Dysteleological Physicalism

By Sean Carroll | January 17, 2011 8:37 am

As a special behind-the-scenes tidbit for loyal blog readers, I will reveal here that The Pointless Universe was actually my second entry in the Edge World Question Center. My first, making the same point but using different words, was entitled “Dysteleological Physicalism.” To me, that kind of title is totally box office, and I’m happy to take credit for coining the phrase. (Expect T-shirts and bumper stickers soon.) But apparently not everyone agrees, and it was gently suggested that I come up with something less forbidding. Here is my original version.



The world consists of things, which obey rules. A simple idea, but not an obvious one, and it carries profound consequences.

Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things. Our notion of what constitutes a “physical thing” can change as our understanding of physics improves; these days our best conception of what really exists is a set of interacting quantum fields described by a wave function. What doesn’t exist, in this doctrine, is anything strictly outside the physical realm — no spirits, deities, or souls independent of bodies. It is often convenient to describe the world in other than purely physical terms, but that is a matter of practical usefulness rather than fundamental necessity.

Most modern scientists and philosophers are physicalists, but the idea is far from obvious, and it is not as widely accepted in the larger community as it could be. When someone dies, it seems apparent that something is *gone* — a spirit or soul that previously animated the body. The idea that a person is a complex chemical reaction, and that their consciousness emerges directly from the chemical interplay of the atoms of which they are made, can be a difficult one to accept. But it is the inescapable conclusion from everything science has learned about the world.

If the world is made of things, why do they act the way they do? A plausible answer to this question, elaborated by Aristotle and part of many people’s intuitive picture of how things work, is that these things want to be a certain way. they have a goal, or at least a natural state of being. Water wants to run downhill; fire wants to rise to the sky. Humans exist to be rational, or caring, or to glorify God; marriages are meant to be between a man and a woman.

This teleological, goal-driven, view of the world is reasonable on its face, but unsupported by science. When Avicenna and Galileo and others suggested that motion does not require a continuous impulse — that objects left to themselves simply keep moving without any outside help — they began the arduous process of undermining the teleological worldview. At a basic level, all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics. These rules take a definite form: given the state of the object and its environment now, we can predict its state in the future. (Quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component to the prediction, but the underlying idea remains the same.) The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.

Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology” to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase “dysteleological physicalism” (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Top Posts

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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