Functional ascriptions are problematic from the point of scientific methodology: they seem to explain causes from their effects. Contemporary philosophers of science have proposed to solve this problem by showing that functional statements can be translated into ordinary causal statements with no loss of content. The paper examines the successive solutions proposed by Ernest Nagel (1961), the ‘etiological’ theories (Wright1973, and other versions of the etiological theory), and the ‘systemic theory’ (Cummins 1975). These conceptions are examined in the perspective of both their coherence and their signification for practicing biologists.
Biology of proximate causes, Biology of ultimate causes, Function, Philosophy of science, Teleology, Etiological theory, Systemic theory