Searle’s design thinking

by Neil Rickert

While reading Searle’s perception book, I came across this passage:

Think of the problem from a designer point of view. Suppose you are God or evolution and you are designing organisms capable of coping with their environment in spectacularly successful ways. First, you create an environment that has objects with shapes, sizes, movements, etc. Furthermore, you create an environment with differential light reflectances. Then you create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities. Within certain limits, the whole world is open to their visual awareness. But now you need to create a specific set of perceptual organizations where specific visual experiences are internally tied to specific features of the world, such that being those features involves the capacity to produce those sorts of experiences. Reality is not dependent on experience, but conversely. The concept of the reality in question already involves the causal capacity to produce certain sorts of experiences. So the reason that these experiences present red objects is that the very fact of being a red object involves a capacity to produce this sort of experience. Being a straight line involves the capacity to produce this other sort of experience. The upshot is that organisms cannot have these experiences without it seeming to them that they are seeing a red object or a straight line, and that “”seeming to them”” marks the intrinsic intentionality of the perceptual experience. (page 129)

I’m not surprised by that kind of design thinking.  I have long thought that such design thinking is the background to much of philosophy.  It is, however, a little strange to be calling on evolution as a designer and as having a designer point of view.  Even worse is the idea of evolution wanting to “create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities.”

Such organisms might arise via evolution, but the idea that evolution has some kind of specific goal is surely a misunderstanding of evolution.

Well, okay, Searle is not a scientist.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be too concerned about this kind of mistake.  But there is something else about this that raises concerns.

The Chinese Room

Searle is well known for his “Chinese Room” thought experiment, in which he claims to refute the possibility of AI (artificial intelligence).  AI researchers are typically motivated by a kind of design thinking similar to what Searle suggests.

Searle’s argument against AI, is that the AI systems will lack intentionality.  But here, in his perception book, Searle is using just the same kind of design thinking to explain intentionality.

In his CR argument, Searle is particularly objecting to computation.  But many AI researchers see computation as just an implementation detail in carrying out the kind of designing that Searle describes.  The answer to Searle, on this, is the “Systems Reply” — that intentionality is in the system as a whole, rather than in the computation.  Searle’s own design thinking would seem to be an example of the “Systems Reply,” particularly if the design is implemented with the use of computation.

Searle dismissed the Systems reply.  Yet here, in his perception book, he is suggesting that something similar explains intrinsic intentionality.

Critics of AI often argue that an AI based robotic system could exhibit only derived intentionality.  That is, it could seem to have intentionality, but that would really only be a projection of the intentionality of the designer and not anything intrinsic to the robot.  It is my sense that Searle’s design thinking has the same problem.  Searle says that it accounts for intrinsic intentionality, but I don’t see how you get other a projection of the intentionality of the designer.

Wordstar on the wall

In his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind“, Searle argues that the WordStar program is running in molecular state transitions on his office wall.  His point was to question whether it is even meaningful to talk of computation.  He apparently thinks that the idea of state transition (as used in the theory of a finite state automaton) is vapid.  Yet, in his perception book, he often mentions “states of affairs” as part of an explanation of perception or of intentionality.

For myself, I consider “states of affairs” to be far more vapid than the state transition accounts of computation.

Summary

Overall, I do not find Searle’s explanation of intentionality at all satisfying.

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11 Responses to “Searle’s design thinking”

  1. “Such organisms might arise via evolution, but the idea that evolution has some kind of specific goal is surely a misunderstanding of evolution.”

    Why do you say that?

    I don’t think it is “surely a misunderstanding.” Quite the opposite. The very idea that a critical causal factor in biological evolution is not the intentions and actions of life forms is “surely a misunderstanding.”

    The view that biological evolution is the sum of forces impersonal and even non-biological is not Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is Neo-Darwinism. As Ronald Fisher, wrote (in my own words), biological evolution is the result of forces operative independently of biology.

    But life forms are not the completely passive pawns of forces beyond themselves. We are all the products of a process of evolution that is partially internalized, due to forces operating effectively only within our own bodies and minds, and those of every other life form, and no where else in nature.
    These are not “un-natural” forces, but they are peculiarly biological.

    Paradoxically (?), biological evolution is an intrinsically (supposedly) ateleological process with the remarkable alacrity of invariably producing exclusively teleological systems!

    Abstraction is the mental process of selectively including or excluding both known and unknown factors from analysis.
    But what kind of theory of biological evolution do you have if you abstract away the very life forms themselves?!

    I don’t want to say that all my intentions are derived, but it seems to me that they mostly are—derived from the difference between the conditions I find myself in and conditions that I might deem to be desired. Almost always, if not always, my intentions are oriented to changing that situation. IOW life forms have no more “intrinsic” intentionality than the process of evolution does. Intentionality is conditional, not “intrinsic.”

    Why do I have “intentions” at all? What is a problem? And why do I have problems?

    To me, the questions are the key difference between evolutionary thought and creationism. In evolutionary theory, life is problematic. In creationism, life is assumed to exist w/o origin. No problem.

    Intentions derived from non-intentional forces? Or intentions derived from intentions? In either case, intentions are derived.

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    • The very idea that a critical causal factor in biological evolution is not the intentions and actions of life forms is “surely a misunderstanding.”

      I’m not sure where that came from. I am not a Darwinist. I agree that the actions of life forms are what drive evolution.

      My statement, with which you disagreed, was about a “specific goal.” Perhaps you missed the word “specific”.

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    • Intentions derived from non-intentional forces? Or intentions derived from intentions? In either case, intentions are derived.

      I should have commented on this previously. You are misunderstanding “intentionality” as that word is used by philosophers. Maybe take a look at the SEP entry.

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  2. I’ve written evolutionary programs and had as my specific goal that the program produce specific objects that I did not pre-specify, except as a general class of objects. Of course, the process of biological evolution does produce quite specific outcomes. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I am pretty “specific.” But I’m not such an egoist to believe that the process had me and only me as its specific outcome. That goes beyond egoism and into psychosis.
    I thought that what you meant was pre-specified. That still does not mean that the process does not have the “specific goal” of producing non-pre-specified “goals.”

    To me, Neil Rickert, you are begging the question.

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  3. That biological evolution occurs w/o any “specific” end, or occurs independently of any conscious control, exercise of will, w/o purpose, forethought, or planning is true. Just the way the wind blows. After all, life is chemistry and biological evolution is just chemical evolution.

    But that is not the only way life evolves. All you have to do is look in the mirror to see how deliberate (and not so deliberate) control of evolutionary forces has shaped human anatomy.

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  4. What has this got to do with Searle’s argument?

    “Argument”?

    “Reality is not dependent on experience, but conversely.”

    Not true. Not if the face you see in the mirror is real…

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  5. “Just the way the wind blows…”

    But I have been reminded:

    Jn. {3:8} The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest
    the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and
    whither it goeth…

    Mt. {12:54} And he said also to the people, When ye see a
    cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh
    a shower; and so it is. {12:55} And when [ye see] the south
    wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to
    pass. {12:56} [Ye] hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the
    sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this
    time? {12:57} Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye
    not what is right?

    Mk. {4:41} And they feared
    exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man
    is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

    What interests me is that question, “Why can’t you even decide amongst yourselves what is right or true?”

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    • What interests me is that question, “Why can’t you even decide amongst yourselves what is right or true?”

      Some questions are not true/false questions, though people will often treat them as if they are.

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  6. Some questions are not true/false questions… And some are…

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