welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Freedom and Neurobiology by John Searle

Richard Corrigan freely ponders John Searle’s thoughts on free will.

This short book consists of two lectures: ‘Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology’, and ‘Social Ontology and Political Power’, accompanied by a comprehensive introduction entitled ‘Philosophy and the Basic Facts’. Searle admits that the two themes do not appear to have much in common, but he views them both as essential aspects of his research. The book is a testament to Searle’s capacity for innovative and challenging thought. The primary question addressed here is: how can humans reconcile a world composed entirely of “mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles” with our everyday conception of ourselves as “conscious, intentionalistic, rational, social, institutional, speech-act performing, ethical and free-will possessing agents”? (p5)

In his introduction Searle guides us through the history of philosophy, concisely explaining how we have progressed to our current state of understanding. He does this by exploring eight traditional philosophical questions and their connotations, including the nature of consciousness, free will and politics. He holds that at this point in our philosophical evolution we have the capacity to “advance very general accounts of mind, language, rationality, society, etc.” Searle believes that we can undertake such ‘large scale’ projects because of a fresh openness to the role of empirical evidence, and the union of philosophy of mind and biology.

Humans have long pondered our ‘cognitively privileged’ place in the world. We are therefore entitled to ask him why our current position is especially pregnant with the possibility of finding solutions to these age-old questions. Searle contends that we’ve only recently gained the capacity to deal scientifically with problems such as free will, consciousness, language, rationality and so forth. The answers we can now provide are a natural progression from the basic facts we have established about the world. The basic facts to which he refers are the findings of the sciences in the areas of evolutionary biology and quantum theory. These are taken by Searle to provide the basic building blocks of knowledge.

The first chapter focuses on the problem of free will and associated problems of the self, rationality and consciousness. Searle’s goal is to show how the scientific resolution of these problems could be achieved. He is convinced that the philosopher’s role in this task is to formulate the problem in a fashion precise enough to allow empirical methods of investigation. He believes he can do this by transforming the question from its traditional metaphysical form to a more exact question about the function of the human brain. Therefore, he addresses the question “How could we treat the problem of free will as a neurobiological problem?” (p8)

Searle does not adopt a compatibilist understanding of ‘free’ – instead asserting that “according to the definitions… that I am using, determinism and free will are not compatible” (p47). He contends that the free will problem has proved particularly difficult to resolve because it involves what appears to be two conflicting convictions. Firstly, we generally think that natural phenomena occur as a consequence of natural laws and prior physical states. However, there appears to be a special type of occurrence that we generally accept does not conform to such deterministic explanation. When we provide an account of the reasons upon which we acted, we do not believe we are providing a report of a sufficient set of determining factors – we do not believe that the reasons we had for acting were causally determinate for the action undertaken. We believe that, had we so chosen, we could have done otherwise. Searle calls our consciousness of such causal insufficiency ‘the gap’ (a term originally introduced in his book Rationality in Action (MIT Press, 2001). Thus, we believe that there is a significant sense in which our actions are under our control. He calls consciousness of this control ‘volitional consciousness’ (p41). Hence, Searle concludes, the problem of free will stems from volitional consciousness – our consciousness of the apparent gap between determining reasons and choices.

We experience the gap when we consider the following: (i) our reasons and the decision we make (ii) our decision and action that ensues (iii) our action and its continuation to completion (p42). Searle believes that, if we are to act freely then our experience of the gap cannot be illusory: it must be the case that the causation at play is non-deterministic.

The gap also becomes obvious when we consider the divergent nature of the explanations we offer for natural phenomena and our own actions. When we explain a natural event we state that ‘A caused B’. However when we explain an individual’s action we state “A Self S performed action A, and in the performance of A, S acted on Reason R” (p53). We can immediately appreciate that for free action explanations to have significant content, we must posit an irreducible self to do the acting.

Searle proceeds to ask, if there is such a self and if the gap is real, how can this be accounted for at the neurobiological level? (p59) He answers: “the lack of causally sufficient conditions at the psychological level is matched by an absence of causally sufficient conditions at the neurobiological level” and in a human “the brain is such that the conscious self is able to make and carry out decisions in the gap, where neither decision nor action is determined in advance, by causally sufficient conditions, yet both are rationally explained by the reasons the agent is acting on” (p73). However, Searle accepts that this gives rise to:

“the trickiest question: How could the gap be neurobiologically real…? Assume we have an account of how the brain produces mental causation, and an account of how it produces the experiences of rational agency, how could we get rational indeterminism into our account of brain function?” (p74)

To address this concern, Searle proposes that “Consciousness manifests quantum indeterminism” (p75) and that “randomness at the micro level does not by itself imply randomness at the system level.” (p76) In other words, if it is true that “the conscious self is able to carry out decisions in the gap, where neither decision nor action is determined in advance, yet both are rationally explained by reasons the agent is acting on,” it must be the case that decisions are indeterminate. Since quantum mechanics is the only form of indeterminism so far known to science, it must therefore be the case that consciousness displays quantum indeterminism. However, quantum indeterminism does not necessarily lead to randomness, as the properties of the whole may differ from those of the parts.

I think that Searle needs to provide a better explanation of how this process would work. Yet once again, he thinks that this further explanation is the responsibility of the neurobiologist.

Alternatively, it may the case that contrary to our experience of free will, we may indeed be determined agents, and all previous brain and environmental states and the laws of nature are sufficient to determine all subsequent brain states. It is up to neurobiology to provide the answer here too (for this is as far as Searle can justifiably reason). Searle accepts that there is not sufficient scientific data to prove or disprove the existence of free will, and that this fact is rather unsettling: he therefore cannot ultimately assume its reality. He briefly touches on some of the consequences of it being proven that free will is in fact an illusion, but does not deal with these consequences in any conclusive way.

One may justifiably question his assumption that the problem of free will is ultimately reducible to neurobiology. The problem appears to me to be more complex and tangled than Searle supposes. After all, even if the question whether prior states of affairs are sufficient to determine an agent’s actions is conclusively answered, the deepest philosophical aspects of the problem have still not been touched. Most of the literature on free will is devoted to whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. If it were shown that all our actions are casually determined by prior events, we’d still have to address the outstanding questions of whether this detracts from what it means to have ‘free will’ and whether our morally reactive attitudes are justified.

So even if the project suggested by Searle were carried through to completion, the central problem of free will would still persist in its usual troublesome form. Perhaps if the inverse were proven, and it was shown that our actions are not causally determined by prior states of affairs, compatibilism would lack substance. However, I am not convinced that neurobiology will provide the kind of answers that would lead to such a conviction, or that philosophers would stop pondering the nature of free will because of what science discovers.

The second chapter considers social ontology and political power, although Searle is careful to clarify that the theory outlined here “is very much provisional, and a work in progress.” This essay provides a brief introduction to Searle’s conception of the nature of political society and the structure of its power. His aim here is to “explore some of the relations between general ontology and social reality and the specific form of reality that is political power.” (p80) While fascinating in itself, it is difficult to critically evaluate what he says because of its provisional nature. It will be very interesting to see how he progresses his ideas and crafts them into a finished form.

Freedom and Neurobiology is interesting, well-formed and thought-provoking, and written in an accessible form. It’s a pity Searle does not give any attention to other contemporary books devoted to the question of free will. I do not doubt however that this book will give rise to plenty of intriguing debates.

© Dr Richard Corrigan

Richard Corrigan has a PhD in philosophy from University College Dublin, and has published numerous books and articles, mainly on the philosophy of religion.

• John Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language and Political Power, Columbia University Press, 2007, 113pp, $24.50 (hb), ISBN 0231137524.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X