Function Ascription and Explanation: Elaborating an Explanatory Utility Desideratum for Ascriptions of Technical Functions

Erkenntnis 79 (6):1367-1389 (2014)
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Current philosophical theorizing about technical functions is mainly focused on specifying conditions under which agents are justified in ascribing functions to technical artifacts. Yet, assessing the precise explanatory relevance of such function ascriptions is, by and large, a neglected topic in the philosophy of technical artifacts and technical functions. We assess the explanatory utility of ascriptions of technical functions in the following three explanation-seeking contexts: why was artifact x produced?, why does artifact x not have the expected capacity to ϕ?, how does artifact x realize its capacity to ϕ? We argue that while function ascriptions serve a mere heuristic role in the first context, they have substantial explanatory leverage in the second and third context. In addition, we assess the relevance of function ascriptions in the context of engineering redesign. Here, function ascriptions also play a relevant role: they enable normative statements of the sort that component b functions better than component a. We unpack these claims by considering philosophical theories of technical functions, in particular the ICE theory, and engineering work on function ascription and explanation. We close the paper by relating our analysis to current debates on the explanatory power of mechanistic vis-à-vis functional explanations



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