John Searle on External-World Realism

‘At a much deeper level, here is what I think is going on: external realism is not a theory. It is not an opinion I hold that there is a world out there. It is rather the framework that is necessary for it to be possible to hold opinions or theories about such things as planetary movements. When you debate the merits of a theory, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, you have to take it for granted that there is a way that things really are. Otherwise, the debate can’t get started. Its very terms are unintelligible. But that assumption, that there is a way that things are, independent of our representations of how they are, is external realism. External realism is not a claim about the existence of this or that object, but rather a presupposition of the way we understand such claims. This is why the “debates” always look inconclusive. You can more or less conclusively settle the issue about Darwinian evolutionary theory, but you can’t in that way settle the issue about the existence of the real world, because any such settling presupposes the existence of the real world. This does not mean that realism is an unprovable theory; rather, it means that realism is not a theory at all but the framework within which it is possible to ave theories.’ (John R. Searle, ‘Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, p. 32)


Searle argues for biological naturalism against dualism and materialism – he claims that dualism/materialism both lead to incoherent conclusions. I agree with this, for the most part. Cartesian dualism, or substance dualism, seems to be largely a dead end (except for Swinburne) – and, as I’ve noted before, dualism of this stripe is pretty much a product of Descartes systematic abstraction and reification of the mind and secondary qualities.

Now, I have no problem with consciousness being a biological kind of thing – it is certainly silly to think of consciousness as a kind of mysterious non-material product of an equally mysterious mind, and then this leads to the interaction problems. So perhaps, instead of naturalising consciousness, as Searle does, there’s a mediatory way. Suppose we think of consciousness as physical and biological but simply not reducible to the physical and biological.

For me personally, it’s intentionality that is the biggest circle that a naturalist has to square, and I don’t think it can be done. It seems to me to be pretty much wishful thinking to suppose that a purely physical system can be ‘about’ something, or have any kind of intentionality. Hart makes an interesting point:

‘Thoughts can be directed towards things, but (if the modern picture of nature is true) things cannot be directed towards thoughts, and so the specific content of the minds intentions must be determined by consciousness alone. One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that the mind represents it as having.’ (‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 195-196)

More Study Notes

Bultmann continues to be very interesting to read – though Torrance seems to have some pretty powerful criticisms in ‘Incarnation’, – he characterizes Bultmann’s position and reductionist and scientism-ist. Both of these seem to me to be largely correct – but in spite of that Bultmann makes some powerful points regarding God’s action in the world and a general critique of the classical metaphysical picture the world that Christianity generally adheres to. Also interesting is his concept of myth – I’m going to re-read Tolkien and Lewis on the idea of mythology and see how the three views compare.

I just received John Searle’s ‘Mind, Language and Society’, and I can’t praise it enough. Brilliant writer and philosopher, and his critiques of the classical positions in philosophy of mind are powerful if limited – he seems to only see Cartesian dualism and materialism as viable positions to hold. What i find most interesting is his position that it’s largely the language we use – mind, soul, mental, etc – that are causing so many of the issues in philosophy and the study of consciousness today. Searle seems to largely be unaware of the more subtle and sophisticated forms of dualism – say, the Aristotelean hylemoprhic (sp?) flavour. I also am not so convinced by his argument for biological naturalism even if I do think that his brand of naturalism is the most coherent available. I don’t think consciousness can be reduced to brain functions, though, in any coherent way. David Bentley Hart has a lot to say about this in ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, so at some point I’ll probably do a small comparative study between the two.

More Random Study and Book Notes

I recently got Gilson’s ‘Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge’, and wow, Gilson really, really, really cared about Thomistic realism. 90% of the book is him picking apart various neo-scholastic Thomistic realists, who, upon close examination, all pretty much believe the same thing, but, upon Gilson’s examination, all believe very different things. Difficult to read, but I’ll chalk it up to translation quality and my own muddled head. His more positive argumentation in the last two chapters is pretty interesting. I prefer ‘Methodical Realism,’ though.

Balthasar’s book on Gregory of Nyssa? Holy smokes. Holy freaking smokes. That is some dense, deep stuff. Understandable, but deep. Lots of philosophical theology is dense, but not deep – this is deep. Interesting theological anthropology, and I’ll probably comment a bit more in depth in coming posts.

John MacArthur’s now (in)famous Strange Fire conference is still making waves, or flames. I’m a charismatic myself, but the most offensive thing about the conference that I saw was my Facebook news feed blowing up with ‘#strangefire’, and, shortly after that, ‘#markdriscoll’. As to the content of the conference, suffice it to say that I regard it as a prime example of ‘get off my lawn, you damn kids (or charismatics)!’

I started reading John Owens ‘Death of Death’, book, at the recommendation of a Facebook friend. Interesting, but makes the (elementary, IMO) mistake of locating the atonement within the realm of causal metaphysics (something very much critiqued by Barth and Torrance). Good writing, but that basic error pretty much says it all.

Wolterstorff’s ‘Divine Discourse’, is really dense, but really good. Interesting use of divine command theory in the context of God speaking as one who has, or doesn’t have rights and duties.

I started reading Machiavelli’s ‘The Art of War,’ and it’s pretty interesting. His argument for a militia, as opposed to a professional standing army, is pretty thought-provoking.

Lately I’ve been watching Richard Swinburne and John Searle lectures and interviews on YouTube- boy, do those guys know their stuff. Searle is just so clear in his writing and lecturing, about such complex topics, and Swinburne just freaking knows everything about consciousness, mind, dualism, etc. I’ll probably be getting his new book on free will soon. Searle is really cool though, because although he’s a naturalist, he picks apart naive naturalism ruthlessly, and his own theory that consciousness is a purely biological phenomena is pretty interesting in itself.