Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why Searle’s Biological Naturalism Is Chauvinist Functionalism

John Searle is a well known critic of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) or Strong A.I. due to his Chinese Room thought experiment. Naturally, he is also a critic of Functionalism given CTM’s popularity among many functionalists sympathetic to it. At one point, Searle expressed contempt towards Functionalism by saying: “If you are tempted to functionalism, I believe you do not need refutation, you need help” (Searle, 1992). Clearly, Searle is hostile towards both CTM and Functionalism. Moreover, Searle also eschews dualism of any kind from Cartesian Dualism to Property Dualism. So, if Searle is neither a property dualist nor a functionalist, then what is his position?

Searle proposes what he considers to be a genuine alternative to both Functionalism and Property Dualism. He calls it Biological Naturalism . What exactly is Biological Naturalism? To put it crudely, Biological Naturalism states that mental states are the right kind of causal powers that can be realized in an appropriate biological organism. This shouldn’t be confused with Type Materialism which states that any type of mental state is identical to any type of neurological state. Unlike Type Materialism, Searle allows that in principle non-carbon life forms can possess an analog to a complex nervous system with mental states. 

Searle often compares mental states to phase states such as liquid and solid. The point of his comparison or analogy is that just as phase states consist of emergent properties of water our mental states are states of matter with emergent biological properties. In other words, mental states cannot be reduced to the simple constituents of neurons, but rather they emerge as a complex pattern from an overall interaction among them. In this sense, mental states are not ontologically reducible to the biological organism, but it is causally reducible insofar as they are causal byproducts of our nervous system. 

However, it is unclear to me how this is suppose to be a genuine alternative to Functionalism. One argument was raised by Georges Rey who points out that the idea that mental states are the “right causal powers” of the brain can be described in Ramsified Sentence that is congenial to David Lewis’ Functionalist theory. In fact, David Lewis uses Ramsified Sentences to formulate his Functionalist theory (A.K.A. Analytic Functionalism). Moreover, David Lewis would agree with John Searle that mental states can be realized in biological organisms, but not necessarily computational systems. Similarly, D.M. Armstrong, who proposes the Causal Theory of Mind, would agree that mental states are causal states of the central nervous system. 

What both David Lewis and D.M. Armstrong have in common is that they would be considered Chauvinist Functionalists. The term is coined by Ned Block in Troubles With Functionalism. In this context, a strict chauvinist is a functionalist who believes that mental states are causal roles of biological organisms, but does not believe that such a state can be realized by anything else. A liberal is a functionalist who believes that mental states are causal roles or realizers that can exist in any system as long as it is loosely similar to the causal input-output structure of our mind. So, a chauvinist emphasizes on the fine grain description of mental states such that it exclusively applies to biological organisms, but not the nation of China.

So, if Lewis and Armstrong are chauvinists, would Searle’s Biological Naturalism count as another version of chauvinist functionalism? After all, Searle thinks that mental states are the right causal powers of the central nervous system, but this phrase is ambiguous. It’s sufficiently ambiguous such that it is open to several interpretations, including a chauvinist functionalist interpretation. In other words, the “right causal powers” are causal states that exist exclusively among biological organisms with a central nervous system of some sort. 

Searle might argue that there is one huge difference: mental states are emergent biological properties causally produced by our central nervous system. The key term here is “emergent”, because if it is emergent then it can’t be reduced to individual neurons. Moreover, it can’t be reduced to the input-output structure among neurons. Perhaps this is what Searle has in mind. However, the problem is the term “emergent”. If I understand the term correctly, it is often used to refer to the phenomena of self-organization.

For example, a snowflake has an emergent crystallized structure that cannot be reduced to H2O molecules. A functionalist might ask “why can’t the sophisticated internal input-output structure also be an emergent causal pattern among neurons?”. After all, the mind could just be an emergent pattern that consists of input-output structure that cannot be exhaustively described in terms of individual neurons. Let’s use an analogy: our human biology cannot be reduced to the number of our genes, but rather it is more or less appropriate described in terms how genes interact with each other, including the level of epigenetics. Likewise, our mind cannot be reduced to the number of neurons (approximately 86 billion neurons), but also the causal interaction among them. This causal interaction among neurons can be described in terms of a very complex  input-output structure. 

Searle might argue that such causal powers cannot be explained in terms of computation or algorithm. So, his theory is not an instance of functionalism. This may not be a charitable interpretation of Searle, but it is plausible given that in the past he has conflated both computationalism and functionalism together as if they were synonymous. However, being a functionalist does not entail that one is a computationalist (see Piccinini, 2009 who explains the difference and David Chalmers (1992) who briefly points out that they are not synonymous). A functionalist who is not a computationalist may argue that while mental states can be characterized in terms of their causal roles in relation to an entire causal system (mind), they are not computational (again, look up Piccinini where he explains the difference between functionalism and computationalism). 

So, again, why isn’t Searle’s Biological Naturalism just another chauvinist version of Functionalism? After all, he hasn’t provided an explicit non-functionalist interpretation of “right causal powers” incompatible with every form of functionalism. That being said, I don’t think Searle has provided a genuine alternative to Functionalism. At best, Searle is against liberal functionalism or CTM. I could be wrong, since many philosophers like David Chalmers and Edward Feser believe that Searle is a property dualist. I think this means one thing: Searle hasn’t provided a clear and articulate alternative philosophical account. It’s ambiguous to the point that it is open to a functionalist or dualist camp. Even though Searle has explicitly rejected both functionalism and property dualism, he hasn’t provided a theory that is genuinely different from either camp.