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Cosmos - - Contents - On Pur­pose by MICHAEL RUSE Prince­ton Univer­sity Press (2017) RRP $27.95 Hard­cover

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


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.”

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