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February 13, 2007


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You might be interested in reading, if you have not already, Bennett and Hacker’s discussion of Searle in one of the appendices to their book, The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). In addition to their critique of his understanding of what the scientific and philosophical enterprises are all about, including the nature of their relation to each other, they make—among others—the following points (see the book for the relevant arguments):
1. Searle’s claim that consciousness is ‘a feature of the brain’ is troubling inasmuch as ‘to ascribe consciousness and experiences to the brain is to ascribe to a part of an animal properties which can intelligibly ascribed only to the animal as a whole; that is, it is to commit the mereological fallacy in neuroscience. Consciousness is not, and could not be a feature of a brain. Brains are no more conscious than they can go for walks or climb trees, even though it is true that an animal cannot go for walks or climb trees unless its brain functions appropriately. It is animals, including human beings, that are conscious or unconscious, that lose and later regain consciousness, and that may become conscious of this or that if their attention is caught and held by some feature of their environment. They would not do so, of course, but for certain processes occurring in their brains, but it does not (and could not) follow that their being conscious is a feature of their brains.'
2. Against Searle, ‘our brains neither think nor compute—we do (although, of course, we would not be able to do so but for a variety of brain (and other) processes and states that make thinking and computing possible). The brain no more adds two and two to make four than does an abacus; it cannot be intelligibly be said to possess the concept of addition or of identity (or any other concept), or to have grasped the use of numerals (or of any other symbol).’
3. They critique Searle’s contention that consciousness has what he terms 'a first-person ontology.’
4. Searle’s characterization of 'all conscious phenomena' as 'qualia' is misconceived if only because ‘the notion of a quale, of there being something which it is like to experience this or that, is incoherent.’
5. Against 'The Principle of the Independence of Consciousness and Behaviour,' Bennett and Hacker argue that while ‘for the most part, behaviour is neither necessary nor sufficient for a wide array of mental phenomena [….] it does not follow that the mental is not conceptually connected to its behavioural manifestations, or, conversely, that the relevant behavioural manifestations are not conceptually bound up with the mental phenomenon they manifest. [….] Behaviour, in appropriate circumstances, is a logical criterion of the mental.’
6. Against Searle, it does not seem to be the case that the traditional mind-body problem is amenable to a scientific solution: ‘We do not think the question about the neurobiological causes of mental states are any part of the philosophical problems concerning the mind and the body.’ The deep philosophical questions about the nature of self-consciousness ‘are not to be solved or resolved by neuroscience.’

As Sunny Auyang also reminds us, after John McDowell, Searle makes the rather arguable assumption that the mind is an organ spatially located inside the head: ‘It is this assumption that prevents a proper account of person as mental subjects who find the world meaningful.’ (See her wonderful book, Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science, 2000). Vincent Descombes provides an illuminating discussion of Searle and the Chinese Room Argument in his The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism (2001). Daniel Hutto’s work is also invaluable for appreciating the myriad ways Searle’s claims about consciousness, the mind-body problem, etc., may be off the mark.

Hey Patrick,

Thanks for the recommendations. I'm familiar with some of the many critiques of Searle's book, and my endorsement of it in this post should not be taken as accord with all of the claims he makes in his book.

Nevertheless, I think what I take to be his central thesis, that the typical dichotomy between neurophysiology and subjective experience is fallacious, is both sound and quite important. There is no need to buy into either biological reductionism or an almost mystical, ethereal view of consciousness that posits an extra-neurophysiological locus for consciousness and/or mind.

Searle's point on that, I think, is why need we endorse either alternative? Without neurophysiology, we lack consciousness, but it does not follow that consciousness is wholly contained "in" that neurophysiology, either, that it is nothing more than electrochemical impulses. I find the latter claim to be endorsed by far too many thinkers and scientists for my liking, and I think Searle does an excellent job of undermining it, and of making room for the ineluctable subjectivity of experience. JMO.

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