Research on Purpose: New Model Combines Philosophy and Science

Every day, we take action based on our goals. Even with the most routine tasks, like running an errand, we envision our destination and how to get there before ever getting behind the wheel of the car. We also make and use things for various purposes, from corkscrews to silverware.

What Alan Love, PhD, wants to know is how should we understand goal-oriented behavior and the evolution of function across diverse living systems. How does an ant forage into new territory but reliably return to its anthill? Is it appropriate to say a tiger’s sharp teeth are for the purpose of grasping prey even though evolutionary processes have no foresight into what an animal needs?

If these questions sound philosophical, that’s because they are. Love is professor of philosophy and the Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts in the UMN Twin Cities College of Liberal Arts as well as the director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. Through nearly $15 million in funding from a recently announced Templeton Foundation Science of Purpose grant, he will lead a new global cohort program that seeks to articulate more precise concepts, develop innovative formal models and accurate measurement methods, and foster new scientific research related to purposiveness in living systems. The three-year effort includes 24 projects from across the globe.

“There are several key concepts at play: agency, directionality, and function,” Love said. “Do organisms have agency, can they make choices? Do biological processes have directionality? Are they targeted toward some things rather than others? What does it mean, for example, to say that teeth are for the functions of chewing and tearing?”

Consider the difference between single-celled organisms and those made up of multiple cells. A bacterium (seemingly) has the agency to act in its own interests, but a skin cell (seemingly) must serve its purpose as part of the larger body. Here we can glimpse the significance of making progress on these questions because cancer can be interpreted as cells in the body having “gone rogue” and pursuing their own goals instead of obeying the whole—dividing and spreading however they like.

Love and his team at UMN will provide strategic coordination for the effort, guiding the interactions and cross-pollination of the two dozen research teams involved in the individual projects funded by the grant, as well as undertaking original research. The cohort spans a wide range of disciplines, including biology, philosophy, computer science, earth science, math, physics, psychology, and anthropology.

One of these projects is based here at UMN, led by Emilie Snell-Rood, PhD, associate professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. Snell-Rood aims to develop a new conceptual framework for function in biology that can inform bio-inspired design approaches in architecture and engineering. The other projects, spanning multiple locations in the US plus international sites like Paris and Brazil, range in scale from genomics to development, from ecology to evolution.

Why Philosophy?

Love’s academic field, philosophy of science, is rooted in the idea that studying the assumptions and evidence behind scientific models will help us understand how the sciences work and what kinds of answers they deliver. This is important, Love said, because the sciences have such a large influence on our lives through their impact on technology, policymaking, health care, and other domains.

A philosophical lens can help reveal and reflect on how scientists and scientific communities may funnel research in certain directions or neglect certain methodologies in favor of others. In progressing along a certain path, a scientific community might miss some avenues of research even while succeeding in others. Sometimes scientists are unaware of these different commitments. Love likens it to the way a professional athlete calls upon muscle memory to repeatedly sink a three-point shot or kick a field goal. While it is possible to discover what about that athlete’s specific technique leads to a high scoring percentage—or what could be changed to achieve a different result—the athlete may not be able to explain exactly why they do it that way.

Looking at science through a philosophical lens is not a new concept. The practice traces back to Aristotle in Ancient Greece, and several concepts since then have worked their way into the broader scientific mindset, such as Occam’s razor—the idea that, with all other things being equal, we should prefer a simpler explanation for why something happens over a more complex one.

More regular integration of philosophical considerations into the sciences, however, has always faced limitations. There are relatively few philosophers out there compared to scientists, and most collaborations result in one-off benefits rather than the more persistent and wide-reaching impact Love believes philosophy can have.

That’s where the new Templeton Foundation initiative comes in. He hopes it will become a turning point in advancing the understanding of goal-oriented behavior and the evolution of function by stepping up the role of philosophy in scientific inquiry.

“What if we were really intentional about how we organized inquiry?” he said. “We’re bringing in philosophers who have a track record of working with different scientists, scientists willing to work with philosophers. What we’re seeing in this project is one of the largest organized efforts to do this.”

A New Model to Break the Mold

As the projects get underway, a large part of Love’s excitement comes from the architecture of the initiative itself.

Instead of the simply issuing a call for proposals at the intersection of philosophy and science, the Templeton Foundation set out to intentionally breed new ways of thinking about perennial questions in the context of collaboration. The new model gives researchers flexibility in how they approach their research questions and ensures they benefit from interactions with the other teams in the cohort.

Love sees the project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new foundation for future research directions and, if successful, to inspire other scientists and philosophers to work together.

“If we mix it up in this way for three years, we increase the chances of generating new ways of doing science,” he said. “It’s novel, it’s experimental, it’s interdisciplinary, it’s not like what’s happening elsewhere. To me, those are the kind of things that make this exciting.”