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Operationalizing Goal Directedness: An Empirical Route to Advancing a Philosophical Discussion

Lee, Jong Gwan and McShea, Daniel W. (2020) Operationalizing Goal Directedness: An Empirical Route to Advancing a Philosophical Discussion. Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology, 12 (005). ISSN 2475-3025

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Abstract

Goal directedness is one of the most commonly observed behavior patterns in biology, exemplified by systems ranging in complexity from cellular migration to human motivations. Philosophers have long tried to understand goal directedness in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but no consensus has been reached. Here we take an entirely novel approach to goal directedness, postponing the search for necessary and sufficient conditions, and instead trying to advance understanding by an empirical route. In particular, we introduce quantitative measures of goal directedness, applicable to systems that are generally agreed to be goal directed. The measures allow one to assess two signature properties of goal-directed systems, persistence and plasticity. Persistence is the tendency for an entity that is on a trajectory toward a goal to return to that trajectory following perturbations. Plasticity we understand as the tendency for an entity to find a trajectory toward a goal from a variety of different starting distances. We demonstrate the metrics by applying them to goal-directed behavior in two biological systems, bacteria moving up a chemoattractant gradient and a human following a heat gradient. Our approach reveals goal directedness to be an empirically tractable notion, one that makes possible a variety of comparative studies in biology, including comparing degree of goal directedness in different species, or in one species under different conditions, as well as studying evolutionary trends. More generally, the metrics make it possible to investigate the correlates and causes of goal-directed behavior. Finally, our approach challenges the conventional view of goal directedness as a discrete and unitary property, by showing that it can be treated as continuous, as a matter of degree, and that it can be broken down into at least two, and possibly more, partly independent components.


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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Lee, Jong Gwanjonggwanlee@g.harvard.edu
McShea, Daniel W.dmcshea@duke.edu
Additional Information: ISSN: 1949-0739 (print)
Keywords: Goal directedness; Nagel, Ernest; Persistence; Plasticity; Teleology
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Structure of Theories
General Issues > Theory/Observation
Depositing User: Jordan Miller
Date Deposited: 24 Jul 2020 15:56
Last Modified: 27 Jul 2020 14:28
Item ID: 17652
Journal or Publication Title: Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology
Official URL: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/ptpbio/16039257.0012....
DOI or Unique Handle: https://doi.org/10.3998/ptpbio.16039257.0012.005
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Structure of Theories
General Issues > Theory/Observation
Date: 13 January 2020
Volume: 12
Number: 005
ISSN: 2475-3025
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/17652

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