Teleofunctionalism Uber Alles?

This week, Bill Lycan is visiting the NEH Seminar on Mind and Metaphysics. The main purpose of his visit is to discuss representationalism about qualia.

(According to representationalism, as Lycan formulates it, qualia are represented features of what is represented by a phenomenal experience (e.g., the redness of a tomato quale is the represented redness of the tomato represented by the quale). Representation does not exhaust the nature phenomenal experience, though: there is more to experience than qualia, including what it’s like to have the qualia. (Unlike others, Lycan distinguishes between qualia and what it’s like to have them.) Lycan’s account of what it’s like, and generally of non-representational aspects of experience, is functional.)

I asked Lycan what kind of functional account he appeals to for non-representational properties of experience–specifically, whether he still subscribes to the teleofunctionalism that he defended in his 1987 book (Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). I also asked him whether he was aware of any competitors to his teleological formulation of functionalism.

He said he is still happy with what he said on functionalism in the 1987 book, and that he wasn’t aware of any other formulations of functionalism that are still on the market. He said, “I seem to have won.”

Does anyone have thoughts on this? Is teleofunctionalism the only surviving formulation of functionalism? Is there anyone who defends alternative formulations these days? (What about Cummins’s functional analysis; does anyone consider that the basis for an alternative formulation of functionalism?)

Upgrade (7/7): I asked Lycan what he thinks about causal formulations of functionalism (Shoemaker, etc.) and he said they shouldn’t be called functionalism because they don’t specify which causal relations are relevant among the many that obtain; I asked him about Cummins’s functional analysis and he said it leads to anti-realism about functions (because there are so many Cummins functions and which ones we focus on depends on our perspective; this is also Eric Thomson’s point in the comments), whereas a genuine functionalism requires realism.


  1. Eric Thomson

    Most philosopehrs I talk to consider swampman type arguments to be threatening to mainstream teleofunctionalism (Dretske, Millikan, etc). There are a couple of ways around Swampman:

    1. Swampman works b/c mainstream analyses of function assume that function depends on history. We can reject this for the neo-Wienerian claim that cybernetic control systems give parts of systems functions. E.g., the function of the thermometer in a thermostat is to detect temperature because this is its role in the larger temperature-control system. Of course, we are left with the question, “What is a control system” which is problematic, but we do use these notions fairly often in neuroscience, especially in the motor control literature. The most promising example along this front is by Rick Grush.

    2. Avert to a Cummins-style causal-role functionalism, as you suggested. The objection here is that you end up with infinite causal roles for biological organs (e.g., the role of the heart is to make thumping noises) and other queer functional ascriptions (e.g., the function of the rings of saturn is to stimulate eyes looking into telescopes).

    I can see two responses to this objection. First, while we can list infinite queer causal roles for any object, that doesn’t preclude consciousness from being one of those causal roles in our functional decomposition of behavior. As scientists, we can intelligently narrow down the list of the right causal-functional story about behavior, and discover the role which consciousness plays in that story. Just because that bit of nature may have other queer functional roles (e.g., to create cell cultures for developmental biologists) doesn’t mean it isn’t also conscious. This is what biologists do in practice: we don’t do evolutionary biology to find out the function of enzymes. We find out the causal role of the enzyme in the cell, the role that explains why the cell can do the things it does.

    While I think my previous response is sufficient against the standard criticism of Cummins-functions (I haven’t seen it in the literature, strangely enough, as it seems obvious), a second response is to create a kind of hybrid functionalism. We can embed lower-level (Cummins) functional explanations into a higher-level (Wiener) teleological story that picks out certain behaviors (e.g., planning and decision making) of interest that are spun as implementing cybernetic systems.

    Also, type identity theory may be making a sort of comeback. Some of the typical arguments used against it (e.g., multiple realizability) are unsound (e.g., solidity is a physical but multiply realizable property). Eventually philosophers will have to stop making facile arguments from multiple realizabilty to functionalism. A not-very-good discussion of this is in Polger’s book.

    PS Sorry if this was sent multiple times: I kept getting error messages from the blogspot server.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Eric, thanks for your interesting comment.

    Just for the record, Lycan is no longer a functionalist about consciousness. His view is “strong representationalism,” which explains consciousness by a mixture of representational and functional ingredients. My question about Lycan’s functionalism pertained to the functionalist ingredients.

    Lycan is also an externalist about content, so he is not impressed with swampman. But this is a separate point

  3. Pete Mandik

    Hi Gualtiero,

    Eric Thompson’s remarks are useful, but he doesn’t mention anyone who (to my knowledge) has much to say about consciousness. If you are asking for examples of people with accounts of consciousness on offer, parts of which are functionalist, and none of which are teleo-, then I’d offer as examples Dave Chalmers and David Rosenthal.



  4. Blue Devil Knight

    Pete, what analysis of functions do Chalmers/Rosenthal subscribe to in their functionalist bits? Pure causal role?

    (Completely off topic, Pete: you may not remember, but you put me up at your flat as a potential grad student at PNP almost ten years ago (I ended up switching over to neuroscience)).

  5. Eric Thomson

    I realize this is sort of off topic, but since it came up…

    It is precisely views like Lycan’s that swampman is used to kill, so I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a concern for him.

    While there are useful fictions that have convinced most people of externalism wrt certain conceptual/propositional contents, the externalists about phenomenal contents haven’t done much to counter the reasonable-seeming intuition that the contents of qualia depend only on occurrent brain states, regardless of their history or worldly goings-on.

    Dretske’s response is something like “I don’t trust intuition about qualia to guide us to their nature. I have an argument. You should address that, as your incredulous stare doesn’t give me much to go on.” This is true, but it is also possible to give a counterargument: for instance, qualia-free swampmen imply qualia are epiphenomenal.

  6. Pete Mandik

    Hi Eric,

    Yeah, I remember your visit to St. Louis way back. That was fun. I hope neuroscience is treating you well.

    Re: the functionalism of the two Davids, as best as I can tell, it’s solely internal causal relations that do the work they want functionalism to do.



  7. Blue Devil Knight

    While I already sort of addressed it above, Lycan’s claim that Cummins functions end up as “arbitrary” and since we want to be realist they won’t work, is just weak.

    Obviously, the higher-level features we pick are interest-dependent (e.g., I want to study rat whisking, you want to study photosynthesis). Once those decisions have been made, the Cummins-style functional decomposition into relevant causes and functions is anything but arbitrary. It also doesn’t mean that photosynthesis and rat whisking aren’t real.

    Unless one is committed to some kind of analytic functionalism, where consciousness is defined as a causal role whose properties we must give a priori, we are free to do what biologists do. Pick something (yes, sort of arbitrary) to study and discover the mechanisms that produce it. We’ll start based on hints from the data and the rest of what we know. For instance, consciousness probably has something to do with behavior, and is probably involved with things like binocular rivalry. Let’s experimentally study the hell out of such examples and see what we end up with.

    Bill Bechtel has written great stuff on how this process works in real biology.

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