“The philosophy of mind is unique among contemporary philosophical subjects, in that all of the most famous and influential theories are false” – John Searle
So begins “Mind: A Brief Introduction”, part of the Fundamentals of Philosophy Series by Oxford Press. In it, John Searle explains how every traditional approach to understanding the mind (not to be confused with the neurological function of the brain) fails because they are all based on the same set of historical assumptions and categories for describing mental states and even consciousness itself, assumptions that he believes are mistaken.
What are these approaches? Just about “anything with ‘ism’ in its name.” Dualism, materialism, physicalism, behaviorism, functionalism, cognitivism, etc.
While it’s not easy to digest all of this at a glance (the book is a summary of the field, and this essay is a summary of the book) let’s have a look at the two most prominent positions to get a sense of the issues he’s bringing up; materialism and dualism. Most of us, philosophers or not, tend to view the mind in one of these two ways.
“If there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them!” -Ed Wood, JR.
Dualism, with a little reasoning, would seem to be a sensible default view. There is the exterior world that without any human interaction would exist and go along just fine. The world of oceans, trees, caterpillars, woodchucks, rain, asteroids, galaxies. Then there is the interior world of humans- politics, restaurant preferences, football games, checking account balances. While these may have a physical component, any meaning or significance they have exists only in the realm of human thought. So there is a natural categorization between the physical world and the mental one.
Dualism breaks down when faced with these questions; how can conscious experiences like disagreements over politics and excitement over football scores exist in a world made up entirely of physical particles? And how can physical particles cause mental experiences, like the annoyance felt at stubbing your toe or the lifting of mood caused by a cool breeze? (This is called the ‘mind-body problem’.) Even worse- how can subjective, non-physical mental states cause anything to occur in the physical world? At what point can a thought, if it is nothing more than a phenomenon caused by firing neurons, move matter around even if that matter is part of your own body like your arm or leg? (This is the ‘problem of mental causation’.) Of course, we can map how the brain does this, all the way through the spinal cord to the nerve endings. What we don’t have is a clear picture of how you, in your own private mental and emotional states, can decide you want some tea and suddenly cause a physical chain of events that gets you up and moving towards the kitchen. We know of no “psycho-physical” interface to explain “intentionality.”
“We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl” -Madonna
The breakdown of dualism leads many to materialism; the suggestion that in some form, all this mental activity is caused by nothing more than the physical activity of the brain, and is merely a kind of illusion. This leads to a few problems left out, to one degree or another, by every materialist explanation- consciousness and intention. It has been said that the mind is what the brain does just as breathing is what the lungs do. But this is still a unsatisfactory answer, for it doesn’t address our awareness of it, of the mind’s ability to observe and contemplate, and our ability to enjoy qualitatively different experiences.
The reinforcing example of this is the question, “what’s it like to be a bat?” We know quite a lot about bats, from the biologists who have been studying them for many decades. If we one day had a fully functional model of a bat, its complete physiological and neurological description, we would still not know the qualitative experience of being one. We would still not know “what’s it like?” Quoting Searle directly-
For any conscious being, there is a what-is-it-like aspect to his existence. And this is left out of any objective account of consciousness because an objective account cannot explain the subjective character of consciousness.
These are just the basics, but the dualist and materialist views are the two umbrellas that most philosophical models of the mind operate under, and you can perhaps see why Searle thinks both are flawed.
Self = consciousness + intention
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” -The Beatles
Searle works through several of the problems -intentionality, free will, perception- demonstrating the shortcomings of the traditional approaches. In the end, Searle tackles the question of the self by generally supporting philosopher David Hume’s idea (and the Buddhist idea as well) that there is no “self as the object of our experiences.” But he then goes on to argue that the self does exist, only in a more limited fashion- he identifies the self as the ability to reflect on our own actions and mental states. In this way, this self is more of a natural outcome of the feedback between consciousness and intention. Not substantiative, still an illusion, but a necessary one. For his part, Searle believes this answer to be sufficient but still incomplete, and lays it out as only the beginning of future discussion.
What his idea does provide is a potential answer to one of the Buddhist paradoxes about the self- how is it that even though you don’t look the same, act the same (we hope), and now have many more memories and experiences, you still have this sense of the 5 or 10 year old you being the same person, merely younger? How could “I” seem to be an unbroken line through all these changes? If the self is an interplay between consciousness and intention, then to put it simply, the game has never stopped.
So if we are not separated into mind and body, but we are not simply the sum of our physical components, then what are we? That’s for you to figure out. Obviously we can think and contemplate, even if we don’t understand how. Obviously we do interact with the physical world. We can even change the outcome of events at the quantum level just by observing them. What are YOU going to do with all that power?