, Volume 194, Issue 4, pp 1169–1187 | Cite as

Two arguments for the etiological theory over the modal theory of biological function

  • Brian Leahy
  • Maximilian Huber


This paper contains a positive development and a negative argument. It develops a theory of function loss and shows how this undermines an objection raised against the etiological theory of function in support of the modal theory of function. Then it raises two internal problems for the modal theory of function.


Function Function loss Modal theory Counterfactuals Etiological theory David Lewis Ruth Millikan 



We would like to thank Bence Nanay, John Troyer, members of the Lake Geneva Biological Interest Group, and two anonymous referees for their valuable assistance. B. Leahy was supported by DFG Research Group 1614 “What if: On the meaning, relevance, and epistemology of counterfactual claims and thought experiments”. M. Huber was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation Grant 140885 “Counterfactual Reasoning in Biology”.


  1. Bennett, J. (2003). A philosophical guide to conditionals. New York: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Gatesy, S. M., & Dial, K. P. (1996). Locomotor modules and the evolution of avian flight. Evolution, 50(1), 331–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Iatridou, S. (2000). The grammatical ingredients of counterfactuality. Linguistic Inquiry, 31, 231–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Jespersen, B., & Carrara, M. (2011). Two conceptions of technical malfunction. Theoria, 77, 117–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Kiritani, O. (2011). Function and modality. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 32(1), 1–4.Google Scholar
  6. Lewis, D. (1973). Counterfactuals. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Lycan, W. (2001). Real conditionals. New York: Oxford.Google Scholar
  8. McGee, V. (1985). A counterexample to modus ponens. Journal of Philosophy, 82, 462–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. McLaughlin, P. (2001). What functions explain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Millikan, R. (1984). Language, thought, and other biological categories. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  11. Nanay, B. (2010). A modal theory of function. Journal of Philosophy, 107(8), 412–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Nanay, B. (2011). Function, modality, mental content. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 32(1), 84–87.Google Scholar
  13. Nanay, B. (2012). Function attributions depend on the explanatory context. Journal of Philosophy, 109(10), 623–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Neander, K., & Rosenberg, A. (2012). Solving the circularity problem for functions. The Journal of Philosophy, 109(10), 613–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Vogelstein, B., Lane, D., & Levine, A. J. (2000). Surfing the p53 network. Nature, 408(6810), 307–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Welsh, H. H., & Lind, A. J. (2000). Evidence of lingual-luring by an aquatic snake. Journal of Herpetology, 34, 67–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.FB SprachwissenschaftUniversität KonstanzKonstanzGermany
  2. 2.Département de PhilosophieUniversité de GenèveGenève 4Switzerland

Personalised recommendations