Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Artifacts and intentions

Artifacts have defining functions. It is tempting to think of these functions as coming from their maker’s intention that they be used for those functions. But that is actually incorrect. Modern-day blacksmiths routinely make weapons of war such as swords and halberds (cf. the Forged with Fire TV show), with no intention that the weapons ever be used against anyone. Yet these are real weapons, not mere props. Similarly, it is quite possible to make a nuclear bomb with the intention that it deter war and never explode.

Maybe we could say this: There are two ways in which an artifact can be connected with its function F:

  1. By being made to fulfill F

  2. By being made to be physically just like something that is would be made to fulfill F.

But that’s not correct. Suppose that upon looking at a fork, I come to realize that something physically indistinguishable from it would make a great backscratcher. I then go to a forge and make a backscratcher that is just like the fork. What I made isn’t a fork but a backscratcher, even though I made it to be physically just like something that would be made to fulfill the functions of a fork.

One can try various other similar definitions. Maybe an artifact with function F is something made such that it could be used for F? But that fails, too. I could order a fork from a blacksmith and explain the desired shape of fork I want by saying that it could be comfortably used as a backscratcher—but it’ll still be a fork.

It now seems very appealing to say:

  1. A smith makes a fork if and only if the smith makes something with the intention that it be a fork and is sufficiently successful in the design and execution.

But of course this can’t define what a fork is: there is too much circularity here.

I also find it appealing to say that really there are no forks, just particles arranged forkwise. But that doesn’t solve the problem. For we still want to know what it is for the particles to be arranged forkwise rather than backscratcherwise, and this seems to depend on something about how the item is thought of or what it is intended for. Maybe it makes the problem seem less urgent, though?


Malik said...

I do think that in the case of God at least that if I am told such a thing like ‘this is your purpose’ that I am justified in believing such a thing.

Aka If an omniscient being who never lies tells me that something is my proper function even if I do not understand why God says this I could see how it’s sane to accept such a thing at the very least.

In the Book of Sirach it simply states:

“He put fear of him into their hearts to show them the grandeur of his works, that they might describe the wonders of his deeds and praise his holy name.”
‭‭Ben Sira‬ ‭17:8-10‬ ‭NABRE‬‬

Maybe there’s something placed in our very natures that is immaterial and cannot properly function without God. It would be like a Heart that cannot pump blood. Maybe there is a ‘God shaped hole in our hearts😂’ how some claim.

Maybe such a thing is circular however. If God is truth, and truth is only good because of that being his nature and me even accepting that something that is true means that I think truth is good before that assumption it could be problematic, but this argument doesn’t seemingly go through as my acceptance of that claim doesn’t necessitate that I believe truth is good external to God himself being truth but rather that it is my will to accept this thing as so. If my action is justified or not depends on your theory of justification for assent to beliefs but as a guy who follows Karl Rahner SJ in the idea that humans have an innate function to follow God or seek God under a theory like reliabilism where I can accept my properly basic beliefs I think I’m quite fine.

Now, with persons it’s quite different seemingly. If we buy a chair for a school conceptually the chair would be ideally used for kids to sit in considering the nature of school as a social particular. This would mean that students throwing said chairs at one another would be seen at least by schools (considering the modern conception of them at least currently) as using the chairs improperly in most cases. The question relates back to our concept of what a chair is and how it ought to be used given the certain circumstances. These applied beliefs are not absolute seemingly, but does this mean that we don’t truly understand the identity of the chair or that chairs as non-human things don’t have a proper function inherent to them and that it’s relative to the situation given agreed upon functions for a thing? Likely the latter, but it could be the former and we’re from a scientific age in which we believe that knowing the atomic composition of a thing entails that we actually know that thing objectively aka the whole of it’s identity. How can humans know such a thing if our knowledge about reality and ourselves is inherently limited depending on the epistemic starting point from which we start at?

danielm said...

If we appeal to the Aristotelian distinction between accidental and substantial form, we take artifacts to lack any intrinsic telos, only some affordances selected for by the artificer and made use by someone for some end that remains his. I can use a stick with a chunk of metal stuck on its end (a hammer) to hammer metal spikes (nails) into wood, or I could use a rock for that purpose. Maybe one is more unwieldy than another (in how it relates to human anatomy/physiology and the desired end). So the question is one of how suitable or how fitting the object is in relation to some end (as Thomas would say) where the end remains "external" to the object. Thus, a chair is no objective or natural kind of thing (a stump could function as one as could some ergonomically designed office chair), but something used for or appropriated for sitting. Instruments could therefore be said to participate in human ends in a way that makes them something like weak extensions of the human body.