The Chinese Room Argument
Excerpt from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Chinese room argument - John Searle's (1980a) thought
experiment and associated (1984) derivation - is one of the best known
and widely credited counters to claims of artificial intelligence (AI),
i.e., to claims that computers do or at least can (someday
might) think. According to Searle's original presentation, the argument
is based on two truths: brains cause minds, and syntax doesn't
suffice for semantics. Its target, Searle dubs "strong AI":
"according to strong AI," according to Searle, "the computer
is not merely a tool in the study of the mind, rather the appropriately
programmed computer really is a mind in the sense that computers
given the right programs can be literally said to understand and
have other cognitive states" (1980a, p. 417). Searle contrasts "strong
AI" to "weak AI". According to weak AI, according to Searle,
computers just simulate thought, their seeming understanding isn't
real (just as-if) understanding, their seeming calculation as-if calculation,
etc.; nevertheless, computer simulation is useful for studying the
mind (as for studying the weather and other things).
The Chinese Room Thought Experiment.
"strong AI," Searle (1980a) asks you to imagine yourself a monolingual
English speaker "locked in a room, and given a large batch of Chinese
writing" plus "a second batch of Chinese script" and "a
set of rules" in English "for correlating the second batch with
the first batch." The rules "correlate one set of formal symbols
with another set of formal symbols"; "formal" (or "syntactic")
meaning you "can identify the symbols entirely by their shapes."
A third batch of Chinese symbols and more instructions in English enable
you "to correlate elements of this third batch with elements of the
first two batches" and instruct you, thereby, "to give back certain
sorts of Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response."
Those giving you the symbols "call the first batch 'a script'
[a data structure with natural language processing applications], "they
call the second batch 'a story', and they call the third batch 'questions';
the symbols you give back "they call . . . 'answers to the questions'";
"the set of rules in English . . . they call 'the program'":
you yourself know none of this. Nevertheless, you "get so good
at following the instructions" that "from the point of
view of someone outside the room" your responses are "absolutely
indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers."
Just by looking
at your answers, nobody can tell you "don't speak a word of Chinese."
Producing answers "by manipulating uninterpreted formal symbols,"
it seems "[a]s far as the Chinese is concerned," you "simply
behave like a computer"; specifically, like a computer running Schank
and Abelson's (1977) "Script Applier Mechanism" story understanding
program (SAM), which Searle's takes for his example. But in imagining himself
to be the person in the room, Searle thinks it's "quite obvious .
. . I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and
outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker,
and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing."
"For the same reasons," Searle concludes, "Schank's computer
understands nothing of any stories" since "the computer has nothing
more than I have in the case where I understand nothing" (1980a, p.
Furthermore, since in the thought experiment "nothing . . .
depends on the details of Schank's programs," the same "would
apply to any [computer] simulation" of any "human mental
phenomenon" (1980a, p. 417); that's all it would be, simulation. Contrary
to "strong AI", then, no matter how intelligent-seeming a computer
behaves and no matter what programming makes it behave that
way, since the symbols it processes are meaningless (lack semantics) to
it, it's not really intelligent. It's not actually thinking. Its internal
states and processes, being purely syntactic, lack semantics (meaning);
so, it doesn't really have intentional (i.e., meaningful) mental
Replies and Rejoinders.
Having laid out the
example and drawn the aforesaid conclusion, Searle considers several replies
offered when he "had the occasion to present this example to a number
of workers in artificial intelligence" (1980a, p. 419). Searle offers
rejoinders to these various replies.
The Systems Reply suggests that the Chinese room example
encourages us to focus on the wrong agent: the thought experiment encourages
us to mistake the would-be subject-possessed-of-mental-states for the person
in the room. The systems reply grants that "the individual who
is locked in the room does not understand the story" but maintains
that "he is merely part of a whole system, and the system does
understand the story" (1980a, p. 419: my emphases). Searle's main
rejoinder to this is to "let the individual internalize all . . .
of the system" by memorizing the rules and script and doing the lookups
and other operations in their head. "All the same," Searle maintains,
"he understands nothing of the Chinese, and . . . 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 the system could understand
because the system is just part of him" (1980a, p. 420). Searle also
insists the systems reply would have the absurd consequence that "mind
is everywhere." For instance, "there is a level of description
at which my stomach does information processing" there being "nothing
to prevent [describers] from treating the input and output of my digestive
organs as information if they so desire." Besides, Searle contends,
it's just ridiculous to say "that while [the] person doesn't understand
Chinese, somehow the conjunction of that person and bits of paper might"
(1980a, p. 420).
The Robot Reply - along lines favored by contemporary causal
theories of reference - suggests what prevents the person in the Chinese
room from attaching meanings to (and thus presents them from understanding)
the Chinese ciphers is the sensory-motoric disconnection of the ciphers
from the realities they are supposed to represent: to promote the "symbol"
manipulation to genuine understanding, according to this causal-theoretic
line of thought, the manipulation needs to be grounded in the outside world
via the agent's causal relations to the things to which the ciphers, as
symbols, apply. If we "put a computer inside a robot" so
as to "operate the robot in such a way that the robot does something
very much like perceiving, walking, moving about," however, then the
"robot would," according to this line of thought, "unlike
Schank's computer, have genuine understanding and other mental states"
(1980a, p. 420). Against the Robot Reply Searle maintains "the same
experiment applies" with only slight modification. Put the room, with
Searle in it, inside the robot; imagine "some of the Chinese symbols
come from a television camera attached to the robot" and that "other
Chinese symbols that [Searle is] giving out serve to make the motors inside
the robot move the robot's legs or arms." Still, Searle asserts, "I
don't understand anything except the rules for symbol manipulation."
He explains, "by instantiating the program I have no [mental] states
of the relevant [meaningful, or intentional] type. All I do is follow formal
instructions about manipulating formal symbols." Searle also charges
that the robot reply "tacitly concedes that cognition is not solely
a matter of formal symbol manipulation" after all, as "strong
AI" supposes, since it "adds a set of causal relation[s] to the
outside world" (1980a, p. 420).
The Brain Simulator Reply asks us to imagine that the program
implemented by the computer (or the person in the room) "doesn't represent
information that we have about the world, such as the information in Schank's
scripts, but simulates the actual sequence of neuron firings at the synapses
of a Chinese speaker when he understands stories in Chinese and gives answers
to them." Surely then "we would have to say that the machine
understood the stories"; or else we would "also have to deny
that native Chinese speakers understood the stories" since "[a]t
the level of the synapses" there would be no difference between "the
program of the computer and the program of the Chinese brain" (1980a,
p. 420). Against this, Searle insists, "even getting this close to
the operation of the brain is still not sufficient to produce understanding"
as may be seen from the following variation on the Chinese room scenario.
Instead of shuffling symbols, we "have the man operate an elaborate
set of water pipes with valves connecting them." Given some Chinese
symbols as input, the program now tells the man "which valves he has
to turn off and on. Each water connection corresponds to synapse in the
Chinese brain, and the whole system is rigged so that after . . . turning
on all the right faucets, the Chinese answer pops out at the output end
of the series of pipes." Yet, Searle thinks, obviously, "the
man certainly doesn't understand Chinese, and neither do the water pipes."
"The problem with the brain simulator," as Searle diagnoses it,
is that it simulates "only the formal structure of the sequence of
neuron firings": the insufficiency of this formal structure for producing
meaning and mental states "is shown by the water pipe example"
(1980a, p. 421).
The Combination Reply supposes all of the above: a computer
lodged in a robot running a brain simulation program, considered as a unified
system. Surely, now, "we would have to ascribe intentionality to the
system" (1980a, p. 421). Searle responds, in effect, that since none
of these replies, taken alone, has any tendency to overthrow his thought
experimental result, neither do all of them taken together: zero times
three is naught. Though it would be "rational and indeed irresistible,"
he concedes, "to accept the hypothesis that the robot had intentionality,
as long as we knew nothing more about it" the acceptance would be
simply based on the assumption that "if the robot looks and behaves
sufficiently like us then we would suppose, until proven otherwise, that
it must have mental states like ours that cause and are expressed by its
behavior." However, "[i]f we knew independently how to account
for its behavior without such assumptions," as with computers, "we
would not attribute intentionality to it, especially if we knew it had
a formal program" (1980a, p. 421).
The Other Minds Reply reminds us that how we "know other
people understand Chinese or anything else" is "by their behavior."
Consequently, "if the computer can pass the behavioral tests as well"
as a person, then "if you are going to attribute cognition to other
people you must in principle also attribute it to computers" (1980a,
p. 421). Searle responds that this misses the point: it's "not. .
. how I know that other people have cognitive states, but rather
what it is that I am attributing when I attribute cognitive states
to them. The thrust of the argument is that it couldn't be just computational
processes and their output because the computational processes and their
output can exist without the cognitive state" (1980a, p. 420-421:
The Many Mansions Reply suggests that even if Searle is right
in his suggestion that programming cannot suffice to cause computers to
have intentionality and cognitive states, other means besides programming
might be devised such that computers may be imbued with whatever does suffice
for intentionality by these other means. This too, Searle says, misses
the point: it "trivializes the project of Strong AI by redefining
it as whatever artificially produces and explains cognition" abandoning
"the original claim made on behalf of artificial intelligence"
that "mental processes are computational processes over formally defined
elements." If AI is not identified with that "precise, well defined
thesis," Searle says, "my objections no longer apply because
there is no longer a testable hypothesis for them to apply to" (1980a,
Searle's "Derivation from Axioms."
Besides the Chinese room thought experiment, Searle's more recent presentations
of the Chinese room argument feature - with minor variations of wording
and in the ordering of the premises - a formal "derivation from axioms"
(1989, p. 701). The derivation, according to Searle's 1990 formulation
proceeds from the following three axioms (1990, p. 27):
(A1) Programs are formal (syntactic).
(A2) Minds have mental contents (semantics).
(A3) Syntax by itself is neither constitutive of nor sufficient for semantics.
to the conclusion:
(C1) Programs are neither constitutive of nor sufficient for minds.
Searle then adds a fourth axiom (p. 29):
(A4) Brains cause minds.
From which we are supposed to "immediately derive, trivially"
(C2) Any other system capable of causing minds would have to have
causal powers (at least) equivalent to those of brains.
whence we are supposed to derive the further conclusions:
(C3) Any artifact that produced mental phenomena, any artificial
brain, would have to be able to duplicate the specific causal powers of
brains, and it could not do that just by running a formal program.
(C4) The way that human brains actually produce mental phenomena cannot
be solely by virtue of running a computer program.
On the usual understanding, the Chinese room experiment subserves
this derivation by "shoring up axiom 3" (Churchland & Churchland
1990, p. 34).
To call the Chinese room
controversial would be an understatement. Beginning with objections published
along with Searle's original (1980a) presentation, opinions have drastically
divided, not only about whether the Chinese room argument is cogent; but,
among those who think it is, as to why it is; and, among those who think
it is not, as to why not. This discussion includes several noteworthy threads.
Initial Objections & Replies to the Chinese room argument
besides filing new briefs on behalf of many of the forenamed replies(e.g.,
Fodor 1980 on behalf of "the Robot Reply") take, notably, two
tacks. One tack, taken by Daniel Dennett (1980), among others, decries
the dualistic tendencies discernible, for instance, in Searle's methodological
maxim "always insist on the first-person point of view" (Searle
1980b, p. 451). Another tack notices that the symbols Searle-in-the-room
processes are not meaningless ciphers, they're Chinese inscriptions.
So they are meaningful; and so is Searle's processing of them in
the room; whether he knows it or not. In reply to this second sort of objection,
Searle insists that what's at issue here is intrinsic intentionality
in contrast to the merely derived intentionality of inscriptions
and other linguistic signs. Whatever meaning Searle-in-the-room's computation
might derive from the meaning of the Chinese symbols which he processes
will not be intrinsic to the process or the processor but "observer
relative," existing only in the minds of beholders such as the native
Chinese speakers outside the room. "Observer-relative ascriptions
of intentionality are always dependent on the intrinsic intentionality
of the observers" (Searle 1980b, pp. 451-452). The nub of the experiment,
according to Searle's attempted clarification, then, is this: "instantiating
a program could not be constitutive of intentionality, because it would
be possible for an agent [e.g., Searle-in-the-room] to instantiate the
program and still not have the right kind of intentionality"
(Searle 1980b, pp. 450-451: my emphasis); the intrinsic kind. Though
Searle unapologetically identifies intrinsic intentionality with
conscious intentionality, still he resists Dennett's and others'
imputations of dualism. Given that what it is we're attributing in attributing
mental states is conscious intentionality, Searle maintains, insistence
on the "first-person point of view" is warranted; because "the
ontology of the mind is a first-person ontology": "the mind consists
of qualia [subjective conscious experiences] . . . right down to the ground"
(1992, p. 20). This thesis of Ontological Subjectivity, as Searle calls it
in more recent work, is not, he insists, some dualistic invocation
of discredited "Cartesian apparatus" (Searle 1992, p. xii), as
his critics charge; it simply reaffirms commonsensical intuitions that
behavioristic views and their functionalistic progeny have, for too long,
highhandedly, dismissed. This commonsense identification of thought with
consciousness, Searle maintains, is readily reconcilable with thoroughgoing
physicalism when we conceive of consciousness as both caused by and realized
in underlying brain processes. Identification of thought with consciousness
along these lines, Searle insists, is not dualism; it might more aptly
be styled monist interactionism (1980b, p. 455-456) or (as he now prefers)
"biological naturalism" (1992, p. 1).
The Connectionist Reply (as it might be called) is set forth
- along with a recapitulation of the Chinese room argument and a rejoinder
by Searle - by Paul and Patricia Churchland in a 1990 Scientific American
piece. The Churchlands criticize the crucial third "axiom" of
Searle's "derivation" by attacking his would-be supporting thought
experimental result. This putative result, they contend, gets much if not
all of its plausibility from the lack of neurophysiological verisimilitude
in the thought-experimental setup. Instead of imagining Searle working
alone with his pad of paper and lookup table, like the Central Processing
Unit of a serial architecture machine, the Churchlands invite us to imagine
a more brainlike connectionist architecture. Imagine Searle-in-the-room,
then, to be just one of very many agents, all working in parallel, each
doing their own small bit of processing (like the many neurons of the brain).
Since Searle-in-the-room, in this revised scenario, does only a very small
portion of the total computational job of generating sensible Chinese replies
in response to Chinese input, naturally he himself does not comprehend
the whole process; so we should hardly expect him to grasp or to
be conscious of the meanings of the communications he is involved, in such
a minor way, in processing. Searle counters that this Connectionist Reply
- incorporating, as it does, elements of both systems and brain-simulator
replies - can, like these predecessors, be decisively defeated by appropriately
tweaking the thought-experimental scenario. Imagine, if you will, a Chinese
gymnasium, with many monolingual English speakers working in parallel,
producing output indistinguishable from that of native Chinese speakers:
each follows their own (more limited) set of instructions in English. Still,
Searle insists, obviously, none of these individuals understands;
and neither does the whole company of them collectively. It's intuitively
utterly obvious, Searle maintains, that no one and nothing in the revised
"Chinese gym" experiment understands a word of Chinese either
individually or collectively. Both individually and collectively, nothing
is being done in the Chinese gym except meaningless syntactic manipulations
from which intentionality and consequently meaningful thought could not
Searle's Chinese Room experiment
parodies the Turing test, a test for artificial intelligence proposed by
Alan Turing (1950) and echoing René Descartes' suggested means for
distinguishing thinking souls from unthinking automata. Since "it
is not conceivable," Descartes says, that a machine "should produce
different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful
answer to whatever is said in its presence, as even the dullest of men
can do" (1637, Part V), whatever has such ability evidently
thinks. Turing embodies this conversation criterion in a would-be experimental
test of machine intelligence; in effect, a "blind" interview.
Not knowing which is which, a human interviewer addresses questions, on
the one hand, to a computer, and, on the other, to a human being. If, after
a decent interval, the questioner is unable to tell which interviewee is
the computer on the basis of their answers, then, Turing concludes, we
would be well warranted in concluding that the computer, like the person,
actually thinks. Restricting himself to the epistemological claim that
under the envisaged circumstances attribution of thought to the computer
is warranted, Turing himself hazards no metaphysical guesses as
to what thought is - proposing no definition or no conjecture as
to the essential nature thereof. Nevertheless, his would-be experimental
apparatus can be used to characterize the main competing metaphysical hypotheses
here in terms their answers to the question of what else or what instead,
if anything, is required to guarantee that intelligent-seeming behavior
really is intelligent or evinces thought. Roughly speaking, we have four
sorts of hypotheses here on offer. Behavioristic hypotheses deny that anything
besides acting intelligent is required. Dualistic hypotheses hold
that, besides (or instead of) intelligent-seeming behavior, thought requires
having the right subjective conscious experiences. Identity theoretic hypotheses
hold it to be essential that the intelligent-seeming performances proceed
from the right underlying neurophysiological states. Functionalistic hypotheses
hold that the intelligent-seeming behavior must be produced by the right
procedures or computations.
The Chinese experiment, then, can be seen to take aim at Behaviorism
and Functionalism as a would-be counterexample to both. Searle-in-the-room
behaves as if he understands Chinese; yet doesn't understand: so, contrary
to Behaviorism, acting (as-if) intelligent does not suffice for being so;
something else is required. But, contrary to Functionalism this something
else is not - or at least, not just - a matter of by what underlying procedures
(or programming) the intelligent-seeming behavior is brought about: Searle-in-the-room,
according to the thought-experiment, may be implementing whatever program
you please, yet still be lacking the mental state (e.g., understanding
Chinese) that his behavior would seem to evidence. Thus, Searle claims,
Behaviorism and Functionalism are utterly refuted by this experiment; leaving
dualistic and identity theoretic hypotheses in control of the field. Searle's
own hypothesis of Biological Naturalism may be characterized sympathetically
as an attempt to wed - or unsympathetically as an attempt to waffle between
- the remaining dualistic and identity-theoretic alternatives.
Debate over the Chinese room thought
experiment - while generating considerable heat - has proven inconclusive.
To the Chinese room's champions - as to Searle himself - the experiment
and allied argument have often seemed so obviously cogent and decisively
victorious that doubts professed by naysayers have seemed discreditable
and disingenuous attempts to salvage "strong AI" at all costs.
To the argument's detractors, on the other hand, the Chinese room has seemed
more like "religious diatribe against AI, masquerading as a serious
scientific argument" (Hofstadter 1980, p. 433) than a serious objection.
Though I am with the masquerade party, a full dress criticism is, perhaps,
out of place here (see Hauser 1993 and Hauser forthcoming). I offer, instead,
the following (hopefully, not too tendentious) observations about the Chinese
room and its neighborhood.
(1) Though Searle himself has consistently (since 1984) fronted the
formal "derivation from axioms," general discussion continues
to focus mainly on Searle's striking thought experiment. This is unfortunate,
I think. Since intuitions about the experiment seem irremediably at loggerheads,
perhaps closer attention to the derivation could shed some light
on vagaries of the argument (see Hauser forthcoming).
(2) The Chinese room experiment, as Searle himself notices, is akin
to "arbitrary realization" scenarios of the sort suggested first,
perhaps, by Joseph Weizenbaum (1976, Ch. 2), who "shows in detail
how to construct a computer using a roll of toilet paper and a pile of
small stones" (Searle 1980a, p. 423). Such scenarios are also marshaled
against Functionalism (and Behaviorism en passant) by others, perhaps
most famously, by Ned Block (1978). Arbitrary realizations imagine would-be
AI-programs to be implemented in outlandish ways: collective implementations
(e.g., by the population of China coordinating their efforts via two-way radio
communications), imagine programs implemented by groups; Rube Goldberg
implementations (e.g., Searle's water pipes or Weizenbaum's toilet paper roll
and stones), imagine programs implemented bizarrely, in "the wrong stuff."
Such scenarios aim to provoke intuitions that no such thing - no such collective or no
such ridiculous contraption - could possibly be possessed of mental states.
This, together with the premise - generally conceded by Functionalists
- that programs might well be so implemented, yields the
conclusion that computation, the "right programming" does not
suffice for thought; the programming must be implemented in "the right
stuff." Searle concludes similarly that what the Chinese room experiment
shows is that "[w]hat matters about brain operations is not the formal
shadow cast by the sequences of synapses but rather the actual properties
of the synapses" (1980, p. 422), their "specific biochemistry"
(1980, p. 424).
(3) Among those sympathetic to the Chinese room, it is mainly its
negative claims - not Searle's positive doctrine - that garner assent.
The positive doctrine - "biological naturalism," is either
confused (waffling between identity theory and dualism) or else it just
is identity theory or dualism.
(4) Since Searle argues against identity theory, on independent grounds,
elsewhere (e.g., 1992, Ch. 5); and since he acknowledges the possibility
that some "specific biochemistry" different than ours might suffice
to produce conscious experiences and consequently intentionality (in Martians,
say), and speaks unabashedly of "ontological subjectivity" (see,
e.g., Searle 1992, p. 100); it seems most natural to construe Searle's
positive doctrine as basically dualistic, specifically as a species of
"property dualism" such as Thomas Nagel (1974, 1986) and Frank
Jackson (1982) espouse. Nevertheless, Searle frequently and vigorously
protests that he is not any sort of dualist. Perhaps he protests
(5) If Searle's positive views are basically dualistic - as
many believe - then the usual objections to dualism apply, other-minds
troubles among them; so, the "other-minds" reply can hardly be
said to "miss the point". Indeed, since the question of whether
computers (can) think just is an other-minds question, if other
minds questions "miss the point" it's hard to see how the Chinese
room speaks to the issue of whether computers really (can) think at all.
(6) Confusion on the preceding point is fueled by Searle's seemingly
equivocal use of the phrase "strong AI"
to mean, on the one hand, computers really do think, and on the
other hand, thought is essentially just computation. Even if thought
is not essentially just computation, computers (even present-day ones),
nevertheless, might really think. That their behavior seems to evince
thought is why there is a problem about AI in the first place; and if Searle's
argument merely discountenances theoretic or metaphysical identification
of thought with computation, the behavioral evidence - and consequently
Turing's point - remains unscathed. Since computers seem, on the
face of things, to think, the conclusion that the essential nonidentity of
thought with computation would seem to warrant is that whatever else
thought essentially is, computers have this too; not, as Searle maintains,
that computers' seeming thought-like performances are bogus.
Alternately put, equivocation on "Strong AI" invalidates the would-be
dilemma that Searle's intitial contrast of "Strong AI" to "Weak AI" seems
Strong AI (they really do think) or Weak AI (it's just simulation).
To show that thought is not just computation (what the
Chinese room -- if it shows anything -- shows) is not to show that computers'
intelligent seeming performances are not real thought (as the "strong" "weak"
dichotomy suggests) .
Not Strong AI (by the Chinese room argument).
Therefore, Weak AI.
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W. Savage, ed., Perception and Cognition: Issues in the Foundations
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This document originally authored by Larry Hauser.
Copied without permission, Feb 2 2001
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