Minds, Brains and Science
In 1948, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) established the annual Reith Lectures, six half-hour radio talks broadcast over the BBC Home Service, in honor of Sir John C. W. Reith, managing director (1922-1926) of the BBC and director-general (1927-1938) of the successor corporation. The first Reith Lectures, given by the noted philosopher Bertrand Russell, set the tone for those that followed. Since that inaugural series, the talks, on many issues of contemporary intellectual, political, or social importance, have been addressed to a general audience with curiosity and intelligence enough to follow the development of a coherent argument, despite the lack of technical expertise in the field discussed.
Minds, Brains and Science is a slightly revised version of the 1984 Reith Lectures given by John Searle, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and only the second philosopher (after Russell) to have been honored as Reith Lecturer. In his introduction, Searle explains that the general theme of the lectures—“the relationship of human beings to the rest of the universe”—is easily adaptable to the special format of the radio series, six independent but related talks, each of which can stand alone or be taken together with the others in a broader examination of the central theme. In choosing so large a general theme, Searle admits to a missionary interest in making “the results and methods of modern analytic philosophy [with which Searle is particularly associated] available to a much wider audience.” By his own account, Searle resisted the temptation to revise and annotate his lecture texts, preferring instead to make the book as informal as possible, in the hope of reaching the same sort of audience that the radio series anticipated.
The book thus carries with it both the advantages and the liabilities of its original form, expanded for clarity in some places but altered only by the greater ease with which a reader may move back and forth in the overall argument. First among the advantages is Searle’s characteristic conversational style—fluid, witty, pugnacious—which keeps the essays from bogging down in any of the numerous philosophical quicksands that lie in their way. Searle’s capacity for the brief but telling outline of various philosophical positions not only makes sense of the immediate context but also places the issues under discussion in a larger framework of philosophical debate over perennial questions. Finally, the frequent repetition of major points—always necessary in a lecture format—usefully keeps the reader on track in the development of occasionally abstruse or complex ideas.
The liabilities of the form stem partly from the very complexity that Searle is seeking to untangle and illuminate. Searle’s central focus on the conflict between the conception of freely willed mental experience and that of a deterministic physical universe creates a difficult problem in itself, since its presuppositions sometimes run counter to commonsense ideas of the natural order—ideas that Searle’s lucid exposition of alternative views can only partially replace. Searle’s accounts of his philosophical opponents and their views, necessarily abbreviated by the requirements of the format but sometimes too slight to provide a useful sense of the opposition’s real depth, occasionally verge upon caricature. Finally, Searle’s own vigorous and combative style occasionally features rhetorical feints to ward off possibly mortal assaults that are never completely put to rest.
Even with these formal liabilities, Searle’s book is a richly challenging analysis of important questions about the human place in the universe, beginning in the first essay with the relationship between the human mind and the human brain. In the second, Searle considers “artificial intelligence” and the idea of “thinking machines,” extending his inquiry, in the third essay, to the accuracy of the...
(The entire section is 2,400 words.)