Category Archives: Metaphysics

What Makes Teleology Immanent?

There are two broad ways to conceive of the metaphysics of teleology. Teleology may be dispositional or it may be axiological. What distinguishes these two kinds of teleology is the source of the teleological relation. If teleology is dispositional, some item i has some end e in virtue of some metaphysical or explanatory relationship between i and e. This is the kind of teleology that philosophers of science such as Hempel, Braithwaite, Wiener, and Wright had in mind.[i] If teleology is axiological, on the other hand, i has e in virtue of some value that e instantiates. Axiological teleology is far more common in the literature, stretching through history from the Ancients to contemporary metaethics, epistemology, et cetera.

For e to be immanent in i, e must be in some way contained in or determined solely by i. That is, i must be autotelic. This means different things for dispositional teleology than it does for axiological teleology, however. Let’s begin with the former. If i has some immanent disposition to realise e, two conditions must obtain: (1) there must be something about i that reliably picks out e, and (2) e explains i. If only (1) obtains, there is no teleology. It is at best efficient or formal causation. Essentially, this means that for any instance of immanent teleology, e makes i reliably pick out e. While this may sound crazy, there is no shortage of accounts that attempt to make this intelligible. The most common is Wright’s account of teleology as causation by consequence, or what he calls consequence etiology. Wright’s (explanatory) schema is as follows:

i is an element of some system s for the sake of e if and only if both s is disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given some normal condition c and s was disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given c in the past.

Both (1) and (2) above have representatives in Wright’s schema. (2) here is self-consciously framed in terms of evolutionary adaptation. This need not be strictly biological, but biological evolution is the core of the account. Insofar as this is the case, however, there is a clear bait and switch. e here is not the end of i (ei) but the end of s (es). ei is not properly explanatory in any adaptation; i may be disposed to realise ei, but ei alone gives no reason for why i should be an element of s. For instance, it might be nice for spiders to have wings so they can fly. But they have no need for flight given the niche they occupy. The ability to fly is not sufficient for explanation. Rather, ei must contribute to es and hence the latter bears the explanatory and metaphysical significance. And this means that i is not autotelic. Rather, e is transcendent of i.[ii] The same pattern occurs for every known account of immanent dispositional teleology and seems to follow immediately from (2).

Axiological immanent teleology faces the same fate, though in a much more interesting way. If e is immanent in i then three conditions must be met: (3) e is valuable with respect to i, (4) i has some duty to obtain the value that e provides because e is valuable for i, and (5) e explains i. (5) here is of course familiar to us as the problematic condition in dispositional teleology, and one might think that it would be problematic here too. But this is not necessarily the case. It is common in the history of philosophy to suggest that existence is more valuable than non-existence. If this is the case, then the value that e provides might be sufficient to explain i, even if the value is value for i alone. I suspect that the ultimate fate of this strategy is no better than that of dispositional teleology, but there is at least a tradition here to give prima facie support. Rather, the fundamental problem arises here from (4). For (4) to obtain, i must in some way give itself a duty to obtain the value that e provides. But objects cannot have duties to themselves.[iii] In a manner similar to Wittgenstein’s private language argument and his comments concerning the standard metre, there is no distinction between the definition of a duty and the performance of it. Objects do not hold themselves accountable or even evaluate themselves in the performance of some duty. They merely act. To insist otherwise is to add some extra element to i that serves as the locus for evaluation. In this case, though, the value no longer belongs to i per se but to this evaluating part. The value of e loses its explanatory power in this way. So either axiological immanent teleology misses out on (4) (and subsequently also (3)) or it misses out on (5). In either case, axiological teleology cannot be immanent.

When we ask what makes teleology immanent, two options present themselves. But when neither can possibly obtain, we are forced to admit that immanent teleology does not obtain. This leaves us with only two options. Either there is no teleology at all or teleology is transcendent. I think that we should lean towards the latter.



[i] In practice, both Wiener and Wright ended up with accounts of axiological teleology despite their attempts to restrict themselves to bare dispositions. In the long run, this probably counts as evidence against a purely dispositional account of teleology. It seems that any moderately successful account of teleology has to import axiological considerations.

[ii] Some philosophers have taken this to be sufficient to be a refutation of inflationary accounts of teleology per se and propose a deflationary account in their place: the teleology we see is an appearance generated by an objects causal role in a system and nothing more. In essence, this is the foundation of the dispute between causal role and selected effect accounts of functions in the philosophy of biology. Both types of accounts are confused about the relevant metaphysics.

[iii] One might suggest the counterexample that people at least sometimes have duties to themselves. This is only possible because people are self-distinct. It is possible that one’s definition of a duty is distinct from the performance of it. That is, people are not metaphysical simples. But this entails transcendence, not immanence.

Is Plato a Platonist?

Plato is obviously best known for the metaphysical view that bears his name. Are we wrong to make this association? What if Plato isn’t actually a Platonist? How could we make this determination? And what affect might this have on our interpretation of the dialogues?

Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I have to mention one small issue. Platonism, specifically capital P Platonism, is a squirrely position. It’s inherently linked to Plato as a character; Platonism is what Plato actually believed. There is a Platonism in metaphysics. There is a Platonism in aesthetics. There is a Platonism in ethics. There is a Platonism in pretty well every philosophical discipline. But in general, we aren’t certain what that might be and if we ask whether Plato is a Platonist in this sense, the answer is trivial. That doesn’t help matters, so we should try a different strategy.

So what’s at stake? Why does it matter whether Plato is a Platonist or not? Of course, most people might think that it wouldn’t. I want to believe that. But I’m afraid that Plato’s own position is importantly central to how we interpret the dialogues and hence understand Plato’s project. If we as readers are supposed to get something out of a given dialogue, we should try to figure out what Plato actually wants to give us, and that thing might differ quite substantially if we begin the dialogue thinking that Plato is committed to Platonism or otherwise.

Consider the Republic. It’s the typical source for Plato’s Platonism. It contains some of the basic arguments and analogies, all in the context of a largely anti-democratic political conversation. Given that Plato wrote this dialogue, we might immediately be justified in thinking that Plato is in fact a Platonist. To hold this view, however, is to be committed to some questionable interpretations of Plato’s life and of the setting and plot of the dialogue itself. Josiah Ober, for instance, claims that Plato cowered away from the difficult life of Socrates and retreated to the Academy to practice philosophy in isolation.[1] He grew and maintained his household alone, free from the fetters of democratic politics. But none of this is strictly true. Plato certainly did spend a large amount of time teaching and discussing philosophy at the Academy, but he also engaged life as a fairly normal Athenian, but for being one known for his wisdom and his justice. He served in several Athenian military expeditions. He chastised his fellow citizens for gambling and for drinking excessively. He sponsored dramas in the public theatres. He defended friends in court, even at the threat of peril. As Diogenes Laertius tells us, when Plato was threatened that “the hemlock of Socrates awaits [him],” he replied: “As I faced dangers when serving in the cause of my country, so I will face them now in the cause of duty for a friend.”[2]

Ober’s interpretation of the Republic‘s setting and plot is likewise mistaken. The dialogue begins with Socrates and Glaucon returning to Athens from the Piraeus before being accosted by a group led by Polemarchus, who demand that they accompany them to a new festival in the Piraeus. Socrates initially resists, but is met with a democratic injunction that he and Glaucon must join them for Polemarchus’s group is larger and hence stronger. Socrates contends that the larger group can be persuaded, but Polemarchus responds that persuasion cannot be effective if he refuses to listen.

So far so good. But from here on, Ober errs quite significantly. He recalls that this was the same difficulty that Socrates faced in the Gorgias. Socrates, despite having the stronger argument, could not convince Callicles to renounce his love of the demos because Gorgias refused to listen. So the Republic was playing on that parallel. Here was Socrates once again threatened by the strength of the many who refused to be persuaded towards justice. On Ober’s accounting, Socrates responds with a kind of treachery. While debating with Thrasymachus, he objects to the latter’s rhetorical style, saying that if he were to proceed with long speeches, they would require dikastai, or jurors, to adjudicate the victor. Instead, Socrates supposes, the victor shall be decided internally. And hence Cephalus’s house becomes a sealed, hermetic society free from the influence of the democratic polis.

This is all wrong. Socrates was not escaping the democratic polis in Cephalus’s house: he was embracing it. Cephalus was a good democrat, an opponent of the Thirty Tyrants, who lived in the Piraeus, a democratic stronghold. If Socrates means to escape the democrats, he has ventured to the wrong place. Socrates has willingly ventured into the lion’s den. For what reason? To improve the democrats, to make them listen. And he did this with democratic ideals in mind. The elenchtic style of Socrates’ questioning is democratic, and so too are the principles that he uses to refute Thrasymachus. Indeed, the sheer act of building a city in speech is democratic.[i] The Republic was not a counter to the democracy but a realisation of its highest ideals. It’s just that to the democrat, this eventuality is ghastly and vile. No good democrat would support Socrates’ city. It is antithetical to democracy itself.

And this is perhaps Plato’s point here: the Republic is not an alternative to the democracy but a reductio of it just as Socrates refuted Callicles in the Gorgias by proposing the kinnaidos as a reductio of his view. This strategy occurs again and again in Plato’s corpus, but we don’t think that Plato really supported the kinnaidos‘s insatiety, so why do we think that Plato supported the polis built on words in the Republic? Indeed, it was Plato’s commitment to the democracy that forced him to improve the minds and the virtues of its democrats by means of writing. After all, Plato was widely published and more widely read by his Athenian counterparts, and one might think that these democrats would scarcely hold such an anti-democratic elitist in such high esteem. Yet they did.

So what does that mean for Plato’s Platonism? Simple: we cannot be sure if Plato’s arguments for his Platonism are made sincerely or ironically. If the Republic really is a reductio, how can we know whether Plato thinks that Platonism isn’t just instrumental in shaping the democratic ideology? One answer could be that Plato elsewhere discusses Platonic metaphysics. But similar reinterpretations can be made in those places as well. We must then recite the common refrain: we simply cannot know what Plato believed. His dialogues actively prevent this. And maybe this was the point all along.



[i] There is a fairly significant tradition in Athenian drama of creating ideal cities. Aristophanes’ Birds is probably the best example of this outside of the Republic. All of the extant examples are quite explicitly founded upon democratic principles, including the Republic.


Works Cited:

[1] Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1998: 214-240

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers III.24.3-5

Function and Continuity

Humans are paragons of evolutionary success having conquered the world that once oppressed us. But why must we still enforce morality in this conquered world? We have left our huts and hunting parties, so why must we still feel indignant and dishonoured in response to the slights of anonymous peers as we shuffle between skyscrapers to our immoral occupations from our bountiful homes? Our lives are different now: why do we need the idols and relics of our old habitats? This is the question that Nicholas Smyth raises. Let us call this the discontinuity objection to moral functionalism. Where moral functionalism seeks to thread together the genealogy of morality with the present state of moral behaviour, Smyth seeks to show why that thread will always eventually fray and break as the conditions that explain both stretch and pull away from one another.

The discontinuity objection gets its force from the complexity of functional explanation, a matter to which few moral functionalists pay serious heed. Smyth begins by articulating what functions are and what they require. His main concern here is the etiology of some functional object. If some object A does x, we know that x is the function of A because of A’s etiology. That is, A exists because it did x reliably in the past and x is an effect that was selected for. Unlike Larry Wright, however, Smyth doesn’t want to say that this is all there is to functions for fear of falling prey to easy objections. Functions also have normative and dispositional dimensions that must be accounted for. Despite this, Smyth asserts a decisively Wrightian claim. “[N]othing,” he says, “has an intrinsic function,” which is to say “a role that it plays irrespective of the properties of [the] larger system of which it is a part.” (Smyth, 1132) Instead, the function of an object rests upon conditions extrinsic to the object itself. These Smyth calls enabling conditions.

A chair has a function depending upon the enabling conditions that are met in its environment. In normal conditions, a chair functions to support people’s bottoms. A broken chair, however, loses this function because it cannot perform it. This difference between the normal and broken chair represents a lack of continuity: the enabling conditions present in the case of the normal chair aren’t present for the broken chair. Were I to stack books on a chair, it would likewise lose its function not because it cannot support people’s bottoms any longer but because the system of which the chair is a part no longer demands that it support bottoms. Instead, it demands that the chair support books, becoming a rather ineffective and awkward bookshelf. This too is a loss of continuity. Of course, we ordinarily reject this kind of thought. A chair is a chair. If it is used to hold books, this is a deviation from its function. But if the chair has no intrinsic function, the function literally does change as its use changes. Non-intrinsic functions concern what objects do, and not what they are. Hence any etiology need only concern some explanation of what objects do. And if any such explanation can be given for some difference in action, continuity fails to obtain.

To his credit, Smyth seems to recognise how radical and implausible this view might seem and attempts to walk it back: “failure of continuity does not entail the loss of a function, but it does decisively weaken . . . the functional-genealogical inference.” (Smyth, 1134) This is a fine line to walk. Functions are individuated by their etiology, which typically takes the form of a functional-genealogical inference. So what Smyth is arguing here isn’t that the chair has lost its function when it is used to hold a stack of books. He is arguing only that we can’t know that a chair holding a stack of books is actually for supporting bottoms. For the orthodox philosophers of science for whom what is can be reduced to what can be known or explained, this is a distinction without a difference. The interruption of the functional-genealogical inference just is the loss of the function. But let us be kind to Smyth here, for there is a much greater problem to which we must attend: the possibility of functional plurality.

We typically think that chairs have only one function. They are functionally unitary. Chairs may be able to hold stacks of books or allow us to stand upon them to reach high shelves, but these capacities are accidental to the chair’s singular function of supporting people’s bottoms. In the natural world, however, functional unity is the exception, not the rule. The parts of living things are complicated and interrelated. Consider Smyth’s own example of polar bear fur. Suppose a population of polar bears were relocated to the Amazon rain forest. In the rain forest, their white fur clearly can’t serve as camouflage. Yet suppose also that this population of polar bears retains its white fur for a hundred generations. By that time, we need some other explanation for the bears’ fur colour than that it’s camouflage. Smyth’s point here is that after a hundred generations, the camouflage function of the polar bears’ fur cannot reasonably explain its persistence. Instead, their fur has gained some other function that does reasonably explain its persistence in the much darker and greener environment. If polar bears’ fur has only this one function, Smyth’s analysis is correct. But it does not and cannot have only one function. Biological traits are elements of complex biological systems and therefore interact with any number of other elements. In each interaction, a trait will have a unique function determined by an independently successful etiology at the level of development, gene transcription, or what have you.

So the polar bear may lose out on one enabling condition, the white snow of the Arctic, but there remain uncountably many other enabling conditions that explain the persistence of the polar bears’ white fur. As such, while the fur may no longer be able to express one function, there is no explanatory gap that arises necessarily from that loss. This remains especially true in the case of human morality. Human societies may be large and wealthy today, but humans still persist within relatively small social circles and compete amongst each other for finite resources. And in this we must remember that morality evolved in the context of competition for status in addition to and much more than mere resources. So we have lost some fairly central enabling conditions for morality, but we retain even more fundamental enabling conditions. And this is not even to mention whatever genetic or developmental processes morality might impact at the cellular or system levels. Smyth’s discontinuity objection is therefore not sufficiently sensitive to address moral functionalism. At best, he can say that some of the many functions of human morality remain unexpressed in modern human societies. This is a fairly uncontroversial opinion.

We should not, however, merely dismiss Smyth’s contribution in this way. The discontinuity objection at its introduction looks like an impressive coup de grace of moral functionalism. And in truth, it is an incredibly powerful objection to the accounts of most moral functionalists. Smyth has merely mistaken what it is about functions that typically grants them their explanatory force. That thing is narrativity. The structure, use, and validity of narrative explanation are serially underexplored in the philosophy of science, but it is nearly ubiquitous when it comes to ascriptions of functions. And it is this that is problematic.

When we describe the etiology of a given function, we do so by telling a story. In the case of the polar bear, the brown bear migrated north and discovered seals and other fairly nimble swimming prey. Catching these animals was difficult, and many bears failed to find sufficient food. This halted brown bear migration into the north. However, at some point, some bears began to display a white colouration. This colouration allowed the bears to escape the notice of the seals, and hence they were more proficient at catching them. This success allowed bears to survive and reproduce in the Arctic, and hence we have polar bears as they exist today. In this story, the bears’ white fur becomes a character distinct from the bears themselves. And more than that, it becomes the hero that swoops in to save the day for the starving brown bears. But in this narrative, the details surrounding the hero are obscured. Where does it come from? How does it have this power? Who really is White Fur?

And here we have a jump cut. The bears are introduced to the Amazon, accompanied by our hero. But the change in perspective reveals something to us. White Fur had no power of its own. It has the power of camouflage only in the presence of the ice and snow of the Arctic. Without that ice and snow, we might then expect the demise of White Fur. But no: after a hundred generations, our hero remains. But Nature writes nothing badly. For White Fur to remain relevant in the story, it must have discovered some other power, one better suited to the demands of the Amazon. That is, the function of the bears’ white fur has changed.

As an objection to typical accounts of moral functionalism, discontinuity of this sort is powerful. The weaknesses of the hero in our own story, Morality, have been shown to us by our own jump cut. The narrative must change, and in so doing, the function must change with it or perish. This is an eventuality that standard accounts of moral functionalism simply can’t admit. But beyond this, we are made aware of the deficits of narrative as a form of explanation. Details are forgotten because nature isn’t linear. We don’t really know where Morality came from. We only know that it one day swooped in and saved the day. But Morality has a source, a body that we can examine for its strengths and weaknesses. It has friends and family. It has enemies and obstacles. It has fears and curiosities. But an itemised list of all of these is irrelevant for the sort of narrative employed by those who seek to vindicate Morality as the hero of our story. And all of this comes from this singular commitment: that Nature writes nothing badly. But in truth, Nature neither writes anything well. Nature does not write. But this means nothing about the functions of traits. It means only that our justifications for these functions are in need of revision. This is the importance of the discontinuity objection. If we are to maintain moral functionalism, or any sort of functionalism, the etiologies to which we appeal must attend to the minutia, to the gritty details that situate a trait within its multifaceted biological systems.


Works Cited

Smyth, Nicholas. “The Function of Morality.” Philosophical Studies 174(5), 2017, pp. 1127-1144

Recent Entries »