Shoemaker on Functionalism and Qualia: Summary

Functionalism is the claim that mental states are individuated by what they do and not by how they are instantiated, or what their `substrate’ is. Shoemaker is responding to an objection from Block and Fodor to the effect that functionalism cannot accommodate qualia, viz.: what it is like to be in a particular mental state. There are links here to Chalmers’ `hard question’: why is it like that, or indeed, why is it like anything at all to be in a particular mental state. The motivation for the objection is that some mental states may be individuated by what it is like to be in them.

The objection proceeds by considering the possibilities of inverted qualia and absent qualia. The first means that it may be different for me when I am in the same mental state as you. The second means that it may be different for me in that there is nothing it is like for me to in the same mental state as you even though that state does indeed have phenomenological character for you. Both possibilities would be fatal for functionalism, since there would be finer grained distinctions between my mental state and yours which moreover, are differentiated by phenomenological characteristics and not functional ones.

Shoemaker asks whether it is plausible to suggest that the phenomenological character of mental states could be unrelated to their functional role in terms of what inputs, outputs and connections to other mental states it has. Presumably a mental state associated with the phenomenological character of `intense pain’ is connected to a strong desire to move into a mental state without that phenomenological character. That desire would be lessened if the `intense pain’ state had no phenomenological character, or could be eliminated entirely if what I feel as pain is what you feel as pleasure. This seems to comport poorly with the idea that we are in the same mental state at all, if that question is decided on functionalist grounds.

Q: Do qualia exist?

Shoemaker allows for the possibility of inverted qualia by describing a possible case where we could detect that someone’s qualia had shifted. The argument depends on the idea that we sometimes have difficulty distinguishing closely related pairs of shades where they are, perhaps, on the blue/green boundary. If someone’s phenomenological experience on seeing blue became exchanged with what previously they had experienced when seeing orange, then they would now find it easier to distinguish shades on what is still, in the world and for the rest of us, on the hard to pick out blue/green boundary. If this thought experiment is coherent, it eliminates the Wittgenstein problem that qualia inversion would be undetetectable from behaviour and thus a meaningless claim. Thus Shoemaker gives the objection its maximum force by admitting that inverted qualia are possible.

Shoemaker’s defence of functionalism is suggested by the problematic disconnect discussed above between phenomenological character of mental states and their function. He admits that for the defence to be successful, phenomenological characters must be integrated with the functional framework i.e. phenomenology must have a function.

Finally, Shoemaker’s argument devolves to the following. There can be a qualitative belief that one is in a state having some propositional content, which content quantifies over qualitative states but does not refer to particular qualitative states. Such qualitative beliefs are functionally definable.

Author: Tim Short

I went to Imperial College in 1988 for a BSc(hons) in Physics. I then went back to my hometown, Bristol, for a PhD in Particle Physics. This was written in 1992 on the ZEUS experiment which was located at the HERA accelerator in Hamburg ( I spent the next four years as a post-doc in Hamburg. I learned German and developed a fondness for the language and people. I spent a couple of years doing technical sales for a US computer company in Ireland. In 1997, I returned to London to become an investment banker, joining the legendary Principal Finance Group at Nomura. After a spell at Paribas, I moved to Credit Suisse First Boston. I specialized in securitization, leading over €9bn of transactions. My interest in philosophy began in 2006, when I read David Chalmers's "The Conscious Mind." My reaction, apart from fascination, was "he has to be wrong, but I can't see why"! I then became an undergraduate in Philosophy at UCL in 2007. In 2010, I was admitted to graduate school, also at UCL. I wrote my Master's on the topic of "Nietzsche on Memory" ( Also during this time, I published a popular article on Sherlock Holmes ( I then began work on the Simulation Theory account of Theory of Mind. This led to my second PhD on philosophical aspects of that topic; this was awarded by UCL in March 2016 ( -- currently embargoed for copyright reasons). The psychological version of this work formed my book "Simulation Theory". My second book, "The Psychology Of Successful Trading: Behavioural Strategies For Profitability" is in production at Taylor and Francis and will be published in December 2017. It will discuss how cognitive biases affect investment decisions and how knowing this can make us better traders by understanding ourselves and other market participants more fully. I am currently drafting my third book, wherein I will return to more purely academic philosophical psychology, on "Theory of Mind in Abnormal Psychology." Education: I have five degrees, two in physics and three in philosophy. Areas of Research / Professional Expertise: Particle physics, Monte Carlo simulation, Nietzsche (especially psychological topics), phenomenology, Theory of Mind, Simulation Theory Personal Interests: I am a bit of an opera fanatic and I often attend wine tastings. I follow current affairs, especially in their economic aspect. I started as a beginner at the London Piano Institute in August 2015 and passed Grade One in November 2016!

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