In general terms, functionalism is a doctrine that holds that the key characteristic of some component or device is not its physical makeup, but rather the role or function that it has in a larger system. The reason for this is that many physically-different systems are capable of producing the same function (e.g., a biological heart and an artificial heart can both serve the function of pumping blood). That is, there are always multiple physical realizations of any given function.
Functionalism is particularly important in cognitive science. The dominant methodology of cognitive science, functional analysis (Cummins, 1981) is founded upon the functionalist doctrine. Indeed, the notion that computer simulations can provide insight into human or animal cognition requires functionalism, because this insight requires us to dismiss the physical differences between computers and the agents that they are used to simulate (Pylyshyn, 1984). Indeed, researchers like Pylyshyn and Fodor (1968) have long argued that purely physical vocabularies are not sufficient to provide general explanations of cognition, because these vocabularies are not capable of capturing key functional attributes of cognition and intelligence.
- Cummins, R. (1983). The Nature Of Psychological Explanation. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
- Fodor, J. A. (1968). Psychological Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Psychology. New York: Random House.
- Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1984). Computation And Cognition. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
(Added January 2010)