— Non-fiction and fiction, new and old
I ONCE ATTENDED a seminar on the philosophy of laughter, which turned out to be a very grim affair indeed. The event left me with a nagging sense that philosophers might be doing the pursuit of wisdom a disservice by training their intellectual sights on things the townsfolk just know in their bones.
In his new book On Purpose, Michael Ruse, a highly regarded philosopher of science and professor at the University of Florida, could at first glance appear guilty of a similar misdemeanour.
Most people, after all, seem pretty content with the notion of purpose, its place in their lives and the existential disquiet that pervades in its absence.
Ruse is not one of those people. His crusade is to elevate purpose to its proper status in the world of ideas. His opening gambit is to note a distinction that rarely troubles the layperson but has preoccupied metaphysicians for a good couple of millennia. Why does my thumb hurt? Because I hit it with a hammer. This, explains Ruse, is an example of a cause that exists in the past, something Aristotle called an “efficient cause”.
But what causes me to study journalism, invest in a stock or invite friends to dinner? These causes – Aristotle termed them “final causes” – lie in the future. They are mysterious to Ruse because they can motivate action even when their object never comes to exist. The aspiring journalist might study for a career that becomes obsolete before they even graduate.
The commonsense reader will, no doubt, respond that our purpose-driven, “teleological” behaviour simply stems from the fact we’re conscious beings. We can hold rewards in mind and strive towards them.
What then, to use Ruse’s example, of the lion that hides behind a thicket to launch a surprise attack on a buck? Antelope meat is surely good for the lion, so does it attack with purpose? Or consider the Venus flytrap. Catching a fly would also seem good for the plant, so could there be purpose in its entrapment?
If purpose slides along some kind of spectrum, might it permeate the non-living world too? Ruse thinks the Stellenbosch region in South Africa is about as pretty as it gets and, if some mining company wanted to lop the top off its mountains, he “would be ahead even of the ecofeminists in crying ‘rape’”.
“If that is not a value cry, one made for the sake of the mountain and not for me, I don’t know what is,” he writes.
Could intactness really be good for the mountain? If so, is there some kind of mountain-centred purpose in preserving it? Ruse ranges wide seeking answers.
His bedrock is three of the greats of philosophy. Plato was for a designing God, or ‘demiurge’, that stage-directed all things to goals ultimately bound to the ‘Form of the Good’. Aristotle plumped for ‘unmoved movers’, forces suffusing the cosmos with objective purpose. Kant saw purpose as a ‘heuristic’ or guide, imposed by humankind on the biological world as a means to understand it. So far, so obscure, you might say. Ruse aims to illuminate these theories by weaving them through a dizzying array of more modern, if equally contentious, views. The Platonic demiurge re-emerges in a discussion of intelligent design. How, argue people such as US biochemist Michael Behe, could the flagella-driven propulsion system of certain bacteria arise merely by Darwinian selection? Its very complexity seems to rule out any preceding, intermediate form, opening a door to the existence of an all-guiding hand.
If you think unmoved movers are
IF PURPOSE SLIDES ALONG SOME KIND OF SPECTRUM, MIGHT IT PERMEATE THE NON- LIVING WORLD, TOO?
improbable, there is increasing support, including from Australian philosopher David Chalmers, for the idea of panpsychism, the notion that even nonliving forms could have consciousness.
If thinking needs molecules, Ruse explains, maybe it scales up and down depending on how many you have, “like red paint getting redder and redder as you add more pigment, so consciousness becomes more and more aware as it is added to”. If purpose hinges on consciousness, perhaps it soaks the cosmos more thoroughly than we have thought.
Ruse seems most sympathetic, however, to a Kantian view in which we ascribe purpose to the world for our own pragmatic ends. With this view, Ruse says, the plates on the back of a stegosaurus have the purpose of regulating temperature because, well, we say they do, and that aids the goal of biological inquiry. But purpose borne of humankind is, the professor notes, prone to hijack. Psychologist Justin Barrett has called humans “hyperactive agency detectors”, driven to see faces in just about everything as a “better safe than sorry” strategy to detect foes. If we can find faces in the Moon, car fronts and even burnt toast, it is hardly surprising we see purpose in all kinds of places where there is none.
One quibble is that purpose and function seem often conflated. On stegosaurus plates, why not say temperature control is just their evolved function rather than purpose?
This is, nonetheless, a deeply intelligent book that treats key thinkers in philosophy, religion and the sciences fairly, humorously and with a virtuosity reflecting more than half a century in the field. Towards the close he ponders his own quest for purpose approaching the business end of life. His evident love for the teaching and practice of philosophy would appear to fill the void. As moral philosopher Susan Wolf notes in the book: “A life is meaningful insofar as it contributes to something larger than itself.”