Searle on consciousness and freewill

John Searle

University of California Berleley

Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 10, 2000, pp. 3-22

Searle views consciousness as a real biological phenomenon. He notes that it is qualitative, subjective and unified. Every conscious state is qualitative, in that there is something that it is like, or feels like to be in that state. This applies both to sensations and to thoughts. They are subjective in that they exist only in the experience of a person. Consciousness is unified in the sense that the taste of food and the feeling of an object are part of a single consciousness moment.

Searle identifies two main approaches to identifying the basis of consciousness. First, there is the building-block approach. The conscious field is viewed as a series of conscious experiences or building blocks of consciousness, and if just one of these, such as how we experience the colour red was explained, this would explain the whole thing, because the other experiences would probably be based on the same mechanism. The way to find this mechanism would be through the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) for an individual experience.At some stage, supporters of this views hope to identify some NCC thatis not just an NCC but also a causal mechanism. However, this approach has not registered much progress in terms of scientific observation or testing since the modern consciousness debate started. Searle thinks it may be the wrong approach. He prefers what he calls the unified approach. He thinks of the conscious field as a unity that is modified by the individual experiences. At the same time, he sees the distinction between the conscious and unconscious areas of the brain as the possible key to the problem.


Searle makes a distinction between the qualitative character of experiences or sensations and the qualitative character of voluntary actions. Humans are passive recipients of perceptions and have no choice in the matter of registering sensations. On the other hand, with voluntary actions, we experience an effort in causing a bodily movement.


In common with some other commentators, Searle points out that with a voluntary decision the reasons for the action are not sufficient to cause the action. In addition, the subject has to decide, to make up their mind to take the action. This is particularly so when there are strongly conflicting for or against reasons. The reasons are not causally sufficient to produce the actions. There is a gap between reasons and action that has often been explained in terms of the action of freewill. Where we are involved in longer term projects, for instance writing an article, as opposed to a single voluntary action, we experience the need for a persistent effort of will to keep going. Moreover, the gap cannot be explained by positing an element of randomness in the proceedings, because the agent is acting in relation to the reasons and the action is often seen as purposeful.. What is involved is the sort of consciousness, wilful consciousness that comes into play when there is just this gap between reasons and action. Searle thinks this requires the involvement of a self that is more than just a bundle of perceptions. There is a need to explain why one rather than another action was performed.


The standard causal explanation is A causes B. But where a rational agent is involved it goes, self, S did act, A, because it was acting on reason R.


In summary, Searle is claiming that consciousness is a unified field, and that it requires us to postulate a self that is not part of the field, but requires the field in order to function.


Searle says that we experience our own voluntary actions in such a way that we are aware of alternative possibilities being open to us, and that the existing reasons for action or psychological antecedents are not sufficient in themselves to decide the action.


The mainstream view of freewill is called ‘compatibilism’. This states that to say that an event is free is to say that it is determined by certain kinds of causes. Searle does not find this to be a useful explanation of freewill, because he does not see the reasons as sufficient to determine the actions.


Searle also considers that the idea that the apparent process of rational decision taking has no effect is an incredible proposition from the point of evolutionary theory, because it would mean that a biologically expensive brain system had no survival advantage for the organism. Therefore Evolution would tend to work to eliminate such a feature, even if did happen to arise through mutations.


Searle views consciousness as a systems feature, relevant to all levels of the brain. He thinks that to make sense of free conscious action, we have to postulate a self, which in turn only makes sense relative to a unified conscious field. He thinks that consciousness can have influence downwards to the levels of the neurons. He also takes the view that in the case of the experiments of Deecke, Kornhuber, Scheid and Libet(1-2) the readiness potential is not causally sufficient for the subsequent action. Searle takes the view that the subject has consciously decided to make the requested wrist or finger movement, and is preparing for such a movement before the readiness potential appears in the unconscious brain. Thus the unconscious readiness potential is not sufficient by itself. Searle thinks that consciousness as a feature of the whole system can explain the operation of volition.


In the end, Searle’s argument amounts to something of an anti-climax and is low on explanatory power. Although he argues effectively against some of the mainstream doctrines, particularly in respect of the need for freewill, his suggestion that consciousness is a feature of the whole system is disappointingly vague, with still no indication of how the brain is supposed to generate the property of consciousness, not found elsewhere in the universe. As for freewill, Searle admits that he is stating the problem rather than the solution.
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