Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: On Purpose by Michael Ruse

Is this what philosophy books are like? If so, I want to read more of them. Here Michael Ruse takes on an important question (purpose), gives a historical overview and spends the last few chapters working through specific issues and giving his own take on what makes for purpose. Ruse truly listens to all and sees the light in each of his subjects, and in the end commits to a particular standpoint: in his case, the Kantian view that purpose is a useful heuristic. At one point he likens purpose to the imaginary number i: it's necessary for accounting for life's goal orientation, but it's not "real" in the same sense as integers. Maybe I'm more along the line that purpose is like the number pi: impossible to describe with ratios but possible to know in other ways, and to calculate to impressive precision with dedication. The discussion of the area most near and dear to my own heart, purpose in biology and natural history, ends up ambivalent for me. He pulls out the old standard arguments (the carbon resonance level for stellar fusion, the possibility of silicon-based life) but at the end of the day his rebuttals to these specific examples seem to miss the point, and it seems like we go down a long road to end with a shrug. Nevertheless, Ruse makes a welcome companion even and especially where I disagree. What's most impressive about this book is its accessibility, which welcomes all, and which makes me recommend it.

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