Michael Ruse on On Purpose

Can we live without the idea of purpose? Should we even try to? Kant thought we were stuck with purpose, and even Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which profoundly shook the idea, was unable to kill it. Indeed, teleological explanation—what Aristotle called understanding in terms of “final causes”—seems to be making a comeback today, as both religious proponents of intelligent design and some prominent secular philosophers argue that any explanation of life without the idea of purpose is missing something essential. In On Purpose, Michael Ruse explores the history of the idea of purpose in philosophical, religious, scientific, and historical thought, from ancient Greece to the present. Read on to learn more about the idea of “purpose,” the long philosophical tradition around it, and how Charles Darwin fits in.

On Purpose?  So what’s with the smart-alecky title?

It was a friend of Dr. Johnson who said that he had tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness always kept breaking in.  Actually, that is a little bit unfair to philosophers.  Overall, we are quite a cheerful group, especially when we think that we might have been born sociologists or geographers.  However, our sense of humor is a bit strained, usually—as in this case—involving weak puns and the like.  My book is about a very distinctive form of understanding, when we do things in terms of the future and not the past.

In terms of the future?  Why not call your book On Prediction?

I am not talking about prediction, forecasting what you think will happen, although that is involved.  I am talking about when the future is brought in to explain things that are happening right now.  Purposeful thinking is distinctive and interesting because normally when we try to explain things we do so in terms of the past or present.  Why do you have a bandage on your thumb?  Because I tried to hang the picture myself, instead of getting a grad student to do it.  Purposeful thinking—involving what Aristotle called “final causes” and what since the eighteenth century has often been labeled “teleological” thinking—explains in terms of future events.  Why are you studying rather than going to the ball game?  Because I want to do well on the GRE exam and go to a good grad school.

Why is this interesting?

In the case of the bandaged thumb, you know that the hammer hit you rather than the nail.  In the case of studying, you may decide that five to ten years of poverty and peonage followed by no job is not worth it, and you should decide to do something worthwhile like becoming a stockbroker or university administrator.  We call this “the problem of the missing goal object.”  Going to grad school never occurred, but it still makes sense to say that you are studying now in order to go to grad school.

Is this something that you thought up, or is it something with a history?

Oh my, does it ever have a history.  One of the great things about my book, if I might show my usual level of modesty, is that I show the whole problem of purpose is one with deep roots in the history of philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and coming right up to the modern era, particularly the thinking of Immanuel Kant.  In fact, I argue that it is these three very great philosophers who set the terms of the discussion—Plato analyses things in terms of consciousness, Aristotle in terms of principles of ordering whatever that might mean, and Kant opts for some kind of heuristic approach.

If these thinkers have done the spadework, what’s left for you?

I argue that the truth about purposeful thinking could not be truly discovered until Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859) had proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection.  With that, we could start to understand forward-looking thinking about humans—why is he studying on such a beautiful day?  He wants to go to grad school.  About plants and animals—why does the stegosaurus have those funny-looking plates down its back?  To control its temperature.  And why we don’t use such thinking about inanimate objects?  Why don’t we worry about the purpose of the moon?  Perhaps we should.  It really does exist in order to light the way home for drunken philosophers.

Why is it such a big deal to bring up Darwin and his theory of evolution?  Surely, the kind of people who will read your book will have accepted the theory long ago?

Interestingly, no!  The main opposition to evolutionary thinking comes from the extreme ends of the spectrum: evangelical Christians known as Creationists—biblical literalists—and from professional philosophers.  There are days when it seems that the higher up the greasy pole you have climbed, the more likely you are to deny Darwinism and be a bit iffy about evolution generally.  This started just about as soon as the Origin appeared, and the sinister anti-evolutionary effect of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and above all Ludwig Wittgenstein is felt to this day.  A major reason for writing my book was to take seriously Thomas Henry Huxley’s quip that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud, and that matters.

Given that you are a recent recipient of the Bertrand Russell Society’s “Man of the Year” Award, aren’t you being a bit ungracious?

I have huge respect for Russell.  He was a god in my family when, in the 1940s and 50s, I was growing up in England.  One of my greatest thrills was to have been part of the crowd in 1961 in Trafalgar Square listening to him declaim against nuclear weapons.  But I think he was wrong about the significance of Darwin for philosophy and I think I am showing him great respect in arguing against him.  I feel the same way about those who argue against me.  My proudest boast is that I am now being refuted in journals that would never accept anything by me.

One of the big problems normal people today have about philosophy is that it seems so irrelevant. Initiates arguing about angels on the heads of pins?  Why shouldn’t we say the same about your book?

Three reasons.  First, my style and approach.  It is true that most philosophy produced by Anglophone philosophers today is narrow and boring.  Reading analytic philosophy is like watching paint dry and proudly so.  Against this, on the one hand I am more a historian of ideas using the past to illuminate the present.  That is what being an evolutionist is all about.  Spending time with mega-minds like Plato and Aristotle and Kant is in itself tremendously exciting.  On the other hand, I have over fifty years of teaching experience, at the undergraduate level almost always at the first- and second-year level.  I know that if you are not interesting, you are going to lose your audience.  The trick is to be interesting and non-trivial.

Second, I don’t say that my book is the most important of the past hundred-plus years, but my topic is the most important.  Evolution matters, folks, it really does.  It is indeed scary to think that we are just the product of a random process of change and not the favored product of a Good God—made in His image.  Even atheists get the collywobbles, or at least they should.  It is true all the same.  Fifty years ago, the geneticist and Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller said that a hundred years without Darwin is enough.  That is still true.  Amen.

Third, deliberately, I have made this book very personal.  At the end, I talk about purpose in my own life.  Why, even though I am a non-believer, I have been able to find meaning in what I think and do.  This ranges from my love of my wife Lizzie and how with dedication and humor we share the challenges of having children—not to mention our love of dogs, most recent addition to the family, Nutmeg a whippet—through cooking on Saturday afternoons while listening to radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera matinees, to reading Pickwick Papers yet one more time.  I suspect that many of my fellow philosophers will find this all rather embarrassing.  I mean it to be.  Philosophy matters.  My first-ever class on the subject started with Descartes’ Meditations.  Fifteen minutes into the class, I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  Nearly sixty years later I am still at it and surely this interview tells you that I love it, every moment.

So, why should we read your book?

Because it really does square the circle.  It is cheerful and philosophical.  It is on a hugely important topic and there are some good jokes.  I am particularly proud of one I make about Darwin Day, the celebration by New Atheists, and their groupies of the birthday of Charles Darwin.

Which is?

Oh, hell no.  I am not going to tell you.  Go out and buy the book.  And while you are at it, buy one for your mum and dad and one each for your siblings and multi-copies for your students and….  I am seventy-seven years old.  I need a bestseller so I can retire.  You need a bestseller so I can retire.

RuseMichael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than fifty books, including Darwinism as Religion, The Philosophy of Human Evolution, and The Darwinian Revolution.

Throwback Thursday #TBT: Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980)


Throwback Thursday: Week 2


Aune, Kant's Theory of Morals

Hello again, everybody! Welcome to our second installment of Throwback Thursday (#TBT). This week’s #TBT goes to Bruce Aune’s Kant’s Theory of Morals (1980), another wonderful book brought back by the graces of the Princeton Legacy Library.

A brief description, for your viewing (and reading) pleasure:

Written for the general reader and the student of moral philosophy, this book provides a clear and unified treatment of Kant’s theory of morals. Bruce Aune takes into account all of Kant’s principal writings on morality and presents them in a contemporary idiom.

We hope you’re enjoying these soundbites – leave word in comments section below if there are any books you’d like to see featured in future #TBTs. Until next Thursday!