“Where so’er I turn my view
All is strange, yet nothing new;
Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong.”

—Samuel Johnson

Epicurus had an answer for everything. The universe consisted of nothing except atoms and void; the qualities of matter and of our sensory experience—hardness, color, heaviness, etc.—were determined completely by the size, shape, and motion of the atoms. The qualities of human life were largely a question of pleasure and pain. Right living consisted in maximizing the one and minimizing the other. The best way to do this, he thought, was to withdraw from the active life and to contemplate life’s mysteries, as Epicurus did in his garden. A materialist philosophy was necessary for peace of mind, because it eliminated all the supernatural terrors of Hell. What common people called soul or mind, since it consisted of atoms, could not survive the dissolution of the body. After death, there was nothing, therefore nothing to be afraid of The philosophic man could face the universe with equanimity if he kept in mind the central doctrine of materialism: that every phenomenon had an explanation, a materialist explanation. Any given account might not be the right one, but, he insisted, there was a right one waiting to be discovered.

The fly in the Epicurean ointment was the problem of the will. How could a person choose to live rightly, to join the Master in the Garden, if his mental life were determined by the iron laws of physics? Epicurus’ answer (which satisfied none but the Epicureans) would have gratified the heart of many a modern physicist: while the motion of atoms was generally “downward” (as Democritus had said), there was an unpredictable swerve in their descent. If the atoms of the mind are unpredictable, this must mean that they are free. Many moderns, especially Christians, have derived a similar comfort from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. While C.S. Lewis warned against pinning our hopes on the ultimate irrationality of the universe, most of us have not been so cautious. But how we get from the subatomic level to the level of ordinary existence is a problem that has seemed to bother few people.

It bothers the philosopher John Searle. Near the end of his 1984 Reith Lectures given originally on the BBC—a book that cannot be praised too highly for its lucidity and readability—Searle points out what should have been obvious all along:

Indeterminism at the level of particles in physics is really no support at all to any doctrine of the freedom of the will; because first, the statistical indeterminacy at the level of particles does not show any indeterminacy at the level of objects that matter to us—human bodies, for example. And secondly, even if there is an element of indeterminacy in the behavior of physical particles—even if they are only statistically predictable—still, that by itself gives no scope for human freedom of the will; because it doesn’t follow from the fact that particles are only statistically determined that the human mind can force the statistically determined particles to swerve from their paths.

What we know of physics, Searle argues, indicates the impossibility office will; however, it is not physics but biology that inspires Searle’s philosophy of brain/mind.

Such a philosophy has been a long time in coming. In The Science of the Mind, Owen J. Flanagan Jr. does a creditable job of tracing the rise of scientific psychology. His introductory chapter on Descartes raises (as Descartes did himself) most of the fundamental questions. Descartes’ basic answer—that there is a split between mind and body—unfortunately poses the serious problem of how an immaterial mind can influence the physical body. Perhaps the worst effect of a radical mind/body dualism was that it freed whole centuries of philosophers from the need to consider the brain. Without too much exaggeration it can be said that the whole history of psychological speculation—from Locke, Hume, and Kant, all the way down to Freudians, Behaviorists, and cognitive psychologists—has been a flight from reality: the reality of the central nervous system.

One of the oddest features in this history has been the paradox of philosophers prating about nature without taking the trouble to examine it. While Flanagan accurately represents William James as the modern Socrates who took psychology down from the clouds and naturalized it, it is also true that James preferred to write about “conscious mental life,” which he regarded not as the brain itself but as the product of interaction between the brain and the world. Freud also began, promisingly enough, as a student of neurology, but soon took flight into higher realms of mythology—imagine trying to falsify the superego.

The most amusing case is the irrepressible B.F. Skinner, who took up and refined John B. Watson’s crude theory of stimulus/response behaviorism and turned it into a universalist philosophy. In the name of hardheaded materialism. Skinner studiously avoided discussing not only the facts of conscious mental life (a large part of being a behaviorist is learning to describe behavior without referring to mental states) but worse, he avoided even the brain, partly—it would seem—for political reasons. Skinner does not like the idea that the human potential might not be quite infinite, that it might be limited by the particular and inherited qualities of the jumble of neurons (about the size and shape of two fists put together) within our skull.

Skinner is not alone in having a problem with the brain. Philosophers are generally fond of grand theories that transcend what we actually know about human life. The exceptions—Aristotle and perhaps Hume—are all too rare. At this point, we know too little about the brain (and the brain is itself perhaps too complex) to construct a grand and unified psychological theory of the mind. For this reason, philosophers either want to bypass the brain—like Freud and Skinner—or like the various schools of cognitive psychology insist that mental life and brain events are not the same thing. Noam Chomsky’s search for a universal grammar has been paralleled by the efforts of Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, John Anderson, and others to discover the rules governing our mental life. The entire project is, in essence, an attempt to elaborate on Kant’s description of the mind as determined by innate categories. All this would be laudable if they did not persist in treating the mind as if it were a machine that processed information in some way that is distinct from the organic functions of the central nervous system.

It is not that they are spiritualists or Platonists or—God forbid—theists. They are nothing of the kind. They are, every last one of them, thoroughgoing materialists. They just happen to prefer concentrating on what cannot be studied directly (“mental life”) rather than on what can (the brain). Ruth Garrett Millikan has attempted to offer a sort of Aristotelian corrective by providing an account of mind that begins with the idea of “organic functions.” While Millikan aims at a fuller naturalization of epistemology, it is curious that there is little or no sign of any interest in the brain per se. She may be on to something, but it is hard to tell: the book is virtually unreadable. If we had world enough and time, such writing, lady, were no crime. . . .

For many cognitive philosophers, the favorite model for the way the mind/brain works is the computer. Of the many objections to this equation—and to the claim that computers think—the most devastating has been provided by Searle in the famous “Chinese-speaking room” argument he has made several times and repeats in Minds, Brains, and Science. Imagine a computer programmed to answer questions in Chinese with a degree of fluency equal to that of a native speaker. Does the computer “know” Chinese? To answer the question he asks us to imagine ourselves in a room full of Chinese symbols. We know nothing of the language but are provided with a book instructing us on how to manipulate the symbols:

Now suppose that some other Chinese symbols are passed into the room, and that you are given further rules for passing back Chinese symbols out of the room. Suppose that unknown to you the symbols passed into the room are called “questions” by the people outside the room, and the symbols you pass back out of the room are called “answers to the questions.”

What if you are so well instructed and manipulated that your “answers” are every bit as good as the answers given by a native speaker? The fact remains that you still don’t know a word of Chinese. Artificial Intelligence, Searle argues, possesses only syntax. To think, there must also be semantics, i.e., meaning or content. Not only does no existing digital computer have the ability to think, no conceivable computer will ever think. Thinking is an organic function of the brain. When the day comes that we can make an organic replica of the brain, then and only then will we have designed a computer that thinks.

If the mind/brain does not work like a computer, the 10 billion individual neurons are all “like a computer that is both digital and analog.” At least, that is the suggestion made by the authors of The Amazing Brain. Unlike other books that have pretended to explain the functions of the brain for the average reader. The Amazing Brain is detailed and informative. If (like me) you have never had a course in biology or philosophy but want to get a sense of how the brain works—or at least that bit of it we understand—then this is the book for you. It is with considerable relief to turn from the speculations and inconclusive experiments of psychologists and philosophers to the quite literally “amazing” discoveries of neuroanatomists and neurophysiologists.

What science can do (and it is a blessing as well as a curse) is to pose questions about material causes. The trouble comes when scientific methods are indiscriminately applied to the phenomena of human consciousness—in what is called the social sciences. Searle neatly explodes the pretensions of the social scientists who make up “laws” about law or marriage or even money. Since our mental states (by definition unknowable) remain “crucial to social phenomena,” social laws are impossible: In order to get married or buy property, you and other people have to think that is what you are doing. Enormous advances have been made in the study of the brain during a period in which psychology has become a battlefield of dozens of warring sects. Even so, sensible people have generally assumed that our mental life was involved in organic functions. Even if we had a more complete understanding of how the brain functions, would we really be any further along than Epicurus in solving the problem of free will and morality?

Epicurus, remember, formulated the fundamental principle of all materialist philosophies: that every event has a material cause and, therefore, a materialist explanation, whether or not a given explanation is correct. Setting aside the “swerve” and the uncertainty principle, can the will be free in a determined universe that includes our mind (=brain)? William James was troubled by the problem. With Samuel Johnson, he realized that all our reason is against, all our experience is for it. Flanagan thinks that James had the wherewithal to solve the problem, if only he had adopted a “soft determinism.” While it is true that people cannot be held accountable for past actions—they could not have acted otherwise—they can in the present choose to begin modifying their behavior in accordance with a certain ethical view of life. Even if this began to solve the technical problem of free will, it would not get at the deeper problem of our moral sense. Most of us behave as if some acts were right and others wrong. Even soft determinism makes our consciences inane.

It is hard to believe Flanagan expects us to take him seriously. His “solution” to the problem of free will is the Marxist formula (freedom is the recognition of necessity) or the reductio ad absurdum offered by the sociobiologist David Barash that “free will may actually be greatest when everyone is able to behave in accordance with his or her inclinations.” Flanagan and Barash both adopt a form of “compatibilism,” which—as Searle observes—”denies the substance of free will while maintaining its verbal shell.” Searle has the great merit of confessing his inability to reconcile free will and determinism. With some reluctance, he opts for complete determinism, even though “evolution has given us a form of experience of voluntary action where the experience of freedom, that is to say, the experience of the sense of alternative possibilities, is built into the very structure of conscious, voluntary, intentional human behavior.” Searle falls back on determinism because he thinks it makes science possible. If the will were free, it would mean that there was a self capable of interfering with the courses of physical laws.

But it is not obvious that science is possible in a determinist universe, where, as Mary Worthy Montagu expressed it, “We are no more free agents than the Queen of Clubs when she takes the Knave of Hearts.” It is an old problem, as old as Plato and Augustine, but it is worth stating again (as C.S. Lewis did in Miracles). If all our thoughts—including the thoughts of scientists—are determined by the unreasoning forces and particles of nature, then how can notions like “truth” or “falsity” have any substance or relevance? If John Searle’s decision to become a determinist has been determined, then what possible difference can it make? Some scientists take refuge in the notion that our brains have evolved to have a certain “fit” with the material world.

In From Athens to Jerusalem (an expanded version of his 1982 Gifford Lectures) Stephen Clark makes what should be the obvious point that “the neo-Darwinian account of our history is not one that we can coherently believe,” because it is self-refuting:

If we attempt to follow through its implications we find that it gives us no right to believe in the theories we form about the world, including the neo-Darwinian story itself. It must also lead to doubts about the consciousness of our fellow creatures, and even (absurdly) our own.

In Clark’s view we must begin with what is given to us, our consciousness. For logic and observation to work (as in science), we must take it on faith that “the universe is not one to which consciousness is alien, but one founded on the very patterns to be found also in our intellect.” If we are able to understand the world, it is only because our minds “mirror or share in the pattern and life which is the foundation of the world.”

In the course of these essays, Clark confronts most of the popular accounts of conscious life, all of which falter on the rock of our intuition: as conscious beings we are aware of ourselves and of other creatures in a way that it is hard to imagine could depend on electrochemical processes. In the end, Clark settles for something like Berkeley’s position, that our consciousness is a reflection of the divine mind that is responsible for the universe. Clark takes our obsession with extraterrestrial intelligence as a speculative confirmation of Berkeley: if there are alien creatures of intelligence, we will only be able to communicate with them, to share consciousness, on the assumption that both of us are theomorphic. Einstein observed that the one incomprehensible feature of the universe was its comprehensibility. Clark insists that this explicability “is explicable, and expectable, on the theistic hypothesis alone.”

If only a belief in God makes science possible, what are we to say to scientists who claim that their research leads inevitably to atheist materialism? As Clark suggests, we must—on their account of the matter—regard their intellectual life as an exotic neurological phenomenon. Why, after all, don’t most people choose to do science? They cannot make the claim that science does anyone any good, because goodness goes out with the same bathwater as truth.

Scientists say they enjoy what they do, and I for one am not about to deny them that pleasure. On the other hand, I am not so sure I want them to have fun on money supplied by taxpayers. If people want to pay them for what they do, as we pay to see a Cubs game (an equally pointless and futile exercise, it sometimes seems), that is all well and good, but there is no adequate reason to support scientists or even give them degrees. If it is true that science makes us determinists and determinism eliminates any point to “the life of the mind,” then they might fairly be regarded as the enemies of the university.

But just as we are about to expel the scientists—as Plato kicked the poets out of his Republic—it is good to remember that some of the men who have contributed the most to our understanding of the brain—Wilder Penfield and Sir John Eccles—were firm in their conviction that the mind exists apart from the brain. If Searle and other mere philosophers are sure of things that Penfield and Eccles are not, it cannot be on the basis of superior knowledge. It can only be that they have accepted a view of the world as old as Epicurus, that they are content with any explanation so long as it eliminates the supernatural. To hold on to such a conviction against the evidence of consciousness itself—to say nothing of what it does to their desire to make sense of the world—requires more faith than most ordinary men possess. For that alone, they should have their reward.


[From Athens to Jerusalem: The Love of Wisdom and the Love of God, by Stephen R. L. Clark; Clarendon Press (OUP); Oxford]

[The Science of the Mind, by Owen J. Flanagan, Jr.; Bradford Books/MIT Press; Cambridge, MA; $12.50]

[Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories: New Foundations for Realism, by Ruth Garrett Millikan; Bradford Books/MIT Press; Cambridge, MA]

[The Amazing Brain; Houghton Mifflin, by Robert Ornstein and Riehard F. Thompson; Boston; $16.95]

[Minds, Brains, and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures, by John Searle; BBC; London, England]