Mindaeterna interview with John Searle

John Searle is an American philosopher. He is most notably recognised for his pioneering “Chinese room” thought experiment and his contributions to AI arguments. A great deal of his work has focused on the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. He is presently Professor of philosophy at the University of Berkeley, California. I caught up with Professor Searle over email recently, to ask him some questions about his influences and his opinion of contemporary attempts to reverse engineer the brain.

Q.What sparked your interest on studies of consciousness; was it inherent from youth, or was it a particular influence / inspiration?

 A: I got into the study of the philosophy of mind from my studies in the philosophy of language.  I assumed that language was based on pre-linguistic mental capacities, and I needed an explanation of those in order to provide a foundation for my studies in the philosophy of language.  This incidentally is characteristic of philosophy: you build the foundation after you build the house.  First I developed the theory of language, and then I explored the foundations of that in the theory of mind.

To my utter amazement, I found that most contemporary philosophers and psychologists said things about the mind which were not just false but ridiculous.  Some of them even denied the existence of consciousness.  So I started engaging in debates.

Q. Your pioneering “Chinese Room” thought experiment features in most  psychological/philosophical textbooks; when you were studying at college level, what were some of the theories  that had a big impact on you?(positive or negative).

A: The book that made the biggest impression on me was Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which was published when I was an undergraduate.  I read it carefully and in a sense much of my work was an attempt to answer it.  Wittgenstein says it is impossible to develop general theories of mind and language.  I am trying to do exactly that — general and comprehensive theories of mind and language.  So Wittgenstein had a negative influence on me in that he challenged me to try to refute him, and I have in fact tried to do that.

The work that had the most obvious influence was Austin’s Theory of Speech Acts, which I knew only from his lectures, and in a way my first two books were an attempt to develop that theory of speech acts that went beyond Austin’s.  The single greatest philosophical influence on me was my tutor in philosophy, Peter Strawson; he provided me with a model of philosophical investigation and that had a big influence on me.

Q. Current experiments, such as Henry Markram’s ( IBM supported)” Blue Brain project are aiming to reverse engineer the human brain with supercomputers.  Given the technological advances (and Moore’s law), what is your opinion on this type of present day research?

A: I believe we will understand how the brain works when we figure out how it works as a biological mechanism. That means we have to respect the specific physiology and biochemistry of the phenomena in question.  Computer simulations of the brain have the same usefulness in studying the brain as computer simulations of the stomach have in studying the stomach.  The computer is a useful tool, but it is no substitute for investigating the organ itself.  The idea that all the brain does is compute in some technical computational sense is absurdly false because we know that the computation is defined purely syntactically in terms of symbol manipulation, and we know that the brain has something in addition to that, it has actual mental contents both conscious and unconscious.  Nobody has the faintest idea how to make a conscious computer, and Moore’s Law is no help since it is in general irrelevant to the creation of consciousness.  So, to repeat, computational simulations will be useful in a science of consciousness in a way that they are useful in a science of digestion, or for that matter a science of geology or biology.  You cannot do any advanced science nowadays without using computers probably because the sheer amount of information processing that you have to undertake requires some mechanical aid.  The mistake is to suppose that the computer simulation is somehow the real thing.

There are two mistakes that are pervasive in this discussion.  The first, as I have already mentioned, is that it is a mistake to suppose that syntax is sufficient for semantics.  It is not.  But another mistake is to suppose that somehow or other computation names an intrinsic feature of nature.  And of course except for conscious computations done by a conscious human being, all computation is observer relative.  A phenomena is computational only relative to some outside interpretation of it.  This has the consequence that there could not be a computational account of consciousness because computation requires consciousness.  You cannot explain consciousness with computation, because the computation in question can only be explained in terms of consciousness.  All computation is either performed by a conscious agent or it is the kind of thing that some conscious agent could use or interpret as computational.  Either way, computation depends on consciousness.

Q. We do not (presently) know the locality of consciousness; and we believe that there is global network of neurons firing /communicating; how do you think we arrive at the sensation (or nomination) of “I”?

A: I think we do not have and could not have a sensation of “I.”  However there is no question that I have all of my experience as experienced by a single self.  Now the question is, How does the brain achieve that?  How does the brain achieve what Kant called the Transcendental Unity of Apperception?  And I think that is a fascinating question in neurobiology, and we will not understand the neurobiology of consciousness until we understand not only how the brain creates conscious feelings in the first place, but how it creates all of our conscious feelings at any moment as part of a single unified conscious self.  Now maybe the secret to answering the first question is to answer the second question.  If we got an account of how the conscious self was created, then it might be relatively easy to account for specific conscious experiences.  I do not know.  That is simply a speculation on my part.

Q. I’m a big fan of your “start with the facts” logic to looking at consciousness. It seems to me in this day and age with the amount of knowledge so far amassed, that this approach would benefit most disciplines; why do people dogmatically deny facts? 

A: Usually when people deny the facts, it is because they are in the grip of an ideology.  For a long time people denied the fact of consciousness, because they thought that somehow if you grant the existence of consciousness then you will be guilty of some sort of mystification.  To believe in consciousness you have to believe in the existence of the soul or something like that.  The important thing to see is that consciousness is a biological phenomenon like others, like digestion or photosynthesis.  It is biological and as such requires a biological explanation.  But people resist that because they are in the grip of an ideology.

Q. Wittgenstein said “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” What do you think he meant?

A: What Wittgenstein was driving at is this: it is tempting to think that specific local features of our environment are mystical powers of wonder. Think of the fantastic power and complexity of the human brain, for example, or the very existence of the diverse forms that life takes in all the different parts of the world, or the sheer human achievements in such fields as philosophy, science, and poetry.  What Wittgenstein is saying is that there is a much more astounding, much more mystical, fact than any of these, and that is the fact that anything exists at all.  It is not how things are, but that anything exists at all, which is an amazing, astounding, and mystical truth.

Q. You have been given the opportunity to place one earthly possession into a capsule. The capsule will sent out into the cosmos; only to be found by an intelligent alien species millions of years from now. What will you send?

A: I think it is part of our provincial egotism that we think we have to select what would be most interesting to some future civilization.  I would like to turn the question around.  Suppose there were an intelligent alien species millions of years ago and they wanted to send something in a capsule to be found by people like us, that is to be found by “an intelligent alien species millions of year hence.”  What should they have included in the capsule?  We will assume, which is not at all obvious, that they had both a language rich enough to represent the things that most interested them, and furthermore that they had a written form of the language or some form that enabled it to be preserved through time.  What sorts of linguistic artifacts should they then send us?  I think an account of what sort of beings they were, what sort of lives they led, what mattered to them and what did not, what sort of intellectual achievements they made, if any, all of those things would be interesting to us.  And I think those are the kind of things that we might put the mirror image of what I think is the correct question.  The correct question is, What should the people in the past have sent us?  And given the answer to that question, we can answer the question what should we send to intelligent beings in the future?