John Searle:

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

First review

Searle's critique of theories of the mind is based on the lack for a good theory of consciousness. There is no mind without consciousness, and there can be no theory of the mind without a theory of consciousness. All paradoxes of functionalist models arise from having neglected consciousness.
Conscious mental states and processes are fundamentally different from anything else in nature because they are "subjective". They are not equally accessible to all observers. They cannot be reduced to more elementary units. Searle believes that the objective properties of the brain cause the subjective ones, i.e. that consciousness is a biological phenomenon, though consciousness can't be reduced to physical states in the brain.
This is not "property dualism" because Searle rejects the idea that the universe can be partitioned in physical and mental properties: things such as "ungrammatical sentences, my ability to ski, the government and points scored in football games" cannot be easily categorized as mental or physical. The traditional mental vs physical dichotomy is pointless.
Brain processes cause consciousness but consciousness is itself a feature of the brain ("non-event causation").
Mental states are nonphysical but form a novel class of features of the brain. Mental phenomena are irreducible to traditional Physics and Chemistry. Their properties (such as meaning and awareness) are different from those of matter. The relation between brain states and mental states is causal, in both directions, each causing the other.
Consciousness is not accessible to empirical tests, therefore we will never know what has consciousness and what does not.
Searle's critique of functionalism is still the same: that physical processes do not perform computations, they can be "interpreted" as computations. The moment they are "interpreted" they are no longer physical but become mental. This goes back to his famous objectiong that whatever a computer is computing the computer does not "know" that it is computing it: only a mind can look at it and tell what it is.
Searle's main position can be summarized as: consciousness is a physical property of the brain and it is irreducible to any other physical property.

Second review

By reviewing the theory of consciousness of one of our leading philosophers, John Searle, one can highlight the target of the debate, the status of the research, the problems to overcome and, at last, the meaning of philosophy.
Searle makes two fundamental claims: 1. that consciousness must be central to the study of the mind and 2. that consciousness is a feature of the brain as much as liquidity is a feature of water. He adheres neither to "dualism" (the belief that soul and body are two different substances) nor to "materialism" (the soul is material).
Searle's criticism of his contemporaries is probably shared by most of those who have had the patience to read them. Much of philosophy of mind is implausible, ranging from claims that the mind is but a particular type of computer ("functionalism") to an altogether denial of its existence (Feyerabend, Ryle), not to mention those (Nagel, McGinn) who think that a study of the mind is simply impossible. And much of it is also unreadable. Much of modern materialism (the prevailing school of thought among those who believe in the mind and in the feasibility of studying it) makes assumptions such as: consciousness can be neglected when studying mental phenomena (such as language or learning); mental phenomena (of other beings) can be inferred only from behavior (of those beings); the mental and the physical are mutually exclusive; ultimately, the only things that exist are physical (Descartes was wrong).
Searle criticizes all of these stances: behavior is not essential (actually, irrelevant) to mental phenomena; the mental and the physical are not incompatible; what we consider as mental phenomena do exist and are not "reducible" to what we consider as physical phenomena; consciousness is crucial to an understanding of the mind.
Then Searle sets out to prove his theory, that mental states are physical features of the world (precisely, "higher-level biological properties" of neurophysiological systems such as human brains). Searle starts by assuming that "mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain". Unfortunately, he does not define what a brain is: is it the content of the skull? Does it include the skull? Has anybody ever observed a brain capable of mental phenomena without a skull? or, more generally, without a body? Does the nervous system of a lizard qualify as a brain? Does a computer qualify as a brain? Does a crystal qualify as a brain? Searle goes out of his way to prove that computers are no minds because they are not brains, but he never proves the underlying assumption: that they are not brains. In Searle's jargon, "brain" is simply the "thing" that enables the mind. His entire theory is therefore a mere tautology: the mind is due to the thing that causes it. What that thing is, it remains a mystery. Ultimately, Searle merely states that the mind exists. Something that billions of people noticed before.
Searle never deals with the two fundamental issues: 1. what causes consciousness (what substance, what process, what combination of substance and process); 2. can consciousness be decomposed in something more elementary (the way materials are reducible to more and more elementary particles)
Searle is content with stating that consciousness is a (casually) "emergent" property of systems, just like liquidity. What Searle fails to see is that liquidity can be predicted from the properties of elementary particles, whereas consciousness cannot be predicted from the properties of neurons. There is something missing. Searle is not a physicist and is not curious about how neurons can reach the state of consciousness, whereas physicists can explain why (and exactly under which conditions) a set of molecules can achieve the phase transition to liquidity. Notwithstanding the new keywords introduced by his book ("natural monism", "ontological reductionism", etc.), Searle has nothing to offer other than declare himself happy that consciousness exists and that it emerges from neurons, something equivalent to saying that liquidity exists and that it emerges from liquids. Something that every human being has noticed since childhood.
Instead, Searle resurrects Nagel's argument that consciousness cannot be explained. He cleverly avoids adding "just like liquidity", because liquidity, like all emergent properties, is reducible to the physical process that creates it. Emergent properties are normally predictable by science: we know when (and why and how) a substance is a liquid and not a solid or a gas. If consciousness is indeed an emergent property, why should it be the only one that we cannot predict and explain? Here Searle makes the big mistake of justifying the idiosyncrasies of consciousness as a natural consequence of being an emergent property, but obviously his familiarity with Physics failed him.
His chapter on "structure of consciousness" actually deals with his personal list of the main distinguishing features of consciousness (all the favorites are there, from unity to subjectivity, plus a few exotic additions such as "mood" and "pleasure"). A (rather vague and naive) chapter is devoted to the unconscious (probably unaware of modern research on the topic, since the only reference is Freud, a folk figure whose scientific achievements are comparable to Walt Disney's).
A chapter investigates an old war-horse of Searle's linguistic investigations: the capacities that are essential to intentionality while not themselves intentional. First, intentional states only occur in networks (e.g., you can't believe that a restaurant is good unless you also believe that restaurants exist, that they serve food, and many other things). Second, the same literal sentence can be interpreted in different ways depending on the "background". This background is essentially a set of expectations that condition our understanding of a sentence. This can be generalized to all types of intentionality. This is all very interesting, but it looks like a separate essay that Searle didn't know what to do with. Nonetheless, this is Searle at his best, when he deals with "linguistic" subjects.
Searle is not baffled by the emergence of conscious feelings from unconscious neurophysiological processes of the brain. He finds it perfectly understandable. And therefore he downplays and ridicules all theories that tried to solve this paradox. He comes through as a little implausible himself, just like all the others that he ridiculed. It's like somebody not being puzzled by the fact that the sun rises and sets every day and contenting himself with the idea that it must be a feature of the Earth.
We have always known that mental states are physical features of the world: but which ones? and how? Searle fails to tell us something that we didn't already know.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi

Permission is granted to download/print out/redistribute this file provided it is unaltered, including credits.