Searle, J., Freedom and Neurobiology,
This book contains two essays, one on the neurobiological basis of free will and one on the ontology of political power. There is no need to wonder what these have to do with each other: not much, Searle frankly says. As he explains, the book was originally published in French from two independent lectures he delivered in
The benefit of publishing two unrelated essays in one book is that to link them together, Searle reviews his whole oeuvre. In 35 introductory pages, we get a survey of Searle’s views on philosophical methodology, naturalism, consciousness, intentionality, language, rationality, free will, society and institutions, politics, and ethics. This may well be the shortest and most accessible introduction to Searle’s philosophy, by the author himself.
I will only comment on Searle’s essay on free will. Searle does not cite any of the considerable literature on free will and proceeds largely independently of it. His stated goal is formulating the problem of free will clearly enough that it can be solved scientifically. But the crux of the philosophical debate is the metaphysical question of compatibilism vs. incompatibilism (i.e., whether free will is compatible with determinism). Does Searle think that question can be answered empirically? Never mind. Searle simply assumes incompatibilism (i.e., free will requires indeterminism) without argument. In fact, he even defines free will in a way that amounts to “the negation of determinism” (47).
The shortcomings of such a definition have been known for a long time. Acting randomly – genuinely randomly – would falsify determinism, but it would hardly qualify as an expression of free will. Searle is well aware of this. He says that “quantum indeterminism gives us no help with the free will problem, because that indeterminism introduces randomness into the basic structure of the universe, and the hypothesis that some of our acts occur freely is not at all the same as the hypothesis that some of our acts occur at random” (44). So if quantum indeterminism is not going to help because free will is more than indeterminism, then what kind of indeterminism would supply us with free will? Searle doesn’t say.
Given incompatibilism, Searle sees only two options. (Others are discussed in the literature, but Searle does not consider them.)
The first option is epiphenomenalism, according to which free will is just an illusion. This may seem to fit well with our naturalistic worldview. (Recent work by Daniel Wegner is highly suggestive in this regard.) But Searle feels strongly that we have free will. For him, epiphenomenalism is the option of last resort.
The second option is that human actions are non-deterministically caused by “the conscious self.” According to Searle, the conscious self is “caused by and realized in” the brain. This sounds a lot like what is known in the literature as an agent causal account, with Searle’s self playing the role of the traditional agent. Searle, however, does not use this term, nor does he cite any of the many agent-causal theorists.
If the self causes actions in a nondeterministic way and the self is realized in the brain, then there must be some source of indeterminism in the way the brain causes action. Quantum indeterminism! Wait, didn’t Searle say quantum indeterminism was not going to help? Yes, but it turns out that Searle thinks the self is a feature of nature and the only natural source of indeterminism is quantum indeterminism. Unless we accept epiphenomenalism, by Searle’s logic, quantum indeterminism had better help. Here is how it helps: “The indeterminacy at the micro level may … explain the indeterminacy of the system, but the randomness at the micro level does not by itself imply randomness at the system level” (76, emphasis original).
To make this theory stand up, Searle should now explain two things: how randomness at the micro level is consistent with indeterministic-though-non-random agent causation at the system level, and how the resulting kind of indeterministic agent causation constitutes free will. Unfortunately, Searle does not give us these crucial parts of the story, at least in this essay.
I do not see that Searle has broken new ground on the free will debate. But if you are looking for his view on free will, this essay is for you.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Carl Craver for comments on this post.