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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Freedom & Neurobiology

John R. Searle, Freedom & Neurobiology -- Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power, Columbia University Press, 2007, 128pp., $24.50 (hbk), ISBN 0-231-13752-4.

Freedom and Neurobiology (FN) brings together two of the lectures John Searle gave at Sorbonne in the spring of 2001. One was a public lecture on political power. The other was a lecture on free will. The two lectures appeared in French in a book entitled Liberté et neurobiologie in 2004. The book was subsequently translated into Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese. FN comes with a 37 pages introduction which brings together the two themes. Both essays are written in the style that has characterized Searle's work for several years. Written with great clarity in expression, the essays begin with the fundamental issues (neurobiology and the Big Bang) and work their way up to such issues as freedom, collective intentionality and political power. Along the way the book makes several contributions to the free will debate and the dispute over the status of social reality.

In the first essay Searle formulates the problem of free will as a problem in neurobiology. According to Searle, the problem of free will boils down to the problem of answering the following questions: (1) 'What exactly are the neuronal processes that cause our conscious experiences', in particular, what are the processes that cause the 'active character of what we might call "volitional consciousness" '? (pp. 40-41), and (2) how do we explain the appearance of a gap between subsequent conscious states? Searle does not answer either question fully. Presuably only a neurobiologist/quantum theorist duo could do that. But he does give us reason to believe that these questions ought to be at the center of the debate concerning free will.

What makes the problem of free will a problem, says Searle, is that 'the conscious states are not experienced as sufficient to compel the next conscious state' (p. 43) There is an appearance of a gap in the causal chain. It is awareness of this gap that makes us think we have free will. As Searle puts it,

It is important to emphasize that the problem of free will, as I have stated it, is a problem about a certain kind of human consciousness. Without the conscious experience of the gap, that is, without the conscious experience of the distinctive features of free, voluntary, rational actions, there would be no problem of free will. We have the conviction of our own free will because of certain features of our consciousness.
This is a slight exaggeration, on Searle's part. For, as he subsequently points out, to say that there would be no problem of free will if we didn't experience the gap is not yet to say that the gap is not real. It could be that whatever precedes our actions is in every case sufficient to determine the action. But if it is not, then we are owed some account of how such gaps are possible in a largely deterministic world. Searle admits that there may be indeterminacy at the quantum level (p. 44). But the indeterminacy is often described as randomness, and randomness does not make for freedom in choice. Suppose I flip a coin before "deciding" whether to go to a bar in the Central West End or one in University City. I end up in University City. So do you. But unlike me, you weighed pros and cons -- your preference for walking home rather than driving settled the issue. Who is making a free decision in this case? Well, certainly not me.

What then is Searle's answer to the big question? After dismissing what he calls 'epiphenomenalism' -- the view that 'our experience of freedom plays no causal or explanatory role in our behavior' (p. 62) -- he argues that the brain 'causes and sustains' a conscious self which then engages in deliberations and reports its results to the brain. Finally, the brain moves the body. For Searle the self plays an important role in explaining our experience of the gap but the self is not something over and above the brain. As he puts it,
the self is not some extra entity; rather, in a very crude and oversimplified fashion, one can say that conscious agency plus conscious rationality equals selfhood. So if you had an account of brain processes that explained how the brain produced the unified field of consicousness, together with the experience of acting, and in addition how the brain produced consicous thought processes, in which the constraints of rationality are already built in as constitutive elements, you would ... get the self for free (p. 72).
So how does Searle's account differ from old-fashioned determinism? Is the account simply a form of compatibilism -- a theory that reconciles free will and determinism? It is not. While the self isn't some extra entity for Searle, the results of its deliberations are not caused by the brain. Searle thus assumes that there is a level of indeterminacy in decision-making. As quamtum indeterminacy is the only (known) kind of indeterminacy in nature, the indeterminacy in question can only be quantum indeterminacy. Searle points out that just because quantum indeterminacy is best described as randomness at the quantum level, this does not mean that the self's deliberation processes are also random. There can be radomness at the micro-level even if there is none at the macro-level. Searle concludes by noting that the hypothesis he has outlined is 'a mess' and that it seems to remove one mystery only to replace it with three others (free will, consciousness and quantum mechanics). Searle never says how quantum indeterminacy explains system indeterminacy. In spite of the inconclusiveness, the essay gives new structure to a very complicated debate without rehearsing all the tangents that have emerged in recent years. Moreover, it makes it absolutely clear where in the debate Searle stands: he is an old-fashioned indeterminist.

If you are already familiar with Searle's previously published books, in particular The Construction of Social Reality and Rationality in Action, the second essay will bring back old memories. The essay is about how political power supervenes on brute facts and collective intentionality. There is nothing mysterious about collective intentionality, according to Searle. If several organisms engage in an activity with consciously shared attitudes, there is collective intentionality. However, collective intentionality does not suffice for political reality. The institutional and political realms require what Searle calls 'status functions'. A status function is a function we impose upon an object by believing collectively that the object performs the function in question. Searle's favorite example is the one dollar bill. If we didn't believe that the one dollar bill had the value corresponding to the number printed on it, it would just be green paper. But the green paper is not just green paper, it functions as currency, and that function is a status function. Status functions are imposed on objects via constitutive rules of the form 'X counts as Y in context C'. According to Sarle, prominent or forceful individuals in a given social group initially impose the status functions. Then, slowly, the imposing becomes routine, and the practice then creates a constitutive rule. Searle thinks 'language is partly constitutive of all institutional reality' (p. 95). This makes institutional reality different from social reality (broadly construed). Within institutional reality, status functions exist only to the extent that we represent them as existing.

Now, as for political power, political power (and in particular governmental power), says Searle, is a system of status functions. It depends for its existence on collective acceptance (p. 97) When a system collapses, it is usually because the acceptance by a large number of people is withdrawn. One interesting feature of Searle's view is that he holds that political facts could not exist without language and armed violence. What makes it true that Bush is president is that enough people regard him as and accept him as president. And this they do by accepting the entire governmental system. But the governmental system would not remain in place if it were not 'backed by the threat of armed violence' (p. 108). It is only through the threat of armed violence that the government can be sustained as the ultimate system with ultimate power.

As noted at the outset, the essay on political power was intended as a public lecture. It does not deviate much from the theory Searle set out in the Construction of Social Reality and Rationality in Action. The essay raises important fundamental questions, such as 'what is a constitutive rule?', 'what makes social and political facts true?', 'how is a governmental system sustained?' A brief remark on the second question. On Searle's view, what makes it true that Bush is president is that we have imposed the president status function on Bush. He has the status function only insofar as we continue to believe that he has certain obligations and powers. But maybe this is overstating the role our alleged acceptance of Bush has in keeping him in place. Perhaps it is true that the continued acceptance of the governmental system is needed in order to sustain the government. And maybe it is also true that collectively we decided to impose a status function on Bush. But, it seems, the president status function is not sustained by our beliefs. Rather, it seems to be a role in a system that can be filled by different individuals. What characterizes the role is a collection of formal properties. What makes it true that Bush is president is that Bush fills the role. In this sense, the president status function is akin to numbers, it is a role in a larger system defined by its relations to other places in the order.

In sum: for those already familiar with Searle's philosophy, Freedom & Neurobiology introduces few new issues but it sheds light on old ones, and it clearly and concisely states Searle's views on a number of issues, including language, collective intentionality, free will, and the self.

Note: My colleague Gualtiero Piccinini was also asked to review the book for CUP. His review can be found here.

John Searle, the Free Speech Movement

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