Friday, February 04, 2005

The Chinese virtual room

So I've been asked to give my account of the mind-body problem. Kind of a huge question (quick answer: dualism is wrong, the brain creates the mind, and artificial intelligence is at least theoretically possible), but I started writing something a while back about Searle's "Chinese room" argument, and this seems like a good opportunity to finish it.

Many years ago, the philosopher John Searle made a much-discussed argument about what a mind really is, based on the idea of the "Chinese room":
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
The argument was intended to refute computer pioneer Alan Turing's conception of understanding, which was that if a computer could carry on a conversation with a human being such that no one could tell it was a computer, the computer really would understand language and should be considered intelligent. Searle replied that the person in the Chinese room does not understand Chinese, so neither would a computer following a similar set of instructions (i.e., a computer program).

I like the Virtual Mind reply, which is related to the Systems Reply. The Systems Reply is that even though the person in the Chinese room doesn't understand Chinese, the system made up of the room + the person + the rulebook does understand. This is vulnerable to Searle's counterreply, that the person could just memorize the rulebook, yet still wouldn't understand Chinese.

The key to understanding why Searle is wrong there lies in the idea of virtual machines. This is an idea familiar to most computer users: if you have a Mac but want to run Windows-only programs, you run a Windows "emulator" that creates a virtual Windows machine on top of your Mac. Even though the virtual Windows machine is contained within the Mac, it still has states that the Mac does not have. For example, the virtual Windows machine could crash, even though the Mac software underneath is still running fine. Similarly, the "virtual Chinese-speaking mind" that the English speaker implements by memorizing the rulebook can understand Chinese even though the English speaker underneath cannot understand Chinese. (Similarly, the virtual Chinese mind probably doesn't understand English, even though the English mind underneath does.)

An afterthought: a friend of mine recently pointed out that the "Chinese room" is not only wrong, it's also kind of racist and offensive: namely, the selection of Chinese as a language so alien and bizarre that it's the perfect intuition pump for seeing a lack of "understanding." Especially the characterization of Chinese characters as "squiggle squiggle" and "squoggle squoggle." It's part of the whole Orientalist thing, the Asian as the permanent, unassimilably exotic Other. (Related to the all-too-common exchange: "Where are you from?" "New York." "No, where are you really from?" as if a Chinese-American could not be a true New Yorker.) Also especially because the "Chinese room" argument is descended from the "Chinese nation" or "Chinese gym" argument (i.e., if everyone in China made phone calls in a pattern that mimicked the neural state of a human being in pain, would there be a conscious mind created that was in pain?) - which summons up images of robotic, overcrowded hordes of "Chinamen." (Yellow peril, anyone?)

(Or maybe I'm just being paranoid...)

27 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right on that Searle's distinction loses any meaning as the complexity of the situation increases. A person who memorizes a very long set of instructions for mapping input to output in effect has "learned" the map. No, stronger-- HAS learned the map. It's identical. Searle's English speaker would eventually even deduce meta-rules about the structure of the map, like a waitress at a cafe who knows that a customer reeking of alcohol wants his coffee black.  

Posted by gaw3

2/05/2005 07:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Searle would say the example could work for a native Chinese speaker who knows no English. He just wanted two languages that are different enough that someone who speaks one and doesn't know of the other one at all will not even necessarily have to think of it as a language at all, since it doensn't even look like the one language this person has seen.

The reason he selected China for the Chinese nation/Chinese army example is because it's got so many people, a completely independent reason from why he chose Chinese for the language example. Neither has anything to do with the culture being permanently exotic. If someone wants to summon up the images you mention, maybe that shows some residual racism on their part, but I don't think those have anything to do with why Searle chose China and Chinese in the two cases. 

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

3/03/2005 09:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not necessarily accusing Searle of racism - I'm just saying that I find the analogy of the Chinese room/gym/nation to be distasteful because it does in fact play on these racist images. 

Posted by Andrew

3/06/2005 12:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know that I would necessarily accuse Searle of employing racist images. I think, and considering when it was written, he was stating that it is only alien in relation to the western point of view and not bizarre in and of itself.

Also, I have a question, because it's been a while since I did anything with philosophy of mind and A; does the system really "understand" simply because it produces the correct result? Can't something operate without understanding?  

Posted by Anonymous

6/21/2005 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

On the last comment - well, clearly that is the crux of the matter. Searle thinks the system doesn't understand, and I think it does. One way to look at it is to realize Searle has somewhat understated how incredibly complicated this rulebook has to be. It really has to be complicated enough to completely reproduce the thought patterns of a normal Chinese speaker (because the conversation partner outside the room won't be fooled by mechanical responses!). When you get to that huge level of complexity, you really are approaching something like the human brain, and the intuition pump of "he's just mindlessly following the rulebook" doesn't work so well anymore.

Here's another example: Imagine that instead of neurons firing in your brain through neurotransmitters and all that, you had a tiny little demon who ran around so that every time a neuron fired, he would go there and excite the neuron's postsynaptic partner. This thought experiment is exactly analogous to the Chinese room. Clearly, the demon in your brain has no idea what you're thinking of, and can't be said to "understand" the conversations you have. Yet, your brain is still firing normally, so you think just as normally as you always do - the "system" understands.

7/21/2005 10:15:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I think that the rulebook has to be more complex even than that. Isn’t Searle’s rulebook static? That is, doesn’t it have a rule for every possible question that could be asked in every possible conversation that could be had? Otherwise you would need to add memory and thinking (information processing anyway) about the current situation which basically sounds like you are talking about a mind. To avoid this, the rulebook would have to be vastly larger than whatever a single human brain has.

When you think of the Room as something small and simple, the thought experiment seems powerful. But I cannot imagine this rulebook in the slightest, so the experiment leaves me cold.

8/17/2005 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, learning and memory would indeed have to be implemented by the rulebook... But I don't suppose this is a huge problem for the Chinese room, as Searle invented it to rebuke artificial intelligence - and AI computers surely have stores of memory. It would be a conceptually simple modification to add a (huge) artist's easel into the room, where the book would instruct the man in the room to scribble Chinese symbols (or whatever) on the easel to "remember" things, and the book would have rules for interpreting the symbols on the easel.

You are perfectly correct that the more realistic the Chinese room becomes, the less plausible the "the system doesn't understand" reading becomes. This is the problem with Searle's argument.

8/18/2005 02:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Searle's argument is decisive against the metaphysical functionalism thesis, if you don't think to hard about what is functionally necessary for 'consciousness.' I think that if all of the necessary functional "steps" (whatever those are) were mimicked by the Chinese room, then you actually would get consciousness.

Calling the thought experiment racist is pretty lame...there are too many other cases of actual racism out there for anyone to be complaining about Searle's esoteric thought experiment.

2/14/2006 07:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Iaom said...

The brain is a system.. you answering someones questions about what is going on is only that, a system. An AI with a program that sounds completely human and can say things wihout you thinking it was a machine is intelligence. It is not natural intelligence but artificial ofcourse. There is nothing more to your brain but a program that can indeed think. I don't think the chinese room makes much sense. The person would indeed not understand any of what he was doing.. but he would be doing the thinking for the system.

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