One World

Yesterday I picked up The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle. Searle is perhaps best known for his long-standing wrangle with Daniel Dennett; they have clashed often over the years, with Dennett running roughshod over Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, and Searle excoriating Dennett (quite fairly) for his rather extreme position as regards the subjective ontology of consciousness.

Both philosphers, however, share a scientific worldview (as do I, of course), and are resolute in their adherence to a naturalistic account of consciousness. I will probably comment on Searle’s book once I have finished it, but for now I’d like to share an excellent passage, in which he argues against dualism, and against Platonism generally:

We live in exactly one world. I think it is best to abandon the traditional Cartesian categories of “mental” and “physical” for describing that world, since it contains all kinds of things — money, interest rates, reason for voting for or against the Democratic candidate, laws of logic, points scored in football games — that are not in any obvious sense either mental or physical. In that one world there are biological beasts, like ourselves, that have conscious mental states. Some of these beasts, us for example, have a language and that enables us to do things such as count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Because these mathematical operations are objective, we get the illusion that they give us access to another world, a world of numbers. But that is an illusion. Numbers are not part of another world, any more than the meanings of words are part of another world. They are part of our system for representing and coping with the only world there is.

We live in one world, not two or three or twenty-seven. The main task of a philosophy and science of consciousness right now is to show how consciousness is a biological part of that world, along with digestion, photosynthesis, and all the rest of it.

Though I often find myself siding with Dennett against Searle in their long-running debate, here he gets it exactly right.

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2 Comments

  1. galileo says

    This, I think, is where I came in. I agree that “numbers are not part of another world,” rather a numerological part of this world. After all, if interest rates are in the world, and interest rates are numbers, then…

    I think it is best to abandon the traditional Cartesian categories of “mental” and “physical” for describing that world, […]

    I didn’t realise that Searle took this eminently sensible position. All the philosophy of mind I’ve ever come across revolves endlessly around the mental/physical distinction. Thanks for the reading recommendation, Malcolm.

    Posted January 30, 2007 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You’re most welcome, G.

    Thanks, as always, for visiting.

    Posted January 30, 2007 at 11:11 am | Permalink