​​​​The papers available here are penultimate drafts of forthcoming or published papers.
Please consult the published version for corrections and for citation purposes. 

A Generalized Selected Effects Theory of Function

Philosophy of Science, forthcoming

Abstract: I present and defend the generalized selected effects theory (GSE) of function. According to GSE, the function of a trait consists in the activity that contributed to its bearer’s differential reproduction, or differential retention, within a population. Unlike the traditional selected effects (SE) theory, it does not require that the functional trait helped its bearer reproduce; differential retention is enough. Although the core theory has been presented previously, I go significantly beyond those presentations by providing a new argument for GSE and defending it from a recent objection. I also sketch its implications for teleosemantics and philosophy of medicine.

Against Organizational Functions

Philosophy of Science, forthcoming

Abstract: Over the last 20 years, several philosophers developed a new approach to biological functions, the organizational (or systems-theoretic) approach. This is not a single theory but a family of theories based on the idea that a trait token can acquire a function by virtue of the way it contributes to a complex, organized, system, and thereby to its own continued persistence, as a token. I argue that the organizational approach faces a serious liberality objection. I examine three different ways organizational theorists have tried to avoid that objection and show how they fail.

How to be a Function Pluralist

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, forthcoming

AbstractI distinguish two forms of pluralism about biological functions, between-discipline pluralism and within-discipline pluralism. Between-discipline pluralism holds that different theories of function are appropriate for different subdisciplines of biology and psychology (for example, that the selected effects theory of function is appropriate for some branches of evolutionary biology, and the causal role theory is appropriate for disciplines such as molecular biology, neuroscience, or psychology). I provide reasons for rejecting this view. Instead, I recommend within-discipline pluralism, which emphasizes the plurality of function concepts at play within any given subdiscipline of biology and psychology.

A “Model Schizophrenia”: Amphetamine Psychosis and the Transformation of American Psychiatry     

Casper, S., and Gavrus, D. (Eds.), Technique in the History of the Brain and Mind Sciences. University of Rochester Press, forthcoming

This is a paper on the history of science which explores the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia. The dopamine hypothesis was supported by a phenomenon known as "amphetamine psychosis," which was identified in the 1930s and described the apparently schizophrenia-like symptoms of amphetamine overdose. Strangely enough, practicing psychiatrists and neuroscientists argued with one another about whether, and to what extent, amphetamine psychosis really resembled schizophrenia, and hence whether it was a valid model of schizophrenia at all. I examine the social and historical factors that led psychiatrists in the early 1970s to conclude that amphetamine psychosis was, in fact, a valid experimental model of schizophrenia despite evidence to the contrary. 

Mechanisms, Phenomena, and Functions

Glennan, S., and Illari, P. (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Mechanisms. Routledge, forthcoming

It is a platitude in the new mechanism literature that a mechanism is always a mechanism 'for' a phenomenon. Sometimes, however, philosophers describe mechanisms not as having phenomena, but as serving functions. What is the relation between these two ways of speaking? In this handbook chapter, I provide an overview of the different ways that a mechanism can be said to "have" a phenomenon. I also summarize what philosophers have had to say about the relation between mechanisms and functions. I urge that there are at least two different senses of "mechanism." First, there is what Glennan calls the "minimal" sense of mechanism, where mechanisms always have phenomena, but there is no implication that these phenomena are proper functions. Second, there is what I call the "functional sense of mechanism," where mechanisms are always mechanisms for functions.  I outline some implications for biomedicine. 

Ecological Restoration and Biodiversity Conservation     

Garson, J., Plutynski, A., and Sarkar, S. (Eds.), ​Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity. Routledge, 2017 

This handbook chapter summarizes philosophical problems of ecological restoration. It outlines three main criticisms: first, that ecological restorations are unnatural artifacts; second, that the choice of a historical baseline for an ecological restoration is arbitrary; and third, that there is nothing inherently valuable about trying to make ecosystems resemble the way they were in the past. After outlining these critiques, I offer a positive proposal, which sees historical fidelity as having the same type of value as other conservation goals such as biodiversity and sustainability. 

Two Types of Psychological Hedonism     

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2016 

AbstractI develop a distinction between two types of psychological hedonism. Inferential hedonism (or “I-hedonism”) holds that each person only has ultimate desires regarding his or her own hedonic states (pleasure and pain). Reinforcement hedonism (or “R–hedonism”) holds that each person's ultimate desires, whatever their contents are, are differentially reinforced in that person’s cognitive system only by virtue of their association with hedonic states. I’ll argue that accepting R-hedonism and rejecting I-hedonism provides a conciliatory position on the traditional altruism debate, and that it coheres well with the neuroscientist Anthony Dickinson’s theory about the evolutionary function of hedonic states, the “hedonic interface theory.” Finally, I’ll defend R-hedonism from potential objections.

Introduction to Special Section: The Biology of Psychological Altruism (with Armin Schulz)    

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2016

This is an introduction to a collection of papers on the biology of psychological altruism, which Armin Schulz and I co-edited. The collection includes papers by Stephen Stich, Christine Clavien and Michel Chapuisat, Grant Ramsey, Armin Schulz and me. 

The Hiddenness of Psychological Symptom Amplification: Some Historical Observations     

Moseley, D. D., and Gala, G. (Eds.), Philosophy and Psychiatry: Problems, Intersections and New Perspectives. Routledge, 2016

This book chapter is a short response to a paper by the psychiatrist Nicholas Kontos, on the phenomenon of psychological symptom amplification (PSA). PSA takes place when patients present symptoms to clinicians that they do not actually have, or, perhaps
more commonly, they exaggerate symptoms they do have. Kontos argues that, because of modern medical training, it is very difficult for clinicians to recognize that the patient's presented symptoms are exaggerated or nonexistent. I argue that the hiddenness of PSA is a result of far-reaching instutitional changes that took place in American psychiatry in the 1970s. In short, many psychiatrists went from seeing mental disorders as (unconscious) strategies to seeing them as dysfunctions, nothing more. Recognizing PSA involves adopting a perspective that has been effectively abolished in contemporary American psychiatry.   

The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube

Science in Context, 2015

AbstractAs historian Henning Schmidgen notes, the scientific study of the nervous system would have been “unthinkable” without the industrialization of communication in the 1830s. Historians have investigated extensively the way nerve physiologists have borrowed concepts and tools from the field of communications, particularly regarding the nineteenth-century work of figures like Helmholtz and in the American Cold War Era. The following focuses specifically on the interwar research of the Cambridge physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian, and on the technology that led to his Nobel-Prize-winning research, the thermionic vacuum tube. Many countries used the vacuum tube during the war for the purpose of amplifying and intercepting coded messages. These events provided a context for Adrian’s evolving understanding of the nerve fiber in the 1920s. In particular, they provide the background for Adrian’s transition around 1926 to describing the nerve impulse in terms of “information,” “messages,” “signals,” or even “codes,” and for translating the basic principles of the nerve, such as the all-or-none principle and adaptation, into such an “informational” context. The following also places Adrian’s research in the broader context of the changing relationship between science and technology, and between physics and physiology, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Functions Must be Performed at Appropriate Rates in Appropriate Situations (with Gualtiero Piccinini)

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2014

AbstractWe sketch a novel and improved version of Boorse’s biostatistical theory of functions. Roughly, our theory maintains that (i) functions are non-negligible contributions to survival or inclusive fitness (when a trait contributes to survival or inclusive fitness); (ii) situations appropriate for the performance of a function are typical situations in which a trait contributes to survival or inclusive fitness; (iii) appropriate rates of functioning are rates that make adequate contributions to survival or inclusive fitness (in situations appropriate for the performance of that function); and (iv) dysfunction is the inability to perform a function at an appropriate rate in appropriate situations. Based on our theory,we sketch solutions to three problems that have afflicted Boorse’s theory of function, namely, Kingma’s ([2010]) problem of the situation-specificity of functions, the problem of multi-functional traits, and the problem of how to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate rates of functioning.

What is the Value of Historical Fidelity in Restoration?  

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 2014

AbstractThe following considers the role of historical fidelity in habitat reconstruction efforts. To what extent should habitat reconstruction be guided by the goal of recreating some past state of a damaged ecosystem? I consider Sarkar’s ‘‘replacement argument,’’ which holds that, in most habitat reconstruction efforts, there is little justification for appealing to historical fidelity. I argue that Sarkar does not provide adequate grounds for deprecating historical fidelity relative to other natural values such as biodiversity or wild nature.

Realism, Conventionalism, and Irrealism About Biological Functions: A Reply to Schyfter     

Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2014

Abstract: This paper is a short response to a paper by sociologist Pablo Shyfter, "Functions by Agreement." He argues that philosophers have been short-sighted in thinking about functions because they tend to approach the issue through a set of realistic and naturalistic commitments. He thinks that whether or not a trait has a function, and which function it has, is a thoroughly conventional matter and it depends almost entirely on our research perspectives and goals. I suggest that his view is an extension of Robert Cummins' view and I defend the etiological theory from some of his criticisms. His interesting paper can be found here, along with his reply to me. 

The Functional Sense of Mechanism       

Philosophy of Science, 2013

Abstract: This article presents a distinct sense of ‘mechanism’, which I call the functional sense of mechanism. According to this sense, mechanisms serve functions, and this fact places substantive restrictions on the kinds of system activities ‘for which’ there can be a mechanism. On this view, there are no mechanisms for pathology; pathologies result from disrupting mechanisms for functions. Second, on this sense, natural selection is probably not a mechanism for evolution because it does not serve a function. After distinguishing this sense from similar explications of ‘mechanism’, I argue that it is ubiquitous in biology and has valuable epistemic benefits.

Alexander Forbes, Walter Cannon, and Science-Based Literature  

Stiles, A., Finger, S., and Boller, F. (Eds.), Progress in Brain Research Vol. 205: Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical and Literary Connections. Elsevier, 2013. 

Abstract: The Harvard physiologists Alexander Forbes (1882-1965) and Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945) had an enormous impact on the physiology and neuroscience of the twentieth century. In addition to their voluminous scientific output, they also used literature to reflect on the nature of science itself and its social significance. Forbes wrote a novel, The Radio Gunner, a literary memoir, Quest for a Northern Air Route, and several short stories. Cannon, in addition to several books of popular science, wrote a literary memoir in the last year of his life, The Way of an Investigator. The following will provide a brief overview of the life and work of Forbes and Cannon. It will then discuss the way that Forbes used literature to express his views about the changing role of communications technology in the military, and his evolving view of the nervous system itself as a kind of information-processing device. It will go on to discuss the way that Cannon used literature to articulate the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, as well as to contribute to the philosophy of science, and in particular, to the logic of scientific discovery. Finally, it will consider the historical and philosophical value of investigation of the literary productions of scientists.

Function, Selection, and Construction in the Brain

Synthese, 2012

Abstract:A common misunderstanding of the selected effects theory of function is that natural selection operating over an evolutionary time scale is the only function-bestowing process in the natural world. This construal of the selected effects theory conflicts with the existence and ubiquity of neurobiological functions that are evolutionary novel, such as structures underlying reading ability. This conflict has suggested
to some that, while the selected effects theory may be relevant to some areas of evolutionary biology, its relevance to neuroscience is marginal. This line of reasoning, however, neglects the fact that synapses, entire neurons, and potentially groups of neurons can undergo a type of selection analogous to natural selection operating over an evolutionary time scale. In the following, I argue that neural selection should be construed, by the selected effect theorist, as a distinct type of function-bestowing process in addition to natural selection. After explicating a generalized selected effects theory of function and distinguishing it from similar attempts to extend the selected effects theory, I do four things. First, I show how it allows one to identify neural selection as a distinct function-bestowing process, in contrast to other forms of neural structure formation such as neural construction. Second, I defend the view from one major criticism, and in so doing I clarify the content of the view. Third, I examine drug addiction to show the potential relevance of neural selection to neuroscientific and psychological research. Finally, I endorse a modest pluralism of function concepts within biology.

Selected Effects and Causal Role Functions in the Brain: The Case for an Etiological Approach to Neuroscience

BIology & Philosophy, 2011

Abstract: Despite the voluminous literature on biological functions produced over the last 40 years, few philosophers have studied the concept of function as it is used in neuroscience. Recently, Craver (forthcoming; also see Craver 2001 ) defended the causal role theory against the selected effects theory as the most appropriate theory of function for neuroscience. The following argues that though neuroscientists do study causal role functions, the scope of that theory is not as universal as claimed. Despite the strong prima facie superiority of the causal role theory, the selected effects theory (when properly developed) can handle many cases from neuroscience with equal facility. It argues this by presenting a new theory of function that generalizes the notion of a ‘selection process’ to include processes such as neural selection, antibody selection, and some forms of learning—that is, to include structures that have been differentially retained as well as those that have been differentially reproduced. This view, called the generalized selected effects theory of function, will be defended from criticism and distinguished from similar views in the literature.

Schizophrenia and the Dysfunctional Brain

Journal of Cognitive Science, 2010

Abstract: Scientists, philosophers, and even the lay public commonly accept that schizophrenia stems from a biological or internal ‘dysfunction.’ However, this assessment is typically accompanied neither by well-defined criteria for determining that something is dysfunctional nor empirical evidence that schizophrenia satisfies those criteria. In the following, a concept of biological function is developed and applied to a neurobiological model of schizophrenia. It concludes that current evidence does not warrant the claim that schizophrenia stems from a biological dysfunction, and, in fact, that unusual neural structures associated with schizophrenia may have functional or adaptive significance. The fact that current evidence is ambivalent between these two possibilities (dysfunction versus adaptive function) implies that schizophrenia researchers should be much more cautious in using the ‘dysfunction’ label than they currently are. This has implications for both psychiatric treatment as well as public perception of mental disorders.

Function and Teleology

Plutynski, A., and Sarkar, S. (Eds.), ​Companion to Philosophy of Biology. Blackwell, 2008.

Abstract: This is a short overview of the biological functions debate in philosophy. While it was fairly comprehensive when it was written, my short book ​ A Critical Overview of Biological Functions  has largely supplanted it as a definitive and up-to-date overview of the debate, both because the book takes into account new developments since then, and because the length of the book allowed me to go into substantially more detail about existing views.

The Introduction of Information into Neurobiology

Philosophy of Science, 2003

Abstract: The first use of the term ‘‘information’’ to describe the content of nervous impulse occurs in Edgar Adrian’s The Basis of Sensation (1928). What concept of information does Adrian appeal to, and how can it be situated in relation to contemporary philosophical accounts of the notion of information in biology? The answer requires an explication of Adrian’s use and an evaluation of its situation in relation to contemporary accounts of semantic information. I suggest that Adrian’s concept of information can be to derive a concept of arbitrariness or semioticity in representation. This in turn provides one way of resolving some of the challenges that confront recent attempts in the philosophy of biology to restrict the notion of information to those causal connections that can in some sense be referred to as arbitrary or semiotic.