Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Chinese Room and the Soul

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In philosophy, the Chinese room thought experiment is a famous argument against the view (called the strong AI thesis) that an appropriately programmed is capable of consciousness, literal understanding, and other cognitive states. This thought experiment can also be used to argue for the existence of the soul (by which I mean the nonphysical essence of oneself).

The Chinese Room Thought Experiment

An argument against strong AI was originally put forth by the American philosopher John R. Searle in 1980. One slightly modified version of it goes like this. Suppose John doesn’t understand Chinese, but is locked in a room that is fed strips of paper slipped underneath the door written in Chinese. John has a rulebook, which is effectively a computer program, for transforming the characters into binary code (much like how text is represented in binary code in computers), and after doing certain mathematical operations in accordance to the rules of the rulebook, he writes down Chinese symbols on a strip of paper with a pen and slips it back underneath the door. Unbeknownst to John, he is receiving questions and he is outputting answers in such a way to perfectly mimic a native speaker of Chinese, even though John doesn’t understand Chinese at all.

In spite of the results (Chinese questions answered with Chinese answers), neither the man, nor the rulebook, nor the pen, nor the paper understand Chinese. It seems highly implausible that the rulebook possesses a consciousness that understands Chinese in spite of it being a program that simulates a Chinese speaker when it is “run.” It likewise seems highly implausible to think that the combination of the paper, the rulebook, the man, and the pen somehow together generate a separate consciousness that understands Chinese; the idea that the combination does indeed generate a separate consciousness that understands Chinese seems more like sorcery than technology. Thus it appears that it takes more than merely running a program to create consciousness.

The Chinese Room and the Soul

The Chinese room though experiment also gives us grounds for thinking that it’s at least possible to create a creature (or robot) that looks and behaves like a human but has no consciousness, and this seems to lend some rational grounds for thinking that consciousness requires something fundamentally different from the mere arrangement of mindless bits of matter, even though Searle himself believes the human mind is purely physical.

To illustrate, imagine a man whose goal is to create a conscious entity. His first attempt is to stack three bricks together and then triumphantly conclude, “This stack of bricks has consciousness!” Such an assertion does not seem reasonable. The man’s second attempt is to create an extremely complex brick-and-mortar structure consisting of many trillions of bricks. This attempt also seems like it would fail; so mere complexity appears insufficient. Yet if atoms can be arranged in such a way as to mimic the actions of a conscious being without producing consciousness, there doesn’t seem like there could be any arrangement of matter that would do the job. After all, since the input-output behavior is present, what’s the missing ingredient in producing consciousness? A certain arrangement of bricks?

The above argument is a variety of a zombie argument. A functional zombie is one that is functionally identical to human beings but physically different. In some zombie arguments though, the zombie isn’t merely behaviorally identical to a human but also physically identical (having the same physical properties but lacking consciousness). Whether those zombies are logically possible is another topic. That said, I think the possibility of functional zombies casts doubt on the mind being purely physical. Again, if it is possible for moving atoms to mimic the actions of a conscious being without producing consciousness, what more is needed? By my lights, we need something more and fundamentally different from the mere movement of mindless bits of matter; we need a nonphysical essence.


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  2. These sorts of thought experiments don't seem to useful IMO. Consciousness could be like when he hear sounds. When you hear a voice, or a plucked guitar string, you hear one tone. But in fact, the string is emitting many pitches from it's many modes of vibration. Your auditory system "fuses" these together into one tone. In Psychoacoustics, this is called tonal fusion. How we'll your auditory system can fuse a timbre depends interestingly enough on many different factors, like how near a timbres overtones match the harmonic series, the overtones decaying at similar rates etc. Why couldn't consciousness be something like this? All our sensory data could be combined in an interesting way, giving rise to consciousness. I'm sure you've heard that we can take low resolution photos of "thoughts", actually just images we are thinking about, like the guy thinking about Steve Martin. Is is that hard to imagine our being conscious of the imagery in our head in the same way that audio gets fused?