and the Anticipatory Paradigm
DAVID C. COTTINGHAM
3517 D 18th St., S.W. Calgary,
Alberta Canada T2T 4T9
From: PSCF 42 (December 1990): 239-245.
This article begins with discussion of Robert Rosen's Anticipatory Systems, outlines the concept of biological modeling processes, and connects the notion of anticipatory model with the notion of psychological archetype. The Great Mother is given as example. Rosen is cited on the distinction between teleonomy and teleology. Jurgen Moltmann's theology is referred to, in particular his idea that the universe is an anticipatory system. Telos is proposed as a unifying term. The paradigm is then applied to biblical hermeneutics, with typology seen as anticipatory progression; the raising of archetypes into succession of new contexts. The conclusion ties the three approaches together.
Models, Archetypes, Teleonomy
There are signs these days that something akin to the old notion of telos is about to be revived. Quietly discarded by the mainstream about the time Laplace declared God to be an unnecessary hypothesis, telos went the way of "arguments from design," and for a couple of centuries ceased to be a respectable topic in polite scientific company.
Our eyebrows should be raised, then, at seeing telos brought back into the discussion by a man noted for his advanced speculation about the nature of living systems. Robert Rosen, theoretical biologist at Dalhousie, has made his reputation by examining the role of modeling among organisms; in particular by discussing the distinction between representation and reality, and its pertinence to the development of perception in the living process. Although Rosen's framework is conventionally Darwinian, in a book called Anticipatory Systems he breaks with established doctrine by suggesting something biologically unorthodox, i.e., that "a change of state in the present occurs as a function of some predicted future state, and [that] the agency through which the prediction is made must be, in the broadest sense, a model..."1
The model, in Rosen's sense of the word, could be thought of as the internal
aspect or representation
of the organism's relationship with its environment. Every model, in such a system, is built upon a limited number of "observables." The observables are not simply qualities intrinsic to the environment, but are largely a function of the organism's capacity to "measure" the presence of those qualities. As an organism develops, new observables are encountered, old models fall into obsolescence, and a process of learning occurs. The model itself may be rudimentary, as in the following description.
... Many primitive organisms are negatively photo-tropic; they move towards darkness. Now darkness itself has no physiological significance; in itself it is biologically neutral; e.g. with moisture, or with the absence of sighted predators. The relation between darkness and such positive features comprises a model through which the organism predicts that by moving towards darkness, it will gain an advantage. Of course this is not a conscious decision on the organism's part; the organism has no real option, because the model is, in effect, "wired-in." But the fact remains that a negatively phototropic organism changes state in the present in accord with a prediction about the future, made on the basis of a model which associates darkness (a neutral characteristic in itself) with some quality which favours survival.2
Models, then, may be seen as relatively simple, depending on the complexity of the organism and its needs. But if we leave the realm of phototropic organisms and move up the scale to the level of dogs or monkeys, then "modelling" in Rosen's sense may indeed be a very sophisticated business. The models we're talking about now are surely endowed with form and substance, and bear the texture of the actual world. The model at this level has the vivid, god-like features of what might be called an archetype. Rosen himself provides an example.
... If I am walking in the woods, and I see a bear appear on the path ahead of me, I will immediately tend to vacate the premises. Why? I would argue; because I can foresee a variety of unpleasant consequences arising from failing to do so. The stimulus for my action is not just the sight of the bear, but rather the output of the model through which I predict the consequences of direct interaction with the bear. I thus change my present course of action, in accordance with my model's prediction. Or, to put it another way, my present behaviour is not simply reactive, but rather is anticipatory.3
The model, in this case, is not a simple, static picture. Rather, it is dynamic; it tells a story. It has more to do with doing than with being; more like a verb than a noun. With this distinction in mind, then, it might be useful to remove the conscious human subject from Rosen's description and substitute the unreflective prehension of a creature less than human; a coyote, for example, or even better, something simian. What the unreflective subject encounters, on this hypothetical sylvan path, is an enormously powerful presence; not the indifferent kind of image that might appear on a computer screen, but an immediate reality demanding immediate action; understood not as something with a name-bear-but as an overwhelming force; menacing, vital, and compelling; the sort of experience an early human might have associated with a god. But there are no words for any of these things; there is only the "model." And the model, raised from the abstraction of an academic treatise, is nothing less than a full-blown archetype.
Archetypes, then, if we accept Robert Rosen's hunches, may turn out to be anticipatory models, and very important items in the struggle to survive. But the leap from model to archetype may seem too abrupt, and needs explaining. It could be argued, for example, that the bear in Rosen's account is just a bear, and the reaction just a normal fear response. Fear and flight are both instinctive answers to the particular situation, and both are appropriate. Rosen would probably argue that the instinct itself depends on the presence of the "model." Stated otherwise, the sight of the bear instantly activates the instinct, which refers to an internal image nested within an entire set of associated data. The response occurs only because the data is sifted and a selection made based on an assessment of future possibilities. All of this occurs, of course, within the twinkling of an eye, and attests to the efficacy of a very complex system.
The same process may be considered more generally in terms of a broad conception of archetype. Take the case of the Great Mother archetype so prevalent in pre-history: the faceless pregnant figurine of Laussel and Willendorf; or the goddess of historic times who sets the ruling king upon her knee. The mother figure connotes; or in other words, she means something. But to mean something, the image must be set in a context of associations. The mother's associations happen to be things like birth and life, warmth and nourishment, shelter and comfort. But they also happen to be death and decay, destruction and chaos, grave and gravity. The mother is earth, cosmos, matrix; in short, all the observables of the natural world that can be summed up as cyclicity. And if the archaeological record means anything at all, then the mother figure was being physically represented long before the birth of agriculture.
It should be clear, though, that the Great Mother is herself a kind of predictive model. Through the maternal model, the rhythms of existence are registered and anticipated, and human life comes to be ordered according to the observed cycles. The standard motif of the king seated on the mother's knee recognizes a sovereignty greater than the king's, and a subordination of human power to the power of death and cyclicity. The archetype, then, functions as an anticipatory model. The model anticipates the end of human glory in death, and its new beginning in birth. The king is transitory and contingent, while the mother endures through countless cycles.
But the whole notion of
anticipation presents a minor snag; namely,
"normal science" doesn't allow it.
But the whole notion of anticipation presents a minor snag; namely, "normal science" doesn't allow it. Rosen explains:
...in any law governing a natural system, it is forbidden to allow present change of state to depend upon future states. Past states, perhaps, in systems with "memory"; present state certainly; but never future states...
...A denial of causality thus appears as an attack on the ultimate basis on which science rests. This is also the reason why arguments from final causes have been excluded from science. In Aristotelian parlance, a final cause is one which involves a purpose or goal; the explanation of system behaviour in terms of final causes is the province of teleology.4
Rosen, in fact, is just as uncomfortable about teleology as most of his colleagues; so uncomfortable that he slides around the problem by borrowing a term coined in the 1950's: teleonomy. Now the difference between the two terms is not immediately clear. Teleology, it seems, has to do with final causes, or in other words, with telos. Teleonomy, at least the way Rosen uses it, has to do with a purposive or end-seeking process. Organically speaking, teleonomy refers to the end-seeking process that attempts to model its own end. Purpose is derived from within the process, and is essentially rooted in the past. The future is modelled on the data at hand, and the "future state" is not much more than an unconsciously calculated guess. The model, in other words, is a means of making statements of probability. Each model may be seen as a way of exploring the possible outcome of any given situation. It is probable, after all, that the bear will be a problem.
Given Rosen's flirtation with the No Man's Land of telos, it might be interesting to consider the question from another angle. It turns out that the concept of an anticipatory system has a central place in the theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Furthermore, it seems that Moltmann has formulated the idea without theslightest reference to the work of Robert Rosen. This in itself should arouse our curiosity; the development of modern science seems to show time and again that discoveries occur simultaneously among diverse minds focused on a similar problem. The case of Darwin and Wallace is perhaps the most celebrated.
In his book God in Creation, Moltmann introduces the idea of anticipation almost as a spin-off of his deeper theological concerns. As Moltmann sees it, though, anticipation is not just the domain of a biological modelling system, but applies rather to the entire cosmos. The universe, he says, is an anticipatory system whose coherence and self-transcendence express the unifying activity of the creative Spirit. All of it-quarks, atoms, molecules, mountains, what have you-anticipates a future state. The earth groans in expectant travail.
As Moltmann sees it, though,
anticipation is not just the domain
of a biological modelling system, but applies rather to the entire cosmos.
It should be added, for the sake of heretic hunters, that Moltmann's thinking is not just Hegelian dialectic dressed up in twentieth century jargon. Moltmann isn't talking about the immanent Geist that gradually becomes conscious of itself.
In saying this we are interpreting the universe as the self-transcending totality of a diversity of communicating, individual open systems. All individual systems of matter and life, and all their complexes of communication as a whole, "exist" into a transcendence and subsist out of that transcendence.
If we call this transcendence of the world "God," we can then tentatively say: The world in its different parts and as a whole is a system open to God. God is its extra-worldly encompassing milieu, from which, and in which, it lives. God is its extra-worldly forecourt, into which it is evolving. God is the origin of the new possibilities out of which its realities are won...
It is therefore impossible to think of this world-transcendence of God unless we think simultaneously of his world-immanence; and it is equally impossible to conceive of God's evolutive immanence in the world without his world-transcendence. The two are mutually related.5
By Rosen's standards, this is exalted language. Rosen is a biologist of relatively modest aims who in his private moments entertains thoughts about spirituality and purpose. Moltmann's profession, by contrast, permits him a much greater range of speculation. The two approaches are juxtaposed here, the scientist beside the theologian, to suggest the possibility of a unifying term that would make each intelligible to the other and to anyone else tinkering with the question. The unifying term, at least tentatively, could be the notion of telos.
The universe points beyond itself and anticipates its future state because of a transcendent purpose. Organisms model the future purposively because purpose underlies their existence and draws them forward to their goal. The modeling mechanisms are themselves by-products of a purposive process. Actuality thus unfolds in continuous dialogue with the potential.
the future purposively because purpose underlies
their existence and draws them forward to their goal.
At a level much deeper than the biological, the image of anticipation is reflected in the mathematical construct known as the wave function. Here again we see a structure that in a sense "models" future possibilities, representing all possible paths for a given particle. When the wave function "collapses," a single possibility is actualized out of a potential infinitude. The poetic overtones are nothing less than apocalyptic. The collapse may be thought of as a revealing, or a disclosure of being; a "judgment" of sorts. And if this sounds fanciful, then think of the universe as a whole: a zillion zillion collapses at every instant and every point. The wave function may be seen as a tiny model of cosmic interconnectedness, a succinct representation of the possible ways everything connects to everything else. The universe thus consists of the continual vanishing of all sets of possibilities but one.
The universe thus consists of the continual vanishing of
all sets of possibilities but one.
Moltmann, then, would appear to be right. The universe anticipates.
Whatever might be said about anticipation in a scientific context, it has some equally novel implications when applied to biblical hermeneutics.
Consider the meaning of typology, for example. What does Paul mean when he says that Adam is a typos of the Christ? Traditionally, we have said that the first "type" prefigures the second. Yeshua ben Nun prefigures Yeshua ben Joseph, as does the Joseph of Genesis and David the King. Events too are said to be prefigurative. Solomon's coronation ride through the Kidron Valley prefigures the Palm Sunday ride of Jesus. Etcetera. Prefiguring though, in this typological sense, may also be seen as a kind of anticipation. The first context anticipates the second. In a sense analogous to Rosen's, each figure is an anticipatory model; each figure in its original context anticipates a future context.
It may be recalled, from the opening paragraphs of this article, that Rosen's concept of the anticipatory model was roughly equated with the psychological notion of the archetype. An archetype, however we choose to understand the term, is simply an old figure. Archetypes per se thus come to be embedded in a succession of new contexts and acquire radically new meanings.
Scripturally, the process begins with Genesis. The archetype known elsewhere as the goddess Tiamat gets tucked into the creation story as the primordial chaotic sea-the tehom. The archetype of the universal flood gets re-expressed in the Noah story, and acquires its new connotations of apocalypse and promise. The new story in turn anticipates further apocalyptic models. The seed vessel which is Noah's Ark anticipates a new seed vessel which is the Ark of the Covenant. A recurrent pattern emerges, and becomes a pattern of recurrent patterns. Narrative elements resonate with each other poetically through structural isomorphisms.
It would be extremely difficult, in the space of a short article, to outline the richness and depth of this interpretive scheme. But it should be noted at the outset that the question of historicity has been safely shunted aside. The historicity of Noah's Ark cannot be asserted. But the historicity of the second Ark most definitely can be. If the Ark of the Covenant never existed, nobody would have told a pointless story about David dancing in front of it. Even if Noah turns out to be fable, David can never be anything but fact. The Ark of the Covenant is clearly embedded in history. So the question is, how to account for the typological fitness of the two figures? How do we explain the isomorphism? If the first figure anticipates the second, what principle governs the anticipation?
Back in the discussion of Rosen's theory, it was pointed out that Rosen opts for a subtle distinction between teleology and teleonomy. The latter may be thought of as an organism's self-modelling process as related to a particular end, a kind of probable solution to a given set of possibilities. Teleonomy is rooted in the past. Teleology, by contrast, relates to an end or purpose beyond the scope of any internal modelling process. Rosen's anticipatory models are entirely teleonomical, based on an organism's ability to extrapolate from the "observables" at hand. If there is such a thing as a teleological model, then its projection of the future must be derived from a source outside the system that models; derived, in other words, from telos.
Teleonomy is rooted in the past. Teleology, by contrast,
relates to an end
or purpose beyond the scope of any internal modelling process.
The proposal to be made here is that there is in fact a teleological "model," and that the model itself suggests the distinction between teleology and teleonomy; but its terminology is couched in an old context and accordingly speaks instead of "prophecy" and "false prophecy." The teleological "model," in its broadest outline, is the book we call the Bible.
The biblical unfolding in turn needs to be seen as the successive re-combining of old figures in a series of new contexts in a way that old meanings are transcended by new ones. The Tiamat/tehom relationship is just one example of how the process works. Tiamat is an archetype; in Rosen's terms, an anticipatory model; in our own terms, a teleonomical model derived from the self-modelling process of human consciousness, mythically expressed as a maternal principle of cyclicity. The archetype then, is raised by the Genesis poet into a new field of meaning, and presented freshly as one small element in a larger picture. The tehom still anticipates, but what it now anticipates, in the Genesis context, is the Spirit that hovers above the face of the deep.
The teleological "model," in its broadest outline, is the book we call the Bible.
At a glance, it should be readily seen that biblical connections with extra-biblical myths are not to be dismissed. The connections are deep and permanent, and become increasingly obvious as the old myths become available to the modern intellect. The emergent pattern, though, should place the old myths in perspective. The process of biblical revelation appears to take the old figures, the old human models of cyclicity, and set them in the midst of new circumstances that point ahead to further developments. The anticipation of the Bible is teleological because it narrates a movement initiated and sustained by the Eternal Purpose. Its final reference is always beyond the understanding of its human authors.
Telos, then, comes to be seen as the term that unifies a number of diverse approaches. Rosen's models make sense in the context of Moltmann's universal anticipation, which in turn makes sense through the lens of biblical narrative. The anticipation of the cosmos turns out to be the groaning travail of the earth. The anticipation of the Bible turns out to be the yearning of creation for its eschaton. Both creation and revelation may be seen together as part of a seamless continuity, held in coherence through the telic agency. The term telos, if properly understood, could eliminate the apparent contradiction between evolution and creation, while accounting for the unique flavour of the Genesis account. Telos potentially integrates the biblical framework into a more general conception of human consciousness. There is a further implication to be considered, so huge in scope that we need to stand back just to get a glimpse of its looming shape. If, as suggested, old figures acquire new meanings by being raised into new contexts, then perhaps the teleological model itself submits to the same kind of process. What would happen, for instance, if the Bible were allowed to speak freshly in the context of the late twentieth century? Would it reveal meaning that our ancestors never had the chance to suspect? Would it tell us something about our reality that the seventeenth century couldn't have guessed? Do the new observables in science and mythology entail a new understanding of scripture?
The suggestion here is that they do.
The nineteenth century conflict between science and theology may be due for a final collapse. The old bogey man called evolution may come to be seen, finally, as the accelerating process by which time issues from eternity and moves towards a final purpose. It will be seen, though, not as a process pushed from behind and molded by the blind workings of chance, but as the movement of a dynamic whole called forth towards a potential future. To the extent that various autonomies within the system model their potentialities and extrapolate from past to future, the system may be seen as teleonomical, i.e., purposively oriented from within. The "self-organization" of the universe is in this sense a very real aspect of the process, and represents the freedom granted in the phrase "Let there be."
What would happen, for instance, if the Bible were allowed to
speak freshly in the context of the late twentieth century?
But teleonomy is not the whole story. In its periodic leaps from old ecological stabilities to radically new ones characterized by the synchronic appearance of vast numbers of new forms, the ongoing coherence of the universe expresses the unifying activity of a transcendent purpose. This overall coherence of an irreversible process may be interpreted teleologically as an in-forming of creation by the Eternal. To paraphrase Jurgen Moltmann, the universe is an anticipatory system open to the creative activity and calling of the Spirit.6
The universe, in this new way of seeing, is no longer compelled to evolve; it is
invited. We who
are its conscious representatives are called according to the same purpose, and
thus share its travail and expectancy. Our anticipation derives from the same
source; and our calling is nothing less than the impassioned calling of God to
the whole creation.
For the orthodox, the anticipatory view is not without problems. How, for example, should we interpret the place of Christ in the present scheme? Even though such questions are beyond the proper scope of this essay, a couple of remarks may be helpful.
The old bogey man
called evolution may come to be seen, finally,
as the accelerating process by which time issues from eternity and
moves towards a final purpose.
The first is that if the theme outlined here is close to the mark, then our understanding of redemption is due for an overhaul. In the same way the early Church groped for centuries towards its formulation of the Nicene Creed, we may, as a body, find ourselves re-thinking the whole matter; not, as some may suspect, because we reject the authority of Scripture, but because the scriptural authority directs us in new ways. If this sounds shaky, try turning again to the Book of Job, where Elihu spells out his view of God and the cosmos, and try to relate to his way of seeing. Human understanding changes, and we can't do anything to make it hold still. Storms and earthquakes may indeed be "acts of God," but they are also processes within a continually changing creation. Separating the two may no longer be as easy as we would like to think.
The solution, if there is one, will not lie in pantheizing the Gospel, but in reconsidering the elements we've always had at hand; namely, the immanent/transcendent framework of the biblical revelation. New understanding may be achieved in harmony with the old if we hold to the principle that no old doctrine should be violated. Orthodoxy is not to be denied, but affirmed and expanded. The alternatives to this rule are an entrenched conservatism that clings to the cultural accretions of a dead age, and a theological liberalism that devalues the content of Scripture. We are indeed householders taking out of our storeroom things old and new.
The second remark is that the Christ event, occurring at a time when the rate of change in history is already gathering momentum, needs to be seen as a message nested within a message. The outer message may be seen as God's self-advertisement to human consciousness. That is, a message is enveloped in historical events in such a way that a context for the message is slowly prepared over the course of two millenia; partly by means of the process described above. Jesus doesn't just drop down out of the sky or appear suddenly out of a lotus blossom. The message, when finally spoken, is directed specifically at humanity, and is received first of all through the understanding. "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." The calling of God, present from the beginning as Logos, is now focused in an appeal to creation's conscious component, but to a consciousness gone awry. By and large, this is what the Church is about; a kind of body that lives in the world as an ongoing witness to the Christ event, "proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes again."
At the conscious level, the "primordial catastrophe" called Sin is counteracted by a direct appeal to repentance.7 Metanoia, in fact, may be nothing less than the teleological response that breaks us out of the old self-modelled patterns of thought and action, rooted in a teleonomical nature. Redemption thus works, at least in part, at the level of consciousness. Ultimately, metanoia moves us towards prayer, which takes us beyond the power of our own thought and opens our hearts to the Eternal. Whatever else the Crucifixion may mean for us, it seems to be God's way of getting our attention. "Here I am," He says, "and look what you've done to me." The Cross is literally the crux of the whole relationship.
The inner message of this event includes all the specifics. The truly good news it imparts is that redemption doesn't depend, finally, on how or what we think. Having the answer is not the answer. Redemption is God's work, and the work does not cease. The Incarnation is the sign of God's immanence. The Resurrection is the sign of His transcendence. Redemption is God's hidden leaven in history, and the individual believer is invited to share in its leavening action. Both its meaning and movement remain a mystery. What we do know is that poetically speaking, the promise of redemption is God's promise to Noah; a promise to the whole creation. For the believer, anticipation means hope; an eschatological yearning, the future state of God's kingdom acting on the present; God's purpose dwelling among us.
1Robert Rosen. Anticipatory
Systems. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1985, p. 8.
2op. cit., p. 7.
3op. cit., p. 7.
4op. cit., p. 9.
5Jurgen Moltmann. God in Creation. New York: Harper and Row, 1985, pp. 205-206.
6op. cit., p. 205.
7"Primordial catastrophe" is an expression borrowed from various works of Walker Percy.