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Functionalism, Homunculi-Heads, and Absent Qualia

  • Ray Elugardo (a1)


It has recently become quite fashionable for one to defend a functionalist theory of mental states. However, as with most trends, functionalism has come under fire in certain philosophical quarters. In this paper, I shall not take up the question of whether any version of functionalism is true. I shall instead discuss a particular objection to a specific brand of functionalism.



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1 I borrow this term from Shoemaker, Sydney, cf. “Absent Qualia Are Impossible—A Reply to Block”, The Philosophical Review 90 (1981), 582.

2 There are different versions of this argument that range from the homunculi-headed functional simulation examples, as presented by Block and Robert Kirk, to Keith Campbell's insentient “imitation man” and Kirk's “zombie” examples. See the following papers: Block, Ned J., “Troubles with Functionalism”, in Savage, C. Wade, ed., Perception and Cognition: Issues in the Foundations of Psychology, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 9 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978), 261325; Campbell, Keith, Body and Mind (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970); Kirk, Robert, “Zombies versus Materialists”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 48 (1974), 135152; Kirk, Robert, “Sentience and Behavior”, Mind 83 (1974), 4360.

3 Block endorses the first assumption in his “Troubles with Functionalism”, 301. Notice that any weak functional definition that you may happen to non-trivially satisfy will contain mental terms that denote intentional, non-qualitative, mental states. Thus, anything which non-trivially satisfies the same weak functional definition that you satisfy would be a psychofunctional simulation of you and, consequently, would have the same types of intentional mental states that you have. The converse need not hold, however. For example, some organism, X, may be a psychofunctional simulation of you in the sense that every psychological theory that is true of you is true of X but there may be no weak functional definition that anything non-trivially satisfies. Now Block also defends the second assumption when he criticizes type-physicalism, cf. What Psychological States Are Not”, co-authored with Fodor, Jerry A. in The Philosophical Review 81 (1972), 159181. Finally, Block rejects species chauvinism in “What Psychological States Are Not”.

4 See, for example, the following papers by Searle, John: “Minds, Brains, and Programs”, The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1980), 417424; and “Analytic Philosophy and Mental Phenomena”, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 6, ed. French, P. A. et als. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 405424. Incidentally, if Searle is correct in holding that all of the contrived artificial systems, which Block discusses in his works, must lack intentional mental states, then the Absent Qualia Argument cannot be used in generating counterexamples to weak functionalism. The reason is that, since the functionalist requires the possession of specific types of intentional mental states as a precondition for one's having qualitative states, this particular requirement will not be met in the cases which Block discusses if Searle's view is correct. This shows that functionalism is consistent with the claim that some possible functional simulations of you lack qualitative states even if you do not, so long as these possible simulations also lack intentional states—these simulations would, of course, satisfy a weak functional definition in a vacuous way.

5 Block, “Troubles with Functionalism”, 278.

6 Ibid., 281–282.

7 The argument that follows is a variant of one that Hilary Putnam gives in a slightly different context, cf. Robots: Machines or Artifically Created Life?Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964), 668691.

8 Kent Bach has raised the following objection: Block* cannot even state the Absent H-Quale Argument because he could not have any conception of a qualitative state if he is always mistaken in thinking that he is in a qualitative state. Two replies are in order. First, let us grant that Block* is always mistaken in thinking that he is in pain simply because he has ersatz pain. By hypothesis, he is a functional simulation of Block who does have a concept of genuine pain. Thus, Block* should pass all the relevant behavioral and linguistic criteria (pick your favourite ones) that Block would need to pass if the latter were to have the concept of genuine pain. Hence, it seems correct to say that Block* could have a concept of genuine pain. Second, the only test that Block* would fail and which Block would pass is a neurophysiological test for pain. However, this would explain why Block* lacks the relevant qualitative concept only if part of what it means for one to have a concept of genuine pain is that he or she be capable of being in neural states that are characteristic of pain relative to some species of organisms. But this is just a form of species-chauvinism to which critics like Block, as I argue below, cannot appeal without inconsistency.

9 Block, “Troubles with Functionalism”, 322, fn. 19.

10 Ibid., 315–318.

11 To be sure, other counter-moves are possible. For instance, one might hold that the homunculoids are simply contrived systems that are designed to mimic us and this feature would explain the difference between us and them. But why do we need to make that assumption? It is conceivable that these homunculoids are the result of some cosmic, freakish, accident of nature and, as a consequence, are functionally equivalent to us. Indeed, for all we may know, we might have been the by-products of a cosmic accident. In any case, Block would still deny that the homunculoids have qualia whereas he would not deny that of us. Another possible move would be to say, as Block does, that each homunculus is in effect a Turing Machine realization; thus, the operations of each homunculus could be implemented by any mechanical Turing device. But suppose we were to discover that the way in which our brains work in processing neural inputs and affecting neural motor-outputs, which are characteristic of human pain, is such that these brain operations are purely mechanical Turing-type operations. Would we then be correct in denying that we had pain-qualia all along? If so, then Block* is right. If not, then the fact that purely mechanical computational operations occur inside someone's head, be it a homunculi-head or a brain-head, will not help explain the relevant difference between us and the homunculoids. Similar remarks are made by John Biro in his unpublished paper, entitled “Block on Psychologism”.

12 The argument that I presented in this paper is similar in certain respects to one that Shoemaker presents in his “Absent Qualia Are Impossible—A Reply to Block”. But there is at least one important difference between the two arguments. Shoemaker's argument has the consequence that cases of absent qualia are logically impossible. My argument does not have that consequence; but rather, it shows, if anything, that anyone who believes that absent qualia are logically possible is faced with a dilemma if he or she rejects both type physicalism and species—chauvinism. In closing, I would like to thank Kent Bach, Bill Lycan, and the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.

Functionalism, Homunculi-Heads, and Absent Qualia

  • Ray Elugardo (a1)


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