Friday, October 01, 1999

Blazing Away at the Enemies of Philosophical Realism

Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World

By: Lawrence Weiskrantz, Ph.D.


This book arrives with impressive credentials. John Searle of the University of California at Berkelely is one of the world’s leading contemporary philosophers of mind and language. Some of his most influential philosophizing has been about mental states such as perceptions, memories, imaginings, and desires. Searle’s position is that an intrinsic feature of these mental states and events is our subjective experience of being conscious. This may not seem, to some, very surprising; but Searle’s position puts him at odds with materialistic theories of mind, especially those associated with behaviorism, functionalism, or machine-based artificial intelligence—all “isms” that dismiss as metaphysical “dualism” any view that places mental events outside the realm of the objective physical world. (Dualism, of course, is the view that there are two radically difference substances, one material or physical, the other mental or spiritual.) 

For Searle, however, the subjective character of mental states or events is essential. In one of his famous arguments, known as the “Chinese room,” he advances the view that although a robotic “system” (for example, a computer) may be able to manipulate Chinese symbols by all the appropriate rules of the language it can never learn the meanings of the symbols.1 Still, he does not accept the characterization of his views as dualism. He has argued forcefully that the attack on his position as taking consciousness out of the realm of the objective is based on a philosophical confusion, which we will discuss later. Mind and consciousness, for Searle, emerge as properties of the physical brain, and understanding them scientifically— “objectively”—is perfectly feasible in principle, if difficult in practice. 

As a leading and trenchant player in the field, Searle has greatly stimulated the debate about the philosophical status of mental events and their relation to the physical universe: a deep, difficult, long-standing problem of perennial interest to philosophers and laymen alike, and often judged to be intractable. Today the issues are especially pertinent as neuroscientists search for a possible basis for consciousness.


Introducing Mind, Language and Society, Searle admits “I have borrowed shamelessly from my earlier writings. Friends of those works may justifiably feel a sense of déjà vu at some of the ideas in this book.” Perhaps so, but friends and foes alike should welcome this book. The canvas is broad, covering previously disparate contributions, but also new ideas. It grasps nettles firmly and fearlessly and, as always, with brilliance and clarity. Those who have enjoyed Searle’s platform presentations will see him striding across the stage, in the style of High Noon, and hear the familiar sound of his verbal guns firing away at a host of important and formidable targets.

For all that, one can ask if the canvas displays a unified picture. “Mind,” “language,” and “society”—all in one rendering? In one sense, the answer is yes, but the unity is cultural and personal rather than logical. Searle’s consistent, frank appeal is to the European Enlightenment, which reached its peak late in the last century, and which “assumed that the universe was completely intelligible and that we are capable of understanding its nature.” He wishes to defend this assumption against a host of more modern challenges: relativity theory in physics; theoretical paradoxes; Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness proof in mathematics; Freudian psychology as evidence of the impossibility of rationality; uncertainty and indeterminism flowing from quantum mechanics; and, finally, the arguments for relativism in science, anthropology, and history. Some of these challenges he skillfully and convincingly brushes aside in a sentence or two; he deals with relativism at greater length and with greater displeasure.

Searle is a philosophical realist: There is a real world that exists totally independent of human beings and their pronouncements about it. He is also an adherent of the correspondence theory of truth, which says that statements about things in the external world are true or false simply if they correspond to the way that things really are in the real world. Einstein or Freud or Gödel may complicate that world, but it is still a real world that is potentially intelligible to us and about which we can be rational.


Searle gives comfort to common-sense realism with uncommon arguments. He will be welcomed by the thinking man in the street, whose views of the world are under continuous assault by post-modern skeptics. Searle’s logical arguments against relativism in science and other domains are powerful, persuasive, and welcome:

The shift from geocentric to heliocentric theory does not show that there is no independently existing reality; on the contrary, the whole debate is only intelligible to us on the assumption that there is such a reality. We understand the debate...only if we assume that it is about real objects...Unless we assume that there are mind-independent objects...we do not even understand what is at stake, what is at issue...Efforts to prove relativism about rationality—that all standards of rationality are culturally relative— invariably end up showing the reverse... It turns out that the apparent irrationality within a tribal culture can be made intelligible by universal standards of rationality.

In sum, Searle’s position is that only by accepting a rational framework can one even entertain the notion of irrationality or non-absolutes. This message needs to continue to be said.

For all of that, Searle strikes one disturbing note. He uncharacteristically and unconvincingly attacks the motives of the antirealists as driven by “a will to power in general and a hatred of science in particular.” According to Searle, they believe that if everything is of our own construction, including the world studied by natural sciences, then we are in control, not “answerable to a dumb, stupid, inert material world.” They hold that we do not have science nor external reality, only social constructs. This characterization by Searle— that antirealists are motivated by a will to power—is not of course a refutation of their positions, as he readily concedes, but is a diagnostic commentary. As such it seems much too sweeping. It is hard to think of Bishop George Berkeley, the arch-antirealist among eighteenth century philosophers, as willfully bent on seeking power, or all of the modern idealists as deserving such castigation.


The bulk of this relatively short book is about the philosophy of mind, emphasizing the problem of consciousness. Searle has written much on this subject, and has reviewed the arguments of leading contemporary theorists. His position might be said to be both materialistic and anti-materialistic. For either position, of course, the thing to explain is the existence of mind in a material universe, including a material brain in a material body. Searle would claim no doubt to have reconciled materialism and anti-materialism. Certainly he is comfortable accepting the reality and richness of consciousness:

The smell of a rose, the taste of wind, a pain in the lower back, a sudden memory of a fall day 10 years ago, reading a book, thinking about a philosophical problem, worrying about income taxes, waking up in the middle of the night filled with aimless anxiety, feeling a sudden rage at the bad driving of other drivers on the freeway, being overwhelmed by sexual lust, having pangs of hunger at the sight of exquisitely prepared food, wishing to be somewhere else, and feeling bored with waiting in a line...

The difficulty is how to reconcile these qualitative and subjective properties, seemingly immaterial in nature, with the material universe, of which the brain is surely a member and on which consciousness surely depends.

One ploy Searle wants to reject out of hand is to redefine conscious states in seemingly respectable materialistic terms, such as information processing, computational states, electrical waves in the brain, or simply externally observed behavior. (And, one might add, in terms of equally mysterious goings-on at the level of particle physics.) This redefinition is the materialist’s stance, as he sees it. Philosophers and scientists alike take widely differing views, but I am completely with Searle here. The danger in redefining or “reducing” is in getting rid of the very dependent variable (in this case, mental events) that one wishes to explain. Even if there were a neurobiological explanation of the generation of mental events by the brain, which there is not as yet, it would not destroy the phenomena being explained, would not make them disappear.

But if Searle is not a materialist—at least not this variety of materialist—neither is he a dualist. He does not accept the existence of two unbridgeable forms of reality, one material and the other non-material (mental or spiritual). Part of his solution is to turn the problem over to the brain scientists:

Consciousness is a biological process that occurs in the brain in the way that digestion is a biological process that occurs in the stomach and the rest of the digestive tract....We know for a fact that all of our consciousness states are caused by brain processes. This proposition is not up for grabs. There is a mystery that many philosophers are impressed by—how brain processes could cause consciousness—and there is a more serious mystery, I think, faced by neurobiologists—how brain processes do in fact cause consciousness.

About this neurobiological mystery he says nothing except, strangely, “conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.” But why lower-level? Why is consciousness not higher-level? Saying “all of our conscious states are caused by brain processes” masks the mystery. What causes what? After all, mental events could be said to cause changes in brain activity. Nor does it really solve the problem to appeal to lower-level causation. The parallel with the stomach and digestion is not altogether apt, because one can trace a single chain of events as food enters in one form and leaves in another. One will never find a region of the brain excreting consciousness in the way that the stomach excretes an acid, nor any more complex system that “causes” consciousness.

…one really needs to have a view of conscious events that squares with brain activity, that maps such events onto brain events in a recognizable way. In meeting that challenge, philosophical and theoretical speculation is welcome— indeed necessary.

The problem is that one really needs to have a view of conscious events that squares with brain activity, that maps such events onto brain events in a recognizable way. In meeting that challenge, philosophical and theoretical speculation is welcome— indeed necessary. (I personally think a clue to the mapping problem may lie in the nature of a multi-stage operation entailed in the meaning of consciousness.)

The rest of Searle’s solution to the dualist’s quandary is important. He asks how one can reconcile the subjective and qualitative character of consciousness with a quest for its objective basis, in terms amenable to science. Part of the problem, he points out, is simply an ambiguity in the words “subjective” and “objective,” in particular the common misconception that something existing subjectively, like consciousness, cannot be studied objectively. (In philosophical terms, this is the distinction between “ontology”—kinds of existence—and “epistemology”—the requirements of claiming to know something.) Why, Searle asks, in fine philosophical formulation, should we suppose that “because states of consciousness have an ontologically subjective mode of existence they cannot be studied by a science that is epistemically objective.”

An excellent example of how this quandary has been reconciled in the history of neuroscience is the study of color vision by psychophysical scientists for over a hundred years, from which many robust scientific laws have emerged governing such phenomena as the loss of red sensitivity in adaptation to the dark, the generation of complementary colors, and how colors are mixed. All of these discoveries depended upon asking people to make judgments, under controlled conditions, about their subjective experiences; but the results led to an objective science. No problem. Yet, concerns about how to study subjective consciousness in a scientifically objective way continue to haunt those who grapple with the mind-body problem, brain scientists and non-scientists alike. Searle has crisply performed a valuable service, in the tradition of modern philosophy, in disentangling the ambiguous meanings of “subjective” and “objective” and showing how they can give rise to unnecessary confusion.


A bit of similar crispness, however, would not been welcome in Searle’s discussion of other aspects of consciousness, admittedly ones less central to his major theme. He might also have made cleaner cuts in his discussion of different meanings and forms of consciousness. Searle wishes to attribute consciousness to states of which we are not, in the colloquial sense, conscious. For example, “people often make mistaken judgments about their own conscious states. They deny that they are jealous when it is obvious to any observer that in fact they are jealous.”  Or, “in a moment of great emotion you might sincerely think that you are in love, but later you realize that you had misinterpreted your feelings and the emotion was only a temporary infatuation.” Or, “you can consciously believe and sincerely claim that you intend to give up smoking while in fact unconsciously knowing that you have no such intention.”

Here Searle places beliefs, unrecognized emotions, and conscious thoughts in the same ballpark, albeit recognizing that there may be differences in how and when we attend to these different conscious states. There is a whole crate of cans of worms here: the nature (or even the existence) of unconscious thoughts, the status of intention vs. action and inaction, latent knowledge vs. acknowledged knowledge— all unnecessarily injected squirmingly into his general account.

Distinctions commonly made in cognitive psychology might have helped. Some of what Searle discusses relates to different forms of memory and their relation to conscious awareness:

I am typically aware of what time of year it is, of what country and what city I am in, or whether or not it is after breakfast or after dinner. I’m similarly aware of who I am and what country I am a citizen of.

Memory researchers distinguish between semantic memory—our background knowledge, which was obviously learned—and episodic memory—an acknowledged memory that one is aware is a memory. We do not need to talk of awareness of semantic knowledge, much of which could not even be verbalized, e.g., the rules of grammar. It is also perhaps mischievous to call this body of semantic, background knowledge, an “enormous metaphysical apparatus.” Odd, anyway.

Also odd is the assertion “It remains an unsolved problem in philosophy how there can be freedom of the will, given that there are no corresponding gaps in the brain.” By a “gap” he means, for example, the interval—sometimes a long one— between the causes of a decision and the actual decision, or the interval between the decision and the performance of the action, some exceptions being cases of “addiction, overwhelming passion, and other forms of pathology.” And he adds: “The name usually given to this gap is ‘freedom of the will.’” It is not clear to me why the bridging of a gap by memory should constitute a philosophical problem, nor that a gap is a defining property of freedom of the will. The analysis of inhibition and short-term memory in relation to “executive control” (a jargon term for “will”) is now a familiar territory in experimental psychology. There may be philosophical problems about free will, but not because of non-gaps in the brain, or gaps between intention and performance. 

If Searle is happy to hand over the problem of consciousness to brain scientists, it does not appear that he has much interest in what they are finding.

If Searle is happy to hand over the problem of consciousness to brain scientists, it does not appear that he has much interest in what they are finding. The distinction that neuroscientists have made between separate systems of episodic and semantic memory arose from observing how specific brain damage affected specific brain structures. Searle loses an opportunity to delve deeper into the facts of neuropsychology when he states that “in real life you cannot subtract the consciousness and keep the behavior.” Whether or not that is so in real life may be disputed, but in neuropsychological research there is a host of examples of impressive behavioral capacities in the absence of consciousness, from which the two capacities can be teased apart. These findings can be used to suggest a multi-stage basis for those “real life” conditions in which consciousness and behavior are linked.

Searle simply refers, en passant, to “all sorts of states,” such as “repression, brain damage, and so on” that can produce exceptions to the linking of behavior and consciousness and notes there is a rapidly growing mountain of relevant evidence emerging from functional imaging studies. Not all contemporary philosophers of mind distance themselves quite so resolutely from empirical scientific evidence relevant to the philosophical quest. Searle acknowledges that specialists will feel that he has left out much of what is at the center of research. “They are quite right to so feel.” But even in his suggested readings, neuroscience does not figure largely.


The final two sections of the book concern social institutions and language and are less controversial. Again the issue of ontology— or ways of existing—arises. Regarding social institutions, Searle asks “what is the ontology of the social and the institutional? How can there be an objective reality that is what it is only because we think it is what it is?” He wishes to explain “how there can an epistemically objective social reality that is partly constituted by an ontologically subjective set of attitudes.”

Again his approach is to tease apart ontology from epistemology. Especially pertinent, particularly in light of his earlier strictures about assuming the reality of an external world, is his discussion of the distinction between observer-independent and observer-dependent features of reality. And again he takes the position that, although the existence of our social institutions depends to some extent on our beliefs and attitudes, we can have objective knowledge of such institutions. He puts the point as follows:

A set of observer-relative institutional phenomena can have an epistemically objective existence even though their ontology is observer-dependent and thus contains an element that is ontologically subjective.

But I suspect that few social scientists, or lay readers, will share his puzzle nor be surprised by his suggestions, although some philosophers may resist the notion of collective intentionality, and some social scientists may, mistakenly, assume that he is endorsing the notion of a “group mind.”

Searle’s discussion of language may be too technical for readers not schooled in modern philosophy, but much of what he says seems uncontroversial. To take a single example, in relating language to social institutions, Searle writes, it is the “basic symbolizing feature of language that I take to be an essential presupposition of institutional facts.” In other words, only humans have institutions because only humans have the capacity to use one object to stand for, to symbolize, something else. Then, “there is no way to read off the status function just from the physics...For money and presidents, there is nothing there to the object X except its features as an object of the X sort.” That is not controversial.

But more unusually (to me, at least, as a non-linguist) he also defines symbols broadly as linguistic. He describes as crucial that “to the extent we use the X term to represent the Y status, we are using it symbolically, we are using it as a linguistic device.” He, of course, does not grant it the status of a sentence or an act of speech. But his use of “linguistic” would seem to extend linguistic capacities, in this restricted sense, to any animal who use objects as symbols, e.g., to mark territories or to initiate play—both of which my pet dog demonstrates repeatedly.


I return to my earlier question: Does Searle’s canvas display a unified picture? Are mind, language, and society united in a common framework? It may have been intentional to use a cover design that displays three overlapping Venn circles, one for each of these three domains. But if so, the degree of overlap of each with the other two is pretty minimal, which is not I suspect what was intended as reflecting the general aim of the book. The reader may feel that there is more of a sense of some tasty Chinese takeout rather than a three-course meal to be wholly digested at the restaurant.

But there is certainly a unity in the sense of ease with which Searle addresses a broad range of philosophical questions without having to depart from a general outlook or attitude towards the world and how to understand it. This is a world in which many will share his sense of ease. He is at home with an observer-independent natural world as well as with an observer-dependent social reality. The lay reader will be given lots to think about, and will be grateful for the stunning clarity of Searle’s exposition. The philosophical skeptics, whether “power-seeking” or not, will no doubt sharpen their arguments and engage in re-rebuttal. The scientist can be reassured by the postulate that subjective phenomena, including consciousness, are well and truly in the neurobiological ballpark; I hope more scientists will come to share Searle’s strong disapproval of “nothing-but” reductionism. Instead of redefining the mental dependent variables out of existence—mindless science, so to speak—they might preserve them with the status that they deserve.

Whatever one’s view of the arguments, there can be no disagreement over the depth and breadth of this book, the importance of the big issues, and Searle’s refreshing originality. He reviews his philosophy of consciousness, language, and the mind-real world relationship with clarity and scintillating provocation. A marvelous and forceful tour.


From Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World by John R. Searle © 1998 by Basic Books. Used with permission.

Grant me that consciousness, with all its subjectivity, is caused by processes in the brain, and grant me that conscious states are themselves higher-level features of the brain. Once you have granted these two propositions, there is no metaphysical mind-body problem left. The traditional problem arises only if you accept the vocabulary with its mutually exclusive categories of mental and physical, mind and matter, spirit and flesh. Of course, consciousness is still special among biological phenomena. Consciousness has a first-person ontology and so cannot be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, phenomena with a third-person ontology. But that is just a fact about how nature works. It is a fact of neurobiology that certain brain processes cause conscious states and processes. I am urging that we should grant the facts without accepting the metaphysical baggage that traditionally goes along with the facts.When I say that the brain is a biological organ and consciousness a biological process, I do not, of course, say or imply that it would be impossible to produce an artificial brain out of nonbiological materials that could also cause and sustain consciousness. The heart is also a biological organ, and the pumping of blood a biological process, but it is possible to build an artificial heart that pumps blood. There is no reason, in principle, why we could not similarly make an artificial brain that causes consciousness. The point that needs to be emphasized is that any such artificial brain would have to duplicate the actual causes of human and animal brains to produce inner, qualitative, subjective states of consciousness. Just producing similar output behavior would not by itself be enough. We can summarize these points in the following propositions.

  1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.
  2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to third-person phenomena in the way that is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.
  3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Consciousness processes are biological processes.
  4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.
  5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.
  6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness. 

But that is it. That is our account of the metaphysical relations between consciousness and the brain. Nowhere do we even raise the questions of dualism and materialism. They have simply become obsolete categories.


1 See his “Brains and Machines; Correcting Some ‘Famous Mistakes’” in the 1998 pilot issue of Cerebrum.

About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

Do you have a comment or question about something you've read in CerebrumContact Cerebrum Now.