Does John Searle, in his book Minds, Brains, and Science, succeed in explaining how mental phenomena can be nothing over and above neural phenomena and yet be caused by neural activity?

Minds, Brains, and Science

“Does John Searle, in his book Minds, Brains, and Science, succeed in explaining how mental phenomena can be nothing over and above neural phenomena and yet be caused by neural activity?”

This is from a philosophy class I took at the University of Florida with Dr. Ludwig; I wrote it on December 8, 1992…

Here we have an interesting question: “Does Searle succeed in explaining how mental phenomena can be nothing over and above neural phenomena and yet be caused by neural activity?” My answer is, “No,” but I think that that would be too concise and nowhere near the answer for which you are looking. I do not think he succeeds in explaining how this could be; I disagree with him and I am compelled to tell you why.

John Searle tries to tackle a question / problem that has bothered Socrates, Descartes, and just about everyone (including me) that we have discussed since August. What is the relation between our mental phenomena and our physical phenomena? What is the relation between the ‘soul’ and the body? the ‘mind’ and the body? the ‘mind’ and the brain? Some have attempted to explain everything in terms of the mental…and failed. Others have attempted to explain everything in terms of the physical…and failed. Say what you will about Searle, but he did come up with an interesting alternative.

In Searle’s point of view the mind is a surface feature which is “both caused by and realised in the micro-structure” of the brain. (Searle. Minds, Brains and Science. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1984. p.22) Searle likens the mind / brain relation to the relation of a table’s solidity to the table itself. Solidity, he explains, is a feature or property of a table’s macro-structure. By this he means that a table is solid and impenetrable when viewed as, well, a table. But if we look deeper into the table, into the table’s micro-structure, we find that the table’s solidity is caused by the networking and molecular design of its elementary particles. However (and here Searle uses water as an example but I’ll stick with the table analogy) if we take out any one molecule, or atom, or subatomic particle, we wouldn’t say, “This one’s solid.”

Searle apparently believes that the neurons of the brain are like the molecules of a table, and the ‘mind’ or mental phenomena is like the solidity of the table. The neurons on their own are not conscious, but a whole bunch of them viewed as a whole are. I say “apparently” because while Searle devoted three pages to explaining tables and solidities, he only devoted one paragraph to telling us what these micro- and macro-structures have in common with the mind / brain relationship.

Searle says that, “one can say that solidity consists of such high level features as rigidity and resistance to touch and pressure and that it is caused by the behaviour of elements at the micro-level.” (Searle.p.22) He then goes on to explain that consciousness is a higher level feature of the brain in just the same way. It is important to remember that even if it is true, which I highly doubt, a correlation does not always imply causation. If we examine the number of drownings in Maine we will see a correlation between this number and the number of ice cream cones sold. In July and August both numbers rise dramatically. Does this mean that eating ice cream causes drowning, or that people who eat ice cream in Maine are likely to drown? Of course not. Simply because two things may be correlated does not imply that they are causally related. I think he is making an unfair conclusion concerning the similarity of mental phenomena and any given physical object’s surface features. He has actually presupposed that mental phenomena are surface features of the brain in order to make this correlation.

Now, in what other ways do I disagree with Searle? In the first place even if he has painted an accurate picture of how minds are ‘realised in’ and ’caused by’ brains, what does this tell us? Searle said that he could not take a single water molecule and say, “This one’s wet.” Okay, well, how about two molecules? Could we observe two H2O molecules and say, “These are wet.”? I do not think so. How many water molecules do we need to have together to produce the property of wetness? From this question follows, “How many neurons do we need to observe working together to produce the property of consciousness?” In this way Searle’s theory is guilty of either liberalism or chauvinism in the same way we saw the functionalist argument was.

Another problem I have with Searle’s theory is its relevance to anything useful. Is he trying to explain to us how mental phenomena is possible? I do not think this is his goal. I know, at least in my own case, that I experience mental phenomena. But does that mean that you do, too? No. I can understand that I have a brain and that the activity (or inactivity) of certain neurons enables me to think, but I cannot conclude, for example, that you think simply by observing that you have neurons or a brain. As far as the problem of other minds is concerned, Searle’s theory does us no good, and I would think any decent theory about the relation between ‘mind’ and body would in some way help to answer other questions about our relationship to the world.

Basically I think that Searle had an interesting alternative to the same old possible solutions, but I don’t think he explained it thoroughly and even if he had I don’t think it would change the fact that there are some questions that are simply beyond the realm of human understanding.

And now for a minute from the mind of me. How can consciousness, intentionality, subjectivity, and mental causation exist in a meaningless universe of neutrons, electrons, etc.? The physical world surrounding us is filled with phenomena that don’t care, or think, or are even mental and yet these phenomena put on a display of action and creation and destruction in which we apparently have no purpose. Searle tells us that if we imagine a universe sans consciousness, we have imagined a universe “that is truly meaningless.” Searle’s homo sapiens sapiens-ethno-centricity aside, I certainly cannot comprehend how the existence of conscious humans, or consciousness, or humans makes the universe a meaningful place. And to be truly honest I think humans and our beloved consciousness destroy much more than we create and if anything detract from the meaningfulness of the universe. A universe without consciousness would probably be much more beautiful than the one in which we exist. Granted, none of us would be around to appreciate it, but unheard songs are sweeter by far and all that…

I think that a greater problem is approaching philosophers of the not-too-distant future. I like to call it the ABA problem, short for Anheuser-Busch / apathy. A large part of my generation, and an enormous part of the generations younger than me, are growing up in a quickly advancing technological society with little care for the ‘mind’ (and even less for the ‘soul’) or exploring exactly what it is. “Why learn? Why read? Why do anything? Why ask why?” And I wonder what the future holds for Philosophy…what price the prize?

which is “both caused by and realised in the micro-structure” of

Sorry, my hard drive’s going bad and some stuff is vanishing. Poetic, ain’t it?

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