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Book: “The Mystery of Consciousness” by John R. Searle

I just finished The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle (1997, New York Review of Books, Inc.). Have you read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This little book is constituted of some revised and expanded articles of John Searle’s from the New York Review of Books, circa the mid-1990s, each being an extended review-and-response to a major philosophical and/or scientific book on consciousness studies. Its an interesting read, and a pretty quick one, and serves as an excellent introduction or refresher on a number of influential viewpoints and important modern thinkers in the area of the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. It is especially good as a quick introduction to Searle’s own position: briefly, Searle is of the mind(!) that consciousness is an irreducible feature of the universe (unlike traditional materialism), but that it is entirely biological in nature (unlike traditional dualism). He often compares consciousness to digestion or photosynthesis, and considers it to be sourced in equally physical/chemical processes of the brain, though he also emphasizes that unlike digestion or photosynthesis it is not reducible to those biological processes for the simple reason that the appearance of consciousness (ie, the fact that you and I each think that we are conscious) is the fact of consciousness (that is to say, if a being thinks it is conscious, it necessarily is because the thought, “I am conscious,” requires consciousness). The contrast, here, is that consciousness, while arising from biology, cannot be reduced to biology, while in the case of digestion we can reduce it to the individual chemical and physical processes which go into the breaking-down of food and the extraction of nutrients, etc., without risking the loss of subjective, first-person experience. In analyzing conscious experience, you can only look so far down into the biological underpinnings before you find that you are no longer dealing with conscious experience but instead with peptides, calcium ions, electrical impulses, synaptic knobs, clefts, and post-synaptic receptors, etc., etc., and have forgotten “first-person consciousness” back a few layers up the causal chain.

Whether or not one agrees with this position, it is at least logically consistent, as far as I can see, and certainly has longer legs than, say, Daniel Dennet’s or Patricia & Paul Churchland’s “functionalist” (a sort of “post-behaviorist” behaviorism) view which says simply (and naively) that all that exists are the physical brain-states, but there is no consciousness at all in reality. Searle is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that “consciousness is as consciousness does”, and if we think we have it, well then we do. If nothing else, The Mystery of Consciousness is of value for pointing-out just how wrong Dennet, et al, really are.