Philosophical Notes: The philosopher and the `Chinese room'

ALAN TURING, the Second World War code-breaker, suggested that when we are unable to tell the difference, after prolonged questioning, between whether we are talking to a machine or to a human being, we ought to consider the machine to have intelligence.

This offended many, not just philosophers. After all, intelligence is something hard to acquire and once found, jealously guarded. But it is in the celebrated "Chinese room" experiment that phil-osophers find their champion. There, the artificially intelligent philosopher John Searle sought to debunk such a generous interpretation.

Searle offered to be locked up in an imaginary room with a pile of Chinese symbols. He asks us to consider what would happen if, from time to time, someone outside the room were to post more Chinese ideograms through the letter box for him to sort out, posting back the appropriate symbol, perhaps by referring to some instructions taped on the wall, but written in English.

Searle's argument is that the person in the room does not understand Chinese. This is fairly convincing. After all, at the beginning of his example, he states that they "know no Chinese, either written or spoken", and that for them, "Chinese writing is just so many meaningless squiggles".

This may seem a bit like stating the obvious, but then analytic philosophers do that sort of stuff. The trick is to make the obvious seem not so obvious. The clever bit is that, "from the external point of view - that is, from the point of view of somebody outside the room in which I am locked - my answers to the questions are absolutely indistinguishable from those of native Chinese speakers".

But what seems to have been missed is not that the person in the room appears to understand Chinese, but that the whole "system" - person in the room, sets of symbols on cards, plus instructions taped to the wall, gives the appearance of understanding Chinese. And this is much more plausible. After all, the person who wrote the instructions did understand Chinese. What has happened in his example is that the expertise of the instructions' author has been transferred, via the written rules, to the person in the room.

Broadening the issue, Professor Wang, of Qiangdao University (who really does understand Chinese, unlike Searle) says the question in any case, is not whether the machines demonstrates intelligence, but whether this human construct demonstrates intelligence.

Indeed, a picture, after all, may be said to be "of a tree", or "to demonstrate beauty", or whatever, even if it is basically just bits of mineral on a piece of vegetable.

But this is getting complicated. I should like to suggest instead another "thought experiment" - my own version of this interesting problem. (Searle did several, getting increasingly complicated.)

Suppose a person is locked in a room piled high with dusty old philosophy books. And then suppose on the wall is a blackboard with instructions on how to use them especially to look up views on certain philosophical problems.

Now, into this room are posted some tantalising philosophy questions such as: is evil a normative concept? Are all mathematical truths true a priori? Can machines think in the same sense as people can?

Then using the instructions, our prisoner tears out relevant pages from the philosophy books and posts them back. You see, our prisoner does not understand philosophy. He think it is all just meaningless squiggles. But to anyone outside the room, he appears to understand philosophy.

Alan Turing would say that to distinguish between the appearance and the actualite is mere prejudice - Searle is not so sure. At least, as far as my example goes, we have the option of simply waiting to see if the person gets bored and tries to leave. In which case we can be pretty sure that they don't really understand philosophy.

Martin Cohen is editor of `The Philosopher'

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?