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Michael Ruse on Purpose: A Conflicted Response

Michael Flannery
Photo: A hedgehog, by Gibe, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been reviewing a book by philosopher Michael Ruse. See my earliest posts, here and here. Overall, On Purpose left this reviewer conflicted. Certainly Ruse’s interests have always been my interests, and his writing style is unfailingly lively and engaging. Moreover, I have learned a great deal of history and philosophy of science from him over the years. Nevertheless, he recalls something C. S. Lewis once said of his Anthroposophical friend Owen Barfield: “he has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it” ([1955] 1991, 110). Ruse and Barfield could not be more different as writers and thinkers, but parallels are, after all, not affinities. In today’s pop parlance I regard Ruse as a frenemy (a writer whose work is always worth reading and indeed a joy to read, but always somehow fundamentally wrong and wrongheaded). Ruse’s cocksure certainties on everything from evolution to religion are sometimes amusing and often bewildering. One has to smile at Ruse’s excesses. He fits what the Jewish author/philosopher Israel Zwangwill once said of atheist George Bernard Shaw: The way he “believes in himself is very refreshing in these atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.” In fact, Shaw might be a good match because the Irish playwright eventually exchanged his atheism for a vague mysticism. Ruse certainly is not there yet, but his admission to being “sympathetic to a panpsychic perspective” (235) might reveal some chinks forming in the atheist’s armor. 

Whatever else might be said of Ruse and his work, like all his books this one is worth having on the shelf. Interesting, instructive, and at times exasperating, it would make a wonderful required reading for any upper level undergraduate or graduate seminar on the history and philosophy of science or even for seminary students ready to sharpen their apologetic knives. On Purpose demonstrates the fine line between polemical drumbeating and wishful thinking that makes an obstreperous hedgehog like Ruse such interesting company. 

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