Purpose, Agency, and Field Theory

Awarded by the John Templeton Foundation ($246,053)

Purpose, Agency, and Field Theory

Brief Description:

While various accounts of teleology have been proposed in the biological sciences, such as Ernst Mayr’s teleonomy, none has been widely embraced. Recently, however, a new theoretical approach to teleological systems has been proposed by McShea and others. This proposal, called field theory, argues that agents and other goal-directed entities are hierarchically structured, spatial relationships between fields and the entities they envelop. Field theory is a promising new approach because it does not rely on metaphysical premises that are objectionable in the sciences. Yet, field theory would benefit from further development. Notably more work needs to be done to address what counts as a directing “field” and how fields direct entities within them.

Our aim is to provide answers that will make field theory a more robust account of goal directedness. Specifically, we aim to publish multiple papers in both biology and philosophy, to develop curriculums that help students understand the history of teleology, and to engage with a broader, public audience through various media venues about the work being done — by us and others — to understand goal directedness. Our larger aim is to provide a framework that legitimizes the use of teleological explanations in the sciences.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles:

“Teleology and function in non-living nature”, Synthese, 201, 112 (2023)


There’s a general assumption that teleology and function do not exist in inanimate nature. Throughout biology, it is generally taken as granted that teleology (or teleonomy) and functions are not only unique to life, but perhaps even a defining quality of life. For many, it’s obvious that rocks, water, and the like, are not teleological, nor could they possibly have stand-alone functions. This idea – that teleology and function are unique to life – is the target of this paper. I begin with an overview of McShea’s field theoretic account of teleology. I start with the field theoretic account because it presents a promising analysis of teleological systems. It is promising because, in not making any assumptions about life’s special status in teleological systems, it avoids counterexamples that have problematized other accounts. I then consider some of the prominent efforts that some have made to attempt to avoid ascribing functions or teleology to some form of inanimate nature. In my assessment, none of the efforts are successful. I conclude by offering mineral evolution as a case study to show how inanimate nature can be both teleological and functional. The evolution of mineral species reveals that teleology and function extend to inanimate nature, and that teleology and function come in degrees.

“Resolving teleology’s false dilemma”, [co-author: Daniel W. McShea], Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, (2022),


This paper argues that the account of teleology previously proposed by the authors is consistent with the physical determinism that is implicit across many of the sciences. We suggest that much of the current aversion to teleological thinking found in the sciences is rooted in debates that can be traced back to ancient natural science, which pitted mechanistic and deterministic theories against teleological ones. These debates saw a deterministic world as one where freedom and agency is impossible. And, because teleological entities seem to be free to either reach their ends or not, it was assumed that they could not be deterministic. Mayr’s modern account of teleonomy adheres to this basic assumption. Yet, the seeming tension between teleology and determinism is illusory because freedom and agency do not, in fact, conflict with a deterministic world. To show this, we present a taxonomy of different types of freedom that we see as inherent in teleological systems. Then we show that our taxonomy of freedom, which is crucial to understanding teleology, shares many of the features of a philosophical position regarding free will that is known in the contemporary literature as “compatibilism.” This position maintains that an agent is free when the sources of its actions are internal, when the agent itself is the deterministic cause of those actions. Our view shows that freedom is not only indispensable to teleology, but also that, contrary to common intuitions, there is no conflict between teleology and causal determinism.

“An Externalist Teleology”, [co-author: Daniel W. McShea], Synthese, 199: 8755-8780, (2021).


Teleology has a complicated history in the biological sciences. Some have argued that Darwin’s theory has allowed biology to purge itself of teleological explanations. Others have been content to retain teleology and to treat it as metaphorical, or have sought to replace it with less problematic notions like teleonomy. And still others have tried to naturalize it in a way that distances it from the vitalism of the nineteenth century, focusing on the role that function plays in teleological explanation. No consensus has seemed possible in this debate. This paper takes a different approach. It argues that teleology is a perfectly acceptable scientific notion, but that the debate took an unfortunate misstep some 2300 years ago, one that has confused things ever since. The misstep comes in the beginning of Aristotle’s Physics when a distinction is made between two types of teleological explanation. One type pertains to artifacts while the other pertains to entities in nature. For Aristotle, artifacts are guided by something external to themselves, human intentions, while natural entities are guided by an internal nature. We aim to show that there is, in fact, only one type of legitimate teleological explanation, what Aristotle would have considered a variant of an artifact model, where entities are guided by external fields. We begin with an analysis of the differences between the two types of explanation. We then examine some evidence in Aristotle’s biological works suggesting that in his account of the natural/artifactual distinction, he encountered difficulties in trying to provide teleological accounts of spontaneous generation. And we show that it is possible to resolve these difficulties with a more robust version of an artifact model of teleology, in other words, with an externalist teleology. This is McShea’s model, in which goal-directed entities are guided by a nested series a of upper-level fields. To explain teleological behavior, this account invokes only external physical forces rather than mysterious internal natures. We then consider how field theory differs from other efforts to naturalize teleology in biology. And finally, we show how the account enables us to grapple with certain difficult cases—genes and intentions—where, even in biology today, the temptation to posit internal natures remains strong.

“Are Synthetic Genomes Parts of a Genetic Lineage?”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 72:4, 995-1011, (2021),


Biologists are nearing the creation of the first fully synthetic eukaryotic genome. Does this mean that we still soon be able to create genomes that are parts of an existing genetic lineage? If so, it might be possible to bring back extinct species. But do genomes that are synthetically assembled, no matter how similar they are to native genomes, really belong to the genetic lineage on which they were modelled? This article will argue that they are situated within the same genetic lineage. To see why requires closely examining whether material overlap between parents and offspring is a necessary feature of biological reproduction. The processes used to create synthetic genomes shows that these processes are a form of scaffolded reproduction because they use external machinery and take ownership of the material parts used to create synthetic genomes. Closely examining these processes also reveals, surprisingly, that ‘synthetic reproduction’ can take place between entities that don’t participate in the same biological lineages.

“Asexual Organisms, Identity and Vertical Gene Transfer”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 81 101265.,(2020).


This paper poses a problem for traditional phylogenetics: The identity of organisms that reproduce through fission can be understood in several different ways. This prompts questions about how to differentiate parent organisms from their offspring, making vertical gene transfer unclear. Differentiating between parents and offspring stems from what I call the identity problem. How the problem is resolved has implications for phylogenetic groupings. If the identity of a particular asexual organism persists through fission, the vertical lineage on a phylogenetic tree will split differently than if the identity of an organism does not survive the fission process

Book Reviews:

“Review of Rethinking Evolution: The Revolution That’s Hiding in Plain Sight, by Gene Levinson”, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 97:1, 52-3, (2022),

General Audience Philosophy:

“The split-body problem” , Aeon Magazine:

Works in Progress:

“A(nother) radical solution to a species problem: Species aren’t biological” [under review]

“The temporal parts of species”

“Field Goals: Three points about how teleology is structured”

Selected Talks & Presentations:

“Field Goals: Three point about how teleology is structured”, 28th Biannual Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (to be presented Nov. 2022)

“Fission and genetic lineage pluralism”, 27th Biannual Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. Baltimore, Maryland, 2021.

“Species’ temporal parts”, Sixth Annual Conference of the Society for the Metaphysics of Science, remote conference*, 2021.

“An Externalist Teleology” [with Daniel McShea], Linnean Society conference on “Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems, remote conference*, 2021.

“Can you own a species?”, Bentley University, sponsored by the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Spring 2020.

“Asexual Organisms, Identity and Vertical Gene Transfer” presented at the Philosophy Dept., University at Albany, Fall 2019.

“Environmental Engineering: Value in Art & Nature” presented at Hartwick College and sponsored by the Hartwick Philosophy Dept., Fall 2018. 

“Individuality and Binary Fission”, What is an Individual Organism? at Jagiellonian University. Krakow, Poland, 2019.

“Pacifism, Morality, and Martial Arts” presented for the University at Albany chapter of Minorities and Philosophy, Spring 2018.

“Synthetic Yeast & Historical Lineages”, University of Calgary Graduate Philosophy Conference, University of Calgary. Calgary, AB, 2018.

“Discordance in the Species Category”, Species in the Age of Discordance at University of Utah. Salt Lake City Utah, 2017.

Environmental Engineering and Human Intentionality”, First Annual Bovay Workshop on Engineering and Applied Ethics, Texas A&M. College Station TX, 2016.  

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