Date: Sun, 17 Nov 2002 18:03:02 -0500 From: Katharine Beals Subject: Searle (2002) Consciousness and Language
Searle, John R. (2002) Consciousness and Language. Cambridge University Press, vii+269 pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-59237-2.
By Katharine Beals, Ph.D., Autism Language Therapies
SUMMARY "Consciousness and Language" is a collection of John Searle's essays from the last two decades, all but one of them previously published. The first five defend his conception of consciousness, or sentience, and situate it within a broader scientific world view. Essay 6 addresses how, in cases of group collaboration, the intentionality of individuals relates to that of groups. Essays 7 and 8 discuss the implications for psychology and the social sciences of Searle's approach to consciousness; essays 9 through 11 discuss the implications for speech act theory and for a theory of conversation. Essay 12-15 challenge various forms of philosophical skepticism: about the existence of mental phenomena, about the determinacy of meaning, and about rules and intentionality.
Linking these essays are a number of overarching themes and arguments.
Consciousness, by which Searle means "the subjective states of sentience or awareness" that we're in when we are awake (p. 7), what others have called "qualia," is a physically real phenomenon, and thus a worthy object for scientific inquiry. These subjective states, he argues, constitute all of our conscious brain activity, including our emotions, memories, and thoughts. Such consciousness, therefore, may also characterize those animals which can be said to have memories, emotions, and other intentional states (even if these are far more limited or primitive than ours).
Searle argues that consciousness is to the brain what digestion is to the stomach. Conscious states are higher level features of the brain caused by low level brain activity, just as solidity or transparency are higher level properties of matter caused by the arrangement of molecules. Digestion, solidity and transparency are real physical phenomena that play causal roles in the physical world; so, too, are conscious states. Their causal effects are realized in their production of human and animal behavior-- e.g., when we act on our desires, with their world-to-mind direction of fit. Indeed, because much of what we must do to stay alive requires it, consciousness has figured crucially in our evolutionary survival. Conscious states, therefore, aren't mere epiphenomena like heat, which has no real existence or causal effects that apply above and beyond the molecular level. Rather, they are physically real emergent properties, constituting an explanatorily useful level of causal description.
What makes conscious states unique, and distinct from other high-level phenomena like digestion, solidity or transparency, is that they are also subjective: I am related to my fears, or my itches, in a way that no one else is. But this is an ontological subjectivity, not an epistemic one: because they are biologically real and figure causally in the physical world, conscious states are epistimically objective phenomena that science can study.
Conscious states cannot be reduced to behavioral output. Being in pain does not amount to a pattern or patterns of behavioral response. More generally, just as a bird simulation might fly by some mechanism other than wings, "a system could behave as if it were conscious without actually being conscious" (p. 16).
Nor are conscious states reducible to internal computations or information processing of the sort that computers perform. Reviving his well-known "Chinese Room" parable, Searle points out that such computation is defined only syntactically, with abstract symbols, and so has no inherent semantic or informational content. Any meaning that such a computation might carry depends on the interpretations of outside observers. Thus, even phenomena as apparently observer-independent as the mathematical calculations of a computer or the rings on a tree trunk bear mathematical or botanical meaning only relative to third party interpreters. This observer relativity means that being an information processor is nothing special: everything can, in principle, be so conceived. A falling rock, observed by someone with a stop watch, becomes a calculator of the height of the cliff it was dropped from. Another calculator, of far greater complexity but equally trivially, is the human brain.
Most representations and uses of information become meaningful or purposeful, thus, only through the interpretations of outside observers. The mental representations of our intentional states, and our intentional processing of symbols or information, are special. There is a deep difference between a symbolic representation of the proposition 2+2=4, which requires some observer-dependent interpretation, and a belief that 2+2=4: beliefs are not ABOUT abstract propositions (the term "propositional attitude," Searle notes, is misleading); rather, beliefs are equivalent to the intrinsic mental representation of propositions. There is, also, a deep difference between a computer calculating 2+2, and a person doing so: in the latter case, neither the meaning of the operation-adding two and two- nor the person's performance of it, depends on an outside observer to interpret or ascribe deliberate intention.
There is, relatedly, a fundamental difference between rule-governed behavior, where someone intentionally follows a rule and the rule thus drives the behavior, and rule-described behavior, where the rule is merely descriptive of the behavior. While dog adept at catching balls might be described as computing the parabolic trajectory law, intentionally speaking he is simply trying to catch the ball. The parabolic trajectory law plays no causal role here: the only real players are the dog's intention and his brain's neurological activity. "Except for cases where an agent is actually intentionally carrying out a computation", Searle notes, "the computational description does not identify a separate causal level distinct from the physical structure of the organism." (p. 126). Thus, while our brains might be described as computers, they are not, in fact, governed by the computations that some outside observer might attribute to them-- unless we ourselves are intentionally carrying out these computations.
While computational descriptions are not inherently causal, intentionality is. We see this not just with a dog or person trying to catch a ball, but also throughout social or observer-relative phenomena. Most of these can be adequately explained only with reference to individual or collective intentionality: for example, what money is, and how it figures in our economies. While we interact with money according to collective intentionality, however, this intentionality is realized only in the individual brains of individual people.
Four of Searle's chapters address topics more closely related to linguistics.
In Chapter 9 Searle discusses the role of intentionality in speech acts, and how one can reconcile the Gricean account, which stresses individual intentionality, with the Austinian and Wittgensteinian accounts, which stress the roles of convention and social practice. All speech acts involve at least some individual intentionality: an intention to produce certain speech sounds, an intention that these sounds have certain conditions of satisfaction (or directions of fit with the outside world), and an intention that one's intentions be recognized. The conditions of satisfaction for commissives and directives involve further intentionality: I intend to intentionally keep my promise, or that my addressee intentionally follow my orders.
While individual intentionality is key, however, speech acts are also social. Not only are their meanings a matter of social convention; so too are their underlying conventions (promising, ordering, firing). As Searle points out, "the social-conventional aspects of language do not REPLACE individual intentionality, but rather that intentionality is only able to function against the PRESUPPOSITION of social rules, conventions and practices." (pp. 150-151). These social rules, however, are realized only in the brains of individuals.
Chapter 10 explains, as its title indicates, "How Performatives Work." By "performative," Searle means what Austin calls "explicit performatives:" only those utterances that can be performed by uttering a sentence with an expression that names the type of speech act. His quest: to explain the self-guaranteeing character of performatives while respecting his intuitions that only their literal meaning applies here, that performative verbs are unambiguous, and that performative utterances are statements rather than indirect speech acts.
As the term "hereby," which stereotypically introduces the performative verb, suggests, performatives are self-referential. Perhaps they are self-referential assertives. However, Searle argues, making a self-referential statement to the effect that one is, e.g., making a promise is not sufficient to guarantee that one had the intention to make the promise: describing oneself as having an intention is not the same as actually manifesting that intention. Assertives, even self-referential ones, are not self-guaranteeing.
Declarations ("You're fired" or "The meeting is adjourned"), on the other hand, can be, provided that certain extra-linguistic conventions hold (pertaining, e.g., to the speaker's authority). A more promising account of performatives, Searle concludes, treats them as a variety of declaration-specifically, a "linguistic declaration." What distinguishes declarations and performatives is that the former create non-linguistic facts (a firing, an adjournment), while the latter create linguistic ones-i.e., that of the speech act itself (of promising, ordering, issuing a statement). Thus, "[s]ince the facts created by linguistic declarations are linguistic facts, we don't need an extra-linguistic institution to perform them. Language is itself an institution, and it is sufficient to empower speakers to perform such declarations such as promising... or ordering..." (p. 171).
How, specifically, does this work? There is, Searle notes, a class of actions (including most speech acts) where the manifestation of the intention to perform the action (a manifestation, in the case of speech acts, most often realized through mood-indicative, imperative, etc.) is sufficient for the action's performance. There is, furthermore, a class of verbs, the performative verbs, which contain the notion of intention as part of their meaning, and "which name actions where the manifestation of the intention is constitutive of the action"(p. 175). And there is a class of literal utterances which are not only about themselves (self-referential) but also operate on themselves (self-executive). When "I order you to leave" succeeds as an order, it does so because, Searle explains, "(a) the verb 'order' is an intentional verb, (b) ordering is something you can do by manifesting the intention to do it, and (c) the utterance is both self-referential and executive, as indicated by the word 'hereby'..." (p. 173)
In Chapter 11 Searle asks whether one can describe rules for conversations which are parallel to those for speech acts. Any rules that actually govern conversations, as opposed to merely describing them, must incorporate the interlocutors' intentions. One candidate is something like Relevance. But what's relevant depends on the purpose of the conversation, which in turn depends on the shared intentionality of the participants, which varies arbitrarily from conversation to conversation. Successful discourse also depends on a shared background of "capacities, stances, attitudes, presuppositions, ways of behaving, modes of sensibility, and so on, that are not themselves representational." (p. 202) Furthermore, "[a]ll interpretation, understanding, meaning, as well as intentionality in general, function against a background of mental capacities that are not themselves interpretations, meanings, understandings, or intentional states." (Ibid.) Searle, therefore, is not optimistic.
In Chapter 13, Searle assesses Quine's indeterminacy thesis, which rejects the existence of objectively real, psychologically-based meanings. Meaning is merely a function of behavioral responses to external stimuli. Thus, when a nonnative overhears a native utter "gavagai" as a rabbit scurries past, he cannot validly infer any specific translation for "gavagai," for any number of meanings ("rabbit object," "rabbit stage," etc.) are consistent with the native's behavior. This indeterminacy which, as Searle points out, applies not just to translations between particular languages, but to language in general, contradicts our first person intuitions that we do mean particular things by particular words. When Searle says "rabbit," he means the object. Describing a friend who, until middle age, thought that "hoi polloi" meant "rich elite" but was typically used ironically, and thus treated the word in a manner indistinguishable from those who understand it correctly, Searle argues that meaning does not reduce to behavior. Rejecting Quine's attempts to simultaneously justify behaviorism and respect intuitions about speaker psychology, Searle concludes that a philosophical bias underlies the continued popularity of linguistic behaviorism among philosophers: their rejection of mentalism, and of the empirical validity of the first person viewpoint.
DISCUSSION For linguists, Searle is a most refreshing philosopher: he is plainspoken, straightforward, and sticks with natural, plausible scenarios. Throughout this unassuming background, his ideas resonate: original, often mind-bending, sometimes radical. Most ring loud and true.
Particularly compelling is Searle's take on the degree to which sentience-- a.k.a. qualia, a.k.a. qualitative states-- pervades our thinking. Perceptions are not just inscriptions triggered by sensors; beliefs, desires, and conscious thought processes are not just inscriptions in memory or computational operations. They are also things we feel: subjective states. Imagine such intentionality without conscious awareness, or conscious awareness without sentience. The three seem inextricably connected, and perhaps, as Searle's account suggests, essentially equivalent.
The notion that sentience is more than just abstract patterning meshes with neurological findings that, brain-anatomically speaking, location is everything. In what Ian Glynn calls a system of "labeled-line coding," which nerve fiber carries an impulse determines what sort of stimulus is perceived (e.g. pain versus heat). (Glynn 1999: p. 119).
Also compelling is Searle's careful scrutiny of what is intrinsically meaningful or causally real versus observer-relative or merely descriptive. One intriguing conclusion emerging from these essays is that the only sort of representation that is inherently meaningful is a mental representation. All other representations acquire meaning only through the mental representations of outside interpreters. This means that if the brain is nothing more than a computer, so that there is no such thing as intentionality, then there is also no such thing as an outside interpreter, and therefore no meaning or informational content to anything-falling rocks, tree rings, computers, sentences, brains.
While cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker who view the brain as an information processor might argue with Searle, there are fewer points of disagreement than one might at first suppose. Searle does not dispute that the brain is, among other things, a complex computer, or that a computational description of the brain, albeit not causally real, might be a useful one.
Where he differs with Pinker and others is over whether the brain is an information processor. Pinker suggests that there is a meaningful level of information processing that lies outside our conscious awareness. Here subroutines, or what computer scientists call "demons," process representations that have informational content. Where does this content come from? From the very demons that operate on them. These guys, to use Searle's words, purportedly serve as third-party interpreters. (See Pinker 1997: 79). Searle's objection to this approach is that any act of interpretation requires intentionality, and intentionality, as a high-level emergent property of the brain, doesn't trickle down to subroutines. By the same token, Searle argues, subroutines fail to bestow meaning when they operate in computer programs. Neither computers, nor subconscious brains, have any objective status as information processors.
I found less plausible Searle's idea that one could in principle create robots who behave as we do but aren't conscious. If so, then what about humans? How do we know that some of us aren't mere zombies, with no intentional states-a subset of humanity who, just like those of us who lack stereoscopic vision, behave like everyone else? Perhaps, then, intentionality, while subjectively real for those of us who have it, plays no causal role in our behavior. Perhaps it is an evolutionary accident whose apparent fortuitousness is an illusion: an epiphenomenon, not like heat, which reduces to molecular movement, but like foam on waves, which, while distinctly real, doesn't participate causally but merely goes along for the ride. Searle allows for this possibility (p. 28), but says that no valid a priori argument has been given for it; nor does he supply one for the possibility of artificial robot zombies that mimic human behavior.
Then there is Searle's position that intentional states are reasonable objects for scientific inquiry. As Searle himself notes in reference to flat-earth skepticism, "In the case of the earth there is a clear distinction between how things are and how they seem to be, but in the case of the very existence of conscious mental phenomena it is hard to know what a parallel distinction would look like." (p. 81). In particular, given how unique and scientifically unprecedented the question is of how objective properties can cause subjective states, Searle may be overly optimistic that it will ever be answered.
REFERENCES Glynn, Ian (1999) An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of the Mind. Oxford University Press. Pinker, Steven (1997) How the Mind Works. Norton.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Katharine Beals received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1995. From 1995 to 2000 she worked as a Senior Software Engineer with the Natural Language Group at Unisys. She is currently at work on two projects: linguistic software for autistic children, and a book about her deaf, autistic son, which explores such issues as language modality, cochlear implants, and language and consciousness in autistic people.