Natural Functions

I have argued several times that objective goodness, factually speaking, tracks objective effectiveness. To say that something is good, in objective terms, is to say that it effectively (i.e., in fact) functions in such a way that it realizes a kind of being (such that it is a good instance of that kind of being), and sometimes that it contributes to a larger being, and sometimes that it functionally contributes to the being of something which is both outside of itself and outside of that of which it is a direct subcomponent.

Some have objected that my talk of “functioning” assumes the preferences of beings that want some particular purpose fulfilled, by which they judge whether something is “functional” or not. But this is not the sense of “function” that I have in mind. When I use the word “function” it means “things happening in such a way that either some distinguishable kind of being emerges from those happenings or further effects on other things or events occur”.

So, to use example, when two hydrogen atoms covalently bond with an oxygen atom, the three atoms mindlessly function together as a water molecule. No purpose-having agent need be interested in this event for the three atoms to be working together and constituting something distinguishable from themselves in isolation, i.e., the water molecule. Later on, if a chemist were to come along and want to create a water molecule, she would say “the way to do that is to combine two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom”. In this case, fulfilling her explicit purposes of getting atoms to function as she desires means understanding what sorts of things naturally function in what sorts of ways under what sorts of conditions. To fulfill her purposes she does not create new functional possibilities in nature, but rather she finds the ways that nature already objectively can, or does, function in the ways she wants. In this way, we do not give nature any functional possibilities it does not already have, but we find ways to discover functional relationships and engineer them so they happen at our command and stop at our command so that we may realize our purposes as we desire.

Complex technologies like i-Pods, cars, computers, satellites, rockets, vaccines, antibiotics etc., all exploit natural function/effectiveness relationships discovered in nature. We invent these machines and medicines which serve human purposes not by fundamentally inventing functionality itself, but rather by figuring out (a) the ways natural realities already function effectively to create certain kinds of beings and effects and then (b) how to control and combine useful natural functionings into complex functionings which were always naturally possible but which were just not naturally occurring. “Inventing” a new function is simply a matter of deliberately combining and fine-tuning natural functions into a complex function that does not occur in nature but does work fully in accord with and by natural functioning.

We could not get any things in nature to function to serve our purposes if in nature they did not already function in themselves to make more complex beings and to have effects on other beings and if they did not function in ways that could be harnessed to make new complex beings with no effects on other beings.

And, of course, the objective, preference-indifference of natural functions all entails that many things function in ways that are harmful or utterly useless to our purposes. Some things function to kill us. This makes them objectively good at that function but objectively bad for our own functioning should they kill us and end our functioning altogether. For this reason we may rightly have negative subjective feelings towards such functions. Malfunctions of technology still involve natural entities functioning correctly according to nature, even as the complex functioning we have engineered for them to have is no longer working, This makes for objectively bad, i.e., objectively failed, technological functioning of the kind engineered, even as the subcomponents of the technology are still functioning in other objectively effective ways according to their natures.

The parts of the broken computer (from the hardware down to the atoms and quarks, etc.) are still functioning even when computer functionality has ceased and we are inclined to simply call it “non-functional”. It is correct that we speak simply and say the computer is no longer functional when we mean it is no longer functional at the computing purposes for which we design computers. It is correct that it is not a computer anymore when it cannot effectively compute. But that is not to say that the matter before us is not functioning in other ways too. All atoms are at all times functioning to both to have effects and to constitute larger, more complex existences. And the same goes for numerous other distinguishable natural beings each participating in increasingly complex orders of being. There is still intrinsic goodness there even though there is not goodness for our purposes of computing and even though, therefore, it might be right for us to say that it is a bad thing for us and our ideal functioning when the computer breaks.

More on the naturally occurring character of mindless functions can be found in the post: On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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