Comments on “Mind” by John Searle

In a wonderfully written book, “Mind” (2004 — see my Amazon review here) John Searle introduces us to issues in the philosophy of mind and promotes his own version of a theory of mind. While carefully rejecting present views of dualism (substance and property versions), and a larger set of variations grounded in materialism. He proposes his own view grounded, in the end, in materialism, but claims to avoid all the problems with other versions. What makes his version materialistic is that he assumes both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to be causally responsible for consciousness, that is agent subjectivity and intentionality. In large part, it is because of the causal relationship that presentation to consciousness via sensory experience, and causal action by an agent who can “make things happen” that the “interaction problem” (the “mind-body problem”) largely disappears in Searle’s philosophy of mind.

But it never completely disappears. Searle runs into problems with free will and personal identity that the theory fails to accommodate. Free will does fit into his view of mind as it relates both to the individual and the collective. It has “conditions of satisfaction” that can be easily specified in Searle’s terms. Personal identity is far more problematic. I discuss both below.

While the necessity of brains to consciousness is these days not controversial, Searle’s assumption of their sufficiency begs the question in the debate between dualists (particularly substance dualists) and materialists, including Searle. It is precisely the point of the debate here that no one has established sufficiency of brains to minds, and it turns out the whole debate turns on what evidence there might be that brains are insufficient. It turns out the evidence, not proof, comes from physics itself; the causal closure principle!

Searle implicitly recognizes this “begging of the question”. At the end of chapter 4, having said that he belives his arguments fully refute the various materialist variations he explores, he says this about dualism.

“Notice that these arguments still leave dualism as a logical possibility, though I think extremely unlikely, that when our bodies are destroyed, our souls will go marching on. I have not tried to show that this is an impossibility (indeed I wish it were true), but rather that it is inconsistent with just about everything else we know about how the universe works and therefore it is irrational to believe in it.”

I do not believe he really “wishes it were true”. If he did, he might have found a more sophisticated version of the argument. He also says, in the same conclusion to chapter 4 that as goes the two ontological realms (the mental and the physical), “No one has ever succeeded in giving an intelligible account of the relationships between these two realms”. Part of the purpose of this essay is to give such an account consistent with his structural analysis of mind. In the end, the precise mechanism of the connection remains a mystery, but in my view, it is no longer a connection between realms. One problem is that by “how the universe works” Searle is speaking of the discoveries of science, starting with physics. In physics, there simply is no evidence of any positive reality added from elsewhere (besides brains) that could constitute consciousness some separate thing added to physics. Physics finds no other realm and that is certainly true! There is no other realm that physics can possibly detect. But for physics to declare, blithely, that “nothing other than physics exists” obviously begs the question, something even physicists (those not pushing some vested interest) admit. This blatant assumption impacts both substance and property dualism.

Property dualism is a materialism where brains are necessary and sufficient causally, but what they cause comes, inexplicably, to take on a being of its own. Property dualism says that a new ontological realm emerges from physics, and once emerged has independent properties that are ontologically objective and yet remain interactive with physics. Property dualism springs from materialism and either proposes a new, fundamentally different ontology springing (who knows how) from the material, or it falls into epiphenomenalism. The core of this view falls into the same trap as many nondualistic (materialist) explanations, the naked assumption that “nothing but physics” is manifesting any such ontologically novel realm.

As for substance dualism, Searle refers explicitly to a strictly Cartesian version. In this variation, God in some direct way imposes mind on bodies. Brains are not even directly involved, although even Descartes recognized that some connection must exist between them. This view leads to all sorts of distractions (souls, disembodied minds) that are not, in fact, entailed even by a “mind realm”. Searle believes the whole idea of an ontologically objective “mental realm” (substance or property) is the root of dualist problems and he is right, but for some of the wrong reasons. His reasons stem, mostly, from belief expressions that come down to us through the history of religious institutions. These beliefs are vague and confused and may not properly distinguish between mind, soul, person, or spirit. All this vagueness was present in Descartes, and everyone (dualist or anti-dualist) since Descartes has simply imported it into their idea of what dualism must entail. Property dualism of course looses the disembodied soul notion but still comes out to an ontologically objective “realm” that brains produce. I agree with Searle, this is the wrong way to look at it.

There are more sophisticated versions of a proper substance dualism argument, but it remains the case that some of what is substantial about substance dualism has to come from something that is itself nonmaterial. This typically ends in God because that is what humans have thought must ground anything nonphysical. Once you have God, the physical too becomes grounded, and the fact of interaction between whatever it is that constitutes the mental and the physical is no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the mystery of the interaction mechanism remains. But we need not go as far as God to paint a more sophisticated substance dualism; we can start with physics. The principle of causal closure stated briefly is that physics comes from and produces only physics. Subjective experience, being in its essential nature nonphysical, cannot emerge from physics, at least not physics alone!.

Consider a radio, powered up, properly functioning, playing some music. The music issues from the proper functioning of the radio in a way analogous to subjective mind’s issuing from our brains. Clearly the music (technically pressure waves of a certain type) is not the radio itself. But there is no music realm, only music which stops (or becomes distorted) the moment the radio stops functioning properly. Note now the properly functioning circuitry of the radio is 99% responsible for the music, but not 100%. There is something else, in this case a physical electromagnetic wave, that carries information to which the circuitry of the radio is (through a complex convolution of electron perturbation) sensitive. The important point here is the music is not merely added to the radio the way Descartes added mind to body. That is why, in the case of the music, there is no realm. The radio is responsible, the cause, of the music, and brains are similarly the cause of consciousness.

Consciousness is not added to brains, but stems from them. However, the radio while necessary is not sufficient to produce any music at all without the information bearing (and electron perturbing) radio wave to which its functioning circuits are sensitive. The music (strictly speaking the configured pressure wave) is the expression of that sensitivity transformed through the radio’s circuitry. Something to which the brain is sensitive results in a metaphorical interpretation we experience literally as experience. There is no realm because mind as such is not added from the outside to brains. Mind, subjectivity, springs from brains in response to or as a result of (transformed by brain circuitry) sensitivity to something nonphysical that must, nevertheless, exist inside the physical universe.

We must posit something, we need not go all the way to God, existing inside (is a part of) the physical universe that has three qualities. 1) It cannot itself be physical. 2) it must be able to affect brains, or put another way, brains must be sensitive to or detect this something. 3) it must be everywhere in the physical universe such that where ever the right circuitry comes to be in the universe, a subjective experience, attached to that circuitry, appears in or rather as some subject. This “hybrid-substance dualism” says this: Consciousness emerges from brains. Consciousness is not added to brains from the outside but emerges in functioning brains themselves in conjunction with or as a result of (causal) interaction with some entity that is not itself material.

Why not material? Because the material alone, the brains, cannot invoke the nonmaterial which is the essential characteristic of a subjective awareness! This is my core assumption, and I justify it not by religion but physics! No physics has demonstrated the emergence of a nonphysical phenomenon from nothing but physical forerunners (causes). It is also a fact that the only seemingly nonphysical phenomenon we know is consciousness, subjectivity, itself. Given what it is physics is competent to explore, the physical, and that we have a manifestly nonphysical subjective experience that is clearly reliant on brains, the only legitimate assertion physics can make about mind is that we cannot possibly know if physics is sufficient to produce it. This does not prove “physics doesn’t produce it”, but it also gives us no justification to say that it does.

In both of my books and a few essays here on the blog I call this entity “Cosmic Mind”, but that has the unfortunate connotation that it is itself a thinking entity or that it amounts to panpsychism. Neither is the case. Perhaps a better name might be “Cosmic Mind Field” (CMF). Existing in time and pervading all space. It is nevertheless not a panpsychism because it evokes consciousness only in brains, not rocks, individual living cells, or thermostats. But it must function as a field (albeit not electromagnetic) because it performs where ever functioning brains are present and evokes a continuum of consciousness from brains of varying levels of complexity.

Perhaps there is “something it is like to be a fish or a lizard, but we have good reason to believe that whatever that is, the consciousness of lions, apes, and parrots is richer, and that of humans richer still. Like two radios of different quality, the more primitive brains invoke a more primitive and limited consciousness in the same way the lower quality radio reproduces less of the information present in the electromagnetic wave.

This picture allows Searle’s view of consciousness to go through. Brains being causal entities evoke consciousness. There is no mystery of “causal mind” because brains do all the causing. Searle’s analysis of “aspectual intentionality”, qualia (aspectual perception), belief, desire, the subconscious, and so on all can go through as he supposes they do. My proposal avoids the Cartesian “realm business”. Mind is not some realm imposed on bodies, but stems from them. At the same time it resolves the causal closure dilemma. Mind is nonphysical because its invocation from brains isn’t entirely physical but depends on the brain’s sensitivity to the CMF.

But what is that exactly? It is precisely because the only handle we have on objective (mind-independent) ontology is perceptual and therefore physical that we cannot say. We cannot detect the CMF with physical instruments, nor conceive of any experiment that would isolate it from other phenomena because we can only so isolate physical phenomena! CMF sensitivity is common to all consciousness. There is nothing that we have from within consciousness that isolates the effect of the CMF because consciousness is that effect. But human consciousness at least effects a partial escape from this. I will come to that a bit below.

The Free Will Problem

In Mind Searle runs into two problems he cannot fit into his analysis, free will and personal identity. As concerns free will Searle admits he cannot reconcile even a causally efficacious consciousness with free will on the brain side. On the psychological side, from within subjectivity, he cannot shake the conviction that free will must somehow be genuine. We presuppose it in everything we do and every utterance we make. Does my model help us here? I could always say that free will is just a power (more in man than in fish) that consciousness has. Searle would rightly object that this doesn’t explain anything new. It doesn’t explain the ontological ground of the freedom. How in a universe of random (quantum) and deterministic phenomena does anything (even the nonmaterial) become free in the volitional sense?

This is both a physical and a metaphysical problem. It’s hard enough to accept that physics alone is sufficient to cause consciousness. Now it also happens that this consciousness is volitional, its choices neither determined nor random (both purposeless) but now directed and purposeful? The CMF is becoming extraordinary indeed.

The metaphysical issue is not merely the possibility of volition in the universe, though that is one issue. Like consciousness, free will must be possible as its exercise supports our entire intentional state. As with consciousness, free will’s possibility is something physical law makes room for. What physical law demands is that physical causal chains have some physical starting point. Physics allows its macro-deterministic behavior to arise from randomness, the quantum vacuum. If physicists were being honest, they could not rule out that something else, something not visible to scientific method, cannot also start causal chains.

Volitionally initiated causal chains, the causal part, all begin with some macro-physical starting point; for example the motion of a hand or a speech act. They are not causal chains until that point. But physics cannot preclude that, perhaps simultaneous with neural activity, a volitional act neither determined nor random, initiates that chain. It is, in other words, logically possible that physics alone is not enough to explain the appearance of a third source of causal chains; volition. Not only is this logically possible, physics itself recommends the conclusion. In centuries of sophisticated experiments and observation physics has found only determinism and randomness. Why should physicists concede the possibility of a type of cause they cannot, even in principle, detect? Because unlike other hypothetical entities (ghosts) and powers (remote viewing), free will is presupposed in virtually every decision we make as human beings. Volitional capacity is the closest thing to “obvious in our experience” besides experience itself. Not only must we presuppose it, our entire culture, language, art, institutions, cleverly designed experiments, and engineering feats, all imply free will.

In “Making the Social World” (2011) Searle devotes a chapter to language and the commonalities and differences between pre-linguistic and linguistic mind. He lists five possible types of “linguistic utterances”: Assertives, Directives, Commissives (e.g. promises), Expressives (e.g. apologies), and Declarations (e.g. “I pronounce you husband and wife”). The first four of these all have pre-linguistic forms (beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions respectively) but Searle says that Declarations, making something real (e.g. a married couple) merely by declaring it, has only a linguistic form. Searle does not recognize that free exercise of will is precisely a pre-linguistic declarative. It “makes something real” by willing it, and has the same “two directions of fit with the world” as declarations.

One freely chooses (Searle’s “prior intention”, “will-to-world fit”, “world-to-will” cause) and then freely acts (“intention-in-action”, “world-to-will fit”, “will-to-world” cause). The “conditions of satisfaction” for free will are the same, indeed a combination of, those of perception and action, homologous to linguistic declarations. If I think I am free, that belief can only be true if I really am free. If I act freely and introduce into the world a new [physical] causal chain that action is satisfied only by a genuinely new causal chain initiated by a free choice. If this analysis is correct, then free will is a property of consciousness in the same sense as intentionality and the CMF must, in some sense be its metaphysical ground.

The Identity Problem

Searle demurs on free will’s “ontologically objective” reality, but he cannot bring himself to do the same for agent-identity. To be conscious, to have purposes, to choose, are, in human experience, the consciousness, intentionality, and volitional elections of an agent. All of our experience presupposes agency, some singular identity that recognizes the change all around it by reference to its constitutive changelessness. Searle doesn’t use the word ‘changeless’, but his examples are telling.

He shows that memories do not explain the phenomenon. There is an image in my mind from when I was two. I believe it is real because my parents explained to me once what it was when I was a little older. But then there is a gap and the next memories (few) I have are of events taking place when I was four. Gradually, the gaps become smaller and the number of memories grows, but gaps persist here and there even to recent times. And yet, I have the unshakable conviction, as much as the conviction that a persistent “I”, the same person, have existed since that earliest memory.

I had that memory and I have all the other memories, the same I despite gaps in the memory record spanning years! What about the future? I can plan for a future, say going to graduate and postgraduate school to become a philosopher. I can act today so eight or ten years from now I, the same I who today applies to graduate schools, becomes a philosopher. Looking backwards from that time, I will be the same person who filled out those first applications. I will recognize this. If my brain has functioned normally throughout that time, its truth (reality-representation) is immediately apparent. The “conditions of satisfaction” for changelessness are met.

Searle believes it necessary to posit some functional entity that stands for this “I”. He does not hesitate to declare that it cannot be a substance, but something must stand antecedent, logically anterior, to consciousness itself. As we experience it, agency is inseparable from our (that is human-subjective) exercise of will. Both the freedom and the will in “free will” seem, in our phenomenal arena, to come from, to be the will of, my agent-self, my “I”.

Is Searle’s “functional entity” helpful here? What does it mean for a functional entity to be changeless? How does this property emerge in a universe where everything else from physics to thought is constantly in flux? How does a functional entity dependent in some necessary sense on both a changeable brain and changeable consciousness gain this quality? Searle’s suggestion is merely a stand-in, but the qualities it must have suggest more.

Functions are processes. A changeless process is logically impossible. The agent can only be a substance whose persistence, at least, is logically possible. If that is the case agency cannot take origin in mind. The always-changing cannot produce changeless substance any more than physics alone can produce nonmaterial mind. Agency is always experienced and expressed in mind, but its metaphysical source must be external to it.

It is this substantial agency that makes possible the capacity to partially escape otherwise transparent subjectivity, something it appears only humans can do. By this I refer to our capacity to analyse mind itself. Lions have some sense of individuation from the world, but do not exhibit any ability to think about their consciousness as such. Only humans do this, and while language seems to be necessary in the exercise of this capacity it isn’t sufficient for its appearance. Even though what we experience of our own identity is experienced only in and through mind, only the existence of something in someway distinct from mind can provide a sort of “binocular perspective” that enables us to say something about mind itself, to describe our subjectivity (to ourselves or others) as if, as it were, from a third person perspective. I have much more to say about this in my essay “Why Personality”.

 

Putting it All Together

Both free will and identity raise extraordinary ontological issues. For mind, it seems an extraordinary coincidence that this CMF happened to be around to evoke consciousness from a certain organization of matter, especially as both the consciousness and the life on which it rests were contingent. Not only is the CMF implicated in consciousness (which at least we can suppose is generated by brains as music is generated by the radio), but also volition, something for which physics and philosophy cannot even account for logically let alone physically!

Identity is even more remarkable. It is one thing to suppose that some nonmaterial reality can arise out of the purely physical. It is even more of a stretch to demand that an entity that never changes in time arises in a time-drenched universe in which everything else changes! The absurdity of these impossibilities ends in two extreme positions, denial that nonmaterial phenomena exist, including consciousness, or that its existence must be purposeful. This is to say the antecedent presence of the CMF, is not an accident, but produced for the purpose of causing consciousness with free will when the right material organization comes along. Of course this has further teleological implications.

Searle insists that all explanations find their ground in physics, material reality, but he is left with three problems resulting from this demand; the mind-body problem, free will, and timeless agency. Starting with consciousness as such we have Searle’s assertion that it is just “what brains do” but he knows his explanation does not cross the gap. Anomalous monism (Davidson, Nagel) or panpsychism (Chalmers) also fail to bridge the gap. If, as these philosophers insist, mind is nothing more than an expression of undiscovered physics then we should find evidence in physics for the emergence of something (besides mind which begs the question) even minimally nonphysical.

My own solution, the CMF, doesn’t get to the details either, but it explains why what we seek is not found in physics. It isn’t there. If the CMF and brains interact (which they seem obviously to do) then either we are back to impossible physics, or there is a third entity responsible for both. When we discover interaction between two otherwise discontinuous phenomena in the physical world we take this discovery to be evidence of some third phenomenon that mediates the interaction. In proposing such an entity, a common source of physics and mind, we are doing nothing new philosophically speaking.

The CMF makes consciousness possible, evoking subjectivity from brains, but by itself doesn’t give us free will. If free will, obviously exercised in and by mind, has a ground it must come also from our third entity. That entity must itself be willful, purposeful. It is reasonable to locate free will in mind, a power of consciousness, because its operation fits perfectly into Searle’s structural analysis of intentionality in language and both exhibit constraint by time. We choose only in the present and both the choices made and the conscious arena in which they take place are constantly changing.

But the same cannot be said of human subjective agency. This also exists in time and expresses in mind; I am here in the universe after all. But unlike everything else agency does not change. Our consciousness is always changing and our will (free or not) can act only in the present, but all this change takes place within a phenomenology of changeless self. This is such an extreme problem for Searle that he proposes a functional entity in some sense independent of both mind and physics. But just as we never see physics resulting in the nonphysical, it cannot yield up a changeless entity antecedent even to mind. Moreover, it is this agency that enables us to reflexively examine mind itself, something it could not do if it was not in ontologically distinct from mind.

Function resting on a constantly changing consciousness cannot be changeless. Unlike volition, changeless agency cannot be a product of the time-constrained CMF. Our antecedent and ontologically objective source must also be a timeless agency, able to add this agency to time-constrained mind. With this step we are all the way to a personal God outside time.

Granted this is a truncated argument. Searle is honest enough to admit that substance dualism remains logically possible but rejects it on the grounds that it adds nothing useful to the philosophy of mind. But Searle does not get any closer to the secret of subjectivity emerging out of physics alone other than to insist that it does. The dualism I propose takes nothing away from his analysis of the structure of consciousness as we experience it. My analysis of free will (above) shows that Searle’s basic insights about mind remain sound. Free will fits into his ideas about the relation of mind to language, better in fact than in his own analysis!

While not popular with physicists or philosophers, God, like dualism, always remains logically possible. Moreover, while theism does not explain the details, it does account for free willed nonmaterial agency outside physics. It tells us why physics cannot find these in physics itself but yet experiences (presumably in the minds of physicists and philosophers) them in a physical universe otherwise governed by deterministic process resting on the randomness of quantum mechanics.

That we have agency and do exercise free will is so obvious to me that I will make the extraordinary claim that what motivates most free will and agent denial is not physics as such which says only “physics cannot account for it”, but precisely that accepting the ontological objectivity of free will agency too easily opens the door to theism. Of course physicists and philosophers will greet this claim with derision but the fact remains that, in the end, only God can provide the ontological ground for both free will and agency.

 

Searle’s Quantum Mistake

In a chapter on free will (of the libertarian sort) Searle runs into something of a wall. He concedes that psychological freedom must be real, but he cannot reconcile this with what is ultimately physical biology (brains) both necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness, the arena in which psychological free will operates. He speculates on a popular suggestion, that quantum behavior, some quantum randomness essential to the brain’s function, is in some part responsible for a genuine (ontologically objective) volitional will. Searle knows that randomness is not volitional freedom, but he says that it is possible that something about the brain transforms the randomness into volitional freedom in agent consciousness.

But he doesn’t like this solution because it makes the brain different from all other organs in that only the brain requires quantum processes in its role. I believe he is mistaken here. There is good reason to suppose that life itself rests to some degree on quantum phenomena. Every bacterium, amoeba, or living cell in an organ of the body lives because quantum phenomena are an intimate part of the mechanics of living processes. The brain then would be no different from any other life in this respect though it may (I suspect does) further constrain (in Terrence Deacon’s sense, see “Incomplete Nature”) the quantum processes necessary for life. That is the brain utilizes quantum processes in some quantitatively or qualitatively “enhanced way” as compared to life in general, but it is no longer unique in its dependency on quantum process generally.

Suppose I am right here. Does it help us answer the free will question as concerns biology? No. There always remains the gap between physics and the subjective experience. How do “enhanced quantum constraints” become volitional, or for that matter subjective? The interaction problem always remains. But my suggestion does clear one of Searle’s objections to the involvement of quantum phenomena with the phenomenal experience of consciousness and free will; quantum processes are essential to life generally.

3 thoughts on “Comments on “Mind” by John Searle

  1. Interesting article and I totally agree with the arguments against Searle based on the closure of physics, freewill and personal identity. I have written why I believe some kind of interactive dualism must be correct here. https://philpapers.org/rec/SLETLO-2

    The problem with standard Cartesian dualism as I see it stems from the separation of church and science which begins with Galileo who strips primary qualities out of the physical universe and relegates them to the realm of the soul. If we remove this restriction we can see that an expanded physics would view qualia as totally determined by physical movements. This seems to have been proven. Certain vibrations cause certain sensations.which are purely physical phenomena. And thats what the brain does. It creates the content of consciousness. But what could possibly create the observer of those sensations inside the brain…this private world of the self? That self appears to be some independent entity which has a permanent identity and resides inside the brain listening to the highly ephemeral virtual world the brain produces and then influencing the motor decisions made in the brain.

    It is possible that an expanded interpretation of quantum physics will explain self determination as a quantum wave surrounding each and every fundamental entity. Those fundamental entities or monads would essentially be mental and physical in nature which leads to panpsychism. see my speculations here. https://philpapers.org/rec/SLESA

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    1. Your argument is pretty much what Searle says, and at bottom all rests on physics, including agency. I am a true substance dualist. But I make a distinction that Descartes and Searle do not.

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