No Limits Hinder UC Thinker

Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 28, 1999
No Limits Hinder UC Thinker
* Berkeley philosopher John Searle expects himself and his university to be the best, and he’s not shy about arguing for his ideas. He is the subject of scholarly conferences.

BERKELEY — In the photograph that dominates the lobby of Sproul Hall at the University of California, a throng of students marches through Sather Gate, the university’s southern entrance. The students carry a banner proclaiming “Free Speech.”
They are en route to a Board of Regents meeting to demand just that and they are blessed. The photo was taken on a cool November afternoon in 1964 and the day’s angled autumn light bathes them in a Hollywood glow of goodness, the kind of light reserved for second comings.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was a harbinger, even an instigator, of a huge wave of social protest that upended American culture so completely that it hasn’t been put back together since. Beyond the momentous occasion the photo commemorates, there are a few peculiarities about it worth noting.
First, it hangs in the most prominent place in the most prominent building on the campus, an odd spot to put something that memorializes the overthrow of the duly constituted authority of the university.
Second, the rebelling students look anything but rebellious. The girls wore dresses and low heels. The boys wore suits and ties.
Third, the man in the middle of the photograph, the one wearing the best suit, is not a student at all, but a young assistant professor of philosophy named John Searle. That Searle would end up in the middle of a pack of rebellious students was prophetic.
Searle’s concerns at the time had little to do with university reform. He was teaching, trying to finish his first book, and feeding a wife and two small sons. He did have a genuine concern for free speech–mainly, he says, the free speech of young assistant professors.
Still, ending up in the middle of a demonstration demanding it would seem out of character if Searle hadn’t gone on to build a career composed mainly of jumping into the middle of places he had no apparent reason to be and turning them upside down.
He’s now 66, established as one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century, noted for his ruthless disregard of affectation and his celebration of common-sense solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The subject himself of scholarly conferences, he is a key figure in at least three disciplines: the philosophy of language, artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness. And in all of them he has at various times caused more ferocious international intellectual debates than he has had time to manage.
He spends weekends in the deep powder of the Sierra. When he isn’t skiing, he might be sailing with his San Francisco socialite pals, the Gettys, or buying Persian rugs with Hollywood buddies Billy Friedkin and Sherry Lansing, or tasting big reds from the little boutique winery he advised for decades. Or he is writing yet another article for a scholarly journal or the New York Review of Books, or pushing to finish his 11th book and contemplating another hundred he has on his list to write.
“I go to the library to get a book on symbolic logic and I find myself reading about the war in the desert or the development of ceramics in Europe. One of my problems,” he says, with a degree of understatement, “is that everything interests me.”
School’s Contentious History
The University of California has been a bellwether of the state’s culture for the last 50 years. Many of the debates about what sort of place California ought to be, and subsequently the nation, played out here: the marches of the ’60s, the Reagan and Brown tug-of-war in the ’70s, Proposition 13-induced retrenchments of the ’80s, and the fierce battles over race, ethnicity and their roles in the social order still ongoing.
All that notwithstanding, the construction of the University of California, and the system that grew around it, is regarded as among the most remarkable achievements in a California century stuffed full of remarkable achievement. No educational undertaking like it has ever been achieved, and seldom attempted, in so short a time span anywhere on Earth.
The development of so rich and vast an intellectual infrastructure joined with the state’s magnificent physical endowment to create a place where almost everything seemed possible, and sometimes was. The scope of achievements of UC researchers, teachers and students–from the invention of the transistor to the creation of television game shows–is stunning.
Searle is representative of UC and its rise to preeminence among world universities. With little or no expectation, propelled mainly by the force of will and fearless intellect, he grew to prominence out of what had been a philosophical backwater and has resolutely remained at the top. When Searle told his fellow dons at Oxford that he was going to leave for California, they were incredulous. One asked, seriously, “But whom could you possibly talk to?”
One might argue that the dons wouldn’t have been so self-assured if Oxford hadn’t had a 600-year head start. The University of California barely existed as a serious educational institution even 100 years ago; it was a single, threadbare little school on the grounds of a small private college with which it had merged. An ambitious building program brought the central Berkeley campus into being over the next 20 years.
The system eventually grew to include 10 campuses, including professional schools for medicine and law and specialized schools of astronomy and oceanography. During its most expansionist phases, whole new universities at San Diego, Irvine and Santa Cruz were created out of empty fields, seemingly overnight. Recruiters cruised through the established campuses looking to hire away whole departments.
When Searle arrived from Oxford in 1959, Berkeley was at the onset of a remarkable era. Earlier goals of becoming the best public university in the country were being challenged by ambitious faculty who wanted the school to be the best university of any kind anywhere, with the best department in every discipline. This seems in retrospect either frightening in the arrogance of its scope or endearing in its naivete. To Searle, the sense of “California exceptionalism” seemed exactly right.
“The idea was the sky’s the limit,” Searle said. “This is where the intellectual challenge is. There was a sense of possibility. I liked that; I liked the ambition.”
One reason the goal seemed to make so much sense to Searle is that it mirrored his intentions for his own work. He was setting out on an overarching program of explaining the relationship of human beings to the universe they occupy.
“The physical world is a perfectly natural place. It consists of particles organized into systems, some of which have evolved consciousness and intentionality. That’s where I come in,” Searle said. “My major project has always been fitting human beings into that physical world.”
This involves in large part explaining what human beings are and how they work: how they think, how they manufacture meaning out of the nonsense vibration of vocal cords, how they experience and come to know the world. These are, as the philosophers say, nontrivial questions. Philosophically, Searle wanted it all.
Street Sensibility, Physical Energy
Searle is of a piece. He thinks like he walks, as if he knows exactly where he is going. In motion, he’s a battering ram on legs. Leaning forward, head tilted slightly down, he walks as if gathering speed for a run at a brick wall. You get the impression that if he actually hit the wall, the wall would know it before he did.
His hair has gone white and is beginning to get wispy. His features are thick, not shy or refined. He has high cheeks, raccooned eyes. He’s compact, solidly put together. Overall, he’s considerably less tucked in than in the pictures of him from the ’60s. The English suits are history, long since replaced by professorial sweaters and khakis. He juggles reading and seeing glasses, the wrong pair of which always seems to be tied around his neck.
His demeanor, his whole way of talking, has about it, one friend says, a street sensibility. And for an eminently serious man, there’s a rascally quality about him, as if the moment you turn your back he might stick out his tongue. It’s a part of his natural, apparently bottomless exuberance.
Searle is an easy guy to argue with and contrarily an easy guy to like. He’s blunt, funny and omnivorous in conversation.
“Just knowing him has enriched my life,” said Friedkin, the movie director.
“I’m not subtle,” Searle says. “The English hill country? Blah. I like the Grand Canyon at sunset, San Francisco Bay at dawn. No chamber music, thanks. I want Beethoven’s Ninth. Give me the whole goddamned thing.”
Searle is the son of a physician and an electrical engineer, two professions governed very much by things in the world of the everyday. He came to spend a career in the much thinner air of philosophy almost by accident.
He grew up in Denver, New York City and Wisconsin, where he finished high school and started college.
“After my sophomore year I wangled my way onto a boat and worked my way to Europe. When the summer ended I didn’t want to go back,” he said. So he searched for scholarships that would let him continue his education somewhere, anywhere, in Europe. In an unusual coup for an undergraduate, he won a Rhodes scholarship and, at 20, arrived in Oxford.
It was, he said, “a dream of intellectual life,” rooted in a group of what were called analytical philosophers, “the best collection of philosophers in one place at one time since Greece.”
Analytical philosophy was a then recent development in the ancient practice of searching for life’s meanings. It centered on the notion that many if not most philosophical problems could be resolved by looking for the underlying logic of the language with which they are expressed. It is, essentially, a search for the true meaning of words and what they imply. Searle stumbled into this nest of intellect and ego and thrived.
“It was tremendously exciting,” he said. “The most important questions were philosophical questions, and we had the feeling that we had connected them all to linguistics.”
He took undergraduate and graduate degrees, and met and married his wife, Dagmar, a fellow philosophy student.
The principal means of doing philosophy at Oxford was through discourse. You talked. Or–and maybe this was where Searle inherited his traditional approach to teaching–you listened. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher of science regarded as one of history’s great talkers, “would give 20-minute disquisitions that ranged over the history of man and would include your work and seem to include you but you never talked.” John Austin was the opposite, seizing on the smallest thing, and attacking.
Eventually, though, Searle grew tired of England and of being an outsider.
“I loved those people, but it’s not my sensibility,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to get off this goddamned island.’ I told them, too. They didn’t take it seriously . . . The idea that you would voluntarily leave was incomprehensible. That you would go back to America was insane.”
Offending Almost Everyone
At Berkeley, Searle began his teaching and writing career within the relatively conventional confines of the philosophy of language, work that was interrupted by the Free Speech Movement. Mario Savio, the movement’s student leader, was one of his students and Savio’s future wife, Suzanne, was his teaching assistant. Searle became directly involved when he was prohibited by university administrators from giving a speech attacking the Communist witch hunts of the era.
“I had a wife 1/8in law school 3/8 and two small children. I didn’t want a revolution,” he said. “Most forms of social change I regarded as vulgar and stupid.”
The movement, however, was not content with its early victories and went into areas far beyond Searle’s interest or agreement. When the university administration was toppled, the new campus authorities approached Searle to help put things back together as an assistant to the chancellor.
As a result, his philosophical work was delayed for years, and he managed to offend just about everybody. “I had no friends on the right to begin with. And the left, they all felt I betrayed their cause.”
Following that came the Vietnam War, with almost continual protests roiling campus life. It was almost impossible to teach, Searle said. Those years left him with a fervent disregard for politics. “If you’re a serious intellectual, you should not be comfortable on the left-right spectrum. The right’s so stupid it’s not even worth discussing. But the left is evil,” he said.
When Searle finally did get back to work, he wrote a series of books that set out new theories of language and meaning. The work was initially rejected as being neither philosophy nor linguistics, but proved to be hugely influential in both fields. The books–“Speech Acts,” “Expression and Meaning” and “Intentionality”–are now standard texts.
Searle remained substantially unknown outside the academy until 1972 when he began contributing to the New York Review of Books, which became the forum for many of the great debates he would have later.
In the meantime, the technology revolution was underway, and with it people began seeing the computer as a powerful new way of viewing the human mind. The mind really is just a computer, they said; it just happens to be located in the brain. If minds are computers, the thinking went, then computers are minds. We can create machines that think.
This gave rise to a new science called artificial intelligence, a group of whose practitioners invited Searle to Yale to discuss their work. Because he knew next to nothing about artificial intelligence, Searle took a book on the subject along to read en route. He was shocked to learn that the people he was going to see believed there was virtually no distinction between a computer and a human thinker.
He later devised and published a famous thought experiment that sought to refute this. It goes like this: A man who does not speak Chinese is put into a room with a bunch of pieces of paper on which are Chinese symbols. He is told people outside the room will pass to him other Chinese symbols and he is given a sheet of instructions specifying which of his Chinese symbols to pass back in correspondence with the ones he receives.
The man does this so well that it seems to people outside the room he must understand Chinese. But he is merely manipulating the symbols according to the instructions he was given. He understands nothing.
The man in the room, Searle said, corresponds to the computer, which also understands nothing and just manipulates symbols. To say such manipulation is thinking is silly, he said.
In publishing the Chinese Room argument in 1980, he sought to eliminate artificial intelligence as a serious enterprise. It is, he said, “a major intellectual disgrace.” The retaliatory attacks were vociferous and still are. Searle is blithe about it.
“I don’t know why people make dumb mistakes,” Searle said. “I do what I can to correct them.”
People have always used machine metaphors to explain the brain, he said. They have likened it to looms, telephones and telegrams. The Greeks compared it to a catapult. The important thing to remember is that these are all metaphors, not to be mistaken for the thing itself.
“Look,” Searle said, “if we make a perfect computer simulation of digestion nobody thinks, ‘Let’s run out and buy a pizza and stuff it in the computer.’ It’s just a model, a picture.
“Here’s the ironic thing. The brain is a machine. It’s not that the computer is a machine and therefore can’t think; it’s that the computer is not enough of a machine.”
Boxing With Words
The syllabus for a recent East Coast university introductory philosophy course displayed, just beneath the course title, pictures of three philosophers: Rene Descartes, David Hume and John Searle.
Searle’s response was classic Searlean: “Who are those other two guys?” He was joking, of course, but he has won the right to make the joke mean something.
Searle is one of the few people who can list in his curriculum vitae not only books by himself, but also books about himself. When he goes to academic conferences now, he is as likely to be the content of the conference as one of many speakers.
This past summer, for example, one such meeting in Belgium was titled, “Hommage a John Searle.”
The best thing about them, apart from the sheer flattery of it, Searle said, is that it gathers your enemies all in one place and, likely as not, pretty soon they’ll forget all about you and start screaming at one another.
“I absolutely love it. I’ve got ’em outnumbered,” Searle said.
That’s the good part. The bad part is that you have to feign interest in what they say.
“Normally, when you go to these things, you don’t have to pay all that much attention. You can listen if you want, fall asleep, or go have a beer. You can’t do any of that if it’s all about you. You have to pretend to pay attention.”
Philosophy is boxing with words, a slugfest of minds. It can be bookish and cerebral and conducted in refined, often abstruse, language. This is true. It is also true that the goal is to beat the other guy’s brains out. The object is to win.
Like boxing’s weight divisions, philosophy is carefully stratified into divisions. The philosophers of language fight in this corner. In that one, the philosophers of science. Those unruly looking guys there are the realists.
John Searle is the Sugar Ray Robinson of philosophers. He fights across classes, even those he has no right being in. The Chinese Room is but one example. Growing out of his bouts with the computer people, his work moved more and more toward the philosophy of mind and consciousness theory.
“I got interested in the brain. I read all the stuff on brain science. My friends said, ‘What are you doing? You haven’t even read Plato,’ ” he said.
The nature of human consciousness has always been a particularly foggy intellectual terrain, a place where every weird theory imaginable has flourished, mainly because there was no way to refute them.
Now, neuroscientists were plumbing the biology of the brain, destroying many fuzzier conceptions. In Searle, they found a philosophical ally who came to view the activities within the brain as the natural result of brain functions. No mind independent of the brain, no spiritual intervention, just simple neural firing.
Searle is so adamant that consciousness is a physical creation of the brain that people like Daniel Dennett, a leading cognitive scientist at Tufts University, accuse him of pigheadedness. Said Dennett: “Self-confidence is an important virtue in philosophy, as in all other fields, but in overdose it can be crippling. Searle is often–maybe even usually–right in his shoot-from-the-hip reactions to the complexities of the world, but when he’s wrong, he’s incorrigible. He just can’t take the other side seriously enough to see what they are saying.”
Dennett’s own theory of consciousness is less definite, but seems to deny that it exists at all. Searle said most cognitive scientists, Dennett included, are “regrettable deadbeats.”
To which Dennett replied:
“For a detailed analysis of the embarrassments in Searle’s position, see my review of 1/8Searle’s book 3/8.”
Searle shrugs: So many critics, so little time. He’s already moved on to the questions of free will and rationality, he says; consciousness is solved as a philosophical problem and has become a matter of science.
“Let the brain stabbers figure out how it works,” he said.
An Academic’s Paradise
Berkeley sits on a gently sloped plain rising to the east from San Francisco Bay. The land climbs steadily in elevation for two miles to the University of California campus. The roads from the university’s neighborhood wind up through some of the most prized neighborhoods in NorRhern California, known collectively as the Berkeley Hills.
Searle and his wife, a retired lawyer, live here in a picture book professor’s house that sits on three-quarters of an acre, tumbling from one room to another, filled with nooks and crannies and books and fine rugs and wines.
Searle has two offices here, two more down on campus plus a table outside in the garden where he wrote his first book, with the help of his young sons who counted the words on each page to make sure he met his daily quota. When the Searles leave home they might go to another house at Half Moon Bay, or a condo at Squaw Valley, or sailing on the Gettys’ yacht.
Asked how he has come to know people like the Gettys, he said: “I just happen to know a lot of people who like to give parties. And I like to go.”
Searle is aware that he has almost inexplicably won some kind of hidden lottery. He is paid, he says, very well these days, and enjoys the results. “This is paradise,” he said. “All this crap about getting kicked out of the garden. I don’t get it. This is paradise. A great university, great skiing. Nowhere else in the world do you get that combination.”
The great promise of the California dream is that it incorporates highs and lows. From surf bums to Nobel economics, it’s all here somewhere. There is a strain, though, between the fantastic success of individuals at the high end and the progress of the whole society. Does the promise still exist if not everyone can have it; or does it at some point become a poison?
Asked about this, about the continuing viability of the dream, Searle said: “We filled up,” for a moment at least acknowledging that even paradise has limits.
The next day, though, Searle is talking about what he really likes about Berkeley. Unlike many renowned professors, he actually enjoys teaching and carries a full load. He was just named UC teacher of the year, a tribute to his unflagging energy and the evident relish with which he attacks his lectures.
His lectures–from the barest of notes–are wild rides with references scattered like mileposts barely glimpsed as you whiz by. A recent undergraduate lecture mentioned two Ludwigs–his dog and Wittgenstein–Chomsky, Freud, flying rabbits, deep powder skiing, UCLA’s assumed inferiority and natural foods. It’s entertaining, a kind of performance, but at a very high plane. There are tough ideas flying, too, the kind that flit in and out of comprehension for the uninitiated.
The kids get it, though, asking tough questions, laughing at the jokes and self-deprecation. He loves them for it. He says when he teaches elsewhere, he misses his Berkeley students, and has to first teach his new students to think like Californians.
He tells a story. A young student came to see him in great distress, explaining that his father was a physicist and his mother a chemist. This meant they were working in two utterly different, even contradictory realms. The theory of relativity, physics at the cosmic scale, are in conflict with quantum mechanics, the laws of the microscale at which chemistry happens.
I have to solve quantum mechanics, he told Searle, unifying it with relativity. And I can’t do it by myself. I need you to help.
Searle was silent and the boy, thinking he knew the reason behind the hesitation, said: Of course, we’ll share the Nobel.
“That’s what I love about Berkeley: the students, kids like that,” Searle said. “He was so confident he could do it, he was already divvying up the prize.”
Searle scoffs at any notion of lowering sights set that high.
“Berkeley has become content to be the world’s best public university,” he said. “That’s not good enough. I didn’t come here for that.”
Searle says this by way of explaining that limits are there to be ignored, that California is exceptional, or at least ought to think itself so.