Minds, Brains and Science

by John R. Searle

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Minds, Brains and Science

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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...

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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 analytical method, however, does not do justice to its manifestation in this book, which, although occasionally difficult, is neither arcane nor academically pretentious. In part because Searle sometimes bases his arguments upon “commonsense” propositions (that is, upon the use of language by naïve speakers who accept without question the conventions of their language system), his development of analytical constructs generally proceeds by analogy from the immediate and familiar to the abstract and difficult. Furthermore, the analogies themselves provide Searle with the opportunity to display both the acuity and the whimsy that are characteristic signs of his wit. Overall, then, despite the rigorous approach and the intellectual difficulties, the text itself is highly readable and comprehensible if one is willing to accept the conditions of the various arguments’ development.

The first essay, “The Mind-Body Problem,” addresses the central topic from which the topics of the later essays may be drawn as corollaries. Searle attempts to answer the long-canvassed problem of mental-physical dualism by pointing out that the mind and the body interact, but not as separate or discrete entities, since the mind is a “macro” manifestation of physical characteristics of the brain. This position allows him to address several related problems—the possibility of consciousness and of intentionality, the accommodation of mental subjectivity in objective physical reality, and the mental causation of physical events—by asserting that, since mental experiences have their basis in physical reality (that is, in the microstructure of the brain), there is no inconsistency in holding both the physicalist and the mentalist views simultaneously: “As far as we know anything about how the world works, they are not only consistent, they are both true.”

As its title suggests, the second essay, “Can Computers Think?” considers the matter of artificial intelligence and the claims of computer technology to have created “thinking machines,” claims that would necessarily deny the biological nature of human thought. Through a series of “thought experiments,” Searle argues that, since computers are machines, physical systems that perform certain kinds of binary manipulations with data, they may be said to possess a syntax (that is, the rules for manipulating the data) but not a semantics (that is, the system by which meaning may be derived from the data). Thus, computers may be able to simulate certain processes without being able to duplicate their meaning. In other words, computers are defined by their formal structure, whereas minds are defined by their mental contents (or semantic systems). As a result, Searle argues, a computer program may provide the syntax (or formal structure) that mimics a mind, but no program could provide the semantic powers necessary to create a mind—a position that reinforces the first essay’s claim of the biological nature of mental states.

In the third essay, “Cognitive Science,” Searle investigates the validity of attempts to place theories about human behavior on a scientific footing of the same kind as used in physics or the other hard sciences. In attacking cognitivism, Searle admits its attraction: Our present explanatory models for human behavior (often derived from computer technology) incline us mistakenly to assume an identity between the “rules” that machines follow and the “rules” that humans follow, especially when no other explanation of the relationship between mind and brain is available. Using material developed in the previous lectures, Searle argues that cognitivism mistakes the character of the rules that humans follow, since those rules do not strictly depend upon the formal structure of behavior but rather upon the meaning that shapes that formal structure. From the outside, Searle argues, machines and humans appear to follow the same kinds of rules; the differences—overlooked by cognitivism—lie in the mental content with which humans invest such rules and which machines can simulate but not duplicate. In conclusion, Searle argues that there is no need to posit an area of inquiry such as that claimed by cognitivism, since there is no intermediate level of phenomena between the mental states and the physical structures that produced them.

As a group, the first three essays lead directly to the inquiry set out in the fourth essay, “The Structure of Action,” which addresses the place of intentionality in human behavior, a topic that Searle examines in much greater detail in Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983). Searle identifies three characteristics of human behavior: first, that intentional states have both a form and a content of a certain type; second, that these states include notions of the conditions of their satisfaction; and third, that these states sometimes cause things to happen. In less abstract terms, human intention includes both a mental and a physical component (as, for example, the intention to walk home), the conditions necessary to realize the intention (walking toward, then arriving at home), and sometimes the beginning of that realization (by engaging in the appropriate physical actions of directed walking, and so on). Second, since human beings in intentional states can identify both the intention and the physical action that they think will realize the intention, any explanation of behavior must have the same content as the intention that causes that behavior. Finally (and most significantly in terms of Searle’s other work), intentions are shaped by their relationship to a “network” of other intentions that qualify and characterize the conditions of satisfaction represented in the intention itself, and the whole network of satisfactions is itself shaped by human characteristics and qualities that are not themselves mental phenomena.

The fifth essay, “Prospects for the Social Sciences,” takes up some of the material already canvassed in the third essay in order to examine the claims of the social sciences to be scientific in the strictest sense. Searle points out that the social and natural sciences are radically unlike in character and quality. This unlikeness is not merely the consequence of the difference between social and (nonhuman) physical phenomena nor that of the unsystematic form that social phenomena present. According to Searle, the fundamental difference between the natural and social sciences, and the reason that the social sciences will never be able to attain to the same level of systematic application, lies in the different sources of action that apply to the different areas of inquiry: The physical sciences address actions that spring from wholly physical sources, whereas the social sciences address actions springing from the mind. Thus, as Searle argues in the earlier essays, since the kinds of actions addressed are constitutively different, the criteria of judgment must also be different, so that the social sciences err insofar as they attempt to pursue the goals appropriate to the natural sciences.

Searle undertakes an examination of perhaps the most basic of the questions that he addresses in the last essay, “The Freedom of the Will.” He begins with a review of the three positions that are most commonly offered to the problem of human will: determinism, the idea that all events and actions are determined by physical constraint; free will, that all mental events and intentions are open to the free choice of the human being; and compatibilism, the position that accepts a human free will limited but not constrained by physical necessity—“it is that corner of determined human behaviour where certain kinds of force and compulsion are absent.” After reviewing the positions and the various arguments and evidence in support of each, Searle considers whether any of the three is consistent with the view of human mental and physical reality as outlined in the earlier essays, concluding that the model of the mind-brain relationship that he provided in the first essay (and supported by scientific inquiry since the beginning of the modern period) offers no place for truly free will. Rather, Searle argues, human beings live their lives upon the founding assumption that their actions are free and that they remain free in intention despite physical constraints that prohibit the satisfaction of some of those intentions.

As a whole, Minds, Brains and Science, although witty and refreshing to read, presents a bleak picture of the human relationship to the physical universe. On the one hand, the early parts of the book appear to reclaim some particularly human characteristics of thought and intention from the grasp of those who champion artificial intelligence; on the other, Searle’s basic model of the mind-brain relationship and its implication in the structure of a universe determined at the microlevel make those human characteristics perhaps less valuable. His general argument, that there is no fundamental inconsistency between the commonsense notion of mental life and the nature of the physical universe as described by the sciences, may resolve a long-standing philosophical question, but it does so by abandoning humankind’s claims to any conspicuous singularity.


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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.