John R Searle’s The Mystery of Consciousness: A Summary with some Indian Perspectives

The Mystery of Consciousness by John Searle is available for purchase in Amazon.

‘Consciousness’ was in the ambit of philosophy and not good science earlier. As a mark of changing times, mainstream scientists have now joined philosophers in exploring consciousness. Consciousness however is a hard nut to crack. John Searle, an eminent philosopher writes for The New York Review of Books and has collected his published reviews of various books to give a broad view of consciousness studies in contemporary times. Many times, he does not agree with the authors, but to his credit, he has included their responses too in the present book. For the lay reader, it is a primary reckoner to the field of consciousness; we have it constantly, but rarely pause to think about it. What makes the field so fascinating? And why does the field generate so much heat? This book is a good place to begin the search.

The first hurdle is in defining consciousness. The contemporary definition is the state of sentience or awareness which begins after waking up from a dreamless sleep and continues till going back to sleep again, or slipping into a coma, or dying. It excludes deep dreamless sleep. Dreams are a special form of consciousness, and likewise self-awareness too. Consciousness hence can be switched on and off. The biggest mystery in biological sciences is to understand how neurological processes in the brain with 100 billion neurons and 50 trillion synapses can give rise to consciousness- a unified, well-ordered, coherent, inner subjective state of awareness in response to multiple stimuli of all sorts.

There are two schools of thought in the philosophy of the mind-the dualists and the monists. The dualists believe that there are two fundamentally different kind of phenomena of the world; the mind and the body. The ‘substance’ dualists-a minority- think that the mind and the body are composed of two completely different substances; and the majority ‘property’ dualists hold that the same substance might generate different properties.

In contrast, the ‘monists’ hold that there is only one source material of origin. The ‘idealist’ monists believe that everything is mental; and the ‘materialist’ monist thinks that everything is physical or material. The contemporary scientific-philosophic view favours the ‘materialist’ theory. The mental stuff including consciousness comes from the realm of physical stuff. Consciousness may be generated at the gross level of neurons and their synaptic connections, or may arise by quantum phenomena involving the microtubules in the brain. The mechanisms however are a subject of intense research and speculation.

The materialist position believing that matter leads to consciousness, by logical extension, concludes that a computer can generate consciousness. This is the basis for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) machines. The brain and the mind have always been compared to computers since the days of Turing, who gave us the first computational theories. There is a heated debate amongst the consciousness scientists and philosophers on the relation between computation and consciousness.

Roger Penrose, one of the reviewed authors, in his book called ‘Shadows of the Mind’ distinguishes four positions about this relation:

  1. Strong AI (Artificial Intelligence): Consciousness is an entirely computational process.
  2. Weak AI: Brain processes cause consciousness, and these processes can be simulated on a computer. But the computational simulation by itself does not guarantee consciousness. Simulation does not mean production.
  3. Brain processes are responsible for consciousness, but these processes cannot be properly simulated computationally.
  4. Consciousness is a complete mystery and cannot be explained scientifically by any means, computational or otherwise.

The first two are the strongest debating points. ‘Mind as a computer’- hence takes two forms-the strong AI, which says that the mind is nothing but a computer; and the weak AI, which views the computer as a useful tool in doing simulations of the mind. This is like a computer simulation of anything we can describe, such as weather patterns and the flow of money in an economy.

The author John Searle is a strong proponent of the weak AI model. The Chinese room argument is used by the author to refute the strong AI model. A person is locked in a room with a huge set of Chinese symbols and somebody outside the room asks questions in Chinese on slips of paper which are sent across through a small trap-door. Using rules of Chinese stacked in the room (the program of the computer), the locked person can respond perfectly without understanding a single word of Chinese. Computers are an input, a program which responds to the input, and the final output. The program is vitally important in the workings of a computer. A computer can give near perfect answers to questions, but does not understand the meaning of the answers at all. Consciousness gives the internal, subjective meaning to answers.

The author then gives a three-step structure to refute the strong AI model by saying, ‘Programs are entirely syntactical; minds have semantics; and syntax is different from semantics.’ The essential feature of Turing’s definition of a program is that it written down entirely in rules concerning syntactical entities, that is, rules for manipulating symbols. The physics and chemistry of the implementing medium in the computer is irrelevant to the computation. The mind has mental or semantic properties which understands what it is trying to do. However perfect a syntactical system is, one cannot milk semantics out of syntactical operations.

The strong AI model contends that the implemented program by itself, guarantees a mental life. Consciousness does not come out as emergent property, but as an inbuilt program of the mind. The author strongly rejects this. Syntax is not intrinsic to the physics of the system but is in the eye of the beholder. Computation is not an intrinsic process in nature like photosynthesis, but exists only relative to some agent who gives a computational interpretation to the physics. Computation finally is relative to the observer or user.

Roger Penrose rejects the first two positions and believes the third position. Roger Penrose uses Gödel’s theorem and quantum mechanics to speculate that the brain can never be compared to a computer in any form. Quantum processes involving the microtubules in the brain is speculated to cause consciousness. The neurons are too big to cause consciousness. The speculations of Penrose are not surprisingly roundly disagreed by Searle. The computer can do simulations of the brain, but it does not duplicate the workings of the brain, says the author.

The author says that inner subjective feelings are not explained by the materialist theory. Feelings like love, pain, desire, and hatred are left in a vacuum. The author often quotes pain as an example. Pain has a specific internal qualitative meaning. The problem of consciousness in both philosophy and natural sciences is to explain these subjective feelings. All the subjective feelings are of course not body sensations like pain. The stream of conscious thought and the visual experiences are not bodily sensations like being pinched and feeling pain. The subjective feelings are the data which any theory of consciousness must explain. Neural pathways in the nervous system accounting for the sensations or experiences is only a partial explanation of this data.

The author has the maximum problem with Daniel Dennett. Their exchanges are hot and fiery- and a joy to read. Daniel Dennett denies the existence of consciousness and thinks that all the experiences we are trying to explain are merely operations of a computing machine. He is a proponent of the strong AI model of the brain. Daniel Dennett denies the existence of the data as per John Searle. Daniel feels there is no such thing as feeling of pain. There are no such things as subjective, first hand experiences; but only a mistaken judgement in the form of ‘reactive dispositions’ to behaviour. There are gradations of dispositions called as ‘discriminative states’ that cause us to respond differently, for example, to various grades of pressure or to differentiate green from red. There is no first person inner state at all. Everything boils down to third person phenomena: stimulus inputs, discriminative states, and reactive dispositions. All this hang together in a computer like brain of ours, and consciousness is a certain type of software in the hardware (or the wetware) of the brain.

David Chalmers is another philosopher with whom the author has gross differences. Chalmers believes in consciousness being irreducible, yet strongly correlated to functional organization of the brain. He considers consciousness as a fundamental process not explained by anything else. Consciousness is explanatorily irrelevant to everything physical that happens in the world. Consciousness is everywhere. The author finds Chalmers position ludicrous. Chalmers is strangely in line with Advaitic philosophy, as we shall see later.

A big mystery is the binding problem of consciousness. How does the brain bind different stimuli pertaining to a single object or multiple objects into a single unified experience? A unified total conscious state which does multiple things at the same time is something of a mystery which Francis Crick tries to explain in his book called ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.’ Crick gives a hypothesis that neurons firing at 40 hertz in the networks connecting the thalamus and the cortex might be a neural correlate to consciousness. This is interesting, but correlation does not imply causation- a basic rule in statistics.

Gerald Edelman in ‘The Remembered Present’ and ‘Bright Air, Brilliant Fire’ tells that to have consciousness the following conditions are both necessary and sufficient: the brain must have systems for categorization, it must have memories as well as a system of learning involving certain values. The brain must be able to recognize between the self and the rest of the world, and there must be brain structures that can order events in time. And most important, the brain needs global re-entry pathways involving sheets of neurons called maps, connecting these anatomical structures. Most theories and explanations of consciousness are thus seen to be centred on the workings of the brain.

The book is a good opening to any student interested in consciousness studies. The language is overall simple, though occasionally it can get a little dense. But, these moments are few. The lines of argument can be followed by a lay reader quite easily. It is tempting at this point to compare western thoughts with some key aspects of Indian philosophy regarding consciousness.

As one goes through the debates, the confusion in the field of consciousness becomes apparent. The major point of difference between Indian and western philosophy is that the latter is stuck at the level of the brain in dealing with consciousness; and the former transcends it. It is surprising that Indian philosophy, particularly Advaitic philosophy is hardly mentioned in discussions and arguments. Is it because the west thinks it is ‘religious’ in nature and hence not to be entertained? The western philosophers have been either ignorant, or dismissive of Indian philosophical thoughts.  Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, and Fritzof Capra of recent times are some of the rare exceptions.

The evaluation of consciousness does not include deep sleep. Only the awake state and the dream sleep are conscious states as per the contemporary definition- this is restrictive. What happens to the consciousness in deep sleep? What is the state of consciousness in a newborn child before memory of past events develop? Or in the foetus? The three states of the human brain are the awake state, the dream state, and deep sleep state. Advaita says that consciousness is transcendental to all these three, which are but states of the mind. This is the overwhelming message of the Mandukya Upanishad.

Amazingly, most of the questions in the age of enlightenment of the 16th to 18th centuries, and later refined, were asked and answered thousands of years back in the Indian schools. Indian philosophy asked the existential questions much before western philosophy took its roots from the ideas of Socrates and other Greek philosophers. By their time, the entire philosophical thought of India had been completely sorted out and has remained unchanged. There has been no need for modification or reconciliation to any new progress in science and technology. This has been the solid strength of Indian philosophy. The Upanishads have been composed at least a good four thousand years before Christ.

The Indian philosophical system is classified as orthodox or non-orthodox depending on whether they accept the Vedas as the oldest and the most sacred scriptures of Hindus. The non-orthodox systems are Charvakism (materialism), Buddhism, and Jainism. The orthodox systems include the six systems called Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimansa, and Vedanta. It is pertinent that Indian philosophy allows both atheism and theism in the pursuit of truth. Except for materialism, all schools have the following common characteristics, as explained by Ramakrishna Puligandla:

  1. Reason or experience can never be sacrificed to explain or account for reality.
  2. Any philosophy should aid man to realize the chief ends of human life. It should not be a mere intellectual exercise. Philosophy should have soteriological power-the power of intense individual transformation from ignorance and bondage to freedom and wisdom.
  3. Man’s spirituality is acknowledged, and the purpose of philosophy is to teach that the state of ignorance and suffering is not due to original sin but original ignorance.
  4. Karma and rebirth are the essential pre-requisites in the scheme of things, but is pertinent only to the empirical world and not the ultimate reality.
  5. Reality cannot be understood by the senses or the intellect but can be grasped in an intuitive, non-perceptual, and a non-conceptual manner. It is mystical in insight and cannot be subjected to the rigours of scientific experimentation and proofs.
  6. All philosophies are initially pessimistic that they speak of ignorance and misery, but become optimistic as they give immense hope and proclaim the triumph of human spirit in gaining the ultimate state of eternal happiness. They categorically reject the philosophies of the Absurd, Angst, and Nothingness.

The pinnacle of all philosophies of course is the Advaitic Vedanta of Shankara where the reality as Brahman is the only thing. The central concepts of Advaitism are:

  1. Brahman is the unchanging reality which is unborn, eternal, uncreated, and immutable.
  2. Atman is the inmost self of man which is also unborn, eternal, uncreated, and immutable.
  3. Brahman and Atman are the same and are both beyond names and forms. This Brahman is equated to consciousness or pure awareness in Indian philosophy; and the only purpose of life and evolution is to reach this state. Brahman is the only sentience which gives the appearance of life to insentient matter.
  4. Ignorance is thinking that our senses and intellect along with the phenomenal world is the ultimate reality. Ignorance is beginningless but ends when the knowledge dawns that Atman and Brahman are the same.
  5. Maya is the power of Brahman to manifest the phenomenal world. Maya has no existence apart from Brahman and it is in the form of superimposition. It is neither real nor unreal. It is present but not the ultimate reality.
  6. Karma is a state of bondage from man’s ignorance and is generated by his own thoughts, words, and deeds.
  7. Moksha is freedom from ignorance which is to be attained here and now.
  8. Knowledge and Truth are of two kinds-the higher and the lower. The lower is the product of our senses and the intellect; and the higher is transcendental. The higher knowledge is soteriological-capable of intense transformation. Science deals with lower knowledge; and a clash is never set-up between science and the quest for higher truth.

Indian philosophy and especially Advaita proclaims that consciousness is unknowable by the mind. It is more in line with the ‘idealist’ position of western thought, in the sense that it is primary. The brain is simply a modification of matter as ‘property’ dualists suggest. The brain gives rise to the functioning mind. The mind constructs a reality of its own depending on the senses it is endowed with. Consciousness is the unity on which everything else is superimposed. There is consciousness everywhere-immanent and transcendental. Every living and non-living being- a stone, or a microorganism- has consciousness and awareness. The whole idea of evolution in Indian philosophy, and which Swami Vivekananda repeatedly stressed, is the struggle of matter to reach the state of pure unity. It is important to note that Indian philosophy never had any issues with evolution, like in the western world.

Consciousness has been given various names: Brahman, Existence-Awareness-Bliss, pure sentience, pure knowledge, God, Paramatman. The reflection of consciousness in the mind gives rise to the world. The universe does not stand apart from this consciousness, which is primary and equated to Supreme God. Consciousness is finally a state of pure sentience where all dualities (opposites of nature) and the triads (seer, seen, and seeing; knower, known, and knowledge, and so on) disappear.

In western philosophy and science, there are definitions of consciousness; there are neurobiological correlates in the brain; there are explanations of the brain processes involved in consciousness, and the mystery remains as to how exactly does it arise. How does the qualitative feel of the world come by? What exactly is involved in the creation of the world around a single self? The book by John R Searle makes this idea amply clear, and explains the various strands which modern explorers are taking to understand this difficult subject. Indian philosophy, especially Advaita says that unfortunately the understanding of consciousness is only experiential and can never be experimental. It cannot be reproduced in the laboratories and be subjected to scientific methods of experimentation, proof, and falsification.

It is unfortunate that modern philosophers have no clue whatsoever of Advaitic philosophy despite standing strong and unmodified for thousands of years; and even if they have, are not acknowledging it. A reading of the twelve verses of the Mandukya Upanishad can make a person think more about the nature of consciousness than any modern textbook on consciousness.

The route to reach this state of unity is only through meditation and deep contemplation. The mystics have proved this repeatedly across time and place. Adi Shankara, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj to name a few, lived in separate times and at separate places, but their utterances had been remarkably the same, in line with the Upanishidic statements. The mystics in the Christian and Sufi traditions also had similar ideas. This is the greatest proof that such a state exists, and it is accessible to everyone across all ages and all cultures.

Ramana Maharishi had a simple formula to know the Truth and reach that state- Self-enquiry. This is to ask, ‘Who am I?’ The ‘I’ asking the question is the ego of the person composed of his body, mind, and intellect. The eventual answer which this ‘I’ gets is ‘I-I’ and this is realized as the only sentience, the only unity, beyond the constraints of time and space. The plurality consisting of the world, people, and gods is realized to be only a projection. Again, this is a pure experiential state. There are people using drugs like LSD to access those states. But, the mystics insist that this state of consciousness need to be achieved without stupor and with all senses completely intact.

Sri Ramana said that the ultimate state of happiness for most people is the state of deep sleep where one is absolutely nothing. But, this is a state of ignorance, and the only memory of it is in the waking state. Vedanta wants to convert the state of ignorance of deep sleep into a conscious state and that is the key to permanent happiness- a conscious formless and non-attached state. In complete detachment, there is pure consciousness only, which is the realization of God. Everyone is God, because everyone is endowed with consciousness. This is true even for animals- a most positive and hopeful statement about the nature and presence of God. The only way to reach is to uncover the layers of ignorance, also called illusion or Maya surrounding the Grace. This Maya is composed of the body, mind, intellect, space, time, matter, energy, cause, and effect- everything which science deals with. Consciousness is transcendental. From an Indian perspective, the word is capitalized to emphasize its primary status.

From Socrates to the present breed of philosophers, the attempt to define consciousness has been pursued from a purely intellectual level. It looks like an impossible task, as the circuitous paths centred on the brain will continue forever. In contemporary times, people like Subhash Kak, VS Ramachandran, David Frawley, and Dennis Waite have been consistently writing on consciousness in the Indian context; and I would only wish that modern philosophers and scientists have a serious look at Indian philosophy to get answers which they are seeking for long.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.