When Descartes published his ideas in his Meditations on First Philosophy, his ideas were not new, but nonetheless groundbreaking. He proposed there were two separate types of matter or stuff that can exist independent of each other. These are physical substances and mental substances. The physical can only occupy space in the real world, and cannot do any of the things we attribute to mental faculties, such as thinking and reasoning. Though the mental cannot be present in the material world, it can surely have an effect on what the physical body does. Substance dualism, therefore, gives way to the idea of an immortal soul that occupies a different realm than our physical bodies.
The question then is how do the mental substances affect the physical, and vice versa? Because obviously when I stub my toe, though I am only feeling a physical pain, I still feel it as a mental event and, if you will, it affects my “soul”. If these two substances occupy different realms, how can they possibly interact? This is called the mind-body problem, and has been discussed ever since Descartes published his ideas in the sixteenth century. There are two sides to the problem; one dealing with how something mental can cause something physical, and the other addressing how something physical can cause something mental. The real question we must grapple with is how can brain processes cause mental phenomena to begin with? Or how can brains produce the mind, if they even do?
Epiphenomenalism is the idea that mental states are merely byproducts of physical states, and begs the question of how mental states could cause a physical state and have an effect on the physical world. According to this view, John Searle likens consciousness with the froth in a wave or the flash of sunlight reflected off the surface of the water. While it might be there and might exist, it is ultimately worthless and does not really matter. Obviously this goes against common thinking, because one can easily see that mental states do matter and affect physical and brain states. The question then is how do they do so?
2. Functionalism and the Chinese Room
Functionalism is the idea that brain states are equivalent to their functional roles within the brain itself. That is, functionalists are concerned with how these mental states are related to their causal role and how the functions are organized, much like software programs on a computer. Searle poses an argument against functionalism that he published himself, called the Chinese Room argument. Let’s say I was placed in a room full of boxes of Chinese characters, and I have a book that enables me to answer questions posed in Chinese. There is a computer on which I receive Chinese symbols, and unknowing to me, are questions. All I have to do is refer to the rule book and pick out the appropriate symbols from the boxes in the room and enter them back into the computer. It can be assumed that I can pass the Turing test for understanding...