Study/Discussion Questions on Boorse, "Wright on Functions"

Note that Boorse is concerned mainly with what one might call "functional attributions" rather than with functional explanations -- that is, he is concerning with what it is to say that Z is the (or a) function of X.

1. Boorse is discussing views defended by Larry Wright, whom we haven't read (but whose work influences Cohen and Elster). Wright maintains that the correct analysis of "the function of X is Z" is (a) X is there because it does Z and (b) Z is a consequence of X being there. "There" makes implicit reference to being a part of some organism, artifact, or society. So "the function of a giraffe's long neck is to enable it to eat leaves high up in acacia trees" means, according to Wright that (a) the fact that long necks makes giraffes able to eat leaves high up in acacia trees causes them to have long necks and (b) having long necks causes giraffes to be able to eat leaves high up in acacia trees. Are either Cohen or Elster committed to Wright's analysis of functional attributions?

2. Consider Boorse's purported counterexample of the leaking chlorine gas (p. 72). Discuss whether it is really a counterexample and how Wright might modify his account to avoid it.

3. Wright builds an explanatory role for functions into his definition of what a function is. Does Boorse do this too? What, in Boorse's view, is the connection between function and explanation?

4. What, in Boorse's view, is a goal-directed system? Can one speak of functions without reference to some goal-directed system?

5. Boorse denies that a function of obesity is to prevent exercise (p. 75). Why? Is he right to do so? Would Cohen and Elster agree?

6. Boorse clearly wants to deny that a function of noses is to support eye glasses. Why? How can he defend this denial? Would he be prepared to say that noses perform the function of supporting eye glasses?

7. Are societies goal-directed systems? Would Boorse be comfortable with talk about the social functions of artifacts, norms, symbols, and so forth?

8. According to Boorse (p. 80) X is performing the function Z in the G-ing of S at t means that at t X is Z-ing and X's Z-ing make a causal contribution to the goal G of the goal directed system G. What does this mean and how is it related to his analysis of functional attributions of the form "The (or a) function of X is Z"?