Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Functionalism and multiple realizability

Functionalism holds that two (deterministic) minds think the same thoughts when they engage in the same computation and have the same inputs. What does it mean for them to engage in the same computation?

This is a hard question. Suppose two computers run programs that sort a series of names in alphabetical order, but they use different sorting algorithms. Given the same inputs, are the two computers engaging in the same computation?

If we say “no”, then functionalism doesn’t have the degree of multiple realizability that we thought it did. We have no guarantee that aliens who behave very much like us think very much like us, or even think at all, since the alien brains may have evolved to compute using different algorithms from us.

If we say “yes”, then it seems we are much better off with respect to multiple realizability. However, there is a tricky issue here: What counts as the inputs and outputs? We just said that the computers using different sorting algorithms engage in the same computation. But the computer using a quicksort typically returns an answer sooner than a computer using a bubble sort, and heats up less. In some cases, the time at which an output is produced itself counts as an output (think of a game where timing is everything). And heat is a kind of output, too.

In my toy sorting algorithm example, presumably we didn’t count the timing and the heat as features of the outputs because we assumed that to the human designers and/or users of the computers the timing and heat have no semantic value, but are merely matters of convenience (sooner and cooler are better). But when we don’t have a designer or user to define the outputs, as in the case where functionalism is applied to randomly evolved brains, things are much more difficult.

So, in practice, even if we answered “yes” in the toy sorting algorithm case, in a real-life case where we have evolved brains, it is far from clear what counts as an output, and hence far from clear what counts as “engaging in the same computation”. As a result, the degree to which functionalism yields multiple realizability is much less clear.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

I wish you'd write a full work on the philosophy of mind. It'd be interesting to see your views about dualism, materialism, survivalism, etc., and the consequences for philosophy of religion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Most of my phil mind thinking is negative.

Unknown said...

Well, if by "negative" you mean negations ("materialism is false", "eliminativism is to be rejected"), etc., these are still (as you know) important and interesting facts which contribute to forming a view of reality. It's nice to be able to sort out views one rejects, and you have a lot of interesting arguments in phil of mind, so I think a full, focused work would be really interesting, if you eventually decide to do something like that