Consciousness, Paralysis, and Functionalism

Consciousness, Paralysis, and Functionalism

Paralysis has been regularly used to defeat behaviorism and its descendant functionalism. How can the mind consist of behavior if paralysis is consistent with having a mind? The objection is clear and strong: paralysis shows that behavior is not required for consciousness to exist. To have a conscious state is not to move in a certain way. It might even be that a conscious being has never moved and never will and has no disposition to move. What I want to point out is that much the same objection applies to attempts to define mental states in terms of their mental effects: what a mental state does internally is equally incapable of defining it, because of the possibility of mental paralysis. I will call this the “paralysis argument”. The argument is not complicated; in fact, it is embarrassingly simple. Consider a pain occurring at time t: it may have many mental effects—forming the belief that you are in pain, desiring to escape the pain, comparing it to other pains you have had, laying down a memory of the pain, thinking you will later write about the pain, deciding not to do that again, and so on. All these occur after t, radiating out from the pain, eventuating in overt action. Now suppose that some neural catastrophe were to afflict you, interrupting the causal connections: you don’t and can’t have those mental effects of the pain; you have the pain but the causal sequence is abolished. The neurons fail to send the signals to other areas of the brain, shutting down the mental effects of the pain. You are mentally paralyzed. Clearly, this is consistent with having the sensation of pain, since the effects occur after the pain. But then, such effects are not a necessary condition of feeling the pain, and so cannot constitute having it. The situation is exactly like bodily paralysis except that the causal sequence is interrupted at an earlier point. The effects could extend further out than the body into the world at large and could be interrupted at any point; the situation is not different going in the opposite direction. There can be behavioral paralysis and mental paralysis—as well as “paralysis” with respect to environmental effects. But then, we can’t define mental states in terms of their effects, physical or mental, which means that functionalism won’t work. What a mental state is can’t be reduced to what it does, mentally or physically. To be a pain is not to have a certain functional role, since the pain can exist without the functional role existing. People have argued that functional role is not sufficient for a mental state, but it is also not necessary, by the paralysis argument. We don’t see this kind of paralysis often, if at all, but that is because the relevant parts of the brain are not as exposed to injury or interference as much as the spinal cord; but as a matter of principle the cases are not different. The fundamental problem is that pain and its effects are distinct existences (as Hume would say), so that one can’t be the other. Once this point is appreciated (it isn’t a difficult point to grasp) we can develop two further anti-functionalist arguments: the “time-lapse argument” and the “ignorance argument”. The time-lapse argument points out that the effects of pain post-date the pain, but the pain doesn’t post-date itself; so there can be no identity between them. The ignorance argument points out that you could know you are in pain without knowing its effects, since these are different things; so there can be no analytic or a priori connection between them. You might simply become mentally blind following the occurrence of the pain, so that you are ignorant of its mental effects, or those effects don’t occur because of mental paralysis. Your knowledge that you are in pain cannot then consist in the knowledge that you are in a state with such and such mental effects. Unlike materialism, functionalism has problems with time: materialism invokes a contemporaneous brain state, but functionalism invokes a temporally extended causal sequence, thus incurring the problems outlined. As I said, pretty simple stuff.[1]

[1] This isn’t to say that functional role could not be employed less ambitiously in an account of the mental, as merely an aspect of the mental state; but then, it isn’t identical to the mental state. This would be a kind of weak functionalism analogous to various kinds of weak materialism. Classical functionalism, like classical materialism, is a case of theoretical exaggeration, taking an essentially sound point and overdoing it.

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