Searle vs. Spinoza

I’ve been discovering podcasts lately, and stumbled across a great Donald Rumsfeld impersonator that I ran into a few years back. His name is John Searle, a philosopher at UC Berkeley. I don’t believe he means to be impersonating Rummy, but he does a great job nonetheless.

Professor Searle has an amusing way of dropping caustic accusations with a particularly Rumsfeldian contempt. When speaking of the great 20th Century battle over panpsychism, he mentions the abhorrent resurgence of “dualism” against an equally abhorrent backdrop of materialism.

I think that when he uses that aweful epithet “dualists”, that he means to imply “panpsychists”, which are those people who believe that perception, in other words, subjective experience, is universal.

I can picture myself throwing my hand up amidst the audience and trembling with anticipation, yearning to ask the great Berkeley philosopher this one question: “Er, Dr. Searle, do you mean to suggest that Spinoza was a dualist?”

Baruch Spinoza is revered in some philosophical circles for synthesizing proofs for God and other concepts out of what he deemed to be the properties of mere matter (AKA “substance”). He has been called the “Prince of philosophers” and “the God-inxtoxicated man”. He was vehemently anti-dualist, and mind you, very familiar with the ideas of Rene Descartes. There is perhaps not one philosopher better known for monism than Spinoza, yet—he was a staunch panpsychist.

How could a monist be a panpsychist, you ask? Well, it seems that all the man did was suggest that thought, like extension, is a property of matter. Does Searle, then, see Spinoza as a closet dualist?

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I agree with Searle in his rejection of materialism, and yes, even in some of his criticisms of some forms of dualism (Cartesian dualism, for instance). As a non-materialist, he postulates that consciousness is irreducible. He postulates that it is distinctly subjective and qualitative; and just as you think he’s about to step off into the abyss, he postulates that consciousness occurs only in the brain. Phew! That was close. How’d he postulate that? Has any of us ever been outside of the brain?

It seems that John Searle is treading very cautiously on a tightrope, while hurling anvils of contempt this way and that. It is a remarkable feat to have succeeded at doing so for so long, especially considering how many such anvils have been hurled his way.

I don’t know how we could ever determine whether or not perception, or subjective experience, is somehow confined to the brain, though it’s likely to be the only place that we are going to experience anything. I can say with confidence that it’s a postulate that defines Searle’s position on the topic. Is that what postulates are for?

What Searle seeks to demonstrate, starting from this set of postulates, is that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, or does his actual argument go in the opposite direction? Does he actually want to demonstrate is that consciousness is confined to the brain? Perhaps the answer depends on whether he is arguing against a materialist or a dualist.

Searles is fond of the internal combustion engine as an analogy for emergence. Mechanical systems, he says, have emergent properties, so why can’t consciousness emerge out of a particularly complex machine such as the brain? The problem with that analogy, of course, is that our descriptions of mechanical systems is purely objective: how can subjectivity emerge from such objective descriptions?

The problem is also a logical one for Searles. Regardless of the direction of his logic, he depends upon a questionable postulate, whether that postulate be (1) the confinement of consciousness to the brain (human, and perhaps higher mammals), or (2) that consciousness is an emergent property of matter.

For Searle, it is necessary for consciousness to be causally linked to the objective, physical body if dualism is to be avoided. It is also necessary if he is to argue that consciousness could have evolved by natural selection. Though I would not exclude the plausibility or even likelihood of such a link, the problem is that it cannot be scientifically distinguished from a mere perception of a purely objective, mechanical causality. Searle proposes that conscious intentionality can be tested scientifically against body motor responses. But this would not prove that intentionality is objectively causal. It may merely be the perception of a mechanical determination.

In the end, the damned materialist-physicalists do not need consciousness to explain their objective universe. It has no need for subjectivity, and neither do they. At the end of the day, Searle, Spinoza, the Dualists, and yours truly can only stand on the sideline, incased in our respective ontologies, and bicker.