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The Mystery of Consciousness’: An Exchange

To the Editor:

John Searle and I have a deep disagreement about how to study the mind. For Searle, it is all really quite simple. There are these bedrock, time-tested intuitions we all have about consciousness, and any theory that challenges them is just preposterous. I, on the contrary, think that the persistent problem of consciousness is going to remain a mystery until we find some such dead obvious intuition and show that, in spite of first appearances, it is false! One of us is dead wrong, and the stakes are high. Searle sees my position as “a form of intellectual pathology”; no one should be surprised to learn that the feeling is mutual. Searle has tradition on his side. My view is remarkably counterintuitive at first, as he says. But his view has some problems, too, which emerge only after some rather subtle analysis. Now how do we proceed? We each try to mount arguments to demonstrate our case and show the other side is wrong.

For my part, knowing that I had to move a huge weight of traditional opinion, I tried something indirect: I deliberately postponed addressing the big fat philosophical questions until I could build up quite an elaborate theory on which to found an alternative perspective—only then did I try to show the readers how they could live with its counterintuitive implications after all. Searle doesn’t like this strategy of mine; he accuses me of lack of candor and detects “a certain evasiveness” about the early chapters, since “he conceals what he really thinks.” Nonsense. I went out of my way at the beginning to address this very issue (my little parable of the madman who says there are no animals, pp. 43–45), warning the reader of what was to come. No cards up my sleeve, but watch out—I’m coming after some of your most deeply cherished intuitions.

For his part, he has one argument, the Chinese Room, and he has been trotting it out, basically unchanged, for fifteen years. It has proven to be an amazingly popular number among the non-experts, in spite of the fact that just about everyone who knows anything about the field dismissed it long ago. It is full of well-concealed fallacies. By Searle’s own count, there are over a hundred published attacks on it. He can count them, but I guess he can’t read them, for in all those years he has never to my knowledge responded in detail to the dozens of devastating criticisms they contain; he has just presented the basic thought experiment over and over again. I just went back and counted: I am dismayed to discover that no less than seven of those published criticisms are by me (in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993). Searle debated me furiously in the pages of the NYRB back in 1982, when Douglas Hofstadter and I first exposed the cute tricks that make the Chinese Room “work.” That was the last time Searle addressed any of my specific criticisms until now. Now he trots out the Chinese Room yet one more time and has the audacity to ask “Now why does Dennett not face the actual argument as I have stated it? Why does he not tell us which of the three premises he rejects in the Chinese Room Argument?” Well, because I have already done so, in great detail, in several of the articles he has never deigned to answer. For instance, in “Fast Thinking” (way back in The Intentional Stance, 1987) I explicitly quoted his entire three premise argument and showed exactly why all three of them are false, when given the interpretation they need for the argument to go through! Why didn’t I repeat that 1987 article in my 1991 book? Because, unlike Searle, I had gone on to other things. I did, however, cite my 1987 article prominently in a footnote (p. 436), and noted that Searle’s only response to it had been simply to declare, without argument, that the points offered there were irrelevant. The pattern continues; now he both ignores that challenge and goes on to misrepresent the further criticisms of the Chinese Room that I offered in the book under review, but perhaps he has forgotten what I actually wrote in the four years it has taken him to write his review.

But enough about the Chinese Room. What do I have to offer on my side? I have my candidate for the fatally false intuition, and it is indeed the very intuition Searle invites the reader to share with him, the conviction that we know what we’re talking about when we talk about that feeling—you know, the feeling of pain that is the effect of the stimulus and the cause of the dispositions to react—the quale, the “intrinsic” content of the subjective state. How could anyone deny that!? Just watch—but you have to pay close attention. I develop my destructive arguments against this intuition by showing how an objective science of consciousness is possible after all, and how Searle’s proposed “first-person” alternative leads to self-contradiction and paradox at every turning. This is the “deepest mistake” in my book, according to Searle, and he sets out to “expose” it. The trouble is that the objective scientific method I describe (under the alarming name of heterophenomenology) is nothing I invented; it is in fact exactly the method tacitly endorsed and relied upon by every scientist working on consciousness, including Crick, Edelman, and Rosenfield. They have no truck with Searle’s “intrinsic” content and “ontological subjectivity”; they know better.

Searle brings this out amusingly in his own essay. He heaps praise on Gerald Edelman’s neuroscientific theory of consciousness, but points out at the end that it has a minor problem—it isn’t about consciousness! “So the mystery remains.” Edelman’s theory is not about Searle’s brand of consciousness, that’s for sure. No scientific theory could be. But Edelman’s theory is about consciousness, and has some good points to make. (The points of Edelman’s that Searle admiringly recounts are not really the original part of Edelman’s theory—they are more or less taken for granted by everyone working on the topic, though Edelman is right to emphasize them. If Searle had read me in the field he would realize that.) Edelman supports his theory with computer simulations such as Darwin III, which Searle carefully describes as “Weak AI.” But in fact Edelman has insisted to me, correctly, that his robot exhibits intentionality as real as any on the planet—it’s just artificial intentionality, and none the worse for that. Edelman got off on the wrong foot by buying Searle’s Chinese Room for a while, but by now I think he’s seen the light. GOFAI (Good Old Fashioned AI—the agent-as-walking-encyclopedia) is dead, but Strong AI is not dead; computational neuroscience is a brand of it. Crick’s doing it; Edelman’s doing it; the Churchlands are doing it, I’m doing it, and so are hundreds of others.

Not Searle. Searle doesn’t have a program of research. He has a set of home truths to defend. They land him in paradox after paradox, but so long as he doesn’t address the critics who point this out, who’ll ever know? For a detailed analysis of the embarrassments in Searle’s position, see my review of The Rediscovery of the Mind, in Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 193–205, April 1993. It recounts case after case of Searle ignoring or misrepresenting his critics, and invites him to dispell the strong impression that this has been deliberate on his part. Searle’s essay in these pages is his only response to that invitation, confirming once again the pattern, as readers familiar with the literature will realize. There is not room in these pages for Searle to repair fifteen years of disregard, so no one should expect him to make good here, but if he would be so kind as to tell us where and when he intends to respond to his critics with the attention and accuracy they deserve, we will know when to resume paying attention to his claims.

Daniel C. Dennett

Tufts University

Medford, Massachusetts

John Searle replies:

In spite of its strident tone, I am grateful for Daniel Dennett’s response to my review because it enables me to make the differences between us crystal clear. I think we all really have conscious states. To remind everyone of this fact I asked my readers to perform the small experiment of pinching the left forearm with the right hand to produce a small pain. The pain has a certain sort of qualitative feeling to it, and such qualitative feelings are typical of the various sorts of conscious events that form the content of our waking and dreaming lives. To make explicit the differences between conscious events and, for example, mountains and molecules, I said consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology. By that I mean that conscious states only exist when experienced by a subject and they exist only from the first-person point of view of that subject.

Such events are the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain. In my account of consciousness I start with the data; Dennett denies the existence of the data. To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies.

I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

I regard his view as self-refuting because it denies the existence of the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain. How does he think he can, so to speak, get away with this? At this point in the argument his letter misrepresents the nature of the issues. He writes that the disagreement between us is about rival “intuitions,” that it is between my “time-tested intuitions” defending “traditional opinion” against his more up-to-date intuitions, and that he and I “have a deep disagreement about how to study the mind.” But the disagreement is not about intuitions and it is not about how to study the mind. It is not about methodology. It is about the existence of the object of study in the first place. An intuition in his sense is just something one feels inclined to believe, and such intuitions often turn out to be false. For example, people have intuitions about space and time that have been refuted by relativity theory in physics. In my review, I gave an example of an intuition about consciousness that has been refuted by neurobiology: the commonsense intuition that our pain in the arm is actually located in the physical space of the arm. But the very existence of my conscious states is not similarly a matter for my intuitions. The refutable intuitions I mentioned require a distinction between how things seem to me and how they really are, a distinction between appearance and reality. But where the existence of conscious states is concerned, you can’t make the distinction between appearance and reality, because the existence of the appearance is the reality in question. If it consciously seems to me that I am conscious, then I am conscious. It is not a matter of “intuitions,” of something I feel inclined to say. Nor is it a matter of methodology. Rather it is just a plain fact about me—and every other normal human being—that we have sensations and other sorts of conscious states.

Now what am I to do, as a reviewer, in the face of what appears to be an obvious and self-refuting falsehood? Should I pinch the author to remind him that he is conscious? Or should I pinch myself and report the results in more detail? The method I adopted in my review was to try to diagnose what philosophical assumptions lead Dennett to deny the existence of conscious states, and as far as I can tell from his letter he has no objection to my diagnosis. He thinks the conclusion that there are no conscious states follows from two axioms that he holds explicitly, the objectivity of science and verificationism. These are, first, that science uses objective or third-person methods, and second, that nothing exists which cannot be verified by scientific methods so construed. I argued at some length in my review that the objectivity of science does not have the consequence he thinks it does. The epistemic objectivity of method does not preclude ontological subjectivity of subject matter. To state this in less fancy jargon: the fact that many people have back pains, for example, is an objective fact of medical science. The existence of these pains is not a matter of anyone’s opinions or attitudes. But the mode of existence of the pains themselves is subjective. They exist only as felt by human subjects. In short the only formal argument I can find in his book for the denial of consciousness rests on a fallacy. He says nothing in his letter to respond to my argument.

But how then does he hope to defend his view? The central claim in his reply is this sentence:

I develop my destructive arguments against this intuition by showing how an objective science of consciousness is possible after all, and how Searle’s proposed “first-person” alternative leads to self-contradiction and paradox at every turning.

He makes two points: one about “objective science” and the other about “self-contradiction and paradox,” so let’s consider these in turn. Dennett reflects in his letter exactly the confusion about objectivity I exposed in his book. He thinks the objective methods of science make it impossible to study people’s subjective feelings and experiences. This is a mistake, as should be clear from any textbook of neurology. The authors use the objective methods of science to try to explain, and help their students to cure, the inner subjective pains, anxieties, and other sufferings of their patients. There is no reason why an objective science cannot study subjective experiences. Dennett’s “objective science of consciousness” changes the subject. It is not about consciousness, but rather is a third-person account of external behavior.

What about his claim that my view that we are conscious “leads to self-contradiction and paradox at every turning.” The claim that he can show self-contradictions in my views, or even one self-contradiction, is, I fear, just bluff. If he can actually show or derive a formal contradiction, where is it? In the absence of any examples, the charge of self-contradiction is empty.

What about the paradoxes of consciousness? In his book he describes various puzzling and paradoxical cases from the psychological and neurobiological literature. I think these are the best parts of his book. Indeed one of the features that makes neurobiology fascinating is the existence of so many experiments with surprising and sometimes paradoxical results. The logical form of Dennett’s argument is this: the paradoxical cases would not seem paradoxical if only we would give up our “intuition” that we are really conscious. But this conclusion is unwarranted. The cases are interesting to us because we all know in advance that we are conscious. Nothing in any of those experiments, paradoxical as they may be, shows that we do not have qualitative conscious states of the sort I describe. These sorts of arguments could not disprove the existence of the data, for reasons I tried to explain in my review, which I have repeated here and which Dennett does not attempt to answer. To summarize, I have claimed:

  1. Dennett denies the existence of consciousness.

  2. He is mistaken in thinking that the issue about the existence of consciousness is a matter of rival intuitions.

  3. The philosophical argument that underlies his view is fallacious. It is a fallacy to infer from the fact that science is objective, the conclusion that it cannot recognize the existence of subjective states of consciousness.

  4. The actual arguments presented in his book, which show that conscious states are often paradoxical, do not show that they do not exist.

  5. The distinction between appearance and reality, which arguments like his appeal to, does not apply to the very existence of conscious states, because in such cases the appearance is the reality.

Those are the chief points I want to make. The reader in a hurry can stop here. But Dennett claims, correctly, that I don’t always answer every time every accusation he makes against me. So let me take up every substantive point in his letter.

  1. He claims that Crick, Edelman, and Rosenfield agree with him that conscious states as I have described them do not exist. “They have no truck” with them, he tells us. He also claims that Crick and Edelman are adherents of Strong AI. From my knowledge of these authors and their work, I have to say I found nothing in their writing to suggest they wish to deny the existence of consciousness, nothing to support the view that they adhere to Strong AI, and plenty to suggest that they disagree with Dennett on these points. Personal communication with Edelman and Crick since the publication of my review confirms my understanding of their views. Dennett cites no textual evidence to support his claims.

Indeed, Dennett is the only one of the authors I reviewed who denies the existence of the conscious experiences we are trying to explain and is the only one who thinks that all the experiences we take to be conscious are merely operations of a computing machine. In the history of the subject, however, he is by no means unique; nor is his approach new. His views are a mixture of strong AI and an extension of the traditional behaviorism of Gilbert Ryle, Dennett’s teacher in Oxford decades ago. Dennett concedes that GOFAI, Good Old Fashioned AI, is dead. (He used to believe it. Too bad he didn’t tell us why it is dead or who killed it off). But he thinks that contemporary computational neuroscience is a form of Strong AI, and here, in my view, he is also mistaken. There are indeed experts on computational neuroscience who believe in Strong AI, but it is by no means essential to constructing computational models of neurobiological phenomena that you believe that all there is to having a mind is having the right computer program.

  1. One of Dennett’s claims in his letter is so transparently false as to be astonishing. He says I have ignored and not responded to criticisms of my Chinese Room argument and to other related arguments. “Fifteen years of disregard,” he tells us. This is a distinctly odd claim for someone to make in responding to a review in which I had just answered the objections he makes in his book. And it is contradicted by the record of literally dozens of occasions where I have responded to criticism. I list some of these below.* Much else could be cited. I have not responded to every single objection to my views because not every objection has seemed worth responding to, but it should be clear from the record that Dennett’s claim that I have not replied to criticism is simply baffling.

In recent years the issues have escalated in interesting ways. I took up the general issue of computational theories of cognition in my Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association in 1990, and this appeared in an expanded version in my book The Rediscovery of Mind (1992). There I developed the argument that I restated in my review of Dennett to the effect that the Chinese Room argument if anything conceded too much to computationalism. The original argument showed that the semantics of human cognition is not intrinsic to the formal syntactical program of a computer. My new argument shows that the syntax of the program is not intrinsic to the physics of the hardware, but rather requires an outside interpreter who assigns a computational interpretation to the system. (If I am right about this, it is devastating to Dennett’s claim that we can just discover that consciousness, even in his sense, is a von Neumann machine, virtual or otherwise. In his letter, Dennett says nothing in response.)

  1. Dennett’s letter has a peculiar rhetorical quality in that he is constantly referring to some devastating argument against me that he never actually states. The crushing argument is always just offstage, in some review he or somebody else wrote or some book he published years ago, but he can’t quite be bothered to state the argument now. When I go back and look at the arguments he refers to, I don’t find them very impressive. Since he thinks they are decisive, let me mention at least one, his 1987 attack on the Chinese Room argument.

He says correctly that when I wrote my review I took his book to be his definitive statement of his position on the Chinese room and did not consult his earlier works. (In fact I did not know that he had produced a total of seven published attacks on this one short argument of mine until I saw his letter). He now claims to have refuted all three premises of the argument in 1987. But I have just reread the relevant chapter of his book and find he did nothing of the sort, nor did he even make a serious effort to attack the premises. Rather he misstates my position as being about consciousness rather than about semantics. He thinks that I am only concerned to show that the man in the Chinese Room does not consciously understand Chinese, but I am in fact showing that he does not understand Chinese at all, because the syntax of the program is not sufficient for the understanding of the semantics of a language, whether conscious or unconscious. Furthermore he presupposes a kind of behaviorism. He assumes that a system that behaves as if it had mental states, must have mental states. But that kind of behaviorism is precisely what is challenged by the argument. So I have to confess that I don’t find that the weakness of his arguments in his recent book is helped by his 1987 arguments.

  1. Dennett resents the fact that I characterize his rhetorical style as “having a certain evasiveness” because he does not state his denial of the existence of conscious states clearly and unambiguously at the beginning of his book and then argue for it. He must have forgotten what he admitted in response to another critic who made a similar complaint, the psychologist Bruce Mangen. Here is what he said:

He [Mangen] accuses me of deliberately concealing my philosophical conclusions until late in the book, of creating a “presumptive mood,” of relying on “rhetorical devices” rather than stating my “anti-realist” positions at the outset and arguing for them. Exactly! That was my strategy…. Had I opened with a frank declaration of my final conclusions I would simply have provoked a chorus of ill-concealed outrage and that brouhaha would have postponed indefinitely any remotely even-handed exploration of the position I want to defend.

What he boasts of in response to Mangen is precisely the “evasiveness” I was talking about. When Mangen makes the charge, he says “Exactly!” When I make the same charge, he says, “Nonsense.” But when a philosopher holds a view that he is pretty sure is right but which may not be popular, he should, I suggest, try to state it as clearly as he can and argue for it as strongly as he can. A “brouhaha” is not an excessive price to pay for candor.

  1. Dennett says I propose no research program. That is not true. The main point of my review was to urge that we need a neurobiological account of exactly how micro-level brain processes cause qualitative states of consciousness, and how exactly those states are features of neurobiological systems. Dennett’s approach would make it impossible to attack and solve these questions, which as I said, I regard as the most important questions in the biological sciences.

6. Dennett says that I advance only one argument, the Chinese Room. This is not true. There are in fact two independent sets of arguments, one about strong AI, one about the existence of consciousness. The Chinese Room is one argument in the first set, but the deeper argument against computationalism is that the computational features of a system are not intrinsic to its physics alone, but require a user or interpreter. Some people have made interesting criticisms of this second argument, but not Dennett in his book or in this exchange. He simply ignores it. About consciousness, I must say that if someone persistently denies the existence of consciousness itself, traditional arguments, with premises and conclusions, may never convince him. All I can do is remind the readers of the facts of their own experiences. Here is the paradox of this exchange: I am a conscious reviewer consciously answering the objections of an author who gives every indication of being consciously and puzzlingly angry. I do this for a readership that I assume is conscious. How then can I take seriously his claim that consciousness does not really exist?

  1. *

    In 1980, I responded to twenty-eight critics of the Chinese Room argument in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, including Dennett, by the way. Responses to another half dozen critics appeared in BBS in 1982. Still further replies to Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter appeared in these pages in 1982. I took up the issue again in my Reith Lectures on the BBC in 1984, published in my book, Minds, Brains and Science. I also debated several well-known advocates of Strong AI, in the New York Academy of Science in 1984, and this was published in the academy proceedings. Another exchange in the New York Review in 1989 with Elhanan Motzkin was followed by a debate with Paul and Patricia Churchland in the Scientific American in 1990. There is a further published debate with Jerry Fodor in 1991. All of this is only the material published up to the Nineties. On the tenth anniversary of the original publication, at the BBS editor’s invitation, I published another article expanding the discussion to cognitive science explanations generally. In the ensuing debate in that journal I responded to over forty critics. More recently, in 1994 and 1995, I have responded to a series of discussions of The Rediscovery of the Mind in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. There is besides a rather hefty volume, called John Searle and His Critics, in which I respond to many critics and commentators on all sorts of related questions.

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