I can see how dualism and physicalism addresses the mind-body problem, but I don't quite get how functionalism attempts to solve the mind-body problem.

Functionalism is just the thesis that mental states are functional states. But I can't see how this thesis addresses the mind-body problem like dualism and physicalism, if it is supposed to. And yet functionalism appears to be the strongest position to take in philosophy of mind.

How does functionalism solve the mind-body problem?

2 Answers 2


One way to view functionalism is as a response to the problems discovered with the mind-brain identity theory. The identity theory says (very roughly) that each mental state is identical to some brain state. There are well-known problems with this, notably Kripke-style counterexamples which employ a posteriori necessities.

We can try to avoid the problems with identity theory by saying that mental states aren't correlated with particular brain states, rather they're correlated with particular configurations of physical systems. This is enough to avoid at least the most obvious of the Kripke-style counterexamples.

You should also note that functionalism is a species of physicalism/materialism. This is because it doesn't posit new substances/properties over and above the natural properties we already know exist. (Granted, it does posit functional properties, though functionalists will say that we already recognize these in other domains). So functionalism is just a version of the physicalism you're already familiar with, albeit a more sophisticated one.

  • In an absolutely physical world, what is a function? There are no teleological aims, so there are no 'things to do', there are only consequences of physical processes. There can be survival of the fittest, but no will to survive. All drives and goals are illusory. So I do not think you can frame functionalism as a form of physicalism.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 2:12
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    @jobermark I think you misunderstand what 'functionalism' means here. It has nothing to do with teleology. A functional state, in this context, is something like a physical state which tends to bring about certain other states. One common form of functionalism draws an analogy between the states of a Turing Machine and brain states. So that when you're in some state s there are only finitely many other states one can transition into. The functionalist claim is that we can explain mental phenomena by explaining the functional states of the brain. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 16:05
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    A Turing machine has a program, which is an intention solidified in code. So drawing that analogy does not expel the assumption of intention. In understand what is being said, but I contend that it is a pretense.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 16:59
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    How about this: "state A causes/brings about state B in circumstances C." What about that statement involves intentionality? It is a description of a state of affairs, and there's no obvious intentional component in it. All that a functionalist about the mind says is that mental states are related to non-mental states in this way. So it's still not clear to me where you think the intentionality comes in. Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 17:25
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    The author of that quote is making an analogy to software - this is different from saying that the brain actually instantiates software. Moreover you haven't answered my question from above: where does intentionality occur in the statement "state A causes/brings about state B...". That is effectively what the functionalist says. So where does the intentionality come in? Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 21:00

If one does not obsess over what constitutes the transition from one internal state to another, but only states that such transitions are what matters, then you are free to say the state is physiological or is a transition between ideas.

In fact, one can establish the course of such a transition at arbitrarily many different levels of abstraction, with a broad variety of framings. Is it when an electro-chemical system alters in a predictable way? Is it when an emotion has an effect? Is it when a logical accounting is made? Is it when the mind observes a change in its beliefs or ideas? How can you separate these? More importantly, why would you bother?

All of these things happen at once, and all of them are necessary aspects of any transition from one state of mind to another. Some such transitions may seem more physiological, or more emotional, or more logical, or more determinative of belief, but, from a broad enough perspective, all of them are involved all the time.

This continuum of abstractions describe exactly the same fact, and so all of these descriptions are equally real. We cannot decide the biological process of the brain is real and belief as a component of mental action is not, because they are just different ways of describing the same thing.

The mind-body problem is then just a matter of poor semantics: We have too many names for the same thing and so assume that they must differ.

  • How does this answer the OP's question? You don't even talk about functionalism. Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 19:05
  • I thought it was obvious enough that no function is with out intention. I edited that in now.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 1:32
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    But that's not obvious. Moreover that's not what philosophers of mind mean when they talk about functionalism. Are you familiar with the literature in this area? Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 16:08
  • @modalmik I have edited out references to intention. I think it clarifies this argument a great deal, but it is in fact an unnecessary intermediate step. (I still think it is a logically warranted aspect of this argument.)
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 1:12

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