What is functionalism? Critically assess its main advantages and disadvantages.

Essay by vensonB, March 2004

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Functionalism is one of the major proposals that have been offered as solutions to the mind/body problem. Solutions to the mind/body problem usually try to answer questions such as: What is the ultimate nature of the mental? At the most general level, what makes a mental state mental? Or more specifically, What do thoughts have in common in virtue of which they are thoughts? That is, what makes a thought a thought? What makes a pain a pain? Cartesian Dualism said the ultimate nature of the mental was to be found in a special mental substance. Behaviorism identified mental states with behavioral dispositions. Functionalism holds most simply, that mental states are brain states: that mental states are constituted by their causal relations to one another and to sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. Functionalism is one of the major theoretical developments of Twentieth Century analytic philosophy, and provides the conceptual underpinnings of much work in cognitive science.

In more detail, functionalism is the view that the physical realization of a functional component is not, in some sense, its essence. Rather, what makes a functional component the type it is, is characterized in terms of its role in relating inputs to outputs and its relations to other functional components. Functionalism says that mental states are understood by their relations to (a) their sensory stimulation or input, (b) other inner states, and (c) their behavior effects. It is not a meterialistic theory, but can be seen as compatible with the spirit of materialism. In Heil's view, 'although immaterial substances like spirits, are conceiveable, in all probability, every substance is a material substance. So every property posesses by a substance is posesses by a material substance' (1998 p.89). Although functionalists associate themselves with this idea of materialistic monoism, there is a dualism lurking beneath...