Searle, John R.

John is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the leading philosophers of mind, he is the author of numerous works, including The Mystery of Consciousness; The Rediscovery of the Mind; The Construction of Social Reality; Minds, Brains and Science; Mind: A Brief Introduction; and Freedom and Neurobiology. He took his Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford, where he studied under John Austin and later became Lecturer in Philosophy at Christ Church before coming to Berkeley. He is credited with having elaborated the theory of speech acts associated with Austin, most notably regarding the role played by speakers' and receivers' intentions in constituting the meaning of speech acts. Consistent with the focus on intentionality, his interest turned to philosophy of mind, where his major work can be seen as consisting in three main efforts: (i) a critique of computationalism and strong Artificial Intelligence (AI); (ii) the development of a theory of intentionality; and (iii) the formulation of a naturalized theory of consciousness. The best example of John’s Searle’s critique of computationalism and strong AI is his famous Chinese Room Argument, which goes like this. Assume you do not speak Chinese and imagine yourself in a room with two slits, an elaborate rulebook, and some scratch paper. Someone slides you some Chinese characters through the first slit, you follow the instructions in the book, write what it says on the scratch paper, and slide the resulting sheet out the second slit. To people on the outside world, it appears the room speaks Chinese -- they slide Chinese questions in one slit and get valid Chinese answers out the other -- yet you do not understand a word of Chinese. Therefore, no computer can ever understand Chinese, since all it can do is the same syntactic manipulations as a person in the Chinese room. The main thrust of this thought experiment was to show that the syntactic manipulation of formal symbols does not by itself constitute a semantics. The implications for computationalism and strong AI were held to be the following: first, computationalism fails because the formal syntax of a computer program has been shown not to be intrinsically semantic, and second, strong AI fails because a system's behaving as if it had mental states is insufficient to establish that it does in fact have these states. Needless to say, the Chinese Room argument has been challenged aggressively with many refutations claimed – to which John, of course, has responded, and the cycles continue. The first basic principle grounding John’s theory of consciousness is that consciousness is real and irreducible. For John, consciousness is essentially a first-person, subjective phenomenon, and thus talk of conscious states cannot be reduced or eliminated in favor of third-person, objective talk about neural events. Any such attempt at reduction, John argues, simply misses the essential features of conscious states -- that is, their subjective qualities. The second basic principle is that consciousness is as much an ordinary biological phenomenon as is digestion. It is from this principle that john derives an argument for a non-dualist, causal approach to the problem of consciousness. According to John, brain processes at the neural level cause conscious states; accordingly, conscious states just are features of the neurobiological substrate. John further argues that if consciousness is to be considered a feature or effect of brain processes, we must be clear to understand that it is not an effect separate from and posterior to the brain processes causing it. For John, this view of cause and effect is misleading when applied to consciousness because it unavoidably leads to dualism, which is untenable. Instead, John argues that the relation between consciousness and its causal brain processes involves a kind of non-event causation such as would explain the fact that gravity (a non-event) causes an object to exert pressure on an underlying surface. John has put the point another way by describing consciousness as an emergent property of brain processes in the same sense that water's liquidity is an emergent property of the behavior of H2O molecules. John argues that philosophy has been trapped by a false dichotomy between materialism and dualism: that on the one hand, the world consists of nothing but objective particles in fields of force, but that yet, on the other hand, consciousness is clearly a subjective first-person experience. Dualists deny the first, but our current knowledge of physics makes their position seem absurdly unlikely, so philosophy, starting with behaviorists, has denied the second. But denying the second has led to endless problems and thus to endless revisions of behaviorism (with functionalism being the one currently in vogue). John says simply that both are true: conscious is a real subjective experience, caused by the physical processes of the brain. (A view which he suggests might be called biological naturalism.) It should be noted that John’s biological naturalism does not entail that brains and only brains can cause consciousness. John is careful to point out that while it appears to be the case that certain brain functions are be sufficient for producing conscious states, our current state of neurobiological knowledge prevents us from concluding that they are necessary for producing consciousness. He puts it this way: “Until very recently, most neurobiologists did not regard consciousness as a suitable topic for scientific investigation. This reluctance was based on certain philosophical mistakes, primarily the mistake of supposing that the subjectivity of consciousness made it beyond the reach of an objective science. Once we see that consciousness is a biological phenomenon like any other, then it can be investigated neurobiologically. Consciousness is entirely caused by neurobiological processes and is realized in brain structures. The essential trait of consciousness that we need to explain is unified qualitative subjectivity. Consciousness thus differs from other biological phenomena in that it has a subjective or first-person ontology, but this subjective ontology does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective science of consciousness. We need to overcome the philosophical tradition that treats the mental and the physical as two distinct metaphysical realms.”



Can Religion Be Explained Without God?

Most people believe that God exists and religion is God’™s revelation. But some claim that religion needs nothing supernatural; that religion, without God, can flourish because personal psychology and group sociology drive religion.

Read Post >  |  Comments (281) >

ALSO: Arguing God from Design, by Richard Swinburne >


  • View All Cosmos Comments
  • View All Consciousness Comments
  • View All God Comments

TV Episodes

Current TV Episodes - Summaries.
The 39 episodes in the current TV season: 13 episodes each for Cosmos, Consciousness, God.

Future TV Episodes - Cosmos, Consciousness, God

Previous TV Episodes


Learn about Closer To Truth participants. Browse bios and articles on CTT topics.

About Closer To Truth

Closer To Truth overview. Go behind the scenes and meet the CTT team. View photos from around the globe and more.

Articles & References

Additional material and resources on Closer To Truth topics.

Visit SciTech Daily: the best intelligent, informed science & technology coverage and analysis daily.

Previous CTT Season 3

Website of Closer To Truth season 3.