On Purpose

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 03 Jun 2023 03:10
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    • Notes on the book by Michael Ruse

    • Summary: didn't care for this book at all, but it's a useful survey of the history of philosophical thinking on purpose and its relationship with evolutionary theory (but not alas with cybernetics or cognitive science)
    • This site is mostly about agency, which means its concerns are close to if not quite identical with some classic philosophical problems, such as free will vs determinism and the nature of purpose in general (aka teleology).
    • I take this as kind of a warning light on my mental dashboard. If a problem has occupied philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without a resolution, that is a sign that something is wrong – probably the problem itself is ill-posed in some way, and as a result most people talking about it are wasting their time. Thus I should find something better to think about since I'm very unlikely to have fresh insights.
    • Nonetheless sometimes I feel an obligation to see what people who do this professionally are thinking. In this case, I stumbled on this book by Michael Ruse called On Purpose, which seemed initially to be relevant to my own interests.
    • Ruse is a philosopher and involved in some way with the New Atheist movement (which is not so new any more). His reputation is as a moderate atheist, in contrast with extremists like Richard Dawkins. That is, he considers religious arguments politely rather than calling their adherents fools and charlatans. That is a point in his favor I guess.
    • I flipped the bozo-bit on this book when I realized that it did not mention cybernetics or any adjacent fields or thinkers. This kind of confused me to be honest – I would think that it would at least rate a mention in a book that purports to be a survey of thinking about purpose. Just seems kind of weird to ignore it. But another prominent book by a philosopher that covered purposefulness in general had the same gap, despite long sections on teleology. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity by Korsgaard. I guess these fields don't talk to each other.
    • Aside from this glaring (to me) oversight, the book suffers from a kind of chatty informal tone, which can be fine sometimes but didn't work here. It made the whole history of philosophy seem like an idle pub argument, which is maybe all it deserves to be, but that doesn't make me interested.
    • I'm not the kind of person who believes that computational technologists and cognitive scientists just swooped in with their mechanistic ideas and solved (or dissolved) all the millenia-old questions of philosophy.
      Marvin Minsky believed something like this, and would say so when prodded, eg "they misunderstand, and should be ignored." Crevier
      That is an obnoxiously triumphalist stance, and led to hubris and overly-simplistic theories. But this book kind of pushed me more in that direction, because it seemed to be about people mostly wasting their time on things they didn't understand,
    • Anyway, the result it the notes below are sporadic and mostly pointers to other people who might be interesting or relevant.
    • Notes

      • Prologue
        • Kant argued in Critique of the Power of Judgement that human discourse can not get away from the use and assumption of purposiveness. toread
      • Ch 1 Athens
        • The Aristotelian classification of causes, simplified to backward-looking (efficitent) and forward-looking (final); he's interested in the latter.
        • Three approaches to forward-looking causation:
          • external (Plato)
          • internal (Aristotle)
          • eliminative (atomists)
      • Ch 3 Machines
        • “There is no need to show at length, that nature has no particular goal in view, and that final causes are mere human figments.” – Spinoza, Ethics
      • Ch 8 Aristotle Redux
        • Aristotle. Naturphilosophie. D'Arcy Thompson
        • Thompson had little time for natural selection or for the whole tradition that it represented. He always looked back beyond the Enlightenment and the two thousand years leading up to it, finding his true spiritual home back in ancient Athens. Like Aristotle particularly, he was ever committed to a world that was more than just dead matter..
        • Due in no small part to the coming of computers, there is now a whole school that works in Thompson’s tradition, trying to show how features Darwinians ascribe to selection are truly the result of mathematics and nature’s unguided laws.
          • He cites Stuart Kaufmann here
        • Vitalists – Hans Dreich, Henri Bergson, élan vital, entelechy
        • Alfred North Whitehead gets a whole section
          • Romanticism – a protest on behalf of an organic view of nature, and also a protest against the exclusion of value from the essence of matter of fact
        • Sewall Wright (population geneticist)
          • "saw himself as a panpsychic monist"
        • Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We have the same philosophical approaches to the same philosophical problems. All that changes is the science in which everything is dressed up.
          • Couldn't have put it better myself.
      • Ch 10 Mind
        • Thomas Nagel calls himself a "neutral monist"
        • many denied strongly that reasons (that is, reasons with outcomes we desire) can function unambiguously as causes—efficient causes, that is. It was argued that reasons get us into a whole new, noncausal ball game. The classic text was Elizabeth Anscombe’s Wittgenstein-influenced little book Intention (1957).
        • William James, Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment
          • For someone like William James, the struggle for existence and natural selection translated readily into a theory of knowledge—ideas fight it out just as organisms fight it out.2 No more, but certainly no less.
        • Bertrand Russell: Power, A New Social Analysis
          • Russell, even more so, was hostile to Darwinism, belittling pragmatism as a “power” philosophy and narrowly defining the true scope of inquiry so that an empirical science like Darwinism almost by definition could have no role.