How Brief is Too Brief? (Not School Discussion of Searle Now Posted)

[Editor's Note: Here's a guest post from Evan Gould, who was good enough to record the second discussion of the Not School Philosophy of Mind group for your pleasure. Go sign up to be a PEL Citizen so you can listen to the discussion now.]

Within roughly the first half of his 2004 book Mind: A Brief Introduction, John Searle provides a sweeping overview of the progression of the philosophy of mind from Descartes's Substance Dualism, through developing stages of thought characterized by various facets of Materialism, and onto his own view: Property Dualism... No. Wait. Scratch that. Searle is not a Property Dualist. He's even written a paper emphatically stating as much. He is a Biological Naturalist.

Biological Naturalism is the term Searle uses to describe his own approach to the philosophy of mind, and it is the one and only 'ism' he is willing to subscribe to. This approach sees mind as a sort of "surface feature" which manifests itself in the brain only macroscopically; though it's existence and activity are completely causally explained by neurobiological activity. He maintains his view by asserting Causal Reduction of Mind to Brain, yet denying Ontological Reduction.

In our initial discussions of this book, the Philosophy of Mind Not School group grappled with and attempted to divine the sense in which Searle conceives of the division between first-person ontologies and third-person ontologies, without allowing for metaphysically distinct ontological realms.

In a recent conversation involving Bill Burgess, Alan Cook, Steven Lindsay, Daniel Cole, and myself, there was a general consensus that Searle does not seem to put forth enough effort to convince the reader that he has done the work necessary to settle mind-body problems (at least in this book). The assertions made by the author are presented more like foundational axioms than as hard won syntheses.

Among other topics touched upon were whether or not sunsets are driven into non-existence with reductive explanation, whether or not Alan's robot will experience preference for light given it's behavior, and more importantly we dive into Searle's raison d'être: Intentionality, and why it's important.

-Evan Gould


  1. says

    I’ve read this book as well as several other works by Searle. It’s been a while but I think that biological naturalism is a claim that the mind is a property or set of properties that are caused by the brain but unlike any other entity in the world minds have certain other properties that are first-personal, some of them Intentional (hoping, believing, wanting, wishing, etc.) among others (like being anxious or more generally being in a certain mood). As you alluded to, this looks like property dualism, a claim that there are special mental properties that are separate from (other) physical properties. In his paper “Why I Am Not a Property Dualist,” Searle construes property dualism as implying that there are two sorts of realms, the physical realm and the mental realm, and Searle thinks this position is scientifically untenable. But of course, property dualism does not have to imply substance dualism (that there are two kinds of substances, the mental and the physical). Property dualism could imply that but then that depends on one’s definition of ‘property dualism.’I think some idea of property dualism that Chalmers has in mind is, ironically, what Searle has in mind! The claim is that among the constituents of the world, there are certain physical entities (human beings, among them) who have certain mental properties that are causally dependent on a subtratrum of physical properties but do not somehow reduce to those physical properties. (If this isn’t Chalmers claim, someone correct me.) So minimally there are two different sets of properties but not two different sorts of substances or entities.Of course, all of this can get really complicated because I would be hard-pressed on what a property is. And although I haven’t surveyed the philosophical literature, I could imagine some of the possible answers. (Quine would probably say, for example, that it’s whatever takes the role of one of those capital letters in predicate logic, next to a variable like x or y, as in Ux.)Sounds like the discussion will be a lot of fun, and if I get enough time and wrangle up the money, perhaps I too will join Not School in the near future.

    • Glen says

      Awesome comment. Anybody who might be confused about property dualism might be helped out by this given that the definitions at play are themselves unclear.

  2. Michael Litts says

    I haven’t gotten into Chalmers’s book yet, but my interpretation of Searle’s position is that property dualism is untenable for a very specific reason: that it leads to epiphenomenalism. Of course that’s really just another way to say that he wants to save free will. The only difference i can see between “biological naturalism” and “property dualism” is that in Searle’s account, intentional states and other first-person-ontological entities are capable of functioning causally…. somehow. Of course he knows enough about neurology to know that he has no idea how this could possibly be physically realized, but seems to claim that since determinism/eliminative materialism/property dualism/blanketyblankism/etc. are clearly wrong, and even though his theory doesn’t say much, what it does say is pretty reasonable. So he says “screw all these other theories! Start at the beginning: what do we know? We know there’s stuff in the world, but only one kind. We know that we are conscious and have perceptual experience and intentional states that are not epistemically available to other people in the same way they are to you and vice versa. We know that we have these fantastically freaking complicated lumps of goo in our heads that produce (somehow) those events. And we know that we FEEL like we have free will, but that’s pretty much it. So, ‘Why haven’t the cognitive science guys figured this out,’ you ask? It seems like something that would fall withing the purview of ‘cognitive science’ or ‘consciousness studies’ programs, right? Well it should, but those bewildered nuts are too busy trying to program their computer to flirt.” [Please note that that is a totally made up quote, i don’t want to get sued]

    So anyway, that’s my take. (And what do i know? I’d never read any philosophy before like a year ago, so my background [err… network?] is really thin). I really like Searle; I’ve read several of his books and listened to all of his classes on iTunesU, but he is far more interesting for his sceptical views in the philosophy of mind and his work on language and society. He built a very pretty system in the philosophy of language, and has extended it to help explain a huge amount about what society is built out of, but his positive work in philosophy of mind doesn’t impress me in the same way.


    PS I’d love to hear an episode on his theory of speech acts. If you wanted to steal his thunder you could even include Austin and maybe Grice, but i bet you could fill an episode just with his formulation of it.

  3. James MacNeil says

    Such terrifically flexible and ambiguous question provoking notions/things–subjective and objective.
    One such question being whether subjective and objective are things or notions; a second being whether subjective or objective things or notions, are subjective or objective.
    And another: The objective is a subjective apperception, apparently; and I can’t know if my subjective apperception of objectivity matches yours or not –since only you can see yours. But if the subjective apperception of the objective
    is an existent thing and so is an objectively existing thing and so is objective—then why can’t I see your objectively existing subjective apperception and you see mine?
    Oh, it goes on like this and has for hundreds of years.- mind versus body, mental versus physical, unmaterial versus material—co-conspirators in a linguistic/conceptual/perceptual plot to keep us chasing our collective tail.
    Are concept, word and language to blame? Perhaps. Most words are flexible generally–they are general terms after all, not names– and the extent or limit of any object, where one ends and another begins–seems to me to be
    In any case Searle has a hard row to hoe to establish what he wants. Fun to read the trying though, indeed.

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