Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Functionalism and maximalism

It is widely held that consciousness is a maximal property—a property F such that, “roughly, … large parts of an F are not themselves F.” Naturalists have used maximality, for instance, to respond to Merricks’ worry that on naturalism, if Alice is conscious, so is Alice minus a finger, as they both have a brain sufficient for consciousness (see previous link). There are also the sceptical consequences, noted by Merricks, arising from thinking our temporal parts to be consciousness.

But functionalists cannot hold to maximalism. For imagine a variant on the Chinese room experiment where the bored clerk processes Chinese characters with the essential help of exactly one stylus and one wax tablet. The functionalist is committed to the clerk plus the stylus and tablet—call that clerk-plus—being conscious, as long as the stylus and tablet are essential to the functioning of the system. But if the clerk-plus is conscious, the clerk is not by maximalism. For consciousness is a maximal property, and the clerk is a large part of the clerk-plus. But it is absurd to think that the clerk turns into a zombie as soon as he starts to process Chinese characters.

Perhaps, though, instead of consciousness being maximal, the functionalist maximalist can say that maximally specific phenomenal types of consciousness—say, feeling such and such a sort of boredom B—are maximal. The clerk feels B, but clerk-plus is, say, riveted by reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There is no violation of maximality with respect to the clerk’s feeling bored, because clerk-plus isn’t bored.

That could be the case. But it could also so happen that at some moment clerk-plus feels B as well. After all, the same feeling of boredom can be induced by different things. The Romance has slow bits. It could happen that clerk-plus is stuck in a slow bit, and for a moment clerk and clerk-plus lose sight of the details and are aware of nothing but their boredom—the qualitatively same boredom. And that violates maximality for specific types of consciousness.

If maximalism is needed for a naturalist theory of mind and if functionalism is our best naturalist theory of mind, then the best naturalist theory fails.

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