Searle Response to Descartes | Cognitive Science & AI | BSc.CSIT | 4th and 5th Semester

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searle response to descartesSearle Response to Descartes
Subject: Cognitive Science And AI | BSc.CSIT (TU)
Fourth And Fifth Semester | Tribhuvan University

Searle Response to Descartes
Consciousness is a biological phenomenon. We should think of consciousness as part of our ordinary biological history, along with digestion, growth, mitosis and meiosis. However, though consciousness is a biological phenomenon, it has some important features that other biological phenomena do not have. The most important of these is what I ( John Searle) have called its `subjectivity’. There is a sense in which each person’s consciousness is private to that person, a sense in which he is related to his pains, tickles, itches, thoughts and feelings in a way that is quite unlike the way that others are related to those pains, tickles, itches, thoughts and feelings. This phenomenon can be described in various ways. It is sometimes described as that feature of consciousness by way of which there is something that it’s like or something that it feels like to be in a certain conscious state. If somebody asks me what it feels like to give a lecture in front of a large audience I (Searle) can answer that question. But if somebody asks what it feels like to be a shingle or a stone, there is no answer to that question because shingles and stones are not conscious. The point is also put by saying that conscious states have a certain qualitative character; the states in question are sometimes described as ‘qualia’.

In spite of its etymology, consciousness should not be confused with knowledge, it should not be confused with attention, and it should not be confused with self-consciousness. I (Searle) will consider each of these confusions in turn.

Conscious states are caused by lower level neuro biological processes in the brain and are themselves higher level features of the brain. The key notions here are those of cause and feature. As far as we know anything about how the world works, variable rates of neuron firings in different neuronal architectures cause all the enormous variety of our conscious life. All the stimuli we receive from the external world are converted by the nervous system into one medium, namely, variable rates of neuron firings at synapses. And equally remarkably, these variable rates of neuron firings cause all of the colour and variety of our conscious life. The smell of the flower, the sound of the symphony, the thoughts of theorems in Euclidian geometry — all are caused by lower level biological processes in the brain; and as far as we know, the crucial functional elements are neurons and synapses.

The first step in the solution of the mind-body problem is: brain processes cause conscious processes. This leaves us with the question, what is the ontology, what is the form of existence, of these conscious processes? More pointedly, does the claim that there is a causal relation between brain and consciousness commit us to a dualism of `physical’ things and `mental’ things? The answer is a definite no. Brain processes cause consciousness but the consciousness they cause is not some extra substance or entity. It is just a higher level feature of the whole system. The two crucial relationships between consciousness and the brain, then, can be summarized as follows: lower level neuronal processes in the brain cause consciousness and consciousness is simply a higher level feature of the system that is made up of the lower level neuronal elements.

John Searle has offered a thought experiment known as the Chinese Room that demonstrates this problem. Imagine that there is a man in a room with no way of communicating to anyone or anything outside of the room except for a piece of paper that is passed under the door. With the paper, he is to use a series of books provided to decode and “answer” what is on the paper. The symbols are all in Chinese, and all the man knows is where to look in the books, which then tell him what to write in response. It just so happens that this generates a conversation that the Chinese man outside of the room can actually understand, but can our man in the room really be said to understand it? This is essentially what the computational theory of mind presents us with; a model in which the mind simply decodes symbols and outputs more symbols. It is argued that perhaps this is not real learning or thinking at all. However, it can be argued in response to this that it is the man and the paper together that understand Chinese, albeit in a rudimentary way due to the rudimentary nature of the system; as opposed to if the man learned Chinese, which would create a sophisticated system of communicating Chinese.

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