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Dear Philosophers,

Dear Philosophers, We can differentiate between objects by two axii, their form, which is the shape they take, and their "thingness." Thingness refers to the reason for an object, its purpose that it is supposed to achieve. For example, the thingness of a guitar is to make music. We can differentiate it from a similar object like a banjo, because while they share similar purposes, they have different shapes. We hold in our minds this thingness in the form of a Concept. If you were to show me a picture of a guitar, I would match that image (its form and thingness) to my Concept of guitar, and so I could recognize that object. Now if we have a guitar, but remove the strings by this framework we could say that it is no longer a guitar, because while it has a shape of a guitar, it now lacks the "thingness" of a guitar, that is it can no longer be used to make music. So its new label becomes "an object that's almost a guitar." Another example. We have a Bic lighter. A lighter is used to...

Your question calls to mind Aristotle's so-called "four causes," which I prefer to think of as four sorts of explanation.

"Material Cause": explaining a thing in terms of what it is made of (in the case of the Bic lighter, plastic, compressed gas, etc.)

"Formal Cause": explaining a thing in terms of what it is (it's a Bic lighter!)

"Efficient Cause": Explaining a thing in terms of how it came to be (this, I think, is our normal concept of cause--refer to the operations of the factory where the lighted was made)

"Final Cause": Explaining a thing in virtue of what it characteristicallydoes or what purpose it may have. (Ignites cigarettes, cigars, or pipes for smokers to use.)

In Aristotle's system, the Formal and Final Causes are linked, but not so tightly as in your more reduced conception: A thing can still be a Bic lighter, but no longer able to fulfill it's Final Cause, since these are distinct.

So you might find Aristotle helpful here. If you want to see what he has to say (and not rely on my rather compresssed and perhaps imperfect paraphrase), have a look at his Physics Book II.

Your question calls to mind Aristotle's so-called "four causes," which I prefer to think of as four sorts of explanation. "Material Cause": explaining a thing in terms of what it is made of (in the case of the Bic lighter, plastic, compressed gas, etc.) "Formal Cause": explaining a thing in terms of what it is (it's a Bic lighter!) "Efficient Cause": Explaining a thing in terms of how it came to be (this, I think, is our normal concept of cause--refer to the operations of the factory where the lighted was made) "Final Cause": Explaining a thing in virtue of what it characteristicallydoes or what purpose it may have. (Ignites cigarettes, cigars, or pipes for smokers to use.) In Aristotle's system, the Formal and Final Causes are linked, but not so tightly as in your more reduced conception: A thing can still be a Bic lighter, but no longer able to fulfill it's Final Cause, since these are distinct. So you might find Aristotle helpful here. If you want to see what he has...

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote:

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote: "A more abstract reason for disallowing suicide concerns the apparent contradiction in the idea that we can improve a life by ending a life. The suicide's thought that she will be better off dead seems to contradict the fact that, if dead, she will not be anything. Her desire to retain control over her life by ending it in the way she wants to end seems to contradict the fact that there is no control over a life that has ended. There are other ways to express a suicidal intention, though, that do not lead to such contradictions." This has been haunting me since I first read it. As suggested, I am unable to devise a non-contradictory logic of suicide (for argument, base this thought on life being a biomechanical phenomenon, no after-life, and really no proof that anything at all remains in existance if you (the contemplator) are not conscious of it. This has taken on a particular poignancy as a friend has recently killed himself. I see existence continuing...

I hope Jennifer Church will also answer this one. But I don't quite see why the decision to commit suicide must be based upon the fallacy of thinking that one will be better off. The value of eliminating something bad does not have to derive from some (other) benefit achieved in the process. (See step (C) in the argument below.)

(A) S's life now involves unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(B) If the life is ended, so will the pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(C) Ending unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort is at least sometimes a good reason to do something.

Hence, (D) There can be a good reason to end a life of unbearable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

I see nothing in this argument that presupposes the fallacy you mention--for example, it is not assumed that by ending the pain and/or suffering of some other sort that the one whose pain or suffering has been ended will be "better off." As you say, they won't be "better off," they will simply be gone. But the pain or suffering will also be gone, and that's not such a bad thing.

I hope Jennifer Church will also answer this one. But I don't quite see why the decision to commit suicide must be based upon the fallacy of thinking that one will be better off. The value of eliminating something bad does not have to derive from some (other) benefit achieved in the process. (See step (C) in the argument below.) (A) S's life now involves unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort. (B) If the life is ended, so will the pain and/or suffering of some other sort. (C) Ending unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort is at least sometimes a good reason to do something. Hence, (D) There can be a good reason to end a life of unbearable pain and/or suffering of some other sort. I see nothing in this argument that presupposes the fallacy you mention--for example, it is not assumed that by ending the pain and/or suffering of some other sort that the one whose pain or suffering has been ended will be "better off." As...

I've been reading some online articles on the concept of "function", but I'm not

I've been reading some online articles on the concept of "function", but I'm not very sure about it. An ashtray, according to my dictionary, is a "container for cigarette ash", but I don't know what this "for" means. It can't mean that people ought to put ashes in the ashtray, because there are other places where we may put it. And it can't mean that people may put there the ashes, since, once again, we may put the ashes in places which are not ashtrays. It can't either mean that the ashtray was made "with the purpose" of serving as a container for the ashes, because an object may be an ashtray now but haven't been made to be an ashtray. So, what is an ashtray?

Your question suggests that answers to the question “What is thefunction of X?’ will have normative implications about what we ought orought not, may or may not, do to Xs. And this fact is puzzling. How,you might be wondering, can certain facts about an object’s functionhave any implications about what I may or may not do to it? And I thinkthat you are right to be skeptical: in the case of ashtrays, functionaldefinitions have no normative implications for us– about what we may ormay not do to them.

However, behind your question may be Aristotle’s “function argument” in the Nicomachean Ethics (I 7), where he argues that information about the “function” (ergon) of humans has implications for what sort of life humans ought to live-- “ought”, that is, if they are going to be well off.

Onmy view, Aristotle’s notion of function does not correspond to any ofthe three notions of function that Nick distinguishes for ashtrays. Todistinguish Aristotle’s notion from those that Nick defines, I’ll referto it as an object’s “real function.” On Aristotle’s view, the notionof an object’s real function plays a significant explanatory function. If I want to know why this hammer has the attributes that it has, I have to understand what the hammer is for. If I want to know why hearts have the attributes they have, I have to know what they are for.Hammers and hearts can be used for all sorts of purposes, but not allof these purposes will be equally useful for such explanatory purposes.

The fact that we put objects to uses other than what they arereally for usually doesn’t much matter– sometimes we can put objects tobetter use than we could if we restricted ourselves to using them onlyfor real function. This statue is quite hideous, but it makes for avery effective doorstop. On Aristotle’s view, there is a significantexception to this general rule. While we might put other objects tobetter use than what they are really for, our own selves are adifferent matter altogether. On Aristotle’s view, if we are going tolive the best life, we must perform our real function and do so well.

You're right to suspect that the idea of function is somewhat unclear--at least in most uses. In one sense, a thing may be said to "perform a function" just in case it does whatever it is that is within the description of the function. So, a highball glass can "perform the function" of an ashtray, because it can do what we ordinarily associate with the ashtray--that is, serve as a receptacle for ashes. Something made to be an ashtray would be an object for which serving as a receptacle for ashes would be its "intended function." The intended function of a highball glass (whose intended function was to be a drink container of a certain size and shape) is not to be a receptacle of ashes. So the object whose intended function was X may end up performing some other function. Now one way in which things can shift functions is because beings capable of forming intentions can decide to change the functions the objects serve, either temporarily or permanently. So we can turn an old tire into a...