John Searle on the Current Situation

If anyone has read through my transporter ramblings, one thing is clear: this blog needs professional help. Cue John Searle, one of the best philosophical writers of his generation, who has been at UC Berkeley since 1959. Here’s how he sees the situation in philosophy in the 21st century.


from “The Phenomenological Illusion”  p. 108-109 in Philosophy in a New Century (CUP 2008)

Before beginning my discussion of phenomenology, I want to say a little bit about how I see the contemporary philosophical scene. There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy. As a preliminary formulation, we can say the question is: How do we account for our conceptions of ourselves as a certain sort of human being in a universe that we know consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force. More precisely: Given that any sort of Cartesianism or other form of metaphysical dualism is out of the question, how do we give an account of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, speech-act performing, ethical, free-will possessing, political and social animals in a world that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless brute physical particles. Most of the important questions of philosophy are variations on this single question. So, the question of free will and determinism is: How can we have free action in a universe that is determined in accordance with causal laws? The problem of ethics is: How can there be an ethical right and wrong in a world of meaningless physical particles? The question of consciousness is: How can unconscious bits of matter in the skull cause consciousness, and how can irreducibly subjective states of consciousness exist in an entirely “physical” world? The question in the philosophy of language is: How can brute physical sounds that come out of a speaker’s mouth constitute the performance of meaningful speech acts? The question for society is: How can there be an objective reality of money, property, government and marriage when all of these phenomena only exist, in some sense, because we believe that they exist? How is it possible that human beings can, by their subjective thought processes, create an objective social reality? And so on with other philosophical questions that are variations on the central question. I am deliberately putting these points in a very crude fashion; and, as analytic philosophers, you will all recognize that before we go to work on them, they would need much more careful statement. How, then, can we and should we approach this question or this set of questions?

Our question is, How does the human reality fit into the basic reality? And what is the basic underlying reality? Well, that is a complicated story, but two central features of it can be stated quite simply. We know that the basic structure of the entire universe consists in entities that we find it convenient (if not entirely accurate) to call “particles”, and these exist in fields of force and are typically organized into systems. We know furthermore that we and all living systems have evolved over a period of somewhere between three and five billion years by processes of Darwinian natural selection. It is a deep mistake to think that these two propositions are just theories of science. “Science” is the name of a set of procedures by which we have identified the truth, but once identified, the truth is public property. It does not belong to some special domain; indeed “science” does not name an ontological domain. These two propositions are now so widely accepted that it is hardly necessary for me to belabor them. I also want to add a third. In addition to the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology, we have to add the neurobiological basis of all human and animal mental life. All of our consciousness, intentionality, and all the rest of our mental life, is caused by neurobiological processes and realized in neurobiological systems. This is not as universally accepted as the first two propositions; but it will be, and for the purposes of this discussion I am going to take it for granted. These three propositions taken together—atomic physics, evolutionary biology, and embodied brain neurobiology—I will call propositions that describe “the basic facts” or “the basic reality”. So now our philosophical question can be posed more precisely: What are the relations between the human reality and the basic reality?


Searle Teaching2.jpg


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