This paper appeared in Zygon magazine.

Abstract. Lacking a plausible model for the emergence of telos (purposive, representational, and evaluative relationships, as in life and consciousness) from simple material and energetic processes, the sciences operate as though all teleological relationships are physically epiphenomenal. Alternatively, in religion and the humanities it is assumed either that telos influences the material world from an outside or transcendental source or that it is a fundamental and ineffable property of things. We argue that a scientifically sound and intuitively plausible model for the physical emergence of teleological dynamics is now realizable. A methodology for formulating such a model and an exemplar case—the autocell—are presented. An autocell is an autocatalytic set of molecules that produce one another and also produce molecules that spontaneously accrete to form a hollow container, analogous to the way virus capsules form. The molecular capsules that result will spontaneously enclose some of the nearby molecules of the autocatalytic set, keeping them together so that when the autocell is broken open autocatalysis will resume. Autocells are thus self-reconstituting, self-reproducing, and minimally evolvable. They are not living and yet have necessary precursor attributes to telos, including individuality, functional interdependence of parts, end-directedness, a minimal form of representation, and a normative (evaluational) relationship to different environmental properties. The autocell thus serves as a missing link between inanimate (nonlife) and animate (living) phenomena. We conclude by discussing the challenges that a natural origin for telos poses for religious thought.

Keywords: apophatic; autocell; emergence; evolvability; meaning; morphodynamics; origins of life; purpose; self-organization; supernatural; teleodynamics; teleology; telos; theology; thermodynamics