The Rediscovery of the Mind
According to a widely held view, the brain is a giant computer and the relation of the human mind to the human brain is like that of a computer program to the electronic hardware on which it runs. The philosopher John Searle, a dragon-slayer by temperament, has set out to show that this claim, together with the materialist tradition underlying it, is nonsense, for reasons some of which are obvious and some more subtle. Elaborating arguments that he and others have made over the past twenty years, he attacks most of the cognitive science establishment and then offers a theory of his own about the nature of mind and its relation to the physical world. If this pungent book is right, the computer model of the mind is not just doubtful or imperfect, but totally and glaringly absurd.
His main reasons are two. First, the essence of the mind is consciousness: all mental phenomena are either actually or potentially conscious. And none of the familiar materialist analyses of mind can deal with conscious experience: they leave it out, either by not talking about it or by identifying it with something else that has nothing to do with consciousness. Second, computers which do not have minds can be described as running programs, processing information, manipulating symbols, answering questions, and so on only because they are so constructed that people, who do have minds, can interpret their physical operations in those ways. To ascribe a computer program to the brain implies a mind that can interpret what the brain does; so the idea of explaining the mind in terms of such a program is incoherent.
Searle’s book begins with a lucid critical survey of the different views now circulating about the relation of the mind to the body. The mind-body problem was posed in its modern form only in the seventeenth century, with the emergence of the scientific conception of the physical world on which we are now all brought up. According to that conception, the physical world is in itself colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and can be described mathematically by laws governing the behavior of particles and fields of force in space and time. Certain physical phenomena cause us to have perceptual experience—we see color and hear sound—but the qualities we experience do not belong to the light and sound waves described by physics. We get at the physical reality by “peeling off” the subjective effects on our senses and the way things appear from a human point of view, consigning those to the mind, and trying to construct an objective theory of the world outside our minds that will systematically explain the experimental observations and measurements on which all scrupulous observers agree. However radically the content of contemporary physics and its conception of the role of the observer may differ from that of classical physics, it is still in search of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.