Functionalism (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
A psychological approach, popular in the early part of the twentieth century, that focused on how consciousness functions to help human beings adapt to their environment.
The goal of the first psychologists was to determine the structure of consciousness just as chemists had found the structure of chemicals. Thus, the school of psychology associated with this approach earned the name structuralism. This perspective began in Germany in the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920).
Before long, however, psychologists suggested that psychology should not concern itself with the structure of consciousness because, they argued, consciousness was always changing so it had no basic structure. Instead, they suggested that psychology should focus on the function or purpose of consciousness and how it leads to adaptive behavior. This approach to psychology was consistent with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which exerted a significant impact on the character of psychology. The school of functionalism developed and flourished in the United States, which quickly surpassed Germany as the primary location of scientific psychology.
In 1892, George Trumbull Ladd (1842-1921), one of the early presidents of the American Psychological Association, had declared that objective psychology should not...
(The entire section is 869 words.)
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Functionalism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Functionalism is a schema of explanation: All parts of a system fulfil a necessary, latent function for the system as a whole, its stable equilibrium (principle of homeostasis), or its survival. Functionalism, thus, is a descendant of earlier teleological or finalistic conceptions. It can be applied to nearly all complex systems, but functional explanations are not a unitary phenomenon across disciplines.
Functionalism in sociology
Stimulated by Auguste Comte (1798857), Herbert Spencer (1820903), and especially Emile Durkheim (1858917), and encouraged through the anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski (1884942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881955), functionalism became important in sociology. Specific structural-functional macro-theories, such as that proposed by Talcott Parsons, describe religious institutions, norms, and symbols with respect to their output on integration, legitimization, compensation, and socialization for the society as a whole, its equilibrium, or its survival. The function of religion is destined for its power of integration (e.g., Durkheim), its role to institutionalize cultural-social norms (Parsons), or its ability to cope with experiences of contingency and reducing complexity (Nikklas Luhman).
This functional conception of religion has been criticized with respect to the epistemological and cognitive status of religious notions, regardless of the contribution of religion to the survival of human cultures. In addition, though the notion of stable equilibrium in functional analysis enables one to define what is dysfunctional and allows the search for functional equivalents, it needs to be defined in its temporal context and can hardly cover social change; in other words, it was accused of being conservative. However, functionalists can easily dismiss this criticism: Contributing to an optimum is adaptive, not legitimate. Some functional theories do not even have a static or equilibrium bias (Luhmann). Modern (neo)functionalism (which takes cybernetic concepts into account), theories about the evolution of religion proposed by Robert Bellah (which mediate the structural-functional model and historic-genetic model of social evolution), and autopoietic systems theories like that of Luhmann all try to avoid this and other criticism mentioned below.
Functionalism in biology
The form of a functional explanation in biology is the same as in sociology: It explains the presence of a trait as solution to a hypothetical design problem to assure that the needs of the individual or group are satisfied. Functional explanations for the needs of the genes are especially popular in socio-biology. Intentions are not involved.
Controversies in sociology and biology roughly concern (1) evidence, (2) explanation, and (3) the selection question. First, opponents like Richard Lewontin argue that stories are being told in socio-biology that have little statistical evidence, are incomplete, and are not empirically testable. Functionalism is accused of "adaptive failure": Adaptiveness does not assure presence of a trait, and it does not give criteria for normality and empirical measures for survival. In the same vein, functionalism is accused of eliminating the truth-question: The issue is not whether the propositions are true or whether there is evidence for believing them to be true, but how holding beliefs is functional. Second, the issue of different levels of explanation is controversial: Is the gene level sufficient for sociobiological explanations? Or do also the individual or the group level have to be considered? Also, the relation of functional explanations to mere functional descriptions and to chemical, causal explanations is controversial. Third, functional explanations in biology do better than those in sociology, it is argued, because they offer an answer to the selection question, natural selection, whereas mechanisms for cultural selection have not been satisfactorily developed. Nevertheless, as Wolfgang Stegmüller posits, functional analysis can be logically correct, empirically substantial, and highly valuable as a heuristic research program. Despite these controversies, (neo)functionalism dominated mainstream sociological and anthropological theories for most of the twentieth century. Functionalist approaches are also prominent in biology.
Functionalism in philosophy of mind
In contemporary philosophy of mind, functionalism is one of the most important theories. Developed in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor, a wide range of different versions has been developed since. The basic thesis is: Mental states are functional states caused by external sensory inputs, causing external behavioral outputs, and causally related to other functional states. One function may be realized in different ways in different cases (multiple realizability). One can roughly distinguish between common-sense or analytic functionalism, which deals with meanings of mental vocabulary; scientific, empirical, or psycho-functionalism, in which neurobiology lays down the characteristics of functional roles of mental states; and machine- or computer-functionalism, where the relation of mind to brain is thought to be equivalent to the relation of software to hardware, usually excluding intentionality and teleology. This computer functionalism, supported by fruitful research on artificial intelligence, has been investigated by Putnam, as well as others, as a worthwhile reaction to a materialistic or physicalistic view of mind because it does not attribute mental states only to humans or living organisms with a similar central nervous system. Like functionalism in general, it hardly gives sufficient justice to qualitative phenomena.
Functionalism in science and religion
Functional approaches are also highly relevant to the science and religion dialogue, mainly in interpretations of ideas about nature and God. An approach that historians of science and religion like John H. Brooke have found useful is to ask what function theology plays within the sciences and vice versa. Religious belief can function as a presupposition of, or sanction for, science. Religious belief could even provide a motivation for science if one happened to believe that the more one uncovered of the intricacies of nature the greater the evidence of divine intelligence. Robert John Russell has even suggested that scientific research programs such as Big Bang Theory and Steady State Theory have been motivated by religious respectively atheistic worldviews. Religion may also have reinforced aesthetic criteria, such as ideas of simplicity, elegance, and harmony in theory selection. The aim of a functional analysis is to uncover the uses to which natural theology was put, even in the fields of politics.
Ralph Wendell Burhoe's scientific theology is a functional approach to religion. Based upon writings of the sociologist Donald T. Campbell, Burhoe argues for a positively selected role for religion in the survival of cultures: Only religions can enable the shift from selfishness to altruistic behavior. He even argues for a continuing role for religion or a functional equivalent in the development and survival of human culture, proposing his scientific theology, which incorporates the scientific world-view. Critical reactions to this approach show that a functional approach to religion within a scientific framework has to be complemented by a functional approach to science within a religious or theological framework. This has been done by Philip Hefner from the point of view of a distinct theological anthropology. The integration of both concepts could have an even more liberating effect on the science and religion dialogue.
See also ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE; MIND-BODY THEORIES; MIND-BRAIN INTERACTION; NEUROSCIENCES; TELEOLOGY
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