In a referenced interview, Searle outlines a condensed theory of consciousness with three key assumptions:

  1. Consciousness is real, including illusions.
  2. It is caused by brain processes (neural mechanisms, [insert theories here]).
  3. It resides within the brain.


Searle assumes that brain states cause consciousness. (reductionism)

This seems a reasonable hypothesis. I totally agree with point 1.

But 2. would imply that the entities produced by external stimuli themselves (our experience, even illusions) should have electrical, magnetic (or even gravitational) properties, and be measurable by themselves. If this doesn't happen, there is some kind of causal discontinuity.

  • Is this last observation incorrect ? And how, if so ?

  • I am more inclined to the argument that consciousness is real, but it's also fundamental but aren't the NCCs enough of a hint that there is something producing it and hence not fundamental ?

  • 1
    2. would not imply that. Shape of a statue is real, it is caused by its physical constitution, but it does not have electric, magnetic, etc., properties and there is no "causal discontinuity". Physical things admit structural descriptions that do not inherit their physical properties. Searle suggests, and Davidson elaborated earlier, that consciousness is a physical thing under such alternative description. It stands in a constitutional ("redescriptive") relation to its neural correlates, not a causal one.
    – Conifold
    Jan 8 at 22:50
  • I'm not at all sure about 3. What does "resides" mean here, apart from "is located in"? The brain is a key part of the causal substrate of consciousness, but the causal basis of mental functions is much wider than that. In the end, the whole body is involved. In addition, our vision and hearing locates us in the space where the body is. But does any of that add up to saying that consciousness, as such, is located anywhere in particular? There's a standard philosophical view that the mind is not located in physical space. That's what led to the view that the mind is not a physical entity.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 8 at 23:31

4 Answers 4


I don’t consider Searle’s answer here to be credible. He admits consciousness is causal. But then says we have causal reductionism to neurons, but no ontological reduction (IE consciousness does not ontologically reduce to matter). But if he has causal reduction then consciousness is not itself causal. If he denies ontological reduction then he is admitting to another ontology, IE the dualism he says he rejects. Dualist ontology without causal efficacy is epiphenomenalism, which he also says he rejects. This interview is just a series of contradictory statements by Searle.

There are several other efforts by physicalists to avoid the errors of computationalism that Searle savages, and the causal irrelevance of consciousness that he likewise savages, but are not as blatantly self contradictory. Searle would have better adopted one of these two views.

One is IIT, Integrated Information Theory, which is an explicit effort to tie consciousness to brains as a result of their biological properties of a high Phi (Phi is the degree of structural non-reductiveness of a processing systems, and the varying location to location neural structures of brains are proposed to be the reason humans have consciousness while performing a computational function while our highly replicated computer structures are why they are not conscious). IIT basically says consciousness is identical to algorithms, but only if the algorithms are run on a high Phi substrate. This makes consciousness a primarily biological phenomenon, which our machines could someday acquire in principle if they became a lot more biological in their core structure. IIT therefore satisfied his “biological” criteria. To get causality one has to abandon causal reductionism. One would have to accept that algorithms are independently causal,as strong emergent phenomenon. This juiced up IIT model was actually constructed to try to be compatible with Searle’s Chinese room argument. But its intrinsic functionalism may have dissuaded Searle from considering it.

The second alternative is a strong biological emergentism, where consciousness is emergent from some as yet unknown but someday To Be Determined feature of the physical brain. This is Poppers position, and it is emergent dualism. The ontology of consciousness is not material, but is dependent on material. It is causal, but was caused by matter, and is intimately interactive with it. As with IIT, Popper rejects both ontological AND causal reductionism, because if one accepts causal reduction then consciousness is causally irrelevant.

  • Please explain the abbreviations IT, IIT, TBD and Phi in your answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 9 at 6:20
  • @JoWehler Done!
    – Dcleve
    Jan 9 at 6:43
  • And the abbreviation "IE" in line 3 and line 5?
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 9 at 7:01
  • @JoWehler I.E. is an abbreviation for the Latin id est which is explained here: grammarly.com/blog/know-your-latin-i-e-vs-e-g/…“in%20essence.”. In formal usage it has the two periods. In informal they are often dropped.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 9 at 7:19

The most simple type of a conscious experience is a quale, e.g., a colour perception. We know that the stimulus from the retina is transmitted and processed in the different parts of the visual cortex as a pattern of electrical excitations. But the final quale, the subjective perdecption, is not registered as electrical excitations but as a colour. As @Conifold comments, the quale does not inherit the physical properties of its generating neural correlate of consiousness (NCC).

Concerning your point 3 one can question whether a quale can be localized. The NCC can be localized. But the colour perception, the quale, is not physical. It is interpreted as a property of a thing in the external world.

What does Searle really say about point 3? Would you please indicate the precise part of the interview.


Positing that consciousness is caused by brain processes doesn't imply that we'd be able to measure brain processes. At most you can say if we can't measure that, we may not be justified (or be less justified) in thinking that consciousness is caused by brain processes.

But we can clearly detect and measure brain processes - that's what brain scans do.

The only way measuring processes of yourself might create "causal discontinuity" would be if nothing physically affects anything else, but this is clearly not the case. Most measuring devices depend on things physically affecting one another. Our sight, sense of touch, hearing, smell and taste depend on that too.

So our brain processes have some effect on other physical objects (broadly speaking, which includes things like radio waves and magnetic fields, which may in turn affect other objects, like a brain scan), and we observe that effect. This may sound indirect, but you can describe sight in the same way: some physical object has an effect on light by reflecting in certain ways, and we observe that effect via the light entering our eyes.

* I'm presuming you think there's a problem of circular causes, but let me know if that's not the case.

  • I've upvoted for considering the purported relations between consciousness and brain, but when you say 'reality', is that a paraphrase for all physical processes, the collective sum of the physical ontology that generally aligns with physical science?
    – J D
    Jan 9 at 0:02
  • @JD Edited to be more specific than "reality".
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 9 at 0:56

I take brain to mean human brain. What evidence does he have for 2 and 3? 1 is problematic because altered states of consciousness are poorly understood. If your question is "Is Serle's theory of consciousness comprehensive and convincing?", then my answer is no.

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