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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Teleological functionalism: normativity, explanation, and the philosohy of mind McIntosh, Jillian Scott


The purpose of this dissertation is to advance our understanding of the intentionality and causal efficacy of mental states. More specifically, the dissertation is intended to help justify an appeal to teleological functions in the philosophy of mind. I start by examining the disjunction problem as encountered by causal/ information-theoretic accounts of intentionality. Such accounts individuate the content of mental states on the basis of their cause or the information they carry. As a result, they require a principled method of ruling out those cases in which a state is tokened in the "wrong" circumstances. Without such a method, a state's content could be massively disjunctive and error would be impossible. The dissertation then considers one type of purported solution, viz., teleological functionalism. The basic idea is that an analogy between malfunction and misrepresentation will help solve the disjunction problem by invoking a suitably naturalised notion of normativity. A state's content need not be what caused it but, rather, what should have caused it. I argue that there are two legitimate ways of understanding teleological function in this context. Selectionist theories— the current favourites— attribute functions on the basis of selection history; a thing's function is that effect or behaviour for which it has been selected. In contrast, systems-theoretic accounts attribute function on the basis of an analysis of components with regard to the workings of a whole; a thing's function is that effect or behaviour which contributes to the performance of the whole, of which that thing is a part. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that neither notion of function meets all the desiderata one might reasonably expect need to be met. This is explicable— the different notions are suited to two different, though related, explanatory projects. I argue that selectionist construals of teleological function are appropriate when, roughly, the project is that of explaining why extant features are present in the distribution and form that they are. In contrast, systems-theoretic construals of teleological function are appropriate when, roughly, the project is that of explaining how these features work. Furthermore, I argue that, from the perspective of a causal/ information-theoretic account, the normativity that is required for the project of individuating the content of mental states cannot derive solely from history. Knowing what served one's ancestors is not sufficient for knowing what one is doing now, let alone what one should be doing now. A systems-theoretic (and more specifically, a structural) teleological functional approach to the problem of intentionality, because it is importantly ahistorical, has the merit of incorporating normative considerations into the philosophy of mind without rendering the causal efficacy of intentional states unnecessarily mysterious. It also has the merit of allowing for those attributions of teleological function in biology that would not be overturned by new evolutionary information regarding selection history. Adherence solely to an etiological construal of teleological function is too restrictive in both domains. The dissertation ends with a defence of the structural approach against the charge that it is too liberal in attributing functions.

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