A Conversation With Philosophy Giant John Searle
John R. Searle is the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley and the author of over a dozen books on the philosophy of mind, language and society. He’s been the recipient of the Jean Nicod Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and now, the extremely prestigious BEAST Trophy of Awesomeness.
BEAST: Hi, Professor Searle?
John Searle: Yeah.
BEAST: This is Ian Murphy.
JS: Yeah. OK. I’m going to put you on the speaker phone if that’s OK.
JS: I have a broken wrist, so it’s easier to do it this way.
BEAST: Oh, I’m sorry. How did you do that?
JS: Oh, I had a fall. It’s the dumbest thing. You know, it’s not even an interesting injury. It’s just boring. The bone was broken in four places, so that was—
BEAST: Sorry to hear that.
JS: It required considerable surgery, but I seem to be mending. Anyway, let’s talk.
BEAST: All right, great. Let’s start off with some political stuff. You wrote in Freedom and Neurobiology that “…it is an epistemically objective fact that George W. Bush is now President.” Concerning the voting irregularities in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, has any disgruntled Democrat ever approached you about printing a correction?
JS: [Laughs.] You see, it’s very interesting the point you make, because the thesis of the book, in a sense, is institutional facts are what we recognize as institutional facts. And a lot of people, who don’t recognize Bush as—don’t recognize that he was legitimately president, but the numbers were so overwhelming that did recognize him and the Supreme Court authenticated it—I think on very poor grounds—so it sticks as an institutional fact. Say if you were asked on an examination, “Who was president during that period?” There isn’t any question it was George W. Bush. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s how it goes.
What I’m trying to make is actually a deep philosophical point here. And that is, where institutional reality is concerned, if you can get enough people to believe it then it exists.
BEAST: So does god exist?
JS: Well, the problem with god is, if he’s a social construct, then—then he’s not god. A guy read my book and came to me and said that he thinks god is a social construct, and he unfortunately had been a priest in the Anglican faith and they kicked him out. They excommunicated him. And I said, well there’s a reason for that, you understand. There’s a name for people who think god is a social construct. They’re called atheists, and that’s why you got kicked out of your job as a priest.
BEAST: OK. In the same book, you wrote: “The reason that government can sustain itself as the ultimate system of status functions is that it maintains the constant threat of physical force.” How then is it that Canada exists?
JS: Oh, Canada! [Not sung to anthem.] They have policemen in Canada too. [Laughs.] I’m sitting next to a Canadian who works for me and she’s a wonderfully nonviolent person. But in Canada they have the armed forces and they have the Royal Mounted Police and other people who have a monopoly on violence.
BEAST: In an op-ed written shortly after 9/11, you wrote: “We need to give up on the illusion that there is some policy change on our part that will change the attitude of the terrorists.” Given the fact the the US actually fomented Jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, funded the Taliban and trained Osama bin Laden, how can you deny that there are consequences—or blowback—to our foreign policy?
JS: Oh, I don’t deny there are blowbacks to our foreign policy. I mean, the problem, as you’ve just pointed to, is that you often make alliances for an immediate situation and then those alliances come to work against you later on. In the Second World War, we allied ourselves with Stalinist Russia and it gave them a tremendous amount of military aid, and then, of course, we then had hostile relations with them in the Cold War. And again, as a means of fighting the Russians we allied ourselves with the—with what we then called the insurgents, and now we call the terrorists. But I don’t think that’s anything new in history. You can’t be sure how your alliances are going to turn out or what the consequences are going to be, but you often have to make alliances. You have to treat somebody who shares with you a common enemy—you have to treat them as a friend, at least temporarily.
BEAST: I’d like to move on to the economy. As a philosopher, what do you think is the nature of money, and do you have any I can borrow?
JS: [Laughs, dismissively.] Well, the interest rates would be pretty tough and the security I would require would be very fierce. Money is a good example of a social construct, because it’s really only money because we think it’s money. And in fact, it doesn’t even have to have a material base. I sometimes talk as if money has to be paper or coins or something like that, but all you—strictly speaking—need for money is some means of recording how much money you have and then changing it in such a way, so you can take money out of your account and put into somebody else’s account. But when you do that, when you shift money from one bank account to another, there’s no actual physical transaction that takes place. All that happens is that the computers now have different figures—different figures for the account you took money out of and different figures for the one it’s going in to. But all you need for money is some system of representation. Money is, sort of, the biggest fantasy of all, but as long as it works, it works fine. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been working too well lately.
BEAST: Do you think things like economic markets, corporations or even language have an evolutionary life that’s somewhat independent of humans?
JS: That’s a good question about language. We know that language evolved, and we know it evolved as a form of human activity, but how much of it—how much of the evolution was actually conscious? I think probably very little. So I think you get these things that have an evolutionary history—forms of human life that have an evolutionary history, but there’s not much conscious choice in the evolution. And the whole question of the evolution of human language is absolutely fascinating. We know very little about it, and we’ve had to kind of guess on the basis of looking at animal signaling systems and how primates communicate with each other. We can sort of make some guesses about as to how language might have evolved, but we don’t really know
BEAST: OK. Moving on. Do you think former Senator Phil Gramm has a soul?
JS: [Laughs.] Well, I have no special opinions about him. Nobody has a soul. That was one of the great illusions of all time, that in addition to this poor body I’ve got—now busted up—I’ve got this mysterious entity lodged somewhere in me—the soul. And the soul is going to float free of my body and live in heaven or hell forever. That is one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on the human race. So, Phil Gramm doesn’t have a soul, but neither does anyone else. I’m an egalitarian in denying souls. I take souls away from everybody.
BEAST: The Canadian rock band Rush sings this about free will:
You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will
Again, I have a two part question: Is free will an illusion, and do you think anyone rocks harder than Neil Peart?
JS: I don’t know anything about the guy. I’ve never heard of the guy you’re asking about, so I can’t answer that half of the question. But the other half of the question is very interesting about free will, and I point this out in an article. Even if you become convinced that free will is an illusion, even if you decide that you’re a determinist, you can’t live on the basis of that decision. See, if you decide that colors are an illusion, you can organize your life around the assumption that colors are an illusion. But with free will, every time you’re in a decision making situation—you go into a restaurant and are given a choice on the menu, you can’t say, ‘Look, I’m a determinist; I’ll just wait and see what happens.’ And this is the deep reason: Saying that is only intelligible to you if it’s something you take as an exercise of your own free will. In other words, the decision to deny free will presupposes free will, and in that respect, it’s unlike other illusions. Now, I don’t know whether or not we have free will. But it’s an interesting case. The fact that we can’t avoid presupposing that we have free will doesn’t mean we have it. It could be the greatest hoax that evolution played in the whole history of the human race. We’ve got this enormous apparatus that’s based on the assumption of free will, of free choice, and decision making and so on, and the whole thing may be an illusion. I don’t know whether we have free will or not.
BEAST: You’re probably best known for the Chinese Room argument against strong artificial intelligence. For those who are unaware, could you succinctly summarize that?
JS: Yeah. Sure. It’s very simple. The thesis that I’m attacking is that having a certain cognitive capacity, say understanding a language, consists entirely in caring out the steps in a computer program. I call that Strong Artificial Intelligence—that the program is sufficient for a mind—and I refute that by imagining, well, what it would be like to carry out the steps in a program for a cognitive capacity that I don’t have. I imagine, as indeed is the case, that I don’t know any Chinese—can’t speak a word of Chinese, can’t even recognize Chinese writing from Japanese writing. And we imagine that I’m locked in a room and people give me bits of Chinese writing. Unknown to me these are questions and I look up in a rule book, in a program, what I’m supposed to do with these questions. I shuffle a lot of symbols, and after a while, I give back other Chinese symbols as answers. And we’ll suppose that they get so good at writing the program, and I get so good at shuffling the symbols, that my answers are perfectly good answers. They’re as good as any native Chinese speaker’s. All the same, I don’t speak a word of Chinese, and I couldn’t in this situation, because I’m just a computer. And the bottom line of the argument is this: If I don’t understand Chinese on the basis of carrying out the computer program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other computer on that basis, because the computer hasn’t got anything that I don’t have.
BEAST: OK. Well, couldn’t it be said that the room itself knows Chinese?
JS: [Laughs.] I’ve heard people say that. I kind of admire the courage in saying, it’s the room that understands Chinese. I think it’s ridiculous, but it’s easy to refute it, and that is to ask yourself, why don’t I understand Chinese if I’m passing the test for understanding Chinese? And the answer is, I have no way to figure out what any of these words mean. I just have the syntax. I just have the symbols, but I don’t have the semantics. I don’t have any meaning. But if I can’t learn the meaning in this situation, neither can the room. The room doesn’t have any access to meaning that I don’t have. And the way to see this is, internalize the room. That is, let me memorize all the steps in the program and I’ll work out of doors in an open field so there isn’t any room. All the same, the bottom line of the whole discussion is there’s no way to get from the syntax of the program, the symbols of the program, to the meanings. And this is not a weakness of the computer. The computer is a syntactical engine. It operates with symbols. We attach meaning to the symbols, but the computer knows nothing about that and doesn’t need to.
BEAST: OK, but what if you draw a parallel between the room and a person? What if it’s a Chinese Brain? The input would come, the brain would translate the data, according to the rules of brain syntax, and it communicates with the outside world. But the part of your brain doesn’t understand Chinese, it’s only the total—
JS: Well, we don’t know how much of the brain you need to have language comprehension. You don’t have to have an entire brain, because people can understand language with part of the brain destroyed. But that’s not the point. The point here is, what’s the difference between a Chinese brain and the computer? And the answer is, the brain is actually a machine. It actually is a physical organ with actual causal properties and energy transfers. You see, we have to think of the brain as an actual human organ like the liver or the stomach, and you can’t do digestion just by doing a computer simulation of digestion, or you can’t—I’m now looking at a rain storm in California. They do computer simulations of rainstorms, but they won’t make you wet. Now, the computer simulation of digestion stands to real digestion the way that computer stimulation of cognition stands to real cognition. Real cognition has to have a set of causal relations and a set of contents, and you don’t get that in computer simulations. The computer simulation gives you a model, or set of symbols that are isomorphic with the domain you’re trying to model. I hope the idea is clear. The Chinese brain is an actual physical organ with causal relations, whereas the computer, the only causal relations it has is to go the next step of the program when the machine is running. Another way to put this point—I like to put it—is the problem is not that the computer’s too much of a machine to have thought processes, it’s not enough of a machine. Because though the computer you buy in the store is a machine, computation doesn’t name a machine process, it names an abstract mathematical process that we found ways to implement on machines, whereas, the actual brain is a machine. Its operations are defined by energy transfers, and it’s those energy transfers, those actual causal relations, that are responsible for human cognition. Sorry to be long-winded, but anyway, that’s the point.
BEAST: No, that’s great. OK. When I interviewed Dan Dennett, I referenced your well-known opposition to Strong AI and this is what he said:
“I have a new name for people that have that view. I call them mind creationists, because they think that the mind is—in my terms—a sky hook. It is something—you can’t get there from here. You can’t get to consciousness and strong artificial intelligence from a whole lot of computation, from a whole lot of little robotics. Yes you can. It’s just more complicated than people thought. The creationist says, you can’t get to us from amoebas. Yes you can. It’s just more complicated than people thought.”
Two part question: Can you respond to that and, your broken wrist notwithstanding, between you and Dan Dennett, who would win in a fist fight?
JS: [Laughs, cautiously] Um, I’m a nonviolent person, so I’m not going to respond to that part of the question. I think that this is fairly low level of rhetoric on his part. I’m obviously not a creationist of any kind, but I do want to point out something that’s absolutely crucial: Brains do it! He says that I think you can’t get to consciousness from some kind of mechanism. And I say, oh yes you can. We do it every day. Brains do it, but they do it by specific causal mechanisms. And as I said before, the problem with a computer is not that it’s too much of a machine. It’s got the wrong kind of machinery, because it just manipulates syntax, and the brain does something more than that. The brain actually causes conscious thoughts and feelings.
BEAST: OK. So, uh, can you make a mind out of anything?
JS: Well, we don’t know. We don’t know how the brain does it. And I think—I think we ought to take the question, ‘Can you make an artificial brain that would do what our brains do out of some other material?’ the same way you take the question, ‘Can you make an artificial heart out of some other material?’ Now, we know how to do it with hearts, because we know how real hearts do it—they’re pumps. But we don’t know how the brain “pumps” consciousness and cognition. We know a lot more than we knew twenty years ago, but we still got a long way to go. So, if we’ve figured how the brain did it, then the chances of making an artificial brain would—then we’d at least have a reasonable way of assessing the chances. But until we know how the brain does it, we’re not going to be able to make an artificial brain.
BEAST: OK. What do you have against zombies—aren’t they people like the rest of us?
JS: Well, the way I define a zombie, it has no feelings at all. It behaves as if it were conscious, but—this is the philosopher sense of zombie—the zombie has no feelings whatsoever. It just behaves as if it had thoughts and feelings. And a perfect zombie, I guess, might do a perfect imitation of having thoughts and feelings, but it wouldn’t have any. So, it would be a waste of your time to pity a zombie with a broken arm, because a zombie doesn’t feel anything. You might want to patch it up as you’d patch up your car, but you don’t have empathy for your car—well, I make an exception for the Porsche, but that’s a special thing. I don’t have sympathy or empathy; I just think it ought to be repaired, and that’s how it is with zombies. They lack all feeling.
BEAST: Well, they desire brains.
JS: They what?
BEAST: Desire braaaaains!
JS: Well, they say words like, ‘I desire to have a brain.’ But they don’t actually have any desires, and that’s—we’re postulating that—that is the definition of a zombie. A zombie, as I’m defining it, is a system that behaves like a human being, but has no inner thoughts or feelings at all. It’s totally unconscious.
BEAST: Will there come a time when robots reproduce sexually—or do you think they’ll use protection?
JS: [Laughs.] Well, robots will do what we make them to do. I mean, they don’t have—the robots we’ve got so far have no autonomy at all. They just do what they’re programmed to do. I mean, we could maybe program them to reproduce sexually, though, it does not sound like a very efficient method of reproducing. See, it’s an amazing fact about humans. Biparental reproduction is enormously inefficient, costly, and it’s responsible for all kinds of hassles. I can’t tell you how many difficulties it produces. But, it does have a tremendous evolutionary advantage, and that is, it mixes the genes. If you just did cloning, you don’t get a mixture of the genes, as you do in biparental reproduction. So. I’m all for biparental reproduction, but it seems to me if you’re talking about robots, it’s not necessary to mix the genes in order to get this kind of variation. We can artificially put in any variation we want.
BEAST: What about the idea of ‘technological singularity’—the idea that at some point computers or robots will get to the point where they’ll start to redesign themselves and evolve on their own?
JS: Well, I always hear this. You know, I’ve been at meetings where people talked about how the computer might get up and revolt against us, and there might be a great computer March on Washington, or something like that. But the difficulty with this is computers—as they’re presently defined, as we presently understand them—have no autonomy at all. They just do what they’re programmed to do. Now, you can program them to program themselves. You can program the computer to reprogram itself, but that still doesn’t give us autonomy in the sense that a conscious agent has autonomy. So until you can build—I don’t think you couldn’t build a machine with genuine autonomy; that’s the question we were discussing earlier about building a conscious machine—but I don’t see how you can do it with the kind of technology that we’re using today, where all you do is manipulate symbols in silicon chips.
BEAST: OK. So, you don’t think there’s very good odds that my Roomba® will gain sentience and rise up against me?
JS: No. I don’t think there’s any real danger from any existing technology, for the reason I mentioned earlier. There’s no autonomy whatsoever. The robots we’ve got today have no will of their own. They’re not conscious.
BEAST: Will the symbiotic relationship between technology and humans result in the evolution of cyborgs, and if so, is resistance futile?
JS: Well, I’m not quite sure what a cyborg is. What’s the definition?
BEAST: Uh….hmm….you know, part—part—part human—
JS: Part human, part machine.
JS: But it’s very hard to know how you’re going to do this, organically speaking. I have been reminded of the specificity of human physiology. You can’t just do it with anything. Now, they—in fact, they put a metal plate in my arm and they screwed the pieces of the bone to the metal plate [Cyborg!], but only very specific sorts of artifacts can be used. You can’t just use anything. So it’s hard for me to imagine how you get a sort of combination of a human organism with, let’s say, a bunch of silicon. I mean, we do have cochlear implants and things like that, where you get extensions of our natural capacity, but it’s hard to see how you get a full fifty-fifty. However, you know, I’m all for experimenting. If people want to experiment, more power to them.
BEAST: OK. Um, how far away are we from having a usable theory of consciousness, and once we do, how will the military use it to shatter people’s minds?
JS: Yeah. It’s hard for me to predict, um, what the military would do. I’m impressed by how much the military in the United States is under civilian control. My son is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Special Forces, currently in Afghanistan, and I get a different take on these military matters than you’d get, say, from a standard—than most professors in a university environment get. My son has a PhD. in history, so he’s an intellectual, who happens also to be active militarily. But the most important part of your question is about consciousness, and there, we just don’t know how the brain does it. And my guess is that the people who crack the problem, who figure out how the brain creates consciousness, will probably not be the existing generation of senior scientists in neuroscience. I think it’s the kind of thing that will be done by young people, who have fresh ideas and new ways of thinking, because the assumptions we’ve been making have not given us the result we want. The basic assumption we make is that the neuron is the functional unit and what we’ve got to do is study neurons, and sometimes people study neuronal maps or neuronal clusters. But basically, it’s the neuron doctrine which has dominated brain science, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe we ought to think at a different level altogether.
BEAST: OK. Do you think aunts are conscious beings?
JS: Well, it’s not really a question you can solve philosophically. You have to know more about ant neurophysiology. And the question is, how do brains do it in general, and do ant brains have enough of the machinery? See, I don’t know about ants, but termites have about a hundred thousand neurons, and I don’t know if a hundred thousand neurons is enough to get you in the game. I mean, I probably lose that on a big weekend—a hundred thousand neurons. But, um, it’s not an interesting question to debate now, because we don’t know enough about human consciousness to even speculate intelligently about ants and termites and lower forms. I mean, we know the amoeba don’t have enough machinery to be conscious—a one celled animal. But how big a nervous system do you have to have? We don’t know.
BEAST: I don’t—I don’t know about termites or amoebas, but my aunt seems to know what’s going on.
JS: Did you say aunt? I think you were talking about a-n-t.
BEAST: My uncle might agree with you, but, uh—
JS: Oh, no, no. OK. I didn’t get the pun. I don’t refer to a-n-t as aunt. [Laughs, charitably.]
BEAST: Do you think colorless green ideas sleep furiously?
JS: Well, it depends on how sleepy they are. The ones I know, they don’t do much sleeping at all, because, you know, they’re too angry.
BEAST: [Laughs.] When you boil it down, aren’t philosophy and witchcraft basically the same thing?
JS: Well, I don’t think so. You see, the problem is, with witchcraft I think I could probably make a living.
BEAST: [Laughs.] What made you want to become a philosopher, and do you regret not doing anything useful with your life?
JS: Yeah, I can’t imagine—the question, ‘What made you want to become a philosopher?’ would be like the question, ‘What made you enjoy sex or skiing, or good food?’ I just can’t imagine a life without it. It’s more fun than, well, let’s see—it’s the third most fun thing.
BEAST: As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, you were involved in a group called “Students against McCarthy—”
JS: Yeah, I was yeah. You did a lot of research—
BEAST: Are you now, or have you ever been, a communist?
No. [Laughs.] But I—I have a lot of enemies who are communists.
Yeah. I mean, I have some friends who are communists, too. But most of the communists I know have stopped being communists—there are hardly any left, I mean, poor things. I miss them. They’ve become extinct. But for most of my life there were communists around. Not very many, in the United States at least, but there were some.
BEAST: Well, Berkeley—yeah.
Yeah. Well, Bettina Aptheker, in the Free Speech Movement, publicly declared herself to be a member of the Communist Party—not surprising. Her dad, I think, was head of the Communist Party of the United States. But Bettina—it’s interesting how she broke with the Communist Party, because they were so sexist. They were discriminating against women. They did not believe in equality for women.
BEAST: Right. Um, are you scared Barack Obama might be a communist?
I have a lot of worries, but that’s not one of them.
BEAST: What are some of your worries?
That he will be inadequate to handle the economic situation that he’s now confronted with. I think he’s trying hard, and I wish him luck, but I don’t—I don’t think anyone has an intellectual grip on the present situation, and I just don’t know that their policies are going to work.