Functionalism: An Introduction



Functionalism is a popular theory of the nature of minds. While there continues to be great controversy about which is the correct "theory of mind," functionalism is probably the most widely held theory among both scientists and philosophers today. On this theory, mental states (beliefs, pains, hopes, fears, etc.) are ultimately characterized by the jobs they do, which is to say the functions that they perform. Since computers just are mechanical devices that implement functions, this makes the computer metaphor a natural way of capturing the main intuitive idea behind the theory. On this account, our brains are like the hardware of a computer and our minds (our beliefs and pains) are like the software states of a computer. This module uses easy to understand analogies to help explain the theory of functionalism, why it is a compelling theory to use in scientific research, and why it raises such passionate resistance. [NOTE: Functionalism is also sometimes called the “computational theory of the mind,” although others reserve the “computational theory” to refer to one narrow version of functionalism.]



This is a brief outline of the main topics and the main images used in the "Introduction to Functionalism" material. It is designed to project in a classroom for review and discussion.


One of the most famous (and infamous) attacks on functionalism is John Searle's "Chinese Room Argument". A series of animations present a virtual version of Searle in his "chinese" room and variations on the chinese room which help to make clear how the argument is intended to work and its significance.

  • Searle and the Chinese Room Argument

  • The Robot Reply to the Chinese Room Argument

  • Credits:

    This module was supported by National Science Foundation Grants #9981217 and #0127561.