Behavioral Traits, the Intentional Stance, and Biological Functions: What Neuroscience Explains
It has been claimed that the intentional stance is necessary to individuate behavioral traits. This thesis, while clearly false, points to two interesting sets of problems concerning biological explanations of behavior: The first is a general problem in the philosophy of science: the theory-ladenness of observation. The second problem concerns the principles of trait individuation, which is a general problem in philosophy of biology. After discussing some alternatives, I show that one way of individuating the behavioral traits of an organism is by a special use of the concept of biological function, as understood in an enriched causal role (not selected effect) sense. On this view, a behavioral trait is essentially a special kind of regularity, namely a regularity that is produced by some regulatory mechanism. Regulatory mechanisms always require goal states, which can only be provided by functional considerations. As an example from actual science, I examine the case of social behavior in nematodes. I show that the attempt to explain this phenomenon neuroscientifically actually transformed it. This supports the view that scientific explanation does not explain an explanandum phenomenon that is given prior to the explanation; rather, the explanandum is changed by the explanation. This means that there could be a plurality of stances that have some heuristic value initially, but which will be abandoned in favor of a functional characterization eventually.
KeywordsNatural Kind Behavioral Trait Intentional State Folk Psychology Behavioral Phenomenon
I wish to thank Daniel Sirtes, Katie Plaisance and Thomas Reydon for helpful comments.
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