Tuesday, April 22, 2008

John R. Searle: Freedom & Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power

This review will appear in Philosophy in Review.

John R. Searle
Freedom & Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power
New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 113
ISBN 0-231-13752-4 Hb $25-50, £15.50

John Searle has made important contributions to a number of subfields of philosophy, including philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of the social sciences. Although the title of his latest book may elicit the expectation that it treats the very interesting and relatively unexplored question of how neurobiological theories of free will might affect our understanding of political power, in fact the two topics are kept entirely separate from each other.

This volume contains versions of two lectures that were originally delivered and published in France. The first, ‘Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology’ presents Searle's attempt to lay out what might be called a ‘roadmap towards peace’ between the neurobiological approach to the study of mind and the doctrine of metaphysical human free will. The second lecture, ‘Social Ontology and Political Power’ summarises the ideas about the ontology of social reality he developed earlier in The Construction of Social Reality (1997) and applies them to the analysis of the notion of political power. The two lectures are preceded by a thirty-five page introduction (‘Philosophy and the Basic Facts’), which sets out to show how they fit into Searle's larger project of creating the framework for a comprehensive and naturalistic philosophical system, that is to say, a system whose solutions to philosophical problems are solidly based on the results of research in the empirical sciences.

I was disappointed by this book. Eric Kandel's blurb on its back cover claims that it provides ‘a broad introduction to the complete Searle’, and many, no doubt, hoped that Freedom & Neurobiology would serve as a continuation and update of Searle's very well received 1984 Reith Lectures (published under the title Minds, Brains, and Science). In fact, while the book can be useful as a comprehensive outline of his ideas for people who are already well acquainted with his work, it is much too dry and sketchy to serve as an introduction for the uninitiated. There is little evidence in it of the imaginative thinking that gave the world the 'Chinese Room' thought experiment. It is difficult to assess the arguments that Searle makes in this book because they are so often incomplete or absent, replaced with bibliographical pointers to his other, more substantial books.

For all Searle's talk about naturalism, he has practically nothing to say that is related to actual developments in neurobiological science. The book could have been just as easily written back in the old days when philosophers made furtive references to ‘c-fibers’ in the hope of making materialist theories of mind sound more scientific. Tellingly, Searle writes: ‘The solution to the philosophical mind-body problem seems to me not very difficult. However, the philosophical solution kicks the problem upstairs to neurobiology, where it leaves us with a very difficult neurobiological problem’ (p. 40). Unlike his nemesis (Daniel Dennett), Searle has nothing to tell us about how neurobiology might actually go about solving this, its very difficult problem.

On a more positive note, at least the book does give us a tantalising glimpse of the direction in which Searle would like to go to find a solution to the problem of the material brain giving rise to a metaphysically free will. He seems to think that there is no real difference between compatibilism and the idea that freedom is merely an illusion, rejecting both ideas while admitting that ‘most neurobiologists would feel that this is probably how the brain actuallyworks’ (p. 62). His ultimate argument against such views is evolutionary: ‘An enormous biological price is paid for conscious decision making … To suppose that this plays no role in inclusive fitness is not like supposing the human appendix plays no role. It would be more like supposing that vision or digestion played no evolutionary role’ (p. 70).

How, then, can a material brain give rise to a metaphysically free consciousness? Searle borrows Richard Penrose's suggestion that the indeterminancy found in nature by the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics can serve as the theoretical deus ex machina that creates a place for freedom in nature. Searle is well aware that the sheer randomness associated with quantum indeterminancy cannot serve as a direct model for the indeterminate yet responsible free will he associates with conscious human agency. He suggests that while the indeterminancy associated with micro-quantum level descriptions of the brain will carry over to the holistic ‘system level’ where consciousness and freedom are to be found, the randomness of the micro-quantum level will fail to make that passage. How does random indeterminancy at the micro level become non-random indeterminancy at the macro level? Searle does not tell us. Perhaps he believes it is another question best left for scientists to ponder.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel, bdlerner@gmail.com

Terence Cave: How to Read Montaigne

This review will appear in Practical Philosophy

Terence Cave
How to Read Montaigne
London: Granta Books, 2007, pp. x + 133
ISBN 1-86207-944-1 (pb),£ 11.95

This volume of Granta’s How to Read series deals with an unusual author in an unusual way. Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French aristocrat who devoted almost all of his literary efforts to the writing, expanding, and rewriting of one book – Les Essais. Although he came to be identified as an advocate of Pyrrhonist scepticism, Montaigne has never found a solid place in the canonical history of western philosophy. Since the Essais is not a play, a book of poetry, or a work of fiction, it is somewhat difficult to define its place in the history of French literature.

Cave’s approach to the Essais can be disappointing for the conventional philosophical reader. True to the common format of the How to Read series, the chapters of his book are built around close readings of passages written by the author under discussion. Naturally, the passages chosen from the Essais treat specific topics, such as travel, conversation, philosophical scepticism, and so on. However, Cave has deliberately avoided giving any kind of overview of Montaigne’s opinions on the traditional questions of philosophy. Most strikingly, even though Cave admits the central role of Pyrrhonist scepticism in the Essais, he tells us very little about Montaigne’s epistemological views and basically nothing about the arguments supporting those views.

Cave asks us to approach the Essais not as a work of philosophy, but rather ‘as a work that seeks above all to devise cognitive strategies: strategies of reflection capable of handling not only the abstract business of thinking but also the frictions that arise from living in the real world, whether from religious or ethical restraints, illness, sexuality, or relations with other people’ (p. 4). He uses the term cognitive to capture ‘Montaigne’s enduring preoccupation with thought as an experience to be studied and documented non-judgmentally and non-didactically; his elaboration of a mode of writing that meets this requirement, and the value of the Essais as a book to think with’ (p.5).

In practice, I understand, this approach means that each passage from the Essais must be read as serving one or more of the following functions: it can be a specimen of thought presented as grist for Montaigne’s observational and analytical mill, or as an apology for the kind of open-ended thought that Montaigne enjoys analysing, or as a bit of actual analysis of the thinking process. In keeping with this interpretive strategy, Cave does not think that Montaigne was actually unorthodox in his religious beliefs. Rather, his apparently heretical discussions on belief are actually just set-pieces of the kind of free-wheeling thought that Montaigne is interested in analysing. It was not a burning need to resolve epistemological issues that brought Montaigne to adopt Pyrrhonist scepticism.Rather, that brand of agnostic skepticism usefully grants intellectual legitimacy to the kind of balanced and open-ended processes of internal deliberation that Montaigne was keen to investigate.

To be fair, it should be said that Cave’s book is well written and it does offer the reader a good deal of useful background for reading the Essais. However, I cannot help but wonder whether he might have fallen victim to a hyper-sophisticated version of a subterfuge planned long by Montaigne himself. Somewhat notoriously, Leo Strauss insists that we must always struggle to pierce through the veil of irony and rhetorical distractions used by philosophical writers to hide their unorthodox views from the eyes of potential persecutors. Cave claims that, ‘Just as Montaigne is not out to state a philosophical position in the Essais, so too he avoids asserting religious belief, or indeed talking about divine questions at all’ (p. 47). What better way for a heterodox thinker to distance himself from his heretical doctrines than to pretend that he is merely concerned with the process of thinking itself and not with the content or conclusions of that process?

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel, bdlerner@gmail.com