Cognitive Science Reading & Discussion Group Message Board › On Functional Kinds: Beliefs, Wives, Schizoprenics, Hearts, and Mousetraps

On Functional Kinds: Beliefs, Wives, Schizoprenics, Hearts, and Mousetraps

James H.
user 13603321
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 162
The identity conditions for some features in the world are not determinate. Baldness is an example. There is no necessary or sufficient number of hairs that have to be missing on the top of your head in order for you to be bald. Now, does this mean there are no identity conditions at all? Of course not. You have to be missing some number of hairs. A person with a full set of hair isn’t bald. Does this mean that you can’t come up with a scientific explanation of baldness? Of course not. We can figure out what the causes are for losing lots of head hair, and we can make predictions about who is more likely to get bald (e.g. men... are, as opposed to women), and at what ages are you are more likely to start becoming bald, etc. Does this mean that baldness exists only in virtue of an institutional context: that a bald person is like a Republican, a Giants fan, or an American—features that a person has only in virtue of the existence of some institution? No, because what causes baldness exists independently of any institution, unlike being a Republican, Giants fan, or an American: they require the existence of the Republican Party, the Giants team, and the American government. We would still have bald people even if we lost the concept of being bald, unlike being a Republican, etc. Now, having a psychological disease, such as bipolar depression, autism, and schizophrenia, is more like being bald than it is like being a Republican, a Giants fan, and an American. Their causes exist independently of any institution, and we can come up with scientific explanations of them. Can we be wrong about what kind of psychological diseases there are? Of course: we used to think that having multiple personalities, being homosexual, and masturbating were diseases, but we were wrong. This isn’t unique to psychology though. It’s typical of all science. Science sometimes posits that there are kinds of things that turn out not to exist: phlogiston, vital spirits, crystalline spheres.

Why is being hip or being square (or to use roughly analogous contemporary terms, “being cool or being uncool”) an institutional feature? Certain features exist only in virtue of our intentionally following certain rules. Rules regulate activity: activity that exists independently of your following the rule (e.g. driving a car; it exists independently of your following the rule that you are to drive on the right side of the road), and activity that exists only in virtue of your following the rule (e.g. playing chess; it exists only in virtue of you following some number of rules of chess playing). Regulative rules are the former kind (they don’t constitute the very activity they regulate); constitutive rules are the latter kind (they constitute the very activity that they regulate). Institutions (money, government, private property, cocktail parties, marriages, friendships, etc.) are constituted by our following constitutive rules. When you follow a constitutive rule, you sometimes acquire a status, for example, getting a check, taking your Rook, or winning the game. When you follow a constitutive rule that makes up an institution, you sometimes acquire a status: getting a promotion, getting married, becoming elected President. These are institutional feature that you have. Being hip or being square is like getting a promotion or getting married: it’s a feature that you have in virtue of you following a constitutive rule that make up an institution: for example, that make up your being a friend, a young person, a student, a classmate, a consumer of mass media and clothes, an athlete, a masculine man.

So, we create features that we have, and that things have, in virtue of following constitutive rules—features such as being a twenty dollar bill, being my private property, or being a friend or a wife. Call these features “institutional kinds”. We also create features that we have, and that other things have in virtue of other actions that we do: we make ourselves have artificially red lips or rosy cheeks, spiky hair, and big biceps, and we make things be cars, tables, mousetraps, and thermostats. Call these features “artifactual kinds”. Now, if we take what Ian Hacking says to be philosophically interesting, then he is saying that psychological diseases (being bipolar, autistic, having OCD, etc.) are institutional kinds or artifactual kinds. But this isn’t true. There's a difference between action that has regularity and action in accordance with a rule. When you act in accordance with a rule, your action is an instance of a regularity. But not every action that has regularity is an instance of your acting in accordance with a rule. The action that you perform that is symptomatic of your having the flu (for example, coughing a lot, sneezing a lot, blowing your nose a lot) is an instance of a regularity, but it is not an instance of your acting in according with a rule. Because a rule is something collectively imposed for the purpose of regulating an activity: it is your action of following it that is what makes there be a regularity in your action. But what makes your action have regularity when you have the flu isn't your action of following some rule of the form, "Cough a lot, sneeze a lot, blow your nose a lot". No such rule was collectively imposed for the purpose of making your action have regularity. Your action has regularity because your infection, your biology, is causing you to act that way. As it is with the flu, so it is with being polar, being autistic, and having other psychological diseases.

James H.
user 13603321
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 163
The thing that a psychological disease has in common with being a mousetrap (an artifactual kind) and being a wife (an institutional kind) is that they are all functional kinds. The world is divided up into things that are functional kinds or structural kinds This is something you won’t learn in any science class. Its a hard-won insight of 20th century philosophy. A functional kind is identified with its job description: what does it do? An organ is a heart if it pumps bloods through the body; a device is a mousetrap if it captures and kills mice; a complex molecule is a gene if it transmits hereditary information; someone is an American President if s/he wins the most electoral college votes. A structural kind is identified by its microphysical features. Water is H20; being a Homo Sapien is having the right kind of genes. What makes functional kinds so philosophically interesting is that the physical features that the kind has aren’t necessary for the kind to fulfill its job description: a mousetrap doesn’t have to be made out of wood; a heart doesn’t have to be organic; and an American President doesn’t have to win the majority of votes in the electoral college. Being bipolar and being autistic are functional kinds, just like mousetraps, hearts, and American Presidents. But they’re not institutional or artifactual kinds. They are biological kinds: like being a heart or being a gene. What's interesting about them is that they are dysfunctional functional kinds. All diseases are dsyfunctional kinds: from tooth decay to AIDS. They exist against a background of mostly proper functioning. Having a theory about them presupposes a theory of proper functioning. We try to explain what’s going wrong in the biological world against the background of our beliefs about the way things are supposed to work, that is, when everything is properly functioning. And we explain proper functioning, at least of biological kinds, against the background of our theory of the evolution of life by natural selection.
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