Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Mind: A Brief Introduction

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Mind: A Brief Introduction, by well-known philosopher John R. Searle, is a recent volume in the Fundamentals of Philosophy series. As a member of that peculiar set, people with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, I was able to read it quite casually. I'd hashed and rehashed many of the issues of "the philosophy of mind" in class.

How would those new to philosophy take this book? Very well--I think--if they are interested in brains, minds, and computers. Those familiar with the squabbles of artificial intelligence may recognize Searle as the originator of the famous/infamous Chinese Room argument.

This book, however, is an introduction to the issues in the philosophy of mind, from Searle's perspective. He presents the controversies, the arguments from both sides, and rebuttal arguments defending his position. It is an excellent example of how to teach from controversy.

For some time, I've felt that the classic questions of the philosophy of mind must have been wrongly framed. (And the more I've learned about the brain, the less patience I've had with the armchair neurology that is rampant in philosophy.) A simplistic summary of the classic basic issue: There is dualism, which postulates a soul that inhabits the dead meat of the brain; and materialism, which is usually formulated for the purpose of excluding the possibility of a soul. There are also many variations and offshoots of both positions in an argument that is still ongoing.

Searle minces no words: "The philosophy of mind is unique among contemporary philosophical subjects, in that all of the most famous and influential theories are false."

The logical difficulty with dualism has been apparent to many. If the brain and the soul are by definition two different things, how do they interact? Yet forms of materialism, as Searle points out, always end up denying consciousness. Thus both dualism and materialism are false.

To Searle, "Consciousness is a biological feature of the brain in the same way that digestion is a biological feature of the digestive tract."

It is refreshing to read analysis by a philosopher who acknowledges neurobiology. He not only admits that people (and animals) are conscious but insists that philosophical positions have to respect reality. Still, I am a lot more open-minded about what the universe consists of (as he puts it) than Searle is. The reason he gives for the nonexistence of ghosts is that ghosts can't be explained through "microphysics." Is he sure that ghosts (or, for that matter, souls) can't be explained through "microphysics"? I'm not so sure!

This is a worthwhile book. Whether we are aware of it or not, philosophical positions about the mind affect real life: in medicine and medical research, in psychiatry, in dealing with other people. Philosophical positions affect us all; it is to our advantage to understand them.

Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro