Thursday, January 27, 2022

More on artifacts and intentions

Yesterday, I showed that an artifact’s function wasn’t defined by the maker’s intention that it be used for that function. For instance, a historical weapons recreationist might make a halberd without intending that it kill anyone, even though killing is the function of the halberd, and we might make a nuclear weapon without intending that it kill, but only for deterrent—and yet, once again, killing is the function of the weapon.

Here is an account that occurred to me this morning:

  1. An artifact x has a function F iff x was intentionally made or designed in order to be capable of fulfilling F, and the maker and designer were sufficiently successful.

This takes care of my two above examples. The recreated halberd and the deterrent weapon are both made not to kill, but to be capable of killing.

There is a lot of vagueness in the “sufficiently successful”, and it’s meant to match the vagueness of our usage of artifactual vocabulary. There really is vagueness in how sharp something made to serve the functions of a knife has to be to be a knife. If it’s too far from sharpness, it’s at best a knife blank.

Here is my best attempt at a counterexample to (1). You hire a blacksmith to make a letter opener, but you ask for it to be sharp enough that it could be used as a scalpel (bad idea!). The resulting letter opener is made to be capable of the functions of a scalpel, but perhaps it isn’t a scalpel. Here I don’t know what to say. I think the defender of (1) could bite the bullet and say that you hired a blacksmith to make a dual function letter-opener / scalpel.


Malik said...

I have a bookshelf sitting here beside me and it has analytic philosophy texts on it. If my intent is to learn then the best use of the books are to be read, if my intent to use the restroom then they’re wiping material, if my intent is to play with my nephews then they could become paper airplanes when I rip out pages. Now the question of when I should intend to do these specific things ideally seems clear: I should read these texts when I need to study for a test, I should use the book as TP when I’m in a dire situation and the TP is all gone, and use the books as airplane material if my nephew wishes to play and there’s no normal paper(unless I dislike the authors in these latter 2 scenarios but spiteful malice in itself isn’t a good thing correct?).

I recognize the relativity and circumstantial nature of the use of things as human agents as the ideal use of a thing is clearly up to circumstance. Now, if God is absolute instead of relative or circumstantial and experiences reality in such a way then there is only one ideal intention and use for God to have for mankind THIS is where the human purpose comes from, I think. I’m still not sure about this idea, please critique

Malik said...

If God is ‘love’ and ‘love’ is inherently relational then it seems that the only reason for man to even exist is that relationship.

Unknown said...

The nuclear bomb case is very interesting. I'm unsure what the correct response is. But my intuition is that the nuclear bomb's (artificial) function is just to deter, not to kill. It may appear that the bomb's function is to kill. But that appearance is false, as it arises from three different facts: (a) that the bomb would be good at killing; (b) that the bomb would acquire the function of killing, were it decided to be so used; and (c) that nuclear bombs have in fact had the function of killing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It would be funny, though, if you ordered two identical bombs from the nuke manufacturer, one for deterrence and one for killing, and they mixed up your order.

Unknown said...

I hadn't considered that possibility! It makes me wonder what happens when the consumer's intended use diverges from the producer's. What's the artifact's function in such a case? Perhaps "artificial function" is polysemous: In one sense, an artificial function is determined by the consumer's intended use; in another sense, by the producer's intended use.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the Polish film _With Fire and Sword_, victorious Cossacks are having a drinking party at a noble's residence which they seized. One of them finds a handy container for drinking large quantities of alcohol from, and as he is drinking a second says: "That's a chamber pot." (A longer conversation ensues, as the first one had never heard of such a thing.) If the consumer's intended use overrides, then the second Cossack is mistaken--he should have said: "That used to be a chamber pot" (which of course would be bad enough).

I am inclined to think that we should distinguish what an artifact is and what it is being used for. I remember seeing a staff member at a salad bar use a glass ketchup bottle as a mallet for breaking up the ice. I don't think the bottle became a mallet, but it was being used as one (for a short time, before proving messily unfit for that function).

Norm said...

This is just a humble reflection..
I am interested in what is meant by or what qualifies as an artifact's "function". It seems to me that any particular useful effect that a particular object can bring about could be considered as a function of that object. This seems to be clear with most everyday items and the fact that many times we use them in ways that are other then what they were intended for. At times there may be objects that we aren't really sure about with regards to its intended function but that object may still be really useful for another function. Perhaps someone not familiar with a stapler could think of it as paper weight and it would function well as a paper weight. It's a crude example but I think it illustrates the point. What if someone designed a normal nuclear bomb to nuke Mars in order to free up its atmosphere (Possible in theory but extremely improbable as it is estimated that one may have to launch 3500 nukes per day for 7 weeks for the desired effect) and this was the function for which it was initially conceived, would the nuclear bomb still be considered as a weapon because it is also able to produce the effect of devastating populations. It seems to me that given the inherent ambiguity of physical objects with regards to their usefulness to human beings,artifacts could always have more then one function and need not be exclusively defined by the function that they were intended for, it could be legitimately defined with regards to another one of its functions, so a nuclear bomb doesn't have to be considered as a weapon it could be considered as a "Extraterrestrial atmosphere clearing tool" or EACT ? Ofcourse the function with which it ultimately gets classified as, is what we immediately see as useful upon conceiving it or coming across it. A function that we happened to realise and excercise at that point of time and that gets classified as it's primary function.Hence nuclear bombs are primarily conceived as weapons.

Mikhail said...

Couldn't we say the artifact's function aligns with the *primary* intention of its maker or designer? A piano is primarily intended to make music, but not primarily intended to be a piece of furniture, even if its maker partly intended for it to function as furniture.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe. But you could imagine a rich dude who doesn't know how to play the piano and orders a bespoke piano to keep cocktails on at parties, but insists that the maker still make it a really excellent piano, because he doesn't want anything less than the best in his house. Is it a piano or a cocktail table? :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...


All that sounds right. And yet artifacts seem to be defined by their function. I conclude that artifacts don't really exist except in a manner of speaking.

Norm said...

Dear Prof.Pruss
Yes, Artifacts do seem to be defined by their function like for example "paint brush" but it could always be the case that a novice domestic helper might see it lying around and consider it to be a duster for dusting of tiny wine glasses like those linked to below.

Since most artifacts have more then one function which function it ultimately gets associated seems to be purely circumstantial either on the makers intention or what is most evident to the random person who comes across it.

So I guess it's fair to say artifacts don't exist but rather what exists is a combination of natural substances that are arranged in a particular manner.

In fact I am reminded of a commentary from years ago by another writer Ed Feser with regards to the topic. I don't know if he would articulate it the same way now.

"Take a few bits of metal, work them into various shapes, and attach them to a piece of wood. Voila! A mousetrap. Or so we call it. But objectively, apart from human interests, the object is “nothing but” a collection of wood and metal parts. Its “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself. “Reductionism” with respect to such human artifacts is just common sense. We know that cars, computers, and cakes are objectively “nothing but” the parts that make them up – that their “carlike,” “computerlike,” or “cakelike” qualities are not really there inherently in the parts, but are observer-relative"

This seems to be relevant.

Mikhail said...

I think the maker's intentions take precedent over the commissioner's intentions in cases where their intentions clash. And if the piano maker in this case intends to make an excellent piano (i.e. good sound, good mechanical action, etc.) then the artifact's function is to make music.

But if the piano maker really intends to make, not an excellent piano, but a piano-shaped table, then the artifact's function is that of a table's. An intention is partly characterized by what's irrelevant to the fulfillment of that intention. If good sound, good mechanical action, etc. are irrelevant to fulfilling the piano maker's intention, then he isn't really intending to make an excellent piano.