Self-Organizing Systems and Final Causality, by Joseph A. Bracken

Self-Organizing Systems and Final Causality, by Joseph A. Bracken

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

For most life scientists, the processes of evolution are essentially mechanistic–they operate without allowing for any ideas of causality or teleology. Organisms and species are essentially passive, acted upon by external evolutionary forces rather than able to actively promote their own survival. As Joseph Bracken points out, however, “[T]here are some hardy individuals who have braved the ridicule of their peers to set forth their own understanding of teleology operative within Nature and thus to challenge some of the reigning assumptions of the ‘modern synthesis.'” In this essay, he seeks to provide a metaphysical basis for some of those individuals’ theories in a Whiteheadian framework, in the hope of providing explanatory mechanisms “for both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ causation at different levels of existence and activity within Nature.”

Rev. Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., retired professor of theology and director emeritus of the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the author of seven books and editor or co-editor of two other works in the area of philosophical theology. His focus in recent years has been on the God-world relationship both as it figures in the religion and science debate and in interreligious dialogue. He is a long-time student of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead but has modified it in some measure so as to make it more compatible with traditional Christian beliefs such as creation out of nothing, the doctrine of the Trinity and eschatology. In 2001 he published The One in the Many: A Cotemporary Reconstruction of the God-World Relationship (Eerdmans) and in 2005 he edited World Without End: Christian Eschatology from a Process Perspective, likewise published by Eerdmans. Currently he is at work on a process-oriented Christian spirituality.



Self-Organizing Systems and Final Causality

By Joseph A. Bracken

At the beginning of the 17th century in Western Europe, a dramatic change of world view took place which enormously facilitated the development of modern natural science. Pioneering individuals like Galileo Galilei basically set aside the medieval world view which laid such heavy emphasis on teleology, the logical order of all things in this world both to one another and to God as their transcendent Creator, and focused their attention on physical phenomena in dynamic interrelation according to mathematical laws and thus in quantifiably measurable terms.1 In this respect Galileo and his contemporaries were, at least in some measure, returning to a very old world view which preceded the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the world of philosophical atomism propagated by the Greek pre-Socratic thinkers Leucippus and Democritus. According to this latter view, physical reality is simply matter-in-motion within an all-encompassing void, a universe of inert bits of matter (atoms) which over time aggregate and then disperse to form the enduring objects of ordinary sense experience.2

The inevitable consequence of this approach to physical reality, of course, is that final causality no longer plays any significant role in the relations of material entities to one another and to God. For there are no innate principles of activity or “natures” within the things of this world, guaranteeing that they will act one way rather than one another. Everything is reduced to the contingent workings of efficient causality under the conditions of space and time. That is, the atoms constituting the things of this world are in themselves inert and lifeless and are moved in one direction rather than another simply through the impact of external forces. The most influential philosopher of that period, Rene Descartes, proposed that only the human mind as a “thinking substance” was exempt from the laws of mechanical interaction; all other things in this world, including the human body, were to be regarded as machines, nothing more than the sum of their interrelated parts.3

So great was the influence of this mechanistic approach to physical reality in terms of physics and astronomy that it likewise had a significant impact upon the philosophical assumptions governing the newly emerging life sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin, for example, set forth his principle of natural selection along basically mechanistic lines. Evolution takes place by chance rather than by design. Minor changes in the physical makeup of plants and animals can lead over time to a distinct environmental advantage for certain individual organisms within a given species and for entire species in competition with still other species in the ongoing effort at survival. Thus there is no grand design or divine plan for creation at work here. Still less is there any sign of purposeful adaptation on the part of individual organisms and species in the ongoing struggle to survive and propagate in a hostile environment. It is pure chance whether the individual organism or species is unexpectedly better equipped by nature to prosper rather than to undergo extinction. Behavioral patterns for coping with the environment, in other words, are not passed on from generation to generation through sexual reproduction but have to be worked out all over again by each new generation. Only inherited changes in body structure can be transmitted from one generation to the next.

Darwin’s principle of natural selection, of course, was eventually further modified and explained in terms of gene mutation and the novel combination of genes through sexual reproduction, the so-called &qupt;modern synthesis.” But even here the tendency among professionals in the life sciences has been to think of evolution in terms of the gradual accumulation of very small changes in bodily structure for the organism or species. Thus the organism or species is basically passive under the influence of external forces rather than actively engaged in promoting its own survival.4 There are scientists, to be sure, who resist the idea of evolution as based exclusively on small incremental changes; Stephen Gould and Niles Eldridge come to mind with their theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” namely, periods of rapid change followed by even longer periods of relative non-change among existing species.5 But they too tend to think of evolution in largely mechanistic terms. That is, any notion of final causality or teleological orientation operative within individual organisms or species is customarily dismissed as an uncritical return to an outdated understanding of physical reality from earlier times. But there are some hardy individuals who have braved the ridicule of their peers to set forth their own understanding of teleology operative within Nature and thus to challenge some of the reigning assumptions of the “modern synthesis.” Two of these individuals are Michael Polanyi and Rupert Sheldrake. In the remainder of this paper I will summarize their understanding of what they call “morphogenetic fields” and indicate how this new approach to a developmental teleology within Nature might be further legitimated by my own rethinking of Whiteheadian metaphysics. In addition, this neo-Whiteheadian approach to reality seems to exhibit some unexpected affinities to classical Eastern conceptions of Ultimate Reality, as I shall make clear at the end of this paper.

In his classic work The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi set forth a heuristic approach to human understanding whereby human beings tend to organize the world of their experience in terms of tacitly known holistic structures or patterns of behavior. Calling it the “from – to” structure of human knowing,6 he noted how we first intuit a pattern in a set of empirical data and then organize the data to fit the pattern. Sometimes, of course, the pattern proves to be illusory and we start all over again in our hunt for an organizational principle. But his basic point was that epistemologically the whole or totality does not so much arise out of the study of the parts in their dynamic interrelation but rather precedes the organization of the parts as a heuristic principle by way of a logic of discovery. While many academic colleagues conceded Polanyi’s point about the heuristic character of human knowing, they nevertheless balked at his further postulate that Nature itself seems to be governed by a logic of achievement structurally akin to the logic of discovery within the human mind. That is, deliberately prescinding from the organization of inanimate Nature, Polanyi argued that the gradual evolution of living organisms toward greater complexity and ultimately toward consciousness is governed by what he called “morphogenetic fields,” holistic structures that condition how the individual entities within the field relate to one another over time more and more coherently.7 In the opinion of his critics, Polanyi was here covertly reintroducing a basically Aristotelian approach to final causality in Nature which is at odds with the presuppositions of modern natural science, in particular, with contemporary biology as based on the principle of natural selection.

Some years later, to be sure, Rupert Sheldrake renewed the debate over the notion of morphogenetic fields with the publication of his book A New Science of Life. Calling his theory “the hypothesis of formative causation,” Sheldrake proposes that

specific morphogenetic fields are responsible for the characteristic form and organization of systems at all levels of complexity, not only in the realm of biology, but also in the realm of chemistry and physics. These fields order the systems with which they are associated by affecting events which, from an energetic point of view, appear to be indeterminate or probabilistic; they impose patterned restrictions on the energetically possible outcomes of physical processes.8

In answer to the question where these field-structures come from, Sheldrake replied that they are derived from previous morphogenetic fields associated with previous similar systems: “a plant takes up the form characteristic of its species because past members of the species took up that form; and an animal acts instinctively in a particular manner because similar animals behaved like that previously.”9Hence, the world is made up of structured fields of activity which interlock and are hierarchically ordered through both space and time.


Once again outrage was expressed by more conservatively oriented colleagues who resented this affront to the standard presuppositions of modern science in which notions of final causality in Nature had for several centuries been effectively ruled out. In this paper, however, I will offer a neo-Whiteheadian interpretation of the notion of morphogenetic fields which may mediate between the theories of Polanyi and Sheldrake, on the one hand, and the objections of their critics, on the other hand. In brief, I will make clear how an understanding of Whiteheadian “societies” as structured fields of activity for their constituent actual occasions seems to provide both for “bottom-up” and for “top-down” causation at the same time. In this way one can argue that final causality is indeed at work in the gradual evolution of Whiteheadian societies but only in and through the ongoing interrelated activity of their constituent actual occasions. The structure or form of the field is at one moment generated by the constituent actual occasions “from below,” and yet in the next moment that same “common element of form” is active “from above” in conditioning the next set of constituent actual occasions. What results then is the notion of a developmental rather than a fixed entelechy as the governing insight in the concept of morphogenetic fields. In addition, I will indicate how, given this understanding of Whiteheadian societies, one has at hand a new and interesting way to think about the God-world relationship, that is, how God “informs” the cosmic process without altering the normal operation of secondary causes within Nature.

In his book A Social Ontology, David Weissman claims that Whiteheadian actual occasions are “atomic and self-contained: each one comes into being from nothing, only to be annihilated when the sensible endowment of its creation has been organized in accord with its feelings, thoughts, and aims.”10 As a result, he develops an alternate vision of reality based on interlocking and hierarchically ordered “systems” which “derive their coherence or integrity from the reciprocal causal relations of their parts.”11 While I agree with Weissman in much of his critique of the latent atomism within Whitehead’s thought, I have for many years now believed that a rethinking of Whiteheadian “societies” could convert the latter’s philosophy into a more fully consistent social ontology while at the same time preserving other key insights (e.g., actual occasions as “the final real things of which the world is made up.”12) Systems thinking, after all, runs the risk of reducing reality to the interplay of impersonal forces and mechanisms with too little attention paid to the particular contributions of individuals to the existence and activity of the group in question.13 Maintaining that self-constituting subjects of experience are the ultimate constituents of all socially organized realities keeps in focus the conviction that systems exist for the well-being of individuals and not vice-versa.

In any event, my own line of thought for many years now has basically run as follows. Whiteheadian societies, since they correspond to the relatively stable persons and things of common sense experience, must be more than just aggregates of analogously constituted actual occasions. For, as such, these aggregates would come into and go out of existence as rapidly as their constituent actual occasions. Hence, as I see it, Whiteheadian societies should be treated as “environments” or “structured fields of activity” for those same actual occasions.14 The structure within the field is, to be sure, ontologically dependent upon the interrelated activity of successive actual occasions (or sets of actual occasions in the case of Whiteheadian societies extended in space as well as time). But the field endures as these actual occasions or sets of actual occasions come and go. Furthermore, the structure embedded in the field by reason of the activity of previous actual occasions or sets of actual occasions heavily conditions the self-constituting activity of the present actual occasion or set of actual occasions.

The net effect of this arrangement is that there is indeed a form or organizing principle within every Whiteheadian society at any given moment. But the form is not active as an Aristotelian substantial form is active with respect to its material components. Rather, the form is passive, both because it originated in virtue of the self-constituting activity of an antecedent actual occasion or set of actual occasions and because it is simply “prehended” by the next actual occasion or set f actual occasions. Like an Aristotelian substantial form, therefore, it is ontologically prior to the material components which it here and now “informs.” But, unlike an Aristotelian substantial form, it “informs” its components not in virtue of its own inherent activity but simply by being there as an object of prehension or activity on the part of the next actual occasion or set of actual occasions. Furthermore, unlike an Aristotelian substantial form, the form or pattern of existence and activity within a Whiteheadian society is as a result seldom exactly the same from moment to moment. It undergoes, at least within organic compounds, a slow but steady transformation as a result of new actual occasions or new sets of actual occasions constituting themselves in slightly different ways from their predecessors and thus collectively achieving a new “common element of form.” It thereby serves as an entelechy or organizing principle for a Whiteheadian society, but it is strictly a developmental entelechy passively dependent upon the activity of its material parts or members, namely, its constituent actual occasions from moment to moment.

As I see it, this line of thought allows me to liken a Whiteheadian society to a morphogenetic field as conceived by Polanyi and Sheldrake but without the theoretical limitations traditionally attributed to Aristotelian final causality. The morphogenetic field, in other words, possesses an immanent principle for the organization of its material components at any given moment. But, insofar as this immanent principle is passive rather than active with respect to those same components, and insofar as this immanent principle is itself in process of change or development in virtue of the activity of those same material components, then one cannot give ontological priority to the immanent principle over the material components as Aristotle gave ontological priority to form over matter. Rather, it would be the morphogenetic field as a whole which undergoes gradual change in virtue of the interrelated functions of the material components and their immanent principle of organization from moment to moment (in the language of Whitehead’s philosophy, interrelated actual occasions and their “common element of form”). Furthermore, since the material components, the actual occasions, are by definition self-organizing and thus open to change in various ways (e.g., through external environmental influences and, as we shall see below, through what Whitehead calls “divine initial aims”), this scheme amply provides for “bottom-up” as well as “top-down”causation in the explanation of evolution. Neither of the two forms of causation by itself but only the two in combination fully explain how higher-order systems of organization can emerge over time out of lower-order systems.

Here it might be useful to cite the work of Niels Henrik Gregersen in a pair of articles published in ZYGON some years ago.15 His understanding of “autopoietic processes” both within certain inanimate compounds (so-called “dissipative structures”) and in organic compounds or living systems seems in my judgment nicely to parallel my above-stated understanding of Whiteheadian societies as structured fields of activity or morphogenetic fields for their constituent actual occasions. For, as Gregersen makes clear, “autopoiesis is less than self-constitution, but more than self-organization.”16 That is, whereas the term self-organization “usually suggests that the elements of a system remain self-identical and that they are only synthesized differently in different self-organizing systems, the idea of autopoiesis suggests that the elements themselves are produced and reproduced within the local systems themselves.17 Not only are the elements within a given system differently arranged as a result of self-organization; rather, in “autopoiesis” new elements or new component parts arise so as to make up a higher-order system which has thus emerged out of a lower-level system or set of such systems. Initially, this proposal might seem to stand in opposition to Whitehead’s concept of actual occasions as self-constituting subjects of experience within any and every societal configuration. But, if, as noted above, these actual occasions are capable of gradual growth in complexity over time as a result of interaction with a common element of form itself in process of change and development, then Gregersen’s stipulation that autopoietic processes involve the production of new elements and thus higher-order systems seems to be unexpectedly confirmed from a Whiteheadian perspective.

Whitehead himself, for example, explicitly allowed for four “grades” of actual occasions:

First, and lowest, there are the actual occasions in so-called ’empty space’; secondly, there are the actual occasion which are moments in the life-histories of enduring non-living objects, such as electrons or other primitive organisms; thirdly, there are the actual occasions which are moments in the life-histories of enduring living objects; fourthly, there are the actual occasions which are moments in the life-histories of enduring objects with conscious knowledge.18

All these “grades” of actual occasions, to be sure, exist here and now simultaneously; but in terms of cosmic evolution they must have emerged successively as their societal configuration became more complicated. That is, the higher-order “grade” of actual occasion came into being precisely when higher-order, more complex societies (structured fields of activity) emerged out of lower-order, less tightly organized societies (fields of activity) through a process akin to what I described above.


The key idea here is, as indicated earlier, the dynamic interrelation of the constituent actual occasions and their “common element of form” constituting them as a society rather than a simple aggregate. The occasions are self-constituting; that is, they each “prehend” both the structure and the feelings pertinent to antecedent actual occasions and integrate these physical and conceptual “prehensions” into their own self-constitution here and now. But the single strongest influence on their self-constitution is presumably the pattern of relation existing among their predecessors a moment ago and preserved in their common field of activity. Yet, as already indicated, since the constituent actual occasions are genuinely self-constituting, they are not bound simply to repeat the pattern of the past in their own interrelation here and now. They can make a very modest but still significant change in that “common element of form” by their ow*n dynamic interrelation. In this way, a new structured field of activity or morphogenetic field will slowly begin to take shape with constituent actual occasions to match in the following moment as they prehend this new “common element of form.” Thus, when the new structure within the field and the altered self-constitution of the constituent actual occasions are once again in full alignment with one another, we have a new ontological reality or higher-order level of being which has emerged out of its predecessors in the same line of development or evolution.19

Earlier I mentioned that this rethinking of Whitehead’s notion of society could also shed light on our human understanding of the God-world relationship. One of the persistent problems in the contemporary religion and science debate is the following: if God exists and is active in this world, how can God exert causal influence on the direction of the cosmic process without suspending or otherwise interfering with the laws of Nature familiar to scientists. Yet, if we concede that “the final real things of which the world is made up” are actual occasions or momentary self-constituting subjects of experience, and if we stipulate with Whitehead that each actual occasion is guided in its self-constitution by what Whitehead calls a “divine initial aim,”20 then God can “inform” their self-constitution in each case without physically coercing it and thereby interfering with the normal operation of natural processes. Formal causality, in other words, is non-energetic and immaterial; it provides information to the newly concrescing actual occasion without physically overpowering it or making it happen in terms of brute force.21

All this is standard Whiteheadian doctrine. Through the ongoing integration of the “primordial nature” and the “consequent” nature within God, God “is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”22

Where I differ from Whitehead is in my further proposal that God creates or empowers the actual occasion as well as gives it a “lure” toward its proper self-actualization. For, in terms of my own Neo-Whiteheadian understanding of the God-world relationship, creativity is not a metaphysical “given” (as in Whitehead’s scheme) but the nature of the triune God, the inner principle of existence and activity whereby the three divine persons exist for one another as one God.23 Thus, as I see it, through initial aims to their creatures at every moment the divine persons communicate to those same creatures a share in their own divine power of existence and activity. Thereby the divine persons empower their creatures both to be themselves and to respond without coercion to the divine initiative in their regard. In my judgment, this is what is (or at least should be) meant by God’s primary causality as opposed to the secondary causality of creatures. There is, in other words, genuine spontaneity at work here both on God’s part and from the side of the creature. Hence, primary causality is not a unilateral exercise of divine power upon a purely passive created reality but the creation of an intersubjective relationship with a creature, with God as primary cause taking the initiative and the creature as secondary cause responding. Otherwise, the relation between primary and secondary causality remains obscure. For, how does the secondary cause (e.g., an axe in the hands of a woodsman) serve as anything but the passive instrument for the achievement of the goal set by the primary cause (e.g., the woodsman cutting down a tree)? Only if both the primary cause and the secondary cause are subjects of experience in dynamic interrelation as indicated above is there a bona fide exercise of spontaneity by both the primary and the secondary cause in the action at hand.24


In effect, then, at every moment of the cosmic process the three divine persons and all their creatures exercise both efficient and final causality, albeit in inverse proportion.25 That is, on the one hand the divine persons empower the created actual occasion to make its own self-constituting decision. Thereby the divine persons exercise some limited efficient causality but the created actual occasion is primarily responsible for its own self-constitution and for its immediate impact upon later actual occasions. On the other hand, the created actual occasion exercises only a limited form of final causality in fashioning its subjective aim and achieving “satisfaction” as the goal of the process of concrescence.26 But the divine persons exercise far more final causality in incorporating the “decisions” of all contemporary actual occasions into their consequent nature and in communicating still another set of initial aims to the next generation of actual occasions. In the end, therefore, creatures are primarily responsible for what happens here and now, whether for better or for worse. But the divine persons are primarily responsible for the overall directionality of the cosmic process. The divine persons cannot reverse or otherwise negate the “decisions” of their creatures. But, as Whitehead implies in Process and Reality,27 they can save “what in the temporal world is mere wreckage” by incorporating it into a larger context still in process of completion.

One further point should be noted before concluding. As I proposed some years ago in a book entitled The Divine Matrix,28 I believe that this neo-Whiteheadian understanding of the God-world relationship allows for an unexpected affinity between conceptions of Ultimate Reality or the Transcendent within the major East Asian religions (Vedanta Hinduism, classical Buddhism and Taoism)and a trinitarian understanding of the God-world relationship. For, if Whiteheadian Creativity be understood not simply as a metaphysical given as with Whitehead but rather as the inner principle or ground of the divine being, that whereby the three divine persons co-exist in dynamic relationship both with one another and with all their creatures, then one can legitimately affirm a non-personal or transpersonal as well as an interpersonal dimension to the reality of God. The full reality of God is then non-personal or transpersonal as well as interpersonal, and one can make suitable comparisons with the notion of Brahman in Vedanta Hinduism, with the notion of Dependent Co-origination or Absolute Emptiness in classical Buddhism, and with the notion of the Tao in the Tao te Ching. But, to elaborate at greater length on this point, would presumably be a distraction or diversion from the principal focus of the present paper.

To sum up, then, in my presentation I have tried to vindicate Michael Polanyi’s and Rupert Sheldrake’s controversial appeal to immanent teleology within cosmic evolution in virtue of what they call morphogenetic fields. As I see it, if these morphogenetic fields are conceived as Whiteheadian societies in the sense defined above, that is, as structured fields of activity for their constituent actual occasions, then one has at hand an explanatory mechanism for both “bottom-up” and “top-down” causation at different levels of existence and activity within Nature. At one moment the constituent actual occasions by their dynamic interrelation are giving shape to the “common element of form” for the society. But in the next moment that same “common element of form” heavily conditions the next set of self-constituting actual occasions. Through this dialectical interplay between the structured field of activity and its constituent actual occasions, the society in question can undergo a gradual transformation in a given direction. Above all, if one then factors in the influence of the three divine persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity through their ongoing “initial aims” to concrescing actual occasions, then one can reasonably affirm some form of directionality to the cosmic process. This is not to claim, of course, that the course of cosmic evolution is predetermined in every detail but it should allow one to reject with some confidence the counter-claim that cosmic evolution is “a directionless process going nowhere slowly.”29



1. /a> See, e.g., Ian G.