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The overriding question

Can most philosophical questions be reduced to just one basic question? John Searle thinks so:

There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy. As a preliminary formulation, we can say the question is: How do we account for our conceptions of ourselves as a certain sort of human being in a universe that we know consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force. More precisely: Given that any sort of Cartesianism or other form of metaphysical dualism is out of the question, how do we give an account of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, speech-act performing, ethical, freewill-possessing, political, and social animals in a world that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless brute physical particles. Most of the important questions of philosophy are variations on this single question. So, the question of free will and determinism is: How can we have free action in a universe that is determined in accordance with causal laws? The problem of ethics is: How can there be an ethical right and wrong in a world of meaningless physical particles? The question of consciousness is: How can unconscious bits of matter in the skull cause consciousness, and how can irreducibly subjective states of consciousness exist in an entirely “physical” world? The question in the philosophy of language is: How can brute physical sounds that come out of a speaker’s mouth constitute the performance of meaningful speech acts? The question for society is: How can there be an objective reality of money, property, government, and marriage when all of these phenomena only exist, in some sense, because we believe that they exist? How is it possible that human beings can, by their subjective thought processes, create an objective social reality? And so on with other philosophical questions that are variations on the central question.

The main problem with this theory though is it leaves out large swathes of contemporary philosophy. There are entire philosophical disciplines that don’t seem to fit into the picture. Take, say, practical ethics. Questions like “Is abortion morally permissible?” are simply not “variations on the central question”. What Searle calls “the problem of ethics” is more like the problem of metaethics, or, even more precisely, the problem of moral ontology. Or take philosophy of science, with questions like “How can a scientific theory be discarded and replaced by a new one?” Or take metaphilosophy, with questions like “Is there one overriding question in contemporary philosophy?” The list goes on.

Secondly, I have no idea why Searle writes off “any form of metaphysical dualism”. How about dualists in philosophy of mind, like David Chalmers? How about moral non-naturalists, like Russ Shafer-Landau? How about platonists about mathematical objects, like Frege? There are lots of prominent contemporary philosophers who simply don’t agree that our world “consists entirely of mindless, meaningless brute physical particles”.

And finally, Searle also seems to exclude all kinds of eliminativist and error theories. For example, the question “How can we have free action in a universe that is determined in accordance with causal laws?” is sometimes answered with “We can’t, free will doesn’t exist”. But the way Searle puts it suggests he thinks of free will as something that philosophers have to explain, not as something they can deny. And the same goes for denying moral properties (take, say, Richard Joyce), phenomenal consciousness (take, say, Keith Frankish), meaning (take Quine) and so on. In short: the overriding question clearly exists, but it only seems to override a tiny section of contemporary philosophy that Searle is interested in.

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