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Encyclopedia > Functionalism (psychology)

Functionalism is the philosophical underpinning of much empirical research in psychology and cognitive science; however, as research goes on the functionalist approach is continually criticised for its shortcomings. Psychology (from Greek: ψυχή, psukhē, spirit, soul; and λόγος, logos, knowledge) is an academic/ applied discipline involving the scientific study of mental processes and behavior. ... Cognitive science is usually defined as the scientific study either of mind or of intelligence (e. ...



Turing (1950) was among the first to note that the human brain could be analogied to the computer, which has been designed to carry out certain functions. In particular, whilst computers are physical devices with electronic substrate that perform computations on inputs to give outputs, so brains are physical devices with neural substrate that perform computations on inputs which produce behaviours. While this comparison may be fictional rather than fundamental it helps show that functionalism is the theoretical level between the physical implementation and behavioural output (Marr, 1982). Therefore, it is different from its predecessors of Cartesian dualism (advocating discrete mental and physical substances) and Skinnerian behaviourism and physicalism (declaring only physical substances) because it is only concerned with the effective functions of the brain, through its organization or its ‘software programs’. More formally, functionalism says that “mental states are constituted by their causal relations to one another and to sensory inputs and behavioural outputs” (Block, 1996). Turing may refer to: Alan Turing Turing (programming language) Turing (cipher) Turing machine Turing completeness Turing test Reverse Turing test Turing Award Turing Police Church-Turing thesis TURing interface Turing (novel), by Christos Papadimitrou, published in 2003 Turing Scholars Category: ... A BlueGene supercomputer cabinet. ... It has been suggested that Combative dualism be merged into this article or section. ... Behaviorism (or behaviourism) is an approach to psychology based on the proposition that behavior is interesting and worthy of scientific research. ... The term physicalism was coined by Otto Neurath, in a series of early 20th century essays on the subject, in which he wrote According to physicalism, the language of physics is the universal language of science and, consequently, any knowledge can be brought back to the statements on the physical... Look up block in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ...

Problems with Functionalism

Inverted Spectra

Consider an individual (e.g., Kate) being asked tick a box on a red and green peice of paper. Consider if the red paper Kate made her response on were green to Kate because she had undergone surgery as an infant and had her ‘green’ and ‘red’ vision inverted although was still brought up to identify ‘green’ objects (really red) as red and vice versa. Indeed, if Kate were to have a twin who did not have the operation they would both report that the piece of paper was red, even though Kate was experiencing green. This thought experiment using ‘inverted spectra’ (Block and Fodor, 1972) is claimed to present a prima facie argument against functionalism because Kate and her twin experience two states that are functionally commensurate but qualitatively dissimilar (Block, 1994). The notion that Kate and her twin can have two different qualia (the experience of experience) but remain functionally indifferent is used to demonstrate that functionalism is not robust enough to explain individual differences in qualia. A rejoinder to this argument is that Kate and her twin are not actually functionally equivalent because of Kate's surgery as an infant. Inverted spectrum is the apparent possibility of two people sharing their colour vocabulary and discriminations, although the colours one sees are systematically different from the colours the other person sees. ... Look up prima facie in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Redness is the canonical quale. ...

Further information: problem of other minds

Block (1980) also argues against the functionalist proposal of multiple realizability, where hardware implementation is irrelevant because only the functional level is important. Block considers if the billion or so neurons in a brain were given functionally equivalent electronic substitutes fitted with radios to communicate and distributed to the Chinese population if China would have qualia. He thinks it could not and argues that functionalism is inadequate accordingly.However, if functionalism is correct there can be no objection to this scenario. The problem of other minds is the philosophical problem of determining how we know that there are minds associated with the bodies we see walking around among us. ... Multiple realizability, in philosophy of mind, is the thesis that the same mental kind (property, state, event) can be realized by different physical kinds (properties, states or events). ...

The Chinese Room

The problems of functionalism are most clear when its role in consciousness is examined. If functionalism is correct then all thinking, including the feeling of consciousness, can be explained by computations (Penrose, 1994). The Chinese Room is a thought experiment by Searle. Simply, a Chinese speaking person sits inside of a room being passed notes in English, to which he gives responses based on some algorithm (e.g., for x give y). On the other end of the 'system' (i.e. the output) a person is receiving conversationally appropriate English responses to their responses and yet the Chinese man (who speaks no English) understands nothing except that for x input he is to give y. This thought experiment by Searle (1980) shows how functionalism could be false because in acting as the ‘program’ executing instructions the Chinese man lacks intentionality and is only concerned with syntactic procedures rather than semantic content. Searle pre-empted critics who claimed the ‘system’ as a whole understands by positing that if the Chinese man remembered all the possible instructions and went about his life he still would not understand English. If functionalism is to explain all mental processes it encounters problems in explaining how meaning can be derived from pure computation. Consciousness is a quality of the mind generally regarded to comprise qualities such as subjectivity, self-awareness, sentience, sapience, and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and ones environment. ... Penrose may refer to: Penrose, New Zealand, a suburb of Auckland Penrose, Philadelphia, a neighborhood in Philadelphia Penrose, Colorado, a town in the United States Lionel Penrose (1898-1972), English geneticist, father of Roger and Jonathan Penrose Roger Penrose (born 1931), English mathematical physicist, son of Lionel Penrose Jonathan Penrose... Searle is a surname, and may refer to John Rogers Searle (1932– ), American philosopher, famous for work on consciousness Charles Edward Searle, British academic; Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1888-89. ... Searle is a surname, and may refer to John Rogers Searle (1932– ), American philosopher, famous for work on consciousness Charles Edward Searle, British academic; Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1888-89. ... Intentionality, originally a concept from scholastic philosophy, was reintroduced in contemporary philosophy by the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano in his work Psychologie vom Empirischen Standpunkte. ...

Further information: Chinese Room

This article or section does not cite its references or sources. ...

Inductive Functionalism

This concerns the issue that accurately knowing what functions the brain is executing at any one time is difficult to know. For example, in a psychological investigation some variable, such as word length, might be manipulated to measure the effect on another variable, say, reaction time from which some inference about reading might be made. This describes the inductive scientific method, where reasoning is made from observed facts. However, if the example is continued and the investigation finds that longer words take longer to respond to there are several interpretations that can be made. One is that the word recognition is serial, letter by letter. Another is that it is parallel (letters are processed all at once) but longer words require more lexical ‘post-recognition’ processing. The details here are not important; however, what is important is that inductive functionalism is bad at accurately determining what functions are performed by the brain. This is a serious problem for functionalist cognitive science because where multiple explanations exist it may be impossible to ascribe one correctly or, worse, possible to ascribe one incorrectly Scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena and acquiring new knowledge, as well as for correcting and integrating previous knowledge. ...


As has been shown one of the central arguments against functionalism is that it fails to account for the qualitative aspects of minds or qualia. However, such arguments intuitively assume qualia exist independently of brain function. Some functionalists believe China would have qualia but that due to the size it is impossible to imagine China being conscious (Lycan, 1987). Indeed, it may be the case that we are constrained by our theory of mind (e.g. Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith, 1985) and will never be able to understand what Chinese consciousness is like. Therefore, if functionalism is true either qualia will exist across all hardware or will not exist at all but are illusory (Dennett, 1990). However, whichever of these is true the problem of obtaining semantic content from syntactic operations remains. The ‘systems reply’ is a rejoinder, which claims as a whole the system understands Chinese and that the ‘processor’ does not just as a neuron would not (Harnad, 2001). However, the issue is still moot. Finally, inductive functionalism is problematic because of the risk of false conclusions.[citation needed] These will be greatly reduced, but not avoided, by continuous empirical hypothesis-testing and peer criticism. Furthermore, a multidisciplinary approach integrating neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology will allow more data to converge on theories and models which will reduce the risk (Mundale and Bechtel, 1996). However, of all the arguments made against functionalism the risk of false conclusion is the most damaging and, unfortunately, is largely unavoidable. Qualitative is an important qualifier in the following subject titles: Qualitative identity Qualitative marketing research Qualitative method Qualitative research THE BIG J This is a disambiguation page — a list of pages that otherwise might share the same title. ... Redness is the canonical quale. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ... Hardware is the general term that is used to describe physical artifacts of a technology. ... Daniel Clement Dennett (b. ... Drawing by Santiago Ramón y Cajal of neurons in the pigeon cerebellum. ...


Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a "theory of mind"? Cognition 21, 37-46

Block, N. & Fodor, J. [1972], “What Psychological States Are Not,” Philosophical Review, 83, 159-181

Block, N. (1980). Introduction: what is functionalism? Readings in philosophy of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Block, N. (1994). Qualia. In S. Guttenplan (ed), A Companion to Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell

Block, N. (1996). What is Functionalism? The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Supplement. New York: MacMillan Reference Books

Chomsky, N. (1975). Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon

Dennett, D. (1990) Quining Qualia. In W. Lycan, (ed), Mind and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwells

Harnad, S (2001) What's Wrong and Right About Searle's Chinese Room Argument? In Bishop, M. and Preston, J., (Eds.) Essays on Searle's Chinese Room Argument. Oxford University Press.

Lycan, W. (1987) Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A Computational Approach. San Francisco: Freeman & Co.

Mundale, J. and Bechtel, W. (1996). Integrating Neuroscience, Psychology, and Evolutionary Biology Through a Teleological Conception of Function. Minds and Machines, 6, 481-505.

Penrose, R. (1994). Shadows of the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Searle, J.R. (1980) Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 3 (3), 417-457

Turing, A.M. (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, 49, 433-460.

  Results from FactBites:
Psychology - MSN Encarta (837 words)
Psychology, scientific study of behaviour and experience—that is, the study of how human beings and other species sense, think, learn, know, communicate and interact.
Physiological psychologists, for instance, study, among other things, the functioning of the brain and nervous system and the role of hormones in the endocrine system in behaviour; developmental psychologists are interested in the whole process of development, both physical and behavioural, from birth to old age.
Against this philosophical background, the field that contributed most to the development of scientific psychology was physiology—the study of the functions of the various organ systems of the body.
Functionalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) (9367 words)
Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part.
Functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part.
If functional characterizations of intentional states are intended to capture their “narrow contents”, however, then the inputs and outputs of the system will have to be specified in a way that permits individuals in different environments to be in the same intentional state.
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