The Fundamental Cognitive-Scientific Theory of Functionalism

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In this paper, I will contend that the research findings on habit best support the fundamental cognitive-scientific theory of functionalism. I will begin by introducing functionalism, followed by an example to support my claim. Then, I will provide the best possible objection to functionalism, in which I examine how “habit looping” could potentially result in mindless automaticity that does not provide insight into the mental processes of our minds. Finally, I will reply to this objection by asserting how mental processes (even automatic mental processes) are defined by our actions and restate why research finding on habits best support functionalism.

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Functionalism has been relevant to many philosophical topics ranging from consciousness to artificial intelligence to habit formation. Functionalism is defined as being the theory about the nature of mental states. Unlike physicalism or type identity theory, which define objects by what they are made, functionalism defines things by what they do (IEP). This key differentiator between functionalism and other cognitive-scientific theories is that it presents the idea that our actions provide tangible insight into the complex mental processes of our minds. Although you might find it irritating to hear your mom scold you and say “you are what you eat”, functionalists make an even bolder claim that “you are what you do”. Similar to a son or daughter being reminded to eat a nutritious breakfast, an individual might be reminded to make positive changes in their life to embody maturity and wisdom. What you or I do is a result of our mental states responding to sensory inputs, which then produces behavioral outputs. This logical equation indicates that a person can identify a particular mental state by evaluating the subsequent behavioral output(s). In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, Duhigg reveals how habits are central to everything we do, how we can alter habits, and the impact habits have within our lives. He claims that the outward display of mental processing (thoughts put into action) is indicative of willpower, self-control, and routine. However, there must be a compelling reason that initially “[motivates] people to repeat actions and to expose themselves to performance contexts” (Duhigg). A single action or decision cannot stand alone as being a pillar of strength; but rather it is the consistent results produced over a period of time that produces a habit and indicates self-control.

While initial conditioning requires self-control, there is evidence to believe a “habit loop” can be formed, which can transform a set of challenging tasks into a simple, automatic routine. The initial goal ultimately influences habit formation by motivating people to stick to a consistent routine (working out, eating healthy, making bed in morning), which allows habits to form, context cues to automatically activate the habit representation in memory, and the brain to convert a sequence of actions into an automatic routine-is known as “chunking” (Duhigg 17). This could lead a person to question what the overall cognitive-emotional-behavioral structure of habit inputs, processes, and outputs are and whether the automaticity of a routine provides evidence against functionalism. Similar to the objections raised against the mind being a self-scanning mechanism, opposing arguments against functionalism might beg the question whether mindless routines actually provide insight into the mental processes of the mind. If a set of tasks becomes automatic, does it indicate any intentionality of the mental states behind the routine? Are physical outputs an accurate representation of inward processes? Does functionalism truly capture the internal features of the mind?

Although these objections present valid points of discussion and further investigation, I favor functionalism for several reasons including the supporting evolutionary evidence that suggests the process of habit looping culminates efficiency. Automaticity does not mean we are incapable of performing such tasks, routines, or habits with mindfulness, but rather it provides us the ability to use our resources in more productive ways: to prioritize mental processes, redirect our awareness unfamiliar tasks, and ultimately create “loops” out of such activities. Therefore, I favor that the research findings on habit best support the fundamental cognitive-scientific theory of functionalism.

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