Functional kinds: a skeptical look

Synthese 192 (12):3915-3942 (2015)
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The functionalist approach to kinds has suffered recently due to its association with law-based approaches to induction and explanation. Philosophers of science increasingly view nomological approaches as inappropriate for the special sciences like psychology and biology, which has led to a surge of interest in approaches to natural kinds that are more obviously compatible with mechanistic and model-based methods, especially homeostatic property cluster theory. But can the functionalist approach to kinds be weaned off its dependency on laws? Dan Weiskopf has recently offered a reboot of the functionalist program by replacing its nomological commitments with a model-based approach more closely derived from practice in psychology. Roughly, Weiskopf holds that the natural kinds of psychology will be the functional properties that feature in many empirically successful cognitive models, and that those properties need not be localized to parts of an underlying mechanism. I here skeptically examine the three modeling practices that Weiskopf thinks introduce such non-localizable properties: fictionalization, reification, and functional abstraction. In each case, I argue that recognizing functional properties introduced by these practices as autonomous kinds comes at clear cost to those explanations’ counterfactual explanatory power. At each step, a tempting functionalist response is parochialism: to hold that the false or omitted counterfactuals fall outside the modeler’s explanatory aims, and so should not be counted against functional kinds. I conclude by noting the dangers this attitude poses to scientific disagreement, inviting functionalists to better articulate how the individuation conditions for functional kinds might outstrip the perspective of a single modeler.

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Cameron Buckner
University of Houston


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