The Importance of Significance for Artifactual and Natural Functions

Peter McLaughlin provides separate formulations of what qualifies an artifact as having a function and what qualifies something naturally occurring as having a function. Most arguments over functional explanation seem to center around the functions of naturally occurring entities, although the apparent necessity of separate definitions for natural and artificial entities possessing functions is not without controversy. The problem with the split between natural and artifactual functions is usually located at the split, but I think there is also a major difficulty when the two come together.

McLaughlin’s basic summation of natural functions is this:

(1)    X does/enables Y (in or for some S)*
(2)    Y is good for some S; and
(3)    By being good for some S, Y contributes to the (re)production of X (there is a feedback mechanism involving Y’s benefiting S that (re-)produces X). (2001, p. 140)

And for artifactual functions, he provides the following schematization:

(1’) X does Y—or at leas some relevant agent believes it does.
(2’) Y is good for some S—or at least some relevant agent believes it is. (ibid)

Now, to muddy the waters a little bit. It would seem that natural entities and artifacts might be divided along lines of living and non-living things. This is not the natural entities that are living ones, but is to say that “artifact” seems to intuitively include only non-living things. After all, living things cannot be made into artifacts, right? More than that, natural things cannot be artifacts, right?

This being philosophy, the line is not nearly so clear. What about domesticated animals? On the other end, in the non-living but nonetheless natural range, what about the Milky Way Galaxy? There seems to be a large enough class of things that blur natural/artifactual distinctions that there might be a confusing proliferation of function ascriptions, not to mention difficulties in classification.

Let’s look at one of my two examples that blurs the artifactual/natural distinction, the one that is more extreme: the Milky Way Galaxy. How, you might be wondering, might the Milky Way be an artifact? Under the guidelines for artifactual function ascriptions, the Milky Way (and the rest of the Universe, for that matter) might be said to (1) provide a substrate for life and (2) that providing a home for life is good for humans. In fact, this is much of the fine-tuning argument in a nutshell. One immediate problem with this ascription of function is the insignificance of providing a home for life (at least to the best of our knowledge) to the existence of the universe. It is an explanation incredibly small in scope– to say that a function of a galaxy is to provide a home for life is similar to declaring that a function of mine was to touch a particular token at an arcade in 2004. It is to pick out a physically and temporally small occurrence in the history of an entity and hold it to be a function.

Another problem is that one can also cast a functional explanation for the Milky Way as a natural entity. (1) The Milky Way Galaxy fuses particles together in such a way that solid matter exists. (2) Solid matter is essential to maintain the shape and makeup of the Milky Way. (3) The more solid matter there is in the galaxy, the more of the galaxy there is, and without solid matter there would be no Milky Way. This certainly seems to be a more significant function of the Galaxy than providing a home for life, not to mention that solid matter seems to be more important to the actual continued existence of the Milky Way as such than the existence of life in some corner of the Galaxy. Except in a linguistic sense (without language, the Milky Way Galaxy would lose its name), there is not much that the continued existence of life does that maintains the existence of the Galaxy.

Before function ascriptions can be made for natural entities and artifacts, perhaps there first needs to be an additional guideline on how to decide which function ascription to employ. This could take the form of a significance criterion, similar to that described in Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science (1993). There, Kitcher asserts that a goal of science is not simply truth, but significant truth. There are all sorts of trivial truths that are easy to arrive at, but science is after those that are significant. Similarly, to ask for an explanation of an entity’s function one is looking for the most significant of the range of explanations. While life is important to some features of the Milky Way, solid matter is much more so. Focusing on a natural function of the Milky Way explains more– it helps explain more of how the Milky Way exists at all– while an artifactual function ascription explains the Milky Way from a very unrepresentative biocentric perspective. This is not to say that the artifactual function of the Galaxy provides no information, but the natural functions of the galaxy are much more significant and provide explanations with greater depth.


July 22, 2009 at 11:50 am 3 comments

Functional Explanation, Science, and Religion

I am pressing ahead with Peter McLaughlin’s What Functions Explain. Although I have more reading to do– and McLaughlin is judicious in his pacing, frustratingly raising interesting questions and promising to engage them in later chapters so as to continue on a single subject– his discussion of the etiological approach to functional explanation raised some interesting thoughts having to do with a contrast between certain practices in science and religion.

Let me go over that territory again before linking functional explanation to science and religion. Exactly what entails a functional explanation– or an explanation of some entities function– is difficult philosophical territory. In contemporary philosophy, there are two main competing schools on what a function should consist of, originating with Thomas Nagel and C.G. Hempel. The etiological approach to functional explanation relies on including a causal aspect in the explanation. Instead of a nomological statement or two– along the lines of:

The function of an item X in a system S is to do Y, which under some condition C (including internal state Ci and environmental context Ce) is required for, or is at least conducive to, goal G. (McLaughlin, 2001, 68)

The Hempelian variation on this theme is broken into three parts by McLaughlin, namely disposition, welfare, and feedback. Disposition is the tendency of something– an organ, artifact, organism, or other entity– to do something under some condition (as above). The welfare condition is that that something tends to promote a goal of that entity. Finally, the feedback loop is the etiological (causal) characteristic of the explanation. It relates to how the entity has come to perform its function and how the performance of that function is vital to the continued existence and performance of that entity. In other words, it isn’t enough for a functional explanation to feature a means and an ends: it must also feature how the performing entity came to be a function bearer, and continues to exist as such. It must be part of the function of a thing to put it in place to perform its function in the first place, instead of its coming to perform its function by accident.

Naturally, this account raises all sorts of problems. I will take McLaughlin at his word, though, and continue on in his text before I take the plunge into that discussion. For now, I’m going to ignore some of the problems with the etiological account of functional explanation and go forward with how such explanation is illuminating for a description of science and religion. At least some of the time– when there aren’t issues with the vagueness surrounding the term “function”– I think scientific explanation makes use of this kind of explanation. In particular, the issues scientific explanation would have with function seem more oriented towards the dispositional and valuational characteristics of functions and not the etiological aspect. The opposite seems true of religion.

One of the issues, of course, is that of teleology and its attendant baggage of intentionality. The more interesting issue is that of the causal feedback loop. The issues scientists have with teleology and its gestures towards an unknown agency are fairly well-known, and so I will leave them to other authors or separate posts. What caught my interest today are the different demands of science and religion on functional explanation. Science seems to demand an etiological component, and religion does not. This is because of the two different approaches science and religion have towards causation. Religion, (if the definition includes some content regarding the supernatural) is not merely permissive of interrupted causation in the natural world– it is demanding of it. Science, on the other hand, stresses a uniformity of causation in the universe.

The significance of this is that causal feedback loops may be an essential ingredient of an adequate scientific explanation, while they create a source of tension with some religious explanation. A causal feedback loop provides closure in an explanation– the heart is frequently used as a classic illustration of this. The function of the heart is to pump blood, which certainly contributes to the welfare of the organism that contains the heart. As long as the heart continues to pump blood, the organism will continue to live and cause the heart to pump blood. Short of some interruption in the system, the heart will continue to function. The heart was developed particularly to do this, in that sort of system, and will continue to do so unless interrupted or replaced.

If one insists on a more intentional world (at the extremes, this consists of belief in special creation), this explanation might seem incomplete or unsatisfactory. “Why,” such a person might ask, “did the heart come into existence at all?” This question is intended not to probe the intricacies of the causal reinforcement loop– the reply, “it developed to pump blood” is really only a restatement of the information contained above, and it is not the sort of answer the questioner is after, anyway. This is because such a question is intended to step beyond the causal loop, and beyond the uniform sort of causation contained within. Doing so does away with the need for the etiological condition, reducing functional explanation to the dispositional and the valuational while providing an overlaying agency to the world. Now, the explanation for the function of the heart is this: The function of the heart is to pump blood, which certainly contributes to the welfare of the organism containing the heart. The heart came into being with organisms that required them to, themselves, function. It is not difficult to imagine this line of thought terminating in something akin to Aquinas’ arguments, a sort of regress that ends in the divine. This is a familiar sight in philosophy– if unsatisfied with a loop, the other choice is a regress. What had not occured to me before is how scientific explanation tends to be comfortable with the one, and religious explanation the other.

July 17, 2009 at 12:16 am 3 comments

Updated Reading List: 7-9-09

Since my last posting of my proposed reading list, I’ve received a ton of suggestions. So many that, at the rate that I also discover new and interesting books, I probably won’t get to them all by the end of the summer. Currently high on the list are Yukio Mishma’s short story collection Death in Midsummer and John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding. As early modern philosophy is a huge weakness of mine, I figured now was a good time to shore it up with some good, old-fashioned British empiricism. Also, I’ve been meaning to read his views on substance and qualities since I took “Philosophy and the Environment” at Edinburgh last year. Because that University had an understandably old-school approach to philosophy amongst its undergraduates, all of the students in the class that WEREN’T exchange students seemed to follow such Lockean discussion while I barely held on.

Of course, I still need to finish Orientalism and What Functions Explain. Reading some of Kitcher’s essays would also probably be time well spent. And I picked up an essay collection on Locke, hoping that it would offer more clarification than confusion. In the land of fiction, I found Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow on the side of the road, so that might bump up after I finish Mishma’s stories. I also would like to read Snowcrash, The Brothers Karamazov, and all of your recommendations. We’ll see how I fit that into my schedule that involves my heavily resembling a french fry for about 8 hours a day. Awesome.

July 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Review: Kenzaburo Ōe, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!

Rouse Up… is ostensibly about a famous author father, K, and his relationship with his son, nicknamed Eeyore. The book, like many of his, is semi-autobiographical, based on Ōe’s own life experience with his disabled son. I say “ostensibly” because it is not really about Eeyore at all. Told in the first person by K, the story is primarily about the narrator. Other characters come in and out of his life and thoughts like planets with elliptical orbits. Eeyore is the most prominent of these satellites, and the one that leads to the most reflection, but the story is not about him. The most that can be said of Eeyore is that his inscrutability, caused by his personality and amplified by his disability, leads K to meander in his own thoughts, trying to decipher ways to explain life, death, and imagination to Eeyore while at once attempting to discover if Eeyore already understands them. For almost all such concepts, it is revealed at climactic moments that Eeyore does understand those topics that K thinks most valuable, but has done so organically, largely independently of K’s own parental and literary artifice. The benificary of such work, of course, is K himself.

This is not to say that Rouse Up…  consists solely of unself-conscious projection: Ōe has a deft touch as to the timing of K’s revelations, in terms of K’s criticism of himself, his parenting, and his place in society. Sometimes these moments occur, as I said, in tandem with an event or phrase of Eeyore’s, sometimes within frequent meditations of the work of William Blake and its applicability to K’s own life, and sometimes on one of many tangents and switchbacks into K’s life and travels. The last device, whose use sometimes makes it difficult to follow exactly how events in the main plot are unfolding, is what makes Ōe fit with Kawabata and Mishma. Rather than plowing through events involving K, Eeyore, and their family in a strict, chronological narrative, K is led to describe episodes from his childhood, education, and professional life. Early on in Rouse Up… this is done under the pretext of explaining K’s view towards life or death so as to find some way to explain them to Eeyore, but as the narrative goes on the episodes are introduced more and more as personal reflections performed for personal moments. One theme in the story is the frequent criticisms levelled at K that he hides behind Eeyore in order to never change, progress, or take a stand on modern issues. Ōe answers these charges, (which, given their prevalence in the story, have likely been leveled against him), by allowing his narrator to mature in front of our eyes.

July 9, 2009 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment

Review: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

I’ve been putting off writing this review, even though I finished reading Ficciones a few days ago. Every time I think of how I want to write about Borges’ stories, a different tactic comes to mind. This is similar to the actual reading of his stories, which caused regular revisions in my understanding of what it was, exactly, that Borges was writing about.

Borges best trick is that he has masterful control of the rate at which he introduces curiosities. It is as though he knew how long a reader would sit and attempt to puzzle over a phrase, paragraph, or theme before continuing to read, at which point another curiosity quickly emerges from the text. Despite the complexity of his stories (and their initially perplexing nature), Borges knows how to totalize a story so that it stays in one’s mind as one continues to the next. The more of his stories I had in mind as I was reading another, the more subtle connections the individual ficciones shared.

It is not as though most short story collections I have read did not have some connection between stories: most authors like to have a similar toolbox of style, voice, and theme that they go through in the time it takes to put such a collection together. If the collection has an editor other than the original author, they might be selected for variety, or to correspond with some development in the author’s work. Borges, though, seems incredibly self-conscious for an author who rarely lets loose an emotional adjective. On my reading, the artifice of Borges comes through most clearly in terms of pacing, but there is much more than that in the Ficciones.

One of Borges’ favorite themes is time and eternity, and another favorite is the nature of fiction and imaginary worlds. These themes come together not just in what Borges writes about, but also in how he writes. Both themes come together especially well in my favorite of the Ficciones, “The Babylon Lottery”. The story details the development of a lottery system that is recognizable at first, then incredible and monstrous, through its metamorphosis into an entity at once understandable and mysterious. The lottery begins as just that, a drawing of lots, with a prize for some. Soon though, penalties are introduced for those with shorter lots. Once the lottery is simultaneously rewarding and punitive, it begins absorbing other societal institutions. Eventually, society is fully dictated by the lottery, with fortunes rising to dizzying heights one month and being wiped away the next, all thanks to the workings of the Company that delivers the results of the lottery. And all at once, the lottery is a constructed incarnation of fate.

Once that moment arrives, that revelation, the lottery and the Company pass from the artificial to the natural and eternal. It’s all somewhat Nietzchean, the way in which the artificial becomes timeless. The separation from Nietzsche, however, is in the pacing, in the statement, in the act of revelation. Borges shows how it could be that the lottery, with its results carried out by humans, becomes fate, with no obviously human agency involved. By the time “The Babylon Lottery” finishes, the Company has passed into legend and nobody draws their own lots, or knows when, where, or by whom they are drawn. Except for its’ human origins, by then lost into mythology and legend, the lottery is indistinguishable from fate. “The Babylon Lottery” is not the only story in the Ficciones to meditate on the limited understanding of time we as humans have, but it is the finest. It is also one of the best I have ever read.

June 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Reading List Update- Time for Borges and Ōe

With Gregg’s The Middle East done, it’s time to swerve back into fiction. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones is next in line. Borges is an Argentinian author famous for all sorts of things, but I’m looking forward to being puzzled by his short stories and style. After that, I have Kenzaburo Ōe’s semi-autobiographical Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! out on loan from the library.

I also found an interesting suggestion for a reading list on the A.V. Club, from an interview where Harold Bloom discusses Cormic McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Apparently Bloom used to teach a class in which he taught, succesively, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (should I be ashamed that I’ve never heard of it?), Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and then Blood Meridian. I might do the list backwards, or just the last two… if you’ve read one, some, or all of these, what do you think?

June 18, 2009 at 8:46 pm Leave a comment

Review: Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology

Gregg’s book is divided into two parts, the first containing three chapters on the social ecology of the Middle East/North African (MENA) cultural area, and the second on periods of psychological development people experience within it. I picked up the book hoping to expand my background on middle eastern peoples and cultures; because of the focus of the pilot study I helped design and analyze last year, most of my knowledge is centered on Pakistan. I was hoping to expand my limited knowledge to the areas which Gregg describes, geographically stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.

For this, the book did exactly what a sprawling survey should do: it complicated everything. Gregg opens the book with a chapter titled Misunderstandings, which was a good introduction to the subject. His writing is cautious and lucid, and Misunderstandings sets the tone for the rest of the book. Gregg is in the business of psychology, not the creation of national or regional sterotypes. He is thusly very open that The Middle East can only cover so much. Unfortunately for my purposes, he eventually has little to say about education, and only slightly more to say about Islam. Most of the influences on psychological development that Gregg describes are social, and he only has so much space in which to describe them. He also had to pick and choose which topics to describe in depth. It seems as though Gregg is perfectly comfortable going on at length regarding particular debates over the effects of certain practices on development, but the book has a lot of ground to cover in 378 pages. The stand-out parts of many chapters were the “debate” sections near the end, in which Gregg built on the framework laid in the first section (the social ecology section) and earlier chapters to discuss a topic in depth. For example, the Early Childhood section featured the most extended and complex discussion of the developmental effects and societal role of male circumcision and female genital cutting (FGC) that I have yet read. Of course, FGC is only practiced by some groups (mainly concentrated in Northern Africa more than the Middle East, but tightening the cultural area under discussion is the price of increased depth.

In the later chapters, Gregg begins to focus on some more concrete details of identity formation. There was also more explicit discussion of the impact of modernity (read: Western influence) and feelings towards tradition, as there is growing awareness of both in later development. A frequent theme in the last four chapters of the book is Gregg’s intuition that (slightly) more accesible education creates perceptions and expectations for success that are not, unfortunately, in line with the opportunities in underedeveloped nations. The impact of this mismatch between expectations and opportunity has not been well explored, and is likely of increasing importance to the psychological development of many in the MENA region.

This book was very helpful to me, and I hope to make use of Gregg’s copious endnotes and citations for further exploration. A great deal will have to wait, because I shouldn’t go back to research yet– but to help shore up my grounding on MENA cultures I don’t think I could have found a better book. Now, if only someone could write something centered around youth and adult development, with an in-depth discussion of the impact of Islam… maybe my own future research could make a contribution to the text.

June 18, 2009 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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