John Searle is a marvellous critic of theories in the philosophy of mind, perhaps the best. He makes all sorts of excellent points in his muscular and surly way. But his positive doctrine eludes me, assuming it is supposed to be a coherent doctrine. The problem may reside with me, of course. But I am not ready to give up.
So I take yet another stab at making sense of Searle. (The exegetical equivalent of squaring the circle?) His aim is to find a via media between the Scylla of dualism and the Charybdis of materialism. Dualism, whether a dualism of (kinds of) substances or a dualism of (kinds of) properties, makes of mind something mysterious and supernatural and therefore intolerable to naturalists. But materialism, as Searle understands it, issues in the conclusion that "there really isn't such a thing as as consciousness with a first-person, subjective ontology." (Mind, Language, and Society, Basic Books, 1998, p. 45)
What Searle wants to say is that there can be a natural science of consciousness, but one that does not end up by denying its existence, a natural science that is adequate to consciousness in its very subjectivity. But (1) science is objective: it aims at an underlying reality 'beneath' subjective appearances. (2) Consciousness, however, is essentially subjective. It seems, therefore, that (3) there can be no natural science of consciousness.
To defeat this argument, Searle makes a distinction between epistemic subjectivity and ontological subjectivity, and a distinction between epistemic objectivity and ontological objectivity. Compare a pain and a mountain. A pain has a subjective mode of existence whereas a mountain has an objective mode of existence. The difference is that the appearing of the pain is identical to the being of the pain unlike the mountain whose appearing and being are distinct. A pain cannot exist unless it is experienced, whereas a mountain can exist without being experienced. So far, so good. But then Searle maintains that what is ontologically subjective can be studied by a science that is epistemically objective. If this is right, then the argument above falls victim to a failure to distinguish the two senses of 'subjectivity' and the two senses of 'objectivity.' Here is the argument again:
1. Science is objective: it aims at an underlying reality 'beneath' subjective appearances.
2. Consciousness is essentially subjective.
3. There can be no natural science of consciousness.
Searle's contention is that there is nothing to prevent a science that is epistemically objective from studying consciousness which is ontologically subjective. Here is the crucial passage (ML&S, pp. 44-45):
The pain in my toe is ontologically subjective, but the statement
"JRS now has a pain in his toe" is not epistemically subjective. It
is a simple matter of (epistemically) objective fact, not a matter
of (epistemically) subjective opinion. So the fact that
consciousness has a subjective mode of existence does not prevent
us from having an objective science of consciousness.
Searle's argument goes like this:
4. The pain in JRS's toe is ontologically subjective.
5. That JRS has a pain in his toe is a matter of epistemically
6. That consciousness has a subjective mode of existence is consistent
with there being an epistemically objective science of it.
Although both premises are true, the conclusion does not follow from them. Searle is confusing the objective reality of his pain with its objective accessibility to science. This confusion is aided and
abetted by the ambiguity of 'object' and 'objective.' From the fact that the pain exists in itself and is in that sense objective, it does not follow that the pain is exhaustively knowable by science, that it
is an object of scientific knowledge.
Consider a different example. Mary says, "The room is cold!" Bill says, "The room is not cold." Clearly, there is no fact of the matter as to whether or not the room is cold or the opposite. It is a matter of perception: Mary feels cold, while hot-blooded Bill does not. The objective fact is that the room temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, a fact perceived differently by Bill and Mary.
Note that it is also an objective fact that Mary feels cold and that Bill does not. But how is it supposed to follow that Bill's sensation, or Mary's, are exhaustively understandable in natural-scientific terms? The fact that the sensations themselves exist in reality and not relative to perceivers does not show that they are wholly accessible to science. It is precisely their "first-person ontology" that keeps them from being wholly accessible to science.
The mistake Searle is making is to think that what is objectively real (in the sense of that which exists in itself and not relative to perceivers) is exhausted by what is natural and therefore accessible to natural science. He mistakenly identifies reality with nature. It is undoubtedly true that sensations (and mental data generally) exist in observer-independent fashion: they are not mere appearances but appearances in which appearance and reality coincide. Thus Searle is right to say that they are ontologically subjective. Searle is also right to say that this ontological subjectivity is consistent with mental data's existing in themselves and not merely for an observer.
But as far as I can see it is a howling non sequitur to conclude that mental data are objects of scientific knowledge. To be objectively real (in the sense of existing an sich and not merely for observers) is not the same as being an object of scientific knowledge. Beware the ambiguity of 'object'! It appears that Searle has fallen victim to it.
But why does Searle mistakenly identify reality with the objects of scientific knowledge -- especially given his clear insight into the ontological subjectivity of mental data? Because he is in the grip of
the IDEOLOGY of scientific naturalism. This prevents him from properly exploiting his insight. But to make this allegation stick will require further citations and considerations.
My Searle posts are in the aptly-named Searle category.