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This new book by John Searle is, strictly speaking, neither new nor a book. To begin with, it consists of just two essays ('Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology' & 'Social Ontology and Political Power') brought together through a longish introduction ('Philosophy and the Basic Facts') in which Searle confesses that they have little in common save for the fact that they are both parts of 'a larger philosophical enterprise' (p.3), which he proceeds to identify. The essays were first published together in French (sans introduction and more or less without Searle's knowledge) three years ago, and soon after translated into German, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. But they were old news even back in 2004: earlier versions of the first essay had already appeared in English in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (2000), Philosophy (2001), and as a chapter in Rationality in Action (2001), while the second essay was first published in English in a collection edited by F. Schmitt in 2003. As for the introduction, while undoubtedly helpful to those readers who are relatively new to Searle's work, it is essentially a condensed update of 1999's Mind, Language, and Society. But recycling matters aside, this engaging small volume serves as a token reminder of how masterfully Searle manages to combine philosophical innovation with clarity of prose, something that is all-too-often absent from current analytic philosophy.
Searle's aforementioned life-project is that of attempting to reconcile a common-sense understanding of the world (inspired by, if not quite in tune with, the ordinary language philosophy of his mentors) with an empirically driven methodology and accompanying naturalist ontology. One large part of this enterprise involves the attempt to defend a realist conception of social constructs such as those of money, property, and citizenship. Searle has argued, for example, that what makes it the case that a certain piece of paper counts as a five-dollar note is the rule-governed use to which people agree to put it. In addition, he has demonstrated that such an explanation (of why certain pieces of paper have monetary value while others do not) does not make social constructions, such as that of money, any less real or objective than what he calls 'brute physical objects', such as paper (but see below). This view, which owes much to the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, explains how it is that there can be objective facts about matters relating to such constructions (e.g. why and how it is that we can distinguish between real and counterfeit five-dollar bills).
One worry here is that, for all his realism, Searle is setting up an artificial boundary between what he considers to be brute physical entities and what he takes to be social constructs. After all the notion of 'paper' is no more brute than that of 'money' or 'property' and, conversely, a piece of money or property is no less brute a physical entity than a piece of paper. We might therefore object that all individuation is social in the sense that agreement about language use is a prerequisite for it, and indeed for realism too. Notwithstanding such difficulties, the second essay published here is a welcome extension of this theory of social reality to the notion of political power. It involves few novel moves, a fact which counts in favour of both the original view and the method of extension employed by Searle. Having said this, it is worth noting that his conclusion that 'with few exceptions, if no police and no army, then no government' (p. 109) rests on an empirical assumption that (while plausible) has little to do with either language or collective agreement.
While Searle's work on the construction of social reality has received much attention (including three recent books) his writings on free will have been virtually ignored, the main exception being Ted Honderich's occasionally insightful but predominantly rude and pedestrian response to an earlier version of the first essay (2001's 'Mind the Guff' - not mentioned in the present volume). It is therefore worth taking the time to place his latest thoughts on the matter in relation to his previous writings.
The problem of free will, Searle has always maintained, is that of reconciling our common-sense 'volitional consciousness' of free will (which he sometimes refers to as a 'fact of subjective experience') with the 'objective view' (based on what he calls our 'scientific belief' that everything in nature can be accounted for in terms of physical particles and their relations) that there can be no such thing. The trouble, he claims, is that the two pictures are inconsistent, yet we have good reason to want to hold on to both.
Searle's attitude towards this dilemma, however, has changed over the years in several in several key respects. We can map these changes onto three distinct stages in Searle's body of work. The first is evidenced in 1984's in Minds, Brains and Science where he concluded that although on the whole 'our commonsense mentalistic conception of ourselves is perfectly consistent with our conception of nature as a physical system' he was unable to reconcile his commonsense conception of our having free will with his scientific belief in determinism. Searle remained agnostic as to which of the two was wrong. The second, most pessimistic stage, saw Searle torn between incompatibilist determinism and some new unknown version of compatibilism. He was now adamant that 'there are no corresponding gaps in the brain' (p. 107 of 1999's Mind Language, and Society).Libertarianism seemed a far cry away... I now turn to the third stage, which first surfaced in his aforementioned 2000-2001 articles of which the first half of this book is an updated version.
Present Searle sets out to demonstrate the 'empirical possibility' of not one but three gaps in the brain, each corresponding to a gap in our psychological understanding of ourselves. He does not claim anything so grand as to have solved the problem of free will, but merely to have re-introduced the possibility of indeterminist libertarianism into the picture. Yet this is not just a retreat to the view originally expressed in Minds, Brains, and Science. That view was agnostic, Searle seeing the dilemma in question as a choice between two things (hard determinism and libertarianism), neither of which we would intuitively reject. In his more recent work, by contrast, his attitude has become far more optimistic: neurobiology could actually prove that determinism is false! Moreover, there is no longer any question of compatibilism: 'according to the definitions of these terms that I am using' he tells us, 'determinism and free will are not compatible'(47). What has changed? Why does Searle suddenly take the force of our 'scientific belief' that we are determined to be outweighed by that of our 'volitional consciousness' of free will? We would do well to take a closer look at what might be meant by each of these two terms before attempting to answer such a question.
A 'scientific belief' is, presumably, either a belief supported by scientific evidence or a belief about something which belongs in the realm of science. In his early stages Searle clearly understood the term in both these senses: he believed that the proper study of mankind was a scientific one and that science has show determinism to be universally true. By contrast when Searle first introduced his talk of 'our experience of the gaps' or our 'volitional consciousness' as being a 'fact of subjective experience', it was clear that while the fact in question was an objective one concerning what it feels like to act (after all, Searle has always maintained that 'the existence of subjectivity is an objective fact like any other' cf. Minds, Brains and Science, p.25), it was neither about science not proven by it. Rather, he took it to be a phenomenological fact known through first-person authority. Searle's account of the problem of free will, then, saw him trying to weigh this fact about what it feels like to act (viz. undetermined) against our 'scientific belief' that everything in the world is determined. The latter view may be viewed as being more objective only in the sense that it is a view about whether or not we do in fact have free will, whilst the former is based on a fact about whether or not it feels as if we have free will.
But so put the two views cannot be in competition with each other since it may be perfectly true that we have been caused to feel free when in fact all our acts are determined (a point which Honderich strongly emphasizes in 'Mind the Guff'). This would be analogous to a Muller-Lyer illusion where it is true both that we cannot stop one line looking like it is longer than the other even though we know that they are in fact exactly the same in length
Anticipating such objections, Searle notes that the difference between these two kinds of case is that we cannot abandon our belief in free will because 'that conviction is built into every normal, conscious intentional action, and we use this conviction in identifying and explaining actions' (Rationality in Action, p.97). But this is neither here nor there since the fact that we cannot give it up doesn't show that it might not be an illusion. In short, the two views do not seem to be in any serious competition, for the mere having of a feeling is no grounds for believing any claim to reality which it might contain. And since Searle understands the question of free will as that of determining whether or not our experience of causal gaps is matched by corresponding gaps on the neurobiological level, it would appear that while doing philosophy we have no choice but to agree with our scientific belief in determinism, and pay no attention to our volitional consciousness (even if it is impossible to ditch it). In short, there seems to be no philosophical problem at all here but only a psychological difficulty/impossibility.
The above perspective best fits his middle pessimistic period but clearly things have changed for Searle since then. While his definition of 'volitional consciousness' remains the same and he still maintains that the question of free will vs. determinism is a scientific one ('how might that gap be reflected at the neurobiological level?' he asks on p. 59), Searle is no longer so certain that complete determinism is supported by scientific evidence. For example on p.62 he claims that it is possible that neurobiology could one day prove that 'the absence of causally sufficient conditions at the psychological level is matched by an absence of causally sufficient conditions at the neurobiological level'.
This new belief in the possibility of neurobiological 'gaps' can only be understood as an abandonment of his previous conviction in the absolute truth of our 'scientific belief' in universal determinism. Once this conviction has been shaken, then given that he (as I have tried to show wrongly) takes our 'volitional consciousness' to carry some incredibly serious weight (if he didn't there would never have been a dilemma to begin with) there is nothing stopping him from becoming an all-out libertarian. It is hard to see how he can do so while still maintaining that there is a genuine dilemma at issue; for to believe that neurobiological 'gaps' are an empirical possibility is to reject a premise crucial to Searle' s formulation of the free will problem, namely that of a 'scientific belief' in universal determinism.
But how scientific is this belief really? Searle himself is the first to admit that it is motivated by a'metaphysical assumption that the universe is a closed physical system entirely determined by the laws of physics' (Rationality in Action, p. 270). This principle that has no doubt been employed in successful science, but it is not a fact of science by any stretch of the imagination (and its truth is no more required from a pragmatic point of view than that of Newtonian mechanics). He is also right to maintain that science has not proven the assumption true, while readily acknowledging that he hasn't proven it false (but has merely shown that its truth is an open question, both logically and empirically). It is peculiar, however, to find him suggesting that science could itself tell us whether or not universal determinism is true. How does he think it can do this?
Searle's answer would appear to be that science could show that the structure and behavior of our microelements need not always be sufficient to determine the next state of our system. Yet his suggestion as to how it could do this is deeply puzzling on a number of levels. First and foremost, it seems to involve indeterminism, Searle claiming that 'it is tempting, indeed irresistible, to think that the explanation of the conscious experience of free will must be a manifestation of quantum indeterminism at the level of conscious, rational decision making' (p. 74).This is odd because earlier on Searle rightly asserts that 'so far quantum indeterminism gives us no help with the free will problem, because that indeterminism introduces randomness into the basic structure of the universe, and the hypothesis that some of our acts occur freely is not at all the same as the hypothesis that some of our acts are random' (p. 44-5). They key, of course, lay hidden in the words 'so far'. For at the end of the essay Searle reveals his view that 'the indeterminacy at the micro level may…explain the indeterminacy of the system, but randomness at the micro level does not by itself imply randomness at the system level' (p. 76). The suggestion here is that randomness at a micro level may be compatible with rationality at a macro-level. Even if this were true, it would not pave the way towards a neurobiological solution to Searle's free will problem since there would be no scientific way of determining whether the rationality exhibited was in any way connected to the indeterminism, and yet this is exactly what Searle's libertarianism requires. More importantly, surely a genuine libertarianism would have the rational decisions causally explain the neural indeterminacy, and not vice versa . Of course this would imply that the universe is not physically closed, something which Searle is reluctant to give up. In wanting to hang on to both this and libertarianism, it would appear that Searle wants to have his ice-cream and eat it too.
© 2007 Constantine Sandis
Constantine Sandis is a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University