Am I what I do? Functionalism in Philosophy

How do you usually introduce yourself? What is it that you say when asked to tell others about yourself? Who are you? There are variations in answers, of course, as well as exceptions to common conventions. However, I have yet to meet a person who’d start their introduction by stating that, for instance, he is a human being. That would sound a bit odd probably because that is an obvious fact – I mean, aren’t all who are involved in this discussion human beings? So, if you want to say something that defines uniquely you, what do you say? One very solid and indisputable way forward that comes to mind is to say “I am my genetic code”. That is indeed unique. And what if we imagine that you are talking to your clone who is genetically identical to you? OK, we can modify the response by saying “I am my genetic code plus my environment and lifestyle”. After all, we know that even identical twins are not that identical. But would you be satisfied, if I introduced myself that way (even if it does define me)? Or would you smile politely and think to yourself that that’s one strange lady who probably doesn’t want to share much about herself? So then, if we don’t want to be asocial – how are we to introduce ourselves? 

image from pixabay

In my experience so far, people mostly start the introductions by telling their names, perhaps their age, sometimes their family status, where they come from (if not local), what they do in terms of work or study and so on. These things and their importance are influenced by our cultures and societies, and we learn how to respond and what to expect from others. Yet, what is common, regardless of what we choose to tell, is that we tell things that we consider important as our defining characteristics. Even our language gives this away. For instance, think of all the times you have said that you are this or that. You are X years old, you are your name, you are your profession etc. Sure, different languages allow for various ways of expressing these things. However, the very existence of the here-mentioned way of expression signals that we tend to define ourselves through the various roles we play. Put differently, we identify ourselves with our functions. It is most obvious with the statements about the profession but also my name and my age and many other things I say I am are certain functions or roles I perform. For instance, if I change my name, is it still me? Surely it must be! But if we follow the simple logic of an identity statement “I am X”, then whenever we change X it will no longer be me because it will no longer be identical. It is even “worse” with age – that thing changes every year! 

However, if we look at the whole identity business from a different perspective, it becomes broader and therefore more inclusive. As mentioned, the things I say I am are basically different functions or roles I perform. It is similar in theatre – an actor in a play may say he is Romeo when, in fact, he plays the role of Romeo. In philosophy, this type of identity theory is called functionalism. The main point is that the defining, identifying factor is the function (or role) and not the specific “thing” or “actor” realizing it. In other words, whatever realizes the function of X, is X. Whoever plays the role of Romeo (realizes this function), is Romeo. Whatever realizes the function of breaks on a bike, those are the breaks (and we know there are several types of bike breaks). Whatever realizes the function of pain in a living organism, is pain (which means we admit that organisms different to ourselves can experience pain even if it’s not identical to ours and not realized in the same way). 

As you can see, the advantage of this approach is that it is very inclusive. It embraces multitudes of diverse “realizers” of functions without discriminating against anyone or anything as long as they realize the given function/play the given role. So, if we go back to our examples of how we introduce ourselves and see that all those things (my name, age, family status, profession etc.) are the roles we play or the functions we realize, our identity seems to be saved. From this standpoint, as long as I have something that realizes those functions for me (my name, my age, my profession and so on), all is fine and I stay myself even if/when I change my job, my age and my name. It is like changing actors for the same role – yes, each actor brings along some new details to the role but they are accepted only as long as they realize the given function (play the given role). 

So, this is it then? We have established that we introduce ourselves through the most important characteristics that we think define us and these are the roles we play, the functions we realize. For the sake of simplicity, let’s agree to use the verb “to do” to stand in for playing a role or realizing a function (after all, they are activities and we “do” activities). It follows, therefore, that based on the functionalism identity theory I am what I do. Indeed, in our everyday lives, it seems this is how we define ourselves, as presented previously. Yet, if we think about it, are we satisfied with such self-definition? I am not sure about you but something about it is bothering me. Even if you are happy with this way of identification, it is still worth considering what it implies. 

The very first thing that comes to my mind is that, by definition, it is assumed that everything and everyone has a function. Remember, a function to be realized is the defining characteristic of functionalism. As long as we stay in the mechanical world, such as bike breaks and car engines and door locks, it is all fine. There the functions that must be realized are clear. But what about living organisms? What is the function of a cat, a dog, an elephant, a fly, a human being? One way of looking at it is to say that all living organisms are, in fact, different realizers of the function of life. We all live and spread life thereby realizing the function of life each in our way. If we accept this, it is easy to see how individual realizers are irrelevant as long as the “show goes on” overall. Such sobering prospect could render us humbler. Or it could render us even more aggressive, abusive, manipulative and destructive – because if individual realizers don’t matter, well then why shouldn’t we be the ones to have the last say? You see my point, it’s not a pretty road. 

On a more individual level, what is my function? Yes, there are all the roles I play and define myself by. But do I as a person have a specific function, do I somehow represent it, am identified through it? If yes (and I am not at all sure), is there only one? And, crucially, who determines it? Is this perhaps another way of asking what is the meaning of my life – something that all people long to feel (I would even argue – need to feel)? Moreover, assuming that I find out what my function is, does it really not matter what/who realizes that function as long as the role is performed well enough? I mean, can it actually be anyone/anything else except me, if I am still to keep my identity in line with functionalism view? If I am both my personal function and its only possible realizer, the situation is not as functionalism foresees it, since now also the realizer is as crucial and unique as the function in terms of defining identity.  

Also here we see that the mechanical world lends itself to the ideas of functionalism much better than the more complex world of life. Bike breaks and door locks do not contemplate their destinies and decide about the meaning of their existence. However, some might object that functionalism can be (and is) applied to the organic world as well. For instance, the crucial function of breathing can be realized by our natural lungs or by artificial ones (which undoubtedly saves many lives at hospitals). Granted, this is true, but it still applies to the identity of the lungs (whatever performs its function is lungs), not to the identity of the whole organism. Even if we stick with examples of some particular physical or mental states as opposed to entire organisms or personalities, I wonder what is the function of consciousness? Or is it perhaps itself a function/role of something? Is it a “Romeo”, an actor who plays Romeo or something else entirely? It is such a huge topic in itself with so many questions that it even received its own name in philosophy – the hard problem of consciousness. Functionalism’s founding father is considered to be Aristotle (4th century BC) and we see how many questions this identity theory still has to deal with after roughly 2,400 years. Let’s see how long it takes us to ‘solve’ the hard problem of consciousness. Perhaps we will learn to define and identify ourselves in a different way. But in the meantime, you may have much more fun next time you do introductions with someone new.

keep exploring!   

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