Betty Crocker’s Theory

Paul Churchland

  • The Rediscovery of the Mind by John Searle
    MIT, 270 pp, £19.95, August 1992, ISBN 0 262 19321 3

John Searle is known primarily for his extensive writings in the philosophy of language, but in recent years he has published some celebrated iconoclastic essays in the philosophy of mind. His ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs’, for example, challenged the fundamental assumption in artificial intelligence that cognition can be re-created by the manipulation of physical symbols according to a formal program. That essay provoked a wide variety of responses from champions of AI, responses notable mostly for their unexpected and embarrassing lack of unanimity concerning just where and how Searle’s critique was mistaken.

The Rediscovery of the Mind contains the first book-length exposition of his own positive account of the mind and its place in nature. It advances systematic criticisms not just of classical AI, but of all existing forms of philosophical materialism, and of several research programmes in linguistics and psychology as well. The book will set many people’s teeth on edge. Searle’s text is abrasive, peremptory and occasionally unfair. It is also lucidly written, passionately argued, and sure to provoke controversy. It pulls together Searle’s earlier work in the philosophy of language and integrates it with his mature position in the philosophy of mind. Unexpectedly, this recalls the earlier position of René Descartes.

Like Descartes, Searle is an eloquent and evidently sincere spokesman for what in the 18th century was loosely called ‘The Mechanical Philosophy’ and is now loosely called ‘materialism’. Yet like Descartes, he balks ‘at the very door of the mind’ and declares conscious, intentional phenomena to be wholly real, but distinct from and irreducible to the non-mental physical features of the brain. Like Descartes, Searle has here a profound tension on his hands, and he never entirely succeeds in resolving it. To be sure, his rejection of all forms of reductive materialism concerning the mind is much more circumspect than was Descartes’. Searle wants no part of any dualism of substances. Rather, he makes the bold assertion that mental phenomena are entirely natural and caused by the neurophysiological activities of the brain. He calls this ‘Biological Naturalism’: mental states are natural states of biological organisms.

What distinguishes Searle from other contemporary materialists (identity theorists, functionalists and eliminative materialists), and what unites him with Descartes, is his firm insistence that mental phenomena form an ontologically distinct class of natural phenomena, which are caused by and interact with, but cannot be reduced to, any of the familiar classes of physical phenomena – dynamical, electrical, chemical, biological etc. Here again we may feel the tension that goes unfelt by Searle: how can mental phenomena fail to be reducible to physical phenomena within the brain, if, as Searle asserts, they ultimately arise from nothing other than the complex interactions of those physical phenomena with one another and with the environment?

Searle’s position, however, is no oversight. The supposed ontological gulf between mental and physical phenomena forms the fulcrum of his argument. It provides both the motive and the systematic basis for his deepest criticisms of various recent orthodoxies in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, semantic theory, transformational grammar and the philosophy of mind.

A theme familiar from his earlier writings concerns what philosophers call ‘intentionality’ – a technical term for what a non-philosopher would call the ‘meaning’ or ‘content’ of a thought or sentence. Searle insists on making a distinction between the genuine or ‘intrinsic’ intentionality of real mental states and the merely ‘as if’ or ‘derivative’ intentionality of the physical states of various non-mental systems such as thermostats, heliotropic sunflowers, and digital computers.

In the present book, this distinction is claimed by Searle to be tightly connected with a second distinction – between an individual’s conscious states (actual or potential) and the same individual’s deeply or essentially non-conscious states. Intrinsic or genuine intentionality, says Searle, is a property exclusively of states that are a part of someone’s current consciousness (conscious states), or of states that could be brought to consciousness, by memory, prompting, attention, and so forth (‘shallowly unconscious’ states). States that do not meet the disjunctive demands of this Connection Principle are denied anything beyond an ‘as if’ intentionality. Intrinsic meaning, on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other, are thus claimed to be essentially connected with one another.

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