[Paper presented at the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division meeting in Pasadena, CA, March 24-28, 2004]
John Searle has tried to stake out a middle position between materialism and property dualism, which he calls “biological naturalism.”To many of his critics (e.g. Nagel 1995, p. 96; Chalmers 1996, p. 370, n. 2), biological naturalism has seemed little more than property dualism in disguise.Searle insists that his view has been misunderstood, and has attempted in a series of writings (1984, 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998) to distinguish it from property dualism, most recently in his article “Why I Am Not a Property Dualist” (2002).But the critics are, as I will try to show, correct.Searle is, whether he realizes it or not, a property dualist.
The basic idea of “biological naturalism” is that mental states, though (contrary to materialism) not identicalto the firing of neurons or any other brain processes, are nevertheless caused by such processes in a manner analogous to the way the solidity of an ice cube is caused by the state of the water molecules composing it.Consciousness and other mental phenomena are thus higher-order features of the brain, just as solidity is a higher-order feature of the system of water molecules constituting the ice cube.But just as solidity is nevertheless a physical property of a system of water molecules, so too (and contrary to property dualism) is consciousness a physical property of the system of neurons constituting the brain.
The reason this sounds to Searle’s critics like property dualism is that there is – by Searle’s own admission – a significant disanalogy between solidity and the like on the one hand and consciousness and other mental phenomena on the other.Solidity, like all uncontroversially physical properties, has what Searle calls a “third-person ontology” (2002, p. 60).That is, it is an entirely objective or “public” phenomenon, equally accessible in principle to every observer.The same is true of the water molecules which, when frozen, collectively manifest solidity.There is thus no mystery about how solidity can be a higher-order physical property of a system of water molecules.For, fully to describe the condition of water molecules at the temperature at which water freezes just is to describe them as solid.There is nothing more to solidity than that; it is identical to the configuration the molecules are in when the object they constitute is at freezing temperature.In any case, there is nothing about the nature of either water molecules or solidity – both of which are “third-person” – that excludes such an identification.
Neural processes also have by Searle’s reckoning a third-person ontology.But consciousness and other mental phenomena do not; they have instead what he calls a “first-person ontology,” being essentially subjective or “private,” directly accessible only to the subject undergoing conscious experiences.There is thus an essential difference between conscious phenomena and all uncontroversially physical phenomena – the former, being essentially subjective, cannot be identified with or reduced to any subset of the latter, which are essentially objective.Searle, again, acknowledges this: “The property dualist and I are in agreement that consciousness is ontologically irreducible” (2002, p. 60).Consciousness is, unlike solidity, not identical to the microphysical structures which cause it.But then property dualism seems unavoidable.If the physical processes which cause consciousness are objective third-person phenomena, and consciousness and other mental phenomena are subjective or first-person in nature, it is reasonable to describe the latter as being of a fundamentally different kind than the former.That is, it is reasonable to say that there exists in the universe a dualism of properties.If what all uncontroversially physical properties have in common is precisely their objective or third-person character, it is reasonable too to regard that character as what is essential to being physical – in which case mental properties, being essentially subjective, would necessarily count as non-physical.
Such is the difficulty facing Searle’s claim to have avoided property dualism.But Searle has presented four lines of argument (helpfully summarized in his most recent article (2002), but present also in his earlier writings), intended to demonstrate that the difficulty is illusory.As I hope to show, none of them succeeds.
The first line of argument is directed against the dichotomous physical/non-physical categorization implied by property dualism, a division Searle claims not to be committed to.“There are not two (or five or seven) fundamental ontological categories,” Searle writes; “rather the act of categorization itself is always interest relative” (2002, p. 59).The claim is that the interest-relativity involved in our classificatory practices shows the dualist’s division of the world into physical and non-physical spheres to be arbitrary, reflecting no objective difference in nature.But the problem with this as a criticism of property dualism is that the fact that acts of categorization are interest-relative does not entail that categories themselves have no objective validity.Being pet lovers with a penchant for zoology, we count dogs and cats as belonging to different categories, even though we can imagine a society whose inhabitants are uninterested in pets or scientific classification in which these animals were not so classified, but lumped together into one amorphous category of animals – “cogs,” say.But this does not entail that there is no objective difference between dogs and cats, or that this classification is no more reflective of objective reality than would be an obviously artificial classification of all physical objects into those that are inside my office and those that are outside of it.Some classifications, however interest-relative our reasons for making them, clearly reflect objective features of reality.Searle, one of the staunchest contemporary defenders of metaphysical realism, would surely acknowledge this.
But the property dualist’s classification seems clearly to be of this objective sort.Mental phenomena may be inherently “subjective,” but as Searle has pointed out (1992, p. 94), this does not mean they are subjective in the sense of existing only relative to human interests – the reality of your experience of pain is not a matter of convention, and the pain exists whether or not we (or you) want it to.In that (interest-relative) sense of “subjectivity,” the pain exists not subjectively but “objectively.”The pain is subjective, however, in the different sense that it is, however objectively real, directly accessible only to you, from “within” your own mind.No other phenomena are like that; everything else in reality is objective in the sense of being in principle directly accessible to everyone.So the objective/subjective distinction – one Searle himself puts great emphasis on – surely reflects an objective difference between phenomena in the world.But it is precisely this distinction which marks the difference between the categories of physical and mental properties, on the property dualist’s view.It is therefore hard to see how Searle can dismiss such a categorization as arbitrary.
It does not help to insist, as Searle does, that “we live in exactly one world” (2002, p. 59), for property dualism need not deny that, but need claim only that that one world contains two fundamentally different kinds of property.Nor does it help to point out that “in addition to electromagnetism, consciousness, and gravitational attraction, there are declines in interest rates, points scored in football games, reasons for being suspicious of quantified modal logic, and election results in Florida” (p. 59), as if this showed that reality can if desired be divided up into more than the dualist’s two categories.For – as, again, Searle himself has argued (1995) – declines in interest rates, points scored in football games, and the like are all phenomena which depend for their existence on human convention and the collective intentionality of countless human minds; so they hardly serve as counterexamples to the claim that the mental and the physical are the two ultimate ontological categories.
Furthermore, property dualism does not rest in the first place on the assumption that there are only two ultimate metaphysical categories.Many dualists have argued that in addition to the mental and physical aspects of reality, there is a “third realm” of abstract objects – mathematical entities, Platonic forms, and the like.Property dualism as usually presented is a theory about the metaphysics of mind specifically, not a completely general ontological theory; it claims that there are two fundamental kinds of property involved where human nature is concerned, but not necessarily that there are only two fundamental kinds of property in all of reality.So, again, it is no criticism of property dualism to note that there may be more than two basic ontological categories.
Having said that, it is also implausible to suggest, as Searle does, that we could just as easily divide the world up into “five or seven” or some higher number of ontological categories.It is hard to imagine anything that does not fall into one of the three categories just alluded to (though perhaps God would count as being in a fourth category).Certainly Searle has not provided any convincing examples of further irreducible categories.These three (maybe four) categories seem the most basic; and while one can, of course, dispute the reality of any of them, there is nothing arbitrary about the distinction between them, as is evidenced by the fact that all the ontological disputes of the last 2,500 years always come down to disputes over purported entities falling into one of precisely these categories.
The bottom line is that the distinction on which property dualism rests – that between irreducibly subjective and objective phenomena – is one that Searle himself is committed to as marking out two objective categories of phenomena in the universe.Whether or not there are any further categories is beside the point, even if Searle’s case were convincing that such categories could be multiplied indefinitely.It is also beside the point whether one wants to go on to label these two categories “non-physical” and “physical” – this is a purely semantic issue, the distinction being real whatever one chooses to call it.Searle chooses not to adopt these labels, but given that (by Searle’s own admission) every uncontroversially physical phenomenon in the world is objective while mental phenomena alone are subjective, it appears that it is Searle, in denying that this fact entails a natural distinction between the physical and non-physical, who is more plausibly accused of arbitrariness than is the property dualist.
Searle’s second line of argument suggests that his view differs from property dualism in acknowledging, as property dualism doesn’t, that there is a sense in which consciousness is reducible to neural processes in the brain.To be sure, Searle acknowledges that consciousness is not “ontologically” reducible.But it is in his view nevertheless “causally reducible” to brain processes and thus not “something over and above its neurobiological base” (2002, p. 60), being instead “realized in” the latter (p. 57).The solidity of an object is caused by, and a higher-level feature of, the system of molecules comprising the object; and consciousness is caused by, and a higher-level feature of, the neural processes in the brain.But here again the alleged distinction between Searle’s view and property dualism seems purely verbal.For by calling consciousness “causally reducible” to brain processes, all Searle means is that brain processes cause consciousness.But this is exactly what the property dualist believes, as Searle later acknowledges (p. 62)!So the property dualist too believes, in Searle’s sense, that consciousness is “causally reducible.”Nor does Searle’s claim that consciousness is not something “over and above” the brain distinguish his view from property dualism.For all the property dualist means in holding that consciousness is something over and above the brain is that it is not ontologically reducible to neural processes – which Searle himself acknowledges!He acknowledges too that this ontological irreducibility distinguishes consciousness from features like solidity.So what the point is of appealing to solidity when Searle himself concedes that such examples fail to be analogous to consciousness in the very respect the property dualist takes to be crucial, is mysterious.When one gets clear on the meaning of the jargon Searle uses – “causally reducible to,” which means nothing more than the property dualist’s “caused by”; or “realized in the brain,” which, given that Searle like the property dualist takes consciousness to be ontologically irreducible to neural processes, means nothing different from the property dualist’s concession that consciousness is a “property of the brain” – the actual substance of Searle’s position and property dualism turn out to be identical.
The impression that wordplay is all that Searle’s case ultimately rests on is deepened by his third line of argument, wherein he insists that it is only the “inadequacy of the traditional terminology” of “the mental and the physical” that makes his biological naturalism seem identical to property dualism (2002, p. 61).Traditional philosophical usage takes “mental” to contrast by definition with “physical,” so that taking the mental to be irreducible to the physical seems to imply taking it to be non-physical.But if we jettison this usage, Searle argues, the apparent commitment to property dualism disappears.The problem with this move is that it ignores the fact – a fact implicit in Searle’s own position – that the distinction between mental and physical is obviously not merely a matter of arbitrary stipulative definition.As we’ve seen, mental phenomena are in Searle’s view like the property dualist’s uniquely subjective and therefore uniquely ontologically irreducible.That is the reason they are contrasted with physical phenomena, all uncontroversial or paradigm instances of which are objective and reducible.It is just not true that Descartes or anyone else decided one day capriciously to define “mental” to mean “non-physical,” and then concluded, trivially, that some form of dualism must be true.It is rather that the dualist takes note of the objective, interest-independent fact that mental phenomena appear to differ from everything else in the world in being uniquely subjective and ontologically irreducible, and then, on that basis, concludes that they are non-physical.Of course, many philosophers would deny that they really are irreducibly subjective.But Searle does not do so, so it is hard to see how he can regard the suggestion that mental phenomena are inherently different from physical phenomena as resting on nothing more than terminological fiat.
If anything it is Searle who seems to be playing word games here, re-defining “physical” so that it includes not only the objective phenomena usually counted as physical, but also the uniquely and irreducibly subjective phenomena that philosophers have had such trouble fitting into that objective physical world.Of course, he’s free to use the word that way if he likes.But it does nothing to distinguish his position substantively from property dualism.The latter speaks of physical properties, which are objective, and non-physical properties, which are irreducibly subjective; Searle speaks of two kinds of physical properties, those which are objective and those which are subjective and irreducible to the other kind of physical properties.The words may be different, but the metaphysical pictures are identical.
This identity is made more evident when Searle writes that “consciousness… has no cause and effect relations beyond those of its microstructural base” (p. 60).That is, the neural processes that cause consciousness, and to which consciousness is ontologically irreducible, are all that bear causal relations to other neural processes, behavior, etc. – consciousness per se has no such causal relations.But how does this differ from the epiphenomenalism Searle, like many other philosophers of mind, criticizes property dualism for (p. 59)?Searle’s fourth line of argument is intended to answer this question, but it fails for the same reason his earlier arguments fail.Once again Searle appeals to the analogy with solidity, an analogy we’ve seen is imperfect in a way he elsewhere acknowledges.“[T]he solidity of the piston [of a car engine] has no causal powers in addition to its molecular base,” Searle says, “but this does not show that solidity is epiphenomenal” (p. 61).But the reason it doesn’t show this is precisely because solidity is ontologically reducible to the state of the piston’s molecules.Of course there’s no mystery about why solidity isn’t epiphenomenal despite its lack of causal powers beyond those of its microstructural base – for solidity is nothing but the state of the microstructural base in the first place.They’re identical!But consciousness, as Searle himself insists, is not identical to its base, not ontologically reducible to it.The analogy with the piston is therefore useless.For it’s precisely this ontological irreducibility that threatens epiphenomenalism.The “microstructural base” of consciousness – the firing of neurons – would be just as it is, and in particular have just the causal powers it has, even in the absence of consciousness; so consciousness seems to add nothing to the causal story.Searle asks: “[W]hy would anyone suppose that causal reducibility implies epiphenomenalism?” (2002, p. 61) but the question is directed at a straw man, for no one does suppose this.What they do suppose is not that causal reducibility implies epiphenomenalism, but rather that ontological irreducibility implies it.And Searle, who accepts ontological irreducibility, has done nothing to show that it doesn’t.So he has, again, failed to distinguish his view from property dualism.
The failure of this last of Searle’s arguments manifests a problem plaguing his entire position, namely his refusal seriously to confront the fact that it is the ontological irreducibility of the mental, and the subjectivity that entails it, that are the basis of property dualism.Matters of terminology are ultimately irrelevant.If paradigmatically and uncontroversially physical phenomena are essentially objective, and paradigmatically and uncontroversially mental phenomena are irreducibly subjective, then it follows that they are of fundamentally different metaphysical kinds.It follows, that is, that property dualism – the claim that there are (at least) two metaphysically fundamental kinds of property in the universe – is true.Since Searle accepts the antecedent, he is committed also to the consequent, whether he realizes it or not and whether he wants to refer to that consequent by its usual label “property dualism,” or instead by the label “biological naturalism.”
It is revealing that Searle, though he takes his biological naturalism to have “solved” the mind-body problem, also acknowledges that his position “raises a thousand questions of its own… [such as] how exactly do the elements of the neuroanatomy – neurons, synapses, synaptic clefts, receptors, mitochondria, glial cells, transmitter fluids, etc. – produce mental phenomena?” (1992, p. 1) and concedes that “we don’t have anything like a clear idea of how brain processes, which are publicly observable, objective phenomena, could cause anything as peculiar as inner, qualitative states of awareness or sentience, states which are in some sense ‘private’ to the possessor of the state” (1997, p. 8).Since explaining all that is what most philosophers mean by “the mind-body problem,” it is hard to see exactly what problem Searle thinks he has solved.Certainly it is no revelation to be told that brain processes cause mental processes – something everyone concerned with this question has known for decades if not centuries.In fact Searle’s “solution” appears to be little more than to redefine the mind-body problem in such a way that the philosophical heart of it – the difficulty of fitting what is irreducibly subjective into the objective physical world – is arbitrarily re-classified as a problem for biology (1997, p. 3).I say “arbitrarily” because there is no reason whatever to believe that the methods of biology are any more likely to be able to deal with the objective/subjective divide than those of philosophy.Indeed, given the inherently conceptual nature of the problem, they are surely less likely to be able to do so.In any case, the problem remains, and remains just as difficult as it ever was, however we decide to label it.Once again, Searle’s position appears to rest on little more than wordplay.
Chalmers, David (1996), The Conscious Mind (New York: Oxford University Press).
Nagel, Thomas (1995), Other Minds (New York: OxfordUniversity Press).
Searle, John R. (1984), Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press).
Searle, John R. (1991), ‘Response: The Mind-Body Problem’ in Ernest Lepore and Robert van Gulick, eds. John Searle and His Critics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
Searle, John R. (1992), The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).
Searle, John R. (1995), The Construction of Social Reality (New York: Free Press).
Searle, John R. (1997), The Mystery of Consciousness (New York: The New York Review of Books).
Searle, John R. (1998), Mind, Language, and Society (New York: Basic Books).
Searle, John R. (2002), ‘Why I Am Not a Property Dualist’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 9 (12), pp. 57-64.