Functional Analysis and the Meaning of Life

I hope in this paper to clarify, and partially resolve, the conflict between science and religion. The claims over which scientific and various religious worldviews can conflict can be usefully divided into two sorts. Claims of the first sort involve claims of ontology. To the ontology of science (which forms at least part of what we might call the ‘scientific worldview’), religions often add the existence of entities such as gods, angels, demons, souls, heaven and hell, or other abodes for the afterlife. In addition, religions sometimes subtract select bits of scientific ontology that are perceived as conflicting with religious orthodoxy. Commitment to the scientific worldview seems to involve at least provisional commitment to the ontology of at least the well-confirmed theories of science (although some scientists and philosophers would exclude, in a principled way, certain portions of that ontology deemed to be particularly problematic). Commitment to the scientific worldview, in and of itself, needn’t involve the rejection of any religious ontology unless it conflicts with the scientific one (for example, if it denies the existence of the first 13 billion years of the universe, or the bacteria killed by penicillin when it cures disease). Scientific naturalism goes beyond mere commitment to the scientific worldview by rejecting any supernatural additions to it, regardless of whether those additions conflict.

The second sort of conflict involves matters of value and purpose. The chief issue here is that there appears to be no room in the natural world, as revealed by science, for such esoteric items as ethical facts, purposes, the meaning of life, and so on. Matter and energy interact in accordance with the laws of nature as a matter of physical necessity rather than to fulfill some cosmic end. Hence religious claims about the real existence of values and purposes seem at the very least to be unsupported by science. Unless this is a mistake and value or purpose facts really are somehow implicit in the scientific worldview itself (i.e. unless these facts can be naturalized), such facts must either be non-natural or nonexistent.

The partial resolution I hope to effect here is to be achieved by defending an account that analyzes moral value and purpose in terms of functions, while remaining neutral between naturalized and religious positions on values and purposes. The clarification will result once the issue of moral value and purpose is out of the way, and we see that all true conflict between science and religion is ontological.

However, despite the frequent apparent conflicts between religious and naturalistic accounts of moral value and purpose, I intend to avoid certain of the more popular methods of achieving reconciliation. First, I have no intention of denying that these apparent conflicts are real, for instance by following Stephen Jay Gould in asserting that science and religion belong to ‘non-overlapping magisteria’.1 Second, I also have no intention of embracing moral relativism, at least if by that term one means that moral propositions only have truth values relative to personal or cultural attitudes and/or conceptual schemes. Third, I will not be denying the reality of moral values. Fourth, although I will therefore be asserting that there are multiple, incompatible, real moral values, I intend to resist the idea that all but the most important of these values are merely prima facie values, while only the most important are values ‘all things considered’. Fifth, I will offer an account of moral values according to which these mutually inconsistent and equally real values can nevertheless be said to be differently ranked in importance. Sixth, I have no intention to accomplish any reconciliation at the expense of abandoning even one iota of the scientific worldview.

1 A Very Brief History of Functions, Values, and Purposes

The strategy of appealing to the concept of a function in order to get a handle on values and purposes has a long philosophical history. In what follows, I don’t hope to do that history justice. My intention is simply to map the broadest of outlines of what has traditionally seemed an intuitively promising way to bridge the gap between (non-value) facts and values. For, if something has a function, it seems natural to claim that fulfillment of the function is its purpose, and that it is good to the extent that it fulfills that function, satisfying its purpose. For economy of reference, I propose to call this the Function-Value Schema.

Function-Value Schema
If F-ing is a function of x, then F-ing is a purpose of x, and x is good to the extent that x Fs.

Perhaps most intuitive in the case of artifacts (i.e. a good knife is one that cuts effectively, and has the purpose of cutting), when applied to humans or human behavior, the Function-Value Schema yields an account of moral value. A good person is a person who fulfills her function. A good action is one that contributes to the proper functioning of the actor. All we need then is an account of proper human functioning.

Unfortunately, accounts of proper human functioning are plentiful and adjudicating between them is notoriously problematic. Aristotle, for example, argued that the end of humanity is happiness, since all things that humans do they do ultimately to obtain happiness. Furthermore, human happiness is to be achieved by behaving rationally, since it is reason that alone is supposedly unique to human beings. Thus, a properly functioning human is one whose behavior contributes to his or her capacity to behave rationally, which is to say moderately, in a manner consistent with the Golden Mean.2

On the other hand, while agreeing with Aristotle that happiness is the end of humanity, Aquinas claimed that true happiness could only be obtained through union with God, so that a properly functioning human is one who above all obeys the divine law so as to achieve this union.3 Furthermore, this divine law is imposed upon us because we were created by God, and are thus his artifacts. So just as with any other relation between artificer and artifice, our purposes are the purposes God had in creating us.4

More recently, as the process of natural selection has assumed (at least) the (biological) creative duties once assigned to God, it has seemed to many a reasonable extension of the Function-Value Schema to determine the functions of human behavior, and thus human purposes and values, by an appeal to natural selection. Of course, many philosophers who have tried to apply the lessons of Darwin to ethics have been non-cognitivists or moral skeptics, because they argue that moral assertions and beliefs can be adaptive even though their apparent objectivity is illusory.5 However, others have argued that natural selection implies the real existence of moral values. For example, William Harms has built a straightforward naturalized ethical theory upon Ruth Garrett Millikan’s biological account of proper function and corresponding teleosemantic theory of meaning. Roughly speaking, Millikan claims that the function of a biological system is whatever it does that historically lead to its replication. Beliefs, and the linguistic assertions that express them, historically have adaptive value primarily when they are true, so truth is their function.6 Harms argues that it follows from this that if moral assertions are adaptive, they are also fulfilling the proper function of assertions, and hence are true in just the same way that accurate descriptive assertions are.7

2 Functions and Functional Analysis

Unfortunately, all of the previously discussed applications of the Function-Value Schema suffer from a misconception concerning the nature of functions. Each of these accounts defines ‘function’ in such a way that a behavioral disposition will count as a function just in case that disposition tends to contribute to the production and/or maintenance of a particular complex capacity or state of affairs. For Aristotle, the properly functioning human is rational, and hence virtuous, because rational and virtuous activity significantly contributes to the maintenance of a state of happiness. For Aquinas, the properly functioning human is one who obeys the divine law because this will contribute to the satisfaction of God’s divine intentions. Evolutionary accounts count a disposition as a function only if it tends to enhance biological fitness.

The problem is that, defined in this way, functions cannot play their proper role in scientific explanation. Scientists (and others) use the term ‘function’ when they want to explain the behavior of some complex system by analyzing that behavior into the less-complex dispositions of its component parts. If asserting that these parts have a certain function in the system simply entails that the system has the behavior to be analyzed, such functional analyses will be vacuous.

Consider first a non-moral example. Suppose that a physiologist wants to explain the operation of the circulatory system. When faced with such complex systems, scientists often turn to what Robert Cummins calls ‘functional analysis’.8 The complex disposition of the body to circulate the blood is broken down into several sub-dispositions. Lungs exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, stomach and intestines pass on nutrients, blood vessels and arteries contain the blood as it passes through the body, and hearts pump. Because the heart, arteries, lungs and so forth each perform their respective functions the entire performance is carried off.

Now suppose that our physiologist were to define the term ‘function’ as Millikan does. It would then be part of the definition of, say, the heart’s having a pumping function that the heart’s pumping contributes to reproductive fitness. But, of course, the entire operation of the circulatory system is itself, on this definition, a function, since the operation of the circulatory system (heart, lungs, arteries and all) interacts with various other systems to achieve fitness. This fitness of humans is itself one of the things for which the physiologist will want to provide a functional analysis.

How will this functional analysis go? Well, the physiologist will say that humans are reproductively successful because the heart performs its function, and the lungs perform their function, and so on for all the other functions of the circulatory and other human systems. But notice that if we translate the premises of this functional analysis using Millikan’s definition, the physiologist is saying that humans are reproductively successful because the heart pumps blood and this leads to reproductive success, and because the lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide and this leads to reproductive success, and so on. Since each premise of the functional analysis asserts individually that humans are reproductively successful (otherwise the pumping, or exchanging, or whatever wouldn’t count as a function), they imply the explandum that humans are reproductively successful simply by begging the question. Thus, the explanation is vacuous.

The problem here is not simply with Millikan’s choosing contribution to reproductive success as the defining characteristic of a function. For example, a non-Darwinian theistic physiologist might define functions (including biological functions) as dispositions that contribute to the fulfillment of God’s divine plan. But then, when he attempts to explain how God’s plan is being fulfilled, he will say that it is being fulfilled because the heart performs its function, the lungs perform their function, and so on. And this he will understand as meaning that God’s plan is being fulfilled because the heart pumps blood and this fulfills God’s plan, and the lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide and this fulfills God’s plan, and so on. Just as before, the explanation of how God’s plan is fulfilled begs the question.

In fact, the problem is in defining ‘function’ in any way that requires that a disposition contribute to any particular more complex disposition in order to count as a function. The alternative is to adopt Cummins’ notion of a function, according to which any disposition can be called a function so long as doing so allows us to construct an interesting and informative functional analysis of some complex disposition or other. Roughly, this will be true when (or to the extent that) there is a sufficiently significant difference between the (a) complexity and (b) type of the dispositions appearing in the explanans and explanandum.9

Consider Cummins’ own example. Hearts have a pumping function because (a) they are just one of many parts of the more complex circulatory system, and (b) pumping is just one type of activity among many involved in circulation. But despite the fact that hearts also make thumping noises, this is not one of their functions, because almost all the noise made by the circulatory system is made by the heart. There is (a) no significant difference in complexity between the heart’s and the body’s thumping capacities, and (b) the thumping of the heart is pretty much the only type of contribution to the body’s thumping capacity, which is itself of pretty much the same type. Consequently, analyzing the body’s disposition to make circulatory noise into the heart’s ability to make pretty much the same noise just doesn’t buy us much explanatory power. Of course, since these relations of complexity and similarity of type are matters of degree, it will perhaps never be completely inappropriate to call any disposition a function, but we can say that attribution of a pumping function to the heart is more appropriate than the attribution of a thumping function.10

The same lesson applies when we return to examples involving human moral behavior. Whatever complex dispositions our moral behavior contributes to, whether it be happiness, satisfaction of certain divine intentions, biological fitness, or whatever, we surely ought to be able to non-vacuously explain these dispositions by providing a functional analysis that shows how those dispositions are brought about through our moral behavior. Consequently, anyone who hopes to account for values and purposes in terms of functions ought to think of functions as Cummins and I do, even if their own interests are primarily normative, rather than explanatory.

At this point, some will want to object that in adopting Cummins’ definition of function I have abandoned the link between functions, values, and purposes expressed by the Function-Value Schema. After all, the sorts of function definitions I have just rejected are sometimes referred to as normative conceptions of function, whereas Cummins’ definition is often called the pragmatic or descriptive conception of function. Insofar as the pragmatic conception is at odds with the normative conception, doesn’t this mean that it is a non-normative conception of function, and hence one unsuitable for the analysis of value and purpose claims?

However, I think this objection involves a confusion about the source of the plausibility of the Function-Value Schema.  After all, it is not as though Millikan, or Aquinas, or even Aristotle invented this schema. Talk about functions and talk about values and purposes has presumably gone hand in hand for about as long as either has existed. Primitive toolmakers, for example, would presumably need to be able to explain why they were so diligently, say, flaking off bits of stone and tying them to the ends of sticks. This they would need to explain by having words that somehow expressed that the flakes of stone tied to sticks had an animal-wounding function. Furthermore, in order to explain why they rejected some of the flakes tied to sticks in favor of others they would need words for expressing the idea that some of these would fulfill their functions better than others.

The point is that the Function-Value Schema predates any philosophical attempt to analyze it, and its plausibility arises from this history rather than from any philosophical analysis. As a result, there seems to be no reason to suspect that it should fail when we substitute one philosophical analysis of functions for another. In particular, there seems to be no reason to suspect that if we were to adopt a pragmatic conception of function we would be inclined to give up on using evaluative terms to indicate which things, including which human behaviors, fulfilled those pragmatic functions more or less effectively.

Philosophers have been puzzling over what exactly we mean by ‘function’ for millennia, and part of that puzzle has involved devising an analysis of ‘function’ that makes sense of its liaisons with words expressing concepts of value and purpose. The normative conception of function seems to do this fairly well, but it cannot make sense of the practice of functional analysis, so if we are going to make sense of functions we will have to view them pragmatically. If doing so turned out to undermine the Function-Value Schema, that might be just as fatal to the pragmatic conception as the failure to make sense of functional analysis is to the normative conception. However, in the next section, I examine the consequences of applying the Function-Value Schema to pragmatic functions and demonstrate that it is possible to make sense out of the relation between such functions and values and purposes.

3 Some Interesting Features of Functions

Understanding functions in this way significantly affects the results of employing the Function-Value Schema. For one thing, since a single disposition can play a role in the functional analysis of distinct complex systems, and since those systems might themselves be in conflict, the same disposition can be accurately described both as a function and as a malfunction. For example, considered as individual organisms, optimally functioning predators are those so effective at killing their prey that they never go hungry. However, from an ecological point of view, such super-effective predators may be malfunctioning if their extraordinary success threatens to significantly alter a stable ecosystem. Of course, it may sometimes be the case that predators that destabilize their environments are also malfunctioning as individuals if destabilization of the ecosystem has long-term negative consequences for the predators. But this need not be the case; it all depends on how the destabilized ecosystem re-stabilizes. If prey species respond primarily by increasing their rates of reproduction, for example, the predators may be even better off than they were in the first place. Even so, their highly-effective hunting behavior plays a role both in a functional analysis of the disposition of the predators to do well for themselves and in a (mal)functional analysis of why the former ecosystem loses its disposition to maintain a particular balance of species. Since the very same behavioral disposition can belong to both functional analyses, it is both a function and a malfunction.

This means that if we employ the Function-Value Schema, whenever the very same bit of human behavior is both functional and malfunctional, that bit of human behavior may be both good and bad. Relative to her own financial and professional success, for example, the optimally functioning defense attorney is one who gets nothing but ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts. However, relative to the functioning of the justice system itself, she is probably malfunctioning, since an optimally functioning judicial system convicts all and only those who are guilty. So, which is it? Is a good lawyer one who always wins, or one who wins when and only when she has the truth on her side? The answer our analysis of ‘function’ will give is that, relative to different functional analyses, the lawyer’s extraordinary success is both good and bad.

However, it does not follow that these value judgments will be relativistic in the usual sense of moral relativism. Since the relative complexity and type-similarity of analyzed and analyzing dispositions is a matter of objective fact, so are ascriptions of functions, and so will be the values based upon them. This fact is not always fully appreciated by philosophers writing about pragmatic functions. For example, in another discussion of moral value as it relates to pragmatic functions, Valerie Hardcastle has written

We get the ‘extra ingredient’ that separates dispositions from functions by relying on the previously accepted explanatory goals and theories of a particular scientific discipline. The teleological goal for some trait or organism . . . depends upon the discipline generating the inquiry.11

It is true enough that, in a sense, Cummins’ pragmatically defined functions are relative to explanations, and that explanations are employed by scientists (or others) with different explanatory interests. Of the two functional analyses regarding the predator, for example, the first might be more interesting to a biologist specializing in the behavior of the particular predator, while the second might be more useful to an ecologist studying a wider ecosystem. However, while it is certainly up to the individual scientists to decide which functional analyses, and hence which ascriptions of functions or malfunctions, are most interesting for their own purposes, it is decidedly not up to them whether or not it is possible to construct non-trivial functional analyses of any given disposition. The fact that the predators’ predatory behavior has the functions (or malfunctions) that it does depends entirely on relations of relative complexity and type-similarity between that behavior and the behavior of more complex systems, like the total reproductive success of the individual predators or the stability of the ecosystem. These relations are objective relations between dispositions actually existing in nature. At various times scientists or others may find themselves interested in explicitly recognizing the existence of certain functions by explicitly formulating the functional analyses in which they play a part. But if the relevant relations of complexity and similarity obtain between certain dispositions, no scientist’s mere attention is either necessary or sufficient to turn dispositions into functions.

At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that recognition of these functions, and thus any values that may depend upon them, appears to be scientifically optional, insofar as functional analysis is itself optional. Philosophers sometimes object to the pragmatic notion of functions by pointing out that, for example, it seems to allow that one function of atmospheric water droplets is to differentially refract light in order to produce rainbows.12 Since physicists do not normally resort to functional analysis in such cases, the fault supposedly lies with the claim that functions should be defined pragmatically.

However, I think what this really shows is that functional analysis, where possible, is always optional. What makes it possible to explain rainbows with a functional analysis is that rainbows are complex phenomena produced when component parts (water droplets) each exhibit dispositions (the tendency to differentially refract light of differing wavelengths) which taken together produce a complex phenomenon (a rainbow). Similarly, what makes it possible to explain circulation with a functional analysis is that circulation is a complex phenomenon produced when component parts (heart, lungs, arteries, etc.) each exhibit dispositions (pumping, respiration, containment, etc.) which taken together produce a complex phenomenon (circulation). Presented with this possibility, physicists discussing rainbows tend not to take advantage of it, while physiologists are more prone to endorse it. But neither is required to do so. In principle, the physiologist might simply explain the activity of the circulatory system as arising from the operation of the laws of nature on its sundry physical parts in much the way that the physicist explains rainbows. In either case, the scientist who eschews functional analysis is providing a perfectly complete and adequate explanation, though she is perhaps failing to recognize or call attention to the interesting component/system relationships that make functional analysis possible.

As a result, the value assertions one gets by applying the Function-Value Schema to pragmatically defined functions will be similarly optional. Since it is possible, in principle, to explain any system whatsoever without resorting to functional analysis, it is possible to explain systems arising from human behavior in this way as well. Since we are not forced to attribute functions to human behavior, we are not forced to make value judgments about it either; not because facts about functions or values fail to be objective, but simply because nothing prevents us from ignoring these facts in our pursuit of scientific explanation. Nevertheless, the value judgments we do make as a result of applying the Function-Value Schema will be objective in the sense that, if we make value claims at all, we can make only those value claims that arise from correct claims about functions, and claims about functions can only be correct when applied to systems organized in such a way that functional analysis of those systems is possible.

A third important feature of pragmatically defined functions is that, although the previous two points imply that it is possible for a single disposition to really have multiple incompatible functions, it is also likely that one of the functional ascriptions will be ‘deeper’ than the other, in the sense that the differences in complexity and type in one of the relevant functional analyses will be greater than the other. While I share the reader’s mental sigh of despair at the prospect of introducing ‘deepness’ as a technical term, it seems unavoidably apt. As we saw above, it seems more appropriate to say that pumping is a function of hearts than that thumping is for two reasons. First, the pumping of the heart is just one part of the much more complex activity of circulation, whereas the thumping of the heart accounts for nearly all circulatory noise. Second, pumping is a significantly different type of activity than circulation, whereas the sound made by the heart is extremely similar to the total noise made by the circulatory system. I propose to use ‘deepness’ to refer to the property that the heart’s pumping has but that its thumping lacks.

This property clearly comes in degrees.13 For example, it seems that although it is possible to construct functional analyses of both rainbows and the circulatory system, and hence that both atmospheric water droplets and hearts can be said to have functions, the attribution of a light-refracting function to the former is shallower than the attribution of a pumping function to the latter. One reason is that the circulatory system appears to be more complex, relative to its functional parts, than a rainbow is to its parts. The second reason is that the contributions made by individual water droplets are all of the same type, whereas the contributions made by heart, lungs, arteries, etc. are all of significantly different types.

Incidentally, I think that intuitions about the relative deepness of various sorts of functional ascriptions are probably responsible for the initial plausibility of the idea that a disposition must contribute to the maintenance of some particular capacity in order to really be a function. As we have seen, defining ‘function’ in this way is unacceptable because it leads to question-begging explanations. But it is true enough that dispositions that do contribute to the satisfaction of a designer’s intentions or biological fitness tend to be deeper functions, simply because intentional design and natural selection are two processes that tend to produce highly complex systems composed of diverse parts. Although they are supposed to be definitions of the term ‘function’, the criteria offered by philosophers like Millikan would really best be reinterpreted as rules of thumb for discovering comparatively deep functions.

In any event, it follows from all this that, in cases where conflicting functional ascriptions result in conflicting value judgments of human behavior, it is still possible that one will be deeper than the other. Consider again our super-successful lawyer. Relative to the maintenance of her own personal well-being and professional success, she is functioning magnificently, and thus her conduct is good. However, she is managing to obtain ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts for guilty defendants, so relative to the justice system’s capacity to render accurate verdicts she is malfunctioning, and thus behaving badly. (Let’s assume that her success is not just the result of a series of malfunctioning prosecutors. She is just so much better at reading juries and producing persuasive rhetoric that opposing lawyers haven’t got a chance, even with the truth on their side.)

While we thus seem committed by our analysis to saying that the lawyer’s behavior is both good and bad, that needn’t be the end of the matter, since one of these functions may be deeper than the other. Notice that the lawyer’s disposition to succeed both personally and professionally is more or less contained as a proper part in the overall disposition of our society to persist in a stable manner allowing complex forms of cooperation, including the lawyer’s legal practice. As a result, the difference in complexity between the lawyer’s performance of her legal duties and her disposition to succeed is less than the difference in complexity between her performance of her legal duties and society’s disposition to persist. Furthermore, although her performance of her legal duties is surely not the only type of activity that contributes to her success, it is probably one of just a few such types of behavior. By comparison, the sorts of activity that contribute to the persistence of society include not only most of her own professional activities, but also all the activities performed by others that contribute to the individual and general welfare of everyone in the society. Consequently, it seems plausible that the functional analysis according to which the lawyer is functioning well is shallower than the functional analysis according to which the lawyer is malfunctioning. Thus we should also say that the judgment that the lawyer is behaving well is shallower than the judgment that her behavior is, in some sense, bad.

This analysis seems to me to have an intuitive advantage over any view that requires us to say that the lawyer’s behavior is simply bad, or that it is only prima facie good, but all things considered bad. Dead lawyer jokes aside, she is, after all, doing precisely what we asked her to do. Surely we ought to be able to say that she is performing well, and even that she is doing the right thing. At the same time however, since the judgment that she is performing badly is equally true but also deeper, we may have a reason to, for example, prevent her from practicing law if we can find no better way of restoring balance to the legal system (say, by training someone else to be an equally effective prosecutor). If we did do this, we would have to say, by way of justification, something like, “Look, you’re doing precisely what you’re supposed to be doing, and doing it fantastically well, but that’s precisely why it would be wrong of us to let you keep doing it.” Only a view, like mine, which allows that the same action can be both right and wrong, while at the same time suggesting that one of these judgments is deeper than the other, could possibly justify our saying this.

One might still be inclined to say that what I am calling a deeper moral judgment is really just an all (or, at any rate, more) things considered judgment, while the shallower judgment is simply a prima facie judgment. However, we should not say this, because unlike the all-things-considered/prima facie distinction, the deeper/shallower distinction is multidimensional. That is, while one of any pair of judgments of the same action must necessarily be the one that takes more into consideration than the other, it is not the case that one of any pair of judgments of the same action must necessarily be deeper than the other.

For example, this fact might allow my analysis to form the basis of a more intuitive environmental ethic. Many people feel that they have a significant moral duty to preserve the environment, but find this duty difficult to square with their duties to their fellow human beings. This leads some environmental ethicists to attempt to reduce environmental duties to human duties and others to attempt to subsume human duties under environmental ones. Neither option tends to lead to entirely satisfying results. However, if moral duties depend on pragmatically defined functions, we can explain this difficulty as resulting from equally deep but conflicting moral duties. Once again, the deepness of a function is a factor of both (a) the difference in complexity between the functional component and the system it serves and (b) the uniqueness of the type of functional contribution made by the component. The complete biosphere is clearly a more complex system than any human society, or even humanity as a whole, since it includes both as proper parts. So, environmental duties outscore human duties according to the (a) measure. However, the role we play in sustaining the biosphere is in fact not all that different from the role played by any living organism. We compete for and consume resources, reproduce, expel waste products, recycle the waste products of certain other organisms, and so on. If we did not fill (and overfill) various environmental niches, other organisms would adapt to do so in their own different but equally effective (and probably less destructive) ways. By contrast, human societies seem to require a wide variety of types of contributions, such as legislating, contracting, enforcing, judging, inventing, entertaining, planning, etc. that only beings more or less like humans could provide. Thus human duties may outscore environmental duties according to the (b) measure. Since functional deepness is a function of both measures, we may well have two roughly equally deep sets of moral duties, some to the environment, some to human society, that are nevertheless not easily commensurable. Other cases of apparently incommensurable moral duties may well be susceptible of similar treatment.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the account of ethics we are discussing seems likely to more or less agree with most other plausible ethical theories. One might worry that this would not be the case, since pragmatic functions are not defined in a way that necessarily precludes as functions dispositions that we normally think of as bad. So long as the disposition contributes in the right sort of complex way to the maintenance of any state whatsoever, it will be a function. For example, a person who finds himself embedded in a complexly ordered criminal gang bent on mayhem and destruction may very well be said to have killing, maiming, and torturing functions.

However, our deepest moral duties will be derived from our deepest functions, which in turn depend on our being embedded in highly complex systems. And the most complex systems are generally those dedicated to the maintenance of capacities not easily maintained: order, stability, and the like. Most of the goal states we usually identify with moral goodness are of this sort. Health, security, societal stability, and ecological balance are all relatively fragile states. These states manage to be maintained, when they are, only because natural selection and our own mental creativity have produced complex systems that do maintain them. But our behavior does not generally play significant functional roles in systems specifically designed to make us sick or imperiled, or produce chaotic societies, or environmental collapse, because these states are not fragile at all; they occur quite naturally in the absence of elaborate designs to hold them at bay. And when we do find ourselves in situations in which we have the function of harming others or acting destructively, this harmful or destructive activity will generally be more deeply malfunctional than it is functional in virtue of its role in a larger context. Of course, this is not to say that application of the ethical theory we are considering would not produce any revisionary or unintuitive results. But I do not think that we need worry that the results would simply be bizarre.

Furthermore, allow me to candidly admit that the various examples of functions, values, and their relative deepness to which I have alluded above have been offered primarily for illustrative purposes. Accurate judgments of the relative complexity or type-diversity of various systems would require a detailed analysis of the concepts of complexity and diversity involved that I have not tried to offer. As a result, I may be mistaken in claiming that, say, rainbows are less complex than circulation, or that the super-effective lawyer’s behavior is more deeply bad than good. However, even if some of these particular examples are somewhat uncertain, I am content so long as the points they were designed to illustrate (that the same behavior can be both functional and malfunctional, and hence both good and bad; that some functional ascriptions and moral judgments are deeper than others; that deepness is multidimensional) are considerably less so. In this respect I consider myself no worse off than, say, a utilitarian faced with the fact that it is not always easy to determine which of two actions has the highest utility.

4 The Function-Value Schema and the Conflict between Science and Religion

Unfortunately, adopting the right account of functions will not in itself resolve the conflict between science and religion. However, it does clarify the boundaries of that conflict by confining it to matters of ontology. Because religions often explicitly endorse a particular set of moral values or claims about human purposes, conflict between science and religion is sometimes thought to primarily involve matters of value and purpose. However, if moral values and purposes are grounded in functions, this will be true only if these moral differences result from religious and scientific differences regarding the existence of particular complex systems susceptible to functional analysis. For example, if there were an afterlife, it would be possible that certain sorts of human behavior might play a role in functional analyses of systems partially instantiated beyond the natural world. If so, we would have moral duties grounded in these functions that we would not have if this supernatural realm did not exist. However, both the existence and deepness of these values still depend on the actual existence of the relevant complex systems. Thus, in order to impose additional, specifically religious moral duties, supporters of such duties must also defend a supernatural ontology that grounds the relevant functional ascriptions. Similarly, anyone who accepts the ontology of science is (at least) committed to whatever moral duties supervene on functions instantiated entirely within the system of nature. Such duties could be rejected for religious reasons only by rejecting some portion of the scientific ontology.

Thus, the result of applying the Function-Value Schema to pragmatically defined functions is, not necessarily a naturalization of questions of value and purpose, but rather an ‘ontologization’ of them. Naturalizing ethics would require, in addition to my arguments, an adequate defense of scientific naturalism. Though this does not resolve the conflict between science and religion, I think it counts as a significant clarification because it reduces esoteric and apparently irresolvable disagreements about moral values and purposes to disagreements about ontology. Ultimately, science and religion can be in conflict only over ontology, either when scientific naturalists reject religious supernatural ontologies, or when religions reject part of the scientific ontology.

These are at least arguments that we know better how to have. Naturalists will argue that there is no evidence for any supernatural ontology, or that there could never be such evidence even in principle, or even that supernatural ontological assertions are meaningless. Advocates of one or another religious supernatural ontology will deny these claims, constructing theories of semantics and religious evidence to counter them. But if I am right, then neither side need go on to further debate whether there are also such things as moral values, or which things are good and which bad, or whether life has a purpose. If I am right, settling the ontological issues settles all these issues as well.

One way to illustrate how the ontologization of values can clarify the conflict between scientific and religious worldviews involves disposing of a class of more or less Kantian arguments to the effect that no sense can be made of moral facts unless some version of theism is true. George Mavrodes, for example, argues that moral duties requiring us to make significant worldly sacrifices in situations where we cannot possibly expect to be compensated by any worldly reward would be incomprehensible unless such sacrifices were to be rewarded in the afterlife by a being capable of distributing this reward justly and reliably. According to Mavrodes, since it is impossible to naturalize ethics, the only reasonable alternative to accepting theism is to simply accept moral facts as inexplicable brute facts, on a par with, say, facts about the values of fundamental physical constants. This alternative, he says, is nevertheless less reasonable than theism because it leaves the naturalist with a weirdly disjointed set of brute facts (physical brute facts plus moral brute facts) that the theist can unify by postulating that both sets of facts are to be explained by God’s creative activity.14

However, if I have indeed succeeded in ontologizing ethics, such self-sacrificial duties are no more problematic than any others. On the view we are considering, whether or not one has a moral duty to sacrifice oneself depends on whether this behavior plays a role in a functional analysis of some complex capacity. Although some such capacities are entirely individual (like the capacity to produce offspring or look after one’s own interests) others are capacities of groups of individuals (like the capacity of a society to remain stable) or even of nature as a whole (like the capacity of various ecosystems to remain stable). Even if we assume an entirely naturalistic ontology, it seems probable that self-sacrificial duties arising from the functional role such behavior plays in systems transcending the individual will at least sometimes be deeper duties than competing anti-sacrificial duties arising from the role of human behavior that contributes merely to the welfare of the individual.

Of course, if theism, or for that matter any supernatural religion, is true, this additional supernatural ontology may well ground even deeper moral duties by embedding our behavior in even larger and more varied complex systems. However, not just any old supernatural ontology will do the trick. Unless the postulated supernatural system can be non-trivially explained by a functional analysis in which human behavior plays a role, the addition of the supernatural ontology will not underwrite any moral duties over and above the naturalizable ones. Furthermore, even if some human functions do depend upon functional analyses of partially supernatural systems, unless these functions are deep, the moral duties they imply will compete only weakly with the deepest naturalizable moral duties. This accounts, I think, for the apparent moral bankruptcy of conceptions of the afterlife which depict it merely as an eternal party. If, for example, we are supposed to renounce certain sorts of worldly pleasurable activity simply because (for some reason inherent in the religious supernatural metaphysics) this will diminish our ability to contribute to the eternal indulgence in similar activities that is to come, the functional analysis of the eternal capacity of the heavenly host to experience pleasure will appeal to the fairly similar contributions that each individual makes to maximizing his or her own pleasure by seeking out eternal pleasures at the expense of earthly ones. Since the type of human behavioral disposition is so similar to the analyzed disposition of the heavenly host, the functions, and hence duties, implied by this analysis may well be less deep than duties arising from our functional roles in more varied and complex systems instantiated entirely in the natural world.

Although I have remained officially neutral, claiming only to have clarified rather than resolved the conflict between science and religion, I suspect that by now the reader will have come to the conclusion that my own sympathies lie with scientific naturalism. However, there are reasons for at least certain advocates of religion to welcome my conclusions. In particular, it gives religious literalists a reply to those who think religious metaphysics an unnecessary extravagance. Take, for example, Gould’s assertion that the claims of science and religion inhabit non-overlapping magisteria. According to Gould,

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.15

But as I have argued, facts about values and purposes are determined by facts about functions, and facts about functions are determined by ontology. The totality of all that there is either does or does not include, in addition to natural entities, supernatural entities. Either way, facts about “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives” are determined by what there is. So even if one thinks that the only importance of religion is its significance for matters of morality and purpose, one cannot reject the importance of the metaphysical claims of religion.

5 Conclusion

Seekers after the meaning of life often say that they long to be part of something larger than themselves. Wise guy naturalists reply that the seekers are parts of lots of things that are larger than themselves—the earth, the solar system, the universe, the collection of objects that includes themselves and all unsharpened pencils, and so on. Justifiably annoyed, the seekers reply that their longing is not simply to be part of something, but rather to be part of some thing or process to which they make a unique and significant contribution. My own, hopefully less annoying, naturalist reply is that we are all indeed parts of such larger systems to which we make unique and significant contributions—our families, professions, nations, ecosystem, and so on. If anything, the true difficulty in finding the meaning of life is not that such meaning is lacking, but rather that there is far too much of it to deal with. We play deep functional roles in so many different and often conflicting natural systems that determining which of our purposes is deepest defies our most industrious attempts at discovery. Some religious supernatural ontologies are perhaps as complex and majestic as they are wont to be precisely so that the values and purposes they support will be deep enough to overshadow this confusing naturalistic mishmash. However, if the meaning of life is to be discovered in supernatural religion, rather than in the naturalistic mishmash, the supernatural worlds religion describes must really exist.


End Notes

1Gould, Stephen 2003 “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, P. Kurtz, ed., Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, pp 191-203.

2Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics , I, 7, 1097a-1098a, and II, 6, 1106a-1107a.

3Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q2a8 and Q3a8.

4Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q93a1.

5 for example see Ruse, Michael and Wilson, E. O. 1986 “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy, 61, pp. 173-192.

6 Millikan, Ruth 1984 Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, Cambridge: MIT Press.

7 Harms, William 2000 “Adaptation and Moral Realism,” Biology and Philosophy, 15(5), pp. 699-712.

8 Cummins, Robert 1975 “Functional Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, 72, 741-765.

9 Cummins, Robert 1975 “Functional Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, 72, p. 764.

10 Cummins, Robert 1975 “Functional Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, 72, p. 764.

11 Hardcastle, Valerie 2002 “On the Normativity of Functions,” Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology, Andre Ariew, Robert Cummins, Mark Perlman, eds.,Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 153.

12 Boorse, Christopher 2002 “A Rebuttal on Functions,” Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology, Andre Ariew, Robert Cummins, Mark Perlman, eds.,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 64-65.

13 Cummins, Robert 1975 “Functional Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, 72, p. 764.

14 Mavrodes, George 1986 “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, Robert Audi, ed., Cornell University Press, pp. 213-226.

15 Gould, Stephen 2003 “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, P. Kurtz, ed., Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books., p. 193.



Aquinas, Thomas Summa Theologica.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.

Boorse, Christopher 2002 “A Rebuttal on Functions,” Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology, Andre Ariew, Robert Cummins, Mark Perlman, eds.,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 63-112.

Cummins, Robert 1975 “Functional Analysis,” Journal of Philosophy, 72, 741-765.

Gould, Stephen 2003 “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, P. Kurtz, ed., Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, pp. 191-203.

Hardcastle, Valerie 2002 “On the Normativity of Functions,” Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and      Biology, Andre Ariew, Robert Cummins, Mark Perlman, eds.,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 144-156.

Harms, William 2000 “Adaptation and Moral Realism,” Biology and Philosophy, 15(5), pp. 699-712.

Mavrodes, George 1986 “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, Robert Audi, ed., Cornell University Press, pp. 213-226.

Millikan, Ruth 1984 Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ruse, Michael and Wilson, E. O. 1986 “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy, 61, pp. 173-192.

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