I, robot vs. the Chinese room experiment

Some years ago I stumbled across John Searle’s The Rediscovery of Mind.  I still remember the feeling of utter surprise.  Here was a philosopher whose prose didn’t resemble a bad translation of Hegel or Derrida.  His ideas were stated limpidly, but in vigorous American English.  His powers of logic were extraordinary, but always applied to problems I could grasp, throwing light on multiple aspects of ordinary life.

Searle wrote about the confusion created by the Cartesian separation of mind from body, and the perversity of thinkers who, enthralled by what they believed was the pure materialism of science, have tried to deny the existence of our inner life.  He called these people out by name, quarrelled with them, refuted them:  he was right in his positions, but he also wrote brilliantly, and I felt pretty smart myself on finishing the book.

Since then, I have read every Searle book I can get my hands on, and I recommend them to anyone with an itch for philosophy.  In Intentionality, a basic Searle read, he plots out in wonderful detail the structure of the subjective mind.  In The Construction of Social Reality, which I consider to be his most important book, Searle explores the logic and reality of seemingly subjective social institutions, like money or marriage.  In Rationality in Action, he makes the most persuasive case I have read in support of the motive power of reason over human behavior.

Searle never condescends to a reader.  When a technical term is required, he gives fair warning, defines the term clearly, then expects the reader to follow.  I have found it always worth the trip.  (Those wishing for a less technical introduction to Searle should try Minds, Brains, and Science, his 1984 Reith Lectures.)

With his latest work, Mind: A Brief Introduction, Searle returns to his origins in philosophy of mind, producing a deceptively simple primer on the subject.  One might expect some repetition of earlier material, and so there is, but less than might be expected:  Searle is ever reformulating old puzzles, arguing relentlessly with others and with himself in a transparent struggle to get at the truth.  Mind is a joy to read.  I won’t try a full-blown review of the book here, since my competence in the subject is, at best, shaky.  Instead, let me concentrate on a couple of themes that are important to this blog.

Not long ago, most cognitive scientists and philosophers held that the thoughts in our heads were of no importance in terms of behavior.  The same applied to our subjective feelings and perceptions:   these, it was maintained, were a kind of byproduct, the exhaust fumes of the brain’s engine, with no causal connection to the way we behave.  Brilliant people came to this bizarre idea by converting a metaphor into a theory of how the mind works.  They thought it worked like a computer.  The neurobiological structure of the brain was the hardware (or “wetware”), the human mind, the way we actually think, was the program running inside the brain-machine.

This sounds plausible and harmless enough, but it has implications.  If the brain is hardware and the mind software, mental life is strictly a matter of inputs and outputs.  The environment generates a signal – say, a truck bearing down on me – and the moment I perceive the signal, the program is activated, starting a chain of billiard-ball type causation that ends in behavior – say, my leaping out of the way.  There is no throughput, what Searle calls the “gap,” in which I reflect, however briefly, on the best course of action.  My internal reflections are irrelevant to this account.  I probably do feel like I have such reflections, but they never influence the way I act.  I am really a very complex, sophisticated robot, programed to deal with a huge range of possible scenarios, but ultimately just responding to specific commands from my environment.

Of course, I don’t feel like a robot.  At least some of the time, I do experience something like a gap, and I have a firm belief that what transpires there affects my actions.  To which cognitive scientists would reply:  What’s the difference?  Very likely having these feelings is exactly what it feels like to have a computer-like brain.

Enter John Searle.  He proposed a thought experiment that has become famous (googling “Chinese room experiment” gets more than 700,000 hits).  The experiment goes like this:  imagine a man in a room who knows not one word of Chinese, but has a rule book, a program, that allows him to answer questions in Chinese.  Questions come in one window of the room, answers go out another.  To outsiders, the man in the room knows Chinese perfectly.

This, of course, is the “Turing test” for artificial intelligence:  if an expert observer believes he is comunicating with a human mind, then he is, regardless of the subjective feelings or lack thereof of his interlocutor.  The man in the Chinese room passed the Turing test with flying colors, yet didn’t understand the Chinese language; and as Searle rightly maintains, the human experience both of language and of understanding is very different from this.

You can see the difference between computation and real understanding if you imagine what it is like for me also to answer questions in English.  Imagine that in the same room I am given questions in English, which I then answer.  From the outside my answers to the English and Chinese questions are equally good.  I pass the Turing test in both.  But from the inside, there is a tremendous difference.  What is the difference exactly?  In English, I understand what the words mean, in Chinese I understand nothing.  In Chinese, I am just a computer.

The Chinese room experiment has been criticized, probably correctly, for imperfect  logic, but such criticism is besides the point.  In a flash of intuition, this parable demonstrates something every waitress and car mechanic knows, and only a philosopher would doubt:  that the thoughts in our heads matter, that understanding differs from computation, and that any account of the human mind must address what Searle calls its “first-person” aspect.  This too has implications.

I have noted before the tendency, overwhelmingly dominant in the last century, to explain human behavior in terms of great, invisible forces, over which the individual has no more command than a billiard ball has of its motion.  A Newtonian mechanics of human activity is not only possible but necessary, given what we know about the universe – that is the thinking that informed Marxism and other socialist doctrines, and still informs much of the public discussion in this country.

I will cite just one example.  Jared Diamond, on examining 13,000 years of human history in his magisterial Guns, Germs, and Steel, concluded that geography is destiny:  that, quite literally, if the Europeans had ended up in Australia, they would have remained hunter gatherers, while the Aborigines, had they been fortunate enough to inherit Europe, would have gone on to conquer America.  For Diamond, as for many others, human behavior really is a question of inputs and outputs.  To improve our lot – to end crime or addiction, say – we need only  manipulate the inputs, and so fix our behavioral outputs.

This is pre-Chinese room thinking.  Subjectivity, our first-person experience of the world, carries many theoretical problems, but its operation is apparent enough.  We consider many inputs, we place them in the gap and reflect on them, and we act on reasons that are often based on such reflection.  In consequence, manipulated environments produce a wide range of responses, many of them unforeseen and, I would insist, unforeseeable.

We each have a unique perspective on our common reality.  Individual differences are small, but their consequences are large.  This is a source of embarrassment to those, like Diamond, who wish to construct a “science of man” complete with a mechanics of history, but it is an objective fact for all that.

Subjectivity is the womb of variation and indeterminacy in human behavior.  That is the first step in a long, eternally incomplete journey toward toward both freedom and morality.  John Searle, who in my opinion flies with the highest minds in the history of philosophy, has done much to unclutter our way for that all-important first step.



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