, and distinctions between architecture and design were not yet clear. “The word ‘program’ has occurred a great deal in the recent literature on the psychology of problem solving – the implication throughout being that man’s natural way of solving complex problems is to make them easier for himself by means of heuristics which lead to a solution stepwise” (Alexander, 1964, p. 208). In that footnote, citations include Allen Newell, J.C. Shaw and Herbert Simon on the 1959 General Problem Solver in computer science; George A. Miller, Eugene Galanter and Karl Pribram on the 1960 Plans and the Structure of Behavior; and James March and Herbert Simon on the 1958 Organizations that included concepts of bounded rationality and satisficing. The “program” was seen as a source of architectural unity in modern architecture by John Summerson in the 1957 “The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture”.

The footnotes are longer than the text … so that I wouldn’t have to go back and recreate what I was thinking when I wrote those words (circa 2016-2017).

So, @Zemina , responding to your questions:

That depends on your system of interest … but when you say “context”, I would normally associate that with the larger containing system (of the system of interest). In the research I was doing, the program of open sourcing while private sourcing was (in) the system of interest. A content or containing system could be commercial business, in which open sourcing and private sourcing take place.

In the organizational sense, a program can be created by a human being.

In the natural sense – which is where teleonomy comes from – programming is built into the system, e.g. in biology, it’s DNA. We, as human beings, are mammals, and thus we have the programming of mammals. If we deny our mammalian instincts, we would be working against our programming.

I’m careful with the use of the word “emerge”, because it is generally used in the sense of properties for a system, but there are multiple levels of systems. The property of wetness is normally associated with water, but if we’re approaching from the levels of hydrogen and oxygen, wetness might be described as “emerging”. People who use the term “emerge” generally aren’t thinking critically about levels, i.e. they’re framing the world as one system of interest, whereas the properties being described are at another level.

Thank you for this breakdown!

I have Alexander’s Notes on Synthesis and your response reminded me to re-explore the contents.

It sounds like (though I still have much to wrap my head around) that a program, its origin and creater is largely variant

…and so, I suppose, it might be safe to assume that, in the case for personal development, for instance , the teleonomic view would suggest (and perhaps even encourage) that a human can be running multiple programs within the context of personal development?

Same to, perhaps, an economic system where if a teleonimic view were to be adapted, as opposed to one bottom line (current state); there would be several…?

(I hope I’m making sense here).

Since you truncated the title of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, @Zemina, you were a positive influence towards my writing a response that got longer and longer, until it became a blog post of its own.

“Pattern language, form language, general systems theory, R-theory” at .

This was a helpful kick to force some more fundamental research that will have an impact on the course of the Systems Changes brief that we’re writing.

Yes. A teleonomic, goal-directed view would have individuals start from an abstract future point, and then trace backwards in time to the present where he or she might take action. However, some philosopher would argue that the future doesn’t really exist, and then some pragmatists will say that aiming for point is unlikely to even get near the real target. There’s too many uncertainties.

So, in primary and secondary school, we don’t limit the education of youngsters towards a single target in the future, we try to ensure that they have a broad range of skills that will help in an uncertain future. That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize natural talents in the young that should be developed, but we should also recognize that nascent capacities may be developed in the present for a non-linear future.

Yes. The key idea behind ecological resilience is that there are potentially multiple stable states into which an ecosystem might settle. I like the video on “Shifts in Equilibrium Physics”, 2013/01/17,
Khan Academy MIT-K12, 4m05s on Youtube . The blanket can have multiple troughs or basins, so the ball may roll to one of multiple local attractors (i.e. basins, troughs) somewhere.

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