Bartlett, G. (2018). Functionalism and the problem of occurrent states. Philosophical Quarterly, 68(270), 1-20. doi:10.1093/pq/pqx043
Abstract:
In 1956 U. T. Place proposed that consciousness is a brain process. More attention should be paid to his word 'process'. There is near-universal agreement that experiences are processive--as witnessed in the platitude that experiences are occurrent states. The abandonment of talk of brain processes has benefited functionalism, because a functional state, as it is usually conceived, cannot be a process. This point is dimly recognized in a well-known but little-discussed argument that conscious experiences cannot be functional states because the former are occurrent, while the latter are dispositional. That argument fails, but it can be made sound if we reformulate it with the premise that occurrent states are processive. The only way for functionalists to meet the resulting challenge is to abandon the standard individuation of functional states in terms of purely abstract causal roles.
Download: Bartlett (2018) Functionalism and the Problem of Occurrent States.pdf
Citing Place (1956) in context (citations start with an asterisk *):
Section II PROCESSES, STATES, AND U. T. PLACE
* The only philosopher during the materialist turn of the 1960s and 1970s who seems to have been alive to these issues [wrt the difference between processes and states] was U. T. Place. In 1956, he asked 'Is Consciousness a Brain Process?' Famously, he answered ‘Yes'—or more precisely, he defended the logical coherence of that answer. What is now seldom noticed, however, is his persistent use of the word ‘process'. Place did not emphasize this word in 1956, when he was intent on defending the very intelligibility of materialism. But a decade later, he was moved to clarify as follows:
The view I was defending . . . is that statements like ‘having a pain is a process in the brain' are logically defensible, and I emphasize the word ‘process.' The theory as I understand it is a theory about mental processes, not a theory about mental states, and having a pain on this view is a mental process, not a mental state. And if it is not a mental state it cannot be a brain state. (1967: 56)
However, this attempted correction came too late; the default use of the word 'state' was already taking hold. Even Place's colleague J. J. C. Smart, who had initially followed him in identifying sensations with brain processes (Smart 1959), had by then converted (Smart 1967) to Armstrong's ‘central state materialism' (1968; see the quotation from Armstrong above). The distinction between states and processes was pushed aside, and with it, Place's specific association of experiences with brain processes. (And despite Place's attempt to correct the record, his own view is now routinely described in terms of brain states.)
* Place saw that functionalism had a problem with brain processes. The quotation above is from his comments on Hilary Putnam's seminal defence of functionalism, ‘Psychological Predicates' (Putnam 1967). Place goes on to argue that just as pain cannot be a brain state, nor can it be a functional state—for it is no state at all. I suspect that he was right. I also think that philosophers now mostly assume that he was right—though they do not see this as a significant fact, and they certainly do not connect it to Place. I shall argue that if conscious experiences are processes, as we seem to think they are, then we must reject the standard forms of functionalism, just as Place did.
Another way in which Place was prescient, though, is that he did not see this problem as fatal for functionalism tout court. He held open the door for a ‘functional-process theory' (1967: 59ff.)
Section III. EXPERIENCES, MENTAL PROCESSES AND OCCURRENT
STATES
* A sense of change or activity seems to be inherent in the very idea of occurrent states (Bartlett forthcoming), and hence of conscious experiences. .... I think that this sense of dynamism is the main driver of the universal assumption that our own conscious experiences can be produced only by neural activation—and I think this is why Place (1967) was sure that experiences are brain processes rather than brain states. A static neural state simply seems like the wrong kind of thing to do the job. To take someone whose views about the mind are a far cry from Place's, David Chalmers has remarked that ‘there is an intuition that some sort of activity is required for experience' (Chalmers 1996: 296).
Putting this all together, then, ... our very concept of conscious experience appears to include the fact that consciousness is, as Goldman (1970) puts it, a ‘going on' of some sort. Place (1967) expressed the very same intuition a few years earlier in explaining how mental processes differ from mental states. He says that a mental process, unlike a mental state, can be said to be ‘going on continuously from its onset to its offset' (56), and that mental processes—by which he meant ‘sensations, experiences, thoughts, mental pictures, dreams, and the like' (ibid.)—all connote some sort of activity. I suspect that Place would have used the term ‘occurrent' but for the fact that it had not quite yet come into common use. His distinction between mental processes and mental states very plausibly just is the distinction between occurrent and standing states. I suggest that when we say that experiences are occurrent states, we are effectively agreeing with Place that experiences are mental processes.
Section V. HOW FUNCTIONALISTS MIGHT TRY TO EXPLAIN THE DISTINCTIVENESS OF OCCURRENT STATES
* Place (1967) may have gestured towards the kind of theory that Gillett and Piccinini are developing [mechanistic functionalism: the mind is the functional organization of the mechanism that exhibits the mind's capacities, and the relevant mechanism is the brain. The functional organization then includes the states and activities of components, the spatial relations between components, the temporal relations between the components' activities, and the specific ways the components' activities affect one another]. While it is not clear to me precisely what he had in mind, some of his remarks suggest a mechanistic functionalist theory. Using an analogy to a motor car, Place says that pain is analogous, not to a functional state of the car, but to ‘something like the pumping process which occurs in the car's fuel pump' (1967: 61). And he allows that such a process can be picked out in functional terms, by describing its functional role within a larger system. (However, he also says that this can be done ‘without saying anything about its physical realization' [ibid.]. I am not sure how to understand this remark, which seems to endorse abstract functional roles.)