In a fascinating recent episode of Philosophy Bites, Daniel Dennett explains the flaws at the heart of the Chinese Room thought experiment, and while I can heartily endorse everything he says I think I can go further in deconstructing it

Firstly, there is an element of the Chinese Room that is ableist. Simply put, the idea that a machine that produces Chinese conversation that passes the Turing test doesn’t count as understanding because it consists of an enormous manual and a non-Chinese-speaking operator is to say that, firstly, the locus of understanding must exist in either the manual or the person, and because it does not exist in the person, there is no understanding. This would come as a surprise to Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French journalist whose story was immortalized in his autobiographyand its film adaptation. Bauby could only communicate by blinking his left eye, and required a second person to transcribe the signals of his blinking into intelligible language. Certainly we would say that Bauby “understood” French. Yet he could not communicate with almost anyone without the assistance of a second person, his partner/operator.

“But Squarely!” you might say, “Bauby was still a thinking person! A manual is not!” Let’s set aside for the moment the notion/possibility that human beings are nothing more than extremely complex manuals with auto power – where inside of a human is understanding? Certainly not in the lips, the tongue, the vocal cords, the lungs, even though those produce speech, or the fingers and wrists even though those produce writing. It is in the brain – but the brain, alone, is inert, without a heart and lungs to give it oxygen. A brain alone, on a table, is a dead object – but a brain in a body is a human who can communicate.

“But a book is not a brain!” you might say. Well, this is my second major problem with the Chinese Room – it reduces, not expands, our conception of what “understanding” might be. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius died 1806 years before I was born, yet he placed at least a portion of his understanding as a collection of written communications posthumously named the “Meditations” and today I can read it and engage with it. Now, I can’t have a conversation with Marcus like I can have with my wife, but nonetheless the two of us are in dialogue – the same dialogue we all have with art and writing. Now, if I were a madman, I could devote the rest of my life to writing a manual that would, say, allow an operator to simulate a conversation with me, and it might come out sufficient to pass the Turing test and convince people they were, in fact, talking with me. What I am doing there is porting my own, native understanding to a previously inert blank page. My own understanding is not a finite quantity – I can copy it, or portions of it, to previous non-understanding objects at no cost to my own understanding. In fact, I am doing that now! And you are, by reading this, communicating with me even if the pixels and tubes and whatever else is transmitting these words to you in-and-of-themselves have no innate understanding. Someone who spoke Chinese and was extremely dedicated made that gazillion-page manual that went into the Chinese room, and it is their understanding that is being transmitted by the manual and by the operator.

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