Thursday, February 10, 2022

Animalist functionalism

The only really plausible hope for a materialist theory of mind is functionalism. But the best theory of our identity, materialist or not, is animalism—we are animals.

Can we fit these two theories together? On its face, I think so. The thing we need to do is to make the functions defining mental life be functions of the animal, not of the brain as such. Here are three approaches:

  1. Adopt a van Inwagen style ontology on which organisms exist but brains do not. If brains don’t exist, they don’t have functions.

  2. Insist that some of the functions defining mental life are such that they are had by the animal as a whole and not by the brain. Probably the best bet here are the external inputs (senses) and outputs (muscles).

  3. Modify functionalism by saying that mental properties are properties of an organism with such-and-such functional roles.

I think option 2 has some special difficulties, in that it is going to be difficult to define “external” in such a way that the brain’s connections to the rest of the body don’t count as external inputs and outputs and yet we allow enough multiple realizability to make very alien intelligent life possible. One way to fix these difficulties with option 2 is to move it closer to option 3 by specifying that the external inputs and outputs must be inputs and outputs of an organism.

Options 1 and 3, as well as option 2 if the above fix is used, have the consequence that strong AI is only possible if it is embedded in a synthetic organism.

All that said, animalist functionalism is in tension with an intuition I have about an odd thought experiment. Imagine that after I got too many x-rays, my kidney mutated to allow me exhibit the kinds of functions that are involved in consciousness through the kidney (if organism-external inputs and outputs are required, we can suppose that the kidney gets some external senses, such as a temperature sense, and some external outputs, maybe by producing radio waves, which help me in some way) in addition to the usual way through the brain, and without any significant interaction with the brain’s computation. So I am now doing sophisticated computation in my kidney of a sort that should yield consciousness. On animalist functionalism, I should now have two streams of consciousness: one because of how I function via the brain and another because of how I function via the mutant kidney. But my intuition is that in fact I would not be conscious via the kidney. If there were two streams of consciousness in this situation (which I am not confident of), only one would be mine. And that doesn’t fit with animalist functionalism (though it fits fine with non-animalist functionalism, as well as with animalist dualism, since the dualist can say that the kidney’s functioning is zombie-like).

Given that functionalism is the only really good hope we have right now for a materialist theory of mind, if my intuition about the mutant kidney is correct, this suggests that animalism provides evidence against materialism.


Mikhail said...

How can animalism deal with brain transplant cases? In such cases, we have one person in two animals, and so a person can't be an animal.

CGilmore said...

@Mikhail Check out David Hershenov's papers on the subject, he has a website with all of his papers publicly available for download.

Alexander R Pruss said...

My take is that organisms for which brain function is teleologically central are more apt to go with the brain than with the rest of the body.