How objective are biological functions?

Synthese 194 (12):4741-4755 (2017)
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Abstract
John Searle has argued that functions owe their existence to the value that we put into life and survival. In this paper, I will provide a critique of Searle’s argument concerning the ontology of functions. I rely on a standard analysis of functional predicates as relating not only a biological entity, an activity that constitutes the function of this entity and a type of system but also a goal state. A functional attribution without specification of such a goal state has no truth-value. But if completed with a goal state, functional attributions understood as four-place relations attain a truth-value. The truth conditions of all attributions of function involve a dependence claim of the goal state on the function bearer’s activity. The nature of this dependence may differ; I consider five different possibilities: causality, mechanistic constitution, mereology, supervenience and metaphysical grounding. If these dependency relations are objective, Searle’s central ontological thesis fails. What he ought to have said is that our valuing survival or other goal states may be the reason why biology seeks functional knowledge, but this has nothing to do with ontology. I will show further that Searle also raised an interesting challenge concerning the relationship of functional and causal truths, but it does not threaten the objectivity of functions either. At best, it could show that functional vocabulary is eliminable. However, I will show that functional vocabulary is not so eliminable.
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First archival date: 2017-06-27
Latest version: 4 (2017-06-29)
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References found in this work BETA
On What Grounds What.Schaffer, Jonathan
Functional Analysis.Cummins, Robert
In Defense of Proper Functions.Millikan, Ruth Garrett

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