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Functionalism and Qualia

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I have chosen to write this essay in hopes of displaying the importance of non-absolution, abstraction, and subjectivity when it comes to considering topics in the philosophy of mind. Many philosophers today try very hard to utilize objective methods to try and grasp a very subjective field. In fact some philosophers like Dennet consider Qualia and the subjective experience a nuance and go so far as to say we don’t experience colors. There is a certain rigidity when analyzing these complex philosophical issues with the intention of determining an absolute truth while persistently utilizing anthropomorphic labels to decorate said truths. This essay will explore functionalism and its constant struggle with qualia, and whether or not qualia even matter anyway. There will be a few allegorical examples onto which functionalist ideas are imposed, as well as a few criticisms concerning the idea of a unified theory of mind.

When considering functionalism, it seems that a fundamental quality, shared by all living things (yes all living things, plants and microscopic eukaryotes and prokaryotes, all things which contain Nucleic acids or other yet unknown elements of life), is left out of the equation; perception (wahrnehmung in German, literally translates to truthtaking).  Perception takes the form of qualia when viewed in terms of physical and mental states, experiences and thoughts possess different qualities for each of us. Let us observe a short scene, please do excuse its graphic nature.

A person, shackled and bound hangs from a chain in a dark cellar, their back is bloody because it is being whipped. Echoing in the background is the constant sound of nails being dragged against a blackboard, it goes without saying that the person’s genitalia is also being abused in some way. The person is begging for it NOT to stop, and despite wincing facial expressions they giggle each time they’re whipped because that person is a masochist and actually enjoys the feeling of pain. Marquis de Sade wrote volumes about this.

What would a functionalist have to say about that scene?

A functionalist might claim that in this case the mental desire of wanting to be in pain (inner state) is caused by some deviation in psychological development which brings forth an anomaly in their folk psychology, and that actually feeling pain fulfills the function of correcting that deviation or compensating for it. Fine, but does the functionalist actually account for the fact that maybe the person in question actually feels pleasure from that pain, that maybe the sensation actually possess a different quality to it and that’s why it is sought out? A functionalist might then not call that pain, but rather pleasure since it is fulfilling the role of pleasure, though then again all the signs of pain are there: bodily injury, wincing, being bound in order not to flinch, severe bleeding etc. The functionalist wants to call this pleasure without acknowledging that its pain the masochist seeks. In fact this is a great example to speculate on why trying to find an absolute truth is redundant when considering states of mind. The reason being; we are not empathic enough to experience another state outside ourselves. For the bound masochist, pain and pleasure overlap to form a sensation no non-masochist could experience. Pain and pleasure are both sensations, sensations are bodily reactions to the physical world, the very individual quality of those sensations is what gives these sensations form.

If there was a chance for a functionalist to account for qualia, they might have to be machine functionalists. The biological nature of being promotes self-preservation, and it may be the case that self-preservation is the essential role of avoiding a negative sensation such as pain. Taking that into consideration, along with the idea that there is a sort of Turing Machine in the brain that accounts for every single possibility out there and is fine-tuned enough to detect the perceptions of the individual and their present physical/mental states, could explain why our masochist is enjoying themselves. A machine functionalist might state that the person has a set algorithm in their brain (set by whom? Or what? Mayhap the all-seeing meyedia and their consumption engine’s superstar representatives which the person follows on twitter) which dictates- when feeling –Ax1 (pain for person x1) under circumstance Bx1 (sexual stimulation for person x1) then +Ax1 (pleasure for person x1) will be perceived. Though even then, we are not taking into consideration the very essence of the qualia, or what makes it so different for that person, obviously the sensation would vary from masochist to masochist, some might even appreciate different, more brutal forms of pain or mutilation-consider auto-erotic asphyxiation as an example where pain does not serve its primary function of keeping a body alive. How many deaths have occurred thanks to that fetish? My point here is that one needs to be careful not to be tricked into allowing Mind to be categorized under a programmable objective thing, which can be observed using the old rigid scientific method.

The idea that Qualia exist puts a large dent in schools of thought that assume to place an absolute law onto the conscious phenomena. As Ned Block displays in his Chinese giant homunculi experiment, despite the homunculi being a functional robotic being, it is unlikely that it will experience a qualia, the china-robot cannot have an inner experience. This is also displayed by the inverted qualia thought experiment, where 2 functionally identical people with inverted qualia are asked to look at a color or shape and describe it. The internal experience is different to the qualia-inverted person and no one can tell because the informational output is exactly the same. We cannot know for sure that we all share the same qualia even though most of us are functionally similar. The taste of broccoli is a testament to that fact. Experiencing Qualia happens when sensory information is processed through the mind’s eye and is reflected off the many mirrors of the self, presenting the sensation in a frame we can egotistically perceive. Qualia make us who we are, but are they necessary when considering ideas that go beyond our simple humanity? Daniel Dennet would have us believe they aren’t and that we were all qualia-negative philosophical zombies, a convenient rationale (Dennett, D. C. Consciousness Explained). I have to disagree, strongly. Qualia are what shape our collective state, or reality, they are the key to understanding the very notion of a collective experience, think the Chinese robot, only sentient, on a universal scale sending all that collective input to a universal MIND (the universe as an inner state?), while venting the output through life.

Functionalism can’t account for qualia when experiencing a mental state under another frequency of consciousness, namely the psychedelic experience; where qualia take on a much more pervasive form and make absolutely no sense to the outside observer. A person in the midst of an intense psychedelic experience will be immersed in that state and might be unable to differentiate between collective reality and personal qualia. This type of experience as elicited by external and internal sources (according to M.D Rick Strassman the body produces N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, one of the strongest psychedelic substances known to man) puts a dent in the attempt to find some kind of unified theory of mind because it proves the utter importance of qualia when it comes to perceiving reality and differentiating between inner and outer states. On a personal note, my experiments with psilocybin mushrooms had me feeling a little psychic, experiencing bodily sensations I never thought possible, and seeing things in a whole different light. During a psychedelic experience, the way things look to you become very clear very quickly. This can be seen in Huxleys doors of perception as he begins describing the quality of the objects in his surroundings whilst under the effects of mescaline, he mentions how the flowers he was looking at seemed alive and breathing, their color magnificent and somehow belonging to the very essence of the flower itself. He remarks then “These are the sort of things people ought to look at. Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves.” Remark the attribution of self to something like a plant, how do you feel about that? Another great Academic example is the experience of Daniel Breslaw, a student who undertook a documented psilocybin trip. His notes state that at one point the room he was in was fifty feet tall, then suddenly shrank to two feet. The doctor who was observing seemed to Breslaw to have lice crawling over his face. To him the hallucinations were more vivid that real experiences, their reality only questioned due to the knowledge of his intake. Many functionalists and scientist claim this is due to an abnormal activation in the visual system and the brain, caused by the substance and dopamine excess. None of them touch onto something all psychedelic users learn as soon as the ego collapses, Life is but a grand hallucination and we are very curious. Perception is important! The mind perceives what it wants when it wants how it wants. Daniel Breslaw’s most notable and applicable remark was “With eyes closed, one is not here but inhabits a distant world of abstractions. But with eyes open, one glances around the physical universe with curiosity.” It is this distant world of abstractions, that we are so interested in and continually grasp for, alas, using concretion. How can such a subjective and abstract notion be put under objective and scientific constraints?

Can a functionalist account for qualia? My understanding is only if qualia is a byproduct of function. Internal thought processes are there to serve a specific function, if possessing qualia increases the ability for said function to be performed successfully then it could exist, but it exists thusly in respect to folk-psych and is mostly parasitic in nature, it also complicates things a lot when considering things from non-human or non-typical human perspectives.

This is why I would like to stress a little on why empathy is important. Pain is a word we humans made up to describe that state to other humans, try and explain that your head aches to an alien, what kind of language do you use? Do you point at your head and wince? Wincing might or might not be an exclusively human behavioral response to pain. Do you point to your head and make a chopping motion with your hand? You might get decapitated, no headache anymore. Do you moan and groan while holding your head in your hands? That could mean “I am happy and want a belly rub” to them. Ideally the way to bring this information forth to an intelligence/sentience that bears no resemblance to your own could be to share the state itself telepathically and/or empathically. Though alas, we have not fine-tuned that ability yet. Seems to work with dogs and cats who learn to recognize and respond to our consciousness and sentience, (remember Lassie?) sadly our fuzzy friends appear much more empathic and intuitive than we, but hey, we have smart phones!

Here again, we have a point against labeling and searching for absoluteness. There can be an infinite amount of individual consciousness in the universe, and trying to apply one idea to that entire physical and metaphysical space is, to be polite, megalomaniacal. Labeling an idea and attributing it to a certain type of individual or individual perception doubly so, it is utter fallacy! Yes, I use this word very knowingly, and will not be swayed by an appeal to authority, it is fallacious to claim any absolution in this school of thought. As Socrates once said all I know is that I know nothing. The point being is that unless Functionalism, or Identity-type theory, or monism, or dualism, or any ism, y or ist makes room for individual anomalies and constant change as well as applications to non-human beings then they are no closer to being empirical truths or relevant theories than the phrase “these snozzberries taste like snozzberries”. This means nothing to someone who has never had a snozzberry and the dirty joke will go past anyone with a pure human mind*.

My personal view is that beings are naturally not function-filling machines but rather living, growing entities, constantly changing and occurring, regardless of logical processes, causal law or folk-psychology. Free Being expressed by Will. To me functionalism seems like only a small improvement on behaviorism and cognitivism. Having taken note of free will and the internal space in which we exist (cognition) is a great improvement, Pavlov would have had a fit! In fact, I feel like many of these modern ideas concerning the nature of mind and consciousness suffer not only from a lack of objectivity but also from what Nietzsche would have called slave mentality rhetoric. These ideas appear to be rooted in the need to find an exclusive, absolute truth for sake of the metaphysical solace extrapolated from portraying ourselves as the almighty Sentient Human being. It seems like an endeavor to seek egoistic perfection and social status as opposed to searching for and composing an intrinsic, holistic, non-separatist, lateral solution to these philosophical issues without designating socio-anthro labels (isms) and glorifying anthropomorphic fallacies. It is true that egocentrism is key in developing a theory of mind and identity, this is apparent in the human growing process as well, but in order for us to collectively grow and understand things, anthropomorphism must be overcome.


Chalmers, David John. Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.


Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Print.


* see Roald Dahl’s hidden Snozzberry joke from “My uncle Oswald” and “Charlie and the chocolate factory”, he apparently uses snozzberry as a euphemism for penis.



Author: pisceanist

Hi, My name is Fouad, I was born in San Diego CA in 1986 and currently live in Hamburg, Germany. I love to read and play video games, and am a great fan of post-rock music and Tool. I am currently working my way to an MA in Creative writing and also teach English as a Second Language to get by. Have been writing for quite some time, and thought It was time I stopped hoarding my strange digressions and shared them with fellow writers and readers in order to get more honest feedback, Enjoy!

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