Friday, February 28, 2014

Functionalism vs behaviourism as theories of the mental

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Functionalism vs behaviourism as theories of the mental
Date: 3rd November 2011 12:19

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 26 October, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, ''Functionalism is no better than behaviourism as a theory of the mental.' Discuss.'

This is a very patient (I was tempted to say 'plodding', but in science that's not always a criticism) survey of the various arguments and objections regarding behaviourism and functionalism. I agree largely with the way you have mapped out the terrain. It was inevitable from the start that behaviourism would fail against certain objections where functionalism bravely prevails, and also that against other objections behaviourism and functionalism fare equally well/ badly.

You have also stuck faithfully to the issue of behaviourism vs functionalism, where I might have been tempted to veer off to consider how functionalism relates to, say, connectionism, or to anomalous monism. The only prospect here seems to be a kind of reassurance that one is not looking for (the wrong kind?) of reduction, where supervenience will do. It is one thing to offer functionalism as an umbrella account of the mental, and quite another to pursue projects which involve modelling the mind in terms of concepts from computer science -- something whose point I would be tempted to doubt.

On the contrary, it is clear from the general way the question is formulated that we are considering any version of behaviourism (quite rightly, you limit this to 'analytical' behaviourism) and any version of functionalism. The point that one could be a Cartesian dualist and a functionalist is well taken, but I assume (as you do) that the whole point of the exercise is to resist dualism. (As in the cartoon included in Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained', professor at a blackboard covered in formulae: 'And here a miracle happens!')

But I worry that you may have missed the central point of the question. Your approach assumes that theories can be 'better' or 'worse' in a comparative sense, in the way one might contrast theories of how senility or cancer develop, where the various alternatives are all up for grabs and we are merely concerned with noting pros and cons. Whereas I read the quote in the question in a different way, as a statement that functionalism and behaviourism both FAIL, period, as theories of the mind.

They fail. ''Kruschev was no better than Stalin.' Discuss.' Well, of course, Kruschev introduced all sorts of reforms, bravely criticized his predecessors, but the philosophy he implicitly believed in, Marxism-Leninism, was a total disaster, because...

The point gains some credence from the fact that this is meant to be a one hour essay question (as I've said many times), and therefore the examiners expect you to be able to answer it more or less comfortably in that time. What they don't expect is a page of numbered notes listing all the ways Kruschev was, or was not, better than Stalin!

You can probably gather what would have been the kind of answer I would favour. What is the thing that shoots (claims to shoot) both functionalism and behaviourism down in flames? The person who makes the quote in question clearly believes there is such an objection, and that's what the essay should be about. Either you agree that there is a criticism in the face of which both behaviourism and functionalism miserably fail, or you are fully familiar with the criticism in question and think that it can be resisted. In which case we are then in the game of evaluating pros and cons -- a different essay.

A finesse here might be to indicate why the functionalist 'thinks' they are offering a better alternative to behaviourism, and why, according to a proponent of the knock-down objection, they are sadly deluded. That would gain a mark or two.

A good candidate for the knock-down argument is the problem of qualia, which you describe in various guises. Because this is more central to (my version of) the essay, there would be time to discuss in more detail Wittgenstein's argument against a private language (which I think is compelling, but that's just my view), but also other arguments you mention such as zombies, Chinese room, the million mile high version of Senate House, etc.

How can time make a difference (in the case of the Chinese Room, or Senate House)? I was dying to know the answer to that. Isn't it the utmost parochialism to reject the idea that it might take some gigantic 'creature' a million years to experience a sensation or formulate a single thought? What has time got to do with it? Then again, isn't it parochial to assume that we would ever be in a position to understand/ interpret Senate House's mental states? ('If a lion could speak, we could not understand him', Wittgenstein). I'm assuming that Senate House has arms and legs, or the equivalent (i.e. is an 'agent' with 'its own' needs and goals, not just an information processing device).

Zombies. Would they be different from humans? Massive question! There are two versions of the zombie objection, which make very different points:

Version 1. There might be a zombie double of GK whose behaviour differs in very subtle ways. Most things we can both do, but there are particular tasks at which my zombie double fails, because in order to do them you need that extra 'something' that matter alone, however distributed or organized, cannot supply. The point here is about human ignorance. As would-be materialists, we are merely hypothesizing. We don't know.

Version 2. My zombie double and I are identical in every material respect. But in that case, if I am tempted by the thought experiment to be an epiphenomenalist, wouldn't my zombie double be an 'epiphenomenalist' too?!

All the best,

Geoffrey