Skip to content


Episode 28: John Searle discusses human reality and basic reality

We are pleased to present John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, who joins us for a stimulating and wide ranging conversation (click here).

First he gives his assessment of how the field of philosophy has changed since his time as a graduate student at Oxford in the 1950’s, charting the decline of ‘ordinary language’ philosophy and the reemergence of Metaphysics and substantive ethics. Professor Searle tells us why he lacks sympathy for contemporary philosophy’s emphasis on formal methods of analysis. These methods, he worries, lose sight of the problems that they were originally developed to solve. Consequently, it is not so much that their results are wrong as that they are unilluminating. In contrast, his interest is in giving an account of human reality (of ourselves as mindful, social, political, aesthetic, speech-act users) that is consistent with our understanding of the world as a chemical-physical system.

Searle discusses the way in which recent advances in Neuroscience have served this interest, helping to illuminate old philosophical questions in the process. For instance, he concludes that the old conception of the mind as something independent from the body cannot be made coherent with what we have found. We now understand that (1) mental states are caused by brain processes, and (2) these mental states go on in the brain. Now, our aim is to understand exactly how consciousness and intentionality emerge from these physical processes. Searle regrets that many still cannot accept this and that ‘bad’ views—computational views of the mind worst of all—still persist. Searle observes that even the brain sciences are still prone to making an important mistake that impedes the investigation of consciousness. They presume that consciousness has a ‘subjective mode of existence’ (i.e. it exists only insofar as it is experienced), and that science only deals with the ‘objective.’ They conclude from this that we cannot have a proper science of consciousness. Searle argues that this simple mistake is easily resolved. We must recognize that there are two varieties of the objective/subjective distinction. First, there is the epistemic objectivity/subjectivity distinction, which concerns the sort of knowledge we can have of a thing. Epistemic claims can hold objectively (they can be established with investigation as matters of fact) or subjectively (they will always remain a matter of opinion). Second, there is an ontological variety of the objectivity/subjectivity distinction, which concerns the nature of a thing. Some things have a subjective sort of existence (tickles and itches), and others have an objective existence (mountains and architectonic plates). Searle argues that there are no conceptual problems with the project of carrying out epistemically objective investigations of ontologically subjective states.

Next, Searle discusses how the old problem of free will remains unresolved. On the one hand, we cannot get on without the presupposition of free will, because our conscious decision-making presupposes it. Whenever we decide on one course of action rather than another—what shall we have for dinner? Who are we going to vote for? —we treat these decisions as though there are other options that are really open to us. We could not even set back and wait to see what we have been determined to do without this act itself seeming to be a decision that we are making. However, we cannot make this sense of freedom consistent with what science tells us about the causal structure of the world. The process of decision-making, including the conscious feeling of free choice, must itself be merely the outcome of a prior chain of causally determined physical events. Consequently, we are left in the peculiar position of believing that events in the world (including our mental states) are causally determined, while we must proceed in our day-to-day activities as if this were not the case. If free will is an illusion, it is a peculiar illusion, because it seems that we cannot carry on in our lives without it.

Finally, Searle turns to his work in social ontology. There exists a peculiar class of objective facts—that this green paper in my wallet is a twenty dollar bill, that there are three branches of the US Federal government, and so on. These facts are only facts because of human subjective agreement. How can it be the case that there is a completely objective reality that depends on subjective agreement? Searle argues that human language, the key social institution, is what makes this possible. Language has a set of capacities to represent how things are (“it’s raining,” “two plus two equal four”), and try to get people to do things (“please leave the room!”), but also to create a reality by representing it as existing. The federal government makes a piece of paper into legal tender simply by saying that it is so. How does this work? Searle notes that language has different ways of relating to reality. We make statements that represent how things are (we say that these sentences have a ‘word-to-world’ direction of fit); we issue orders and make promises that represent how we would like things to be or intend to make them (a ‘world-to-word’ direction of fit); but we can also combine these. Humans have the capacity to impose a function onto an object, not in virtue of its physical properties (like we do with chairs), but just in virtue of our saying that something is so. Why do we do this? Searle argues that it is because it creates power relations. All of human civilization consists of institutional facts that are created by a certain speech act—what he calls a ‘status function declaration.’ The powers that are conveyed are deontic powers, concerned with rights, duties, and obligations. Searle argues that these powers give people reasons for action that are independent of their inclinations and desires.

Jaime Edwards

Posted in Podcast.


2 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Herman Bonner says

    Really enjoyed this episode. Thank you!

    Is it possible to place a link to the audio on this summary page? If there is one, I’ve missed it. The headline text is hyper-linked, but it simply reloads this page. This makes it more difficult to share with others. All the best, cheers!

    • langlinais says

      Hi Herman,

      Thanks for tuning in! The link to the audio file is embedded in the phrase “click here” in the first sentence of our summary page. If you click it, the audio should pop up. Let us know if you have any trouble!



Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.