What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-Reproducing Systems

What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-Reproducing Systems

What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-Reproducing Systems

What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-Reproducing Systems

Synopsis

This book offers an examination of functional explanation as it is used in biology and the social sciences, and focuses on the kinds of philosophical presuppositions that such explanations carry with them. McLaughlin gives a critical review of the debate on functional explanation in the philosophy of science that has occurred over the past fifty years. He discusses the history of the philosophical question of teleology, and provides a comprehensive review of the postwar literature on functional explanation. The book provides a sophisticated and detailed Aristotelian analysis of our concept of natural functions, and offers a positive contribution to the ongoing debate on the topic.

Excerpt

Function attributions and functional explanations in science deal with nonintentional entities or with intentional entities under abstraction from their intentionality. A functionalist approach to social phenomena, for instance, does not deny that individuals have purposes, motives, and intentions, but it does not appeal to these to explain the individuals' activities. In fact, it may even appeal to functions to explain the existence and nature of particular purposes, motives, and intentions. A functional explanation in biology, say of the bee-hunting behavior of wasps, does not ascribe intentionality to organs and tissue or even to the organism as a whole, but it need not deny this intentionality in order to be a functional explanation. What is relevant is that a functional explanation is independent of any attribution of intentionality. Functional explanation in social science tends to be more easily misunderstood because many social institutions or cultural practices that might have an intelligible functional explanation may also be thought of as having an intentional explanation, and many social institutions were in fact intentionally founded or are now shaped and supported for particular purposes. Let us assume that public executions in a particular society have the function (and the actual effect) of representing power in naked form and thus obviating the necessity of actually exercising that power in numerous instances (which can be expensive and draining). The decision to execute criminals of certain kinds and to do this publicly may be based on insight by the representatives of the regime into this causal connection or it may not; in the first case, we would offer an intentional explanation, in the second we might attempt a functional one.

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