Review: Freedom & Neurobiology by John Searle

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.

Searle_Freedom.gifThis 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.

4 thoughts on “Review: Freedom & Neurobiology by John Searle”

  1. Thanks for the review – I will likely buy this one and read it too. Right now I’m working through “On Intelligence” (Jeff Hawkins)
    Searle may establish what he considers to be the base rules from a philosophical standpoint, but those rules are not generally agreed upon. There are numerous issues at the philosophical level of epistemology (“how we know what we know”) subject to disagreement. Differing assumptions about epistemology produce fairly stunning differences in the conclusions people draw.
    One disappointing bit for me about the Chinese room thought experiment (at least in the versions I’ve read) is that there is never an explicit operationalized definition of “understanding”. He basically just writes the experiment with an implicit gut-feel definition that he never makes explicit. I happen to agree with the conclusions of the thought experiment, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the issue:
    If we don’t agree on what the definition of understanding even is, how would we be able to determine if a computer (or person) demonstrated it?
    Hawkins is making the point in his book that “understanding” should be decoupled from behavior (i.e. you shouldn’t require specific behavior to demonstrate capacity for understanding). That’s all fine and good, but it’s going to take a lot of work to design experiments that can validly define & measure understanding without relying on overt behavior.
    As for free will….well….that’s an fascinating question but I’m not touching it with a 10 foot pole. I’ll leave that one up to Searle, but I’m interested to see what he has to say about it. 🙂

  2. The way I’ve always understood the Chinese room experiment, it asks whether proper responses imply understanding. That is, because the man with the guidebook can produce proper responses to the Chinese given to him even though he could not give any proper responses without the guidebook. While Searle seemed to be trying to say that the man does not understand, one could perhaps argue that the man-plus-guidebook unit does.
    It’s a highly hypothetical and perhaps flawed model, but I suppose it’s hard to model such a situation since we tend to assume that proper responses show understanding, and Searle wants to question that assumption.

  3. gokmop – yes, it sounds like you would enjoy the book. On epistemology, Searle says that the age when epistomolgy and philosophical skepticism dominated philosophy (roughly from Descartes to Wittgenstein) is passed. I guess he’s not saying that there are no epistomological issues, just that they aren’t no longer the central concern of the philosophical enterprise. Probably it is best to read him first hand on this, rather than listen to me though
    On freewill, Searle starts the first lecture with “The persistence of the traditional free will problem in philosophy seems to me something of a scandal.”

  4. By most accounts (haven’t read, know some who have), the neurbiology in this book is sound, but the philosophy is disappointing. One of the central questions in philosophical debates about freedom (freewill/free will) is what constitutes that freedom in the first place. If my actions are the causal result of my beliefs (or some neurobiological state, if you prefer), and those states of me are a matter of underlying cognitive processes and environmental conditions that I do not control, am I free? Some say no, insisting that freedom is freedom FROM causes. Others have argued that if my actions were free from such causes, then they could not be free and could not be mine. Say I have a reasonably stable set of beliefs (or some correlate) that I recognize and integrate to make as coherent as I can. They are MY beliefs in the familiar sense. If I act on those, they’re the sort of thing that I endorse and can be held responsible for, and advocates of this view would say that this is the only relevant sense of freedom for our considerations. Searle just sidesteps this at the outset and defines freedom as freedom from causes. Concluding that the brain doesn’t have uncaused causes from there is hardly a huge leap forward. Searle thinks it’s a “scandal” because he misplaces the focus of the debate. Accept either of these two views and the answers fall into place fairly quickly.
    As for the Chinese Room argument, I was always a bit underwhelmed, but this rose to outright disdain when, in the late 80s and 90s, Searle started dismissing connectionist and dynamic systems models of cognition with a “Chinese Gym” argument. Aside from failing to suggest a viable path to take within physicalism, he blatantly commits the part-whole fallacy in every version I’ve read, which is the sort of thing that gets my undergraduates C’s.

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