Philosophy Colloquium: Caleb Dewey
Irreducible normativity in biological functions
The fall 2022 Philosophy Colloquium series presents Caleb Dewey (University of Arizona).
Biological functions are standards that distinguish between the functional and dysfunctional activities of biological systems. Philosophers of biology often aim to reduce this distinction to some difference in causal properties: e.g., being selected for vs. being selected against. But this neglects the normativity of biological functions: they also draw relations between functional and dysfunctional activities that make it such that moving from functionality to dysfunctionality counts as an error. Hence, these relations are normative—or, at least, normative*. I argue that these normative relations play an indispensable role in functional explanations. Moreover, I argue that they play this role in virtue of a massively disjunctive set of causal/physical properties, such that they are non-reductively grounded in the physical domain. I defend both points using a number of simplified examples from molecular biology. Finally, I suggest that this non-reductive grounding account of biological normativity might offer a novel way to approach other kinds of normativity (e.g., moral normativity).