Design explanation: Determining the constraints on what can be alive [Book Review]

Erkenntnis 67 (1):65-80 (2007)
Abstract
This paper is concerned with reasonings that purport to explain why certain organisms have certain traits by showing that their actual design is better than contrasting designs. Biologists call such reasonings ‘functional explanations’. To avoid confusion with other uses of that phrase, I call them ‘design explanations’. This paper discusses the structure of design explanations and how they contribute to scientific understanding. Design explanations are contrastive and often compare real organisms to hypothetical organisms that cannot possibly exist. They are not causal but appeal to functional dependencies between an organism’s different traits. These explanations point out that because an organism has certain traits (e.g., it lives on land), it cannot be alive if the trait to be explained (e.g., having lungs) were replaced by a specified alternative (e.g., having gills). They can be understood from a mechanistic point of view as revealing the constraints on what mechanisms can be alive.
Keywords functional explanation  design explanation  mechanistic explanation  constraint  contrastive explanation  functional dependency
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References found in this work BETA
John Bigelow & Robert Pargetter (1987). Functions. Journal of Philosophy 84 (4):181-196.
John Canfield (1964). Teleological Explanation in Biology. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 14 (56):285-295.
John Canfield (1965). Teleological Explanation in Biology: A Reply. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 15 (60):327-331.
Robert C. Cummins (1975). Functional Analysis. Journal of Philosophy 72 (November):741-64.

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2009-12-24
Design explanations are explanations, or maybe just arguments, addressing questions about why certain organisms have some traits instead of others. For example, since tetrapods have lungs but don't have gills, it seems reasonable to ask why. Design explanations attempt to answer such questions by looking at functional dependencies and integration between different traits in the same organism. For example, we might start by looking at the functional requirements for respiration in a large organism living on land, invoke the relevant laws from physics or chemistry or biology, and show that having gills would make the organism less viable. 

Wouters proposes a schema for design explanations. In my words:

1) Specify the organism's properties and conditions of existence.
2) Assert that trait T possessed by the organism is more useful than alternative trait T'.
3) Provide an explanation of 2).

I see 2) as an undue limitation. Contrasting alternative traits is a very important strategy but we could ma ... (read more)
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