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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...

Some would consider mathematical patterns found in nature, such as the Fibonacci

Some would consider mathematical patterns found in nature, such as the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, as indications of a higher deity, God if you will. Is this a sound belief?

I guess I would like to know from someone who thought such things were indications of the workings of a deity what sorts of patterns would count to them as not being indications of a deity. I'm inclined to think that some sort of order is a simple requirement of there being a universe at all, and so it seems that some indications of such order--whether highly complex or simple--would inevitably be evident in that universe. As a result, it is difficult for me to see why some particular patterns would indicate anything religiously significant--after all, it is not as if the patterns themselves are divine signatures or fingerprints or the divine equivalent of DNA evidence. That one can have a religious response to such things, as Richard Heck proposes, I don't doubt; but that such a response is somehow rationally supportable, I do doubt.

I guess I would like to know from someone who thought such things were indications of the workings of a deity what sorts of patterns would count to them as not being indications of a deity. I'm inclined to think that some sort of order is a simple requirement of there being a universe at all, and so it seems that some indications of such order--whether highly complex or simple--would inevitably be evident in that universe. As a result, it is difficult for me to see why some particular patterns would indicate anything religiously significant--after all, it is not as if the patterns themselves are divine signatures or fingerprints or the divine equivalent of DNA evidence. That one can have a religious response to such things, as Richard Heck proposes, I don't doubt; but that such a response is somehow rationally supportable, I do doubt.

Do you think there are two distinct kinds, 'male' and 'female', in terms of

Do you think there are two distinct kinds, 'male' and 'female', in terms of gender, biological differences, or social and cultural constraints? I know this seems like a broad question but it is asked with the idea/intention of feminism behind it. If any of you have a brief (or extensive!) philosophical opinion on any issues within this query I would be very interested to know. Thank you for your time.

Most philosophers now recognize a distinction between the biological category "sex" and the social category "gender." One's sex is determined by a collection of biological factors that typically (though not always!) go together: chromosomes, anatomy, and hormones. Gender is the social role a society assigns to persons on the basis of their sex: the set of expectations about behavior and appearance deemed appropriate for someone of that sex, and a system of rewards and sanctions that enforce conformity.

The sanctions that I speak of can take many forms. There can be explicit laws or regulations specifying which roles can be performed by males and which by females, with punishments for violators. But there can also be informal or tacit conventions that are extremely effective. A man who wants to get ahead in the American business world will not wear skirts or lipstick, whereas a woman in the same milieu will do exactly that. (Check out "Dress for Success" at your local bookstore.) More seriously, women who violate social expectations about sexual behavior, for example, are often faced with loss of social standing, and may even be regarded as fit objects for violence and rape.

Because these social forces are so effective, they create real and observable differences between men and women. Consider hair removal: current American gender norms dictate that women shall have no hair on their faces, underarms, or legs. But women do have hair in these places. (Yes, Virginia, there is a bearded lady) To conform to the "hairless" norm, they spend millions of dollars shaving, bleaching, waxing, electrically zappping, and dipilatating it off. The result is a real regularity: American women are much less hairy than American men.

But here's the kicker: although conformity to gender norms often takes a great deal of deliberate effort, it's part of the norm that this effort must be invisible. So, to stick with my example, many men are CLUELESS about what women do, and have to do, to remove hair from "unwanted places." The existence of the norm, therefore, creates not only an observable regularity, but the impression that this regularity is "natural."

There's a further complication: because the impression is fostered that these engineered regularities are "natural" -- i.e., not the result of deliberate human effort -- the content of the norm itself incorporates an ideal of naturalness: the more a woman conforms to gender expectations (regardless of how much effort and frustration this actually causes her) the more "natural" a woman she is thought to be. A woman who announced that she'd like to have children, but would prefer that her husband raise them herself because she's just not that into babies and toddlers, is regarded in contemporary American society as not just unusual, but as "unwomanly." Similarly for men -- the man willing to marry such a woman had better be really into sports, or he's a social goner.

So now I can answer your question: yes, there are differences between men and women. But given the efficacy of gender norms, no one could have any basis for attributing these differences to differences in "natures" between men and women. Indeed, the whole nature/nurture controversy is vexed, and generally embodies multiple confusions -- not the least of which is the idea that a property one has "by nature" cannot be changed. The important question, and one that can be answered, is whether the nearly universal practice of slotting people into gender roles is a good one or a bad one. The jury is in on this: gender roles are in fact, and probably are necessarily, hierarchical and oppressive. They lead to unjust social divisions based on morally irrelevant biological facts, and should be abolished.

If you want to see these points developed in more detail, let me recommend The Politics of Reality by Marilyn Frye. Enjoy.

Questions like these prove to be either especially difficult...or so easy that one suspects one hasn't understood the question. On the "easy" side, plainly most of us can tell the difference most of the time, and there do seem to be fairly reliable morphological and biological indicators or sex. Similarly "easy" to notice are the differences between the sexes that are recognized within social and cultural contexts--though these plainly differ widely from culture to culture. Given the "easy" aspects of the question, one might be seduced into thinking that such obvious observations are adequate to answer the question...but I suspect they are not, and may even be misleading. I have several problems in mind here: (1) Just how much can we infer about the appropriateness or justice of social recognitions and restrictions that are based upon differences between the sexes, from observable biological differences? As a general rule, I think people have thought there was much more we could infer...

Why do humans continually put a higher value on material goods (such as

Why do humans continually put a higher value on material goods (such as diamonds and gold) than life. Is it some sort of adaptation through evolution for survival to obtain these goods at any cost? Were greed and jealously formed through some sort of hardwired drive in the human mind as population control? If so would there ever be a way to end this cycle? Nick

Hello Nick from another Nick. In a sense, your question is more one of psychology than philosophy. We philosophers do not so much ask and answer questions about why people actually do things or act the way they do, so much as to inquire about how, perhaps, we should do things, or how we might do them better than we do them now.

Valuing material goods even more than life itself, I think most (if not all) philosophers would agree, is a very serious and ultimately self-defeating ethical error. It is, very simply, to assign greater value to what is in fact far less valuable. But there may be another error here, as well--if we think that life has intrinsic value (as many but not all philosophers do), then valuing wealth over life itself is to mistake something that has only instrumental value--value, that is, only for the pursuit or acquisition of something else that is valuable--for something that is intrinsically valuable (valuable, that is, just in and of itself and not only for trying to obtain something else.

It is generally agreed that wealth is only instrumentally valuable. Just think: If someone were to give you a million dollars, but only under the stipulation that you (and your heirs, and their heirs, etc.) could never spend it on anything, what real value would the money have (for you or for anyone else)? The value of money just is whatever it enables you to do or to purchase--it just is the instrumental value it provides for getting other things. You might think, however, that just being alive is valuable (consider the alternative!).

Of course, there may be other intrinsic values that could come into conflict with the value of life itself. We value not being in pain or suffering, for example, such that too much unrelieved suffering might lead us to conclude that life itself is no longer valuable enough to continue. But such cases do not show that life is not intrinsically valuable, only that there can be considerations that can trump its value.

Some philosophers, however, have said that life is not intrinsically valuable, but can only become valuable if it is lived in certain ways. So Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" (Plato, Apology 38a), which seems to suggest that he did not think that life itself was intrinsically valuable, but gained value only by being or becoming an "examined" life (one in which critical inquiry was a significant feature is what he meant, I think).

Anyway, it is generally foolish and self-defeating to live one's life as if something that is simply an instrumental value were actually intrinsically valuable, or brought value to a life just by its acquisition. Imagine thinking that one's life would be clearly enriched by acquiring every tool known to humankind, by one who had no clue as to how to use those tools! If one could figure out what was really valuable (intrinsically valuable, that is), maybe then one could figure out how to use money in such a way as to put the money to good use!

Hello Nick from another Nick. In a sense, your question is more one of psychology than philosophy. We philosophers do not so much ask and answer questions about why people actually do things or act the way they do, so much as to inquire about how, perhaps, we should do things, or how we might do them better than we do them now. Valuing material goods even more than life itself, I think most (if not all) philosophers would agree, is a very serious and ultimately self-defeating ethical error. It is, very simply, to assign greater value to what is in fact far less valuable. But there may be another error here, as well--if we think that life has intrinsic value (as many but not all philosophers do), then valuing wealth over life itself is to mistake something that has only instrumental value--value, that is, only for the pursuit or acquisition of something else that is valuable--for something that is intrinsically valuable (valuable, that is, just in and of itself and not only...