The Rediscovery of the Mind

The Rediscovery of the Mind is a polemic directed against the many variants of materialism that came to prevail in Anglo-American philosophy beginning with logical behaviorism in the first third of the twentieth century. The concern of John R. Searle, the Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of California, Berkeley, is that materialist or physicalist theories of the mind leave out something crucial: namely, the mind itself. That is, materialist theories attempt to explain subjective consciousness—the first-person “feel” of conscious experience—in terms of third-person objectively observable phenomena such as agent behavior or the firing of brain neurons.

Searle hastens to add that his rejection of materialist theories of mind does not imply that he is in the camp of Cartesian dualists, those philosophers who, with René Descartes, claim the existence of “mind stuff” apart from, and independent of, the “material stuff” with which science deals. Cartesian dualism in effect puts the mind off limits to scientific exploration, since no empirical measurements can be made of something that is immaterial and indivisible and that has no spatial location.

According to this theory, the human brain is not physically connected with the mind—how could it be?—but yet in some mysterious way it interacts with mind stuff: too much alcohol can dull one’s reasoning ability; a frightening thought can produce an upset stomach. Most contemporary philosophers of mind have dismissed Cartesian dualism as presenting insurmountable problems, but that has led, in Searle’s estimation, to an “almost neurotic” quest to explain the features of the mind in terms of features of the brain and, further, to engage in theoretical reductionism by suggesting that, to put it crudely, the mind is “nothing but” the working of the physical brain.

This neurosis, says Searle, has led materialist philosophers of mind to make the repeated mistake of denying the reality of qualia—the qualitative feelings of conscious experience—by characterizing them as “nothing but” certain sets of human behaviors, or neurobiological impulses, or the functioning of complex physical systems. Such a strategy has been congenial to the view of what Searle calls “strong artificial intelligence,” which goes beyond merely trying to produce computer systems that mimic human learning behavior. Strong artificial intelligence regards the mind as a computer program and the brain the hardware on which it runs. Since computer programs can run on many different types of hardware, what is important is the program itself. Researchers, so the theory goes, will one day manage to get the brain’s program to run on silicon-based hardware and will in effect have duplicated the human mind. The brain simply falls out of the picture as an incidental; since the mind is “nothing but” the computer program, cognitive science can claim to study the mind without ever studying the brain.

Searle sees a fundamental flaw in strong artificial intelligence, a flaw that has its basis in the prevailing materialist theories of the mind. The problem is that all those theories assume a dichotomy between materialism and Cartesianism and allow for no third possibility. If a philosopher of mind believes that something is mental, she is branded a dualist; if she believes a feature is nonmental, she must be a materialist. In Searle’s estimation, both these views partake of the language of discredited Cartesian dualism, and they are both false. By contrast, although Searle believes that “Mental features are caused by neurobiological processes,” he is not committed to the materialist’s ontological reduction. Ontology refers to what something is, and successful ontological reductions in the history of science include the redefinitions of heat and color as molecular movement and light reflectances, respectively, moving away from definitions that speak of heat or color in terms of how normal individuals subjectively experience them. Consciousness, says Searle, cannot itself be ontologically reduced. Consciousness is that by which human beings have meaningful interactions with the world; the subjective “inner feel” cannot be eliminated:

Suppose we tried to say [that] pain is really “nothing but” the patterns of neuron firings. Well, if we tried such an ontological reduction, the essential features of the pain would be left out. No description of the third-person, objective, physiological facts would convey the subjective, first-person character of the pain, simply because the first-person features are different from the third-person features.

Heat can be ontologically reduced to molecular motion, and such a reduction is helpful to the scientific enterprise, but human beings still have subjective, first-person experiences of...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)