30 September 2016

Components of Social Reality: Social Reality (I)

This is part one of a five part essay on the philosophy of society, mainly based on John Searle's book The Construction of Social Reality, but drawing on sources that will be familiar to my readers:, including works by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Robin Dunbar, and Michel Foucault.

~ Introduction ~

One of the major problems for modern philosophers is how to get from the world of quantum fields, particles, waves, energy to the world of governments, money, pubs, etc. These domains, so far apart in scale and properties, seem irreconcilable. So much so that some sociologists openly deny that physicists know anything about the world and vice versa. Proponents often take up extreme versions of idealism ("the world" is only our minds) or realism (minds are only matter). The kinds of knowledge that are produced, the methods used to obtain it, and the language used to describe it all seem to be worlds apart. Attitudes become trenchant. What can be done to bridge these two domains? This is task that John Searle set himself in The Construction of Social Reality. He starts at quite a high level. Having already written about mind and it's relation to reality in The Rediscovery of the Mind, he mostly takes he conclusions there as read.

This essay is the first of a series that both outline and modify Searle's theory of social reality. After a recapitulation of the main points of my series of essays on layered reality, I'll begin with the cornerstone of Searle theory, i.e. functions.

~ Core Philosophy ~

Many prominent physicists are committed to a worldview in which reductionism is the only principle on which we can understand anything, i.e. metaphysical reductionism. I've explored how this approach to ontology fails to account for the observed world. The fact is that sociology does not reduce down to physics. At least some elements of sociology are irreducible because the object of study is groups of human beings interacting. One cannot make sociological observations of individuals, though in fact lacking company many of us find imaginary friends of animals to talk to. Rather than take up such an extreme position, we have to hedge our bets. To the best of our knowledge, the world is made of matter and energy. But this substantial stuff is made into complex objects. This combination of made of (analysis) and made into (synthesis) are central to my approach to ontology (and I owe the insight to Richard H Jones 2013). In many cases complex objects are not simply aggregates of their constituents, but have properties that only emerge when constituents are bound into structures.

Chemists distinguish between mixtures and compounds. A mixture is an amorphous aggregate in which the constituents retain their identity and physical character. The physical character of a mixture is a simple aggregate of the properties of the constituent. In a compound the individual character and existence of the constituents are lost and made into a new entity that must be seen as an entirely new phenomenon. In a compound, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It has unique properties that are not properties of the constituents without structure. Structure makes a positive contribution to the world.

Thus we have to treat structure as a real component of the world. The world is not simply matter and energy. The world is matter, energy, and structure.

In previous essays I've tried to outline the dynamic that pertains to hierarchies of structures. Structure adds something real to the universe; complex structures (i.e. structures made from structured constituents) require us to adopt a hierarchical, structured approach to describing and understanding the world (which we can infer maps onto a world with levels of complexity). As we observe more complex objects on greater scales, we are less likely to be able to explain the properties of higher levels of structure in terms of physics; less likely to be able use mathematics in our descriptions and more likely to resort to narratives. The behaviour of higher level phenomena are constrained, but not determined by lower level properties. In general the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because as we add structure to matter, new properties emerge and interact with each other at that level and above. By the time we get to biology, fundamental physics only makes the broadest of generalisations and explains very little about what is actually happening. Psychologists and sociologists have very little recourse to physics as an explanatory paradigm, because it doesn't explain things at these levels.

These facts require that we adopt an ontology that is substance reductionist ("made of") and structure antireductionist ("made into"). No other approach to ontology can cope with a hierarchically structured world.

Prominent humanities scholars have argued that all knowledge is social and that there is no underlying reality on which facts can be based (cf Lyotard 1984). I haven't written much on the background of post-modernism, because it has never really seemed credible or interesting to me. I attempted to read Derrida, Baudrillard, and Lacan in my adventurous youth and found nothing to help make sense of my world. Post-modernists were/are more interested in undermining attempts to make sense of the world, i.e. in non-sense. Barthes' Mythologies did seem to me to be entertaining, though not very useful. Of the French philosophers, only Foucault seemed to be saying anything of value, though even he seems to deliberately obscure his contribution in execrable writing. I get onto my understanding of Foucault's contribution to this issue later in the series. Notably, Searle and Foucault were friends.

My understanding of epistemology is that as individuals our perception of the world is limited by the fact that what is presented to consciousness as the world is in fact processed and filtered by our minds. It's as though every sight we see has been craftily photoshopped to highlight some features of reality, and to distort or even hide others. These representations are accurate enough to help us navigate the world, but always contain irreducibly subjective elements. Kant called this idea, transcendental idealism.

I have complained that the approach to knowledge that ends with transcendental idealism, that devolves into thinking of philosophy as mere language games, is fundamentally solipsistic. I've called this the solipsistic fallacy (See The Problem of relativism. 20 May 2016). It's a fallacy because when we join forces and compare notes, we can identify and eliminate the purely subjective elements from our window on the world. Comparing notes on experience allows us to infer that there is a world that we sense and interact with and that is independent of our observing it. We can accurately infer knowledge about this world and we find that on our own scale (the mass, length, and energy scales we can sense unaided by technology) that the world is much as we expect it to be from experience. On the other hand technology has, since the early 1600s, shown us aspects of the world at different scales that are quite unexpected and counter-intuitive, not to say virtually impossible to fully understand.

If our ontology is both reductive and antireductive, then in order to seek knowledge we have to apply methods of both analysis and synthesis. Analytical methods reveal the constituents of phenomena. It can be very valuable to know this as it enables us to understand how changing the constituents changes the phenomena. Analysis can lead to systematic accounts of domains of phenomena - like the periodic table of elements. Synthesis involves looking at systems as wholes. A physicist may seek to break phenomena down into matter and energy, for example. And create general laws of how matter behaves. This allows us do do things like send a probe to a passing comet using minimal energy and send back information on what the comet is composed of. And this enables us to infer something about how our solar system was created. By contrast a biologist studying an organism may well be interested in what the organism is composed of. These days a lot of effort is going into analysing DNA and corresponding proteins, or into identifying neural correlates of behaviour for example. But a biologist must also study the behaviour of the whole, living organism. And in order to make sensible deductions, they must ideally see their organism in its natural environment, interacting with it's own kind (kin, mates, offspring, peers, etc) and with other organisms (parasites, symbionts, competitors, predators, prey, etc).

Our world is both made of stuff and made into stuff. In order to know our world we have to attack the problem at both ends. To be one sides is to be half-blind to the world.

The world I am talking about is immanent, real, and entirely natural. If there were a supernatural or transcendental world, then we have no way of gaining knowledge of it. The existence of a supernatural world would have, could have, no impact on human beings. Furthermore, this process of collective empirical realism has only come into focus since the so-called Copernican revolution that began in the early to mid 1500s*. Though in principle it was always available to us, the necessary insights and the motivations to use it seem to have been lacking or were overwhelmed by myth and religion.
Like many historians I date the start of science from the publication of Copernicus' theory of a heliocentric universe in Dē Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543), though he was known to be thinking in heliocentric terms by at least 1514 and may have been influenced Arabic theologians.
In summary, my nascent philosophy employs an ontology which is both substance reductive and structure antireductive; and an epistemology which acknowledges the limit of transcendental idealism for individuals, but argues that the limit can be breached through collective empirical realism. The world so described is monistic, real, immanent, and natural. Methodologically this requires both analytical and synthetic approaches to seeking knowledge. At present I'm not aware of any other person who takes precisely this stance, though there is significant cross-over with the various people who have inspired it. There are certainly other approaches to ontology and epistemology. Some of them endorsed by genius-level experts. But this is the only way I can see to encompass both physics and sociology; and to bridge the apparent gap between them without claiming that one or other does not exist. This is the only philosophy, so far as I can seem, that does not end in that intellectual or practical cul de sac of dividing the world into real and unreal.

However there is important discontinuity to deal with and that is the fact of conscious states in animals, and self-conscious states in particular. Here I take my lead from John Searle's book, The Rediscovery of the Mind (1994). My essay Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism (2 Sep 2016) attempts to provide a brief introduction to his philosophy of mind. In this view consciousness is a neurobiological process. Conscious states are qualitative, subjective, and unified. There is no valid ontic distinction between mental and physical phenomena, we live in one world, at most. But there can be valid epistemic differences. The details of how this works in practice are slowly emerging from the collective empirical realists practices of science (observation, comparing notes; conjecture and refutation). The legacies of metaphysical reductionism and scientific materialism, and the current obsession with computation are hampering our efforts to study consciousness qua consciousness. Instead a lot of effort goes into studying mind as an illusion, mind as the activity of atoms, or mind as a computer. Bottom up, analytical approaches which look at neurons or brain sub-structures are making progress, but little synthetic work is being done on the brain as system that does not already assume that we know what kind of system the brain is. For example a lot of effort goes into trying to prove that the brain is a kind of computer; or that rule-based Game Theory accurately predicts human behaviour. But quite obviously the brain isn't a computer, and Game Theory makes outrageous assumptions about people and doesn't predict their behaviour (so at this point those pursuing these avenues are not doing science, because their null hypothesis is already refuted). No rule-based theory of behaviour is ever going to be accurate, the reasons for which I will attempt to set out in the fourth essays in this series.  

Hunting Hephalumps
I'm increasingly seeing conscious-ness as a problematic concept. As David Chalmers defined the problem of conscious-ness, conscious states—memories, perceptions, cognitions, etc.—are part of the easy problem. It is the abstraction—conscious-ness—that constitutes the Hard Problem. It occurs to me that it's a hard problem precisely because it is an abstraction. Abstractions do not exist outside of our minds. More precisely, abstractions are produced by and in human minds. And when thinking in terms of abstractions we do so almost exclusively in metaphorical terms. Treating conscious-ness as a distinct phenomenon rather than an abstraction is like treating what I see when I look in a mirror as a being rather than a reflection. So the search for objective knowledge of this abstraction is doomed to fail. The Hard Problem guys are hunting a hephalump. What we have is a series of conscious states, not the nebulous abstraction conscious-ness. The aspects of subjectivity, qualitativity, and unity amongst conscious states is a feature of conscious states, not proof that an abstraction is warranted. 

In any case these are the parameters of my current thinking about life, the universe, & everything: substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; describing a mind-independent, immanent natural world; which we understand through transcendental idealism as individuals, and collective empirical realism when we join forces and compare notes. Knowledge seeking requires both analytical and synthetic methods. Conscious states are a higher level property brain states. Consciousness is a dubious concept.

My sense is that philosophers have a problem with solutions that work, and continually and artificially generate problems because problems are more interesting and better for an academic career than solutions. Searle seems to be a exception to this general trend. I'm interested in making sense of the world, so far as that is possible; and with solutions where they are available. I also embrace the more literal version of Occam's Razor and am disinclined to invent entities to explain what is as yet unexplained: a mystery is always better than mysticism. I'm not interested in undermining sense, or endless invented problems without solutions. The more I turn my mind to actually thinking about things, the less interest I find I have in what low-mid level academics have to say about anything, or in Buddhist studies in general. 

Having cleared and prepared the ground, the question now is, "How do we get from the basic facts about the world and conscious minds, to a philosophy of society?" Not only is this a fascinating study in its own right, but as I will try to show, it demonstrates why a constructive approach to ethics is best. We begin with functions.

~ Functions ~

The first point that Searle makes is that we can distinguish intrinsic features of phenomena from observer relative features. Phenomena may have both. Intrinsic features are those features which an phenomena has regardless of the observer, or whether there is an observer at all. Searle uses the example of an object: a screwdriver.

It is an object made from wood and metal. The materials an object is made of don't vary from observer to observer. We don't find one person saying it's made of porcelain and asphalt and another saying it's made of beetroot and beetle wings. That the object is made from wood and metal is a stable fact about the object. But the fact that it is a screwdriver is dependent on the observer understanding what a screw is and what a screwdriver does to a screw in the hands of a competent user. There are people alive on the planet who've never seen a screw and would not see the screwdriver as tool for turning screws.

When I think about this, I also see that worked metal might be unfamiliar to a naive observer. It is lower level features like mass, shape, texture, resistance, etc that are observer independent. Colour, which might be expected to be in the same category turns out not to be observer independent (cf. Seeing Blue. 6 Mar 2015). For the sake of argument, however, let us stipulate that the materials that make up the screwdriver are intrinsic features of it.

For anyone who knows what a screwdriver is, the object in question is a screwdriver. No one familiar with such tools will mistake it for, e.g. a hammer or a egg whisk. One might, in pinch, use a screwdriver as a hammer, but screwdrivers, don't make very good hammers. Even if we misuse the tool deliberately we still know that it is a screwdriver. So "it is a screwdriver" is a fact. Observer relative features of an object are created by the mental states of the observer. So "screwdriver" is an observer relative feature of the object, so it is not an ontological fact. If the observation "the object is a screwdriver" is not ontologically objective, but it is a still a fact, then what kind of fact is this? Such facts are epistemically objective. The observer knows that it is a screwdriver, but the observer has to exist in a certain context in order for them to know this. What is the ontological status of such epistemically objective facts? They are ontologically subjective. A screwdriver is only a screwdriver because someone thinks it is a screwdriver. It certainly has intrinsic features that make it amenable to the function of turning screws, but that function depends on the observer conceiving of it as such.

So in thinking about the intrinsic versus observer relative features of objects we have identified three kinds of facts.
  1. Ontologically objective facts: e.g. it is made of metal and wood;
  2. Epistemically objective facts: e.g. it is a screwdriver;
  3. Ontologically subjective facts: e.g. the function of a screwdriver is to turn screws.
We have said that a screwdriver can be used to turn screws and that this fact is an ontologically subjective. It turns out that all functions that are not identical to intrinsic features are ontologically subjective. That is to say, that as human beings we can impose functions on objects that are not implied by their intrinsic features and when we do this, it is how we conceive of the object that creates a new fact about it. A screwdriver is not intrinsically a screwdriver, but becomes a screwdriver when we conceive of it as a tool for turning screws.

A feature of how human beings conceive of the world is that when we see objects we think of how we could use them. We even have a special neurons, called canonical neurons, for modelling how we can or might interact with three-dimensional objects. This feature of perception is a central feature of the philosophy of embodied consciousness associated with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (amongst others). Our understanding of objects is shaped by how we interact with them, either practically or potentially. And this in turn shapes how we construct abstractions and use metaphors to manipulate ideas. The phrase "to manipulate ideas" is an example of the metaphor IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. Once we make the connection between ideas and objects, once we map the source domain onto the target domain, then any manoeuvre that applies to objects, can be applied to ideas: we can grasp them, turn them over, throw them around, kick them into the long grass, juggle them and so on. Metaphors such as this are constitutive of conceptual thought. This parallel between Searle and Lakoff is important because it gets to the same conclusion through very different means, though, so far as I can tell, the parallel is not explicit in the work of either man. In fact they both teach at the University of California, Berkeley, and I suspect some back-story to the fact that there is unacknowledged overlap between their approaches to philosophy.

So functions, as perceived by humans, are always observer relative and imposed on objects by human beings rather than being intrinsic or related to intrinsic features. Functions always involve ontologically subjective facts, i.e. facts that are only true relative to observers, but which are nonetheless true. The existence of ontologically subjective facts is important for Searle more generally because in his view consciousness is ontologically subjective. And as the screwdriver example shows, we can have epistemically objective facts about an ontologically subjective domain. Searle has many more examples of this relationship: money, government, cocktail parties, etc. He shows that just because consciousness is ontologically subjective, it does not mean that we cannot have epistemically objective knowledge of consciousness. This observation by Searle may be his single greatest, and at the same time his most under-rated, contribution to philosophy.

This observation about functions being imposed by human beings is of central importance to understanding social reality because so much of what constitutes social reality consists of objects and people performing specific functions. Once we see that functions are observer relative, subjective, and imposed, then we are well on our way to understanding social reality. What we need next is to show the role of collective intentionality in creating social and institutional facts and this is the subject matter of the next essay in this series. 

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/foucault-power-en-html

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-09-children-overeagerly-social.html/ [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-07-toddlers-people.html July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

02 September 2016

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism

In this essay I will outline John Searle's approach to philosophy of mind. I've been making use of it for most of this year, but wish I'd read The Rediscovery of the Mind twenty years ago, because Searle cuts through a lot of the confusion to outline a workable philosophy of mind. I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic outline seems to me to be the best set-up for thinking about and exploring the mind. 

At the outset we need to make the distinction between a philosophy of mind and a science of the mind. A philosophy is a broad brush-stroke approach to a subject, which sets out the basic premises and presuppositions on which to approach studying and understanding the subject in more detail. Scientific theories seek to account for the known facts and guide a research program. Our philosophy of mind attempts to make the results of our science of the mind comprehensible; to create a meta-theory in which the relevant scientific theories fit together and are consistent with other scientific theories. Philosophy provides the framework in which to understand the results of science; and science informs the framework of the philosophy. I'll try to say something about where I see Buddhism fitting into this below. It's important to state unequivocally that at present we do not have a complete version of either a philosophy or a science of the mind. However, Searle is adamant, and I entirely agree, that we have have good enough versions of both to be getting on with. 

I had heard of John Searle as a philosopher of language many years ago when I tried to look into the mechanics of mantra. It seemed at the time that pragmatics (what mantras do) was a far more fruitful line in inquiry that semantics (what mantras mean). I naturally came across Searle in this context because he helped to define the field of language pragmatics. Much later, in 2014, I happened to listen to a lecture by him at Cambridge University (via their YouTube channel). In his lectures, Searle is direct and confident. He states the conclusions he thinks are obvious with none of the obfuscation I usually associate with philosophy. He's trying to clarify the issues, not to confuse his audience. In every lecture I have seen he invariable comments, Dr Johnson-like, on freewill: "I decide to raise my arm, and look [raises his arm] the damn thing goes up" (with that emphasis). I like this. Recently, I have gone back to Searle and read a couple of his books, The Rediscovery of Mind and The Construction of Social Reality; and I've listened to some other lectures. Searle's lectures on consciousness seem to invariably cover the same ground, most of which was in The Rediscovery of the Mind. The view has been updated to some extent over the years and linked to a theory of social reality, but from the mid 1990s on, Searle has been pointing out how confused most philosophy of mind is, restating his own philosophy of mind, and wondering aloud what all the fuss is about.

Part of my attraction to Searle is that he takes a straightforward approach to the subject and provides a meaningful entry point for me to join the discussion - he writes with clarity and explains jargon terms. I still have to use my dictionary from time to time, but the argument itself is presented in an accessible way. And yet what he is saying is quite a lot more radical than he tends to get credit for, particularly his critique of scientific materialism as a form of Cartesian dualism! Searlean philosophy seems quite compatible with Naturalism more generally and with the structure antireductionist philosophy I've been exploring recently. 

~ What is Consciousness? ~

Searle's standard definition of consciousness can be found in many books, articles, and lectures. It goes like this:
Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes of sentience or awareness. Consciousness, so defined, begins when we wake in the morning from a dreamless sleep - and continues until we fall asleep again, die, or go into a coma, or otherwise become 'unconscious'.
Searle says that consciousness has a "first-person ontology", by which he means "a first-person mode of existence. That is to say when it exists, it only exists for one person, privately, and is not accessible to others. I will offer challenge this assertion when I deal with the mind-body problem below.

For Searle consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon. He says that consciousness is wholly caused by neural activity in the brain. Remember that this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Searle is saying that the best explanation, really the only plausible explanation, we have is the neurobiological one - which is a structure antireductive view. This does not mean that we have a fully worked out scientific description of consciousness in terms of neurobiology. We don't. But there really is no other type of explanation that is plausible in the current state of our knowledge about the world at mass, energy and length scales relevant to the question. If consciousness happens, it must happen in the brain, and this is why it is not a public event. It's first-person in the same way that biological processes like respiration and digestion are first-person. The glucose, amino-acids and other nutrients liberated by digestion from the food I ate are only available to me; similarly the conscious states produced by the functioning of the brain are only accessible to me. This distinction will be important when we look at the implications of Searlean philosophy for Buddhism. 

For a long time the science of consciousness was actually hampered by philosophers. One cannot study consciousness, for example, if one believes that it doesn't exist (a belief broadly referred to as eliminativism). Those who believe that consciousness is an illusion, often end up not studying consciousness at all. Or they focus on the question of how a non-conscious organism came to have the highly sophisticated mechanisms for creating illusions of having conscious states. Searle points out that the apparent illusion is a conscious state, so it cannot be considered as non-conscious. The eliminativist approach seems like a cul de sac. Nor can one study something if one believes that it cannot be studied, which is a surprisingly common claim amongst intellectuals. Ironic that the object of which we can claim no facts enables us to claim this one meta-fact. What is the epistemology behind this ontological claim? How can one know this? With all the obfuscation and confusion, it has been difficult to convince the mainstream of scientists that consciousness exists, is something that can be studied, and is worth studying. We're really only just beginning to get serious about studying consciousness a few decades after the study began. Before this, no one studied consciousness. 

One of the attractions of Searlean philosophy of mind, is that it encourages rather than discourages scientific study of conscious. For Searle the existence of consciousness is an unequivocal and rather trivial matter. Of course we have conscious states. However, as we will see, consciousness is irreducibly subjective and the subjectivity of conscious seems to have confused scientists who are committed to the belief that reality can only be objective. The ostensible reason for this is to avoid Cartesian dualism.
"The bankruptcy of the Cartesian tradition, and the absurdity of supposing that there are two kinds of substances of properties in the world, "mental" and "physical", is so threatening to [philosophers] and has such a sordid history that we are reluctant to concede anything that might smack of Cartesianism. we are reluctant to conceded any of the common sense facts that sound "Cartesian", because it seems that if we accept the facts, we will have to accept the whole of Cartesian metaphysics." (1992: 13) 
There are two ironies here. Firstly Searle is routinely accused of being a dualist despite saying that he finds dualism absurd; he points out that scientific materialists in avoiding talking about or studying the consciousness qua subjective reality, effectively reify the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. I'll say more about this below.

 Searle (1992: 127ff) elucidates a dozen features of consciousness, but in (2000) he highlights three that are distinctive of consciousness: qualitativeness, subjectivity, and unity.


Each experience we have, has its own distinctive qualities, though some experiences have shared qualities. Thomas Nagel (1974) argued that we could have perfect knowledge of the physiology of a bat and still not know what it was like to be a bat. Since then philosophers have used this idea that there is "something that it is like" to have an experience in contradistinction to the physical apparatus which underlies the experience to highlight the importance of the quantitativeness of consciousness. Conscious experience is not encompassed by knowledge of physiology. Of course in 1974 there was no serious study of consciousness to speak of and the knowledge of neuro-physiology was considerably less detailed than it is now.

Some philosophers have coined the word qualia for this aspect of consciousness. Sometimes they distinguish qualia from other kinds of mental experience. However, Searle argues that all conscious states have a qualitative aspect - there is always "something that it is like" when having or being in a conscious state. Therefore qualia is just a fancy word for conscious states, which doesn't really add anything to the discussion. Indeed, it could be said to confuse the issue by making it seem that a conscious state and the qualitative aspect of a conscious state are two different things. They aren't.

Whatever we call it, there is something that it is like to be in a conscious state, or to have a conscious experience. And this is part of how we define a conscious state. By contrast there is nothing that it is like to have a non-conscious mental state, such as the kind of non-conscious processing of visual data from the eyes before an object in the visual field becomes conscious.


Because there is always something that it is like to have a conscious experience, it follows that someone is having the experience. Consciousness is always someone being conscious of something. Buddhists are doubtful about there always being a someone and I will deal with this issue below. For now I will just say that I conclude that even non-dual experiences are subjective in the sense of being someone's experience. Consider the other possibilities: i.e., that an experience is everyone's experience; that the experience in one person's brain is someone else's experience; or that an experience can be no-one's experience (if it is no-one's experience it is not an experience at all, but another kind of event). So consciousness is subjective in the sense that there has to be someone whose mind is experiencing the conscious state or it is not conscious. 

A problem here is Searle's assertion that the fact that consciousness is subjective amounts to consciousness having what he calls a first-person ontology. By "ontology" in this context he means "mode of existence" and he makes a distinction between this and the fundamental ontology. I see this broad use of the word ontology as a weakness in Searle's philosophy. The fundamental ontology is similar to my own view: the universe is made of one kind of stuff (the view is called substance reductionism). The modal use of the term ontology with respect to consciousness invites misunderstanding. And Searle is frequently misunderstood as either a reductionist or an ontological dualist with respect to consciousness (he is neither). On the other hand consciousness excites such emotional and polarised responses, especially amongst professional philosophers, that it is almost impossible that any given statement about consciousness will not routinely be misunderstood by those with a different idea.

To me the first-person/third-person distinction is epistemic rather than ontic, by which I mean that it is not a matter of modes of existing, since all existing is of one type, so much as it is of modes of knowing. That consciousness is subjective, means that it can only be known from a first-person perspective. Any given conscious state is only instantiated in one brain. It can only be known from the point of view associated with, or created by, that one brain. Searle himself insists, consciousness is wholly caused by neurobiological processes, which suggests that the ontology of consciousness is not distinct from the ontology of any other biological process. Indeed, as we will explore below, elsewhere Searle is insistent that there is no ontological distinction between mind and body. I'm nowadays doubtful about the notion of causation. However intuitive and natural it seems, causation is still a metaphysical concept, rather than one that is native to physics. That said, consciousness is at the least an emergent property of a functioning of the brain (however that happens). 


Searle describes consciousness as a unified field. All of our senses are working all the time (if they are working at all). Sense experience is to us as water is to a fish. Most of the time we don't even notice that we move through a unified field of sense experience. Searle identifies two dimensions to this process. A "horizontal" dimension in which mental events are unified over short stretches of time (I discussed this issue in my essay, The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016). The "vertical" dimension takes in all the various features of my sensory experience across the different modes, i.e. visual, aural, tactile, etc. By unified we don't mean uniform. Conscious states certainly have features and structures, but they occur in a unified context.

While we can certainly be aware of particular facets of experience at any given time, these facets appear to us to be embedded in a unified field. In neurophysiology this is known as the Binding Problem. The division of labour in the brain is completely transparent to us, we are presented with this unified field of perception and it's not yet clear how this happens. 

Unity can be most striking when it fails. In some patients who have their corpus callosum severed as a way of treating epilepsy, thereby isolating the two halves of the brain, unity can become a duality. The different halves of the brain can operate as two independent unities. In the so-called "out-of-body" experience, the unity of consciousness also breaks down so that the sense of being embodied becomes disconnected from the visual perception of the body, so that people appear to themselves to be floating above themselves looking down at their own body. The illusion is vivid and compelling, but it is an illusion. 

This modern view of the unity of consciousness conflicts with the understanding of consciousness that was developed Buddhists and enshrined in the various versions of Abhidharma. I've dealt with this recently (The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016) so I don't propose to go over it again.

Other qualities

Included in the list of other features of consciousness are: intentionality; centre/periphery relations, mood, pleasure/unpleasure dimension, gestalt structure, finite modalities, familiarity, overflow, boundary conditions.

Intentionality does not mean "will" in this context, but the fact of conscious states have a referential content (perhaps referentiality was a neologism too far for philosophers?). Most conscious states refer to something: we are conscious of something, or about something. As Searle (2000: 6) says "If I have a normal visual experience, it must seem to me that I am actually seeing something". In hallucinations, it still seems to us as though we are seeing something. The hallucination still has intentionality.  

However, Searle thinks that states such as "undirected anxiety" are not intentional. I'm not convinced by this, nor by his treatment of mood (1992: 140-1; 2000: 6-7). Emotion is not a conscious state like thought, but also involves physiological arousal triggered by the actions of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, which functions autonomically, i.e. it is non-consciously self-governing. As Gerald Mandler (1984) has pointed out:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts

(cited in Fine 2006: 43)

Searle seems to lack this important insight and I think his exposition on intentionality suffers because of it. A good deal of what makes an emotional state is our awareness of physical feelings in the body associated with states of physiological arousal, and our attribution of meaning (emotional thoughts) to those feelings. The attribution of meaning to experience is a deep a difficult topic, in the case of feelings in the body as much as any other kind of experience. Anxious thoughts can be triggered by states of arousal that are not linked to any obvious external stimulus; but in this case the thoughts are intentional in Searle's sense, because they refer to the feelings of arousal. Thoughts themselves can also stimulate the autonomic nervous system. I can easily think myself in a panic, in the complete absence of any external threat. 

Searle (1992: 140) suggests that moods may be non-intentional, but again, as in the the example of anxiety, the conscious thoughts we have are a response to feelings in the body that result from the workings of the autonomic nervous system. My view is that mood is itself is not a conscious state, because it is probably more a matter of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Awareness of experiencing a particular mood is a conscious state and because it is awareness of something, it is intentional.

Two related features of consciousness are the gestalt structure and centre periphery relations. Within the complex unity of perception some things stand out. In my essay The Citta Bottleneck, I cited the example of degraded images that are more or less impossible to decode until one is told what they are, at which point the objects become comprehensible. This leads to the insight that expectation is central to perception. However, the crystallisation of an image out of noise is also a good example of the gestalt feature of consciousness. Our senses produce a lot of information all at once and our brain processes and filters this mass of information so that some aspects of it stand out. What stands out is presumably determined, ultimately, by evolution. The brain that causes the right aspects of the noise to stand out as signal, is the brain that survives. Another way of looking at this, is that our brains are extremely efficient pattern recognition engines. So within the field of perception some things and patterns stand out. But we also have the ability to shift our attention within this unified field structured by gestalt relations. We can focus on different aspects of experience: now I'm formulating a sentence, now I'm listening to the drum beat of the Massive Attack tune I'm listening to, now I'm thinking it's time to get ready to meet my friend for an outing.

These two features are, to the best of my knowledge, completely absent from Buddhist accounts of mind and difficult to fit into those accounts. I think this is because Buddhists privilege altered states of consciousness over everyday states. Whether this is a valid manoeuvre remains to be seen.

Another feature that Searle identifies that is present in Buddhist accounts is the pleasure/unpleasure dimension (to use Searle's terms) to experience. Although he doesn't make much of it, Searle suggests that we can always answer questions like "Are we having fun?" The Buddhist account of this dimension is (unusually) more developed than Searle's, though I will link it to other modern thinkers that give a modern perspective. This dimension is important because we are attracted to the pleasant and averse to the unpleasant. This can of course manifest in trivial likes and dislikes of the the kind that Buddhists seek to eliminate. However, more fundamentally, it is what drives all seeking and avoiding behaviours: seeking food, seeking shelter, seeking company, seeking a mate; avoiding danger, avoiding poisonous substances, avoiding conflict, avoiding predators. These responses to the pleasure/unpleasure dimension of experience are clearly not trivial, and not very well dealt with in Buddhist accounts.

Having outlined some of the major features of consciousness states, I now want to try to show how Searle tackles a perennial problem in philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem. 

~ The Mind-Body Problem ~

The essence of this problem is the puzzle of how something like the mind can affect changes (or actions) in something like the body and vice versa. The problem is based on the idea that the mind and body are fundamentally different. 

There are broadly speaking two popular approaches to the mind-body problem. One group adopt an eliminativist stance and try to explain away consciousness. In other words they try to account for consciousness without any reference to consciousness, and instead try to explain how we function without consciousness. This argument takes many forms, the leading contenders are forms of materialism, such as Behaviourism. Proponents of eliminativism often claim that consciousness is an illusion, but this tends to leave us scratching our heads about why would we have the illusion of consciousness. What would the evolutionary argument for the development of the complex brain architecture required to support the illusion of consciousness? But more importantly, Searle asks how we would distinguish the illusion of consciousness from a conscious state? Indeed, an illusion, to be an illusion, must itself be a conscious state. The having of the illusion is itself tantamount to consciousness (since the illusion is qualitative, subjective, and part of a unified field etc). In the end Occam's razor applies and it is far simpler to just acknowledge that we have subjective conscious states. 

The second approach is to adopt some form of ontic dualism. In this view consciousness is a distinct kind of substance from matter. Again this kind of argument takes several forms, and it is particularly popular amongst religious intellectuals. The religieux, amongst other things is stuck trying to explain the afterlife. No afterlife is possible unless something survives the death of the body, and by definition that something cannot be physical because we know in great detail what happens to the physical aspects of a human being after they die: the body is broken down by microbial and chemical means and recycled. Some prominent philosophers, notably David Chalmers have returned to dualism despite the scientific consensus against it and despite the absurdity of the idea. 

Proponents from both eliminativist and dualist camps frequently argue that consciousness can never be understood. Which strikes me as a premature conclusion at best. Certainly, if we define something as unknowable, that can only hamper efforts to study it. As an axiom it seems to be a deadend. We ought only adopt deadend axioms when all other possibilities have been exhausted and we are very far from that eventuality at present. 

Searle deals with this mess by going back to Descartes. Descartes was looking for a way to satisfy both the mechanistic views emerging from the nascent physical sciences of his day and the necessity to make room for God. He did this by formalising a kind of dualism that had existed for a long time:  i.e. that a human being consists of two parts: a body and a mind, formed from difference kinds of stuff (substance dualism; or substance antireductionism). Body was an expression of matter; mind was an expression of soul. The body functioned like a machine; the mind was where God came into it. I've previously looked in some detail how the language and metaphors associated with this dualism interact to create a particular kind of worldview (Metaphors and Materialism. 26 Apr 2013). 

Nowadays, it is only religious intellectuals who feel the need to make room for God and the physical sciences themselves have showed that mechanistic views of physics only apply when classical mechanics applies and classical mechanics is a special case of a more fundamental non-mechanistic (in fact probabilistic) understanding of science. Many physicists and neuroscientists still talk as though the world is mechanistic, but they are confused on this score. This can be distinguished from other interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as Everett's "many worlds" interpretation which is deterministic, but not mechanistic. Many worlds is deeply counter-intuitive as most quantum theories are. The key problem with mechanistic views is that mechanisms cannot exhibit emergent properties, even in complex mechanisms the properties are simply the sum of the the properties of their parts. 

Searle observes that scientific materialism, which portrays itself as the antithesis of dualism, is in fact underpinned by Cartesian dualism. Materialists divide the world into matter and mind, just as Descartes did, but they then claim that only matter is real and that mind is not real (that it can be reduced to matter). The claim that only matter is real only makes sense if we assume that mental phenomena are ontologically distinct from material phenomena. Searle denies that this distinction is valid. Idealists also divide the world into two, but they say that only the mind is real and discard matter. Some nihilists complete the picture by dividing the world into two and denying the reality of either. This observation might be my favourite thing about Searle. 

In other words the mind-body problem is still essentially a Cartesian problem. Proponents of materialism and idealism are making an (erroneous) ontological distinction between mind and body. If we truly reject Descartes, then mind and body are not, and cannot be, ontologically different. I go a bit further with this than Searle does. Searle makes the distinction between a first-person consciousness and a third-person reality an ontological difference: he makes a distinction between a first-person ontology or mode of existence and a third-person ontology.

Searle often compares consciousness as neurobiological process to digestion. I find this analogy apt, but I want to emphasise that digestion is encompassed by the same ontology as everything else. Reality is ontologically monistic. I know that Searle agrees with this, and sometimes he speaks of the "fundamental ontology", but I still think his use of the word ontology is too vague. The fact that the nutrients that I get from digestion are only available to my body does not change the ontology of the process. All events are local, so the localisation of consciousness in my brain is not particularly significant in or of itself. To my mind the grammatical person with which we observe the phenomenon is an epistemic matter, not an ontological one. It is true that consciousness is only available to be known as a first-person phenomenon, but if we eliminate Cartesian dualism as an option, then there cannot be an ontological distinction. It is a problem of what can be known, not what exists. I think this may be why some commentators mistake Searle for a dualist or a materialist (the two views he is openly and vehemently critical of).

On the other hand I can see how tempting it is to conclude that because something is so epistemically distinctive and localised that there must be an underlying ontic distinction. It's a kind of "no smoke without fire argument". The epistemic difference seems to intuitively point to an ontological difference. One thing we have learned in the last 400 years is that reality is often counter-intuitive. And in this case, while there might be emergent properties involved, the ontology is the same in each case. 

Thus the mind-body problem is, in Searle's views, based on a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. And that misunderstanding is the same one formalised by Descartes, i.e. that the mind and the body are ontologically different. This misunderstanding leads to the mistaken idea that we have to produce a special account for how mind and body interact. In fact, philosophically, we know how they relate, mind is an emergent property of the functioning brain. There is no reasonable doubt about this. Scientifically we are still gathering evidence and developing explanations, but so far the evidence we have all points in the same direction. If evidence starts pointing in some other direction, I'm quite capable of changing my view and don't see the point of being a tooth-fairy agnostic in the meantime.

Hopefully this brief outline gives a flavour of Searle's approach, though of course to really get what he's on about you have to read his books and watch his online lectures. Hopefully some one will read this and do just this. As always when I'm thinking about such things, one of my concerns is how this impacts on Buddhist belief. In the next section I comment on one aspect our discussions about awakening, particularly the contemporary discussions.

~ Consciousness and Awakening ~

In recent years a number of people have "come out" as awakened to some degree and there have been public discussions on the experience of awakening as well as more focussed programs for those genuinely seeking awakening (as opposed to those who want to be Buddhists). This is all for the good, partly because it allows us to recalibrate our expectations based on first-hand accounts of the experience rather than only referencing highly unreliable myths and legends. I'm appreciative of those people who have contributed to this recalibration. However, I'm also critical of the philosophy that appears to accompany the discussions, because, all too often, it is still rooted in the medieval adaptations of the original Iron Age Buddhist orthodoxies.

One of the things that is widely agreed upon seems to be that awakening consists in breaking down the distinction between objective and subjective points of view. This is often discussed as a realisation that subject and object don't exist. I think we need to take a step back from this. One of the observations that Searle makes is that the subjective/objective distinction has two senses: an epistemic sense and and ontological sense, i.e. a sense concerned with modes of knowing, and a sense concerned with modes of existence. I've already suggested that the epistemic/ontic distinction is not entirely clear in Searle's exposition on mind and body, so if nothing else this should alert us to how difficult it can be to be clear on this distinction. It seems to me that awakened people seem to be unclear in discussions of the subject/object distinction.

I've now described several times my philosophy of collective empirical realism. This is the idea that accounting for what everyone knows (for epistemology generally) without there being some kind of ontic support (a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality) seems extremely unlikely. Explaining experience without such a reality seems overly complicated and difficult. A mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality is the simplest explanation for experience. And while we do not have direct access to this reality, by comparing notes we can infer a great deal about it, which is what scientists do. And since science produces accurate and precise descriptions of what we observe in the world, the world cannot be very different from how we perceive it to be when we eliminate the various cognitive biases and logical fallacies we are prone to. This is collective empirical realism - i.e. a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality as described by inferences drawn from the collaborative interpretation of empirical evidence. Individuals are in a difficult position because of how perception and reason work. The individual sees the world in terms of transcendental idealism, i.e. a world that is constructed by the mind, on the basis of sense experience, memory, and expectation. An individual reasoning in the absence of other people is prone to fall into cognitive bias and/or logical fallacy. For this reason the individual who generalises from their own experience is unlikely to accurately describe the mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality. And yet this is exactly what the awakened tend to do! 

Let us assume that Devadatta* has an experience of awakening in which his ability to distinguish subject from object breaks down. When conscious Devadatta now experiences an undifferentiated field of experience, which has some features, but to which distinctions like inner/outer; me/not-me; or subject/object don't seem to apply. It is more or less impossible for anyone to imagine what this experience is like unless they too have it. 
* Devadatta is the equivalent of Joe Bloggs in Indian works of philosophy generally. The name means Given by God and is thus cognate with the English name Theodore.
This change is frequently presented with some reference to reality. The awakened, we are told, see reality, the nature of reality, the true nature of reality, or even the True Nature of Reality. Granted that the experience is profound and wonderful, but claims about the nature of reality are ontological claims and they are still based on generalising from personal experience. 

In fact I think this reasoning is flawed. Think for example of how Devadatta physically sees. Photons are still reflected from objects and into the eyes of Devadatta, focussed on his retina, and processed in his brain; his brain integrates a whole bunch of  disparate streams of information to create a unified field of consciousness (the binding problem q.v.), only now the features of his conscious states are radically different. Reality in this sense has not changed, nor can it have been revealed, because Devadatta is no more seeing reality directly than anyone who relies on human eyes and a human brain is seeing reality. What has changed is what Devadatta makes of the information being presented to his consciousness by innumerable non-consciousness processes. Devadatta may argue that the model of the world now in his head is better than the one he previously had, but clearly the world has not changed or we'd all notice it. The change is private in the sense that it is contained within Devadatta's skull. His model of the world is now radically different, but physics still applies. The subjective/objective distinction is an epistemological distinction, not an ontological distinction.

Devadatta's brain now produces thoughts without an "I" or an internal monologue about experience. But such thoughts as Devadatta has are still his thoughts, even if he does not experience a sense of ownership. They are happening in one brain and not other brains. The view from his eyes is not the view from my eyes. When pushed, the awakened people I have quizzed on this admit to only having access to one set of eyes and thus to having a physical location in space and a particular perspective on the world. It's just that they experience no sense of ownership or privilege of that perspective. And again, this is an epistemic issue, not an ontic issue.

Importantly, Devadatta still only has access to his own thoughts and not to mine and vice versa. So Devadatta's non-dual consciousness still has a first-person epistemology. The contents of Devadatta's awakened mind are still only accessible to Devadatta, even if he no longer believes in Devadatta or feels any privilege in his experiential field. And as wonderful as it might be to be awakened there is still this limitation on how experience is understood and communicated about by an embodied mind. However, the Awakened seem confused about the epistemic/ontological distinctions and mistake their perception for reality. Unfortunately this category error has always been a millstone around the necks of Buddhists because we give priority to the views of the awakened, even though they fall prey to this cognitive bias and the logical fallacies that it entails. In short the awakened need to have a few non-awakened philosophers around to talk things over with because they seem to lose perspective on experience along with the subject-object distinction. Without the dualistic perspective, they mistake their experience for reality. This is understandable, because when one stops making dualistic distinctions it must seem even more intuitive than for a dualistic mind to assume that experience is reality. But we must insist that experience is not reality. It cannot be. 

~ Conclusions ~

Searle seems to have produced a coherent, self-consistent, and plausible philosophy of mind a quarter of a century ago. It is not the only such philosophy produced in this time frame, but it has some major advantages over the competitors that I'm aware of. Searle not only rejects mind-body dualism, but he identifies where the competition have retained a tacit commitment to dualism. He accepts the existence of consciousness and treats it as the subject of a philosophy of mind. Even if consciousness were some kind of illusion, the illusion itself would be a conscious state. 

Searle does not pretend to be a scientist of the mind, though he is clearly informed by scientists. He is seeking to establish a framework within which science can proceed by asking pertinent and intelligent questions and produce comprehensible answers. If we proclaim that mind has a different ontology from the body, or that mind does not exist, then our questions about mind tend not to be pertinent or intelligent and our answers to important questions are not simply counter-intuitive, but completely implausible. 

Once we thoroughly purge our ontology of dualism, then the mind-body problem evaporates. This is surely one of the most attractive features of Searle's philosophy. There are other features of his philosophy which I have not touched on. For example I have not dealt at all with his debunking of the idea of the brain as a computer. To my mind this is an applied problem and not fundamental to the philosophy. He responds to the proposal "the mind is a computer" by pointing out reasons that this cannot be the case. What is central to his philosophy are those elements that are asserted positively, such as that reality is monistic; that consciousness exists and has certain features, and so on. 

The main weakness I perceive in Searle's philosophy is in the area of his reference to the mind having a "first person ontology". I understand what he means by this. He means that conscious states occur in relation to a single brain and they are accessible, if they accessible at all, to only one person (at present any way). I presume to correct Professor Searle here by arguing that this is in fact an epistemological distinction. 

We may not have arrived at a finished product for a philosophy of mind, but my feeling is that Searle has come very close to the mark and that we need now only sort out the details. Searle's philosophy fits into the broad category of Naturalism. Naturalism is by far the best approach we have and we are a very long way from exhausting the possibilities it throws up for exploring and understanding our world. But we should not mistake Naturalism for a simple philosophy. My version of naturalism involves a ontology that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; an epistemology that acknowledges that individuals see the world in terms of transcendental idealism, but asserts that collective empirical realism allows us to make accurate and precise inferences about the immanent (but not supernatural) reality, the sense impressions of which our brains present to us as conscious states that are qualitative, subjective, and unified. I take this all to be settled at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to everyday human life (or to the unaided human senses), but to be incomplete at the extremes of scale. In cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology we have the unfolding story of the world. In anthropology, psychology, and sociology we have the story of humanity's place in that story. All local myths and legends are superseded by this story. 

Unless civilisation is destroyed by some cosmic scale cataclysm, Buddhism will have to eventually come to terms with Naturalism.  Towards this end, I've been developing two kinds of critique of traditional Buddhist ideology. Firstly an historical critique based on intra-Buddhist disputes over doctrine (to the best of my knowledge this approach is unique); and secondly the more direct critique drawing directly on Naturalist philosophy and science that highlights the internal contradictions and logical incoherence of traditional Buddhist doctrines. As a sideline I'm also interested in how systematic misreading of Prajñāparamitā and related texts has led to a cult of paradox and nonsense in Buddhism and how that appeals to the Romanticism of Buddhist modernists.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for synthesis between Naturalism and Buddhism. 


~ Bibliography ~

Fine, Cordelia. (2006) A mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Icon.

Mandler, G. (1984). Mind and Emotion: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. W. W. Norton.

Nagel, Thomas. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50. Online: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/maydede/mind/Nagel_Whatisitliketobeabat.pdf

Searle, John R. (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, 1994 (pb).

Searle, John R. (2000) Consciousness. Annual Review of Neuroscience.23(1):557-78. Online version http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~paller/dialogue/csc1.pdf pagination begins at p.1.
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