Searle's Rationality in Action

Just recently I came across a paper by William Hasker that cites a 2001 book by John Searle that I was unaware of.   Hasker quotes enough of Searle to seriously whet my appetite.  It should be arriving shortly.  In the meantime let me quote a big chunk from Hasker to explain my interest in Searle.

The anti-reductivism of most interest to us here is found in Searle’s recent book, Rationality in Action. Much of the argument of that book revolves around the notion of “the gap” that exists in all cases of rational action.  According to Searle, “‘The gap’ is the general name that I have introduced for the phenomenon that we do not normally experience the stages of our deliberations and voluntary actions as having causally sufficient conditions or as setting causally sufficient conditions for the next stage” (2001, p. 50). He also says, “The operation of rationality presupposes that there is a gap between the set of intentional states on the basis of which I make my decision, and the actual making of the decision” (p. 13). This gap is crossed by the activity of a “non-Humean self.” (“You cannot account for the rational self just in terms of a Humean bundle of disconnected perceptions” (p. 289).) The gap, according to Searle, is an obvious feature of everyday experience. Suppose you have gone to a restaurant, and the waiter asks for your order. You can’t just say, “Look, I am a determinist, che sarà, sarà. I will just wait and see what I order! I will wait and see what my beliefs and desires cause!” Searle continues, “This refusal to exercise my freedom is itself only intelligible to you as an exercise of freedom” (p. 14). Searle’s point here serves to underscore the failure of psychological determinism, as noted in the previous section of this essay. Important questions arise, however, when we attempt to combine this psychological account of human action with the neurobiological account. Searle queries, “There is no doubt that the gap is psychologically real, but is it otherwise empirically real? Is it neurobiologically real? If human freedom really exists, it must be a feature of brain function” (p. 269). Searle’s analysis of this question can be illustrated by a pair of diagrams. The first diagram illustrates the situation in which it is assumed that the agent’s reasons, consisting of her desires and beliefs, constitute a sufficient cause of the decision:
               deliberation on reasons           →                   decision

                       ↑  C&R                                                   ↑ C&R
                 neuron firings                      →                neuron firings                                 

One set of neuron firings “causes and realizes” (C&R) the deliberation, another set causes and realizes the decision, and the whole process is regarded as entirely deterministic. This way of conceptualizing the situation is quite similar to Kim’s supervenient causation, though Searle does not employ the language of supervenience. When we add the gap, however, the diagram must be altered:

                                                  causes with gaps   
               deliberation on reasons             →                  decision

                      ↑ C&R                                                      ↑ C&R
                neuron firings                    →                 neuron firings

Now the assumption is that “the indeterminacy at the psychological level is matched by a completely deterministic system at the neurobiological level” (p. 283). In Searle’s view, some distinctly uncomfortable conclusions emerge from this way of understanding action:
This result . . . is intellectually very unsatisfying because, in a word, it is a modified form of epiphenomenalism. It says that the psychological processes of rational decision making do not really matter. The entire system is deterministic at the bottom level, and the idea that the top level has an element of freedom is simply a systematic illusion. It seems to me at t1 that I have a choice between the Burgundy and the Bordeaux and that the causes operating on me are not sufficient to determine the choice. But I am mistaken. The total state of my brain at t1 is entirely sufficient to determine every bodily movement as well as every thought process from t1 to t2 to t3 . . . and the only thing we can say about psychological indeterminism at the higher level is that it gives us a systematic illusion of free will” (p. 285).
In addition to undermining our lived experience of free will, Searle states that
the hypothesis seems to me to run against everything we know about evolution. It would have the consequence that the incredibly elaborate, complex, sensitive, and – above all – biologically expensive system of human and animal conscious rational decision making would actually make no difference whatever to the life and survival of the organisms. (p.286).
Given these unwelcome consequences of the hypothesis of “psychological libertarianism with neurobiological determinism,” the situation is ripe for the emergence of a competing hypothesis, which takes the form of “system causation with consciousness and indeterminacy.” On this view, “the absence of causally sufficient conditions at the psychological level is matched by a parallel lack of causally sufficient conditions at the neurobiological level” (p. 286). But this in turn forces us to
examine critically the assumptions built into our diagrammatic representation with its metaphors of ‘bottom-up,’ ‘top-down,’ ‘levels of description,’ etc. . . . The problem is this: the idea that consciousness is a higher-level or surface feature of the brain gives us a picture of consciousness as like the paint on the surface of the table. . . . All of that is wrong. Consciousness is no more on the surface of the brain than liquidity is on the surface of the water. Rather the idea we are trying to express is that consciousness is a system feature. . . . What we have to suppose, if we believe that our conscious experience of freedom is not a complete illusion, is that the whole system moves forward toward the decision making, and toward the implementing of the decision in actual actions; that the conscious rationality at the top level is realized all the way down, and that means that the whole system moves in a way that is causal, but not based on causally sufficient conditions. (p. 287)
 Clearly, this second hypothesis involves extremely difficult metaphysical questions, which cannot be pursued further here. What is remarkable is that Searle has even proposed such a hypothesis, one which challenges the foundations of most contemporary thinking about the mind and the brain. Nevertheless, Searle himself is troubled by its implications, and states, “Frankly, I do not find either hypothesis intellectually attractive” (p. 296); he is unwilling to decide definitely between them. The problem he finds with the second hypothesis “is to see how the consciousness of the system could give it a causal efficacy that is not deterministic. And it is not enough help to be told that we could accept the randomness of quantum mechanical accounts that are not deterministic. Conscious rationality is not supposed to inherit the randomness of quantum mechanics.  Rather, conscious rationality is supposed to be a causal mechanism that proceeds causally, though not on the basis of antecedently sufficient causal conditions” (pp. 297- 98). Searle himself would be the first to admit that his non-reductivism is a work still in progress.

One possible cause of Searle's discomfort with the first of these viewpoints ('psychological libertarianism with neurobiological determinism')  is that he takes a realist position with regard to his 'reasons'.  I'm not sure that this is quite right.  Suppose we agree that the ordinary objects of the manifest image---trees and houses and people---are appearances arising in me from information arriving at my sense organs from the underlying elements---molecules and photons---of the scientific image.  Then it also makes sense to say that what we call 'reasons' are also appearances in me arising from my own brain's sensing of neurobiological activity within itself.  It is as if my mind looks simultaneously outwards on the world via my senses and inwards at itself and its own activity.  If the outer gaze can give rise to appearances which are in some sense 'approximations' or 'integrations'---I see small numbers of  continuously solid macroscopic objects rather than myriads of discrete particles---then so can the inner gaze integrate reasons from neural activity.  Certainly our reasons, whatever they may be neurobiologically, appear to us in the form of sentences.  I ask myself what reason I have for some act and I get a sentence.  Similarly with belief.  Searle's 'gap' may then arise in two ways.  Firstly, the neurological activity that bridges the gap may be taking place somewhere inaccessible to the inward gaze.  The internal sense organ receives no information from it just as the visual cortex knows nothing of the distribution of infra-red and ultra-violet incident upon me.  Secondly,  the many-one 'clumping' process that renders neurobiological activity into sentences may simply be inherently gappy.  There may be no way of learning how to map such activity onto the words of a shared language.  When I ask myself  how I decided between reasons,  no sentence is forthcoming.

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