Random acts of brain chemistry

Freedom and Neurobiology
June 8, 2007

A human-centred prospectus for philospophy impresses Barry Smith

Philosophers seldom tell you what philosophy is. But in a chapter entitled "Philosophy and the Basic Facts", John Searle explains how most of philosophy boils down to one overriding question: how do we - as conscious, rational, self-determining, communicating agents who gather in societies under some political organisation - fit into the world of matter and causes?

The overriding question has a number of sub-parts dealing with major problems of philosophy, most of which have already been addressed by Searle at book length. These include the problem of consciousness; the nature of rationality; the problem of free will; the nature of language; the nature of social facts; and now the latest problem, the nature and justification of political authority. Searle describes how these problems stack up, and the result is a prospectus for philosophy.

The opening chapter is one of the best and clearest introductions to the subject one could wish for, and worth the price of the book alone. It provides a guide to philosophy, but also a guide to Searle. Interestingly, Searle wrote the introduction only after discovering that a book had appeared, in French, comprising two lectures he gave at the Sorbonne. When the lectures on the distinct themes of "Free Will and Neurobiology" and "Social Ontology and Political Power" appeared in further translations in Italian, German and Chinese, he decided to produce an English version and to write an introduction trying to connect the two themes that make up the remaining chapters of this book. We have those French publishers to thank for causing Searle to produce this impressive overview of philosophy.

Another notable feature of the book is how upbeat Searle is about the prospects of progress in philosophy. We are in a better position than ever, he says, to provide answers to the traditional problems. One reason is that philosophical insights have led us to reform or discard parts of our thinking that made the problems seem intractable. Another is progress in neuroscience. The philosopher's contribution is to put the problems in precise enough form to admit of scientific resolution.

However, a further reason for Searle's optimism is surely the way he has seen his own philosophical work become more systematic and increasingly part of a large system of thought offering to connect approaches to the great problems of philosophy. This is due in part to the hierarchical ordering he imposes on the problems he deals with, where the solution to each depends on progress at the level below. Thus, once we explain consciousness we can begin to account for rationality, and with rationality in place we can explain how we use language. Once we have language, we can create social facts and institutions, defining them into existence by agreeing to treat one thing (say, pieces of paper) as another (for example, money).

Similarly, once we have institutions we can frame political constitutions that legitimate power. The ordering is, of course, controversial. Many philosophers believe that it is individuals' participation in a linguistic community that provides them with rationality, with language as the storehouse of reason. And on the wilder fringes of the subject, some see political reality as constructing both language and our status as individuals. Searle has already tangled with these ideas. His book The Construction of Social Reality was an attempt to correct the rather fanciful claims that reality is socially constructed while acknowledging the sense in which there is social reality. Searle's hierarchy looks plausible, give or take some quibbles about relations between mind and language, so long as it allows constructs at one level to come to exert a shaping influence on the sort of materials out of which they were originally constructed. However, some of reality's other philosophically puzzling phenomena that are more or less dependent on us - colours, sounds, tastes, smells, and space and time - are neglected.

The odd one out in Searle's hierarchy is the notion of free will. Arguably, it is the least amenable to his approach. We need rationality if we are to decide freely what to do, and we need free will if we are to speak freely and creatively. However, placing it between rationality and language does nothing by itself to help us see it as one of the way-stations in the hierarchical climb. Searle is aware of this, and in the first lecture in the collection, "Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology", he considers challenges that stand in our way. The problem of free will is easy to state but hard to solve. It centres on the idea that our intervention in the world makes a difference. What happens when we act did not have to happen: it happened because we chose to do it.

The problem is to see how our ability to choose one thing rather than another is compatible with neurobiological facts about brain chemistry causing effects that come about with our intervention. Every physical event has a cause and what goes on in the brain and body is caused by preceding states of the brain and body. We cannot change our brain chemistry or our past states. So in what sense could we have acted otherwise? Acting freely suggests that we had other options available, while facts at the neurological level tell us about a causal history we were powerless to change. Searle considers two hypotheses to deal with the problem. The most likely, he tells us, is that free will is an illusion and that our decisions make no contribution to the world. This is bleak and evolutionarily unlikely. The other hypothesis rests on quantum indeterminacy at the micro level of the brain. At that level there is a certain amount of randomness. But behaving randomly is not the same as acting freely. So while indeterminacy at the micro level gives rise to indeterminacy at the macro level - the whole person - there must be a way in which randomness at the micro level fails to imply randomness at the level of the person. Perhaps in this way some feature of the system as a whole can have causal impact on the behaviour of the system even though it is nothing but its parts. Searle admits that neither hypothesis offers much of a solution. The second just introduces further mysteries. Thus, unlike the other topics he discusses, we have made little progress on the problem of free will.

Confidence returns, however, in the second lecture on the nature of social facts and political power. If we grant Searle that consciousness is a higher-level biological feature of the brain, and that conscious creatures with rationality can have both collective intentionality and language, we can construct everything from money and marriage to universities and vice-chancellors, nations and democratically elected presidents. The crucial jump is the assumption of collective intentionality: shared beliefs, desires or intentions that agents are aware of sharing. When creatures who are at this stage have language they can agree to confer status functions, as Searle calls them, on objects or people. In treating one thing as another on a given occasion it comes to take on that function.

Thus the basic form for social, institutional or political construction is to treat X as Y in circumstances C. We can treat paper as money, a building as a jail, a person as a leader. These things are recognised as being what they are because they are "acknowledged, recognised and accepted" as being such things by collective agreement. Such properties and powers are not intrinsic properties of their objects: they are observer-dependent. And yet there are objective facts about objects having these functions.

Representing one thing as another under the right circumstances constitutes it being such a thing. Thus it matters to political power and legitimacy how authority for it was created. In such days of world conflicts one suspects these issues are preoccupying Searle, and it is good to see a philosopher contribute to them in the course of fundamental inquiry.

As an inquirer, the book will not give you everything you want. But if you want to know how physical theories of the world leave room for conscious, rational, language-using creatures who choose freely what to do, from time to time, and organise themselves into political groupings, this is a pretty good place to start.

Barry Smith is senior lecturer in the school of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London, and deputy director of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power

Author - John R. Searle
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 128
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 9780231137522

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