The Chinese Room

Stephen Downes links to this notice about three free Philosophy courses from John Searle who is famous for his Chinese Room thought experiment.  Now Searle may be a great teacher, and the ‘Chinese Room’ may be a useful paedagogical device, but I’m afraid I have difficulty respecting any dsicipline which ever in modern times treated it as anything more than that.

This doesn’t mean that I claim to have any well-founded position on StrongAI or even any minimally useful contribution to make myself. But ever since I first saw the Chinese Room argument (in Scientific American in 1990 I think) I have been unable to imagine how an intelligent person could see it as contributing anything useful to the advancement of the subject (as opposed to the advancement of students’ understanding – for which discussion of it and its various attempted revivals may well be very useful).

The basic argument (as summarized on the SEP page linked above) says:
(1) If Strong AI is true, then there is a program for Chinese such that if any computing system runs that program, that system thereby comes to understand Chinese.
(2) I could run a program for Chinese without thereby coming to understand Chinese.
(3) Therefore Strong AI is false.

and all of the masses of subsequent discussion is devoted to Searle and his defenders trying (without success) to weasel out of the obvious fact that the “I” in (2) is not the same as the “system” in (1).

Some of the defenses amount to introducing new and better arguments against StrongAI. But none of these does anything to alter the fact that the Chinese Room Argument itself is totally worthless and I despair for the integrity of a discipline in which a wrong argument can be marked right just because its conclusion is believed to be true.


Update (added 2013.03.15): This video excerpt  shows that Searle does understand how a system might have properties (such as the liquid state of a body of water) which are not apparent in the instantaneous properties of any of its individual components (eg the molecules – for which I say “instantaneous properties” because it may be possible to infer the environment of an individual molecule by observing properties, such as mean free path, of its trajectory over time). So it becomes doubly puzzling how he can fail to see the irrelevancy of his “Chinese room” argument.

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