Ethical Realism

January 22, 2010

Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind

Filed under: metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:47 am
Tags: , , , ,

Some philosophers believe that the mind is a real and separate domain of reality, and this view seems analogous to the belief that morality is a real and separate domain of reality. I will present an example of mental realism and compare it to moral realism. Part of the moral debate is centered around the analogy of moral realism with mental realism. In particular, I will describe John Searle’s realist philosophy of the mind and relate it to moral realism. His philosophy of the mind will be taken from his books Mind and Rationality in Action. To be a mental realist is to accept that minds exist as an irreducible part of the world. I will do the following:

  1. Define mental realism.
  2. Describe Searle’s account of mental causation.
  3. Discuss the analogy between moral and mental realism.

1. What is Mental Realism?

Searle believes that consciousness is irreducible to non-consciousness.1 You know what pain is because you have experienced it before. You can’t define pain as brain activity because the description of the brain activity is insufficient to understand what pain is.2 We know that other people have pain because they have similar biology to us and experience pain for similar reasons. (Touching fire, for example.)

Searle describes consciousness as an irreducible emergent feature. Non-mental facts of the universe (about brains) somehow cause consciousness. Searle rejects what he calls “materialism”3 (the view that only particles and energy really exists) and believes that mental realism is compatible with naturalism4 (the view that there is only one reality and everything is causally connected to particles and energy).

In order to be a mental realist, we hope to admit that mental phenomena actually does something. If the mental description of pain was irrelevant to our behavior, then the mental description would be causally inert. This is what Searle calls mental epiphenomenalism, which means that mental events qua mental don’t do anything.5 Epiphenomenalism is against our experience of mental events. For example, the way we experience pain seems to be a good reason to try to avoid pain. It feels bad. However, if epiphenomenalism is true, then we don’t actually try to avoid pain because of how it feels. We would merely avoid pain (when we do) because of our non-mental brain activity.

It is possible to be a mental realist and to be an epiphenomenalist, but this is not a very interesting position. Realists will want to be able to prove that something is real, irreducible, and can have a causal impact.

2. Mental Causation

How mental causation is possible is mysterious. Physicists see the world as being entirely determined and predictable in terms of atoms, energy, and physical laws, with an additional component of random events (through quantum physics). If mental causation is real, then somehow a part of the universe other than particles and energy is going to end up having an impact on particles and energy. Nonetheless, Searle attempts to understand how mental causation might be possible. Some philosophers think Searle is too optimistic about mental causation in part because he advocates libertarian free will, but I don’t think Searle should have to advocate libertarian free will.6

Searle provides us with two hypotheses concerning mental causation. The first hypothesis is simply that there is no mental causation, and the second is that we have free will. I will also describe a third hypothesis: mental causation without libertarian free will.

Hypothesis 1: Epiphenomealism

He considers that we might experience that we have free will (and the mental description of our actions are causally effective), but such an experience might make no difference. Hypothesis 1 states that our mental activity is caused by our brain state at every moment. He draws a diagram of it as the following:

The top area (deliberations and the decision) is the psychological level of description, and the bottom area (neuron firings) are part of the non-psychological level of description. Neuron firings cause the irreducible description of deliberations on reasons, and neuron firings later on cause the decision. However, the decision wasn’t made because of reasons because reasons are part of an epiphenomenal mental event. More importantly, neuron firings (our brain state) at one moment cause our brain state some time later. Physical causes are all that matter.

Searle also argues that we experience our mental events (deliberations) as being insufficient to cause our decision. No problem. If hypothesis 1 is correct, it’s just an illusion. Neuron firings (brain states) were all that mattered all along.7

This diagram is pretty much how any mental event could be represented. No matter what we experience within our first person perspective, it is caused by nothing other than brain states.

Hypothesis 2: Libertarian Free Will

We experience that we have free will, and the psychological level of description is causally effective. Searle argues that his diagrams will no longer be of use, and our mind is a “system feature” of the brain.8

I propose the following diagram for hypothesis 2 in order to present mental causation at this level, even though it is probably an over-simplification:

This is a diagram of light hitting our eye and causing a brain state (e.g. of a baseball being thrown at us), which gives us a visual experience from the psychological level of description, which could partially cause us to react in a certain way (e.g. to try to catch the ball), which causes a brain state, and the brain state causes the bodily movement of catching the ball.

This diagram could also be used to show why we try to avoid pain. We touch fire, the brain state is affected by the fire, we experience pain from the brain state, the pain partially causes us to try to remove our hand from the fire, the intention to remove our hand causes a brain state, and the brain state causes our hand to be removed from the fire.

Notice that hypothesis 2 requires that the psychological level of description is capable of causing particles to move in the brain. However, Searle at one time admitted, “There are no gaps in the brain,” which is to say that everything is sufficiently caused in the brain (Mind 159).9 This is a big problem because Searle argues that we have free will. If our free will can move particles in indeterminate ways, then the non-psychological level of description will also be indeterminate. How does he try to solve this problem? By admitting that the non-psychological level of description might not have causally sufficient conditions because of quantum physics. “If we keep on going down to the quantum-mechanical level, then it may seem less surprising that we have an absence of causally sufficient conditions” (Rationality 288). Searle might imagine that the psychological level of description is only effective because it can effect the quantum-mechanical level. Searle uses vague terms to explain how mental causation can be possible when he says, “The right way to think of this is not so much “top-down” but as system caution. The system, as a system, is made up of the elements… the system as a conscious system can have effects on individual elements, neurons and synapses, even though the system is made up of them” (Rationality 289).

Hypothesis 3: Non-Libertarian Mental Causation

We could hypothesize the same thing as hypothesis 2 except without libertarian free will. Either we don’t experience libertarian free will or our libertarian free will experience is an illusion. Either way, it seems possible to use reasons without libertarian free will. We could try to avoid pain because it feels bad, even if we don’t have free will.

Hypothesis 3 might also require us to admit that particles in the brain will be moved by the psychological level of description. It might not move particles in a random way, but it might still move them in unexpected ways. Brain states will no longer be sufficient to cause other brain states when described in exclusively in a non-psychological way. However, this does not necessarily require us to admit that the quantum-mechanical level is involved in the process because there is nothing necessarily random about mental causation.

Analogy With Moral Realism

The main analogy with moral realism, is in at least three ways. One, moral realism also requires us to accept irreducible parts of the world. A moral realist would argue that the badness of pain is irreducible to non-moral reality. We can’t understand badness by describing particles and so forth.

Two, if moral realism is true, then we hope that it is causally effective. We hope that the badness of pain actually matters as we experience it by making a difference (helping us decide to avoid pain, for example).

Three, both moral realism and mental realism might require us to accept emergence. Morality and psychology are irreducible levels of description, but they seem to depend on particles (material reality) to exist.

If we can reasonably accept mental realism despite these metaphysical claims, then we might be able to reasonably accept moral realism as well.


I do not know that Searle’s understanding of mental realism is the best theory at this time or that it is the best theory possible, but his theory is sensitive to our actual psychological experiences, and it seems to be a fairly reasonable theory to accept. There are probably other mental realist theories that would also be analogous to moral realism.

If Searle is right that we can reasonably accept an irreducible, causally effective, emergent part of reality, then it might be reasonable to accept moral realism. If moral realism is uniquely unacceptable because it isn’t as reasonable as mental realism, then we need to know what makes moral realism unacceptable.


1 “But why can’t we show that consciousness was an illusion like sunsets and thus do an eliminative reduction? Eliminative reductions rest on the distinction between appearance and reality. But we cannot show that every existence of consciousness is an illusion like sunsets, because where consciousness is concerned the appearance is the realtiy” (Mind 83-84).

2 Perhaps we could discover that pain and certain brain activity is identical, but if so, then there is an entity that has both a mental and a non-mental description, and we shouldn’t necessarily accept that the mental description is a mere illusion. Some people think that water is identical to H2O in this sense. This identity theory seems to involve a sort of property dualism. Searle rejects property dualism because he doesn’t know how it can avoid epiphenomealism—Why should we believe that the mental description (how we experience pain, for example) can have any causal impact?

3 “Materialism tries to say truly that the universe is entirely made up of physical particles that exist in fields of force and ar organized into systems. But it ends up saying falsely that there are no ontologically irreducible mental phenomena” (Mind 88).

4 “As soon as we think that something really exists in the empirical world and we think we undertand it even remotely, we call it ‘physical.’ As parts of the real world, consciousness, intentionality, and rationality are ‘physical’ phenomena, like anything else” (Rationality 270).

5 The view that mental states exist but are causally inert is called, ‘epiphenomenalim.’ On this view consciousness exists alright, but it is like the froth on the wave or the flash of sunlight relected off the surface of the water. It is there but it does not really matter… But this is too counterintuitive. Every time I decide to raise my arm, it goes up. And it is not a random or statistical phenomenon. I do not say, ‘Well, that’ the thing about the old arm. Some days she goes up and some days she doesn’t’” (Mind 20-21).

6 Libertarian free will states that we have the power to choose one thing instead of another without anything causing our decision, and our decision is not made at random. As Searle argues, “[W]e experience our own normal voluntary actions in such a way that we sense alternate possibilities of action open to us, and we sense tht the psychological antecedents of the action are not sufficient to fix the action” (Rationality 277).

7 “The indetermanacy at the psychological level is matched by a completely deterministic system at the neurobiological level” (Rationality 283).

8 “On the alternate view (hypothesis 2), the absence of causally sufficient conditions at the psychological level is matched by a parallel lack of causally sufficient conditions at the neurological level. But what could that possibly mean? What is the diagram supposed to look like on any such hypothesis? At this point it seems to me we have to examine critically the assumptions built into our diagrammatic representation with its metaphors of “bottom-up,” “top-down,” “levels of description,” etc. I think they are going to prove inadequate at this stage. The problem is this: the idea that consciousness is a higher-level or surface feature of the brain gives us a picture of consciousness as like the paint on the surface of the table. Then the question of top-down and bottom-up causation is one of reaching up or reaching down. All of that is wrong. Consciousness is no more on the surface of the brain than liquidity is on the surface of water. Rather the idea we are trying to express is that consciousness is a system feature. It is a feature of the whole system and is present—literally—at all of the relevant places of the system in the same way that the water in a glass is liquid throughout… But then the picture of different levels moving in parallel,which is represented in our diagram, is wrong. The whole system moves at once. (Rationality 286-287)

9 Determinism means “everything has causally sufficient conditions” and determined means “there was causally sufficient conditions.” Searle argues that the brain is determined.

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  1. [...] different sorts of reality), pluralists (people who think there are multiple sorts of reality), or materialistic emergence theorists (people who think that there is only one reality with multiple irreducible elements). Right now I [...]

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  3. [...] “mental realism” and I have already talked about it quite a bit in my essay, “Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind.” The main idea is that the mind is more than the sum of its parts. Some people think that [...]

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  4. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Searle’s philosophy of mind. Most likely, because he admits to the necessity of the physical cause of consciousness, but also allows for experience to be subjective. However, I think his ideas fail in some respect, as does your third hypothesis.

    Given that consciousness is caused by the physical processes of the brain, supervenience would suggest that there could not be a change at the higher level without a corresponding change at a lower level. I am confused as to how the mental, which is already admittedly caused by the physical, could also causally affect the physical, bidirectionally. I would hazard to suggest that the physical processes of thought and reasoning cause the final action, but not that the mental properties could.

    Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

    • Evan,

      How “philosophy of mind” can make complete sense of the mind is indeed an incredibly confusing thing and I don’t think any philosopher has come up with an entirely satisfying hypothesis. At the same time I think Searle has done a pretty good job.

      I think what Searle should say about your worry is that “supervenience” is not like reductionism. The mind is not the brain. The mind itself can influence the brain because the mind is something like a separate physical entity from the brain that has causal efficacy on its own right.

      It might also be that the mind is not entirely supervenient on the brain, and I don’t know what Searle says about that possibility.

      That is the simplest explanation I can come up with, but there are probably other possible explanations that could be better than the one I thought of.

      Comment by James Gray — August 18, 2010 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  5. [...] What is atheistic emergentism? It’s is a form of physicalism that states that everything is physical and natural rather than supernatural, but it also says that some things are “greater than the sum of their parts.” Rather than saying that only atoms and motion exist, the emergentist can say that some things exist because the right “material conditions” have been met. For example, the human mind seems to exist because we have a brain, but it is more than just the brain itself. It is greater than the sum of its parts. To say that the mind is physical or natural doesn’t mean it’s a solid object. This is an overly-restrictive understanding of these terms. The mind is quite strange and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soul. One philosopher who advocates an emergentist explanation of the mind is John Searle. [...]

    Pingback by Philosophy Can Debunk Myths About Atheism – Camels With Hammers — March 13, 2011 @ 5:56 am | Reply

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