John Searle’s quest for a Non-dualistic Agnostic Science

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John Searle‘s hard-headed rationalism has been sometimes misunderstood. Some people tend to think of him as a mechanistic one-track-mind materialist (with annoying objections against «Hard Artificial Intelligence»).

On the contrary, John Searle is a sharp critic of all kinds of simplistic, mechanistic, eliminative materialism; he mistrusts all those A.I. experts and materialist intellectuals who try to solve the problem of consciousness by denying its existence, eliminating it!

In his book «Mind, Language and Society» (in 1998)  I.M.H.O. John Searle sounded more like an agnostic prophet of a non-dualistic Scientific Renaissance:

I think that most people would suppose there has been a decline of religious faith among the more educated sections of the population in Western Europe and North America. Perhaps that is true, but it seems to me that the religious urge is as strong as ever and takes all sorts of strange forms. I believe that something much more radical than a decline in religious faith has taken place…

For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified. Or rather, to put the point more precisely, we no longer take the mysteries we see in the world as expressions of supernatural meaning. We no longer think of odd occurrences as cases of God performing speech acts in the language of miracles. Odd occurrences are just occurrences we do not understand. The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to a point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations. For us, if it should turn out that God exists, that would have to be a fact of nature like any other. To the four basic forces in the universe–gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces–we would add a fifth, the divine force. Or more likely, we would see the other forces as forms of the divine force. But it would still be all physics, albeit divine physics. If the supernatural existed, it too would have to be natural.


Periodically, every two years or so, the Voltaire Society, a society of intellectually inclined undergraduates at Oxford,held a banquet with Bertrand Russell–the official patron of the society. On the occasion in question, we all went up to London and had dinner with Russell at a restaurant. He was then in his mideighties, and had a reputation as a famous atheist. To many of us, the question seemed pressing as to what sort of prospects for immortality Russell entertained, and we put it to him: Suppose you have been wrong about the existence of God. Suppose that the whole story were true, and that you arrived at the Pearly Gates to be admitted by Saint Peter. Having denied God’s existence all your life, what would you say to . . . Him? Russell answered without a moment’s hesitation. «Well, I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence!’«


A Clash of Default Positions: The Mind-Body Problem

Consciousness has for many centuries seemed to philosophers to pose a serious problem in metaphysics. How is it possible that a world consisting entirely of material particles in fields of force can contain systems that are conscious? If you think of consciousness as some separate, mysterious kind of phenomenon, distinct from material or physical reality, then it looks like you are forced to what is traditionally called «dualism,» the idea that there are two basically different kinds of phenomena or entities in the universe. But if you try to deny dualism and deny that consciousness exists as something irreducibly subjective, then it looks like you are forced to materialism. You are forced to think that consciousness, as I have described it, and as we all in fact experience it, does not really exist. If you are a materialist, then you are forced to say that there really isn’t such a thing as consciousness with a first-person, subjective ontology. Many materialists continue to use the vocabulary of consciousness, but it is quite clear that they mean something different by it. Both of these views, dualism and materialism, are quite common in philosophy to this very day.

Dualism comes in two flavors, substance dualism and property dualism. According to substance dualism, there are two radically different kinds of entities in the universe, material objects and immaterial minds. This view goes back to ancient times, but it was most famously advocated by René Descartes in the seventeenth century; indeed, substance dualism is sometimes called Cartesian dualism, after him. Property dualism is the view that there are two kinds of properties of objects that are metaphysically distinct. There are physical properties, such as weighing three pounds, and mental properties, such as being in pain. All forms of dualism share the view that the two types are mutually exclusive. If it is mental, it can’t, qua mental, be physical; if it is physical, it can’t, qua physical, be mental.

Many philosophers today still adhere to some form of dualism, though it is usually property dualism rather than substance dualism. But most practicing philosophers, I think, adhere to some form of materialism. They do not believe there is such a thing as consciousness «over and above» the physical features of the physical world. Materialism comes in many different varieties, and I won’t even try to list all of them, but here are some of the most famous examples:

  1. Behaviorism says that mind reduces to behavior and dispositions to behavior. For example, to be in pain is just to engage in pain behavior or to be disposed to engage in such behavior.
  2. Physicalism says that mental states are just brain states. For example, to be in pain is just to have your Cfibers stimulated.
  3. Functionalism says mental states are defined by their causal relations. According to functionalism, any state of a physical system, whether a brain or anything else, that stands in the right causal relations to input stimuli, to other functional states of the system, and to output behavior, is a mental state. For example, to be in pain is to be in a state that is caused by certain sorts of stimulation of the peripheral nerve endings and, in turn, causes certain sorts of behavior and certain sorts of other functional states.
  4. Strong Artificial Intelligence says minds are just computer programs implemented in brains, and perhaps in other sorts of computers as well. For example, to be in pain is just to be implementing the computer program for pain.

In spite of this variety, all contemporary forms of materialism known to me share the objective of trying to get rid of mental phenomena in general and consciousness in particular, as normally understood, by reducing them to some form of the physical or material. Each of the forms of materialism I have mentioned is a «nothing but» theory: each denies, for example, that pains are inner, qualitative, subjective mental phenomena and claims, to the contrary, that they are «nothing but»–behavior, computational states, and so on.

(more Searle quotes may be added here… later on)

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