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Philosophy: Rigorous Science or Intuitive Thought
A critique of Mind by John Searle
by Richard Schain
Ever since its origins in the antique Hellenic world, philosophy has been bedeviled by a double identity a search for meaning in human existence or a search for reliable knowledge of the world. The first approach will always be associated with Plato, of whom Alfred North Whitehead said that all subsequent philosophy was only a series of footnotes. The second is exemplified by Aristotle, who in the Middle Ages was regarded as 'The Philosopher.' To be sure, there are many overlaps of both aspects of philosophy in these two great figures of the antique world, but the relative emphasis in them is clear.
In the twentieth century, this duality of philosophy was noted by the mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell in a comment that all philosophers were either inclined to science or to mysticism. Russell himself regarded intuitive aspects of philosophy as mysticism. There was no doubt where Russell's sympathies lay; he and other proponents of the analytic method in philosophy are responsible for the pejorative meaning now usually associated with the term 'mysticism.' The 'mystics' may be regarded as being predominant throughout most of the history of western philosophy when the latter was dominated by Christian dogma with its substructure of Platonic metaphysics. However, beginning with the Siecle des lumieres, then followed by the incredible scientific revolution of the past two centuries, philosophy has come to adopt the scientific world-view and even regard itself as a science. Most contemporary philosophers identify with Husserl's defining philosophy as 'rigorous science' (strenge Wissenschaft). William James once joked that if they dared, philosophers would wear white coats.
The problem for scientific philosophy today is that the mind which has been an essential focus of philosophical thought since Descartes already has not one but two fields of science connected with it, neurology and psychology. The neurological sciences have taken giant steps in studying brain structures and relating them to mental processes. The psychological sciences have equally progressed by analyzing perception, cognition, and behavior and subjecting them to experimental study. What then is left for philosophy as science other than popularizing the scientific advances made by scientists in these fields? It is notable that the history of 'scientific' philosophy reveals that its domain has steadily diminished as astronomy, medicine, physics, and physiology matured into bona fide scientific specialties. The same has happened with psychology in the last century.
John Searle is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley who has published extensively on the philosophy of mind. His most recent book on this topic proposes to provide a comprehensive review of the entire subject. The reader is immediately exposed to Searle's style when the author asserts at the beginning that 'all of the most famous and influential theories [on the mind] are false.' Searle later puts forth his own point of view that places subjective mental phenomena as part of nature but ontologically distinct from object phenomena.
Searle reviews contemporary theories of mind from the perspective of philosophy as rigorous science. There are discussions of consciousness, intentionality, mental causation, free will, and the self. The last chapter is entitled 'Philosophy and the Scientific World-View.' He makes the following categorical statement: 'So if we are interested in reality and truth, there is really no such thing as "scientific reality" or "scientific truth." There are just the facts that we know. I cannot tell you how much confusion in philosophy has been generated by the failure to perceive these points.' Like the emotionless Detective Friday of the American television series Dragnet whose trademark saying was 'just the facts, ma'am, just the facts,' Searle wants just the facts. Of course, he is not alone in this viewpoint in contemporary academic philosophy; it is shared implicitly or explicitly by most analytically minded philosophers committed to the scientific world-view. In fact, Searle would have to be placed among the more open-minded academicians since he accepts concepts such as consciousness and the self as bona fide mental realities in their own right, not ontologically reducible to physical entities. He views the former 'as much as part of the natural world as is photosynthesis or digestion.' Searle does not want to be classified as a materialist or a dualist.
Searle's approach reflects the pervasive influence of phenomenology in modern philosophy, although there is no mention of Husserl in his discussions. Consciousness is a real phenomenon; therefore it must be objectively described in its own right. In fact, Searle seems to be skirting dangerously close to dualism with his point of view. The mere fact that he views the brain as causally related to the mind does not obviate the fact that he accepts the latter as a realm ontologically distinct from the neuronal network of the brain. This sounds like Cartesian dualism with an unspecified relationship between the two ontological realms instead of the pineal gland performing this function. Still, Searle thinks of Descartes' ideas as a 'disaster' for philosophy, a common point of view among materialist philosophers. One might compare his formulation with that of Schopenhauer, who labeled Searle's mental 'first person ontology' as will and his object 'third person ontology' as representation [Wille und Vorstellung.] Of course they differ in that Schopenhauer was deeply pessimistic about the principle of individuation he called 'will' while Searle, as befits an unbiased proponent of 'biological naturalism' toward the mind, avoids value judgements either way.
The phenomenology of Searle reveals itself in that he is not interested in the rich intuitive content of western philosophy that has characterized it ever since the era of Socrates. Plato is not even mentioned in this book described as an introduction to the philosophy of mind. Nor is Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, Berdyaev, Whitehead, or Teilhard de Chardin. William James gets a passing comment. Presumably these are philosophers whose ideas about the mind do not meet the strictly factual criteria subscribed to by Searle. Not for him is the proclamation of Kierkegaard that 'truth is subjectivity' or Berdyaev's discovery of meaning in creativity. He uses the same approach in his 'first person ontology' as in his 'third person ontology.' The knowledge of subjectivity is just materialism pitched at a different level.
When one reads Searle's book, it is possible to feel as Socrates is said to have felt when he came across the book of Anaxagoras on the mind. The story is recounted by Plato in the Phaedo. Socrates had heard that Anaxagoras taught that Mind [Nous] was the cause of all things. He expected to find the mind's ideas about the common good in Anaxagoras' writing. However, he was grievously disappointed because all he found was physical and physiological discussions but nothing about what he thought was important about the mind. After that, Socrates turned to his own mind in his search for wisdom. If one expects to find philosophical depth in Searle's book, he or she will be similarly disappointed. Philosophy as rigorous science is the only topic; there is no consideration of the mind's search for man's place in existence or of the wisdom that accrues from a higher type of mental activity.
For the philosopher, the important thing about mind should be its content of creative thought not the mechanics of its operation. The latter can be left to scientists who are competent in these problems. Philosophy in this latter area will never be taken seriously by scientists anyway, since philosophers do not engage in the principal requirements of modern science data collection, data analysis, and verification of hypotheses. Without these functions, philosophers can only perform as armchair theorists, relying on the discoveries of others to propound their theories and incapable of verifying them by scientific methods. The risk exists of philosophy again becoming a sterile scholasticism.
However, philosophy is indispensable in the search for meaning in the world since meaning stems from the subjective element of existence, an element not explicable by scientific investigation. The sciences may provide useful metaphors in this search but the mind thinking creatively is the only source of meaning in human existence. Profound philosophy about the mind existed prior to modern science. Another way of expressing this dichotomy is to recognize the universal metaphysical need of human beings as distinct from their need to objectivize existence. This need has been historically gratified by religions; thus Schopenhauer thought of religion as 'the metaphysics of the people.' Schopenhauer, who was an elitist of the first order, believed that philosophy should perform this role for those of greater intellectual capacity. However one may view Schopenhauer's prejudices, he is correct in thinking the metaphysical need is properly satisfied in unfettered philosophic activity. Man has been referred to as the animal metaphysicum and philosophy is metaphysics. These concepts require valuation of the mysteriously rational, mysteriously mystical human mind above mere phenomenological analysis.
© Richard Schain 2005
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Mind: A Brief Introduction by John R. Searle