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The Theory Of Functionalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1523 words Published: 16th May 2017

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The theory of functionalism is the oldest, and may also be the most dominant theoretical perspective of sociology. Functionalism agrees that brain states are responsible for mental states, but disagrees that they tend to be identical to each other. It is the argument from a functionalist perspective, that, the brain activity or neurological states are what realizes mental states, which in turn lead to the behavioural output in a physical way. It has a broad variety of positions which it is capable of articulating in many different diverse forms. They can be classified into the following;

Analytic functionalism: The most widely used form of functionalism, which describes the causal role as a job description of mental states, which are derived from our concepts. Analytic functionalist’s claim, that, the specifications for a functional role (job descriptions) for mental states are a priori.

The second version is “Physchofunctionalism”; which rejects the idea of behaviourism in psychology, as well as reject the physical aspect of the mind.

The third would be Machine-state functionalism: This analogy was put forward by Hilary Putnam, a well-known American philosopher, who was inspired by the analogies of mind (the Turing machines) which is able to compute all given algorithms. In non-technical terms, the mind is a very complex computer program. It is a state in which given an input ‘B’, and such and such tends to happen. An example is when we input a set of numbers into the computer through a keyboard/software. It proposes that brain states are activities which are “low level”, whilst helping to realize mental states which are “high level”.

To help the reader understand about the idea which was described above, I will use the more common functionalist example to discuss the relationship between the software and the computer.

For example, we type the numbers 5 plus 8, on the one level (low level), the computer is dependent on the software for ‘input’. The software within the computer is calculating the answer to the numbers entered, while at the other level (high level), the information is ‘output’ on the screen. In this instance, the functionalist’s would argue that the process of calculation would be released by the hardware (monitor). Therefore, the software which is used by the hardware, acts as the function role. This computer example can be used to translate into the terms of the brain. The mental states are dependent on the brain states in the same way, as the computers software is dependent on the computer�s hardware for the output of the information (monitor) and vice versa.

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In the functionalists view, the brain states help to realise the mental states which functions as a total functional system. With this, it is meant that the mind is made up of the total possible functional mental states that it can have. These will interact with the ‘inputs’ (software), and the hardware (monitor) together, before they both produce the ‘outputs’. Functionalist’s say that if we think of mental states in a similar way, then maybe one day the machine may do the thinking or be artificially intelligent. This way, we could compare our process of thinking to a computer software, which in turn could run on several different machines.

The concept for a machine is the concept of an artificial intelligence. This intelligence can be classified as weak AI or strong AI. This type of intelligence would make it possible that one day a computer could be invented with a mind of its own. In other words, it would think, imagine, and reason. It could eventually do all the things we associate with the human brain.

In a weak AI example, it is argued that the intelligence of a computer appears to think on its own, but it is actually unconscious the same way human brains are. In the weak AI, just like in the human brain, ‘an input’ must occur in order to produce an ‘output’.

When comparing functionalism with dualism for example, it has obvious strengths. Functionalism tries to explain behaviour, rather than just observing it. It uses the physical world to explain the mental states, combining physical ‘inputs’ with the ‘outputs’, rather than segregating the physical world from the mind.

In Dualism for example, mental and physical states are both separate, in general terms, the two cannot be assimilated to form one unit (Levin, 2009).

One of the most famous philosophers in the 17th century, Descartes, who considered himself a Dualist, also argued against the thought of mechanical and mind properties to be the same (Cottingham, p. 221, 2012). His notion led him to believe that the mind and the body could indeed exist without one another.

Then again, how could the mind operate without the physical? This would not be possible. For example, if we take ‘pain’ as an example. Pain just does not happen in our brain. Pain can be identified with something material (physical) which sends a neurological message to our brain that something hurts (mental). As you can see, the physical and mental aspects correlate, rather than act separately.

Another strength of functionalism, is that a functional system can be realisable in multiple ways. For example, if we refer back to the computer analogy, ‘the same computer software’ should be usable on different computers. Potentially, computers could have minds similar to ours, as long as they can perform the some functions as us.

On the other hand, some philosophers think functionalist accounts of mental states tend to be too liberal. For some, it is a mistake for a computer and its software to have the same mental states as a human.

Some of these philosophers have argued that a computer and software would be unable to show genuine emotions. It would also be incapable of consciousness without someone inputting information e.g. typing the numbers 5 plus 8 into the software.

Functionalism seems to omit the qualia of emotion or any consciousness in the process. This could be in part that is includes non-living things, as possible mental states. Some critics of functionalism do argue that mental states of living things (humans) or systems (computers) ought to include an account of qualia (emotions and consciousness).

Another objection to functionalism would be that computers are non-living, it doesn’t not use its own incoming information for their behaviour as do humans and other living things (non-human animals). In regards to non-living things, they are not systems or living things which rely on survival; and they do not have self-interests of their own.

These are some of the considerations which objectors argue for, and call for functionalism to refine its theory. The minimum would be to try and distinguish the living things from the non-living.

Would the objection to functionalism be answered if we were to imagine the mind as if it were unified? Perhaps one could look at individual mental states and imagine that some of them could portray certain aspects? i.e. memory and solving problems, but no kind of emotion or consciousness.

If the computer for example would portray any of the above mentioned such as memory or solving problems by itself, one would not speak of the computer with having a mind or not. One would speak of the computer as having been able to solve a problem and using its capacity for memory to store the data etc. Would one ask a cat if it has a mind, although, one would rather enquire about its capacity for memory, its deception etc.

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The strengths and weaknesses have been stated for functionalism. It is an odd theory that non-living things could give rise to different mental events. In order for us to understand on how our mind works, we need to understand these processes. Only one type of brain state is needed according to functionalism, in order to correlate with events in our brain. It also seems, that, functionalism is dependent on things which are physical rather than involving mental events from the outset. It certainly leaves out emotions and thinking. The basis for functionalism seems to be ‘input’ – ‘output’ only. Let’s say, someone steps on a pin and they shout.

The functionalists view seems to indicate that artificial beings and systems could produce their own consciousness and thoughts. Even if technological advancements of great magnitude can be made, a machine could not replicate the feelings and thoughts of a human. These examples would include stress, anxiety, nervousness etc.. It would be odd to think that a machine could be producing a personality that feels nervous or has a moral obligation to things.

It perhaps maybe the case that functionalists are digging really deep in order to find and justify their theory on mental states and mental events.


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