An Argument for Functionalism

Ryan M. Joseph By Ryan M. Joseph, 15th Jul 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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Functions of the mind. Discussion of the philosophy of mind arguing in favor of Functionalism

Introduction to the Mind-Body problem

Dualism at face value seems the most plausible way of speaking about human consciousness and the differences between thoughts and physical processes. Indeed this is how most people think about the mind i.e. as separate and distinct from the body and our very language reinforces this. Our language consistently must delineate between mental states and physical states and even mental states and emotional states. For instance saying a man is flushed only gives a physical view, saying flushed with rage or embarrassment changes the meaning by adding emotional overtones, and finally saying the man is flushed with rage because his brother slept with his wife changes the meaning by offering physical, emotional, and mental distinctions. These distinctions become necessary primarily because humans are creative beings i.e. that something can exist within the mind that does not exist in the material world or even in another’s mind. This realization forms the real issue of the mind-body problem in that it becomes clear that the thought of a chair will not hold one off the ground and that some action different from thought is necessary to translate that chair into something that will hold a body. In this realization the human mind is defined as immaterial and the body as material.

Issues with Dualism

This forms essential problems however the most obvious and problematic being how an immaterial thing could ever act on a material thing being fundamentally different and with no other examples in nature. The method of interaction is not the only though another issue is where this interaction would take place? Logically there would be some causal locale for this to occur somewhere in the body, some place where the body changed inexplicably when thought occurred. Indeed that brings us to the next issue in that when this immaterial thing interacted with the material thing it would be introducing energy into it. After all any biologic change requires energy of some sort and since the mind would still need to interact with the body it would have to do so in terms of energy. Further the body would also have to lose energy into the immaterial realm to influence the immaterial mind. However this violates basic scientific laws about the conservation of energy. Energy can be converted in form but not “lost” which makes the previous thoughts untenable, indeed it seems foolish to talk about anyway for something bound by the laws of physical reality to interact with something which, by definition of being immaterial can’t be bound by those laws.

Issues with Physicalism

These fundamental contradictions helped by discoveries of neuroscience yield a new theory of physicalism. Physicalism as opposed to dualism states that the mind is a byproduct entirely of activity in the brain rather than any mysterious immaterial force. This claim gains major credibility in terms of neuroscience because as the case of Phineas Gage and others who have suffered brain damage indicates, changes in the brain result in changes in cognition and personality. Indeed these changes occur reliably and it is clear that certain parts of the brain are fundamentally related to cognitive functioning.

This has lead to the formation of identity theory which claims that the various changes in electrical and chemical activity in the brain are identical to cognitive states. For the identity theorist it is fine to say that “Alice is happy” as long as we understand that what we really mean is that “Alice’s brain is currently flooded with dopamine.” This has the attraction of eliminating the mind-body problem in favor of only a body existing and means that everything about the mind is discoverable by science. However we reach a logical problem with this account in some of our mentalistic language, for instance saying “Alice desired John” implies volition but when translated as “Alice’s brain has certain chemicals and electrical activity in response to John that due to her genetics and evolution predisposing her to prefer John-like characteristics” it’s clear no volition was possible. More to the point because the mind is physical according to this view saying “Alice desired John” is equivalent to saying “the rock desired John” or less ludicrous perhaps “the tiger desired John for food.” This leads Elimitavists to conclude that even our most basic language about thought is fundamentally skewed and must be reworked.

These physicalist positions though carry a number of implications that defy our basic conception of a mind. The most basic issue is that to accept physicalism is that the mind would necessarily be fundamentally determined i.e. all thoughts would be due to a long traceable series of events leading back to the beginning of time. This would mean then that the physicalists themselves were predestined to be physicalists and a rejection of this theory equally predetermined and having any argument at all is logically pointless since its result is also determined and logic itself has no validity. This is problematic for a theory that rejects dualism on the principles of logic. Further the other claim of physicalism, namely that the mind can be understood in terms of the brain is problematic considering humans are bound by perceptual subjectivity. A brain scan of two individuals experiencing pain will show activity in the same area of the brain but not whether that person evaluated the pain as minimal or extreme, further even if an instrument could generate this information it could not convey the experience to the researcher. A more striking example would be to consider say the brain scan of a dog; it would be clear when the dog was utilizing sight or in distress but no matter how advanced the instrument would it be conceivable for the researcher to subjectively experience the reality of being a dog. In fact the simple observation that animals have similar brains but act in the world very differently from humans makes the claims of physicalism even more problematic.

Physicalism also has the issue of departing radically from basic personal experience of the mind. Even the simple act of thinking of a chair referenced earlier is hard to describe in physical terms and even more difficult to distinguish between the subtlety of describing thoughts on different chairs. Indeed no matter how advanced the neuroscience it seems it would be impossible to extrapolate wholly from the brain itself what particular thoughts, images, etc. were actually being perceived. Physicalism simply can’t give a truly credible account of subjective experience which is the only real experience we have with the mind which is the real failure of physicalism. Indeed this issue is why Elimitavists advocate for a radical change in language because the only way they have to deal with this issue is to insist it doesn’t actually exist.

Case for Functionalism

In these two theories there are two fundamental failings, dualism is unable to give an adequate account of the subjective mind could be related to the body as science demonstrates it is and physicalism is unable to adequately account for how the brain can solely responsible for the subjective mind. However with the advent of computers and increasing study in the cognitive sciences a new theory called Functionalism appears to resolve these issues. Truly essential to this theory is a metaphor that the brain is essentially a computer. This is already a more promising view that either Physicalism or Dualism in that it resolves their basic contradictions. Considering a computer it is clear that there is both hardware and software and that the hardware is intrinsic to the software’s functioning. In fact each component serves a separate function and altering the hardware alters the functioning of the software. Similarly changes in the software result in changes in the hardware. Here we see both issues of physicalism and dualism rectified with a simple analogy brain is to mind as hardware is to software. The subjective mind is preserved as is a physical relationship to the brain. To give further credence to functionalism let’s consider how it deals with some of the specific issues raised with the other theories. Dealing with the initial insight of dualism that thoughts and reality are or mind and body are distinct, functionalism’s central metaphor of the computer explains this quite easily as a computer can store in memory an image of a chair, or schematics of a chair and even a definition of a chair but none of these things can be sat on and are generated in a fundamentally different way from how chairs are built. We can see the software and all its processes are not material yet the product of material processes and that changing the software will cause correlative changes in the computers physical components. However the software will not function without the hardware and the hardware is equally useless without the software. Functionalism also actually helps clarify our language unlike physicalism since a functionalist account of say “Alice desires John” would read “Alice’s mind compares Johns characteristics to various criteria and comes to a positive valuation” in spite of its dry tone consider that Alice has reasons for her desire, whether she knows them or not, and that while chemicals and electric activity plays a part, only her minds ability to organize her senses and sort criteria makes any of those physical processes meaningful in this case interpreting them as desire. This metaphor has other interesting implications when combined with the concept of multiple relizability in those systems of the mind such as logic or poetry or mathematics rather than being a product of certain brain states act like programs on a computer. Namely that computers with different hardware configurations can run the same or similar programs even though the physical systems are radically different.

Challenges of Functionalism

Functionalism is open to criticism as well however I believe the theory can give adequate accounts for the most basic objections raised provided we move beyond certain limitations of the computer as mind metaphor. Also of note is that functionalism tends to be challenged more on its implications about Strong A.I. than the theory itself. The first is simply a challenge about the subjective experience of pain or really any physical sensation, the opposition is that no amount of consideration of inputs and outputs and processing actually amounts to the experience of pain. They pose that while a robot may be able to process all the same signals and simulate a response in is not actually experiencing pain. However considering the nature of pain it is only painful in so far as the mind interprets it as such, for example individuals who intentionally cut themselves in fact subjectively report pleasure from the experience and this is not because of some biologic misinterpretation of pain but because the mind has ceased to see the process as a negative experience. Further considering evolution the reason for pain to exist as unpleasant is that it tends to make people avoid dangerous situations and serves to let the mind know that some biologic system is past its ability to cope or close to that point. There are individuals with a disease known as CIPa or Congenital Insensitivity to Pain who do not feel pain and this makes life immensely difficult for them because they have no way of telling when there is too much strain placed on the body. Ultimately I think it’s clear that pain as an experience fits into this model very well. The next common challenge is that Functionalism fails to give a good description of consciousness. Of course actually defining consciousness is historically impossible except in highly limited ways however I will attempt to give a functionalistic account of the key features of consciousness as I see them namely awareness of surroundings, subjective experience of surroundings, and self consciousness or the recognition of one’s self as an aware thinking and acting being.

Revised Metaphor

First we need to be aware that our previous metaphor is inadequate for two important reasons: firstly that all computers are tools of humans which means they have human defined purposes and the interaction of a mind determining their actions and secondly that left alone a computer will not actually produce anything. Thus we need to completely revision the computer system of the mind to essentially a self-programming computer, one with an algorithm for producing algorithms based on an interior prime objective. A computer that acts on its own, interacts with the environment for its own purposes, and can formulate new rules based on its surroundings. This is simple for any brain, even dogs can do this but it’s very difficult for a computer, then again if we measure relative computing the power in terms of connections even a dog’s brain puts out present super computers to shame. However all of these things are at least logically possible and help give an account of consciousness. Awareness is the easiest to explain since we have cameras and sensors and various physical apparatus that mimic our own sensory organs and already computers can take this information and avoid objects or pick them etc. and while they have issues with making these decisions in all circumstances this is a matter of algorithm and experience not a fundamental flaw. As for subjective experience this is really a valuation of sensory awareness and the forming of relationships between one’s experiences of the past and present circumstances which while ever-changing and noticeably complex is still expressible in terms of algorithms. Self-consciousness is actually implied by the consideration of a self programming computer, it would necessarily have to have a concept of itself as an entity to formulate algorithms that include itself.


With these considerations I find Functionalism to be the only theory of mind logically tenable and the only system that can make statements about the mind that bear any similarity to personal experience without defying the laws of science. There are further implications to this theory whether it be the Cosmic Programmer or the possibility of the internet becoming sentient however those are beyond the purview of this paper. I maintain though that fundamentally the theory of functionalism is sound and explains much more than the other options.


Functionalism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy Of Mind

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author avatar Ryan M. Joseph
Aspiring author and diligent English major with a penchant for poetry and literature.

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