Consciousness is a biological process, says philosopher John Searle

Remember John Searle? The American philosopher was the one who came up with the famous Chinese room experiment and has done much work on consciousness, artificial intelligence and rationality. In this talk, he urges more research on consciousness, for he asks, “What does art or science matter if one is in coma? So consciousness is everything and the work done on it has been abysmally low and slow.”

The reason for this, says the professor emphatically, “…is a combination of two features of our intellectual culture that like to think they are opposing each other but in fact share a common set of assumptions…”

Both religion and science say consciousness is not part of the physical world. “But,” says Searle, “I have only one message in this lecture and that is, consciousness is a biological phenomenon like photosynthesis, digestion, mitosis…once you accept that, most of the hard problems about consciousness simply evaporate.”

Saying so, Searle goes on to recount all the misunderstandings about consciousness…it is as ephemeral as sunsets and rainbows, it is a computer programme running in the brain, only thing that exists is behaviour, consciousness makes no difference to the world….

“People always say consciousness is hard to define. I think it is rather easy to define…we’re not ready for a scientific definition…but here’s a common-sense definition. Consciousness consists of all those states of feeling or sentience or awareness. It begins in the morning when you wake up from a dreamless sleep and it goes on all day until you fall asleep or die or become unconscious otherwise. Dreams are a form of consciousness on this definition. All our conscious states, without exception, are caused by lower-level neuro-biological processes in the brain and they are realised in the brain as higher-level or systems features. It is about as mysterious as the liquid of water. The liquidity is not extra juice squirted out by H2O molecules. It is a condition that the system is in. And just as the jar full of water can go from a liquid to solid state depending on the behaviour of the molecules, your brain can go from a state of being conscious to a state of being unconscious depending on the behaviour of the molecules. The famous body-mind problem is that simple,” says Searle.

Searle goes on to specify some exact features of consciousness: “It is real and irreducible. You can’t get rid of it…Descartes may have made a lot of mistakes but he was right about this…you cannot doubt the existence of your own consciousness. The second feature is that all of our conscious states have a qualitative character to them. This qualitative feel automatically generates a third feature, namely conscious states are by definition subjective, in the sense that they only exist as experienced by some human or animal subject, some self that experiences them. Maybe we will build a conscious machine, but since we don’t know how our brains do it, we’re not in a position, so far, to build a conscious machine.”

The fourth feature, “…it comes in unified conscious fields. So I don’t just have the sight of the people in front of me and the sound of my voice and the weight of my shoes against the floor, but they occur to me as part of one single great conscious field that stretches forward and backward. That is the key to understanding the enormous power of the consciousness…the disappointment of robotics derives from the fact that we do not know how to make a conscious robot…”

Searle goes on, “The next feature of consciousness is that it functions causally in our behaviour.” Searle demonstrates that a thought in the brain causes actions to happen. “…one and the same event has a level of description where it is neurobiological and another level where it is mental…the human consciousness has something more than syntax…it has got semantics.”

Searle demolishes the subjectivity-objectivity objection by asking, are doctors not dealing with pain which is subjective?

“Consciousness has to become accepted as a genuine biological phenomenon…”, says Searle.

Web link: John Searle's Ted talk