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The Role Functionalist Theory of Absences


Functionalist theories have been proposed for just about everything: mental states, dispositions, moral properties, truth, causation, and much else. The time has come for a functionalist theory of nothing. Or, more accurately, a role functionalist theory of those absences (omissions, negative events) that are causes and effects.

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  1. See especially Melnyk (2003). Other authors who explicate physicalism in terms of the notion of realization taken from functionalism include Kim (1998) and Wilson (1999, 2005).

  2. Versions of the causal theory are defended by Shoemaker (1980, 1998), Martin (1997)), Molnar (2003), Heil (2003), and Bird (2007). There are significant differences between these authors’ views, but we can gloss over these differences here.

  3. For instance Dowe (2000, Ch. 6, 2004), Armstrong (2004), Beebee (2004), and Kim (2007).

  4. I am content to beg the question against opposing views, on which causation is a relation between facts, for example, or on which causation is not always (or not in the first place) a relation. Defenders of such views include Mellor (1995) and Lewis (2000: 100).

  5. Defenders of the absence identity theory include Hart and Honoree (1985: 38), Hunt (2005), and Schaffer (2005).

  6. Lewis (1986a: 192–3).

  7. Schaffer (2005) responds to this difficulty by combining his acceptance of the absence identity theory with a contrastivist account of causation—indeed, he motivates his contrastivism partly on the basis that it allows one to reconcile the view that absences can be causes with the view that causal relata are actual events. Here I note that the role functionalist theory of absences provides an alternative way to reconcile these two views, and one that is compatible with the orthodox view that causation is a binary relation rather than a quaternary, contrastive relation as Schaffer maintains.

  8. The classic sources for such objections are Putnam (1967) and Fodor (1974).

  9. Within limits. The gardener could have failed to water the plant because he was busy creating and administering to the plant a wonder drug that made it no longer need water to survive. I will ignore such complications here, while acknowledging that they will need to be handled eventually.

  10. It used to be common for role functionalists in the philosophy of mind to combine their multiple realizability objection against the psychophysical type identity theory with an acceptance of psychophysical token identities—see Fodor (1974) for instance. However, it is now widely held that multiple realizability considerations tell equally against such token identities, and the token identity theory is often replaced with a token realization theory. See for instance Yablo (1992), Pereboom (2002), and Shoemaker (2007).

  11. The parallel is to the familiar distinction between common sense functionalism and psychofunctionalism.

  12. Lewis (1972).

  13. In Ramsifying the defining theory we assume that its names for absence types are “purely referential, open to existential generalization and to substitution by Leibniz’s law” (Lewis (1972: 80). This is not to assume at this point that absences exist—we will defend this conclusion below, but it’s not an assumption that needs to be made prior to setting out the role functionalist theory. Rather, it’s to assume that the clauses of the defining theory can be construed as talking about absences and absence types as if they existed, and so our terms for absences are open to existential generalization and so on. In principle a philosopher who denies the existence of absences could accept our functional definitions of absence terms while maintaining that such terms are denotationless.

  14. Kim (1976).

  15. Consider the views of fictional entities defended by Van Inwagen (1977) and Salmon (1998).

  16. Lewis (1986a: 190).

  17. See for instance Clapp (2001), Antony (2003), and Shoemaker (2007: 17–18); in contrast, Fodor (1974) famously denies that multiply realizable properties are disjunctive. This identification of functional properties with disjunctive properties would seem to require the causal theory of properties, since otherwise for any given disjunct property there will be metaphysically possible but nomologically impossible worlds where that disjunct fails to occupy the causal role that defines the functional property in question. At such worlds, when the disjunct property is exemplified the given disjunctive property will be exemplified too, but the given functional property will not, since there is no property occupying its causal role. But so be it: we have already accepted the causal theory of properties anyway, and so there is no harm in relying on it here to identify functional properties with disjunctive properties.

  18. You might also plausibly hold that the disjunctive/non-disjunctive distinction is best viewed as a representational distinction rather than a metaphysical distinction between two sorts of properties or events—see Clapp (2001). Fair enough. But the role functionalist theory does require some sort of genuine metaphysical distinction in the neighborhood, namely a distinction between fundamental properties (and their exemplifications) as opposed to non-fundamental properties (and their exemplifications). It is central to the role functionalist theory that absence types and tokens are non-fundamental.

  19. Lewis (1986a: 190). More specifically, he denies that there are overly disjunctive events. Absences, as they are conceived by the role functionalist theory, would count as overly disjunctive, since the given disjunct properties are wildly heterogeneous.

  20. Lewis (1986b: 266). Lewis’s original counterfactual theory of causation is set out in his (1973).

  21. Lewis (1994).

  22. See Dowe (2000).

  23. Yablo (1992).

  24. See Sartorio (2010) and Dowe (2010).

  25. A defender of the role functionalist theory of absences could maintain an “inegalitarian” view of disjunctive events: some exist, while others (perhaps including Fred’s walking-or-talking) don’t. This is probably the best line to take, but I won’t try to develop it here.

  26. See for instance Menzies (2004), Beebee (2004), Dowe (2004), and Kim (2007).

  27. Sartorio (2010).

  28. This does not provide a general solution to the problem of over-generating causes. The Queen of England failed to water the plant. There was no reason to expect she would, unlike the case with the gardener, but still the fact is she didn’t. The plant’s death counterfactually depends on this omission by the Queen: if the Queen had watered it, the plant wouldn’t have died. But intuitively, the Queen’s omission does not cause the plant’s death. This case cannot be handled in the same way the stale biscuit case is handled, since it is also intuitively wrong to cite whatever positive activity the Queen was participating in instead of watering the plant—hosting a royal gala, say—as the cause of the plant’s death instead. Dowe (2010) describes a way in which Yablo’s theory might be used to block the result that the Queen’s omission counts as causing the plant’s death, but it involves denying that the gardener’s omission counts as causing the death either. Another option open to defenders of the role functionalist theory of absences is to grant that the Queen’s omission did cause the plant’s death, and then explain away why it seems counterintuitive to say so in terms of the pragmatics of causal discourse—see for instance Lewis (2000: 101), Schaffer (2005: 302).

  29. Williamson (2000, 2005).

  30. Shoemaker (2007).

  31. Woodward (2008).

  32. LePore and Loewer (1987); see also Loewer (2007).


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Correspondence to Justin Tiehen.

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Tiehen, J. The Role Functionalist Theory of Absences. Erkenn 80, 505–519 (2015).

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  • Causal Power
  • Causal Theory
  • Causal Claim
  • Mental Causation
  • Disjunctive Property