Minds, Brains, and Science

by John R. Searle
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

Minds, Brains, and Science is a slightly revised version of John Searle’s 1984 Reith lectures, a series of six half-hour lectures broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation. These lectures were established by Bertrand Russell in 1948. Because the Reith lectures are popular and discuss issues of wide appeal, the essays are aimed at an audience without a scholarly background in the discipline of philosophy. The popular level is typified by Searle’s avoidance of specialized terms such as “epiphenomenalism” in favor of Standard English.

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The form of the book reflects the original lectures and consists of six brief but related essays which occupy eighty-seven pages. The book is 107 pages long and includes a five-page introduction, a fourteen-item bibliography, and a five-page index. Searle comments that he had originally intended to publish the lectures as a conventional book with a complete scholarly apparatus but decided that doing so would vitiate the purpose of the series: “Complete accessibility to anybody who is interested enough to try to follow the arguments.”

The contents of the book are devoted to an exploration of the place of human beings, whom Searle defines as “intentionalistic,” in a universe which science describes as consisting of “unconscious physical particles.” The first three chapters, devoted to discussing aspects of the human mind, form a unit. The first explores the nature of the human mind as opposed to the brain and the body, which are demonstrably physical entities. Searle argues that problems arise when modern philosophers and psychologists use language derived from the work of Rene Descartes which suggests that there is an underlying distinction between the mind on one hand and the brain and body on the other. Searle states that modern philosophers must develop new terminology based on modern scientific knowledge, suggesting that the mind and all the functions associated with it (consciousness, intentionality, subjectivity, and mental causation) are related to the brain (and therefore to the body) just as a solid is to the properties of the molecules of which it is constituted. He argues that desires, beliefs, and emotions are caused by the neurophysiological functioning of the brain.

In chapter 2, Searle investigates the popular modern subject of artificial intelligence, especially that form which views the relationship of the mind to the brain in terms of the relationship of computer software to computer hardware. Searle argues that computers cannot think because they are limited to purely formal processes, which he compares to the syntactical aspects of language, rather than being able to deal with the meaningful processes that characterize human thought patterns, which he compares to the semantic properties of language. He points out that the operations of the human mind involve more than syntax and that it is specifically those functions which a computer cannot duplicate. Thus, the computer analogy is inaccurate.

Searle uses the background presented in the second chapter to launch a formal attack in the third, which is on cognitive science. He notes that the efforts of scientists to explain the functions of the mind by analogy to the latest technological device (in this case, computers) is simply the most recent in a series of analogies, including those made by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to a mill and by Sigmund Freud to hydraulic and electromagnetic systems. Searle argues that although human beings, like computers, follow rules, there is an important difference: When human beings follow rules, “meanings cause behaviour,” because the rules have a semantic component.

Chapters 4 and 5 turn away from the subject of the first three to discuss the nature of human action and the nature of the social sciences. In chapter 4, Searle suggests that since the most important function of the human mind is intentionality, intentionality also characterizes human actions, which are affected by beliefs and desires as well. Even an action that appears simple to an observer—leaving the room, for example—may have different mental causes. He points out that when psychologists discuss repression, they mean that one intentional state has been transformed into another but they do not deny that the actions are at some level intentional. The argument in chapter 4 leads directly into that of chapter 5, in which Searle suggests that methods used effectively in the natural sciences are not appropriate for human behavior, because human behavior differs from natural events. Natural phenomena follow scientific laws, “universal generalisations about how things happen.” In contrast, the social sciences are actually “theories of pure and applied intentionality.” Searle supports his argument by considering economics, which is not based on universal generalizations. Instead, it presupposes certain understandings about the intentions of people which influence their behavior, such as the desire of entrepreneurs in a capitalistic system to make money. As a result, Searle argues, when human intentions and practices change, the science of economics must change also.

The first five chapters lay the groundwork for the sixth, in which Searle discusses free will. He points out that human beings seem to be characterized by a desire to define themselves as free, an idea seemingly at odds either with the determinism of Newtonian physics or the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Searle rejects the doctrine known as “compatibilism,” which states that free will and determinism are compatible with each other in some unspecified way. He argues, however, that the existence of intentionality suggests that human actions include the experience of freedom; for example, even a person who is forced to do something at gunpoint can consider the possibility of acting differently. His conclusion is that human beings are in some evolutionary way predisposed to believe in free will and cannot “give up the conviction of freedom because that conviction is built into every normal, conscious intentional action.”


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

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.

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