Monday, March 28, 2011

Berkley Webcasts: Searle and the Philosophy of Mind

Alongside a host of free academic courses, there are two free philosophy courses available here via webcast.berkley.  I have listened to John Searle's course on the Philosophy of Mind (Philosophy 132) twice now, thanks to my 25 minute commute to work each morning and afternoon.

These 32 mp3 recordings capture virtually everything that happened during that semester of the course: lectures, lucid accounts from Searle about his life experiences and about philosophy in general, student questions, a couple of lively teacher/student debates (one student defensively launches some theistic arguments at Searle after he makes a few unsympathetic remarks about religion), and most importantly, Searle's exposition of his philosophy of the mind, aka "biological naturalism."  (For a concise description of biological naturalism, see Edward Feser's unpublished paper entitled, "Why Searle Is a Property Dualist."  Another summary is given in this article.)

The clarity and depth of Searle's teaching can't be overstated, especially regarding the various arguments against materialism (Nagel's bat, Mary's color, the Chinese Room, etc).  Almost half of the course is geared towards evaluating materialism, while the other half explores perception and intentionality.  If you think naive realism has been ruled out, think again.  Also, if you think naturalism precludes intentionality, Searle might at least challenge you to move beyond the usual rhetoric that gets tossed at naturalists regarding intentionality (I still maintain that intentionality is a serious problem for most naturalistic theories of the mind).

I'm no expert on Descartes but suspect that a few of Searle's comments would raise a few hackles among the Cartesian crowd. For instance, he stressed that Descartes distinguished the body from the mind but he doesn't mention how they can interact together to constitute a third substance.  He also doesn't mention that Descartes may not have exclusively identified person with their minds (see Feser, Philosophy of Mind, p. 21).

Searle gives out a suprisingly quick and dirty response to Plantinga's modal argument for dualism. Here's a rough formulation of Plantinga's argument:

1. If me = my body, then whatever is true of me is true of my body and vice versa.
2. 'Possibly exists when body doesn't' is true of me but not true of my body.
3. Therefore, I am not identical to my body.

A student presents the argument and asks him what he thinks of it, and almost without hesitation Searle replies, "thinkability is not a property."  Others have criticized Plantinga's argument in similar fashion.

Overall, I found this course to be immensely helpful and insightful.  Surely I didn't comprehend the material as well as the students who attended the class and did the required readings.  But that wasn't the goal.  The goal was to absorb the landscape, to make a mental map of the bigger picture before attacking a full-length text on the subject.

Before reading a serious text, if I haven't familiarized myself sufficiently with the topic or author, I will skim through an introductory text or listen to audio material on the topic (there is something about passively listening while driving or running on the treadmill that soaks the information into your neurons in a different, but nonetheless useful way).  If intro texts or audio aren't readily available, I scan the entire text very quickly (as quick as you can run your eyes down the page), only pausing at the topic sentences of the main sections.  I can sprint through a book in about 20 minutes in this fashion, and believe it or not, I find that pre-scanning increases my ability to understand the material once I start reading it at a normal pace.  Sometimes a third reading is required if I'm going to take detailed notes and really interact with the material.  Perhaps others can get away with just reading difficult books once, but not this fellow!


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