REVIEW OF SEARLE’S BOOK MIND, LANGUAGE AND SOCIETY
Claudio F. Costa
Though we don't live in a world of outstanding philosophers, J. R. Searle is one of the few who approaches this category; after all, where could we find today a systematic work in philosophy with such a solid original treatment of relevant issues, with so much clarity and penetration of thought? Such is the appraisal that one might almost inevitably make when reading Mind, Language and Society, a book written by Searle to give an overview of his forty years of philosophical work.
The book is written in the most clear and lively philosophical prose one could imagine, and can be useful to students as an introduction to Searle's work, as well as to the philosophical problems dealt with in it. But it would be very misleading to think of this only as an introductory book, since it raises new ideas and exposes old ones to new light. As it would make no sense to try to summarize and discuss so many ideas here, I will present only a few that seem particularly relevant to me or give occasion for critical commentary.
Chapter 1 is a defense of what Searle calls the ‘Enlightenment vision’. In theoretical philosophy this can be described as the vision that holds that there is an external, independent real world, which is immediately accessible to us; that this world is intelligible, especially through science; that humans share common patterns of rationality which make this intelligibility possible; that there is an objective causal determinism; that truth is conformity to facts; and that words have their own, distinctive meanings. Such views are what Searle calls default positions – fundamental views whose rejection common sense holds untenable. Nevertheless, as Searle shows, the majority of the influential philosophers of our time (like Rorty, Derrida, Feyerabend and, to a certain extent, also Quine, Putnam, Kuhn, Davidson and others) have come to work against the Enlightenment vision.
How can this be explained? Searle sees a deep psychological reason for this, called by him a ‘basic urge to power’ (p. 18). This urge makes it uncomfortable to accept that we are subject to an external world that is independent of our minds and to a very large extent uncontrollable and threatening. For this reason, we are tempted to search in our philosophy for mitigation of this state of affairs, insofar as we can argue that the constitution of the outside reality is in some sense relative to and dependent on the mind, or that this reality doesn’t have an independent determinism and causality. Moreover, it is at least implicit in the text that a source of our temptation to dismiss the value of factual truth, of clarity and rigor, and also of our scientific reason, is that the admission of these values requires a restraint of our capacity of self-deception. Searle has come to see very clearly that those temptations are being satisfied today by a sophisticated though deceptive philosophical literature, intended to seduce us as a refined kind of analgesic against the full awareness of reality.
This kind of diagnosis is certainly not new. Similar ideas were thought by the Enlightenment philosophers and also by thinkers as diverse as Russell and Freud in the (in certain aspects maybe more enlightening) first half of this century. But its present restatement by Searle, directed to contemporary theoretical philosophy, is very opportune, since the supposedly ‘post-modern’ intellectual scenery can give us the impression that we have evolved beyond this kind of anti-enlightening temptation. The fact is that in philosophy those temptations seem able to be more efficacious today than ever, since they are not under thoroughgoing criticism and since the state of affairs that causes them, though some somewhat relieved by the progress of science, remains basically the same. Finally, I'm not certain if this serious cause of anti-Enlightenment is not in some cases surpassed by more spurious ones, like a gratuitous delight in intellectual amazement without a serious point or simply the wish to make things easier.
Searle does not remain with an external, genetic diagnosis. The main part of his attack is internal, consisting of very well aimed – though not detailed – arguments directed against the metaphysical anti-Enlightenment in its present forms. To choose one of them, I present Searle’s general refutation of the two basic arguments against external (or direct) realism – the theory that we have direct perceptual access to the external world. They are what we can call the argument of science and the argument of illusion. The first asserts that we can't perceive the real world, since science has shown us that what we perceive is only our internal experience of the world, which is only the end of a series of causal steps. This is fallacious, writes Searle, since from the fact that we can give a causal account of how it comes about that we experience the real world it does not follow that we do not experience the real world (p. 28). (Indeed, abstraction of non-relevant steps of a process is a fully acceptable semantic feature of our concept of directness. I can correctly say, for example, that I'm seeing a football game directly through the TV, though I am aware of the fact that I'm seeing only images, which come through different stations of retransmission, satellites, etc.)
In his answer to the argument of illusion, Searle begins by identifying its general form: the argument is based on the consideration that we can't show a phenomenal difference between the veridical phenomenal experience (I see a chair in front of me) and the non-veridical phenomenal experience (I push one of my eyeballs and the chair seems to move itself). If we can't see the difference – so the argument goes – we don't have grounds to believe that some phenomenal experiences are more veridical than others, that some concern the real world while others do not. Searle answers that this argument is fallacious, since a phenomenal difference is not necessary to the distinction. The difference between veridical and non-veridical experience is already identified through the integration of the experience within the network of other experiences and taken-for-granted capacities we have for coping with the world – an integration that is absent in the non-veridical phenomenal experience.
Another interesting idea set forth in the first chapter is that external realism (direct realism) is not a theory about the world, but the general framework within which it is possible to have such theories; not a claim about the existence of this or that object, but a presupposition of the way we understand such claims (p. 32). External realism is a background presupposition that is taken for granted by us when we eat, walk or drive a car (p. 39).
Though this is a suggestive idea, the following thought-experiment seems to show that it is nonetheless counterintuitive. Suppose that there is a far more developed civilization in which, when someone commits a crime, for humanitarian reasons he will not be condemned to death, but to live the rest of his life as a brain in a vat. So, after the criminal hears his sentence, his brain is surgically extracted and put into a vat, where a virtual world perfectly similar to the world he has inhabited is produced, so that he can continue living and interacting with it in the same way as always, though being well aware that it has ceased to be the real world. It seems clear that, in spite of this somewhat uncomfortable awareness, he will hold the same theories about the world he has always held, and he will not stop acting; he will eat, walk, drive a car, and perhaps commit other murders. But if his ideas about the world and his actions were dependent on the background presupposition of their reality, as Searle thinks, it seems that he should fall into a state of radical skepticism and complete lethargy.
Chapters 2 and 3 of Searle's book deal respectively with the problems of the nature and the structure of consciousness, exposing ideas mostly already developed in his earlier book, The Rediscovery of Mind (MIT: Cambridge 1992). The fundamental insight is Searle's proposal for the dissolution of the mind-body problem, which is here stated in its clearest form. For Searle the mind-body problem is not a genuine one, arising from the fact that the dualist, accepting that consciousness is irreducible, thinks that it must be something non-physical, while the materialist, believing that conscious states are physical occurrences in the brain, thinks of them as suspicious entities, in need to be reduced to physical. For Searle the dualist is right in saying that consciousness is irreducible and the materialist is right in thinking that it is a natural, biological phenomena. Consciousness is a ‘high-level property of the brain’, an ‘emergent’ biological property. This statement seems to make him an identity theorist. But the identity theorist is a materialist, who believes that conscious states can be reduced to states of the brain, somewhat as the hardness of a piece of ice can be reduced to the state of the molecules of water. Searle shows that such an analogy is misleading: both ice and water molecules have a third-person ontology; but although brain states have a third-person ontology, it belongs essentially to consciousness to have a first-person ontology, in which consciousness exhausts itself (p. 57). And this means that consciousness must be accepted as irreductible.
Having dissolved the mind-body problem in this way, a surrogate of it arises: how is brain causally related with consciousness and its different conscious states? This is a very big problem, but Searle does not see it as a philosophical one. It is a scientific problem, which will be only answered when we are able to develop a comprehensive neuroscience of mind. Against this, a philosopher could complain: ‘This is not really my question; my question is: how it is possible that a physical brain causes something so peculiar, so idiosyncratic as consciousness’. Searle would certainly answer that this is a pseudo-question (see the conclusion of Searle’s book The Mistery of Mind, NYREV: New York 1997). The question is like that which could be made by someone at the end of the last century, who, after being informed about Darwin’s theory, would reply: ‘Even if natural selection occurs, the mystery remains, namely, how could an arbitrary processes of natural selection possibly explain the creation of things so beautiful as the orchid, so precise as the eagle’s eye, or so complex as the human brain?’ To this, the only answer would be: ‘Wait and see; the day scientists are able to uncover more accurately the mechanisms of evolution and to historicize it in much more detail, your wonder about natural selection will vanish’. In a similar way, Searle thinks that the day scientists develop a comprehensive neuroscience of mind, any further philosophical question about the mystery of consciousness will show itself out of place. Nonetheless, his position is much more difficult than that of the evolutionist, since he is arguing for the consequences of a theory that does not exist yet.
An interesting passage in the third chapter is Searle's presentation of his analysis of the unity of consciousness. For him it is a double unity: first, of the experiences hanging together in the consciousness in a certain moment – the ‘vertical unity’; and second, of things coming and going, being preserved in short-term memory – the ‘horizontal unity’ – which is essential to our capacity to give sense to our thoughts and experiences (p. 74 f.). Along with this, he discards what he calls the fallacy of the homunculus as the entity responsible for unifying all those conscious experiences. He suggests instead that the nature of consciousness alone is responsible for the unity of consciousness, and not something additional (p. 82). It seems obvious enough that this idea could also be used against Kant's suggestion of the existence of a non-experienceable ‘transcendental subject’ of all subjective (and objective) experiences, as also against its contemporary surrogate, the ‘elusive I’.
There is at least one point in these two chapters with which I can't agree, namely, Searle's indulgence in the idea that an artificial brain could in principle have consciousness (p. 53). The very idea seems to me somewhat grotesque. My reason for dismissing it is based on the fact that consciousness is dependent on sense perception and feelings. Could a non-living automaton be constructed in order to duplicate precisely the same quality of sensations and feelings that living beings have? Consider basic sensations, for example, pains, tastes, sexual excitation, or even our auditory and visual impressions as they are for us; consider feelings like love, hope and despair. We can conceive an automaton who imitates the behavior associated with such mental states (it drops tears of pain, its photoelectric cells eat light, it unplugs itself when utmost contradicted...), or that has some internal analogical resemblance to corresponding parts of our nervous system (it has sensory elements that can be roughly compared with our sensory cells…). However, a mechanical duplication of such biological sensations and feelings as they are in themselves seems to be in principle unconceivable, since at those levels only the biological can match the biological. Moreover, the quality of our feelings depends in some way on the quality of the sensations we have, so that an automaton, to duplicate our feelings, would need to duplicate our sensations too. But if at the basic levels of sensations and feelings there is no possibility of constructing a mechanical duplication, then the rationality seems to be compromised as well, for even if the computational aspects of our reasoning can be mechanically duplicated, reason can't be duplicated in its proper autonomy, since this autonomy is in some way dependent on our emotional and sensorial life – on our passions, as Hume said. The fact that we intuitively realize that conscious life can't be non-biologically duplicated is the very reason, I think, that the idea of a ‘human computer’ seems to be so awkward. This idea seems to me more consistent with Searle's own biological view of consciousness.
Chapter 4 is about intentionality, urging that intentionality – like consciousness – must be seen as an irreducible, intrinsically mental phenomenon. If we try to reduce intentionality to brain states, we are led to an unsolvable problem: how to explain that these neurophysiological states are about anything? If we try to view linguistic intentionality (which only makes sense as derived from mental intentionality) as primary, the same unsolvable problem appears again: how could any assemblage of words refer to something?
Chapter 5 resumes Searle's theory of social reality. He shows how social reality, composed of social facts, can be created by collective intentionality. Here again there is a point I find questionable: his explanation of collective intentionality, not as a metaphysical ‘we-intention’ floating above individuals, nor as a mere sum of individuals’ ‘I-intentions,’ but as a ‘we-intention’ residing in the head of each individual person (p. 119). I disagree with all these alternatives. If each individual had a ‘we-intention,’ for example, to push a car, in the end we would have not only one, but a sum of collective intentions. Moreover, a musician does not say, ‘I have the intention to play the symphony’ nor ‘I have our (collective) intention to play the symphony.’ She would say, ‘We have the intention to play the symphony and I have the intention to participate in it.’ So I prefer to think that the ‘we-intention’ exists as something different from individual intentions, though compounded from them; it belongs to a group of individuals, though not to the individuals belonging to the group, so that one can be aware of a collective intention, and one can also take part in it, but one can't have it as it exists for the group (a pretension some altruists falsely have). This idea isn't any more metaphysical, I believe, than more familiar ones, such as the idea that a geometrical figure can't be reduced to the sum of its parts.
The last chapter, on language, is to bind the threads together. It deals with the relationship between language and mind, showing how conventional meaning is derived from collective intentionality and how language is a matter of institutional fact. Once again, there are too many interesting points to be considered here. The book ends with some metaphilosophical remarks derived from the exercise of philosophy exemplified in it. Searle accepts the concept of philosophy as an endeavor that anticipates science: it is the best way we have to deal with the very broad questions that have not already been given away to science, and there is no exclusive methodological approach to this. Indeed, philosophy involves those things, at least, even if its more precise nature remains unexplained.