Probabilistic Foundations of Teleology and Content

Dissertation, The University of Chicago (2002)

Marshall Abrams
University of Alabama, Birmingham
Ruth Millikan and others advocate theories which attempt to naturalize wide mental content in terms of functions, where the latter are in turn based in part on facts concerning past natural selection. While I support basing content on functions which are constituted by facts about the past, I argue that it is a mistake to base content on selection. This dissertation works out an alternative concept of function which is a more appropriate basis for a theory of mental content. In particular, I define a concept of function in terms of comparisons between certain past probabilities, and comparisons between fitnesses of certain ancestors, without regard to facts about selection. This account clearly requires naturalistic concepts of probability and fitness. Furthermore, fitness must not depend on selection. The propensity interpretation of fitness and its elaborations, which define fitness in terms of probability, in particular propensity, provide a framework for a naturalistic concept of fitness which does not depend on selection. But I argue that propensity is not a suitable basis for fitness. A large portion of the dissertation is devoted to a sketch of a fully naturalistic concept of higher-level objective probability, a concept which can provide a foundation for probability-based theories of fitness and other higher-level uses of probability. This concept of probability is defined in terms of the structures of mechanisms and in terms of very general facts about certain sets of actual events. This sort of probability has causal connections to observed relative frequency without being equivalent to relative frequency, and is consistent with lower level probabilities with arbitrary values. Although the focus of the dissertation is on objective probability, on the foundations of teleological theories of content, and on the foundations of a theory of teleology suitable for supporting such theories, my discussion has implications for more general issues concerning scientific realism and the foundations of evolutionary biology.
Keywords No keywords specified (fix it)
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 65,587
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Teleosemantics Without Natural Selection.Marshall Abrams - 2005 - Biology and Philosophy 20 (1):97-116.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Fitness and Propensity’s Annulment?Marshall Abrams - 2007 - Biology and Philosophy 22 (1):115-130.
Probability in Biology: The Case of Fitness.Roberta L. Millstein - 2016 - In A. Hájek & C. R. Hitchcock (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Probability and Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 601-622.
A Defense of Propensity Interpretations of Fitness.Robert C. Richardson & Richard M. Burian - 1992 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1992:349 - 362.
Fitness, Probability and the Principles of Natural Selection.Frederic Bouchard & Alexander Rosenberg - 2004 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (4):693-712.
Mechanistic Probability.Marshall Abrams - 2012 - Synthese 187 (2):343-375.
The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness.Susan K. Mills & John H. Beatty - 1979 - Philosophy of Science 46 (2):263-286.
Can Fitness Differences Be a Cause of Evolution?Grant Ramsey - 2013 - Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 5 (20130604):1-13.
The Non-Existence of a Principle of Natural Selection.Abner Shimony - 1989 - Biology and Philosophy 4 (3):255-273.
Trait Fitness is Not a Propensity, but Fitness Variation Is.Elliott Sober - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (3):336-341.
Evolutionary Theory and the Reality of Macro Probabilities.Elliott Sober - 2010 - In Ellery Eells & James H. Fetzer (eds.), The Place of Probability in Science. Springer. pp. 133--60.
A Structural Description of Evolutionary Theory.Robert N. Brandon - 1980 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1980:427 - 439.
Fitness and Function.D. M. Walsh - 1996 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 47 (4):553-574.


Added to PP index

Total views

Recent downloads (6 months)

How can I increase my downloads?


Sorry, there are not enough data points to plot this chart.

My notes