Modernist materialists, burdened as they are with a historicist metaphysics and an undue prejudice against philosophy that occurred before Descartes et al., are left proposing increasingly silly and onerous conceptions of the mind. As I have discussed before, an Aristotelian picture of the world dissolves the “hard problems of the mind” with the least consequence, concluding that mental phenomena fit into a kind of phenomena that we witness occurring throughout the world. However, with a focus on micro-objects and the consequent necessity of trying to explain all phenomena in terms of them, the modernist materialist is left with the task of trying to explain the mind without appealing to any fundamentally “mental” processes.
The most popular view on the mind presently is that of “functionalism,” which the Stanford Encyclopedia defines as “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.” This view avoids problems present in other views, such as identity theory, the idea that the “mind and brain are identical,” which runs into the problem that it seems there then couldn’t be any other minds possible in the universe except for humans with their particular biology. Nor is it so extreme as eliminative materialism, which just does away with what can’t be explained by matter. No, really, that’s what it does. It doesn’t explain the phenomena, it just denies that it occurs. For as reticent as modernists are to give up their materialism, they do still find that view difficult to square away, but for reasons it seems they will never really depend on for anything else.
However, let’s delve into functionalism in particular, since I believe it suffers from a rather unique problem that the other views don’t. In fact, I think this problem actually makes it a weaker view than, say, identity theory, because at least that view provides a means of restricting phenomena to a particular place and time. Functionalism without restrictions leads to the conclusion that “everything is a mind.”
The supposed reason for preferring functionalism is that it gets us out of some anthropocentric chauvinism. Human minds are only a particular kind of mind, rather than the only kind of mind. There could be non-human minds. If this is possible, then we must place the mind in something other than humanity’s particular biology, place, and time.
Consider the difference between a rubber ball and a clock. One is, we could say, ontologically constituted, while the other is merely functionally constituted. This becomes apparent when we ask what makes each to be what it is. In order for a rubber ball to be a rubber ball, it must actually be of a spherical shape and constituted by a certain set of elements that we call “rubber.” If I were to produce a simulation of the rubber ball in some realistic computer program, the simulation would be ontologically distinct from the actual rubber ball, so that while we might recognize an identity in functional occurrence (say, our description of the activity of either will fit to both equally), they are yet not identical per se, since we don’t mean by “rubber ball” what is identical to a “simulation of a rubber ball.” On the other hand, the clock in its functional occurrence can be perfectly represented by a simulation, since it is not the ontological elements in its constitution that we care about but rather whether they fulfill a function that we understand to represent marking the passage of time. If I wanted to keep time, both the clock that takes up space and the simulation will, because they function identically, serve the same purpose. The ontological constituents are moot.
However, because the ontological constituency is moot, we are able to understand virtually anything to be a clock. A clock can be composed of wood, ball bearings, metal gears and springs, water, cesium atoms, light passing through vacuum, and so on. The only restriction is the accidental ability of us to be able to interpret the marking of time by these things; but if we had god-like powers, then anything which in its ontological constituency has order could be considered a clock.
The functionalist would like to take this story about clocks and apply it to minds. A mind is not so much its ontological constituency but the functions undertaken by the parts within a system. In fact, the mind is nothing but the functioning undertaken by the system. The mind is just a kind of functional constituency.
However, the problem we run into is that minds, unlike clocks, are not the case just whenever a person considers something to be a mind. That is, while every conceivable system (which is to say, the relations understood between any things in the world) performs a function which could be identified as “marking the passage of time,” a clock must still be identified by a mind to fulfill that function to itself. If we don’t recognize it as a clock, it isn’t a clock. While we might not choose to make clocks out of ice, that is not because ice couldn’t fulfill the function of marking the passage of time, it’s because we prefer to inhabit environments above freezing.
A mind, unlike clocks, is not so arbitrary. Something is not a mind just because a mind understands it to be a mind; in fact, the mind must be prior to this understanding. A mind can be the case without any other mind, outside itself, recognizing it to be such. Minds have objective identities; that is, they are not dependent on external subjects for their being the case. As such, we cannot attach the qualification to the functionalist thesis that “minds are only what we recognize to be minds.” That would introduce a kind of subjectivism, since certainly we don’t want to say that something is a mind provided it is recognized by other recognized minds. This gets us into the problem, well, who was the original mind and how did it get recognizes as such? What do we say of “minds” that are recognized only by some minds to be minds and not by others?
The functionalism must accept, then, that whatever fulfills the “functions of mind within a system” would then be a mind, even if people might not recognize it as such. However, once this is accepted, we come around to asking what are the functions of mind? That is, which functions must take place in order for something to be a mind?
It does not seem there are really any conditions we could add from within the thesis of functionalism, since the only reason to prefer this doctrine to others is precisely that its supposed to capture the intuition that human minds are just a particular kind of mind, but not necessarily the only kind. That is, human minds represent only one of a plurality of possible minds. There could be minds that operate differently. But if this is our reason for going down the path of functionalism, it seems that any condition we might stipulate of a function within a system, e.g. “that it represents logic gates” or “it can store memories” is to simply re-introduce that same anthropocentric chauvinism, and if we want to do that we may as well be allowed to go beyond the functionalist thesis; that is, minds are more than just functions, but require some particular ontological constituency.
But sans the condition of ontological constituency as an essential element of minds or that of particular functionings, then we find that to be a mind is just to be an order. An order is simply relations between concrete objects. Every concrete object has a relation with another, no matter how abstruse or remote. As such, since everything instantiates an order in some way, then everything is a mind. In fact, there is a mind for every distinct relation that could be identified in the world. There is a mind not only in your body, but between every concrete object that exists in and out of your body; there is a mind represented in the atoms between a cluster of neurons in your brain, there is a mind in every star, there is a mind in every galaxy and atom and so on. The world is literally permeated by billions and billions of minds.
The only we can get around this is to suppose there is something to the mind besides function/order. It seems we need to be able to introduce an ontological constituent of minds, without also just making that ontological constituent “the human body.” But of course, to do that seems like we’re going down the path of dualism, and that just can’t be allowed.