Despite having a back catalogue stretching back to the 60s, prog rock band Procol Harum are popularly remembered as ‘the band who did A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
Similarly, despite his wide-ranging work, Searle is popularly remembered as the ‘guy who devised the Chinese room argument’.
Searle is the Procol Harum of philosophy, although, to be fair, his back catalogue is actually worth checking out.
In this interview with the Globe’s Ideas section, he touches on consciousness, free will, whether the mind can be described as computation, and why philosophers disagree so much.
IDEAS: You think that questions about the mind are at the core of philosophy today, don’t you?
SEARLE: Right. And that’s a big change. If you go back to the 17th century, and Descartes, skepticism — the question of how it is possible to have knowledge — was a live issue for philosophy…
IDEAS: Why the change?
SEARLE: We know too much. The sheer volume of knowledge has become overwhelming. We take basic findings from physics and chemistry about the universe for granted. Knowing much more about the real world than our ancestors did, we can’t take skepticism seriously in the old way. It also means that philosophy has to proceed on the basis of all that we know.
The universe consists of matter, and systems defined by causal relations. We know that. So we go on to ask: To what extent can we render our self-conception consistent with this knowledge? How can there be consciousness, free will, rationality, language, political organization, ethics, aesthetics, personal identity, moral responsibility? These are questions for the philosophy of mind.