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How objective are biological functions?

  • S.I. : Objectivity in Science
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John Searle has argued that functions owe their existence to the value that we put into life and survival. In this paper, I will provide a critique of Searle’s argument concerning the ontology of functions. I rely on a standard analysis of functional predicates as relating not only a biological entity (e.g., the heart), an activity that constitutes the function of this entity (e.g., pumping blood) and a type of system but also a goal state (e.g., survival or evolutionary fitness). A functional attribution without specification of such a goal state has no truth-value. But if completed with a goal state, functional attributions understood as four-place relations attain a truth-value. The truth conditions of all attributions of function involve a dependence claim of the goal state on the function bearer’s activity. The nature of this dependence may differ; I consider five different possibilities: causality, mechanistic constitution, mereology, supervenience and metaphysical grounding. If these dependency relations are objective, Searle’s central ontological thesis fails. What he ought to have said is that our valuing survival or other goal states may be the reason why biology seeks functional knowledge, but this has nothing to do with ontology. I will show further that Searle also raised an interesting challenge concerning the relationship of functional and causal truths, but it does not threaten the objectivity of functions either. At best, it could show that functional vocabulary is eliminable. However, I will show that functional vocabulary is not so eliminable.

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  1. I assume that the term “natural function” is used by Searle in order to mark a contrast to artificial or technical function, as his position clearly implies that biological functions are not natural.

  2. To my knowledge, Searle’s views on this matter have not previously been discussed in the philosophy of biology. However, they have been cited with approval by other philosophers (e.g., Kusch 2006) and the argument is systematically interesting. Furthermore, similar positions have also been defended by philosophers of biology (e.g., Ratcliffe 2000).

  3. I wish to thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  4. By this I mean in particular a kind of teleology that includes a normative dimension. I do not believe that there is any kind of normativity involved in biological functions beyond the simple fact that functional dispositions may fail to be manifested. However, I lack the space here to deal with this issue appropriately.

  5. Another functional concept that doesn’t fit the analysis that I am about to present is Wouters’ (2003) concept of function as activity.

  6. Wimsatt (1997) argues that only behaviors and processes can be bearers of functions. By contrast, I prefer maximal flexibility as to what can count as a function bearer.

  7. An anonymous referee went as far as to suggest that Searle’s argument is just a version of Cummins’s argument according to which functions are interest-dependent. The source of this interest-dependence is the fact that, in Cummins’s account, the capacity of the containing system may be chosen arbitrarily (for a critique of this view, see Weber 2005). While Searle’s argument may be somewhat similar, it offers an additional challenge, namely the eliminativist thesis that I try to in this paper.

  8. \(\hbox {F}_{1}\) corresponds to Cummins’s analysis, which is also known as “causal role functions”.

  9. \(\hbox {F}_{2}\) roughly corresponds to the account proposed by Bigelow and Pargetter (1987), which is sometimes referred to as “dispositional” or “life chances”-account.

  10. Well-known proponents of this view include Millikan (1989) or Neander (1991).

  11. There is no presumption here that organisms are in some sense “goal-directed systems” (cf. (Sommerhoff 1950; Nagel 1961), an idea that just clouds the issues in my view.

  12. Thanks to Jos Uffink for pointing this out. The problem of functional equivalents arises because functions can normally be performed by a different item or mechanism. In particular Hempel (1959) and Nagel (1961) considered this to be a difficulty that an account of functional explanation must come to terms with. E.g., the thermic insulation function of bird plumage could be performed by hair, or the kidneys’ function can be performed by a dialysis machine. Obviously, when someone is attached to a dialysis machine, his osmoregulation no longer depends on the kidneys, and yet the kidneys still seem to have the function of osmoregulation. I think there are different ways of dealing with this problem (see also Wimsatt 1997) but this problem is beyond the scope of this essay.

  13. It should be noted that there is no consensus as to how grounding is related to the other dependency relations mentioned here. Thus, my listing grounding as an alternative to the other dependency relations may appear like a category mistake to some.

  14. It should be noted that functions are not only used for explanatory purposes, they also play an important role in scientific classification (Griffiths 2006).


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I thank the organizers of the 2015 Munich–Tilburg–Sydney conference on objectivity in science for inviting me. The participants of this conference provided valuable comments. In addition, versions of this paper were presented at the 4th European Advanced Seminar in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences at the KLI in Klosterneuburg, at the Department of Philosophy, University of Fribourg, and at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. Discussions with these audiences are also gratefully acknowledged. Finally, I thank Lorenzo Casini for critically reading the manuscript. Funding was provided by Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung (Grant No. 534 CRSII1_147685/1) and by the John Templeton Foundation (From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics; ID 50191).

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Weber, M. How objective are biological functions?. Synthese 194, 4741–4755 (2017).

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