Though Searle’s Chinese room argument does bring up a valid objection to Functionalism, it fails to offer a coherent solution to the problem it confronts. It resorts back to an idea that you must have “something else” to obtain true understanding, and hence contains the same problems as both the behaviorists and the psychoneural identity theorists. Therefore I believe functionalism to be a more accurate representation of consciousness at this time, for it accommodates for much more of the current issues surrounding philosophy and the mind. With the influx of the technological revolution (of which we are a part) I believe what Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity” will soon occur, and with it shall come the merger of technology and human intelligence. With such strong artificial intelligence machines I think we will possess new responses to combat Searle’s skepticism.
If we first step back to look at the psychoneural identity theory we can see how Functionalism covers the areas which it is severely lacking.
The main idea behind the identity theory is that there is a strong correlation between brain states and their corresponding mental state. The main example brought up again and again is the conceptualization of pain. Under this theory it is believed that all thoughts are directly triggered by neural fibers firing and that in the absence of these firings pain is not perceived at all. In following Jaegwon Kim’s Philosophy of Mind we see three sources of argument within the Identity Theory; epistemological, modal, and multiple realizations.
Within the epistemological argument type physicalism first fails to make the distinction between mental and physical according to epistemological properties. It is entailed from this that “’being believed by S to be such and such’ does not express properties- or at least not properties that can serve as differentiating properties” (Kim 106). Because if S knows X and that X=Y, they know nothing to tell X apart from Y. This is solved within Functionalism as the subject S simply knows about X as a causal-functional kind with a causal role to know X. If it were to know X=Y as well this too would be a causal role and would have a different causal functional kind than knowing X alone.
The second epistemological objection is stated as, “to make sense of the supposed empirical character of psychoneural identities, we must acknowledge the existence of phenomenal properties distinct from neural properties” (107). This can be linked with Kim’s third and final epistemological argument which deals with the private and public natures of knowledge and brain states, respectively. Identity theorists, in both arguments, must create a schism between the physical and mental while maintaining a single set of properties concerning both. Again the functionalists form a more cognitive argument than the type physicalists; which consist of the neural properties being no longer a requirement of phenomenal ones and can instead be seen as causal-functional roles. The empirical character of a psychoneural identity is simply a cause of any mechanism which fulfills its cause.
Moving now from issues of epistemology to those of modes, I shall further express the functionalist advantage. Here Kim brings up “rigid” and “non-rigid designators” in conjunction with “contingent identity” to express the argument. “Rigid” is designated all objects which are the same within all possible worlds in which they could exist. Its opposite must present some idea that could be different had the world gone in a different direction. For some statement to be a “contingent identity” it must contain at least one operator (X and/or Y) to be “non-rigid” for it to be true (110). The argument portrays both pain and C-fiber excitations to be rigid and therefore necessary to each other rather than contingent. A theoretical model of “zombies” falsifies the identity claim of pain being equal to C-fiber excitations due to the existence of a body devoid of consciousness and therefore pain. So too could it be argued that if Descartes-mind-without-a-body existed it too would have no C-fibers at all and therefore no pain either. If we are to look at this through the functionalist perspective we see C-fibers eliminated completely, and pain becoming a functional concept. And while Kim brings up that the statement is epistemically possible through the identity theorists’ view, it its meaning gets complex and confusing quickly.
In looking deeper into this argument we might come across Hilary Putnam’s “Twin Earth thought experiment” which, taken from Wikipedia.org is stated as follows:
We begin by supposing that elsewhere in the universe there is a planet exactly like earth in virtually all respects, which we refer to as ‘Twin Earth’. (We should also suppose that the relevant surroundings of Twin Earth are identical to those of earth; it revolves around a star that appears to be exactly like our sun, and so on.) On Twin Earth there is a Twin equivalent of every person and thing here on Earth. The one difference between the two planets is that there is no water on Twin Earth. In its place there is a liquid that is superficially identical, but is chemically different, being composed not of H2O, but rather of some more complicated formula which we abbreviate as ‘XYZ’. The Twin Earthlings who refer to their language as ‘English’ call XYZ ‘water’. Finally, we set the date of our thought experiment to be several centuries ago, when the residents of Earth and Twin Earth would have no means of knowing that the liquids they called ‘water’ were H2O and XYZ respectively. The experience of people on Earth with water, and that of those on Twin Earth with XYZ would be identical.
While far-fetched, this example supports the identity theorists while simultaneously accusing the functionalists of not being able strictly define what is required of the characterization of mental states. A functionalist reply seems to be one in the same with any of those to Searle’s Chinese room. For, taken explicitly, both twins have the same understanding of water, but with completely different causal properties attached to them. Their ideas, though the same, contain different entities entirely which we cannot perceive with limited means. The one argument I can think of would be to state that in their current condition they could not tell the difference, but with future progression in technology would come the ability to tell them apart. This idea could be the very distinguishing feature of knowledge which differentiates understanding from Searle’s Chinese room. Perhaps it is just our inherent strive to find meaning in things that makes us truly understand.
Returning now to Kim’s arguments against identity theory we see functionalists greatest strongpoint and the one which Putnam seemed to draw many ideas of functionalism itself from. This, of course, concerns the multiple realization aspect. It asks identity theorists why they are so limited in their ability to account for anything but humans as possessing mentality. For if something did not possess any neural fibers there is no way for it to be a conscious state. Here the functionalists truly take control of the argument, for they can now account for everything having realization physicalism and hence the potential for mentality. And as Kim so clearly puts it, “although the idea of mentality permits nonphysical entities to instantiate mental properties, the world is so constituted, according to this thesis, that only physical systems, in particular, biological organisms, turn out to realize mental properties…” (Kim 116). This does not mean the potential is not there for other things (such as computers or extra-terrestrials) to realize their mentality, it just happens to be strictly organic at this time.
Now that I have discussed the ways in which functionalism surpasses identity theory currently, I will continue on to analyze each one for its potential to explain mentality within the future.
If we look first to the identity theory and apply new ideas it seems quickly to become quite unreasonable. For although Smart claims to have based the theory off of the simplest explanations, using Occam’s razor specifically as a guide, it seems to be stuck when it comes to implementing anything new as having the potential to possess mentality (Rosenthal 169). If we apply ideas of Artificial Intelligence (either strong or weak) we see that the thesis must adjust its definitions to include things completely other than neurological processes. This leads to an infinite number of modes to be created to account for each method of consciousness.
It may be apparent already that Functionalism has the reverse potential to account for such advancements and seems the far more simple solution. This is very promising for those of us who expect there to be major advancements in Artificial Intelligence within the next few decades.
Kurzweil, whom I mentioned earlier, has spent the last twenty years plotting trends that suggest an epoch to soon occur, “resulting from the merger of the vast knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed and knowledge-sharing ability of our technology” (Kurzweil 20). And while I could go into an entire other paper on this very topic I will instead leave it with the idea that functionalism seems to be the obvious choice for future advancements. It could be too that our newly unlimited-capacity-intellect might come up with some new fail-proof philosophy of the mind.
- Kim, Jaegwon. Philosophy of Mind: Second Edition. Persues Books Group © 2006.
- Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend
Biology. Viking © 2005
- Rosenthal, David M. The Nature of Mind. Oxford University Press © 1991.