A Plea for the Plurality of Function

Review of Contemporary Philosophy 15:70-81 (2016)
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In this paper I defend a pluralistic approach in understanding function, both in biological and other contexts. Talks about function are ubiquitous and crucial in biology, and it might be the key to bridge the “manifest image” and the “scientific image” identified by Sellars (1962). However, analysis of function has proven to be extremely difficult. The major puzzle is to make sense of “time-reversed causality”: how can property P be the cause of its realizer R? For example, “pumping blood” is a property of hearts, but a property of hearts cannot be the cause of the presence of hearts, since properties cannot predate their realizers and be causes of them. In section 2 I discuss Wright’s etiological analysis, Cummins’ causal-role analysis, and their critics. In section 3 I defend a version of the “consensus without unity” strategy proposed by Godfrey-Smith from Christopher Boorse’s recent critique (2002). In Section 4 I conclude by reflecting on the relation between functional discourses and physicalism.

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Tony Cheng
City University of New York


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