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What Is Going on in Philosophy: Searle's Goals

Why I like Searle's big picture, even if I don't like his theories.

There are some philosophers I really disagree with, but whom I also really like. In general, this is because we share similar views as the overarching goal of our efforts. This common ground is sometimes found in articles specifically about doing philosophy,  but it is also found in the introductions to works I otherwise might not like. A great example of this is found in Searle’s “Freedom and Neurobiology”. While I don’t like his solution to the Big Questions that the book deals with, I love the way he sets up the problem:

 I. Philosophy and the Basic Facts

There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… As a preliminary succinct formulation we could put it in this form: How do we fit in? In the longer version, it goes as follows: We now have a reasonably well-established conception of the basic structure of the universe. We have plausible theories about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, and we understand quite a number of things about the structure of the universe in atomic physics and chemistry. We have even come to understand the nature of the chemical bond. We know a fair amount about our own development on this little Earth during the past five billion years of evolution. We understand that the universe consists entirely of particles (or whatever entities the ultimately true physics arrives at), and these exist in fields of force and are typically organized into systems. On our Earth, carbon-based systems made of molecules that also contain a lot of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen have provided the substrate of human, animal and plant evolution. These and other such facts about the basic structure of the universe, I will call, for short, the “basic facts.” The most important sets of basic facts, for our present purposes, are given in the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology.

 

There is, however, an interesting tension. It is not at all easy to reconcile the basic facts with a certain conception we have of ourselves. Our self-conception derives in part from our cultural inheritance, but mostly it derives from our own experience. We have a conception of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, social, institutional, political, speech-act performing, ethical and free will possessing agents. Now, the question is, How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles? In the end, perhaps, we will have to give up on certain features of our self conception, such as free will. I see this family of questions as setting the agenda not only for my own work, but for the subject of philosophy for the foreseeable future. There are several specific questions, some of which I have dealt with elsewhere, that are part of the larger single question.

 

He then lists those specific questions he has worked on, and outlines the answers he has offered (most of which I disagree with, but that is neither here nor there at the moment). The questions are about:

 

  1. Consciousness
  2.  Intentionality
  3. Language
  4. Rationality
  5. Free Will
  6. Society and Institutions
  7. Politics
  8. Ethics

 

An impressive list. Searle then goes on to explain:

 

II. Logical Dependencies among the Philosophical Problem Areas

 

Notice that the eight topics I have listed and the associated questions are logically ordered in a very basic way. The phenomena in one topic area presuppose the existence of phenomena in another topic area.

 

Is he right about that? I am not sure. I am tempted to say, at the least, that the first two problem are identical, and that we should be able to talk about 6, 7, & 8 without presupposing Free Will. But again, this is a very good way of laying things out. He then goes on:

 

III. Naturalism and Contemporary Philosophy

 

At first sight, it may seem puzzling that I ay there have been major changes in philosophy and then, by way of describing these changes, list eight sets of questions all of which seem very traditional. Consciousness, intentionality… ― all of these are very much part of the history of traditional philosophy. What is so special about the present period? I am arguing that it is now possible to treat all of these issues “naturalistically”, that is, in a way that makes them consistent with, and indeed a natural outgrowth from, what I call the basic facts. It is now possible to recognize the real and sometimes irreducible character of the phenomena that I have been describing while at the same time acknowledging that we live in exactly one world and not two or thirty-seven. Often when philosophers talk about “naturalizing intentionality” or “naturalizing consciousness” they take “naturalizing” to mean denying the existence of the phenomena in question. So, for example, naturalizing intentionality would consist in showing that there really is no such thing as irreducible, ineliminable intentionality. Ditto for consciousness. Naturalizing consciousness would be showing that consciousness, does not really exist as an irreducible phenomenon. That is not the sense of naturalization that I am talking about. I am claiming that it is possible to recognize the real intrinsic character of consciousness, rationality, language, etc., and at the same time see them as part of the natural world. That has now become possible in a way that it was not obviously possible before.”

 

Good stuff. There is a lot I don't agree with him about, but at least I am convinced we have similar goals.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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