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Functions and Mechanisms: A Perspectivalist View

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Functions: selection and mechanisms

Part of the book series: Synthese Library ((SYLI,volume 363))

Abstract

Though the mechanical philosophy is traditionally associated with the rejection of teleological description and explanation, the theories of the contemporary physiological sciences, such as neuroscience, are replete with both functional and mechanistic descriptions. I explore the relationship between these two stances, showing how functional description contributes to the search for mechanisms. I discuss three ways that functional descriptions contribute to the explanations and mechanistic theories in contemporary neuroscience: as a way of tersely indicating an etiological explanation, as a way of framing constitutive explanations, and as a way of explaining the item by situating it within higher-level mechanisms. This account of functional description is ineliminably perspectival in the sense that it relies ultimately on decisions by an observer about what matters or is of interest in the system they study.

Thanks to Lindley Darden, Marie Kaiser, Sarah Malanowski, and an anonymous referee for comments on earlier drafts; Pamela Speh for graphic design; and Tamara Casanova, Mindy Danner, and Kimberly Mount for administrative support. This project was finalized during a stay in spring 2011 with the DFG Forschergruppe on Causation and Explanation at the Universität zu Köln.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Westfall describes the world of the mechanical philosophy as a “lifeless field knowing only brute blows of inert chunks of matter” (1973, 31; see also Westfall 1971; Shapin 1996). Historians have suggested that the opposition of mechanism and Aristotelian explanations in terms of forms and final causes oversimplifies the diversity of perspectives one finds in the seventeenth century and beyond (see especially Allen 2005; Des Chene 2005; Osler 2001).

  2. 2.

    See Glennan (2009).

  3. 3.

    Given the hierarchical embedding of mechanisms to be discussed below, functional description is often appropriate both for the behaviors of mechanisms as a whole (either because they have been privileged as such by an observer or because they play a role in a higher-level system that is so privileged) and for the roles of the parts in producing that behavior.

  4. 4.

    They also note that the function of an item is its “job” and that any apparent teleology in the sense of function is “eliminable or reducible without remainder in an evolutionary framework.” For classic adaptational accounts, see Brandon (1990), Millikan (1984), Neander (1991), Ruse (1971), Wimsatt (1972), and Wright (1973). Garson (2008) provides a recent review.

  5. 5.

    Analyses of the concept of function in terms of current ability or propensity to survive and reproduce (e.g., Bigelow and Pargetter 1987; Boorse 1976; Canfield 1964) likewise fail to accommodate many of the perfectly legitimate uses of functional language that can be found in neuroscience.

  6. 6.

    Stephen Toulmin makes this point most beautifully: “There is no clear division of natural processes in the real world, into ‘functions’ on the one hand and ‘mechanisms’ on the other. Rather, we draw a distinction between the functional and mechanistic aspects of any natural process, in one context or another; and whatever can be viewed as a mechanism, form one point of view and in one context, can alternatively be seen as a function, from another point of view or in another context. Indeed, the very organization of organisms—the organization that is sometimes described as though it simply involved a ‘hierarchy’ of progressive larger structures—can be better viewed as involving a ‘ladder’ of progressively more complex systems. All of these systems, whatever their levels of complexity, need to be analyzed and understood in terms of the functions they serve and also of the mechanisms they call into play. And when we shift the focus of our attention from one level of analysis to another—from one fineness of grain to another—even those very processes which began by presenting themselves to us under the guise of ‘mechanisms’ will be transformed into ‘functions’” (Toulmin 1975, 53).

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Craver, C.F. (2013). Functions and Mechanisms: A Perspectivalist View. In: Huneman, P. (eds) Functions: selection and mechanisms. Synthese Library, vol 363. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-5304-4_8

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