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The Mind-Body Problem, Part 2

Identity Theory and Functionalism

HY3011: Minds and Machines
23 January, 2017
1. Introducing Identity Theory

2. Arguments for Identity Theory

3. Arguments against Identity Theory

4. Functionalism (and the Arguments for It)

5. Arguments against Functionalism
Part 1: Introducing
Identity Theory
 Substance dualism and behaviorism have
been rejected by most contemporary
philosophers and cognitive scientists

 But the next three views we’ll be looking at
– mind-brain identity theory, functionalism,
and eliminative materialism – are alive and
well in contemporary philosophy of mind
◦ All of these are variants of materialism
Identity Theory
 The central idea of the Identity Theory,
also known as the mind-brain identity
theory or reductive materialism, is that
mental states can be identified with brain
◦ A particular mental state is identical to the firing
of particular neurons in the brain
 Striking examples of this in clinical patients during
brain surgery
 The term “reductive materialism” reflects
the idea that mental states can be reduced
to brain states

 Intertheoretic reduction is an important
concept from philosophy of science
◦ It means, roughly, to show that higher-level
entities/phenomena are in fact instances of lower-
level entities/phenomena
Reduction (cont.)
 Reduction often takes the form of the lower-
level theory being posited for independent
◦ And then it being discovered that the theory in
fact maps almost perfectly onto – and explains –
higher-level phenomena that were once thought
to demand their own theories/explanations

 Famous instances of reduction in the history
of science include sound, heat, and color
The meaning of “identity”
 Another key notion is that of identity
◦ Without a precise definition of “identity”, the MBIT
risks being vacuous
◦ It is not enough simply to say that there is some
mapping between mental states and brain states
 We need to specify the nature of that mapping

 There are different types of identity
◦ Specifically, the type-token distinction is
important to understanding the different ways
that the MBIT can be developed
Type-Type and Token-Token
 Type-Type Identity holds that a particular type of
mental state is identical to a particular type of
brain state
◦ Concerns that this is overly restrictive: entails that only
organisms with brains like our own can have mental states

 Token-Token Identity holds that for any given
mental state there is some physical state to which
it is identical
◦ Avoids the problem of excessive restrictiveness, but also
gives up much of the (supposed) explanatory power of the
Part 2: Arguments for
Identity Theory
Support for Identity
 There are a variety of arguments in support
for identity theory
◦ And it is, indeed, in many ways the new default
view from a secular/scientific perspective
◦ With other views in contemporary philosophy of
mind being variants of, or reactions to, the
materialistic commitments at the heart of identity

 Churchland gives four main arguments in
support of identity theory
Arguments 1 & 2: Humans as
Physical Systems
 The first two arguments appeal to the idea that
humans are purely physical in origin
◦ Science has a compelling account of the origins of
human biology both developmentally (Argument 1) and
evolutionarily (Argument 2)
 Identity theory is in line with this, for it says that
the mental can be reduced to the physical:
ontological parsimony
 This avoids the problem that we saw last week

with forms of dualism: the mysterious
existence/emergence of mental substances or
Argument 3: Neural
 The third argument is that all mental
phenomena we know of are systematically
dependent on brain phenomena
◦ Some we understand better than others, of
course, but there’s (arguably) no mental activity
that happens without corresponding brain activity
 Property dualism acknowledges this as well,
but again identity theory can appeal to
considerations of parsimony
Argument 4: Neuroscientific
 A final argument is that the neurosciences
are making impressive progress in
explaining the nature of the relationship
between mind and brain
 And the history of science provides strong

reason to think that phenomena once
thought inexplicable by science will
eventually yield to scientific explanation
Part 3: Arguments against
Identity Theory
Arguments against Identity
 Nonetheless, the identity theory is in many
ways a promissory note
◦ Particularly Arguments 3 and 4

 Systematic neuroscientific explanations of
many phenomena are a long way off
◦ And, as we’ll see momentarily, there are some
phenomena that philosophers think may never be
amenable to reductionist explanation
Counterargument 1:
 One argument against identity theory is
that introspection doesn’t support the idea
of mental states as (just) brain states
◦ We discussed this last week as a potential
argument for dualism, but it also works as an
argument against identity theory

 Possible identity theorist response: our
senses don’t necessarily reveal the
fundamental physical character of things
◦ Examples of light, sound, and heat
Counterargument 2: Meaning
and Identity
 Another counterargument puts a semantic and logical
spin on the first: there seem to be statements, and
properties, that are true (or at least believed to be true)
of mental states but not brain states, and vice versa
◦ Thus, the argument concludes, mental states cannot be
identical to brain states

 The identity theorist’s response here is similar to the
response to the first argument
◦ Our commonsense meanings and attributions of properties are
beholden to our own (incomplete) commonsense knowledge
◦ Again can construct a reductio ad absurdum using examples like
temperature, light, and sound
Counterargument 3: Subjective
Experience (Qualia)
 The third argument against identity theory is the
big one, so we’ll spend quite a bit more time on it

 This argument takes various forms – and appeals
to various famous examples – but at root is pretty
◦ Purely physical explanations cannot account for the
subjective character of experience
◦ Complete reduction is not possible since some aspects
of mental experience are not reducible to the physical
◦ Therefore identity theory is false (or at least incomplete)
Nagel’s Bat
 One famous argument of this form is found
in Thomas Nagel’s article “What is it like to
be a bat?” (1974)
 The article spends a great deal of time

describing how bats use echolocation as a
highly sophisticated way of perceiving and
navigating their environment
◦ This is, of course, quite different from our own
experience, which (cases such as blindness aside)
relies heavily on sight
Nagel (cont.)
 Nagel argues that even if science tells us
exactly how bats’ echolocation works, down
to the tiniest neural detail, we still will not
understand what the experience of being a
bat is like
◦ That is, reductive explanation is not a complete
explanation of the mind
◦ Qualia, according to Nagel, are not explicable
through reduction
Jackson’s Mary
 Another argument along similar lines comes
from Frank Jackson

 In Jackson’s case, Mary is a neuroscientist
who has been raised in an entirely black
and white room
◦ She knows everything there is to know about how
color vision works, the reflectance profiles that
define each color, and so forth
◦ That is, she knows everything there is to know
about the mind according to identity theory
Jackson (cont.)
 Yet Jackson argues that Mary would
nonetheless learn something new the first
time she stepped outside of her room and
actually saw the color red for the first time

 Thus, physical facts alone do not exhaust
what can be known about the mind
◦ For this reason, Jackson’s argument is sometimes
referred to as “the knowledge argument”
Chalmers’s Zombies
 A final example is David Chalmers’s
philosophical “zombies”

 Chalmers says that we can imagine a world
that is physically identical to our own but in
which the people (who are, by stipulation,
physically identical to us) do not have any
subjective experience
◦ These are “zombies” in the sense that they have
no inner life
Chalmers (cont.)
 The conceivability of such zombies,
Chalmers argues, shows that the
intrinsic/essential features of our conscious
experience are distinct from physical
features of the sort appealed to by various
forms of materialism

 The argument applies not just to identity
theory but also to views such as
Possible Materialist Responses
 There are various lines of response available to
materialists in response to these qualia-based

1. Deny the intuitions or the coherence of the
2. Deny intuitions’ validity as reflections of the
fundamental nature of the world
◦ Again the history of science is instructive
3. Appeal to different types of knowledge
(especially relevant to Jackson/Nagel)
Part 4: Functionalism (and
the Arguments for It)
Background: concerns about
identity theory
 The view we discussed last week, identity
theory, holds that mental states simply are
brain states

 One set of challenges to identity theory (and
physicalism more generally) come from
property dualists who believe that
physicalism cannot account for all mental
◦ Qualia have received particular attention here:
Nagel, Jackson, Chalmers
Physicalist concerns about
identity theory
 However, identity theory also faces a
significant challenge from within the
physicalist camp
◦ Whether it is possible to specify identities
between types of mental and physical states

 Without such type identities, all we have is
the much weaker thesis of token identity
◦ And identity theory loses much of its explanatory
Physicalist concerns (cont.)
 More specific threats to type identity are:
◦ Multiple realizability: there may be indefinitely
many types of brain states that physically realize
a particular type of mental state (e.g., belief)
◦ Ruling out mentality for other types of physical
systems (e.g., aliens, computers, maybe even
other animals)
 If mental states are identified with the types of
physical states found in human brains, this suggests
that intelligent entities that are very physically
different from us don’t actually have mental states
 But this seems wrong
Defining functionalism
 Functionalism is an attempt to address
these perceived shortcomings of identity
◦ Rather than defining mental states in terms of
their physical form (viz., particular brain states),
functionalists define mental states in terms of the
functional role that these states play

 The functional role of a state is generally
defined in terms of the causal relations that
it bears to the environment, body, and other
mental states
Functionalism as a solution to
problems with identity theory
 This gets around the problems of multiple
realizability and alternative physical
◦ As long as the causal relations/functional role that
define a given type of mental state are present, it
doesn’t matter what the physical system
instantiating those relations/roles is
 Human biology, alien biology, silicon chips, etc.

 To use a computer metaphor: what matters
for functionalism is the software, not the
Functionalism’s popularity
 Functionalism is especially popular among
researchers in cognitive psychology and
artificial intelligence
◦ For it suggests that we can study the mind as a
computational system abstracted away from
messy details about the brain
 “Autonomy of psychology” arguments

 Also popular among philosophers of mind
for similar reasons: we can study the mind
without bothering with neuroscience!
Avoiding misconceptions
 Functionalism vs. behaviorism:
◦ Functionalism is similar to behaviorism in its focus on
causal relations, but with the key difference that its
functional definitions involve ineliminable reference to
other mental states
 In contrast to behaviorism’s requirement that mental states
be defined solely in terms of outwardly observable behavior

 Functionalism is not a form of dualism
◦ Nearly all functionalists subscribe to physicalism:
they’re just token physicalists rather than type
Part 5: Arguments against
Qualitative character and
functional indistinguishability
 One objection functionalism faces will be quite
familiar by now, both as an objection to behaviorism
and to (type) physicalism:
◦ The objection is that functionalism can’t account for the
inner or qualitative dimensions of our mental states
 Since according to functionalism, these states are purely
causally defined

 Inverted spectrum thought experiment: functional
roles are identical but phenomenal character is very
◦ Reluctant to say that these are the same mental state even
though they are functionally identical
Block’s “China brain”
 A very influential objection to functionalism
comes in the form of Ned Block’s “China brain”
thought experiment
◦ Imagine that all the citizens of a very populous
country arrange themselves in such a way as to
mimic the functional organization of the human brain

 According to functionalism, such a system
should be a mind, since it (by hypothesis)
instantiates all of the functional roles of the
human brain
Block’s objection (cont.)
 Yet most people are reluctant to say that such a
system would be a mind just like any other
 A couple ways of cashing this out:
◦ The “absent qualia” problem: such a system, even if it
could perform computations and the like, would not
have qualitative experience
 Thus, there is something more to mentality than functional
◦ Can also see the “China brain” as a reductio ad
absurdum of functionalism’s openness about the
physical basis of the mind
 Opposite problem from type identity: too open about
physical basis rather than too restrictive
Functionalism and the
“autonomy of psychology”
 Another line of objection takes aim at the idea
that functional definition implies
disciplinary/methodological autonomy
◦ Churchland’s “temperature” example:
 Strictly speaking, the “temperature is mean molecular
kinetic energy” identity only holds for the temperature of a
 Slightly different definitions for other states of matter
 Yet it would be absurd to conclude from this that
thermodynamics is an autonomous science that can be
abstracted away from particular physical realizers
 Rather, reductions are domain-specific
 Provides the identity theorist with a response to concerns about
alternative realizations