YOU GOTTA READ IT -- John Searle's book Mind, Language and Society

A review by Ted Honderich for The Times Literary Supplement

A good review that would make the author happy, or so the reviewer thought at the time -- but followed by some second thoughts in the piece Mind the Guff on Searle's thoughts on consciousness and free will. What appears here is the original version of the good review, close enough to the TLS one.

Now that dawn has come after that night of philosophy in which minds were supposed to be computers or close to them, let us celebrate the tribune who cried out against the darkness. From his unlikely station, this being in California, he kept alive the hope for light among many of the faint-hearted but rational. As can rightly be said in introduction of a philosopher almost as suited to a late talk-show or the Reith Lectures as to the university seminar, I give you, ladies and gentlemen, John Searle.

The main forces of darkness, of course, did not say that minds are as material or physical as actual computers, and no more than that. They did not say that our consciousness consists in no more than neural states and processes -- that our consciousness has only the electrochemical properties of our brain. They prided themselves on being superior to Nothing-But or Eliminative Materialism. The latter light-headedness, originally found in the high temperatures of Australia, and later on in California well to the south of Searle, was disavowed by the main forces of darkness.

Your ongoing conscious existence, say your experience in reading this piece, was understood by one force of darkness as being no more than an ongoing computer programme -- if ongoing only in the sense that a calculation or a rule-governed procedure abstractly conceived can be described as ongoing. This was consciousness according to Artificial Intelligence or Cognitive Science of the philosophical kind.

Come to think of it, a calculation or a rule-governed procedure abstractly conceived can't really be described as ongoing at all. Taking heart from Professor Searle and the style to which he sometimes resorts, I gotta tell it to you as it is.

Your consciousness on this Artificial Intelligence story wasn't ongoing because, for a start, it wasn't even in time. A particular conscious state, on this story, was only this -- being in something like the right logical relations to other states, as being four in number stands to being two pairs and being equal to half the corners of a cube. One of the several absurdities of the idea was therefore that it aimed at rescuing consciousness from being ghostly stuff and turned it into yet less.

Another absurdity, our protagonist's favourite, and an argument for which anything else can be forgiven, is that anyone who rightly matches written answers to written questions in Chinese, by means of nothing more than the look of the marks, counts as understanding that language. That people think there are good replies to the Chinese Room Argument may indicate that people have got into philosophy who are not fully acquainted with its special virtues and standards.

The other force of darkness, not much different at bottom despite industrious elaboration by both forces, indeed industrial, had it that your ongoing conscious existence is to be understood as no more than causal relations. Really no more than that. This was Functionalism. All of us know that a conscious desire is among other things typically the effect of something seen and the cause of some movement. All of us know one kind of conscious desire is among other things the effect of an adversary seen and the cause of movement in that direction. From Functionalism we were to learn that having a desire is nothing more than standing in certain causal relations. It is to Searle's immortal credit that he pointed out that things can be so arranged that some old beer cans are in the right relations. I gotta tell you they would not be conscious.

Our tribune's other recent service has been more to persons entirely outside of real or academic philosophy. Inside that still-cloistered profession, not much attention has been paid to a damp bundle of views and doctrines called postmodernism, deconstructionism, social constructionism, ethnomethodology, neo-pragmatism, relativism and so forth. But in faculties and departments of English, as well as advanced bookshops in Camden Town, and cells of persons in Welsh universities who have undergone conversion from the chapel, this Perspectivism has taken hold. What it comes to, to pick out a thread that runs through it, is that insofar as our attempts at knowledge are concerned, we are stuck in a point of view, and for that reason we never get to knowledge.

Nelson Goodman, the admirable American philosopher once known for his reflections having to do with grue things, these being green until a certain time and then blue, unaccountably took a wrong turning thereafter and got out of the cloister and into the advanced bookshop. Maybe he thought a light was green. He said we make our worlds. We do it by drawing certain boundaries rather than others. Just as we make heavenly constellations by putting together certain stars rather than others, so we each of us constructs our stereo system and presumably our mum.

Richard Rorty, who has also made his exit from the cloister, is uncertain that he has got out into what you can call reality, an actual realm of actual facts. `I think,' he reports, `the very idea of a "fact of the matter" is one we would be better of without.' I don't think I'll ask him for train times. Not to be outdone by this pedestrian Anglo-Saxon material, and as all know, Jacques Derrida has the fame of looking out from his books and seeing `There exists nothing outside of texts.' Others of the French join him in various ways.

Searle has had a good time tipping things out of the tubful of Perspectivism, indeed overturning it. He has maintained that there is a determinate reality independent of us and external to us -- and, still worse, that we can know something about it. We can make statements about it that are true in the sense that they do correspond to the facts.

To mention one central argument for this, shared with others, it does not follow from the fact that you see something from a point of view that you do not see an actual thing, a definite piece of reality. Take the case of a literal point of view, in ordinary sense perception. It does not follow from my seeing only the front of the sofa that I don't see the sofa. You can add that if the thing didn't look different from different points of view, it wouldn't be a sofa.

Nor is there anything dramatic that follows from our being able to look around the room and divide it up in different ways. I take part of it to contain one thing, a three-piece suite, and you say there are three things -- the sofa and two chairs. I note a blonde and you a wife. So what? That we can count reality differently, and conceptualize it differently in other ways, doesn't turn it into an invention or an illusion or make it indeterminate.

There is more praising to be done of Professor Searle, on other subjects. They too are surveyed in Mind, Language and Society. The book is a bringing-together of things previously treated separately by him in various books and articles -- it treats of society in a way as well as of mind and reality or truth. It adds up, as he says, to support for the Enlightenment Vision, this being optimism that the universe and things in it are intelligible and capable of being understood in a systematic way. Searle has not been shaken by the supposed heavy blows struck against this optimism by Relativity and Quantum Theory, or of course the tap of Freudianism. This is another of his recommendations.

But carp we may, first about the mind. Searle rightly says what it is not, but, as it seems, does not say what it is. He is fond of joining those of us who are persuaded that it must somehow be physical or near to physical -- because evidently it interacts causally with the physical world. For a start, how could anything out of space interract causally with elbows and glasses of wine? But saying the mind is physical or close to it isn't much help. This doesn't distinguish the unique thing the mind is from other physical things, as indeed he allows when he says it is special.

He is fond of saying, secondly, that conscious events are higher-level events of the brain or brain-system. They stand to other brain events as the liquidity of water stands to a certain system of molecules, or our own digestion stands to lower-level events in our digestive systems -- having to do with enzymes, the breakdown of carbohydrates and so on. But this too is unhelpful. The brain, after all, is chockfull of higher-level events of various neural kinds. Some, on the story being told, are also conscious events. What is the special nature of these ones as against the merely neural ones? It can't be just that they are higher-level. You gotta tell me, John.

Thirdly, John, you shouldn't tell me in the way you do that what distinguishes conscious states is their subjectivity. `...they are always experienced by a human or animal subject. Conscious states, therefore, have what we might call a "first-person ontology." That is, they exist only from the point of view of some agent or organism or animal or self that has them. ... Objective entities such as mountains have a third-person mode of existence. their existence does not depend on being experienced by a subject.'

Such passages first need some pruning or editing, to save them from futile circularity. It is no good defining conscious states as somehow states of a conscious being, and leaving the second occurrence of `conscious' unexplained. So, if we are to get help from the passage, we need to be careful about our understanding of the terms `experienced,' `subject,' `first-person ontology' and `self'. These cannot be understood so as to involve an unexplained notion of consciousness.

What at first seems to be left, after our editing, is an idea that can be put this way: a conscious state depends on a particular person. But of course we must not understand the reference to a person to be a reference to a conscious thing, with no further explanation given of what it is to be a conscious thing. What suitable explanation of a person is possible? Well, Searle will certainly oppose attempts to explain a person that have the bad name of `dualism.' He will be against any departure from the humdrum and obvious truths about the mind that he enumerates.

So the final alternative seems to be roughly this: a conscious state is one that depends on a particular human being or other animal. But this, alas, for a quite different reason, is also hopeless. The reason is that there are innumerable states of me that depend on me, i.e. depend on a certain human being, and are not conscious.

The problem, made easy to state partly by Searle's own exemplary clarity, is only to be solved by taking some more extraordinary step than he is willing to contemplate. That is the only thing that will help with real subjectivity, the main and the true subject of the Philosophy of Mind. He is dead right about Eliminative Materialism, Artificial Intelligence or Cognitive Science of the philosophical kind, and Functionalism. As it seems to me, he is not quite willing to follow where his arguments lead him. As it seems to me, all such arguments lead to the now mad but fruitful idea that for me to conscious of this room is for a world in a way to exist. The latter claim is akin to part of what we mean when we say, ordinarily, that there is a physical world. But leave that.

My own gratitude to Searle in connection with postmodernism, deconstructionism and all that is the gratitude of most British and American philosophers. He saves us from having to read the stuff. Greater love hath no man than this. But again, there is the possibility of carping. Again it is made easier by his own exemplary clarity.

This carping comes out of a certain conservatism that should come into play in a number of philosophical and intellectual settings. You should suppose, for example, that there is something to talk of desert -- to saying that it is because someone deserves something that it is right that he gets it. There must be some sense in saying he deserves it, since so many people have been saying this sort of thing for some centuries. The philosophers who say all talk of desert is circular or nonsensical or of no argumentative strength whatever must be mistaken. So too, you can think a little less confidently, there must be some sense in the bottom of the cargo of Perspectivism. It can't all be inconsequential confusion, on the way down to the level of the French materials.

Consider effects in general, events that we explain by way of other things that precede them. Effects include all of the things we are most interested in explaining, a lot of real life in the real world. How do we do it? We may do the small thing of pointing out with respect to an event E that something preceding it was a necessary or required condition of it. If that earlier thing hadn't happened, E wouldn't have happened. Or, we may be so ambitious as to try to get hold of a set of necessary or required conditions that together guaranteed the occurrence of E. Since this causal circumstance or causally sufficient condition occurred, so did E.

There is a kind of explanation of E that is commoner and maybe more fundamental than either the small endeavour or the ambitious one. We pick out one of the conditions in a causal circumstance, call it what caused E, even the cause of E, and regard it as more explanatory than the other required conditions in the causal circumstance. How do we pick it out? Why do we elevate it? There have been many answers attempted. The first of a dozen or so is that it is the human action in the set of conditions. That fails as a general answer, of course, for the reason among others that we pick out causes from causal circumstances that include no human action at all. Other general answers to the question of the basis of this explaining are as objectionable. The cause isn't always the abnormal condition, or the last event in a sequence before the effect, or an unknown condition, and so on.

The awful fact of the matter seems to be that what causes something is awfully close to being the required condition that interests us. More precisely, what I pick out as a cause is the condition that interests me. There is something like Perspectivalism for you. I take it that it is untouched by John Searle's deflationary reflections about the real world of facts. It has some of the tendency of Perspectivalism, but it is a lot harder to deal with. Certainly it's not your actual Frogspawn.

Mind, Language and Society is a splendid book, a lovely book, nothing less. It makes you and helps you actually think. Thus, in this report of it, I've left a lot out. You gotta read it.