What Does Functionalism Tell Us About Personal Identity
Olson (Eric)
Source: Nous, Dec2002, Vol. 36 Issue 4, p682-698, 17p;
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer

Philosopher’s Index Abstract

  1. Discusses the argument that the psychological-continuity view follows from the functionalist theory of mind.
  2. Causal-powers argument's basis on the idea that mental properties by nature make a difference to the causal powers of their bearers;
  3. Link with personal identity that comes from the thought that a mental state's typical causes and effects must all be states of the same being.

Author’s Abstract
  1. Sydney Shoemaker argues that the functionalist theory of mind entails a psychological-continuity view of personal identity, as well as providing a defense of that view against a crucial objection.
  2. I show that his view has surprising consequences, e.g., that no organism could have mental properties and that a thing's mental properties fail to supervene1 even weakly on its microstructure and surroundings.
  3. I then argue that the view founders on "fission" cases and rules out our being material things.
  4. Functionalism tells us little if anything about personal identity.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Most philosophers believe that our identity through time consists in some sort of psychological continuity2. You are, necessarily, that future being who in some sense inherits his mental features from you: the one who has the mental features he has then in large part because you have the features you have now. And you are that past being whose mental features you have inherited. Though there is dispute about what sort of "inheritance" counts – about whether those features must be continuously physically realized, for instance – most agree that some sort of mental continuity is necessary or sufficient (or both) for us to persist.
  2. So magnetic is this view that many feel entitled to assert it without argument. Such arguments as we find typically amount to little more than telling science-fiction stories and remarking that most of us (Western philosophy teachers and their students) are inclined to think that the character at the end of the story is identical with the character at the beginning of the story with whom he is psychologically continuous. We accept the psychological-continuity view merely because it strikes us as plausible. Of course, we can't argue for everything. Opponents of the view, however, have made a serious case against it (see Section 3 below).
  3. As it happens, Sydney Shoemaker has been saying for many years that there is real theoretical support for the psychological-continuity view. He claims that it follows from the functionalist theory of mind. In fact, he says, it follows from an account of mental properties that is considerably weaker and less contentious than functionalism. What is more, his argument offers what looks to be the only serious defense of the psychological-continuity view against a crucial objection.
  4. Despite its obvious importance, this argument has received little attention – probably because its conclusion is so well entrenched that no one else thought it needed defending. Whatever the reason, I propose to examine the argument. I will show (in Section 4) that it has some extremely surprising consequences:
    1. that no living organism could have mental properties;
    2. that no mental properties supervene3 even weakly on a thing's microstructure and surroundings;
    3. and more.
    I will then show that the argument founders on "fission" cases (Section 5) and that it appears to rule out our being material things (Section 6).


See "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Functionalism and Personal Identity - a Reply" for Shoemaker's reply.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - June 2020. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page