Mind by John R. Searle

A Brief Introduction
by John R. Searle
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Maria Antonietta Perna, Ph.D. on May 23rd 2006
Volume: 10, Number: 21

Granted, as an introductory text Mind: A Brief Introduction might be said to be particularly brief.  However, if Searle keeps his introduction brief, this is because the present book does much more than introducing the reader to a fascinating philosophical subject in clear and accessible language.  What Searle aims to do is far more ambitious: along the lines of his previous publications on the philosophy of mind, especially those dealing with consciousness and language, he argues for a radical break with the entire post-Cartesian tradition and its conceptual framework in which the entire discipline is steeped.  In fact, it is the main thesis of the book as stated in the Preface that


the philosophy of mind is unique among contemporary philosophical subjects, in that all of the most famous and influential theories are false (p.1). 

By ‘theories’ Searle means all kinds of dualist positions as well as the various existing materialist approaches.  However, in the midst of false assumptions and consequent misguided views with which this branch of philosophy is allegedly bedevilled, there lie core elements of truth, and Searle’s self-appointed task here is to bring them to the reader’s attention and show how they can be fitted into a coherent account of the mind and its relation with the world. 

The title of the first chapter is telling: ‘A Dozen Problems in the Philosophy of Mind’.  Searle points out that, in contrast with most philosophical subjects, the general stance of most professionals in the philosophy of mind differs from that upheld by the majority of the educated general public.  Most people believe in some sort of dualism according to which human beings are endowed with a mind or soul and a body, whereas contemporary professionals in the field do accept some version of materialism, thus doing away with any notion of an immaterial soul.  Most of the twelve problems presented in this chapter, Searle explains, are mostly part of Descartes’ legacy to philosophy.  These are : i)  the classical ‘Mind-Body Problem’, i.e., the mind and the body belong to different, incompatible metaphysical realms, namely, the mental or spiritual and the physical respectively; given that this is the case, what is the relation between mind and body, and how does the body cause anything in the mind and vice versa?; ii) the ‘Problem of Other Minds’.  In particular, each of us has direct knowledge of one’s own mental states and contents, which makes each of us certain of one’s existence as a self; on the other hand, the mental life of other people is only indirectly inferred by analogy with ourselves, which legitimates the sceptical stance towards their possession of a mind; iii) and iv) the ‘Problem of Skepticism about the External World’ and ‘the Analysis of Perception’.  Given that perception is the most obvious way in which the mind has access to the external world, the two points are closely related.  According to Descartes, perceptual access to the world, far from being direct, is mediated by what he called ‘ideas’, that is, sensory representations or images of the external world.  The question then arises, ‘How do I know that the representation really represents, or represents accurately?’.  In other words,

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How can we have certain and secure knowledge that there is an object out there that is causing me to have this visual experience, and that the visual experience is in any respect an actual representation of the real features of the object? (p.15).

v) The ‘Problem of Free Will’ runs as follows: given that for Descartes the will is a feature of the immaterial mental realm, and that the conception of the physical world which was current in Descartes’ times was strictly deterministic and mechanistic, the question arose for the French philosopher as to how the will could act, that is, effect any change, in the physical world.  This problem is as acute today as it was in Descartes’ times, despite the dramatic shift in contemporary physics:

Even if our decision making somehow inherited the indeterminacy of the quantum-level events in our brains, that would still not give us free will, but only an unpredictable random element in our decisions and behavior. (pp.16-17).

vi) Searle states the problem regarding the ‘Self and Personal Identity’ thus: ‘What fact about these experiences makes them experiences of the same person and what fact about me makes me now the same person’ over time?; vii) to the question ‘Do Animals Have Minds?’, Descartes’ reply was drastic: No, they do not.  Animals are machines and nothing else’.  A positive reply to the question might have landed Descartes onto heterodox religious grounds; in fact, since minds are viewed as being immaterial, hence not subject to the physical processes of death and decay, if animals had minds each and everyone of them would be endowed with an immortal soul, a conclusion which would have been hardly acceptable to Descartes and his contemporary readers.; viii) the ‘Problem of Sleep’ arises for Cartesianism in light of its claim that consciousness is the essence of the mind in the strict sense that the notion of an ‘unconscious mind’ is self-contradictory.  It follows that, in ceasing to be conscious, one literally ceases to exist.  So, a Cartesian would have to provide a plausible account of the fact that people may be alive and yet at least intermittently unconscious, for example, when they fall asleep.  Descartes’ answer was that we are never totally unconscious; some minimal level of dreaming is present even when we are sound asleep and this is sufficient to ensure our continued existence as conscious beings; ix) the ‘Problem of Intentionality’ is not limited to Cartesianism but concerns the philosophy of mind more generally.  ‘Intentionality’ is a technical term denoting the capacity of the mind by which mental states refer to, or are about, objects and states of affairs in the world other than themselves.  The problem of intentionality is twofold, namely,

First there is the problem of how it is possible for events occurring in our brains to refer beyond themselves at all. … A second, related, problem is how is it that our brains or minds have the specific intentional contents that they do? (p.20). 

It is in this context that Searle has recourse to one of his championed conceptual distinctions, i.e., the distinction between intrinsic or original and derivative intentionality, which will be discussed shortly; x) the problem of ‘Mental Causation and Epiphenomenalism’ is a strand of the mind-body problem to which Searle reserves separate discussion.  In particular, it is generally agreed that conscious experience is caused by, and is dependent on, brain processes, but this leaves open the problem of making sense of the notion that consciousness could cause bodily movements or be effective in the physical world.  Searle states the problem as follows:

It is often said, “The physical world is causally closed.”  That means that nothing outside the physical world can enter into the physical world and act causally.  How then could mental states, which are not physical and thus not part of the physical world, act causally on the physical world?’ (p.21).

xi) The question concerning ‘The Unconscious’ is formulated in the following terms: ‘What facts about brain events could make them both mental and at the same time unconscious?’; xii) finally, the problem of ‘Psychological and Social Explanation’ concerns the difference in logical structure between explanations in physics or chemistry and explanations in psychology or in the human sciences more generally, which is reflected in the fact that the physical and biological sciences possess a rich explanatory power lacking in the human sciences. 

In the subsequent ten chapters, Searle offers a brilliant and exhaustive discussion of the themes outlined above.  More specifically, in chapter two a thorough discussion of all the various versions of materialism is offered, which includes a historically informed account of contemporary materialism beginning from its roots in early twentieth century behaviorism all the way to the most up-to-date versions of artificial intelligence.  At the end of his exposition, Searle adds:

I have tried to be as fair as I can in laying out the standard versions of materialism over the past century.  If I have not made them seem the least bit appealing then I have failed in my task of expounding other people’s views. (p.54). 

It is fair to say here that Searle has not failed in the least: the various materialist views he discusses are put in the best possible light and conveyed in an extremely engaging style.  This, it is opportune to point out, ingeniously fulfils a twofold aim.  Namely:  a) acting fairly towards one’s opponents, which is an excellent example of philosophical good practice and skill;  b) shifting the dualistic view which, as observed earlier, the educated lay public generally endorses in everyday life, towards the materialistic framework within which professionals in the field build their theories of the mind.

Chapter three is mostly critical in its content.  It presents classical arguments against both dualism and materialism.  In addition, counter-arguments by materialist philosophers are discussed.  Among the anti-materialist arguments are the argument from qualia, the inverted spectrum, Nagel’s well-known ‘What it is Like to Be a Bat’, Jackson’s ‘What Mary didn’t Know’, and Searle’s Chinese Room argument.

Chapters four and five are concerned with consciousness, that is, its structure and relation with the body and the external world.  It can be said that from this point on Searle, himself a specialist of the first order in the field, puts forward his own views regarding the themes outlined above: intentionality (chapter six), mental causation (chapter seven), free will (chapter eight), the unconscious (chapter nine), perception and the self (chapters ten and eleven).  The epilogue, ‘Philosophy and the Scientific World-View’, is a brief but convincing defense of ontological realism.  The abstract character of the subject is rendered lively and extremely comprehensible by keeping philosophical jargon to a minimum, clearly explaining those technical terms that are indispensable to a serious, scientific treatment of an academic subject, and generously packing the text with examples and thought experiments.  Each chapter is followed by a list of suggested further readings and the endnotes are informative and clear without overflowing the pages.

Searle has written extensively on this subject and his readers are familiar with his views.  However, he points out that ‘this is [his] only attempt at a comprehensive introduction to the entire subject of the philosophy of mind.’ (p.2). An outline of the main points of Searle’s own perspective on the topics mentioned above is in order.  This can be summarized as follows. 

Firstly, the methodology is most interesting.  Searle states his methodological approach thus:

My method in philosophy is to try to forget about the history of a problem and the traditional ways of thinking about it and just try to state the facts as far as we know them. (p.78).


My strategy… will be to begin with simple and unproblematic cases and then build the most difficult and puzzling cases on top of them. (p.166). 

This way of proceeding does seem to lead to fruitful results, although at times the distinction between ordinary naïve knowledge and scientific knowledge appears to be blurred with regard to what counts as a description of the ‘facts as far as we know them’.

Secondly, two fundamental distinctions which structure the Author’s comprehensive view of the mind are: a) the distinction between observer-independent and observer-relative or dependent features of reality.  The former are those features of the world which are what they are independently of human beings’ attitudes and actions, e.g., the structure of matter, mass, gravity, force, etc.; the latter are those things which depend on human beings’ attitudes, e.g., property, government, money, institutions, etc.  The important point here is to realize that

Observer-dependent facts are created by conscious agents, but the mental states of the conscious agents that create observer-dependent facts are themselves observer-independent mental states. (p.4).

b) The distinction between original or intrinsic intentionality and derived intentionality.  The former is the intentionality possessed by mental states, which is an intrinsic feature of those states, i.e., mental states are essentially about or refer to something other than themselves.  Derived intentionality is the capacity that objects in the world have to be about or refer to something outside themselves, which is derived from mental states.  For example, a string of marks on a paper refers to something in the world with respect to human beings who interpret those marks as words with a certain meaning, but in themselves the marks are only ink stains.  Searle uses these distinctions mainly as effective analytical tools enabling him to criticize eliminativist and/or strong Artificial Intelligence approaches to the study of the mind, as his classic Chinese Room thought experiment exemplifies.  Furthermore, they reflect Searle’s commitment to ontological realism.

In the third place, Searle sets out to defend his view, which he calls ‘biological naturalism’.  The latter supposedly avoids the pitfalls of both materialism and dualism and stresses the biological character of mental states.  According to this view, conscious states are biological processes not different from other biological processes like digestion and reproduction, only they have a first-person ontology, which is characterized by such features as qualitativeness, intentionality, unity, situatedness, etc.  However, claims Searle,

ontological subjectivity of the subject matter does not preclude an epistemically objective science of that very subject matter. (p.95). 

Further, conscious states are entirely caused by lower-level neurobiological processes in the brain, but are not the same as neurons and synapses.  Rather,

Conscious states are realized in the brain as features of the brain system, and thus exist at a level higher than that of neurons and synapses.  Individual neurons are not conscious, but portions of the brain system composed of neurons are conscious (p.79). 

This already seems to be a problematic claim.  What does it mean to say that consciousness is at a higher level with respect to neuronal processes but it is still a physical feature of the brain?  Might this mean that the brain itself exists at different levels, or, alternatively, that the brain has only one level of existence whereas its features have different ones?  Also, keeping in mind Searle’s claim that consciousness is a biological process like digestion, it would sound odd if we claimed that digestion is not the same as the stomach, or individual parts of the stomach (which is obviously true), and that digestion is realized at a higher level than the level of the stomach or of the chemical reactions occurring in the stomach while digesting food (at what other level might it be realized?).  Digestion is not a feature of the stomach, nor is it at a higher level with respect to the stomach; rather, it is nothing over and above the various processes that the stomach, as a biological organ, carries out with the co-operation of other parts of the organism.  If consciousness were of the same order as digestion, the same could be said about consciousness.  However, this does not seem to be the case on Searle’s view; rather, consciousness seems to be a process which is over and above, or different from, the processes of synaptic interconnections and other functional brain processes in general.  It seems that, contrary to the Searle’s avowals, we are not far from the reinstatement of some sort of property dualism whereby qualitatively different properties are asserted, whose only common feature is that of belonging to the biological domain.  Perhaps, a first-person ontology, which in Searle’s view is an essential trait only possessed by consciousness, does suggest that a fundamental distinction between consciousness and other ordinary biological processes might not be ruled out after all.  This would be compatible with claiming that it remains true, or trivially true, that consciousness is a biological phenomenon in the sense that it does occur, or is a feature of, certain kinds of organic entities.     

Fourthly, Searle departs from what has recently become a serious contender among the various versions of materialism, namely, the extended mind view.  The latter is, like Searle’s, substantially based on biology, but unlike Searle’s, the mind is conceptualized as exceeding the boundaries of the physical body, let alone of the skull (i.e., externalism).  According to the extended mind approach, the mind is coextensive with the sense of self and the capacity for action, both of which are out there in the world.  Searle, on the other hand, is adamant about the fact that ‘our intentional contents are entirely a matter of what is inside our heads.’ (i.e., internalism). (p.125).  He defends this view by refuting two arguments against internalism, namely, the Twin Earth argument as put forward by Hilary Putnam, and the ‘Arthritis Argument’ by Tyler Burge.  However, it ought to be said, that even conceding that these arguments, or any other argument, do not succeed in refuting internalism, this does not by itself provide an adequate criticism of externalism, especially not a criticism of some recent versions of the extended mind approach.

Lastly, Searle offers some arguments in favor of the existence of free will and of the self, which deserve some mention here.  Briefly, Searle claims that it is hardly deniable that when we act compulsively or under the effect of an addictive substance we do not feel the same as when we act according to a plan of action or a decision that we have considerately taken.  This latter case is what Searle has in mind when he discusses free will.  He claims that voluntary actions present at least three gaps, or ‘three phases of a continuous gap.’  In particular:

There is a gap between the awareness of the reasons for the action and the decision to perform the action. … Second, there is a gap between the decision and the actual initiation of the action itself. … And third, for any extended series of action … there is a gap between the onset of the action and its continuation to completion. (pp.152-3). 

The obvious problem is how to reconcile the existence of the phenomenological gap with the fact that biological/physical processes of the brain, which alone are causally responsible for the existence of conscious states, seem to be composed of continuous causally related events.  Searle arguably has recourse to quantum mechanics, according to which the laws of nature at the fundamental level of subatomic particles operate indeterministically.  In previous works, for example, in The Mystery of Consciousness, the Author had ruled out the relevance of quantum physics to the study of the mind on the grounds that the randomness at the fundamental level of reality is not the same as freedom.  In the present work Searle admits as much, but he also claims that by having done so he had fallen prey to the fallacy of composition, i.e., the fallacy of arguing from properties of the parts of a system to the whole system.  Although Searle’s philosophical dexterity in arguing for the existence of free will is to be acknowledged, one might understand and share the Author’s uncertainty as he confesses at the end of the chapter that

[the free will problem] seems to me a massive case of human ignorance.  We really do not know how free will exists in the brain, if it exists at all. … We do not, in short, know how it could possibly work.  But we also know that the conviction of our freedom is inescapable.  We cannot act except under the presupposition of freedom. (p.164). 

Notwithstanding the shaky grounds on which the existence of free will has been established, Searle goes even further and puts forward the claim that free action requires the existence of a self, a formal self at least, viewed as the ‘capacity to organize its intentionality under constraints of rationality’. (p.204).  Without this thin, formal notion of a self, voluntary action would scarcely be intelligible.  Because the existence of free action has been accepted by the Author, then the existence of a self follows as a logical requirement.  However, one ought to be reminded here that free action was not conclusively established by Searle.  Furthermore, although Searle refers to the concept of the self as being ‘formal’ rather than ‘substantial’, that is, as some sort of rationality-constraining device of intentionality, he at times ambiguously refers to it as being some sort of entity.  For example:

[the self] has to be an entity, such that one and the same entity has consciousness, perception, rationality, the capacity to engage in action, and the capacity to organize perceptions and reasons, so as to perform voluntary actions on the presupposition of freedom.  If you have got all of that, you have a self. (p.204). 

Thus, it looks here as though the self is not formally conceptualized as a capacity, but rather as an entity that has certain capacities.  We might easily surmise that this entity is somehow located in the brain, that is, it is a higher-level product of the lower-level processes in the brain; but, what kind of entity is it, and how does it relate to what Searle has identified as the non-voluntary part of the psyche, that is, that part which acts under compulsion or drug, hypnosis, etc.?  Finally, if we were to go along with Searle and admit an ontological difference between non-voluntary mental states and processes, e.g., fear, addiction, compulsion, etc., and voluntary ones, such as rational decisions, how would this difference be grounded at the level of quantum mechanics?  In other words, it would seem that random activity at the quantum level could at times be translated into free intentions and actions whereas at other times it causally underpins gap-free, non-voluntary mental states and actions.  Alternatively, one might understand Searle’s position as implying that the relevance of quantum phenomena to the mind would be limited to cases of free will, whereas determined mental states arise directly at the level of the ordinary workings of the brain as a biological organ.  In sum, it would seem that Searle’s attempt to reconcile his defence of free will and the self with his biological view of the mind via quantum physics indeterminacy might lead to some dubious implications.            

Also, warmly recommended are Searle’s original re-elaboration of the notion of the unconscious, his brilliant transcendental argument in favor of the existence of the external world against the attacks of the skeptic, and the masterful treatment he offers of Hume’s arguments concerning causality and the self. 

Although the author’s criticism of the traditional frameworks may not be said to have uncontroversially succeeded in overcoming the long-standing questions at the core of the philosophy of mind, Searle’s deeply thought-out naturalism and ontological realism are refreshing and his arguments are rigorous and compelling, which makes this a highly engaging and brilliant piece of philosophical writing for any serious reader to enjoy.

© 2006 Maria Antonietta Perna.

Maria Antonietta Perna, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University College London; Part-time Lecturer in Political Thought, Richmond University, London