Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A quote form John Searle

Any attempt to reduce intentionality to something nonmental will always fail because it leaves out intentionality. Suppose for example that you had a perfect causal account of the belief that water is wet. This account is given by stating the set of causal relations in which a system stands to water and to wetness and these relations are entirely specified without any mental component. The problem is obvious: a system could have all those relations and still not believe that water is wet. This is just an extension of the Chinese Room argument, but the moral it points to is general: You cannot reduce intentional content (or pains, or "qualia") to something else, because if you did they would be something else, and it is not something else." (Searle, Rediscovery p. 51).


Ahab said...

Here is a much more recent quote (2005) from J. Searle in reply to a letter critiquing his comments in the NYRB.

John R. Searle replies:
Stevan Harnad's letter raises a challenge to the very possibility of any scientific account of consciousness of the sort that both Koch and I favor. He says, "We do not know how brain activity could generate feeling. Even less do we know why." And he laments the "powerlessness of the usual kind of causal how/why explanation when it comes to feeling."

It is important to understand that he is not lamenting our present neurobiological ignorance. He thinks even if we had a perfect science of the brain, we would be unable to answer the how/why question. I am not convinced. Suppose we knew in exact detail all of the neurobiological mechanisms and their mode of operation, so that we knew exactly which neuronal events were causally necessary, or sufficient, or both, for which subjective feelings. Suppose all of this knowledge was stated as a set of precise laws. Suppose such knowledge were in daily medical use to help overcome human pain, misery, and mental illness. We are a long way from this ideal and we may never reach it, but even this would not satisfy Harnad. It is hard to see what more he wants. If a complete science of the sort I am imagining would not satisfy him, he should tell us what would. If nothing could satisfy him, then it looks like the complaint may be unreasonable. It is not clear to me what he is asking for when he asks for more.

Ultimately I think that Harnad has a deep philosophical worry, and it is one that we should all share. It seems astounding that objective neuronal processes should cause our subjective feelings. But in coping with this sense of mystery we should remind ourselves that it is just a plain fact that neuronal processes do cause feelings, and we need to try to understand how. We should share his sense of mystery, but not let it discourage us from doing the real work.

He is convinced that the mystery of consciousness is unique. But it is well to remind ourselves that this is not the first time we have confronted such mysteries. From the point of view of Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism seems metaphysically mysterious. How could magnetism ever be explained by Newton's laws? And from the point of view of nineteenth-century science, life seemed a mystery. How could mechanical processes explain life? As we attained a much richer scientific understanding, these mysteries were overcome. It is hard to recover today the passions with which mechanism and vitalism were once debated. I am urging that the right attitude to the problem of consciousness is to overcome the mystery by increasing our knowledge, in the same way that we overcame earlier mysteries.

Our most fundamental disagreement is harder to state. I believe his sense of "how/why" demands more than science and philosophy can offer. In the end when we investigate nature we find: This is what happens. This is how it works. If you want to know how/why a body falls, the standard answer is to appeal to gravity. But if you want to know how/why gravity works, I am told that the question is still not answered. But suppose it were, suppose we had a unified theory of everything that explained gravity, electromagnetism, and everything else. That would still leave us with the question, Why are the data accounted for by this theory and not some other? In the end, how/why questions stop with theories that state how nature works and the mechanisms according to which it works.

Victor Reppert said...

I think my Searle quote and yours are compatible with one another once you realize that Searle is a substance materialist and a property dualist. Intentional properties can't be reduced to physical properties, but we don't need a separate substance to explain this, according to him. Whether this leaves him with a coherent and defensible position is another matter. An anti-naturalist like, well, me for example, might very well argue that the logic of Searle's position leads him out of naturalism, but that he himself has not fully seen the implications of his own views. Nagel, a philosopher with similar views, has said we need something along the lines of a mentalistic metaphysics, but that theism is not the only alternative once mentalism is accepted.

Ahab said...

Interesting quote from Dennett on Searle that I found over at the internet infidels site:

"For his part, (Searle) has one argument, the Chinese Room, and he has been trotting it out, basically unchanged, for fifteen years. It has proven to be an amazingly popular number among the non-experts, in spite of the fact that just about everyone in the field who knows anything dismissed it long ago. It is full of well-concealed fallacies. By Searle's own count, there are over a hundred published attacks on it. He can count them, but I guess he can't read them, for in all those years he has never to my knowledge responded in detail to the dozens of devastating criticisms they contain; he has just presented the basic thought experiment over and over again...Strong AI is not dead; computational neuroscience is a brand of it. Crick's doing it; Edelman's doing it; the Churchlands are doing it, I'm doing it, and so are hundreds of others. Not Searle. Searle doesn't have a program of research. He has a set of home truths to defend. They land him in paradox after paradox, but so long as he doesn't address the critics who point this out, who'll ever know?"

This comes from a book edited by Searle: The Mystery of Consciousness.

Norm Nason said...

Searle has a more recent interview on Machines Like Us:

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