Saturday, November 8, 2014

Explanation and Evaluation of the Homunculi-Headed Robots Objection to Functionalism

Functionalism is an aspect, discipline, or belief system in philosophy which allows for mental states to be separated and treated singularly according to what they are doing or causing.  This is coming from the viewpoint that it is more significant to be recognised for what you do rather than what you are internally, mentally speaking.  Put another way, actions speak louder than words.  This belief structure, functionalism, allows for a rectification between identity theory and behaviourism, and creates a way to define mental states and their reactions by the relationship to input and output in relation to the mental state that is currently occupied. 

There is, however, some argument against the logic of functionalism.  One such argument is provided by Block via his Homunculi-Headed Robots example.  In his Troubles with Functionalism, Block lays out the scenario of his argument, by suggesting that a body similar to a human should be imagined.  The difference, though, is that instead of having a normal mind, this body has many little people in it, who are tasked with certain specific goals or objectives.  For example, person A needs to pull switch 1 when they see a green light, triggering reaction Z, and that’s it.  Each little person is responsible for a specific action given a specific input.[1]  Block then goes on to explain that if the example of the little men in a body didn’t get the point across, imagine an entire country, China, as having this setup.  Each person in China was responsible for one action given one input.  This, Block says, would result in the entire country functioning as a certain person[2] whilst ever that system was in place, thus giving the impression that China, as a whole, possessed mental states, even though China is not a living being.[3]

Block states that his Homunculi-Headed Robots embarrass all versions of functionalism by indicating that functionalism if guilty of liberalism, or the classification of systems that lack mentality as having mentality.[4]  It is important to understanding why Block is raising this argument and making this point in the first place, to have a knowledge of other theories and beliefs in philosophy.  A precursor to functionalism is behaviourism, which believes that there is not an input then a reaction due to the input, but rather that there is a certain mental state which provides a disposition to reacting a certain way.  This can be seen as a liberal or casual viewpoint.  Armstrong believes that it is the brain-state that determines the mental-state and the state of the consciousness totally.[5]  This again harkens back to the vague characterisation of functionalism that Block mentioned, which is that each type of mental state is a state consisting of a disposition to act in certain ways and to have certain mental states dependant upon the sensory inputs that are provided during those certain mental states, and therefore shows that functionalism is just a newer incarnation of behaviourism.[6]

Another aspect of the functionalist point of view can be compared to that of dualism, both physical and property.  Armstrong believes that mental states are not just determined by the corresponding states of the brain, but that they are identical with the brain-states and involve nothing but physical properties.[7]  Another way of looking at dualism is through opposites such as limit and limitlessness, self and other, one and many.  These ideas of duality have even gone beyond just the philosophical world and have been used and applied in modern science.  Erwin Schrodinger is a modern physicist who explored a similar concept to that in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in relation to quantum physics and temporal mechanics.[8]  From the point of view that there are different realities for any given object that is dependant upon the observed or unobserved state of that object, Schrodinger theorised an experiment.  Schrodinger postulated that if a cat was locked in a box with a decaying isotope which was to release a poison upon its decay, the cat at the instant of the poison being released, would both be dead and alive whilst it was unobserved; yet the moment that something observed the cat, it would be the influence of that observation that would dictate the fortune or demise of the cat[9].  This embraces physical dualism, but also shows facets of functionality, in that the cat will react to the observation by either staying alive or becoming dead.  The observation then is an external input and the cat will react accordingly with its current state. The duality state of multiple contradictory possibilities co-existing at the same time for the same object or person has existed as a philosophical concept since the time of the Pythagorean philosophers.  Indeed, Plato talked about these ideas when he said “…and the ancients, who were superior to us and dwelt nearer to the Gods, have handed down a tradition that all things that are said to exist consist of a One and a Many and contain in themselves the connate principles of Limit and Unlimitedness.”[10] 

What, then, does this mean for the validity of Blocks argument, if anything?  Dualism is generally regarded as being quite comfortable and compatible with functionalism, and indeed as stated above, lends itself quite nicely to the reaction from input model that is functionalism.  But it also lends credence to behaviourism.  As pointed out by Armstrong, purposes are characterised by the outcomes that they produce.  I.e., if someone wanted to get something to eat, they would get up and go to the kitchen or a restaurant, not go to the bedroom and lie down.  This is encouraging for the behaviourism school of thought.[11]  By being encouraging for behaviourism though, it is also in a way encouraging for functionalism, since as previously stated functionalism appears to be a rehashing or renewing of behaviourism.  It is at this point that functionalism and behaviourism should be recognised as different way of making the same argument, and in essence are the same.  Operating under this premise, the correctness and validity of Block’s Homunculi-headed Robots can be brought into light. 

As critics of behaviourism have pointed out before, the desire in a person for a certain goal (x) cannot be identified solely with a disposition to do action (z) when the person is unaware that performing action (z) will lead to goal (x), thus meaning that they are not disposed to perform (z).[12]  This means that certain paths of action or reactions, according to behaviourism, will not happen without the subject knowing this information.  This is when the accusation of behaviourism being guilty of liberalism by functionalism is important.  Liberalism is ascribing mental properties to things that do not have them, such as machines or group entities.[13]  This is the premise for Blocks objection to functionalism; that according to functionalism, and by way of using a machine table, such as in his hypothetical Homunculi-Headed Robots, non-living entities are able to have mental properties ascribed to them, and Block believes this to prove that functionalism is inherently wrong.  The basis of functionality is that there are certain qualitative states present in the entity confirming the mental states.  Block has provided through the Homunculi-Headed Robots, however, reasonable doubt at first impression on the validity of functionalism.  This Absent Qualia Argument, or the argument that due to prima facie the Homunculi-Headed Robots could not have mentality because someone has doubted it in the first instance.[14]  

This would appear to be a logical argument against functionalism, using itself, behaviourism, aspects of dualism, and self-doubt against it.  Any arguments for functionalism seem to come from a behaviourism standpoint, and are most effective when a belief and acceptance in functionalism is already in place.  In the end, the use of the Homunculi-Headed Robots to show a flaw in the logic of functionalism is well done, and Block does have a good objection to functionalism.  Further, as Armstrong reminds us, “it has often been remarked by philosophers and others that the realm of the mind is a shadowy one, and that the nature of mental states is singularly elusive and hard to grasp.”[15] 


Armstrong, D. M.  (2002).  “The causal theory of the mind”, in Philosophy of Mind Classical and Contemporary Readings.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Block, N.  (2002).  “Troubles with Functionalism”, in Philosophy of Mind Classical and Contemporary Readings.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Fidler, D., Guthrie, K., Taylor, T., & Fairbanks, A.  (1987).  The Pythagorean Sourcebook An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy.  Phanes Press. 

Physicsworld.  (2000).  Accessed 10 April, 2012.

Sartre, J.  (1956).  ‘The Existence of Others: The Look’ (extract).  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology.  Philosophical Library, New York. 

[1] Block, Troubles with Functionalism, pp 96-97
[2] Whomever the input and output machine table was setup to mimic
[3] Block, Troubles with Functionalism, pp 96-97
[4] Block, Troubles with Functionalism, p 96
[5] Armstrong, The causal theory of the mind, p 81
[6] Block, Troubles with Functionalism, p 94
[7] Armstrong, The causal theory of the mind, p 81
[8] Sarte, The Existence of Others: The Look
[10] Plato, Philebus quoted in  Fidler p 20
[11] Armstrong, The causal theory of the mind, p 82
[12] Block, Troubles with Functionalism, p 94
[13] Ibid, p 95
[14] Ibid, p 97
[15] Armstrong, The causal theory of the mind, p 84

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