John Searle on Consciousness and the Brain at TEDxCERN (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of philosopher John Searle’s TEDx Talk presentation on Consciousness and the Brain at TEDxCERN conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the details here.

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John Searle – Philosopher

I am going to talk about consciousness.

Why consciousness? Well, it’s a curiously neglected subject both in our scientific and our philosophical culture.

Why is that curious? Well, it is the most important aspect of our lives for a very simple logical reason, namely, it’s a necessary condition on anything being important in our lives that we are conscious. You care about science, philosophy, music, art, whatever, it’s no good if you are a zombie or in a coma, right? So consciousness is number one. All right. Now we’ve got — that’s the first reason we are talking about it.

The second reason is that when people do get interested in it, as I think they should, they tend to say the most appalling things. And I am not going to attempt to conceal from you some of the most appalling things that have been said about consciousness. And even when they are not saying appalling things and they are really trying to do serious research, well, it’s been slow, progress has been slow.

Let me tell you a little bit about some of the difficulties. When I first got interested in this, I thought well, it’s a straightforward problem in biology, let’s get these brain stabbers to get busy and figure out how it works in the brain. So I went over to UCSF and I talked to all heavy-duty neurologists there and they showed some impatience, as scientists often do when you ask them embarrassing questions. But the thing that struck me is one guy said and exasperated, a very famous neurobiologist, he said: “Look, in my discipline, it’s OK to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first!”

Now I think — I’ve been working on this for a long time. I think now you might actually get tenure by working on consciousness, and if so, that’s a real step forward.

  1. Now why then, is this curious reluctance and curious hostility to consciousness? Well, I think it’s a combination of two features of our intellectual culture that like to think they are opposing each other but in fact they share a common set of assumptions. Consciousness is not a part of the physical world, it’s part of the spiritual world, it belongs to the soul, and the soul is not a part of the physical world. That’s the tradition of God, the soul, and immortality.

There is another tradition that I think is opposed to this but accepts the worst assumption. That tradition thinks we are heavy-duty scientific materialists, consciousness is not a part of the physical world, either it doesn’t exist at all or it is something else, a computer program or some damn fool thing. But in any case, it’s not part of science. And I used to get in an argument that really gave me a stomachache. Here is how it went: “Science is objective, consciousness is subjective, therefore, there cannot be a science of consciousness.” I love that argument because it has got a wonderful fallacy of ambiguity over the concept of objectivity. And I have already used up too much time just to clearing my breath, sort of speak, but I want to get to that.

OK, so these twin traditions are paralyzing us, and it’s very hard to get out of these twin traditions, and I have only one real message in this lecture, and that is consciousness is a biological phenomenon, like photosynthesis, digestion, mitosis, you know all that biological phenomena. And once you accept that, most, though not all, of the hard problems about consciousness simply evaporate. And I am going to go through some of them.

OK, now I promised you to tell you some of the outrageous things said about consciousness, and just because of shortage of time, I am only going to mention four of the worst.

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One: “Consciousness does not exist. It is an illusion, like sunsets.” Science has shown sunsets and rainbows are illusions, so consciousness is an illusion.

Two: “Maybe it exists, but it is really something else, it’s a computer program running in the brain.”

Three: “No, the only thing that exists is really behavior!” It’s embarrassing how influential behaviorism was, but I will get back to that.

And four: “Maybe consciousness exists, but it can’t make any difference to the world. How could spirituality move anything?” And whenever somebody tells me that, I think: “You want to see if spirituality moves something? Watch!” I decide consciously to raise my arm and the damn thing goes up.

Furthermore, notice this — we do not say: “Well, it’s a bit like the weather in Geneva, some days it goes up and some days it doesn’t go up.” No! It goes up when I right damn well want it to. OK, I am going to tell you how that is possible.

Now, I haven’t yet given you a definition, you can’t do this if you don’t give a definition. People always say: “Consciousness is very hard to define.” I think it is rather easy to define if you are not trying to give a scientific definition. We are not ready for a scientific definition, but here is the common sense definition: consciousness consists of all those states of feelings, or sensations, or awareness; it begins in the morning when you wake up from a dreamless sleep, and it goes on all day, until you fall asleep, or die, or otherwise become unconscious. Dreams are a form of consciousness on this definition. Now that’s the common sense definition, that’s our target; if you are not talking about that, you are not talking about consciousness.

But they think:”Well, that’s it. That’s an awful problem. How can such a thing exist as part of the real world?” And this, if you have ever had a philosophy course, this is known as the famous “mind-body problem.” I think that has a simple solution to it and I am going to give it to you. And here it is: all of our conscious states, without exception, are caused by lower-level neurobiological processes in the brain. And they are realized in the brain as higher-level or system features. It is about as mysterious as the liquidity of water, right? The liquidity is not an extra juice squirted out by the H2O molecules, it’s a condition that the system is in. And just as the jar full of water can go from liquid to solid, depending on the behavior of the molecules, so your brain can go from a state of being conscious to a state of being unconscious, depending on the behavior of the molecules. The famous “mind-body problem” is that simple.

All right. But now, we get into some harder questions. Let’s specify the exact features of consciousness so that we can then answer those four objections that I made to it.

Well, the first feature is it is real and irreducible. You can’t get rid of it. You see, the distinction between reality and illusion is the distinction between how things consciously seem to us and how they really are. If consciousness seems like… I like the French “arch”, it seems like there’s an arch in the sky, or it seems like the sun is setting over the mountains, it consciously seems to us but that’s not really happening. But for that distinction, between how things consciously seem and how they really are, you can’t make that distinction for the very existence of consciousness. Because where the very existence of consciousness is concerned, if it consciously seems to you, that you are conscious, you are conscious. I mean if a bunch of experts come to me and say: “We are heavy-duty neurobiologists and we’ve done a study on you Searle,” and we are convinced you are not conscious. You’re a very cleverly constructed robot.”