Consciousness Explained by John R Searle

John Searle, one of the world’s great philosophers of mind and language, has something to say about consciousness as a biological phenomenon. Underneath the clip I have listed some of his arguments. And at the bottom there’s a link to his paper ‘Consciousness’, where the text is copied from.

1. Resistance to the problem: Studying the brain without studying consciousness would be like studying the stomach without studying digestion, or studying genetics without studying the inheritance of traits. Brain scientists have mostly not been interested in the question, but the race to solve the problem of consciousness is already on, and Searle’s aim is to characterize some of the neurobiological problems of consciousness from a philosophical point of view.

2. Consciousness as a biological problem: The problem, in its crudest terms, is this: How exactly do brain processes cause conscious states and how exactly are those states realized in brain structures? Searle believes that it is a biological problem, because consciousness is a biological phenomenon in exactly the same sense as digestion, growth, or photosynthesis. But unlike other problems in biology, there is a persistent series of philosophical problems that surround the problem of consciousness.

3. Identifying the Target: The Definition of Consciousness: Searle’s definition goes as follows: 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, go into a coma or otherwise become “unconscious.”

4. Feature No. I of Consciousness: The Combination of Qualitativeness, Subjectivity and Unity: Consciousness has three aspects that make it different from other biological phenomena, and indeed different from other phenomena in the natural world: qualitativeness, subjectivity, and unity. They are logically interrelated, as different aspects of the same feature. They are not separate because the first implies the second, and the second implies the third.

5. Some Other Features:

  • Feature II, Intentionality: Most important, conscious states typically have “intentionality,” that property of mental states by which they are directed at or about objects and states of affairs in the world.
  • Feature III, Attention: The Distinction Between Center and Periphery of Attention.
  • Feature IV, Flavor: All Human Conscious Experiences Are in Some Mood or Other.
  • Feature V, Pleasure/Unpleasure: All Conscious States Come to Us in the Pleasure/Unpleasure Dimension.
  • Feature VI, Gestalt Structure: The brain has a remarkable capacity to organize very degenerate perceptual stimuli into coherent conscious perceptual forms.
  • Feature VII, Familiarity: There is in varying degrees a sense of familiarity that pervades our conscious experiences; even if I see a house I have never seen before, I still recognize it as a house.

6. The Traditional Mind-Body Problem and How to Avoid It: Consciousness and other sorts of mental phenomena are caused by neurobiological processes in the brain, and they are realized in the structure of the brain. In a word, the conscious mind is caused by brain processes and is itself a higher level feature of the brain. A conscious state is rather a state that the brain is in. Just as water can be in a liquid or solid state without liquidity and solidity being separate substances, so consciousness is a state that the brain is in without consciousness being a separate substance. Searle denies both dualism and materialism, he calls it biological naturalism.

7. How Did We Get Into This Mess? A Historical Digression: In the seventeenth century there was a very serious conflict between science and religion, and it seemed that science was a threat to religion. Descartes, in particular, argued that reality divides into two kinds, the mental (res cogitans) and the physical (res extensa), leaving religion with the territory of the soul, and science could have material reality.

8. Summary Of The Argument To This Point: Consciousness is a biological phenomenon like any other. It consists of inner qualitative subjective states of perceiving, feeling and thinking. Its essential feature is unified, qualitative subjectivity. Conscious states are caused by neurobiological processes in the brain, and they are realized in the structure of the brain.

9. The Scientific Study of Consciousness: Ideally there are three steps. First, one finds the neurobiological events that are correlated with consciousness (the NCC). Second, one tests to see that the correlation is a genuine causal relation. And third, one tries to develop a theory, ideally in the form of a set of laws, that would formalize the causal relationships.

10. The Standard Approach to Consciousness: The Building Block Model: The idea is that any conscious field is made of its various parts: the visual experience of red, the taste of coffee, the feeling of the wind coming in through the window. If we could figure out what makes even one building block conscious, we would have the key to the whole structure. If we could, for example, crack visual consciousness, that would give us the key to all the other modalities. There are at least three lines of research that are consistent with, and often used to support, the building block theory:

I. Blindsight: the phenomenon whereby certain patients with damage to V1 can report incidents occurring in their visual field even though they report no visual awareness of the stimulus. The theory is that if we could discover the physiological and anatomical difference between regular sight and blindsight, we might have the key to analyzing consciousness, because we would have a clear neurological distinction between the conscious and the unconscious cases.

II. Binocular Rivalry and Gestalt Switching: One exciting proposal for finding the NCC for vision is to study cases where the external stimulus is constant but where the internal subjective experience varies. Two examples of this are the gestalt switch, where the same figure, such as the Neckar cube, is perceived in two different ways, and binocular rivalry, where different stimuli are presented to each eye but the visual experience at any instant is of one or the other stimulus, not both. In such cases the experimenter has a chance to isolate a specific NCC for the visual experience, independently of the neurological correlates of the retinal stimulus.

III. The Neural Correlates of Vision: to track the neurobiological causes of a specific perceptual modality such as vision. The function of visual consciousness is to provide visual information directly to the parts of the brain that organize voluntary motor output, including speech. Thus, because the information in V1 is recoded in subsequent visual areas and does not transmit directly to the frontal cortex, V1 does not correlate directly with visual consciousness.

11. Doubts about the Building Block Theory: All the research done to identify the NCCs has been carried out with subjects who are already conscious, independently of the NCC in question, so one cannot e.g. investigate consciousness in general by studying the difference between the blindsight patient and the normally sighted patient, because both patients are fully conscious.

12. Basal consciousness and a unified field theory: Consciousness is “modulated rather than generated by the senses”. Only the already conscious subject can have visual experiences, so the introduction of visual experiences is not an introduction of consciousness but a modification of a preexisting consciousness. There is a perfectly ordinary sense in which consciousness is unified and holistic, but the brain is not in that way unified and holistic. So what we have to look for is some massive activity of the brain capable of producing a unified holistic conscious experience. We should look for consciousness as a feature of the brain emerging from the activities of large masses of neurons, and which cannot be explained by the activities of individual neurons.

13. VARIATIONS ON THE UNIFIED FIELD THEORY: We should not think of consciousness as produced by sensory inputs but rather as a functional state of large portions of the brain, primarily the thalamocortical system, and we should think of sensory inputs serving to modulate a preexisting consciousness rather than creating consciousness anew. Consciousness is an “intrinsic” state of the brain, not a response to sensory stimulus inputs. Consciousness has two remarkable properties, the unity mentioned earlier and the extreme differentiation or complexity within any conscious field. This suggests that we should not look for consciousness in a specific sort of neuronal type, but rather in the activities of large neuronal populations.

The paper can be found here: Consiousness

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7 Responses to Consciousness Explained by John R Searle

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    I don’t know Jarle; it’s easy to feel persuaded by the performances that, in particular, these North American Academics are able to produce; we are made to feel as if to doubt certain assumptions they project would be to engage in pure folly and irrationalism. For example, here in this video, Searle glibly states that consciousness is a condition that the brain system is in; and yet this feels too readily like and an attempt to have consciousness explained away – as some deridingly re-titled Dennett’s book on the subject. I realise he’s saying that consciousness is not an illusion, but to assume – and it is an assumption – that qualia are exclusively a biological state, seems something of a leap of faith to me.

    So as a lay person, and not with your training and expertise, I can listen to Searle, or to Dennett, or to Chalmers (not such a great stage performer!), and think either this way or that. But still, what if Penrose and Hameroff are more on the right track though; what if it’s not all biological and that quantum states are at the heart of it all? Or what if Tononi is ahead of the pack and that again it’s not biological; it’s more a case of integrated information? It can sometimes feel as if we’re more convinced by the person who is themselves more convinced, and which is dangerous territory. I think that for that reason, I tend to warm more to Penrose and his rather more understated approach; there seems to be an authentic humility there, though perhaps that’s my own cultural biasing.

    Many thanks for this fabulous article Jarle.


  2. diplopi says:

    Thanks for your comment, Hariod! And yes, I know; its not easy to make up ones mind when it comes to the topic of consciousness. It’s really a great mystery. And that is maybe what makes it so interesting as well? I must admit I’m more of a materialist than a dualist, so Searle’s arguments sound sweet to me. But, as you say, it’s dangerous to be seduced by an idea. And even though I’m a materialist, sort of, I think reality is way more complex and wonderful than we (so far) are able to understand. And as the quote goes; ‘if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.’ I guess the search will continue in many years to come, and we might not ever find the answer 🙂

    • Hariod Brawn says:

      Jarle said “not easy to make up ones mind”

      Nicely inadvertent play on words Jarle; 😉 ; though at the moment, that’s not too far from the truth of the science of consciousness. Where’s that quote from – “The Romeo Error”?

      • diplopi says:

        As far as I understand, its Emerson M. Pugh, quoted in The Biological Origin of Human Values, that wrote “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

        But a lot of other people have said something similar, so maybe there’s a consensus that we will never truly understand this miraculous organ 🙂

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thanks Jarle; I thought it was Lyall Watson but am probably mistaken.

      • diplopi says:

        Well, I’m not 100% sure either… it might be like one of those Einstein quotes, you know the ones he never uttered 🙂

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