A ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ANNUAL LECTURE JOHN SEARLE, 'FREE WILL AS A PROBLEM IN NEURBIOLOGY'
JOHN SEARLE, 'FREE WILL AS A PROBLEM IN NEURBIOLOGY'
Introduction to it by Ted Honderich
John Searle attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. In and away from his base in the University of California at Berkeley, he has been the greatest adversary, surely a victorious adversary, of the philosophy and science of consciousness associated with the computer. Its general expression as you have heard before now, is in the philosophical doctrine of functionalism. In sum that is that your now being perceptually conscious or your thinking something or your wanting something is in its nature only and nothing more than an effect and cause of other things of which only such causal propositions are relevantly true. Searle's lucid books expounding an opposed philosophy include Speech Acts; Intentionality; The Rediscovery of the Mind; Mind, Language and Science; Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language and Political Power.
In his lecture he brings the traditional problem of determinism and freedom together with his developed theory of mind and in particular consciousness. The lecture, which fully rewards the attention it requires, brings together at least the following ten propositions, several seemingly inconsistent, as he allows.
(1) Freedom is indeed a problem to be considered within responses to the large problem of the nature of consciousness. It was not adequately treated as a free-standing problem or a problem within morality, let alone religion. (2) Consciousness like all else is somehow physical. A principal reason for saying so is that it has physical effects, say arm movements. (3) Consciousness is different from the rest of the physical. In Searle's own view, it is a higher level or systemic biological feature, related to its constituent neural facts in something like the way in which a wheel is related to its constituent molecules. (4) Epiphenomenalism, denying that consciousness itself has effects, such as the arm movements, is incredible.
(5) Both our tendency to determinism, our tendency to take it that there is complete evidence that every event has a sufficient or necessitating cause, that all events are caused in this way, and our contrary tendency to what is called psychological indeterminism, a sensing or experiencing or feeling that our decisions and choices could have been otherwise, that they were not effects -- both of these tendencies are somehow to be explained. (6) As assumed by Searle here without discussion, we in our lives understand freedom to be origination, uncaused choices and decisions, often spoken of as free will, rather than voluntariness, choices and decisions not compelled or the like, which are quite consistent with determinism.
(7) Quantum physics proves an indeterminism is right -- there are standardly uncaused events down in the microworld. There are gaps between events. So there is at least the possibility of our having the freedom of origination. (8) Our reasoning processes, true to our experiencing of them, in fact have those gaps in them, but they can explain our actions anyway -- the gaps do not make for epiphenomenalism. There is rational explanation of our actions. (9) Our reasoning is bound up with our having or being entities that are selves or egos or rational agents in what is sometimes called a metaphysical sense, not unities of perceptions, thoughts and feelings, as supposed by Hume and others, including the lecturer next to come in this volume. (10) The philosophical problems of determinism and freedom now dealt with, despite further questions and mysteries, leave us with only the problems of freedom in the science of neurobiology, which are far harder.
Determinism has in the past been a principal concern of mine. So I make bold to report my own continuing convictions about the above propositions of the lecture, some of which are thereby thrown into sharper relief.
(1) What is assumed about freedom and consciousness and (2) what may be believed about consciousness as somehow physical, are both true. With respect to (3), consciousness is indeed really different somehow or other, but not in being a higher-level or systemic property, which is not its essential or principal distinction. Plainly there are other higher-level or systemic properties. (4) Epiphenomenalism is indeed incredible.
(5) We do need to accomodate to some extents both determinism and our contrary tendency. (6) Surely we must not ignore the freedom of voluntariness in thinking of our human condition. Doing so is a little benefit to Searle's thinking, but does not much affect his particular propositions about origination.
(7) An attitude contrary to Searle's is that interpretations or applications of the mathematics of quantum theory to reality are an admitted mess, including contradictions etc, and there is no macroworld evidence of real randomness. (8) So I myself remain unpersuaded of gaps inconsistent with determinism. (9) Selves of some kind, or anyway a fact of subjectivity or individuality, but not originating selves or egos or the like, must enter into an adequate theory of our existence. (10) I too suppose that the freedom problem is now one for science, but as a result of what can initially be clarified as actual consciousness. I doubt that the scientific problem is harder.
Is philosophy a little more passionate than science, with more pique in it? I end here by saying that I am now dismayed by a journal article of mine against a predecessor of Searle's lecture, another journal article. I have learned more since, above all from a book I especially recommend to you. Searle's recent Rationality in Action, Searle in action again, enlarges greatly on the lecture.