Functionalism views the mental processes in terms of causes and effects (ex. inputs such as sensory stimuli and output such as moving an extremity).

But how would free will fit into this theory if at all?

One would imagine that he has at least some control over his thoughts. If a person would like to think about ice cream, for example, then he would be able to by the power of his free will. Wouldn't the decision of thinking about ice cream be a mental process itself?

If it is, then the output is obvious, but there must be some input that caused the output. If the output (thinking about ice cream) is really dependent on some input, then how could free will exist?

What I mean is this: It seems that any array of possible actions performed via the power of free must be at least somewhat restricted by some input(s). Environmental factors influence our behavior, such as seeing a family member or intoxication. So, some input(s) should restrict the possible actions one can choose to do, but there is always some range of outputs that can be chosen from if there really is free will. It is important that:

  • There are multiple outputs that can be chosen from (if there was only one then these input(s) would not allow for free will).
  • An agent of free will can choose which of these outputs to "pick."

The action of "picking" (like "picking" to think about ice cream) seems to be a mental process as well, however. It must also be viewed in terms of input(s)/output(s) in the view of functionalism. So, in the action of "picking," what would be the input that causes one to "pick"? And if there really was this sort of input and output, then how could "picking" be an action of free will?

Let's say that there are some input(s) that similarly restrict what one can "pick," but not completely so free will can be allowed for. Even if this is the case, how can "picking" the available outputs be explained in terms of functionalism? It seems that the process of "picking" some available outputs would still require an input until there is only one available output.

It consequently seems that functionalism does not allow for free will. Am I wrong or correct?

Source of my views on functionalism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's Article on Functionalism

  • Do you have a source for your views on functionalism? This would help put the question into context. One could always say that if functionalism does not allow for free will then functionalism has been falsified. – Frank Hubeny Aug 9 at 22:38
  • @FrankHubeny Yes, from iep.utm.edu/functism/#H2 , "The functions in question are usually taken to be those that mediate between stimulus (and psychological) inputs and behavioral (and psychological) outputs. Hilary Putnam’s contribution was to model these functions using the contemporary idea of computing machines and programs, where the program of the machine fixes how it mediates between its inputs and standing states, on one hand, and outputs and other standing states, on the other." – MacroGuy Aug 11 at 21:33
  • @FrankHubeny Also, why should it be assumed that a theory that does not allow for free will should be falsified? Why assume free will does not exist? – MacroGuy Aug 12 at 0:39
  • It's a different perspective. I don't know if functionalism allows for free will or not. However, if it turns out that it does not then those who assume we have free will can use that to claim that functionalism is false preferring to keep free will over functionalism. – Frank Hubeny Aug 12 at 0:57
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think that we "get in trouble" when we think that some of these theories are "mutually exclusive" instead of thinking one is good at explaining a portion of our selves and another is good at explaining some other portion. Together, they can explain more than each individually! Let me give an actual example:

It was a hot evening and as I was watching TV, I was getting thirsty. I starter thinking about getting up, going to the refrigerator, and pouring myself some cold tea. However, before I got up, I remembered that there was ice cream in the freezer, so when I got to the refrigerator, I got ice cream instead.

This example shows that for this action, there was not only a "cause & effect," but also "free will" got involved.

Using the analogy of a plane, functionalism would be the auto-pilot, and free will, the human pilot. Just like the human pilot decides to engage or disengage the auto-pilot, free will also decides when to allow functionalism to take, or not, control of a given situation/action.

  • I think that makes functionalism and free will very compatible if that is the case! Interesting! – MacroGuy Aug 14 at 22:00

I agree with functionalism and I agree with free will. The way that I rationalize this is with the analogy to quantum mechanics. You can measure the speed of a particle with precision, but not its position. You can also measure position with high precision, but not if you are measuring its velocity. With the mind you can break open the skull and look at every nerve ending to establish the cause of all stimulation, but you will not see free will. It's only when the brain is isolated from observation like a black box does free will emerge due to the concerted reactions of many many complex reactions that we cannot predict from stimuli and reaction alone.

  • Why should an inability to "observe" free will in action mean that it exists? I would also like to further argue that we are not able to anticipate the complex reactions within a brain due to our lack of knowledge. If every physical detail of the body was known (reaction mechanisms, incoming stimuli, etc.), would we be able to predict the future actions of a person? If not, then it may suggest that free will is something that operates beyond the physical world. Why should material things be able to decide how it reacts to the world? How can that be described in terms of functionalism? – MacroGuy Aug 14 at 21:56
  • Hmmm. I didn't say that "we can't observe free will". I said that functionalism and free will probably can be both be observed, but not at the same time hence the analogy. "If every physical detail..." Probably not. We may have the same brains but my neural networks are different than youra because we have our own memories so it is still a complicated process. – Cell Aug 14 at 22:56
  • "Operates beyond physical world" Not necessarily. For example systems of equations can be entirely physical but their chaotic nature can make it difficult to predict their future behaviour. – Cell Aug 14 at 23:04
  • Even so, their future behavior (despite being chaotic) is determined by physical causes. The system is not deciding what its output is like a human being with free will; its output is caused by initial factors even though these factors are too complicated or unknown to us. Free will would not be a good analogy to these chaotic systems since some conscious entity can determine its output (or do what it won't do). Any initial factors (even if they are too complicated or unknown to us) would restrict that action of a human being and not allow for free will even if the relationship iscomplex – MacroGuy Aug 15 at 4:57

Freewill is a monumentally huge topic, which does not have one clean definition which is sufficient to answer your questions. You have to choose definition to move forward.

One definition I find very useful is to define freewill as an action which occurred at least in part because of the internal state of the entity which is not known outside of the entity. This sort of black box (or even grey box) definition provides a natural way for freewill and functionalism to coexist until you start considering omniscient entities -- but freewill gets murky there anyways.

The usual counter is that you aren't "free" because you can only do what your state tells you to. And that's reasonable, for some definitions of freewill. Then the question becomes "do you have the freewill to do what you wont do?" And it becomes a fun discussion.

  • I agree that your definition of free will allows free will and functionalism to co-exist. I think that having the ability to do what we won't do, however, is not very compatible with functionalism unless there is some ability for functionalism to somehow be "deactivated" allowing for manual control by a conscious entity. – MacroGuy Aug 14 at 22:08
  • @MacroGuy The fun discussion I find is whether the idea of having the freedom to do what you won't do is compatible with whatever other definition of freewill that is brought to the table. I find it focuses the exploration and discussion on the new idea. – Cort Ammon Aug 15 at 1:49

Does functionalism of the mind allow for free will?

  • Guill said, "However, before I got up, I remembered that there was ice cream in the freezer, so when I got to the refrigerator, I got ice cream instead."

It is probably the memory function of the mind that actually allows the capacity for free will, because it provides the basis for decision making. People with faulty or weak recall tend to make poor decisions and have great difficulty learning from mistakes. Free will is a survival mechanism.

  • That doesn't explain how free will and functionalism could be compatible. It could be argued that the memory function of the mind serves to provide input for future outputs (deciding to get ice cream due to the input of the memory of ice cream in the freezer). Also, why should free will be a survival mechanism? Wouldn't philosophical zombies that are "programmed" to react appropriately to their environment via natural selection be able to survive? Why is free will necessary? – MacroGuy Aug 14 at 22:02

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