Magazine article Humanities
Philosophy of the Mind
PHILOSOPHER JOHN SEARLE challenges the notion that the mind works as a computer. "That's not to say that computers are useless and we shouldn't use them," he says. "But the computer does a model or a simulation of a process. The computer theory of the mind is a fallacy." Searle, Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of California at Berkeley, has devoted his career to a central problem of philosophy-how physical brain matter results in conscious thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and aspirations.
"We have a pretty good knowledge of how the world works from physics, chemistry, and other natural sciences," he says. "So how do we reconcile a commonsense conception we have of ourselves as mindful, free-will-having, speech-acting, rational, ethical, intentional, social beings?"
Searle, whose mother was a medical doctor and whose father was an engineer, describes his methodology as "an engineering approach to philosophical problems." As a philosophical issue, cognitive science "touches on this whole division between the mind and the body, which is something philosophy has never really resolved." Searle's approach is to fight against the notion of the mental and the physical as two separate realms. "The philosophical problem-how is it possible that the mental can be a real part of a world that's entirely physical-I think I can resolve."
Early in his career, Searle focused on language and speech. "How is it that when I make these noises I succeed in performing speech acts or communication?" he explains. "That's the philosophy of language." That investigation led to an exploration of consciousness and intentionality. "How is it possible that the stuff inside my skull can cause consciousness, and I can direct thoughts?" he asks. That pursuit led to considerations about society and his questions such as, "How is it possible that society, through attitudes and behaviors, can create object reality that exists only because we think it can-such as government, universities, presidents, nations, money? …