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.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Daniel Fincke:

    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)…

    Emphasis added.

    If your route to defining “good, in objective terms” requires measuring function, and if measuring function, for humans, means defining what a good human being is (“good instance of that kind of being”), why not begin with the latter task?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The latter task requires the former task to be done without question-begging and to be done without confusions where (quite many) people conflate the purposes we give things with all functions whatsoever. Plus, I was going to address a more substantive “good human being” question and wound up writing about this instead because that’s what came out. Clearing out this point was a step towards the later question but it became its own post and I judged it better to cap it with one point at a moderate length, rather than add in another topic.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    By the way, I think you’re definition of effective is correct, in that there is no way to define effective except with reference to some result. The same object can at one time be an effective car engine, and at another time be an effective mooring anchor. Those statements can be checked objectively. Whether either result is good depends on the intended goal.

    The problem, of course, is that there is no agreed upon goal for people.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I don’t care that there is no agreed upon goal in the sense that the truth does not require everyone yet accepting it (or the specific goals of specific people always looking the same). I will make the case in time that there are general and specific goals that are rationally defensible and rankable with respect to each other in contextually sensitive ways.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    I’m new to your blog, at the excellent recommendation of Philboyd at Indiscriminate Dust.

    I’m fine with your idea of functioning, and I think I understand the way you’re using it. But I’m not yet understanding how that can ever get us to the sort of valuing that seem necessary to fully speak of goodness. I see how we can speak of things functioning well or poorly at the functions they happen to be accomplishing, or the functions for which we humans might want to use them. But it seems to me that, similar to rturpin’s second comment, getting from there to goodness would require an intended goal. Answering questions about effective human beings or effective human actions won’t ever by itself answer questions about good human beings or good human actions. A human can kill effectively or steal effectively, much like the effective parasitism you’ve acknowledged elsewhere. But this sort of effectiveness clearly does not cover what people try to express when they talk about goodness.

    I’ll be interested to read your case that “there are general and specific goals that are rationally defensible and rankable with respect to each other in contextually sensitive ways,” as well as to continue reading what you’ve written about metaethics. But I’m initially skeptical that this can get all the way to goodness, either. Rationally defending “moral” goals to other folks sounds more like political science than metaethics, unless you can make some strong link between rational defensibility and proper moral categories like goodness and obligation.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    I’m new to your blog, at the excellent recommendation of Philboyd at Indiscriminate Dust.

    Thanks, it’s nice to meet you. I was pleased to discover Philboyd’s blog and your discussion of me last night, so it’s nice to see you come by.

    I’m fine with your idea of functioning, and I think I understand the way you’re using it. But I’m not yet understanding how that can ever get us to the sort of valuing that seem necessary to fully speak of goodness. I see how we can speak of things functioning well or poorly at the functions they happen to be accomplishing, or the functions for which we humans might want to use them. But it seems to me that, similar to rturpin’s second comment, getting from there to goodness would require an intended goal.

    No, functioning well is just goodness. There is no need to capitulate to attempts to prejudice the use of terms so that goodness has to involve intentions. That just rigs the situation in favor of subjectivists in a way that is false to the reality of objective goodness relationships right there in nature which can ground the other senses of goodness. I am using a valid, normal sense of the word “good” and showing it has a root in objective reality which can mediate disputes over when and how to properly use it.

    No intended goal is required. Something functions well and therefore is good at that kind of functioning, independent of intentions. This is a goodness that is a part of reality itself and it is the only purely naturalistic meaning of goodness so I take it as most fundamental on that account. I explain the case for this most fully here http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/01/23/goodness-is-a-factual-matter-goodnesseffectiveness/ so I hope you will read that post next.

    Answering questions about effective human beings or effective human actions won’t ever by itself answer questions about good human beings or good human actions. A human can kill effectively or steal effectively, much like the effective parasitism you’ve acknowledged elsewhere. But this sort of effectiveness clearly does not cover what people try to express when they talk about goodness.

    I’ll be interested to read your case that “there are general and specific goals that are rationally defensible and rankable with respect to each other in contextually sensitive ways,” as well as to continue reading what you’ve written about metaethics. But I’m initially skeptical that this can get all the way to goodness, either. Rationally defending “moral” goals to other folks sounds more like political science than metaethics, unless you can make some strong link between rational defensibility and proper moral categories like goodness and obligation.

    Human effectiveness can indeed equal human goodness. Being an effective parasite is bad not because there is no degree of goodness in it but because it is of a much lesser degree of goodness. If you have not yet read the post where I address all this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/07/the-contexts-objective-hierarchies-and-spectra-of-goods-and-bads-or-why-murder-is-bad/ please read that and reply there when you have considered my arguments.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    Thank you for your patience as I jump in in the middle of things, and work to get my bearings. I will read both of the posts you linked to. But for the time being, I will also offer a little clarification and restatement.

    There is no need to capitulate to attempts to prejudice the use of terms so that goodness has to involve intentions.

    I’m sorry if I was unclear, but I didn’t mean that goodness has to involve intentions. What I meant was that (on your view) goodness can only be articulated with reference to some goal or end. A parasite is good at parasitizing, and a river is good at river-ing, regardless of any intentions or intending agents. Ok, cool.

    But a woman might be good at burglarizing or good at murdering or good at being a productive and law-abiding citizen. If we simply say that a woman is good, then what is the intended goal? What are we saying she is good at, or effective at? It seems to me that such a goal is required to talk about goodness in the way you’re talking. It further seems that a substantive moral theory would have to be able to discriminate between the many, many things that humans, individually and collectively, can be good at. But I don’t see how the theory at hand can do so.

    Sure, there is recourse to individual moral intuitions, or maximizing the happiness of the group, or whatever—but those things don’t ever give us an “ought.” We want what we want, obviously. But if that’s all there is, we should just say so, without muddying the waters with moral categories.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Right, and getting this question over and over made me even put the words “and why murder is bad” in the post I linked to above to make it abundantly clear that I address it in that post. So, once you have read it, I look forward to your reply in that comments section.


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