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Malfunctions and teleologyOn the (dim) chances of statistical accounts of functions

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Casini Lorenzo,
Project Mechanistic Constitution in the Special Sciences
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal European Journal for Philosophy of Science
Volume (Issue) 7(2)
Page(s) 319 - 335
Title of proceedings European Journal for Philosophy of Science
DOI 10.1007/s13194-016-0163-z


The core idea of statistical accounts of biological functions is that to function normally is to provide a statistically typical contribution to some goal state of the organism. In this way, statistical accounts purport to naturalize the teleological notion of function in terms of statistical facts. Boorse’s (Philosophy of Science, 44(4), 542–573, 1977) original biostatistical account was criticized for failing to distinguish functions from malfunctions. Recently, many have attempted to circumvent the criticism (Boorse, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 39, 683–724, 2014; Kraemer, Biology and Philosophy, 28, 423–438, 2013; Garson and Piccinini, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 65, 1–20, 2014; Hausman, Philosophy of Science, 79(4), 519–541, 2012, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 39, 634–647, 2014). Here, I review such attempts and find them inadequate. The reason, ultimately, is that functional attribution depends on how traits would behave in relevant situations, a condition that resists statistical characterizations in terms of how they typically behave. This, I conclude, undermines the attempt to naturalize functions in statistical terms.