The Rediscovery of the Mind

I finished reading Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind last week, and it was quite an exciting read, to say the least. In a field full of confusing, frustrating, and downright baffling theories and assertions, a little bit of no-nonsense pseudo-polemic writing can be a breath of fresh air, and this book is just that.

At it’s heart, this book is an argument for Searle’s own theory of mind: Biological Naturalism, which can be summed up as saying that the brain, under the right conditions, gives rise to conscious experience in the same way that water, under the right conditions, gives rise to liquidity. Even more fundamentally, however, Searle uses this book to remind us all of what we are really doing when we propose theories of mind, hopefully in a way that helps us realize the obvious mistakes we make all too often.

Searle closes the book with a near perfect set of guidelines, which I have re-printed below, because, even if you aren’t able to read the book in its entirety, I think that you should consider them:

In spite of our modern arrogance about how much we know, in spite of the assurance and universality of our science, where the mind is concerned we are characteristically confused and in disagreement. Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, we grasp onto some alleged feature and pronounce it the essence of the mental. ‘There are invisible sentences in there!’ (the language of thought). ‘There is a computer program in there!’ (cognitivism). ‘There are only causal relations in there!’ (functionalism). ‘There is nothing in there!’ (eliminativism). And so, depressingly, on.

Just as bad, we let our research methods dictate the subject matter, rather than the converse. Like the drunk who loses his car keys in the dark bushes but looks for them under the streetlight, ‘because the light is better here,’ we try to find out how humans might resemble our computational models rather than trying to figure out how the conscious human mind actually works. I am frequently asked, ‘But how could you study consciousness scientifically? How could there be a theory?”

I do not believe there is any simple or single path to the rediscovery of the mind. Some rough guidelines are:

First, we ought to stop saying things that are obviously false. The serious acceptance of this maxim might revolutionize the study of the mind.

Second, we ought to keep reminding ourselves of what we know for sure. For example, we know for sue that inside our skulls there is a brain, sometimes it is conscious, and brain processes cause consciousness in all its forms.

Third, we ought to keep asking ourselves what actual facts in the world are supposed to correspond to the claims we make about the mind. It does not mater whether ‘true’ means corresponds to the facts, because ‘corresponds to the facts’ does mean corresponds to the facts, and any discipline that aims to describe the world is aims for this correspondence. If you keep asking yourself this question in the light of the knowledge that the brain is the only thing in there, and the brain causes consciousness, I believe you will come up with the results I have reached in this chapter, and indeed many of the results I have come up with in this book.

But that is only to take a first step on the road back to the mind. A fourth and final guideline is that we need to rediscover the social character of the mind.

If this closing passage appeals to you, I would recommend that you read this book in its entirety. I certainly found it well worth the effort (and it is an effort). Five out of five stars—I’ll be revisiting this many times.

Determinism, or Indeterminism: That is not the question.

In my Metaphysics class today, the following argument was put up for scrutiny:

1) If determinism is true, then no one acts freely, ever.

2) If indeterminism is true, then no one acts freely, ever.

3) Either indeterminism is true, or determinism is true.

4) Therefore, no one ever acts freely, ever.

5) If no one ever acts freely, ever, then no one is ever responsible for their actions.

Premise 1, in brief, relies on that assumption that if the world is deterministic, then everything that happened today was a necessary consequence of what happened millions of years ago. If everything that happened today was a necessary consequence of events in the distant past, then no person has any control over the present—it is all set in stone, as it were. Free will dictates a certain amount of control over present actions, so if this control is absent, then so is free will.

Premise 2, on the other hand, relies on a purely probabilistic definition of indeterminism. If events are indeterministic, which is to say that they are merely an odds game with event A having a 40% probability, and event B having a 60% probability, then we still lack any sort of “control” over the situation. Which event occurs is largely arbitrary, relying only on some unknown odds, written in the sky or otherwise.

This is not to say that these are the only ways in which premises 1 and 2 can be formulated, but this is how they were presented in this case.

Most of the objections raised, both in my class and in the literature, from what I’ve seen,  have attempted to disprove either premise 1 or 2. That is, there can be free will under determinism, or there can be free will under indeterminism. Most of these amount to some re-formulation of free will. I will not be taking either of these positions. Instead, I will attack premise 3: That the world is either deterministic or indeterministic.

The core of my argument rests on the claim that premise 3 presents a false dilemma. It is either determinism, or it is indeterminism, but not both. I assert that it is, indeed, both, or at the very least, we are not in a position to rule this possibility out. Current physics, which is where most of these theories claim to have their support, does not itself claim to have sorted this issue out. We know that under certain circumstances, such as when the scale is microscopic, that the world behaves in an apparently indeterministic way. Under other circumstances, such as when the scale is macroscopic, the world behaves in an apparently deterministic way. Many propose that we can link these two, and show that it is really one, and not the other, in virtue of a fundamental property of nature: namely parsimony—or, that the universe is, at its most fundamental, simple (simple in the sense that it all can be reduced to more or less the same thing). But, what they miss, is that it does not have to be this way. There is, in fact, no law that says that the universe must be simple. It may very well turn out that the universe is complicated, perhaps even too complicated for us to understand it, in the proper sense of the word.

(The following is mere speculation, I have absolutely no empirical basis for the ideas that follow; however,  I still, personally, find a great deal of plausibility in them, but you have been warned, nonetheless!)

Building off of this, and the fact that most of the arguments that place free will either in a purely deterministic or a purely indeterministic light typically have to resort to a reformulation of free will itself, I now assert that free will is only a coherent construct in a world that is both deterministic and indeterministic. What I propose is the following, which relates this more specifically to the theme of this blog: free will can only exist in conscious creatures. This may seem unnecessary to state in so many words, but the following should provide reasons for it. Complex brains are, in a general sense, specialized organs for planning and deliberation. Given that the microscopic events of this world are largely indeterministic, and that the macroscopic events are largely deterministic, we can postulate the following: brains serve to make sense of a vast multitude of indeterminacy. Through the process of evolution, and, to steal a phrase from a neuroscientist I once knew, thanks to the goddess of molecular evolution, they came to be in a position to turn underlying indeterminacy into coherent, conscious actions. This is not an appeal to a “collapse-of-the-wave-function” view of consciousness, to be clear. Rather, it is an attempt to reconcile the disparate aspects of reality into one coherent framework.

We can use this argument to strike down some of the objections raised to both purely deterministic and purely indeterministic accounts of free will. One variety of the former asserts that if you could not have acted otherwise, then you could not have acted freely, as stated above. If there is some underlying indeterminacy, however, this is clearly not the case. There are, in fact, a multitude of different ways in which you could have acted. Aha! But this just reduces to a variety of the argument from indeterminacy—that actions are merely arbitrary instantiations of probabilities, right? But that is where the deterministic aspect of reality kicks in. Once the most basic underlying facts about the world are set, in a probabilistic fashion, then determinism takes over. For this, I draw on an idea put forth by John Searle: downward causality, but in no way do I claim to restate his argument. The higher-order functions of the brain, namely consciousness, do indeed have “causes” that exist as smaller, microscopic bits, but these higher-order functions also have the ability to rain down causation on these smaller bits, much in the way that higher-order theories of economics can influence the activities of lower level commodities. Neither of these can be “smoothly reduced,” as Searle puts it, to the other, but that does not imply that one or the other does not exist, or play a meaningful role. In fact, Searle says that typically, reduction of one thing to another serves the purpose of showing that one of those things does not exist, not the other way around, as is often claimed.

This may seem counter-intuitive, and in some ways, it does have to re-formulate the popular idea of free will. In particular, it draws a distinction between free will at its most basic on the one hand, and conscious will on the other. Conscious will, or the idea that you are consciously in control of all of your actions and thoughts, is inevitably false. A handful of psychological experiments demonstrating non-conscious biases and predispositions shows this very simply. But this is not what we are talking about when we say free will, or so I claim. Free will is much more general than the limited definition of conscious will. At its most basic, it requires that you be capable of acting in certain ways that rely on intentional stances. Even if you are not consciously aware of your decisions to act in certain ways, it is still you that is making them. You are your brain, and everything that comes along with it. Simply because something is non-conscious does not make it any less a part of you. It may clash with the popular account of who you are, but at the end of the day, you are made up of more non-conscious pieces than conscious pieces, so restricting our definition of free will to the conscious pieces seems to make little sense. Now, this is not to say that our conscious feeling of free will is irrelevant, but it is a different matter to bring up—specifically, it is more of an epistemic question than a metaphysical question.

A Follow-up to “A Problem with Interactionist Property Dualism”

Yesterday, I posted my response to another blogger’s post regarding Interactionist Property Dualism. Since then, the original blogger has responded, and I find his response particularly enlightening on the matter:

I’m currently interested in Searle’s biological naturalism, which retains some appeal of property dualism but does not define consciousness as a property over and above the brain, but instantiated by the brain. On this model, consciousness is a higher order process of the brain like liquidity is a higher order process of water molecules in a group. So, conscious decisions are possible given this view, but it doesn’t require telling a story about a property called consciousness efficiently causing anything – it would be a story about how certain higher order neuronal processes (called consciousness) control other, lower order processes (muscle contractions).

The original “spark” that caused the novel movement would probably be a combination of novel environmental factors (including interaction with other people) with different neuronal factors. I don’t think we need a first cause which is an irreducible, non-material property called consciousness; although I see your point.

My next response is far less enlightening, but for any who care:

I’ll admit, I find Searle’s idea much more plausible than any that invokes true dualism. Seeing how this connects to everyday intuition, if even possible, will be interesting, though. At any rate, you’ve given me another avenue to explore, so thank you for that. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on any future posts you have regarding philosophy of mind and consciousness.

For the original post, please click here for the original blogger’s site, or here for my original posting.