Fixing functionalism

Journal of Consciousness Studies 15 (3):87-118 (2008)
Abstract
Functionalism, which views consciousness as the product of the processing of stimuli by the brain, is perhaps the dominant view among researchers in the cognitive sciences and associated fields. However, as a workable scientific model of consciousness, it has been marred by a singular lack of tangible success, except at the broadest levels of explanation. This paper argues that this is not an accident, and that in its standard construal it is simply too unwieldy to assume the burden of full-fledged theory. In its place, a reduced functionalism is introduced by applying the principle of parsimony successively to the elements of standard functionalism until only a minimal framework remains. This simpler account states that consciousness is a function of instantaneous causal relations between processing elements rather the putative algorithm such relations are instantiating. It is then argued as a corollary that the only such relations that matter are those in which reciprocal influences are at play. Thus, purely afferent and efferent causal relations are pruned from consideration. The theory resulting from the addition of this corollary is shown to have good correspondence with a number of recent neurophysiologically-motivated approaches to consciousness, including those that stress the importance of reentry, those that view synchrony as a key independent variable, and those that highlight the importance of the accessibility of conscious contents to multiple processing modules. In addition, the theory is shown to be consistent with recent results in the literature on masking, and those in the literature on binocular rivalry. The paper concludes by arguing that the theoretical and empirical difficulties inherent in consciousness research imply that the principle of parsimony must occupy a more central role in consciousness research than it would in ordinary scientific discourse.
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