Minds, Brains and Science

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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 “computer” model for the human mind. The fourth essay advances an argument about intentionality, the structure of human action in the world, which seeks to clarify and resolve some of the difficulties already presented. Having given these arguments, Searle uses the last two essays to consider consequences in particular areas of concern: the status of the social sciences in the hierarchy of scientific endeavor (in the fifth essay) and the freedom of human will (in the sixth). Closing with a brief reading list for further study and a name-subject index, the volume thus surveys some of the most provocative and contentious areas in the realm of epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of mind.

Searle’s method in dealing with these various problems is grounded in his philosophy, the study of the formal relationships between the ultimate structures of language and reality. In general, he approaches the claims made for each position as definitions reducible by strictly logical, syntactic analysis to lucid statements of relationship between ultimately existent things; definitions which fail this test of lucidity and relationship must therefore be regarded as errors distorting accurate knowledge of reality. Unlike Russell, the originator of the analytical school, Searle does not finally identify an irreducible pluralism—as between mind and matter, for example—in the constitution of the universe; indeed, the earlier chapters of this book support a fundamentally materialist, monistic constitution of reality, whereby appearances of pluralism are explained by the differences in the manifestations of physical reality at the subatomic (Searle’s “micro”) and sensible (“macro”) levels.

An outline of the austere...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Anderson, David. “Is the Chinese Room the Real Thing?” in Philosophy. LXII (July, 1987), pp. 388-393.

Cuda, Tom. “Against Neural Chauvinism,” in Philosophical Studies. XLVIII (July, 1985), pp. 111-185.

Donagan, Alan. Choice: The Essential Element in Human Action, 1987.

Landesman, Charles. “Minds, Brains, and Searle,” in Metaphilosophy. XVII (April-July, 1986), pp. 172-182.

Rey, Georges. “What’s Really Going on in Searle’s ‘Chinese Room,’” in Philosophical Studies. L (Spring, 1986), pp. 169-185.