Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The context problem for Lewisian functionalism

One problem for functionalism is the problem of defect. David Lewis, for instance, talks of a madman for whom pain is triggered by something other than damage and whose pain triggers something other than avoidance. Lewis’s functionalist solution is to define the function of a mental state in terms of the role it normally plays in the species.

Here is a problem with this. Suppose that in mammals pains is realized by C-fiber firing. But now take the C-fibers inside a living mammalian skull, disconnect their outputs and connect external electrodes to their inputs. Make the C-fibers fire. Since the C-fiber outputs are disconnected, causing them to fire does not cause any of the usual pain behaviors, the formation of memories of pain, etc. In fact, it seems very plausible that there is no pain at all. Yet according to Lewisian functionalism, there is pain, because it is the normal connections of the C-fibers that define their functional role.

This thought experiment shows that the physical realizers of mental states need to occur in their proper context. But this bumps up against Lewis’s madman, in whom the pain states, and presumably their physical realizers, do not occur in their proper context.

It seems that what the functionalist needs to say is that in order to realize a mental state, a physical state must occur in a sufficient approximation to its proper context. If it’s too far, as in the case of the C-fibers with severed outputs, there is no mental state. If it’s close enough, as in a moderate version of the madman case (I don’t know what to say about Lewis’s more extreme one), the mental state occurs.

But how is the line to be drawn?

Perhaps there is no problem. Pain is not in fact C-fiber firing. Perhaps enough of the brain needs to be involved in conscious states that one cannot plausibly remove the states from their normal functional context? Still, this is worth thinking about.

1 comment:

Scott Hill said...

"Perhaps there is no problem. Pain is not in fact C-fiber firing. Perhaps enough of the brain needs to be involved in conscious states that one cannot plausibly remove the states from their normal functional context? Still, this is worth thinking about."

I think this is still going to be a problem even if human pain is not merely c-fibers firing. One of the draws of functionalism is supposed to be that it captures our intuitions about pain in weird creatures that are built very differently than we are. Lewis talks about martians and the relevant functional role being realized by hydraulics.

Since we are trying to capture intuitions about merely possible creatures, since there are merely possible creatures in which the relevant functional state is realized by the firing of c-fibers, and since such possible creatures are much less weird than Lewis' Martians, I think your example may be something Lewis' theory needs to address.