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The Mystery of Consciousness Paperback – January 1, 1990

3.9 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


For sheer intellectual brio, it would be hard to beat John R. Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness. Mr. Searle, a philosopher at Berkeley, casts a critical eye on recent attempts to solve the mind-body problem--how it is that the lump of gray meat in your skull produces consciousness--by eminent thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose and Francis Crick. Often he gives a clearer account of their ideas than can be found in their own books. With vigorous logic, he teases out the contradictions of dualism, materialism and computer-inspired "artificial intelligence," which denies the very existence of consciousness. For evidence to the contrary, he urges the reader to pinch himself--which is the only thing that might detract from the pleasure of this book. -- The Wall Street Journal, Jim Holt

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: The New York Review of Books; 1st edition (September 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940322064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322066
  • Product Dimensions: 4.6 x 0.5 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #228,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Searle is certainly not timid in this collection of essays, based on reviews he wrote in the New York Review of Books. However, Searle is not really combative either - he is rather very straightforward in his argumentation. That, combined with the back-and-forth responses between Searle and some of the reviewed authors is very instructive to introducing one to some of the various philosophical stances toward consciousness and the mind-brain problem.
Searle's own stance is one of 'biological naturalism'. This view is best explicated in Searle's _The Rediscovery of the Mind_. It, roughly speaking, is a view that: 1) consciousness is a real, intrinsically first-person phenomena; 2) consciousness is brain-based - that is, it is physically based; and, 3) by virtue of #1 mind is not a reducible phenomena (since any third-person reduction destroys the essential 1st-person characteristic that makes consciousness what it is). Scientific study of the mind is not thereby discounted - such study need only take these points into account.
Regarding Edelman and Crick, Searle points out that despite that whatever neurological evidence and elaborations they may have come up with (in terms of neurological theories), neither presents a theory of consciousness per se. Whatever the 40Hz theory says, it can only claim a correlative relation, not a causitive relation, to consciousness at this point in its development.
[For my money, _I of the Vortex_ by Rodolfo Llinas is more interesting than Edelman or Crick, and Llinas is somewhat less hyperbolic about his claims.]
Penrose is just tragically out to lunch, poor guy. And, if anything, Searle is overly generous in his treatment of Penrose's Godelian / computational arguments.
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Format: Paperback
Searle's new book is a compilation of articles previouslypublished in The New York Review of Books, from 1995-1997. While thearticles are self-contained, there is a definite theme that runsthrough them: that recent attempts to explain consciousness are either based on conceptual confusion or offer solutions that are at best promissory notes. Among those singled out for conceptual confusion are Roger Penrose, Daniel Dennett, and David Chalmers. Those who are in the right ballpark but do not deliver on their claims are Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, and Israel Rosenfeld. Or, to put it more succinctly, the former group is conceptually confused since they do not share Searle's view that consciousness is an irreducible biological property of the brain. The latter group fails to deliver because, while they correctly treat consciousness as a biological phenomenon, they do not explain consciousness in the sense of giving an account of how the brain actually causes conscious states.
Searle's merciless criticisms of recent approaches to consciousness are based on his own original viewpoint proposed in his books Minds, Brains, and Science (1984) and The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992). According to Searle, consciousness is both an irreducibly subjective mental phenomenon and a biological feature of the brain. Searle compares consciousness to digestion in the stomach or the sharpness of a pain, higher-level features of physical structures which are at the same time caused by lower-level micro-features of these structures. The mind/body problem is solved when we repudiate the dogmatic assumption that all properties are exclusively mental or physical.
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Format: Paperback
"The Mystery of Consciousness" is simply an expansion and revision of a series of book reviews from the mid 90s. Searle has added a first and last chapter in which he expounds his own views and included the written responses of a couple of the authors to his original reviews. Essentially then, the book is a work of criticism with a dash of the author's own views.

The book is well-written and interesting. Searle can tear an argument into its constituent pieces, summarize it and raise objections as clearly as anyone. It also provides an excellent survey of some important authors on the subject: Crick, Penrose, Dennett, etc. However, as usual with unsolved philosophical problems, it is far easier to tear down the arguments of others than to make a clear, correct argument yourself. Further, it becomes obvious that the authors (including Searle) are talking past each other...using the same words with different meanings.

The problem is illustrated at the very beginning. On page 5, Searle writes:

"One issue can be dealt with swiftly. There is a problem that...does not seem very serious to me, and that is the problem of defining "consciousness" .... if we distinguish between analytic definitions, which aim to analyze the underlying essence of a phenomenon, and common-sense definitions .... it does not seem to me at all difficult to give a common-sense definition of the term: 'consciousness' refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we awake from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again"

And hence come many difficulties, because the other authors Searle is studying are not all using this definition. They are not all even using their own common-sense definitions, but may be using analytic definitions.
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