Definition of Functionalism

  • Functionalism is a theory of the mind that posits mental states being constituted not by their intrinsic properties, but by their functional role.

  • It argues that mental states are identified by what they do rather than by what they are made of.

  • Functionalists consider the mind to be like a computer, with mental states acting like the software that processes inputs to deliver outputs.

Arguments for Functionalism

  • The Multiple Realisability Argument: In different organisms with different physical states, functional states can be the same. This suggests that understanding mental states functionally is more meaningful than physically.

  • Functionalism aligns with empirical advances in artificial intelligence - demonstrating that mental processes can be replicated in non-biological systems.

  • It helps to explain the existence of qualia; personal, subjective experiences which are difficult to define by pure physical descriptions.

Criticisms of Functionalism

  • The Logical Possibility of Inverted Qualia: It is logically possible to invert qualia (e.g. someone could functionally respond to seeing red as if they’ve seen green). Functionalism cannot accommodate this.

  • The Absent Qualia Argument: There could be functionally identical beings without qualia (e.g. philosophical zombies). Purely functional definitions of mind cannot capture subjective experience.

  • The Chinese Room Argument by John Searle. Even if a system can output intelligent responses, it still doesn’t understand the meaning behind sentences, striking a blow to the functionalist idea that understanding is purely functional.

Functionalism and Philosophy of Mind

  • Unlike dualism, functionalism doesn’t posit any metaphysical substances, aligning it with physicalism’s monist ontology.

  • However, unlike identity theory, it allows for mental states to be realised in different physical states. This makes it a form of property dualism.

  • It is a middle-ground philosophy - granting some of dualism’s phenomenological insights while retaining physicalism’s empirical strengths.