Minds, Brains, and Science Critical Essays

John R. Searle


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Minds, Brains, and Science is intended to explain the functioning of the human mind and argue for the existence of free will using modern materialistic arguments and making no appeal to religious concepts. Despite its use of accessible terminology and its straightforward argument, the book is clearly controversial, because Searle attacks dualism, Chomskyan linguistics, behavioralism, cognitive psychology, and the belief in artificial intelligence, all of which have many supporters, both scientists and lay people. At the same time, Searle asserts that human beings have free will, an idea that seems at odds with his materialism, and he does so from a point of view that rejects the dualistic tradition deriving from Rene Descartes, which suggests that the mind is more than the molecular structure of the brain and that free will and determinism therefore coexist. Searle grounds his arguments in appeals to common sense, and readers’ acceptance of them therefore depends on their acceptance of Searle’s examples and analogies.

The first three chapters, which outline Searle’s ideas about the mind-brain / body question and his critique of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology, depend on a series of analogies. He argues that the relationship of the mind to the brain is like that of a macrocosmic object such as a solid to the microcosmic molecules of which it is constituted; from this analogy, he concludes that the functions of consciousness, intentionality, subjectivity, and mental causation are simply part of the neurophysiology of the brain. He asserts that consciousness exists and that one should accept the fact, rejecting the dualistic idea that the existence of consciousness proves that the mind is more than its material components. He does not, however, provide an analysis of the errors of the Cartesian dualists but simply asserts that their views are incorrect. Furthermore, he does so not from the point of view of philosophers who argue for panpsychism, such as Charles Hartshorne in The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (1962), who avoids dualism by attributing intentionality to all physical levels of being, including atoms. Nor does he argue from the point of view of philosophers who avoid both dualism and panpsychism by hypothesizing a hierarchical organization of the universe in which human beings differ from organisms on the other levels. Similarly, Searle begins from a non-transcendentalist position rather than by refuting the position taken by the transcendentalists that mental states are not caused by neurological functions alone.

Searle’s argument that computers cannot think is based on an analogy different from that in chapter 1. In chapter 2, he compares the formal manipulation of symbols by a computer to a man—ignorant of Chinese and left alone in a room— who would be able to produce sentences intelligible to a Chinese speaker by manipulating Chinese characters with the aid of a book of rules. He...

(The entire section is 1224 words.)