Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Consciousness, explanatory inversion, and cognitive science

John R. Searlea1

a1 Department of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, Electronic mail:


Cognitive science typically postulates unconscious mental phenomena, computational or otherwise, to explain cognitive capacities. The mental phenomena in question are supposed to be inaccessible in principle to consciousness. I try to show that this is a mistake, because all unconscious intentionality must be accessible in principle to consciousness; we have no notion of intrinsic intentionality except in terms of its accessibility to consciousness. I call this claim the “Connection Principle.” The argument for it proceeds in six steps. The essential point is that intrinsic intentionality has aspectual shape: Our mental representations represent the world under specific aspects, and these aspectual features are essential to a mental state's being the state that it is.

Once we recognize the Connection Principle, we see that it is necessary to perform an inversion on the explanatory models of cognitive science, an inversion analogous to the one evolutionary biology imposes on preDarwinian animistic modes of explanation. In place of the original intentionalistic explanations we have a combination of hardware and functional explanations. This radically alters the structure of explanation, because instead of a mental representation (such as a rule) causing the pattern of behavior it represents (such as rule-governed behavior), there is a neurophysiological cause of a pattern (such as a pattern of behavior), and the pattern plays a functional role in the life of the organism. What we mistakenly thought were descriptions of underlying mental principles in, for example, theories of vision and language were in fact descriptions of functional aspects of systems, which will have to be explained by underlying neurophysiological mechanisms. In such cases, what looks like mentalistic psychology is sometimes better construed as speculative neurophysiology. The moral is that the big mistake in cognitive science is not the overestimation of the computer metaphor (though that is indeed a mistake) but the neglect of consciousness.