Attractors: In the Presence of the Past

Excerpts from In the Presence of the Past: Interview with Rupert Sheldrake.

  • INTERVIEWER DJB: …How to use the concept of attractors, as expressed in the current research of dynamical systems, in the theory of formative causation.

    RS: Well, the idea of attractors, which is developed in modern mathematical dynamics, is a way of modeling the way systems develop, by modeling the end states toward which they tend. This is an attempt to understand systems by understanding where they’re headed to in the future, rather than just where they’ve been pushed from in the past. So, the attractor, as the name implies, pulls the system towards itself. A very simple, easy-to-understand, example is throwing marbles, or round balls into a pudding basin. The balls will roll round and round, and they’ll finally come to rest at the bottom of the basin. The bottom of the basin is the attractor, in what mathematicians call the basin of attraction.

    The basin is, in fact, their principal metaphor. So the ball rolls down to the bottom. It doesn’t matter where you throw it in, or at what speed you throw it in, or by what route it takes–what this model does is tell you where it’s going to end up. This kind of mathematical modeling is extremely appropriate, I think, to the understanding of biological morphogenesis, or the formation of crystals or molecules, or the formation of galaxies, or the formation of ideas, or human behavior, or the behavior of entire societies. Because all of them seem to have this kind of tendency to move towards attractors, which we think of consciously as goals and purposes. But, throughout the natural world these attractors exist, I think, largely unconsciously. The oak tree is the attractor of the acorn. So the growing oak seedling is drawn towards its formal attractor, its morphic attractor, which is the mature oak tree.

  • INTERVIEWER RMN: So, it is like the future in some sense.

    RS: It’s like the future pulling, but it’s not the future. It’s a hard concept to grasp, because what we think of as the future pulling is not necessary what will happen in the future. You can cut the acorn down before it ever reaches the oak tree. So, it’s not as if its future as oak tree is pulling it. It’s some kind of potentiality to reach an end state, which is inherent in its nature. The attractor in traditional language is the entelechy, in Aristotle’s language, and in the language of the medieval scholastics. Entelechy is the aspect of the soul, which is the end which draws everything towards it.

    So all people would have their own entelechy, which would be like their own destiny or purpose. Each organism, like an acorn, would have the entelechy of an oak tree, which means this end state — entelechy means the end which is within it — it has its own end, purpose, or goal. And that’s what draws it. But that end, purpose, or goal is somehow not necessarily in the future. It is in a sense in the future. In another sense it’s not the actual future of that system, although it becomes so.

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