Searle Against Property Dualism

Ladies and Gentleman, John Searle arguing against property dualism, an excerpt from ‘Why I am not a property dualist’

I put the text here in order to start a discussion about who is right and who is wrong, on the consciousness game.

Because neither consciousness nor matter are reducible to the other, they are distinct and different phenomena in the world.. Those who believe that consciousness is reducible to matter are called materialists; those who believe that matter is reducible to consciousness are called idealists. Both are mistaken for the same reason. Both try to eliminate something that really exists in its own right and cannot be reduced to something else. Now, because both materialism and idealism are false, the only reasonable alternative is dualism. But substance dualism seems out of the question for a number of reasons. For example it cannot explain how these spiritual substances came into existence in the first place and it cannot explain how they relate to the physical world. So property dualism seems the only reasonable view of the mind-body problem. Consciousness really exists, but it is not a separate substance on its own, rather it is a property of the brain.

We can summarize property dualism in the following four propositions. The first three are statements endorsed by the property dualist, the fourth is an apparent consequence or difficulty implied by the first three:

(1) There are two mutually exclusive metaphysical categories that constitute all of empirical reality: they are physical phenomena and mental phenomena. Physical phenomena are essentially objective in the sense that they exist apart from any subjective experiences of humans or animals. Mental phenomena are subjective, in the sense that they exist only as experienced by human or animal agents.

(2) Because mental states are not reducible to neurobiological states, they are something distinct from and over and above neurobiological states. The irreducibility of the mental to the physical, of consciousness to neurobiology, is by itself sufficient proof of the distinctness of the mental, and proof that the mental is something over and above the neurobiological.

(3) Mental phenomena do not constitute separate objects or substances, but rather are features or properties of the composite entity, which is a human being or an animal. So any conscious animal, such as a human being, will have two sorts of properties, mental

properties and physical properties.

(4) The chief problem for the property dualists, given these assumptions, is how can consciousness ever function causally? There are two possibilities, neither of which seems attractive. First, let us assume, as seems reasonable, that the physical universe is causally closed. It is closed in the sense that nothing outside it, nothing non-physical, could ever have causal effects inside the physical universe. If that is so, and consciousness is not a part of the physical universe, then it seems that it must be epiphenomenal. All of our conscious life plays no role whatever in any of our behavior.

On the other hand, let us assume that the physical universe is not causally closed, that consciousness can function causally in the production of physical behavior. But this seems to lead us out of the frying pan and into the fire, because we know, for example, that when I raise my arm, there is a story to be told at the level of neuron firings, neurotransmitters and muscle contractions that is entirely sufficient to account for the movement of my arm. So if we are to suppose that consciousness also functions in the movement of my arm, then it looks like we have two distinct causal stories, neither reducible to the other; and to put the matter very briefly, my bodily movements have too many causes. We have causal overdetermination.

The property dualist has a conception of consciousness and its relation to the rest of reality that I believe is profoundly mistaken. I can best make my differences with property dualism explicit by stating how I would deal with these same issues.

(1) There are not two (or five or seven) fundamental ontological categories, rather the act of categorization itself is always interest relative. For that reason the attempt to answer such questions as, “How many fundamental metaphysical categories are there?”, as it stands, is meaningless. We live in exactly one world and there are as many different ways of dividing it as you like. In addition to electromagnetism, consciousness, and gravitational attraction, there are declines in interest rates, points scored in football games, reasons for being suspicious of quantified modal logic, and election results in Florida. Now, quick, were the election results mental or physical? And how about the points scored in a football game? Do they exist only in the mind of the scorekeeper or are they rather ultimately electronic phenomena on the scoreboard? I think these are not interesting, or even meaningful, questions. We live in one world, and it has many different types of features. My view is not “pluralism,” if that term suggests that there is a nonarbitrary, noninterest-relative principle of distinguishing the elements of the plurality. A useful distinction, for certain purposes, is to be made between the biological and the non-biological. At the most fundamental level, consciousness is a biological phenomenon in the sense that it is caused by biological processes, is itself a biological process, and interacts with other biological processes. Consciousness is a biological process like digestion, photosynthesis, or the secretion of bile. Of course, our conscious lives are shaped by our culture, but culture is itself an expression of our underlying biological capacities.

  1. Then what about irreducibility? This is the crucial distinction between my view and property dualism. Consciousness is causally reducible to brain processes, because all the features of consciousness are accounted for causally by neurobiological processes going on in the brain, and consciousness has no causal powers of its own in addition to the causal powers of the underlying neurobiology. But in the case of consciousness, causal reducibility does not lead to ontological reducibility. From the fact that consciousness is entirely accounted for causally by neuron firings, for example, it does not follow that consciousness is nothing but neuron firings. Why not? What is the difference between consciousness and other phenomena that undergo an ontological reduction on the basis of a causal reduction, phenomena such as color and solidity? The difference is that consciousness has a first person ontology; that is, it only exists as experienced by some human or animal, and therefore, it cannot be reduced to something that has a third person ontology, something that exists independently of experiences. It is as simple as that.


But if consciousness has no causal powers in addition to its neurobiological base, then does that not imply epiphenomenalism ? No. Compare: the solidity of the piston has no causal powers in addition to its molecular base, but this does not show that solidity is epiphenomenal (Try making a piston out of butter or water).


Both materialism and dualism are trying to say something true, but they both wind up saying something false. The materialist is trying to say, truly, that the universe consists entirely of material phenomena such as physical particles in fields of force. But he ends up saying, falsely, that irreducible states of consciousness do not exist. The dualist is trying to say, truly, that ontologically irreducible states of consciousness do exist, but he ends up saying, falsely, that these are not ordinary parts of the physical world. The trick is to state the truth in each view without saying the falsehood. To do that we have to challenge the assumptions behind the traditional vocabulary. The traditional vocabulary is based on the assumption that if something is a state of consciousness in the strict sense – it is inner, qualitative, subjective, etc. – then it cannot in those very respects be physical or material. And conversely if something is physical or material then it cannot in its physical or material respects be a state of consciousness. Once you abandon the assumptions behind the traditional vocabulary it is not hard to state the truth.”

11 opiniões sobre “Searle Against Property Dualism”

  1. Searle has painted himself into a corner from which the only escape is epiphenomenalism. He ignores materialists like me who regard consciousness as a special property of brain matter which is without causal efficacy – our qualia’s neural correlates do the work that he thinks consciousness is doing.

  2. Talvez o idealismo de consciência (a realidade última é a consciência) seja a opção mais coerente. Porém não é… pq isso seria dar uma explicação mística e não explicar nada.

    “then it looks like we have two distinct causal stories, neither reducible to the other; and to put the matter very briefly, my bodily movements have too many causes. We have causal overdetermination.”

    É óbvio que a consciência não poderia influenciar em comportamentos, pois então ela seria um homúnculo. O exemplo do movimento do braço foi um tanto infeliz. A consciência poderia ter uma intervenção muito mais sutil, ao apenas ser percebida pelo cérebro, numa maneira passiva (o que era minha opinião até alguns dias atrás), embora seja muito difícil imaginar o que e como ela poderia ser para causar esse resultado. Para imaginar um mecanismo tal, talvez fosse mais fácil imaginar que ele é um próprio constituinte físico do cérebro (a única razão para imaginar que ele não poderia ser é a nossa dificuldade em o explicar, logo não parece uma razão válida).

    “We live in one world, and it has many different types of features.”

    Não consigo pensar de maneira satisfatória sobre isso, mas parece que o argumento do autor está um pouco equivocado, pois a consciência seria irredutível, enquanto que os exemplos que ele deu, perfeitamente redutíveis. Assim, categorias ontológicas seriam aquilo que é irredutível sem elas.

    “Consciousness is causally reducible to brain processes, because all the features of consciousness are accounted for causally by neurobiological processes going on in the brain”

    Concordo, e acho que isso é um ponto importante… Acho que toda “qualia” está perfeitamente contida no cérebro, no seu aspecto-access-consciousness.

    “But if consciousness has no causal powers in addition to its neurobiological base, then does that not imply epiphenomenalism ? No. Compare: the solidity of the piston has no causal powers in addition to its molecular base, but this does not show that solidity is epiphenomenal (Try making a piston out of butter or water).”

    Argumento falho, pois “solidity” é uma coisa redutível, enquanto consciência não parece ser.

    “The trick is to state the truth in each view without saying the falsehood.”

    Concordo, porém… isso não explica muito, nem faz com que o fenômeno se torne entendível para mim. Dizer que a consciência é apenas uma propriedade teórica do universo, sem constituir algo em si, não me parece uma explicação suficiente para a entender.

    Estou no momento em dúvida e sem tentativa de resposta.

  3. Norman, the problem with stating the existence of Qualia correlates is that it means that there is something that they correlate to. Namely, Qualia. If there are qualia, as described in the literature, they do not seem to be causally efficient.
    Your materialist view does not account for qualia, either you stop believing in qualia, or you abandon materialism.
    I think that causation (as opposed to multiple, clouded, weirdo causation) only happens at the microphysical level. Everything we know supports this idea. The causal potential that money has can be well described if we think about it as money (Take the intentional Stance) but if you want to know particularly what caused what, then you’ll have to goo for the lightwaves the paper emits, which go through someones brain, that makes the person change that piece of paper for chocolate etc…. So all the causal powers of money lie on it physically.
    Once I assume this position, and do the same for consciousness, I am cornered into having to choose, either that consciousness is some intrinsic property of matter (Type F Monist, see the post below) or that consciousness, as we think of it, does not exist. In both cases, it cannot be known. I do not have to like this conclusion to understand that it is logical and accept it. So, that is what I do, one of these hipothesis is true.

  4. Qualia are what, as Descartes said, I am directly aware of, so I cannot and do not want to, discard them; it’s the existence of the physical world which is the inference I (we all) make. The correlation between brain events and conscious experience is verified in increasing detail by today’s neuroscience. I don’t have to accept panpsychism – that every atom is conscious. Consciousness may arise only in suitably complex brains as Searle thinks, but his analogy with, say, ‘pressure’ does not follow, because whereas pressure IS IDENTICAL TO the average impact of the atoms, and so is causal, consciousness IS NOT identical to its physical correlate.

  5. Do we really mistake, in terms of brain informational physical processing, the self of the brain for consciousness? If that were so, is there no way we can know of the existence of consciousness, or can we theorize its existence? Is our feeling that it does exist already such a theorization, or is it really based on sensory information? Is it, therefore, possible that we merely theorize about consciousness, this way explaining why such a property “interferes” physically in our thinking, without having to in fact interfere directly?

    (btw., agree with both of you)

  6. If by ‘theorise’, Jonatas, you mean ‘generated by the brain’s language programme’, then I agree with you. Words like ‘colour’, ‘sound’, ‘qualia’, ‘consciousness’ are amazingly generated without the interference of consciousness itself!
    Zombies, ie hypothetical beings with human brains but lacking consciousness, could also generate these terms to organise their ‘experience’, or rather the brain correlates of what we actually experience.

  7. Norman, you seem to accept that Qualia are there, in a sense that they are evident. Or epistemologically primitive. If you do that, and you also accept that Zombies would talk about qualia, about consciousness, then you must admit that our utterings about consciousness are not causally related to consciousness.

    It is a hard step this one. If beings without consciousness are allowed to talk about consciousness, then it follows that our being able to talk about consciousness is not an evidence in favour of the existence of consciousness.

    Now, this position, epiphenomenalism, has still to explain why it is that when we use words like “consciousness” “Phenomenal” and “Qualia” we think that they are related, IN ANY WAY with whatever it is that this misterious epiphenomenon actually is like.

    Cognition, intelligence, verbal behavior, and written knowledge are no helpers for epiphenomenalists, for none of them depends on, or relates to, the supposed “Qualia”. So why would one want to believe that actually there are those things you talk about?

  8. Norman, could you tell me a little about you? What do you do, where do you live, contact information? “Generated by the brain’s language programme” could apply to nearly all of consciousness (as spoken of by language), although (at least I suppose) not everyone questions philosophical problems like consciousness, and so it could be a bit more related to the conscious brain, the self, part of its attention, intention, while sensations like color and sound are more automatic, and could maybe be perceived even by some animals uncapable of “language” (if that’s the kind of language that you meant). I think you’re right about the zombies.

    Maybe it is the most coherent solution (that we can theorize about phenomenal consciousness, but that the brain (we) can’t actually feel it directly, mistaking it sometimes for the self of the brain). However, I agree with Diego, (“that our utterings about consciousness are not causally related to consciousness”) is a hard and (seems to me) a little uncertain step.

  9. Hi Diego,
    Jason from mybread blog here.
    Thanks for your comments. They are all interesting.

    I think property dualism is increasingly becoming popular among amateurs like myself who’s interested in the topic thanks to David Chalmers. Like you, I disagree with property dualism that there are distinctively two kinds of stuff in the world.

  10. Dualism and materialism are both positions that have been taken before we know enough about the world.

    The entry for physicalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy makes this clear by separating materialism from physicalism: “Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism. Historically, materialists held that everything was matter — where matter was conceived as “an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist” (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). The reason for speaking of physicalism rather than materialism is to abstract away from this historical notion, which is usually thought of as too restrictive — for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983)”

    See time and conscious experience for a physicalist, non-materialist approach.

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