Proper Functions are Proximal Functions

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (forthcoming)
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This paper argues that proper functions are proximal functions. In other words, it rejects the notion that there are distal biological functions – strictly speaking, distal functions are not functions at all, but simply beneficial effects normally associated with a trait performing its function. Once we rule out distal functions, two further positions become available: dysfunctions are simply failures of proper function, and pathological conditions are dysfunctions. Although elegant and seemingly intuitive, this simple view has had surprisingly little uptake in the literature. Indeed, our position departs from that of almost every theorist who has engaged with the issue at any depth. We start by presenting three arguments for the position that proper functions are proximal: one from the specificity of functions, one from their relation to intervention, and one from their relation to pathology. We then consider two case studies evidencing the trouble that accepting distal functions causes for philosophical reflection on the nature of pathological conditions. Finally, we anticipate and respond to three objections: that there can be failure of function without dysfunction; that our account is unacceptably revisionary in respect of normal function-talk; and that our thesis over-generalises from a narrow set of cases.

Author Profiles

Harriet Fagerberg
Cambridge University
Justin Garson
Hunter College (CUNY)


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