In the first part of his new book Searle counters what he calls the Bad Argument that has ruined epistemology for three centuries, namely the idea that we don’t perceive the world directly but through an intermediary called variously sense data, representation, or even interface. His claim is that our senses present the actual world to us, and do not create a picture or representation that must be perceived in place of the real world that it somehow resembles.
He does this first by attacking the notion that consciousness is some nonphysical entity that can’t react with physical entities. Instead Searle holds that consciousness is a biological property of the mind and is caused by neurons in the brain, just as digestion is a property of the stomach and is caused by glands and enzymes. As such consciousness belongs to the physical world and ultimately reduces to the particles and fields of atomic physics. But Searle is not a microbiologist or brain scientist and does not tell us how consciousness emerges from the brain, only that it does. He is a philosopher and here is interested in how consciousness works in perception.
In claiming that vision presents the real word to us, Searle relies on theories of causation and intentionality. An object causes light to be reflected into our eyes, and the resulting visual experience is an intentional one, by which is meant that it seems to us to be the object out there in the real world. In other words, the visual experience has conditions of satisfaction, or requirements of being a certain way, which are that it presents a real object to us. As Searle puts it, we use the same words to describe our visual experience as to describe the object we’re looking at. The result is that our experience seems to be caused by the object we are looking at, and is a presentation of that object.
In a fascinating discussion on hallucination, Searle says that when we are hallucinating, our visual apparatus works exactly the same as when we are having a true or veridical perception, except the cause of the perception shifts from the world to the mind, and the object of the perception out in the world goes missing.
Searle thinks that everything we think or perceive gives rise to a special feeling of what it’s like to do or think something. This seems to be part of his concept of intentionality. But Searle says some odd things in this connection. If he is married to one of two identical twins, for example, or presented with a car identical to the one he drives, he seems to believe that the phenomenology or appearance of one of the twins will change once he recognizes which is his wife, and the same for his car once he realizes that he’s looking at his very own car. I don’t get that, since by stipulation the identical twins and cars can’t be distinguished by appearance. Yes, the intentionality will change, since his feelings and attitudes will enter into his consciousness, but why the phenomenology also? I don’t see that he needs to say that.
Still that is a handy belief to have when you are refuting the idea that computers are conscious, as Searle does. Obviously a computer like the ones we have now do not have subjective, qualitative feelings about the world or about their computational chores, and so can’t be conscious. Searle has other arguments against the consciousness of computers as well, and it is quite refreshing to read a thinker who doesn’t subscribe to the belief that the brain is a computer and the mind some sort of computer program. Such writers as Dennett, who do hold that view, simply eliminate consciousness rather than explain it. I’m with Searle all the way here.
Searle is quite expert in zeroing in on the logical flaws in the theories of consciousness of others, and does so with a deadpan humor that can be quite amusing. He goes through the Greats we read in college, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume and Kant, and shows how their theories of the mind or skepticism have impeded understanding of what really goes on in perception. In contrast to the writing style of Dennett, he attacks the subject of consciousness in perception head on and stays with it, rather than writing about everything under the sun in a circuitous and ultimately inaccurate approach. The prose is clear if the arguments are sometimes dense, and free of jargon. Also included are helpful pictures and diagrams. It’s enjoyable when Searle challenges those with a different view of perception to draw a diagram that better explains it than his.
I would have liked Searle to talk more about so-called hardwiring in the brain, particularly as it relates to such things as language acquisition. Searle’s position is that there is no unconscious rule in the mind unless in principle it could become conscious. I don’t know if the innate rules of language acquisition could become conscious. What would that mean in the case of a two-year old leaning to speak English? Chomsky’s idea of innate but unconscious rules seem to be a given in philosophy these days, and if Searle doesn’t buy it, and I gather he doesn’t, I’d like to read more about why. Does he question all of Chomsky? How does he better explain language acquisition?
Also Searle still leaves us with a kind of dualism. After explaining our centuries-old failure to solve the mind-body problem as set up by Descartes and others, where mind is something nonphysical that in principle can’t react casually with the physical world, he opts for a kind of materialism with two different ontologies, or types of existence. There is the first-person ontology of an individual’s private conscious events, and the third-person ontology of the objective world. But somehow both are the same kind of stuff reducible to atoms and forces. Well, it sounds right. The trick, and I think Searle pulls it off, is to present a coherent theory of perception without tripping up, to do it better than the rest, and to do it with humor and style.