The Chinese Room Revisited

Whole forests have been wasted in the effort to refute the Chinese Room Thought Experiment proposed by Searle in 1980 and refined (really derived from axioms) in 1990. The experiment envisages a room in which an English speaker sits, equipped with a book of instructions in English. Through one window messages in Chinese are passed on to him (in the original experiment, two types of messages). He is supposed to follow the instructions and correlate the messages received with other pieces of paper, already in the room, also in Chinese. This collage he passes on to the outside through yet another window. The comparison with a computer is evident. There is input, a processing unit and output. What Searle tried to demonstrate is that there is no need to assume that the central processing unit (the English speaker) understands (or, for that matter, performs any other cognitive or mental function) the input or the output (both in Chinese). Searle generalized and stated that this shows that computers will never be capable of thinking, being conscious, or having other mental states. In his picturesque language ?syntax is not a sufficient base for semantics?. Consciousness is not reducible to computations. It takes a certain ?stuff? (the brain) to get these results.

Objections to the mode of presentation selected by Searle and to the conclusions that he derived were almost immediately raised. Searle fought back effectively. But throughout these debates a few points seemed to have escaped most of those involved.

First, the English speaker inside the room himself is a conscious entity, replete and complete with mental states, cognition, awareness and emotional powers. Searle went to the extent of introducing himself to the Chinese Room (in his disputation). Whereas Searle would be hard pressed to prove (to himself) that the English speaker in the room is possessed of mental states ? this is not the case if he himself were in the room. The Cartesian maxim holds: "Cogito, ergo sum". But this argument ? though valid ? is not strong. The English speaker (and Searle, for that matter) can easily be replaced in the thought experiment by a Turing machine. His functions are recursive and mechanical.

But there is a much more serious objection. Whomever composed the book of instructions must have been conscious, possessed of mental states and of cognitive processes. Moreover, he must also have had a perfect understanding of Chinese to have authored it. It must have been an entity capable of thinking, analysing, reasoning, theorizing and predicting in the deepest senses of the words. In other words : it must have been intelligent. So, intelligence (we will use it hitherto as a catchphrase for the gamut of mental states) was present in the Chinese Room. It was present in the book of instructions and it was present in the selection of the input of Chinese messages and it was present when the results were deciphered and understood. An intelligent someone must have judged the results to have been coherent and ?right?. An intelligent agent must have fed the English speaker with the right input. A very intelligent, conscious, being with a multitude of cognitive mental states must have authored the ?program? (the book of instructions). Depending on the content of correlated inputs and outputs, it is conceivable that this intelligent being was also possessed of emotions or an aesthetic attitude as we know it. In the case of real life computers ? this would be the programmer.

But it is the computer that Searle is talking about ? not its programmer, or some other, external source of intelligence. The computer is devoid of intelligence, the English speaker does not understand Chinese (=?Mentalese?)? not the programmer (or who authored the book of instructions). Yet, is the SOURCE of the intelligence that important ? Shouldn?t we emphasize the LOCUS (site) of the intelligence, where it is stored and used?

Surely, the programmer is the source of any intelligence that a computer possesses. But is this relevant? If the computer were to effectively make use of the intelligence bestowed upon it by the programmer ? wouldn't we say that it is intelligent? If tomorrow we will discover that our mental states are induced in us by a supreme intelligence (known to many as God) ? should we then say that we are devoid of mental states? If we were to discover in a distant future that