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

John Searle

Here is the full transcript of philosopher John Searle’s TEDx Talk presentation on Consciousness and the Brain at TEDxCERN conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Consciousness & the Brain by John Searle at TEDxCERN


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!”

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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.

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.

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