Teleology within Physics?

Optimization Principles from Leibniz to the Modern Day

Harvard University, April 01, 2017

This workshop aims to investigate the rise and implications of seemingly teleological laws and principles of nature from the 17th century to the modern day.

It is a familiar story that natural teleology played an important role in Ancient and Medieval philosophy. Things were held to strive towards their natural place in the universe: Fire rises in order to reach the heavens, rocks fall in order to reach the center of the earth. Such explanatory appeals to ends, purposes, final causation and the general order of nature were largely contested with the birth of the mechanical philosophy in the 17th century. Following Galilei and Descartes, physicists preferred to appeal to laws of nature, forces and efficient causation whenever possible. Objects no longer strove towards their given ends; they obeyed mathematizable laws of nature, like the laws of falling bodies and Newton’s laws of motion.

This familiar story neglects one of the most interesting and surprising twists in the development of modern physics. Natural philosophers had recognized that one of the most important laws of optics – the law of reflection – could be derived from an apparent principle of economy, namely, that light always takes the shortest route between its starting and ending points. This principle appeared to many to be teleological insofar as the path of light can be seen as optimized against all other possible paths within the same framework.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, natural philosophers began to discover a wider range of phenomena that could be treated in an analogous fashion. The likes of Fermat, Snellius, Newton, Leibniz and the Bernoullis showed how specific phenomena from refracted rays and hanging chains to the trajectories of moving objects could be viewed as maximizing or minimizing some quantity or other in nature, e.g. speed, ease, or action. Their efforts were soon followed by attempts to find more general principles of nature. Maupertuis and Euler offered versions of the principle of least action, introducing a formal teleology situated at the very foundation of physics. Their modern day descendants – known as variational and optimization principles – continue to be widely employed today.

This workshop will provide the space to investigate and discuss the emergence and significance of such seemingly teleological principles of nature from the birth of modern physics to the present day. Our topic is not only unduly neglected but also of interdisciplinary relevance, as this specific idea of a natural teleology lies at the intersection of scientific, philosophical and religious issues. We aim to shed much-needed light on the historical development of teleological principles and their implications for our understanding of teleology and the natural world.

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Particle trajectories made visible in a bubble chamber

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