John Searle will be known to most cognitive scientists as the man behind the famous Chinese Room thought experiment. This is based around the idea that a man in a room translating Chinese symbols with the aid of a rulebook does not understand Chinese, any more than a computer producing intelligent-like (understanding-like, consciousness-like) behaviour due to programming rules has intelligence (or understanding, or consciousness). Since I found this line of argument confused, and ultimately frustrating, I didn’t expect to enjoy his new book ‘Freedom & Neurobiology: Reflections of Free Will, Language and Political Power’. I didn’t expect to, but I did.
This short book is made up of two separate lectures of Searle’s, originally published in France, along with an extensive introduction. The introduction is Searle’s tour through the history of philosophy, establishing the ‘basic facts’ as it were, to the point where we are now. A point at which we have dealt with many small problems and can now ‘advance very general accounts of mind, language, rationality, society, etc.’. This ‘large-scale philosophy’ is possible, Searle argues, because of the unity of mind with biology, and, secondly and a consequence of this, the new openness within philosophy to accounting for empirical evidence (for a particularly choice quote from the introduction, see here).
True to this manifesto, Searle’s two essays cover lots of ground. The first is ‘Free Will as a problem in neurobiology’, the second ‘social ontology and political power’. Both are very readable, full of strong arguments and interesting observations. IANAP, but there is nothing of a the obtuse Searle of the Chinese Room that I was expecting, in fact ‘Freedom & Neurobiology’ makes me think that I should go back to the original Chinese Room argument and read it again. If this new book is anything to go by there is sure to be more clarity and subtly there than I remember.