If you are ever aware of anything, you are aware of the fact that you are conscious.
The truly amazing thing about consciousness — immediate awareness of one’s self and one’s own mental states — is that it occurs naturally and effortlessly.
OK, it helps to have a cup of coffee or do some calisthenics to warm up the brain in the morning. But you don’t have to jumpstart the brain to make yourself conscious (you can’t make yourself aware, if you are not already yourself, to begin with). So how do you “get conscious” in the first place? What makes it happen?
Neurobiology has the answer. Well, not yet, but it will someday, according to American Philosopher John Searle. Searle’s simple four-step explanation is quick and easy to follow:
Like I said, simple, quick, and easy. I might even add elegant, like any good scientific or philosophical theory, except for one minor detail — it’s tragically flawed.
Searle’s explanation is an attempt to avoid physicalist reductionism while reducing consciousness to a merely physical phenomenon — call it minimalist physicalism. After all, he did say that consciousness is irreducible (to what, he does not say) and that it is caused by the brain — he calls it a feature, or state of the brain, caused by biology, just like digestion. That is just to say that consciousness is reducible to a merely physical reality, because if it is caused by the brain (a physical reality), it must be a physical reality.
Let’s look at Searle’s four points more closely:
- Consciousness is real (not an an illusion or an epiphenomenon)
- Consciousness is irreducible (by this he means that it cannot be eliminated by reducing it to something else, like… he does not say)
- Consciousness is a brain process (a feature or state of the brain)
- Consciousness is caused (by neuronal processes, but we are not exactly sure how it works, yet)
To summarize what Searle already expressed so tightly, consciousness has its own set of observable properties that distinguish it from other realities and there are determinate events, namely, processes in the brain, that cause it to happen.
The waters get muddied when Searle explains two philosophical errors he wants to avoid: materialism, on the one hand (i.e., he wants to avoid reductionism by eliminating the reality of consciousness); dualism, on the other. I agree with him, thus far, that we need to avoid both. However, his simple four-step solution creates a double bind that forces him to choose one or the other. I believe he ends up contradicting himself because of his attachment to the materialism he says we must reject.
I should add that his definition of materialism is too narrow. A materialist is not someone who denies the existence of things. Materialists don’t claim that the world does not exist. Rather, they claim that everything that exists in the world is material and that there are no realities that are not material realities. In sum, if it is real, it is material and can be studied by the physical sciences.
Lo and behold, this position perfectly corresponds to Searle’s proposal above (the materialist account of consciousness, called physicalism):
Consciousness is real and we know this, not simply because it is a self-evident fact, but because it is caused by an observable physical process in the brain that neurobiology will eventually be able to explain to us — just give it time (i.e., have faith).
If we take Searle at his word and accept that he is not a materialist, then he’s a dualist — the other position he wants to avoid. If you can’t reduce consciousness to something other than the physical, then logically, it either does not exist, or else it must be something other than physical (like a ghost in the machine). Searle doesn’t want that. But nor does he want to be called a materialist. However, Searle’s proposal leaves no other alternative.
(Well, there actually is one other alternative — he wants to be elusive).
Therefore, since he cannot qualify his position and properly distinguish it from the other two possibilities that he offers, if he is not a dualist, he is a materialist. If he holds that consciousness is real (and he does) and he holds that it must be physical if it’s real (and he does) then he also must hold the physicalist position, which is a strand of materialism. He does not want to admit this. Nor does he want to be called a non-reductive physicalist, because that is a contradiction in terms.
Unfortunately, Searle’s position cannot be understood as anything other than non-reductive physicalism. He equivocates by forging his own definition of materialism to avoid being labeled as a non-reductive physicalist. A little scrutiny shows that this equivocation causes him to contradict himself.
Here’s the Biltrix: Searle’s entire theory rests on one major unfounded assumption.
He believes that neuroscience can tell us everything we need to know about consciousness, eventually. Why? Because conscious is a state of feature of the brain that is caused by a neuronal process. This seems obvious to Searle, because of his materialist presupposition. This presupposition is laden with assumptions: the assumptions that all reality is physical, that neuroscience will eventually tell us all we need to know about the brain, and that conscious is a physical phenomenon caused by the brain. Yet as long as he is arguing from assumptions he cannot conclude that neuroscience will tell us all we need to know about consciousness, until the assumptions are proven to hold.
Here is what irritates me the most. This is not Searle’s fault, because these assumptions I’m talking about are not just Searle’s assumptions. In the name of science, unwarranted scientific claims are too easily accepted as laws of nature and are seldom called into question.
Modern faith in neuroscience gives us a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The assumptions of neuroscience have been accepted as gospel truth by the academic establishment. These unquestioned assumptions — because they are all unquestioned — are called science, and thou shalt not contradict science!
First, neuroscience has infiltrated numerous other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, education, anthropology, and philosophy. In turn, these other disciplines promulgate the physicalist tenets of neuroscience in the college classroom. If a student is majoring in one of these disciplines, what will she learn? She’ll learn that there are no spiritual realities, because neuroscience has explained them all away (although it actually hasn’t).
Second, simplistic explanations like Searle’s sound reasonable to the point of being unquestionable. Yet, as I argued above, Searle’s account actually puts him in a quandary. In four simple steps, he manages to contradict himself while trying to explain what he calls obvious. How does he manage to do this? He tries to explain the obvious by appealing to the not-so-obvious claims of neuroscience — claims that are not yet proven to be true.
And he gets away with it because, whenever the word science is dropped, people simply accept it as true, without questioning whether the claim is actually a scientific claim.
On Monday I will address the implications of the neuroscience craze in our society. (By the way, you don’t want to miss Saturday’s post by our new contributor. It’s a surprise!). We are going to the college campus to see how the new scientific outlook influences young lives. Tuesday’s Biltrix explores neuroscience in the movie Inception, to wrap up this short series on Fuzzy Science.
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