Public Lecture: How Objective are Biological Functions

December, 2016

Marcel Weber

Department of Philosophy, University of Geneva

Abstract: This talk tries to clarify some ontological issues concerning biological functions. The guiding question is to what extent functions can be viewed as being mind-independent relations. I examine some standard arguments according to which functions are interest-dependent and show that these arguments simply fail to take into account the relational nature of functions (according to the most common analyses). However, there are other concerns that arise once we ask what kind of relation functional dependency relations are (e.g., the relation between the heart’s capacity to pump blood and the whole organism’s fitness). I argue that much like in causal relations, the truth-makers for functional statements are variegated. I examine various contenders that can play the role of a functional dependency relation, including causality, supervenience, metaphysical grounding, mechanistic constitution and mereology. I argue that each one of these (except supervenience) can be used to characterize a functional dependency relation in some set of cases, but that there is no unified account to be given for the truth-makers of functional relations.