Hsieh on Searle on Reductionism

Nov 302002

I recently finished reading John Searle’s seminal book on philosophy of mind, The Rediscovery of the Mind. Perhaps most delightfully, the clear and engaging arguments in Searle’s book were a welcome respite from the overabundance of boring and convoluted articles assigned as reading for my “Philosophy of Mind” class. (I don’t fault my professor for choosing such articles, as they are the “classics” in the field.) Unfortunately, I don’t find much hope in Searle’s positive account of the mind as a “causally emergent property” of the physical organism (Searle 112). As my professor (Bob Hanna) has noted, accounting for mental causation (let alone free will) may well be an impossible chore within Searle’s model of consciousness. Nevertheless, Searle offers a number of compelling arguments against various wrong theories of mind, particularly against reductionism and functionalism. While I hope to address the Searle’s complex argument against functionalism in the future, his argument against reductionism shall be the topic of the day.

In Chapter 5 of The Rediscovery of the Mind, Searle first defines the fuzzily-used concept of reduction as “the idea that certain things might be nothing but certain other sorts of things” (Searle 112). Thus water could be reduced to H2O molecules if and only if water were nothing but H2O molecules. Searle then goes on to distinguish five types of reduction: ontological reduction (objects of one type are nothing but objects of other types), property ontological reduction (properties of one type are nothing but properties of other types), theoretical reduction (the laws of one theory be deduced from the laws of another theory), logical/definitional reduction (statements about one type of thing can be losslessly translated to statements about another type of thing), and causal reduction (the existence and causal powers of one type of thing are entirely explainable in terms of the existence causal powers of another type of thing). For Searle, ontological reduction and causal reduction are most relevant to modern debates about the mind, given that ontological reduction is the goal of serious reductionists, while Searle advocates only causal reduction.

Searle’s theory of the mind advocates causal reduction in that “mental features are caused by neurobiological processes” (Searle 115). In the history of science generally, Searle argues, such causal reductions quickly lead to ontological reductions because “we simply redefine the expression that denotes the reduced phenomena in such a way that the phenomena in question can now be identified with their causes” (Searle 115). For example, while we used to think of the color red as merely a type of subjective sensation, through the development of science, we came to “carve off and eliminate the subjective experience of color from the ‘real’ color” understood as “light reflectances” (Searle 115). Thus the ontological reduction of color naturally flowed from the causal reduction of color.

However, Searle argues, consciousness does not follow this same pattern of first causal and then ontological reduction (Searle 116). A complete causal reduction of pain, for example, to neurophysiological processes, would leave out “the essential features” of pain as an “unpleasant conscious sensations” (Searle 117). But why would this be so? Why is consciousness so unique? Searle argues that ontological reductions seek to “carve off the surface features” of something so as to redefine that something “in terms of the causes and produce those surface features” (Searle 119). Thus we might reduce the mass of a pile of iron filings to the mass of an individual atom of iron multiplied by the number of iron atoms in the pile because the mass of the whole is completely explained by the mass of its constituent parts.

In early scientific understandings, where “the surface feature is a subjective appearance” like color or heat, we perform the reduction by “redefin[ing] the original notion in such as way as to exclude the appearance from its definition” (Searle 119). Thus color is reduced by excluding the subjective sensations of color from the definition in favor of talk about “light reflectances” (Searle 119). And heat is similarly redefined in terms of “the kinetic energy of the molecular movements” to the exclusion of any discussion of feelings of warmth and coolness. Such reductions are possible because we are primarily concerned with the “underlying physical causes of heat” rather than the “subjective appearance” of heat (Searle 120). But we should remember that this sort of reduction by redefinition does not involve any sort of eliminativism about subjective experiences, as those subjective experiences “exist the same as ever” (Searle 120).

So why can’t we perform such reductions with mental states like pain? Searle argues that in fact we could, but that they would leave “the subjective experience of pain unreduced” in the exactly same way that “the reduction of heat left the subjective experience of heat unreduced” (Searle 121). Such a situation is acceptable for heat, given that “what interests us about heat is not the subjective appearance but the underlying physical causes” (Searle 120). In contrast, the subjective experience of mental states like pain are precisely what we are so keenly interested in understanding. An ontological reduction of mental states therefore cannot offer us the sort of knowledge of the mind we seek. As we have seen in the history of reductionist accounts of the mind, consciousness would be left unexplained by an ontological reduction.

While I am in broad agreement with Searle’s argument, I do have two objections on Objectivist grounds.

First and foremost, Searle uses the ever-so-Kantian appearance-reality distinction to summarize his objection to the ontological reduction of the mind. He argues that ontological reductions carve off the “appearance” from the “reality” of something, but that such is not possible for mental states because “consciousness consists in the appearances themselves” (Searle 121-2). Thus, he summarizes: “Where appearance [or consciousness] is concerned we cannot make the appearance-reality distinction because the appearance is the reality” (Searle 122).

Searle’s argument, however, cannot be anything but superficially Kantian given that it can easily be understood in light of the form-content distinction found in Objectivist accounts of perception (such as David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses). The “content” in perception is simply whatever features of the world stimulate our sensory system. The form, on the other hand, is the “aspects of appearance that result from the way our sensory systems respond to stimulation” (Kelley 42). In perception, the form and content are inextricably linked, such that colors look to be in the objects themselves, for example. But through scientific inquiry, we learn that color is the form in which we perceive the reflective qualities of surfaces. Similarly, we learn that heat is the form in which we perceive the kinetic energy of molecules and that pain is the form in which we perceive tissue damage. Consequently, we are able to conceptually separate “the way in which we perceive external objects” from the intrinsic properties of those external objects themselves (Kelley 42). Thus Objectivism rejects the Kantian gap between “appearance” and “reality.” Rather, the appearance of an object is simply our awareness of that object in a given form, as dictated by the nature of our perceptual systems. All awareness must be in some form or other — and no form of awareness is more “real” than any other. (Ayn Rand’s own brief comments on the form-content distinction are found in a discussion of the false distinction between primary and secondary qualities in the Appendix of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pages 279-282.)

Searle’s argument can, in fact, be easily reformulated in terms of this form-content distinction instead of his appearance-reality distinction. On such a reformulation, the ontological reductions we find in science are actually attempts to distinguish the form from the content of our perceptions, i.e. to distinguish those aspects of perception that are intrinsic to reality (content) from those are the product of the perceiver’s relationship to reality (form). However, in studying consciousness per se, the form cannot be identified and sidelined through ontological reduction, since the form of perceptions and other mental states are precisely what we are interested in explaining.

My second (and final) objection to Searle’s argument against ontological reduction of mental states concerns his division between concepts that can be ontologically reduced (like color and heat) and concepts that cannot (like pain). Searle certainly admits that this distinction is based upon our “definitional practices” rather than on “any distinction in the structure of reality” (Searle 123). I think there are two good reasons to doubt those definitional practices themselves.

First and somewhat superficially, there seems to be no principled divide between allegedly reducible concepts like color and heat on the one hand and irreducible concepts like pain on the other, as all have both phenomenological and causal aspects. If we are interested in the phenomenology of color and heat, as many philosophers and scientists now are, then ontological reduction of those concepts is impossible without omitting precisely what we wish to explain, as in the case of pain according to Searle. On the other hand, if we are uninterested in the phenomenology of pain, we can reduce pain to the detection of tissue damage in the exactly same way Searle reduced color and heat. (A surgeon, for example, might be concerned with what a patient’s pain indicates about hidden tissue damage rather than how much it hurts.) Consequently, the possibility of ontological reduction seems to be solely a function of our interest — or lack thereof — in the phenomenological aspects of a given concept.

Second and far more significantly, the process of ontological reducing concepts of perceptions to their causes is not, as Searle indicates, a process of overturning or redefining those concepts at all. Rather, such ontological reduction is a process of either adding new knowledge to our existing phenomenological concepts or of creating entirely new (albeit related) casual concepts. Scientific investigation of the world shows us, for example, that differences in colors are caused by differences in the reflective properties of surfaces. For most of us, that knowledge merely serves as an adjunct to our essentially phenomenological concepts of color by helping us conceptually differentiate between the form and the content of color perception. For scientists, that knowledge may in addition justify the formation of a new concept of the reflective properties of surfaces also (and somewhat unfortunately) called “color.” But in neither case are the phenomenological concepts of color overturned, replaced, or redefined. After all, although we may conceptually distinguish between the form and content of our perception of color thanks to science, we continue to subjectively experience color as a unity of that form and content. And when a scientist tells his child that the crayon “looks more blue than purple to me,” he’s referring to his subjective experience of those colors, not readings on some sort of lightwave meter. That only one word is used ought not confuse us into thinking that there is only one concept!

My second objection to Searle’s critique of reductionism actually seems to give us all the more reason to reject reductionistic accounts of consciousness — by indicating that genuine ontological reduction is not possible with any phenomenological concepts at all. Rather, in light of science, we tend to either add information to our essentially phenomenological concepts or form new concepts that ignore the phenomenology in favor of the physical causes. Either of these processes is fine and dandy, so long as we understand that we have not reduced our phenomenological concepts to physical concepts.

As a side note, my anti-reductionistic view agrees with Rand’s comments on concepts of sensations in Chapter Five of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

Sensations are the primary material of consciousness and, therefore, cannot be communicated by means of the material which is derived from them. The existential causes of sensations can be described and defined in conceptual terms (e.g., the wavelengths of light and the structure of the human eye, which produce the sensations of color), but one cannot communicate what color is like, to a person who is born blind. To define the meaning of the concept “blue,” for instance, one must point to some blue objects to signify, in effect: “I mean this.” Such an identification of a concept is known as an “ostensive definition” (Rand 40-41).

Rand’s first sentence strikes me as a particularly insightful explanation of why phenomenological concepts cannot be reduced.

All in all, I think that Searle’s argument against reductionism shows why the various qualia arguments against reductionism seem plausible to us. All of those qualia arguments (the absent qualia argument, the inverted qualia argument, the gap argument, the knowledge argument, and so on) are designed to pump our intuitions into telling us that reductionism does not adequately account for phenomenology. Not being one to trust my intuitions, these arguments carry very little weight by themselves. But Searle’s argument shows that omitting phenomenology is precisely what reductionistic accounts do. As such, a reductionistic account of consciousness is impossible.

Permission or Right?

Nov 242002

Do you think that we are free and living well here in America? Sure, we’re better off than most others around the globe, but Arthur Silber of Light of Reason offers some darn good reasons to think the state has grown to such power that we are all now merely “living by permission.” He argues:

My point here is a very simple one: there already exists the complete machinery for your government to make your life a living hell — once one government official somewhere, someone whom you may never know, someone who may know next to nothing about you — except that “someone” with “pull” and “influence” has it in for you for some unknown reason — decides to go after you. It is in this sense, and for this reason, that I titled my earlier post “Living by Permission” — and my point is precisely that: we are all living by permission now. You are probably in violation of countless laws and regulations at this very moment, depending on some government bureaucrat’s interpretation of what you ought to have done in any given instance.

I also have to repeat once more that all these countless laws and regulations apply to almost every single area of our lives; no area of our lives now is exempt from this kind of control, in terms of the rules that are in place today. Now, think about all of that — and think about the vastly increased powers the government will undoubtedly have under the new Homeland Security bill — and tell me again how we are freer than we’ve ever been before.

(For the sake of the whole story, Arthur is addressing the arguments in Alex Knapp’s well-argued blog entry, as well as Jonah Goldberg’s less compelling Townhall column and follow up NRO column.)

Arthur offers a number of good examples in support of his argument, so be sure to look at his post firsthand if you are interested in the issue. Speaking personally, the most striking evidence for our loss of freedom is the widespread acceptance of income taxes that enslave most Americans to the state for almost half the year — compared to the minor taxes that offended the colonists enough to wage the Revolutionary War. The fact that politicians face no significant pressure to slash and burn taxes worries me even more, as it bodes ill for the future. The colonists saw the tyranny coming; most Americans today can’t even see that it has arrived.

Let me now add some epistemological cautions to Arthur’s analysis.

I worry that arguments that we are more free now than at any other time are subject to the epistemological bugaboo of confirmation bias. Those of us who strongly value freedom have a natural tendency to invest our time and energy into areas of life where we are free from the authority of government bureaucrats. Disgusted by the lunacy of government regulation, we tend to pursue activities that are less regulated. Thus we are unlikely to become teachers in government schools or doctors primarily caring for the poor (thanks to Medicaid). We might never even entertain the idea of opening a small business in a city, given how most are so heavily taxed and regulated. We wouldn’t even consider attempting to start a first class letter delivery business in light of the Post Office’s monopoly on such mail. Given that we are so adept at living with and yet avoiding these controls and regulations, their existence might not fully occur to us in considering the extent of the usurpation of power by the government.

As a result of our natural avoidance of government controls, we are in danger of being like the clad foot that thinks the whole world as made of leather, to use Boston T. Party’s metaphor. We are in danger of not seeing the full extent of government tyranny because we have grown up with its permeating influence — and thus have accustomed ourselves to avoiding and accommodating it.

This confirmation bias is not the only potential problem with arguments about present versus past freedoms. Since not all government controls are irrational, we may not recognize the extent to which they determine our actions in suboptimal ways. Cosmetology school seems like a reasonable way to become a hair stylist, but what other options might arise without the government mandate? What changes in the curriculum would freedom bring? Additionally, given that we are only ever in contact with a small fraction of government controls, we might not realize their vast reach. In particular, from an outside perspective, we might not be able to differentiate between requirements imposed by private individuals and firms from those imposed by law and regulation. A janitor might not know, for example, that toilet seat covers in the restrooms are mandated by his company only because they are mandated by local law. Not all government regulations are clearly marked as such.

So in order to objectively analyze whether or not we are more or less free now than we used to be, we would have to be extremely careful to take factors like confirmation bias and hidden evidence into consideration. I’m not sure that ordinary political commentators are up to the task, myself included.

That being said, I have worries about any attempt to compare the aggregated freedoms of two societies (or one society at two different times). Is my presently-recognized freedom to wear a bikini at the beach worth an extra $200 or $500 or $5000 dollars of taxes every year? Is the black (and white) southerner’s freedom from Jim Crow laws balanced out by the imposition of FCC censorship on everyone? My point here is that we cannot simply add up all the freedoms of the people in a society in some sort of magical utilitarian way so as to easily compare whether one society is more or less free than another. Sure, we have some easy cases, like that the United States is more free than North Korea. But those easy judgments are only possible because one country is more free across the board than the other, because one country recognizes individual rights to some extent, while the other country does not recognize individual rights at all.

In semi-free societies in which significant freedoms and oppressions have been unevenly distributed amongst various segments of the population, society-wide comparison seems impossible. After all, my inability to hire and fire whom I please in my business is not compensated for by my freedom to travel without the permission of my husband. And my freedom to use my pastures for grazing my horses does not balance with a farmer’s inability to use his land thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Freedoms and oppressions cannot be added up in this way; they cannot be given cardinal values in a utilitarian social calculation.

In sum, the conditions under which we can compare the sum total of particular freedoms seem pretty limited. However, I do think we can compare societies based upon the fundamental principles underlying political action. Most fundamentally, we can ask, as Arthur does: Are we living by right — or by permission?

The Fragility of Memory

Nov 242002

As part of my philosophical writing on self-deceptive excuses, I’ve taken an interest in the psychology research concerning the plasticity of memory. For example, I recently read and very much enjoyed Daniel Schacter’s book The Seven Sins of Memory.

But I was totally captivated last night in reading this article on memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, who has been hugely influential casting doubt upon the reliability of memory, including debunking “recovered” memories of abuse.

What a woman!

Daypop Returns

Nov 222002

Daypop is back! Horray!

OWL Post

Nov 212002

I just posted the following to OWL:

Phil Coates’ recent posts (of November 15th and 19th) admonished all of us to take a more active interest in the Objectivist movement both on and offline. In particular, he argued that OWL suffers from a lack of quality and quantity, as well as too-academic of an orientation.

But Phil is wrong to tar listmembers with such a broad brush. Not only is Phil ignorant of what listmembers do in their time away from OWL to (directly and indirectly) promote Objectivism, but some listmembers clearly ought not be admonished in such a way.

For example, Arthur Silber has done an astounding job of bringing Rand’s ideas serious attention within the widely-read, libertarian-friendly blogosphere through his web log http://blog.light-of-reason.com. As a blogger myself, I was astonished by how quickly and effectively Arthur challenged others to take a serious look at Rand’s ideas on a wide variety of issues. I would strongly encourage listmembers to check out Arthur’s site — and donate a few bucks if you like his work as much as I do. Arthur hardly deserves to be chastised by Phil’s sweeping claims about “short run egoism” in promoting Objectivism — and yet he was.

And should I be so chastised as well? I don’t spend time posting to OWL because I’m busy working on the curriculum for the 17 year olds for Camp Indecon, revising my introductory lectures on Objectivism, preparing philosophy papers for publication, getting a graduate degree in philosophy, defending my right to freedom of speech from a lawsuit, and so on. Yet, as with previous negative comments about “young academics,” Phil makes no effort to limit his generalizations to the people to whom they actually apply. Such generalizations are offensive and unjust, particularly to the very people Phil ought to be praising by his own standards.

That being said, I should mention that I absolutely refuse to grant Phil’s argument that people *ought* to be devoted to the spread of Objectivism at all. People have their own lives to lead and their own values to pursue. The primary purpose of a rational philosophy is to help people live rational lives *themselves*, not to help others in that task. If people want to see the philosophy spread, they should act effectively to achieve that end rather than passively wishing for it. But promoting Objectivism is not a duty!

Finally, let me encourage Phil to follow his own advice in promoting “fair” and “reflective” engagement on the list by replying to my post on honesty and privacy from so many months ago. This summer, Phil invited me to comment on his hasty argument in favor of lying to protect privacy in this post. I wrote up a detailed and polite response (also available here highlighting some of the errors in the argument, particularly its short-sightedness. Phil never bothered to respond. Although I’m glad that I got my argument down on paper (so to speak), Phil wasted my time by inviting me to debate and then disappearing.

Additionally, Phil has consistently infuriated listmembers with his condescending remarks about “young academics,” about Roark as a role model for teenagers rather than adults, and so on. In his patronizing approach to others on the list, Phil has done much to undermine the “supportive” community he claims to advocate.

Perhaps Phil needs to clean up his own house a bit before he comments further on how messy other people’s houses must be.

Lately, I have particularly singled out Phil’s OWL posts to read because I know their condescension and finger-waggling will infuriate me. Apparently, I’m not the only one who is so bothered. Phil is a smart and benevolent guy, so I’m not sure why he’s taken this scolding parent approach to other listmembers lately. Whatever the reason, I hope it ends soon.

New Graduate Papers

Nov 182002

I’ve added my second round of papers from the fall semester, both on philosophy of mind. For my Aristotle class, I analyzed Aristotle’s ancient contributions to modern philosophy of mind in The Soul of Aristotle. For my Philosophy of Mind class, I took a critical look at functionalism in Functions and Qualia.

Aquinas on Aristotle on Honesty

Nov 182002

In reworking my paper “Excuses Excuses: Undermining Moral Growth in the Concealment of Wrongdoing” for submission to journals, I was reading Aquinas’ comments on honesty from Summa Theologica. His interpretation of Aristotle’s somewhat strange and limited comments on honesty in Nichomachean Ethics caught my attention. Let me explain why, starting with Aristotle’s own views.

In Book 4, Chapter 7 of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers his only real commentary on honesty as a virtue. From our modern perspective in which honesty is a central to ethics, his analysis seems woefully incomplete. Aristotle discusses honesty almost entirely in terms of boastfulness and humility (or “mock-modesty”), i.e. in terms of our own descriptions of ourselves. Thus Aristotle writes:

The boastful man, then, is thought to be apt to claim the things that bring glory, when he has not got them, or to claim more of them than he has, and the mock-modest man on the other hand to disclaim what he has or belittle it, while the man who observes the mean is one who calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word, owning to what he has, and neither more nor less (NE 1127a21-25).

Granted, Aristotle does go on to say some more general things about the choice between truth and lies, such as: “falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and worthy of praise” and “for the man who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing is at stake, will still more be truthful where something is at stake; he will avoid falsehood as something base, seeing that he avoided it even for its own sake; and such a man is worthy of praise” (NE 1127a29-30; NE 1127b4-7). Additionally, Aristotle sees many concerns about honesty as being covered by his analysis of justice. But without a doubt, Aristotle’s basic focus is limited to truthfulness as a mean between boastfulness and humility in this discussion.

However, Aquinas’ analysis of Aristotle offers us some additional insight. In his commentary on divisions of lies, Aquinas comments on Aristotle’s two basic types of lies, translated as “boasting” and (strangely) “irony,” in writing:

In this way, according to the Philosopher [Aristotle] (Ethic. iv, 7), lies are of two kinds, namely, the lie which goes beyond the truth, and this belongs to “boasting,” and the lie which stops short of the truth, and this belongs to “irony.” This division is an essential division of lying itself, because lying as such is opposed to truth, as stated in the preceding Article: and truth is a kind of equality, to which more and less are in essential opposition (ST, 2.2, Q 110, A 2).

So Aquinas is clearly seeing Aristotle’s distinction between boastful and humble lies as part of a wider division that applies to all lies, not just to lies about oneself. At first glance, Aquinas’ general distinction seems to map directly onto our modern notion of the difference between lies of omission and lies of commission. A humble lie, one which “stops short of the truth,” seems to be a lie of omission, one in which important truths are left unsaid. The boastful lie, one which “goes beyond the truth,” seems to be a lie of commission, one in which actual falsehoods are told. However, I’m not certain the mapping works on a deeper analysis.

Aristotle’s mean of truthfulness may actually be more appropriate to my concept of “the relevant truth” discussed some of my various lectures on honesty, namely “The Virtue of Honesty” and “White Lies, Black Lies.” The relevant truth, after all, concerns how much information we to reveal to whom and under what circumstances. Consequently, errors of “extremes” (of telling either too much or too little) are possible, while virtue consists in hitting the mean. Such is not the case for the basic, binary choice in honesty of whether to “fake reality” or not.

The Brighter Light of Reason

Nov 182002

The Light of Reason has had its lightbulb changed! It’s now more brighter and powerful!

Go check it out at blog.light-of-reason.com!

Lawsuit News

Nov 152002

Yesterday I was served with the complaint in the lawsuit that Front Sight, et al. have filed against me regarding my web site “Front Sight, Ignatius Piazza, and Scientology?“. As the complaint is a public court document, I have posted it in its entirety at:


I cannot comment further on the lawsuit at the moment, other than to urge you to look at the allegations and judge for yourselves.

However, let me briefly address four factual matters about which there has been some confusion.

(1) I am not being sued by the Church of Scientology. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against me are: Front Sight Management doing business as Front Sight Firearms Training Institute and Ignatius Piazza.

(2) As my comments have always made clear, I have never alleged a connection between Front Sight itself and Scientology. My investigation always and only concerned Piazza’s personal, admitted involvement with Scientology.

(3) As the web site says, Paul and I were slated to attend the Four Day Defensive Handgun course at Front Sight over the long weekend of November 1-4. We found out about the lawsuit the night before, so we did not attend the course.

(4) On a lighter note, I have never seen quite so many creative misspellings of my name! For the record, it is “Diana Hsieh.” My last name is pronounced “Shay” or, better yet, the French “chez.”

The Tragic View of Life

Nov 132002

Arthur has an amazing post entitled The Tragic View of Life on Light of Reason today. All are hereby required to go read it.

I’ve always wondered why people regard condescending and pitiable stories about the mentally retarded as inspirational. Now I know.

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