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The Mystery of Consciousness
John R. Searle

Published by NYREV, Inc./NY in 1997
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2000


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Several years ago I bought a series of taped lectures by John R. Searle on "The Philosophy of Mind" from the Teaching Company and studied them carefully. It was in those lectures that I first encountered his famous "Chinese Room" thought experiment. With that experiment he was able to convince me and many other philosophers that computers are not able to think and will never be able to. In a room was a person who received Chinese symbols from one hole in the wall, followed a rote procedure and wrote down symbols that went out another hole on which were written a translation in English. The question is, "Did the person in the room understand Chinese?" Obviously the answer is no. And since a computer operates in the same dumb way as the man in the room, the computer cannot understand Chinese or anything else for that matter.

This book is a compilation of a series of essays that Searle wrote in the New York Review of Books, which essays generated a lot of mail and responses from readers. The most vehement of the responses came from the adherents of Artificial Intelligence who took issue with Searle's point that computers can never become consciousness due to a lack of the personal experience of qualia or those internal subjective feelings of what it means to us as humans to be conscious.

Searle walks a tight line between dualism and materialism, rejecting both sides of the argument, and claiming in the end of the book that we can reject dualism while still accepting the irreducibility of consciousness. That is, consciousness cannot be reduced to computerized procedures, but it does not exist apart from the material plane as dualists would claim. "This is a fine mess, you've gotten us into, Ollie," as Stan would say. Why all the bother, you might ask. Well, the alternative would be for Searle to accept dualism, which he considers tantamount to scientific blasphemy.

[page xiii] It seems that to accept dualism is to give up the entire scientific worldview that we have spent nearly four centuries to attain.

Notice the finely veiled presupposition that science is a monotonically increasing endeavor, and therefore, after four hundred years of work, we must continue to build on our previous work, and not even consider that we were in error. Perhaps a useful error, but one nevertheless. The essence of Kuhn's insight into the nature of scientific revolutions was to predict that such building on a previous error continues until finally a new theory overthrows all the previous ways of holding things and a more general explanation of how the world works evolves into a new paradigm or new foundation for future understanding.

Four hundred years ago, we began a scientific revolution in which we ignored information from any source that was not directly perceivable by the senses. This occurred at the same time that human senses were becoming more materialistic and less able to view the spiritual world directly. We have built much of our modern technology on the hard sciences that grew out of that revolution. In the meantime, we have abandoned large areas of human endeavors, such as consciousness, allowing them to exist without an explanation for the very reason that materialistic approaches fall short of a full explanation, as Searle's Chinese Room metaphor so adeptly illustrates. I would suggest it is time for us to consider dropping the materialistic term "dualism" and adopt the premise that we live in both a spiritual and a material world and that the techniques for experiencing both worlds are valuable, complementary, and sometimes mutually exclusive.

Want an example of how a materialist scientist looks at consciousness? Read Francis Crick's Astonishing Hypothesis. It says:

[page 21] that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. [p. 3]

In the ninth century during the 8th council at Constantinople, the Church demoted man from a tripartite being of body, soul, and spirit into a dual being of body and soul. In the fifteenth century the new Church of Science began inexorably to remove the soul component. Crick's statement above shows that the job is complete man is now only body, according to their credo and to claim otherwise will subject one to the cry of heresy.

Next Searle looks at Gerald Edelman's Theory of Neuronal Group Selection in which the unit of selection is not individual neurons, but large complex groups of neurons with specific functions that are chosen by a Darwinian selection process. Another scientist toes the line of the Church of Science. I've reviewed two books by Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and The Remembered Present, so I won't repeat any material that you can read in those reviews. But Searle makes an interesting comment about Edelman's work that is worth examining. One requirement for primary consciousness in the brain is:

[page 44] It must have memory. . . . It does not just recall a stereotype but continually reinvents the category of cats [e.g.]. This conception of memory seems to me one of the most powerful features of the book because it provides an alternative to the traditional idea of memory as a storehouse of knowledge and experience, and of remembering as a process of retrieval from the storehouse.

What I suggest happens is that upon perception of a cat, e.g., a person's doylic memory of a cat is retrieved and those unconscious physical body states or doyles are attached to whatever cognitive categories are created as their cognition of the category of cat is re-stored in their cortical regions. This satisfies Edelman's requirement for reinventing the category, while allowing for the unconscious physical body states (doylic memory) to be fetched, attached to new categories, and remain unchanged the next time it is fetched. Thus doylic memory is a storehouse of experience while the categories of cat, e.g., are modified upon every new experience. [For an example of how specific such doylic memories can be, see the story of the woman with a lifelong allergy to dogs: ]

On page 49, Searle says "we still need a scientific account of how exactly pains are caused by brain processes." Having worked for years in a chemical plant on its process computers, I view pain as simply a signal to the central computer that some event has occurred out in the plant at one of its sensors. That status would be stored into local memory in the computer. If, for some reason, the sensor was unavailable, removed from service for replacement, the local memory would contain the last setting of the sensor. This artifice enabled the operation of the plant to continue even though one more sensors weren't working. Phantom limb pain is like a missing sensor in the human body. The status of the sensors were stored in local memory [in the limbic-brain stem region, what we call doylic memory for short] and when the status of the missing limb is queried, the pain is retrieved from local memory even though there are no sensors present. A thorough investigation of phantom limb pain in light of the science of doyletics, in my humble opinion, will take us a long way to a scientific account of how pains are caused by brain processes.

[page 50] The problem of what accounts for the inner qualitative states of awareness or sentience called "qualia" is not an aspect of the problem of consciousness that we can set on one side; it is the problem of consciousness. . .

I have known for some time that there are stored physical body states [doyles] and real-time physical body states that are happening in the moment. That would suggest that qualia exist in two forms, doylic and real-time, just as pains can exist in the moment or be doylic in nature as in phantom leg pain. After reading Searle's essays, I wonder if perhaps all qualia are doylic in nature. This would be radical, if it were true. It would mean that qualia is the name given to the subjective experience of doyles fired off in the moment. Since experience in real-time is a moving target and consciousness requires some passage of time, what William James referred to as the expanded present, suppose that the only registration in our consciousness occurs from the doyles that are triggered by the real-time sensors? Then there would be no real-time qualia, only real-time sensory data in the instantaneous present and doyles that fill the expanded present, those brief seconds around the present that our brain calculates as the present by a recursive looping over the doyles triggered by the real-time sensors! Thus all qualia would be doylic in nature. This is worth investigating further.

Remember the ballad of John Henry, the steel-driving man? He strove to prove that no machine could be stronger than man. He lost. A hundred years later a Russian chess champion strove to prove that no machine could beat a human at chess. He lost. Did that prove that the computer that won was smarter than the man it played? With John Henry's loss, we had to give up the illusion that man would always be stronger than a machine. Do we have to give the illusion now that computers are smarter than man? No, the Chinese Room metaphor squelches that illusion. The Turing test lays down the rules for that new battle of human versus computer, and it is simplicity in itself. You communicate with a computer terminal and if you are convinced that a human being is on the other side of the line after some period of time, and it's really only a computer talking back, the computer has reached the level of human intelligence. This will be the John Henry equivalent of a human-computer contest.

From the point of view of qualia, a computer that was able to understand and answer questions would also have to have qualia for it to be able to answer questions as if it were a human in order to pass the Turing test. First we would have to build a simulator for a human being, and then give that simulator all the historical experiences of a typical human being, so that in interaction with another human being, they would have the qualia to provide the internal information on which base answers that would convince a human being that they were talking to another human being instead of a computer. Suppose we used the knowledge of how experiences are stored during human childhood as doyles and how real-time sensory data triggers a looping of the cortex over doyles to create an expanded present that provides the internal experiences we call "qualia", and programmed this into a computer system, would that create a candidate for winning the Turing test? Seems plausible to me. Would the winner be conscious? No, just a clever simulation of a human being. Like a spike-driving machine was a clever simulation of John Henry.

This little analogy of John Henry is useful for understanding Daniel Dennett's view of consciousness. If our computer simulation of a human being passed the Turing test, Dennett would claim that the computer is therefore human, as he denies the existence of consciousness entirely. He discards qualia completely.

[page 99] He thinks there are no such things as qualia, subjective experiences, first-person phenomena, or any of the rest of it.

[page 107] His claim is that in fact we are zombies, that there is no difference between us and machines that lack conscious states. . .

In the last researcher that Searle discusses, Israel Rosenfield, I found some amazing insights. I immediately ordered his book, The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness, which I expect to reading and reviewing shortly. His book consists mostly of case histories of neurological injuries and disorders with descriptions of how the individual's consciousness was affected by them. Like his former collaborator, Edelman, he focuses on the connection of memory and consciousness. He claims that consciousness arises from the "dynamic interrelations of the past, the present, and the body image." (Page 180)

From my reading of what Rosenfield means by body image, he's talking about the experience of our body in the now when we considers things that happened in the past while things are happening in the present. What we experience is a combination of real-time sensory data in the present and the doyles that they trigger, plus the things we think about in the present have the possibility to activate doyles as well. Those cascading doyles from real-time sensory data and from memories combine to form what I understand to be called "qualia" and give us each a unique body image. Here's Searle quoting from Rosenfield's book:

[page 181] My memory emerges from the relation between my body (more specifically my bodily sensations at any given moment) and my brain's "image" of my body ( an unconscious activity in which the brain creates a constantly changing generalized idea of the body by relating the changes in bodily sensations from moment to moment). It is this relation that creates a sense of self. [p. 8]

What are doyles if not a series of cascading changes in bodily sensation from moment to moment. Doyles, because they are stored and retrieved by the limbic-brain stem are necessarily unconscious except in their effects on our body. We may not be aware of why we are crying, but we are definitely conscious of the fact we are crying. So it is with every doyle we are unconscious of the reason for the very good reason that to be conscious means to have a conceptual or cognitive memory of it, and doyles are by definition neither conceptual nor cognitive. Once a doyle is traced before its original event, a cognitive memory is created of the original event and the doyle will no longer be triggered from then on. The very presence of a doyle means that its associated event is unconscious.

[page 182] The brain forms an image of our entire body. And when we feel pains or any other sensations in the body, the actual occurrence of the experience is in the body image in the brain.

This statement by Searle matches an insight that Doyle Henderson had some twenty-five years ago as he tried to sort out what was causing the horrible fear states in his body. He realized that the brain has no sensors inside it, so if one can feel a pain by thinking of a painful event, the brain must be re-creating that inside itself from some storage mechanism and sending signals out to the sensors that matched what the sensors reported to the brain during the original event. My insight that "if you have phantom leg pain and you have a leg, you call it real pain" is supported by this next passage by Searle.

[page 182] In a sense all of our bodily sensations are phantom body experiences, because the match between where the sensation seems to be and the actual physical body is entirely created in the brain.

In his Conclusions chapter, Searle covers a miscellany of topics, among which is the phenomena of blindsight. The phenomenon of blindsight provides definitive evidence to me that the amygdala and its surrounding limbic-brain stem region has the ability to perceive visual data in real-time and react to it. Before five years old, that image and reaction is stored as a doyle. Later when a similar image is received by the amygdala, it sends signals to the hypothalamus to trigger the same reaction that had occurred during that original event, the event when the doyle was first stored. If the cortical region has the nerves cut from the eye in the region where the person is correctly guessing what is there, there must be a parallel and necessarily unconsciousness mechanism of perception at work. That points to the amygdala and its ability to perceive visual patterns at any age and to store them before the memory transition age of five. Details on how this works is available at .

[page 189] Many people apparently believe that somehow or other, unless we are proven to be computers, something terribly important will be lost.

Searle is not one of those people, to his credit. Rightly understood, if we were to become convinced that we were nothing but computers, our immortal souls would be lost. This may not be the primary considerations for most philosophers of consciousness in this nascent 21st Century, but it is certainly one that this writer and philosopher understands to be a real and present danger to those who get so enamored of computers that they unknowingly relegate their souls to the same trash heap as their old 8086 computers.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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