On Chinese Rooms, Searle, and human arrogance

Posted: November 17, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been branching out my reading lately. I figure I need to re-establish my base of knowledge on identity and kinds of minds, so I figured I would start with John Searle, particularly his book Minds, Brains and Science. Within this book, he supposedly solves the mind/body problem, then goes on to talk about why computers can’t be intelligent. He does this with his famous Chinese Room thought experiment.

The idea of the experiment is that if someone who did not understand were in a room, and people put messages in Chinese through a slot on one side of the room, the guy inside could use a sort of ‘code book’ telling him what the proper response was (also in Chinese) and he could then send those messages out of the room, and people outside might be convinced that he understands Chinese.

I’ve got a couple problems with this. I’ll start from the beginning.

While Searle says that “if going through the appropriate computer program for understanding Chinese is not enough to give you an understanding of Chinese, then it is not enough to give any other digital computer an understanding of Chinese” and that “If you don’t understand Chinese, then no other computer could understand Chinese because no digital computer, just by virtue of running a program, has anything that you don’t have” (33). I just flat out disagree with this, but to explain how, I think I have a counter-thought experiment.

Imagine you are sitting in front of a chess board. You’ve never played chess, have no idea what the pieces are or how they move. Over the phone, a chess master starts giving you instructions. You have a paper with pictures to tell you what he means by “rook” or “knight,” and the squares are labeled. You make the moves he tells you to, and manage to beat anyone who sits down to play with you.

Replace the phone with a hidden ear piece, so that no one knows that the moves aren’t coming from you. Anyone on the outside would assume that you know how to play chess really well. But you don’t. You have no idea. You’re just following a program, the moves that the chess master is telling you to make. So you, like the guy in the Chinese room, don’t know what’s happening. but the program (in this case the chess master) DOES know what’s happening. It DOES understand chess. It DOES know how to play.

The problem, I think, comes from an egocentric view of the original thought experiment. The human inside the room must be a rational being, an intentional one who actually matters. Why? Because they’re human. But in this capacity, they’re not acting as the brain of the program. They’re acting as the hands.

Searle argues that the program doesn’t understand semantics, only syntax. He writes that “There is no way that the system can get from the syntax to the semantics. I, as the central processing unit have no way of figuring out what any of these symbols means; but then neither does the whole system” (34). Part of this I agree with: he has no way of figuring out what any of these symbols means. But I argue that they system DOES. Mainly because I do not agree that he is the central processing unit.

Let’s get back to the chess example. Put it all in one body. I sit down at a chess board. I decide to move my pawn to c4. My brain (the processor/program) sends a message to the hand/arm, which reaches down and picks up the pawn in front of the Queenside Knight, moving it forward two spaces. If my hand/arm were an intentional being who had its own thoughts, it would have no idea why it was doing what it did. It would only know that it was following a set of rules. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t know.

I’ll try a more direct example. When someone says something to me in Chinese (assuming I understand it), the image or sound first goes in through one slot (eyes or ears, respectively), and are carried to the brain (the program, the code book). The brain runs the program and sends another stimulus out through another slot (the mouth). Do the eyes, ears, or mouth understand Chinese? No. Do the neurons that carry the messages to and from the brain understand Chinese? No. Does the entire system? Yes.

So in Searle’s Chinese room, the guy doing the work is NOT the central processor. The code book is the central processor. The guy is just doing the work, not engaging in understanding.

If we were to insist that humans have to be the central part of any process, that the human mind MUST be a part of this understanding, then Searle’s ideas follow just fine. But take away that arrogance, and it falls apart.

So while he says that “if we are talking about having mental states, having a mind, all of these simulations are simply irrelevent[sic]. It doesn’ t matter how good technology is, or how rapid the calculations made by the computer are. If it really is a computer, its operations have to be defined syntactically, whereas consciousness, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and all the rest of it involves more than syntax. Those features, by definition, the computer is unable to duplicate however powerful may be its ability to simulate” (37, italics in original), he’s just flat out wrong.

Human thought works the same way computers do. We just do it all at once and faster. But when I get a stimulus, I put it through a series of syntactic rules, and react accordingly. These rules can change (which might be a place to argue that computers aren’t intelligent: they can’t change their rules), but my thinking is no different from a computer’s.

I still like Searle and the things he says. I just can’t agree with his Chinese Room thought experiment. It just doesn’t follow.

  1. […] that he thought would prove that computers would never be as smart as humans. I disagree, and have written about that disagreement before. But it does have bearing on my topic for today. I think the major mistake that Searle made […]

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