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Brain, Mind, and Consciousness: A Conversation with Philosopher John Searle

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Members of the Library of Congress Scholars Council are appointed by the Librarian of Congress to advise on matters related to scholarship and the Library, with special attention to the Kluge Center and the Kluge Prize. The Council includes distinguished scholars, writers, researchers, and scientists.

“Insights” will feature some of the work of this highly-accomplished group of thinkers. Dan Turello leads off the series by interviewing philosopher John R. Searle. Searle is the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published extensively on the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, and has been at the center of discussions with philosophers and scientists around the world in an effort to better understand the nature of consciousness.

John Rogers Searle, philosopher and member of the Library of Congress Scholars Council.

John, I’ll start on a personal level. What prompted you to study philosophy? What is it you find most inspiring about this field of inquiry?

I think philosophy is obviously the most exciting field of study there is. And indeed, the other fields of study, to the extent that they are really exciting, are philosophical in nature. The fascinating thing about physics is it gives us knowledge of the ultimate structure of reality, and that is a philosophical issue. The exciting thing about the study of politics is that it gives us insight on the nature of power relationships between people, and once again, that is a philosophical issue. So I cannot imagine anyone not interested in philosophy, because the most exciting and interesting questions in any field of study are philosophical questions.

You did your graduate work in Oxford, England in the 1950s, and have spent six decades teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. How have you seen the discipline change over these years?

I did all my degrees in Oxford, B.A., M.A., and D.Phil. I got a Rhodes scholarship when I was a 19 year old undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin but never finished an American degree. I have no American degrees except honorary degrees.

The discipline of philosophy has changed dramatically in the six decades that I have been teaching the subject. It is less well-defined but more interesting. When I first began the subject, it was almost entirely about language, and there were deep reasons why it had to be about language. People thought that any objective truth had to be either a matter of empirical fact or a matter of conceptual truth, and since philosophy did not study empirical facts like the sciences, propositions of philosophy had to be conceptual or analytic truths, and these had to be arrived at by linguistic analysis. So in the early days, philosophy and linguistic analysis were coextensive. There are a number of reasons why this narrow conception of philosophy was abandoned and we now have a much larger conception. Roughly speaking, philosophy consists largely in describing the nature of human reality and how it relates to the more basic reality as described by physics and chemistry. So areas such as philosophy of language, ethics, epistemology, or philosophy of mind consist in examining very general features of these phenomena and making the account consistent, if it is possible to make it consistent, with both our common sense conceptions of ourselves and with what we know about the world from the natural sciences.

“I think therefore I am” famously claimed French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century. It was his conclusion after a long and labored investigation about whether he could trust in his own existence and in his perceptions of reality. Was Descartes right? What would you say to Descartes if you could have a conversation with him today?

There are a number of famous disasters in the history of philosophy, and Descartes is one of the greatest disasters. He was, of course, a great genius, and he was brilliant not only in philosophy, but in mathematics as well, but he left us with a number of catastrophic conclusions. The most important of which is one he did not invent but inherited from other people. Descartes’s biggest catastrophe is his dualism, the idea that reality divides into two kinds of substances, matter and spirit.

If I were talking to Descartes, I would have a lot of things to say to him. For one, I would say that he is absolutely right that he has an awareness of his own consciousness that cannot be refuted by standard methods of refutation, but he is mistaken in thinking that the world divides into two separate kinds of substances, the mental and the physical. We live in one world, not two or three or several, and what we think of as consciousness and the mind is a biological feature of certain kinds of organisms. Descartes was unable to see that because he thought that consciousness could only exist in a soul, and the soul was not a part of the physical world.

You’ve spent a lot of time writing about consciousness. Do you think we will arrive at a point in which we understand it scientifically?

I think, in fact, that we are getting closer to understanding consciousness as a biological phenomenon. However, the problem is very difficult and we do not really understand how the brain works. The brain is immensely complicated, and we are still at the very early stages of investigating the most basic principles of its functioning. We assume that the neuron is the basic functional unit, but that might be wrong. It might be that thinking of the neuron as the basic functional unit of the brain is similar to thinking of the molecule as the basic functional unit of the car, and that is a horrendous mistake. So we have got a long way to go before we understand the brain, but I think this is the right route to take. I think we will understand consciousness when we understand the answer to two questions, “How exactly does the brain produce consciousness in all its forms?” and “How exactly does consciousness exist in the brain: how is it realized in the brain in a way that explains its functioning in our overall life?”

So what exactly is “mind?” Is it a trait that is unique to humans?

“Mind” refers to all of those mental states, processes, and events that go on both consciously and unconsciously in the brain. The most readily accessible mental phenomena are the conscious mental phenomena, but we have lots of unconscious mental phenomena as well. From the point of view of evolutionary history, the most important feature of the mind is its intentionality. Intentionality is simply that feature of the mind by which it is directed at, or about, or of objects and states of affairs in the world. So beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, and intentions, in the ordinary sense, are all cases of intentionality. We have this unfortunate word “intentionality” that suggests some special connection with intending, but that is because we got the word from the Germans.

Lots of animals besides humans have minds. We do not know how far down the phylogenetic scale consciousness goes, but it is clear that the higher animals are all conscious, and my guess is that when we understand consciousness, we will see that it goes quite a long way down the scale. However, when you get down to the level of amoebae and paramecia, it is obvious that they are not conscious because they do not have the mechanisms essential for the creation of consciousness.

We assume that the neuron is the basic functional unit, but that might be wrong. It might be that thinking of the neuron as the basic functional unit of the brain is similar to thinking of the molecule as the basic functional unit of the car, and that is a horrendous mistake.

Let’s talk about complex systems and artificial intelligence. “Artificial” is an interesting term, because it assumes an original, “authentic” intelligence, presumably a biological one. Etymologically, “artificial” stems from “artifice” implying something that was made by craft. Do you buy into this dichotomy between the biological and the “artificial”? And do you think machines will ever be able to develop a consciousness of their own?

The expression “Artificial Intelligence” is multiply ambiguous, and it is unfortunate that this ambiguity has not been sorted out. An artificial x can be either a real x produced artificially or a fake x. For example, artificial dyes are real dyes produced artificially, it is just they are not produced from vegetables. Artificial cream, on the other hand, is not real cream but fake cream. So “Artificial Intelligence” can mean either something that is not intelligent and is produced artificially, or it can mean something that is actually intelligent produced artificially. “Intelligence” is also ambiguous because it is ambiguous between real, honest to John observer-independent intelligence – as, for example, when a human being is thinking about something – and the observer-relative, derivative, metaphorical sense of intelligence – for instance, when we speak of my pocket calculator or computer as displaying intelligence. This is unfortunate because in the sense in which humans have real observer-independent intelligence, commercial computers have nothing like that. The sense in which the computer is intelligent is entirely observer relative or metaphorical. The reason the “intelligence” of the commercial computer is entirely observer relative is that we do not know how to make a conscious computer. Existing computers work entirely by having complex electronic circuits, and what we think of as “computation” is a series of programmed transitions between the states of the complex electrical circuitry.

As to whether or not machines will be conscious, it is important to remember that we are machines. We are biological machines and we are conscious. I do not see any reason, in principle, why we could not build an artificial machine that was conscious, but we are unable to do that now because we do not know how the brain does it. The question, “Can you build an artificial machine that is conscious?” is just like the question “Can you build an artificial heart that pumps blood?” We know how to build artificial hearts because we know how the biological heart works. We do not know how to build an artificial brain because we do not know how the brain works. But assuming we knew how the brain worked, I see no obstacle in principle to building an artificial conscious machine. The important thing to see is that the human brain is a machine, a biological machine, and it produces consciousness by biological processes. We will not be able to do that artificially until we know how the brain does it and we can then duplicate the causal powers of the brain. Perhaps we can do it in some completely different medium as we build artificial hearts in a completely different medium from muscle tissue, but at present we do not know enough about the brain to build an artificial brain.

It is important to remember that we are machines. We are biological machines and we are conscious. I do not see any reason, in principle, why we could not build an artificial machine that was conscious.

Here’s a thought experiment: if you could put your brain in deep-freeze, knowing that 3000 years from now it would be inserted into an artificially constructed body, would you do it?

I would have no interest in freezing my brain and to be woken up after 3,000 years. For one thing, it seems to me very unlikely that human beings will exist in a tolerable form in 3,000 years, but frankly I am too busy with other obligations I have right now to care about what is going to happen in 3,000 years. I am much more interested in the next 300 years, or the next 3 years, or in fact the next 3 hours, so I definitely would not put my brain into a deep-freeze.

Since I know you in the context of your advisory work with the Library of Congress, I’ll end with a question about books and libraries. You’ve written about metaphors and similes, and you’ve spent plenty of time in libraries, big and small. How are minds like libraries? Or perhaps, with digital networks, are we moving towards a merging of these two?

It is hard to know what the future of libraries will be. It may well be that our conception we have of a library as a repository of books and other such documents has already become obsolete. We have to think now of information retrieval and processing as a much more active process than somebody taking a book off of the shelf and reading it. I really do not know what the future of libraries is going to be. I think our minds are not, in fact, much like libraries. We tend to think of memory as a repository and a storehouse, but in fact research on memory shows it is a much more active process. Memories are created by the mind. It is not that we have got a big storehouse to go back and look in the filing cabinet of our memories. In fact, memory is a very active process, and this incidentally is a threat to its reliability. It is very hard to know just on scrutinizing our memories which memories are accurate and which are not.

Thank you, John. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Any final words of wisdom for aspiring philosophers reading our blog?

My single most important piece of advice is to find the questions that arouse your most passionate commitment and stick with those. Do not pay too much attention to the opinions of the philosophical profession, which at any given point are mostly mistaken.

Check back for future interviews with Scholars Council members.

Comments (8)

  1. Thank you so much for this informative and delightful interview. I am so happy I found it by searching the Internet. In the future, I will be keep informed about such interviews.

  2. What a pleasure seeing this here, on this site. Anyway, in my opinion, John Searle is providing some of the most cogent insights among the luminaries in the consciousness debate.

    “It is important to remember that we are machines.”

    This! A thousand times. Keep on saying this and don’t stop saying it. Yell it out your windows, because that’s what people need to wake up to. There are so many mental health problems in our society that are a direct result of this misunderstanding.

    In the near future, when we can literally watch our thoughts on an MRI – circling around our cortico-basal-ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop a few dozen times a second – we won’t have the luxury of believing that we’re fairies or that demons are chasing us or that we’re God’s mouthpiece or weapon. We’ll be able to point to physical manifestation of those delusions in people’s brains.

    When we can see the physical structure of our delusions, harboring those delusions will no longer be considered “healthy” behavior. With this “anything goes” dualistic philosophy that currently pervades society, Descartes has written us a blank check to go and believe whatever we want.

    Beliefs beget behaviors – and we tolerate some deleterious behaviors because we currently have no grounds to question the beliefs that cause them. Well, real-time brain imaging is on its way and smart robots will be walking around our streets and so for some of those beliefs I think the bottom is dropping out right now.

    My philosophical question to Mr. Searle would be the following: Since the brain is becoming a more tractable problem and “hard problem” of consciousness is beginning to unravel, what of the other elephant in the room? “Purpose?”

    How are we going to convince a race of machines that certain purposes (which happen to motivate and animate our bodies) are more or less acceptable than other purposes? How can we convince them to subscribe to a particular purpose, when we don’t require that of each other? In fact, we might feel it immoral to have someone else’s “arbitrary” purpose hoisted upon us.

    So, what is our purpose? What should it be? If we can’t answer that for our selves, how can we answer that for machines?

  3. Please inform me fully about meeting Dr. John Searle’s staff.

  4. 7/19/2016 TEDD Radio Hour NPR piece focusing on Dr. Searle’s work. Please inform me fully about building an artificial brain and about developing the science of consciousness.

  5. ‘Think about this’ some ‘non-subjective’ .

    Consciousness has differing ‘levels’ it has an area where ‘belief and disbelief’ exists and this area I give a ‘name’ a label or ‘noun’ as the illusion we discuss (we miss this only all of the time).

    Belief and disbelief are the life’s illusions that many proffer, as they are all subjective and all untrue hence are illusory. Mind in itself is subjective as it’s illusory we simply do not have a mind! this is just an adjective focusing on consciousness and it’s ‘philosophy’ which in itself is illusory when we do not understand that consciousness cant be described – we can label it badly however :-O

    Consciousness is akin to a field of energy around us and is separate from brain and body function although it interacts with us biologically. It cant be described through a simple missed factor that deeper Consciousness cant even describe itself (free from a culmination of ‘biased’ belief/disbelief) as it would have to observe itself! which would be classed as ‘impossible’ to take our-self outside ourselves and view what cant be seen (I think eventually it will be possible to measure it though). Futility in computing to even try and assimilate consciousness (which makes me smile and laugh at times) as it uses ‘physical’ models and cant interact biologically with it’s ‘true’ surroundings and how do you describe something that is indescribable. I used to be a system analyst but have gotten better since 🙂 when I realized I was pure Consciousness (bar some beliefs/disbelief’s and another factor that I wont go into here) however I still posses those so called ‘skills’

    Consciousness is not spiritual either as this is ‘subjective’ and invented so hence is ‘belief’ based.

    When we start to observe ‘What is’ we empirically ‘learn’ to distinguish between belief/disbelief (illusion) and truth/reality which is adrift for appx 98% of all humans (subjective) even scientists and very knowledgeable people have belief and disbelief (which is why there is so many ‘arguments’ triggering each others ‘people stressors/issues’).

    Consciousness holds experience ‘memory’ and not the brain (this way we get closer to explaining the true interactions brain/body functions with it) I call it my non-physical aspects, look at the brain body as a transmitter/receiver of consciousness, we are ‘purely’ here to experience life (often accidentally and uncontrollably as in a chaotic bio-system).
    We are empirically at one with all things living and not living. Consciousness cant be destroyed it can only be transmuted (dissolved) into other forms of consciousness/life energy.. Study yourself, challenge your own thoughts and beliefs/disbeliefs and find what is truer within you then you become more open to ‘What is’ and acceptance that we are consciousness experiencing life and our base ‘wisdom’ takes on a more practical non argumentative form and our behaviors with expression change for the better. Consciousness is fearless so any fear based thoughts are based in belief/disbelief (illusion).

    Thank you Dr. John Searle you do look at and balance most aspects

  6. Thank you.

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