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?

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 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.

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.

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 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...