As noted in Dennett’s Dangerous Idea, the human tendency to take the intentional stance can lead to a misleading over-application of teleological reasoning. One area this plays out is with the notion of progress taken as a general concept. In the domain of human intentionality, progress can be understood and assessed against goals: Am I making progress on reducing my body fat percentage to 10%? Are we on-track to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 350ppm? In such teleological domains, we can assess change from past to future states and determine whether we are progressing (or regressing).

Often, however, we apply the idea of progress to domains that are not strictly teleological. Given the goal-conflict of individual people, human history is a questionable case in this regard, but clearer is the domain of biological evolution. Do more complex forms of life represent “progress” over more primitive forms of life? Darwinian evolution tells us that the adaptations that have generated the complexity of life were not goal-driven. Natural selection is a “blind” process that generates what appears to be purposeful design, but there is no intention or pre-determined goal, just the imperatives of survival and reproduction. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that these imperatives generate “free floating” rationales that explain the evolution of certain adaptations, but that doesn’t change the fact that these rationales are ex post facto explanations and not any sort of pre-conceived intentions of the forces at play in the algorithmic selection process.)

Still, along any single non-intentional change, we can examine the adaptation and determine whether it represents progress. The wing of one species of bird may generate more lift than its predecessor. In that dimension, the wing is better. Progress, at least in this limited domain, has occurred. An eye of one species may have greater light sensitivity than its predecessor. (Or it may not, regression is possible if the trait is not selected for in an organism’s particular fitness landscape.)

The difference between the goal-directed cases of progress initially considered and these non-teleological biological adaptations is that the former exhibit both progress to/toward (some goal, like 10% body fat), as well as progress from (some previous state baseline, like 15%). The latter cases can only exhibit progress from some previous baseline. We fool ourselves to think that they are progressing toward some goal.


In his philosophical novel Lila, Robert Pirsig talked around this difference in the idea of his undefined Dynamic Quality. Equating experience with value, Pirsig’s (process) Metaphysics of Quality posits the always-changing and therefore undefinable transcendent Dynamic Quality as the sense of betterness (value) “toward which” everything (all patterns of static quality) in the universe evolves. But by keeping Dynamic Quality undefined, Pirsig tries to avoid the teleological trap just described.

While it’s correct and useful to keep the ultimate “goal” of the universe undefined, it’s clearer, I think, to reserve use of the language of “progress toward” for truly goal-directed systems and when talking about non-teleological change, specifically speak in terms of “progress from”.