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John Searle on Mind

There have been a number of books on mind and consciousness in recent years, but for my money the clearest and most attractive writing on this subject is still John Searle’s. I got only half-way through Christof Koch’s 2004 The Quest for Consciousness, a Neurobiological Approach, though the anatomy lesson on the human brain it contains is helpful.

But Koch was dead right when he wrote in Science of Searle’s 2004 book Mind, a Brief Introduction, that “pound for pound, you don’t get much better value,” singling out the final chapter for special praise. With the title “Philosophy and the Scientific World-View” it is moderate and commonsensical, and even its passing remarks are very much to the point.

Modern cultural anthropologists have yet to fully understand the meaning of such judgements as this: “There could not be a long-term conflict between nature and culture, for if there were, nature would always win; culture would always lose.” He also suggests that philosophical questions are more simply answered than neurobiological questions, and that it’s the latter that represent the real challenge today.

Philosophy and the Scientific World-View

[The final chapter of Mind, a Brief Introduction, by John Searle.]

I have tried to give an account of the mind that will situate mental phenomena as part of the natural world. Our account of the mind in all of its aspects—consciousness, intentionality, free will, mental causation, perception, intentional action, etc.—is naturalistic in this sense: first, it treats mental phenomena as just a part of nature. We should think of consciousness and intentionality as just as much a part of the natural world as photosynthesis or digestion.

Second, the explanatory apparatus that we use to give a causal account of mental phenomena is an apparatus that we need to account for nature generally. The level at which we attempt to account for mental phenomena is biological rather than, say, at the level of subatomic physics. The reason for this is that consciousness and other mental phenomena are biological phenomena; they are created by biological processes and are specific to certain sorts of biological organisms.

Of course, this is not to deny that our individual minds are shaped by our culture. But culture is not something in opposition to biology; rather, culture is the form that biology takes in different communities. One culture may differ from another culture, but there are limits to the differences. Each must be an expression of the underlying biological commonality of the human species. There could not be a long-term conflict between nature and culture, for if there were, nature would always win; culture would always lose.

* * *

People sometimes speak of the “scientific world-view” as if it were one view of how things are among others, as if there might be all sorts of world-views and “science” gave us one of them. In one way this is right; but in another way this is misleading and indeed suggests something false.

It is possible to look at the same reality with different interests in mind. There is an economic point of view, an aesthetic point of view, a political point of view, etc., and the point of view of scientific investigation, in this sense, is one point of view among others.

However, there is a way of interpreting this conception where it suggests that science names a specific kind of ontology, as if there were a scientific reality that is different from, for example, the reality of common sense. I think that is profoundly mistaken. The view implicit in this book, which I now want to make explicit, is that science does not name an ontological domain; it names rather a set of methods for finding out about anything at all that admits of systematic investigation.

The fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron, for example, was discovered by something called the “scientific method,” but that fact, once discovered is not the property of science; it is entirely public property. It is a fact like any other. So if we are interested in reality and truth, there is really no such thing as “scientific reality” or “scientific truth.” There are just facts that we know.

I cannot tell you how much confusion in philosophy has been generated by the failure to perceive these points. So, for example, there are frequently debates about the reality of the entities postulated by science.

But either these entities exist or they do not. The view that I have of the matter is this: The fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron is a fact like the fact that I have one nose. The only difference is that for quite accidental reasons of evolution, I do not need any professional assistance to discover that I only have one nose, whereas given our structure and given the structure of hydrogen atoms, it takes a good deal of professional expertise to discover how many electrons are in a hydrogen atom.

* * *

There is no such thing as the scientific world. There is, rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe out situation in it. As far as we know, its most fundamental principles are given by atomic physics, and, for that little corner of it that most concerns us, evolutionary biology.

The two basic principles on which any such investigation as the one I have been engaging in depends on are, first, the notion that the most fundamental entities in reality are those described by atomic physics; and, second, that we, as biological beasts, are the products of long periods of evolution, perhaps as long as five billion years.

Now, once you accept those points, and they are not points just about science but about how the world works, then some of the questions about the human mind admit of rather simple philosophical answers, though that does not imply that they admit of simple neurobiological answers.

We do not live in several different, or even two different, worlds, a mental world and a physical world, a scientific world and a world of common sense. Rather, there is just one world; it is the world we all live in, and we need to account for how we exist as a part of it.

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