Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.

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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, can 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.

John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are

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I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.