Searle's Chinese Room

We can distinguish between three ways of ascribing intentional states to things:
  • Some ascriptions of intentional states are wholly metaphorical. For example, we say "The sun is trying to peek through the clouds."

  • Some ascriptions of intentional features to a thing ultimately rest on or derive from something else's intentional features. For example, we say that the newspaper "said that Nixon has resigned." But the newspaper does not itself have any real intentional states. It gets its intentional features from the beliefs and intentions of the people who use the words written in the newspaper. In such a case, the newspaper has what we call borrowed or derived intentionality.

  • Other times, the intentional states we ascribe to a thing do not derive from anything else's intentional features. An example of this is when we say that Mary wants an ice-cream cone. Unlike the newspaper in the previous example, Mary has her own desires and other mental states. She has whatever it takes to create intentionality from scratch. This is what we call original or intrinsic intentionality.

We sometimes ascribe intentional states to computers and other man-made devices. For instance, you might say that your chess-playing computer wants to castle king-side. But your chess-playing computer probably does not have any original intentionality. It is too simple a device. Such intentionality as it has it gets from the intentions and beliefs of its programmers. (Or perhaps we're just "reading" intentionality into the program, in the way we read emotions into baby dolls and stuffed animals.)

However, the functionalist believes that if we have a computer running a sophisticated enough program, then the computer will have its own, original intentional states. This is the view Searle wants to argue against.

Consider the following thought-experiment:

Jack does not understand any Chinese. However, he inhabits a room which contains a book with detailed instructions about how to manipulate Chinese symbols. He does not know what the symbols mean, but he can distinguish them by their shape. If you pass a series of Chinese symbols into the room, Jack will manipulate them according to the instructions in the book, writing down some notes on scratch paper, and eventually will pass back a different set of Chinese symbols. This results in what appears to be an intelligible conversation in Chinese. (In fact, we can suppose that "the room" containing Jack and the book of instructions passes a Turing Test for understanding Chinese.)
According to Searle, Jack does not understand Chinese, even though he is manipulating symbols according to the rules in the book. So manipulating symbols according to those rules is not enough, by itself, to enable one to understand Chinese. It would not be enough, by itself, to enable any system implementing those rules to understand Chinese. Some extra ingredient would be needed. And there's nothing special about the mental state of "understanding" here. Searle would say that implementing the Chinese room software does not, by itself, suffice to give a system any intentional states: no genuine beliefs, or desires, or intentions, or hopes or fears, or anything. It does not matter how detailed and sophisticated that software is. Searle writes:
Such intentionality as computers appear to have is solely in the minds of those who program them and those who use them, those who send in the input and those who interpret the output.

The aim of the Chinese room example was to try to show this by showing that as soon as we put something into the system that really does have intentionality (a man), and we program him with the formal program, you can see that the formal program carries no additional intentionality. It adds nothing, for example, to a man's ability to understand Chinese. (p. 517)

Note the difference between Searle's use of this example, and Block's use of the Homunculi-head and China-brain examples. Searle denies that the Chinese room has any of its own thoughts or intentional states (other than Jack's intentional states). Block, on the other hand, is prepared to grant that the Homunculi-head and China-brain may have intentional states (especially if we consider psychofunctional versions of those systems). Block's main doubt is whether there is "anything it's like" to be one of those systems, that is, whether those systems have any qualitative states like pain or perceptual experience.

The Systems Reply

Searle considers a number of replies to his argument. The most important of these is the Systems Reply. According to the systems reply, Jack does not himself implement the Chinese room software. He is only part of the machinery. The system as a whole--which includes Jack, the book of instructions, Jack's scratch paper, and so on--is what implements the Chinese room software. The functionalist is only committed to saying that this system as a whole understands Chinese. It is compatible with this that Jack does not understand Chinese.

Searle responds to the Systems Reply as follows:

My response to the systems theory is quite simple: let the individual internalize all of these elements of the system. He memorizes the rules in the ledger and the data banks of Chinese symbols, and he does all the calculations in his head. The individual then incorporates the entire system. There isn't anything at all to the system that he does not encompass. We can even get rid of the room and suppose he works outdoors. All the same, he understands nothing of the Chinese, and a fortiori neither does the system, because there isn't anything in the system that isn't in him. If he doesn't understand, then there is no way that the system could understand because the system is just a part of him. (p. 512)
There are several problems with Searle's response.

In the first place, his claim "he understands nothing of the Chinese, and a fortiori neither does the system, because there isn't anything in the system that isn't in him" is a dubious form of inference. This is not a valid inference:

He doesn't weigh five pounds, and a fortiori neither does his heart, because there isn't anything in his heart that isn't in him.
Nor is this:
He wasn't designed by the Pentagon, and a fortiori neither was the Chinese room system, because there isn't anything in the system that isn't in him.
So why should the inference work any better when we're talking about whether the system understands Chinese?

A second, and related, problem is Searle's focus on the spatial location of the Chinese room system. This misdirects attention from the important facts about the relationship between Jack and the Chinese room system. Let me explain.

Some computing systems run software that enables them to emulate other operating systems, and software written for those other operating systems. For instance, you can buy software that lets your Macintosh emulate Windows. Suppose you do this. Now consider two groups of software running on your Macintosh: (i) the combination of the Macintosh OS and all the programs it's currently running (including the emulator program), and (ii) the combination of the Windows OS and the activities of some program it's currently running. We can note some important facts about the relationship between these two pieces of software:

  1. The Windows software is in some sense included or incorporated in that Mac software. The activities of the Mac software bring it about that the Windows software gets implemented.

  2. Nonetheless, the "incorporated" software can be in certain states without the "outer" software thereby being in those states, too. For example: the Windows software may crash and become unresponsive, while the Mac software (including the emulator) keeps running. It's just that the emulator's window would display a crashed Windows program. Another example: the Windows software might be treating Internet Explorer as the frontmost, active program; but--if you don't have the emulator software active in your Mac--the Mac software could be treating Telnet as its frontmost, active program.

It's this notion of one piece of software incorporating another piece of software which is important in thinking about the relation between Jack and the Chinese room software. According to the functionalist, when Jack memorizes all the instructions in the Chinese book, he becomes like the Mac software, and the Chinese room software becomes like the emulated Windows software. Jack fully incorporates the Chinese room software. That does not mean that Jack shares all the states of the Chinese room software, nor that it shares all of his states. If the Chinese room software crashes, Jack may keep going fine. If the Chinese room software is in a state of believing that China was at its cultural peak during the Han dynasty, that does not mean that Jack is also in that state. And so on. In particular, for the Chinese room software to understand some Chinese symbol, it is not required that Jack also understand that symbol.

The fact that when Jack has "internalized" the Chinese room software, it is then spatially internal to Jack, is irrelevant. This just means that the Chinese room software and Jack's software are being run on the same hardware (Jack's brain). It does not mean that any states of the one are thereby states of the other.

In the functionalist's view, what goes on when Jack "internalizes" the Chinese room software is this. Jack's body then houses two distinct intelligent systems--similar to people with multiple personalities. The Chinese room system is intelligent. Jack implements its thinking (like the Mac emulation software implements the activities of some Windows software). But Jack does not thereby think the Chinese room system's thoughts, nor need Jack even be aware of those thoughts. Neither of the intelligent systems in Jack's body is able to directly communicate with the other (by "reading each other's mind," or anything like that). And the Chinese room system has the peculiar feature that its continued existence, and the execution of its intentions, depends on the other system's activities and work schedule.

This would be an odd set-up, were it to occur. (Imagine Jack trying to carry on a discussion with the Chinese room software, with the help of a friend who does the translation!) But it's not conceptually incoherent.

Searle's Positive View

Searle is not a dualist. He believes that thinking is an entirely physical process. He's just arguing that the mere manipulation of formal symbols cannot by itself suffice to produce any genuine thought (that is, any original intentionality). Whether thinking takes place importantly depends on what sort of hardware is doing the symbol-manipulation.

Some sorts of hardware, like human brains, clearly are of the right sort to produce thought. Searle thinks that other sorts of hardware, like the Chinese room, or beer cans tied together with string and powered by windmills, clearly are not of the right sort to produce thought--no matter how sophisticated the software they implement.

Are silicon-based computers made of the right kind of stuff to have thoughts? Perhaps, perhaps not. In Searle's view, we do not know the answer to this. Maybe we will never know. Searle just insists that, if silicon-based computers are capable of thought, this will be in part due to special causal powers possessed by silicon chips. It will not merely be because they are implementing certain pieces of software. For any software the silicon-based computers implement can also be implemented by the Chinese room, which Searle says has no intentional states of its own (other than Jack's intentional states).

Searle writes:

It is not because I am the instantiation of a computer program that I am able to understand English and have other forms of intentionality (I am, I suppose, the instantiation of any number of computer programs), but as far as we know it is because I am a certain sort of organism with a certain biological (i.e. chemical and physical) structure, and this structure, under certain conditions, is causally capable of producing perception, action, understanding, learning, and other intentional phenomena. And part of the point of the present argument is that only something with those causal powers could have that intentionality. Perhaps other physical and chemical processes could produce exactly these effects; perhaps, for example, Martians also have intentionality but their brains are made of different stuff. That is an empirical question, rather like the question whether photosynthesis can be done by something with a chemistry different from that of chlorophyll.

But the main point of the present argument is that no purely formal model will ever be sufficient by itself for intentionality because the formal properties are not by themselves constitutive of intentionality, and they have by themselves no causal powers except the power, when instantiated, to produce the next stage of the formalism when the machine is running. (p. 516)


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