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Turn Your Life into a Game With the Teleological Stance and Learn to Live Optimally
Life is an infinite game against the tendency toward decay described by the second law of thermodynamics. By optimizing your model of the world, you can play that game to the best of your ability.
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Teleology (pronounced tee-lee-ology or teh-lee-ology) is a philosophical term that refers to purpose in the natural world. The teleological stance asks you to look at the big picture and think deeply about how you fit into that picture. When you take the teleological stance, you are choosing to view reality through a certain lens, primarily because it is useful to do so. But its practicality may just be a bonus. New science is revealing that a teleological lens could benefit us precisely because it provides an accurate representation of the nature of reality. I make the case for this in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. Many of the ideas featured on this site are discussed in the book, but the teleological stance is not; it is content that is exclusive to this Substack.
Taking the teleological stance means adopting the perspective that nature has an inherent purpose, and by understanding that purpose, we can derive our own sense of purpose and find meaning in our existence. The rational basis for accepting the stance is based on a unifying theory of reality we may call The Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis, and a new natural philosophy we may call Poetic Meta-Naturalism. Like most concepts you will encounter on this site, they are not entirely novel creations, but adaptations or updates of important ideas from the past that have since become outdated. Together these complementary paradigms describe an emerging scientific worldview that offers something like the “cosmic religion” envisioned by Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan—a religion that avoids dogma and superstition, but doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” —Carl Sagan
This cosmic religion is being developed in a crowdsourced fashion by the neuromantics, a self-organized system of cosmic optimists who think they can save the world—which also means saving us from ourselves—with science, epistemology, and blockchain technology. Your comments will contribute to pruning the ideas in this post, so know that your feedback is not just appreciated, it is also part of the content optimization process.
Speaking of optimization, the teleological stance offers a detailed strategy for living optimally, and in that sense it is something like a self-help system, though calling it that threatens to cheapen the core idea, so I do so with some hesitation. But that is really what it is—something intended to help the reader in practical ways. This logical system will arm you with cognitive tools that can help you maximize your productivity, creativity, and sense of of well-being, and it will do all this without asking you to believe anything that is not supported by science and rational argument.
When you take the teleological stance, you will be applying principles from complex systems science, evolutionary theory, cybernetics, and Bayesian epistemology to everyday life. If you are unfamiliar with some of those terms, just know that they are all part of one coherent cosmic narrative that is relatively simple and easy to understand, once the concepts are unpacked. This cannot be done in a single article, but hopefully you will find this brief introduction to the proposed system to be useful and informative.
The teleological stance strives to provide a solution to what has been called “the meaning crisis” by the cognitive psychologist and philosopher John Vervaeke. This term refers to the fact that in today’s polarized times, no one knows what to believe or what is real, and this can create a sense of despair and meaninglessness. The teleological stance can be thought of as a “sense-making lens,” because its function is to make sense of a complicated and confusing reality, thereby minimizing existential anxiety and cognitive dissonance. An understanding of the scientific and philosophical framework it emerges from will expand your awareness, increase your compassion, and cast a psychedelic glaze over reality. For this reason, we will start there.
The Cosmic Basis for the Teleological Stance
The universe no longer appears to just be some big random machine evolving arbitrarily, but instead a creative system that is recursively generating novelty, pattern, and new modes of experience. In other words, reality is an emergence generator. So far, it has produced matter, life, mind, and culture through a process of hierarchical self-organization, whereby nature’s fundamental components come together to form greater wholes, which then become the building blocks for the next level of complexity on the teleological ladder of progress. Subatomic particles came together to form atoms, which came together to form molecules, which then formed cells, which formed complex organisms, which formed societies, and human civilization now seems to be forming what has been described as a “global brain” that spans the planet, thanks to the internet (we are analogous to neurons in the global brain). What is perhaps most astonishing about this process is that it appears to be just getting started.
The idea that cosmic evolution is generating increasing complexity—inevitably leading to life, mind, and culture—is not a new one. “Cosmic teleology” is a philosophy that asserts that the universe is evolving toward greater functionality and awareness, and this cosmic narrative was described by many great philosophers of the past, such as Aristotle, Hegel, Herbert Spencer, Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. More recently, an entirely mechanistic and naturalistic version of cosmic teleology has been proposed or hinted at by some of the greatest scientific minds of modern times, including Freeman Dyson, Christian de Duve, Ilya Prigogine, Stuart Kauffman, David Deutsch, Seth Lloyd, Ray Kurzweil, and Christof Koch, just to name a few. In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Koch, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, writes:
The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge…the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers, but the evidence from cosmology, biology, and history is compelling.”
Although this paradigm is completely naturalistic, many will find its philosophical implications to have a spiritual quality because the direction of evolution creates the appearance that the universe has some grand purpose. The entire cosmos seems to be inevitably evolving towards a future goal state (known as an “Omega Point”), in much the same way a seed develops into a tree, or an embryo into a mature organism. While there may not actually be an ultimate goal or knowable end point, it seems clear that there is an undeniable arrow or direction to the evolutionary process.
This view implies that nature is waking up through the emergence and spread of life and consciousness—phenomena that take on cosmic significance in this new story of the universe’s development. By “cosmic significance,” I mean that life is a mechanism for the growth of complexity that will presumably shape the evolutionary trajectory of the cosmos and determine its large-scale development. Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century, said:
"It is impossible to calculate in detail the long-range future of the universe without including the effects of life and intelligence."
And if biologically-based intelligence becomes the primary driver of cosmic evolution once it emerges, then life has objective significance and a mysterious purpose that transcends the individual. In his best-selling book The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch—the father of the field of quantum computation—writes:
“Narrowly conceived evolutionary theory considers us mere ‘vehicles’ for the replication of our genes or memes; and it refuses to address the question of why evolution has tended to create ever greater adaptive complexity, or the role that such complexity plays in the wider scheme of things.”
So, if life and nature have a purpose, what is it? Well, if you zoom out and look at the evolutionary process, that becomes self-evident. The purpose of life is to continue to persist. To experience the world. To evolve. To acquire knowledge. To progress. This line of reasoning, as mystical as it may sound on the surface, emerges from an understanding of the relationship between life and the second law of thermodynamics, which will be explained shortly.
The teleological stance is simply the position one takes once they realize that intelligent life is significant to the universe, and that this significance gives humanity a cosmic purpose. That cosmic purpose extends to you, since you as a conscious entity are a vessel that allows the universe to wake up. The great educator and cosmologist Carl Sagan famously said:
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
For the individual, the teleological stance means finding your own purpose, one that in some small way contributes to stabilizing or improving society.
The Teleological Stance Turns Life Into a Game
The teleological stance naturally emerges from the story of cosmic evolution, and that story is not unlike a mythology. Nature wakes up through a dynamic tension that can be understood as a battle between life and chaos, order and disorder, or knowledge and ignorance. This idea is not unlike the themes expressed in the dialectic of Hegel, the Yin and Yang of Taoism, the Pratītyasamutpāda (interdependent co-arising) of Buddhism, and the fight between good and evil in Christian theology—so the spiritually-inclined readers might find those metaphors to be useful.
The teleological stance takes this framing and turns your life into a game, a game that we may call the “Game of Life.” Gamifying your life can not only be invigorating and empowering, it can also illuminate aspects of reality previously hidden from perception. That is because the Game of Life is not just a game—it is a unifying theory of reality that explains life’s relationship to nature. This unifying theory, the Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis, unites the sciences with a story that explains the continual creation of knowledge in the universe. Poetic meta-naturalism further refines that story of knowledge creation by telling the evolutionary tale in terms of loops and levels. The term “loops” refers to cycles and recursion, while “levels” refers to hierarchy and nestedness. You can imagine the story of cosmic self-organization as a growing tower of Russian dolls— a “Matryoshka cosmology,” if you will. Poetic meta-naturalism is beyond the scope of this article, but it will be explained in a future one.
To understand why life can be framed as a game, we should first think about what it means to be a game. Stripping them down to their bare essentials, games consist of players that have challenges and goals. This means that games are intrinsically teleological, or goal-oriented.
The teleological stance recognizes that if you are alive, you will inevitably encounter problems. A problem represents a challenge, and a challenge creates a goal. The goal is simply to find a solution to the problem. A goal gives an agent a purpose, and a purpose gives life meaning.
Life Has Always Been Playing a Game Against Entropy
The Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis starts with what many consider to be the most important law in all of physics, the almighty second law of thermodynamics. The second law can be summarized simply as “Things fall apart.” In other words, systems naturally tend toward decay and disorder. The technical term for disorder is “entropy,” and because the second law says entropy tends to increase, nature is constantly pulling us towards death. It is the existential challenge set by the second law that gives life an intrinsic survival goal, thus turning it into a game.
Framing life in thermodynamic terms was first popularized by the great quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger in his 1944 book What is LIfe? In it, Schrodinger explained that life can avoid the tendency toward decay and keep its internal entropy low by feeding on “negative entropy” in the environment. Negative entropy is just another name for free energy—energy in the environment that can be used to do physical work. Free energy allows an ordered system to stay ordered so that it may continue playing the Game of Life.
As animals, we consume free energy by eating food, which gets turned into mechanical work through the process of metabolism. Similarly, plants absorb free energy from sunlight and convert it into work through the process of photosynthesis. If an organism does not continually absorb energy, it will die and it will undergo entropic decay until the ordered system ceases to exist. When an energy-starved organism succumbs to the effects of the second law, the Game of Life has come to end for that player.
We can already see that the natural tendency toward disorder creates an intrinsic goal for all living systems: to stay ordered, to persist, to survive. Therefore, the idea that life has an inherent purpose is not a mystical one—it is a fact of nature. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker writes:
“The second law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.”
The philosopher Daniel Dennett also adopts Schrodinger’s thermodynamic framing to explain biology in his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
What, then, are living things? They are things that defy this crumbling into dust, at least for a while, by not being isolated—by taking in from their environment the wherewithal to keep life and limb together.
From these quotes, the vision of life as a game should be becoming increasingly clear. To continue persisting in a world that abides by the second law—to continue playing the Game of Life—we must be able to capture free energy, and we must be able to do so while avoiding threats. However, navigating one’s environment in a chaotic and constantly changing world is no trivial task. It requires that the living system acquire information about the environment, because that information reduces the organism’s uncertainty or ignorance about the variables of the world it is embedded in. We may call the information that reduces an organism’s uncertainty knowledge. As life evolves through hierarchical self-organization, knowledge gets encoded in the memory of the biosphere, which includes genetic, neural, cultural, and digital memory.
It can also be said that an organism must acquire a map or model of its environment. This model is the result of knowledge accumulation, and in an abstract sense the agent’s model is comprised of “beliefs” about the world, or what it expects to encounter. This model is a statistical model, and specifically a predictive model, which allows the organism to anticipate events in a world filled with uncertainty. In humans and other animals, this predictive model is encoded in our brain. Our mental models allow us to achieve our goals and make sense of a complicated and confusing reality. The teleological stance is an example of a mental model that represents a small slice of our more comprehensive world model.
Want proof that you are an observer with a model of the world (and of yourself) inside your head? Close your eyes and try to envision yourself in a room. Zoom out to see your house and your neighborhood from a bird’s-eye view. Zoom out and see the planet Earth from space. Now imagine a friend sitting next to you in your room. You have not only modeled the world in your brain, you have modeled other modelers, and those familiar agents come to life in your dreams, complete with personalities and trademark quirks!
How does a biological agent acquire a world model that contains knowledge of its environment? First, by way of evolution through natural selection over many generations, then by adaptive learning during one’s lifetime, and later by the process of science, which builds models of the world through hypothesis testing. The Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis will reveal why all these processes are equivalent and rely on the same problem-solving algorithm, known as variation-and-selection, which is a form of trial-and-error learning. We will become very familiar with this mechanism in the next article because we use it on a daily basis, but often in a suboptimal manner. For those who’d like to explore these ideas further in the meantime, see Karl Popper and Donald Campbell’s Evolutionary Epistemology.
We have now presented the theoretical basis for the teleological stance. The tendency toward decay gives life an intrinsic purpose or goal, and that goal requires that the agent acquire a model of the world. The notion of a mental model will allow us to explain the emergence of consciousness in mechanistic terms, thanks to the thermodynamic framework we have constructed.
In future articles, we will learn about:
-The law of requisite variety, which will tell us how complex our mental models should be for optimal performance.
-Meta-awareness, or awareness of awareness, which will allow us to tweak our mental models and override our biological programming.
-Bayesian reasoning, which will give us a method for updating our mental models in light of new information, so that they are most consistent with reality.
These are just some of the cognitive tools provided by the teleological stance. If you have found this content interesting or useful, please consider becoming a patron. Your support funds the creation of content that will put society on the road to Omega.