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A Response To Functionalism Essay

2380 words - 10 pages

A Response to Functionalism

Stephen Priest in Theories of Mind Chapter 5 describes functionalism as 'the theory that being in a mental state is being in a functional state' and adds that 'functionalism is, in a sense, an attempt to bypass the mind-body problem'. What does this definition really mean? An analogy might clarify the situation.

Suppose a young child were to ask me what a saucepan was and in reply I said that it is a means of holding soup or vegetables in water during the time in which they are heated to make them ready for eating. Any eavesdropping adult might wonder why I did not describe it directly, use terms like hollow metal cylinder, the size of a human head, with a handle, that is, describe what it actually looks like not what it does. Even better, he might think I should have gone into t.., kitchen and fetched a saucepan for the child to look at. If I showed him the saucepan, and indeed, if he saw it in use, no further explanation would be necessary.

I assume that functionalism arose and gained adherents because those philosophers working in the mind-body area came to the conclusion that definitions of mental states which were direct and precise were unattainable for the following reasons: first, that whereas a saucepan can be described in uncontentious language, the same is not true of mental states; second, that whereas one can point to a saucepan to reinforce the description, there is no such possibility in the case of mental states.

What, then, does functionalism have to say about mental states? The term 'functional' describes the role of mental states in a series of causal relations. A mental state is caused by an antecedent event and a mental state is itself the cause of subsequent events. The antecedent event is physical; them subsequent events are both physical and mental. For example, I observe someone stub his toe against a doorway, cry out, rub his toe and curse his own clumsiness. Here the antecedent event is the physical collision of solid oak door jamb with tender flesh. The effect of this cause is the mental state of pain and this has consequences of two types. One is physical or behavioural, the crying out 'ouch', the rubbing of the stricken toe and the uttering of the curse. The other is mental, perhaps the emotion of embarrassment, perhaps an unspoken intention to ditch the open-toed sandals and wear boots around the house. The functionalist, though he may be a thorough-going materialist, does not necessarily (by virtue of being a functionalist) deny that the mental state is distinct from the brain state, but has taken the position that the ontology of mental states is either inaccessible to philosophical enquiry or of no philosophical interest. Here is another example. Having just pegged out the washing, I see grey clouds gathering and spots of rain on the window. I go out and collect in the washing. What is this situation like according to a functionalist description? The initiating...

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