A Response to Functionalism

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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 event...

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...ume of divinity or school metaphysics', that is, they should be committed 'to the flames'.

My case may well be criticised on the grounds that it falls into the trap of Cartesian dualism which functionalism very carefully tries to avoid. Materialism, double-aspect theory and functionalism are responses to the perceived failure of dualism 'in to resolve the very difficulties it creates. For the more dualists stress the contrasting properties of mind on the one hand and matter on the other, the more difficult it becomes to understand any interactions between them. There is clearly a contradiction in a doctrine which defines mental and physical in terms that both make them mutually exclusive and yet place them in a causal relationship. Perhaps there is more plausibility in a solution which maintains a dualistic separation without interaction, a form of parallelism.

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