John Searle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophy and the Habits of Critical Thinking: Conversation with John R. Searle, Mills Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley; 9/22/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Chinese Room Argument

In your work on the mind and the brain you talk about how there is always a turn in an era to a metaphor that is dominant in technology, hence the dominant one now is to say that the mind is like a computer program. And to answer that you've come up with the "Chinese Room." Tell us a little about that.

Well, it's such a simple argument that I find myself somewhat embarrassed to be constantly repeating it, but you can say it in a couple of seconds. Here's how it goes.

Searle recording the Reith Lectures for BBC in London, summer of 1984, where he first presented the Chinese Room argument. Whenever somebody gives you a theory of the mind, always try it out on yourself. Always ask, how would it work for me? Now if somebody tells you, "Well, really your mind is just a computer program, so when you understand something, you're just running the steps in the program," try it out. Take some area which you don't understand and imagine you carry out the steps in the computer program. Now, I don't understand Chinese. I'm hopeless at it. I can't even tell Chinese writing from Japanese writing. So I imagine that I'm locked in a room with a lot of Chinese symbols (that's the database) and I've got a rule book for shuffling the symbols (that's the program) and I get Chinese symbols put in the room through a slit, and those are questions put to me in Chinese. And then I look up in the rule book what I'm supposed to do with these symbols and then I give them back symbols and unknown to me, the stuff that comes in are questions and the stuff I give back are answers.

Now, if you imagine that the programmers get good at writing the rule book and I get good at shuffling the symbols, my answers are fine. They look like answers of a native Chinese [speaker]. They ask me questions in Chinese, I answer the questions in Chinese. All the same, I don't understand a word of Chinese. And the bottom line is, if I don't understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the computer program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other digital computer on that basis, because no computer's got anything that I don't have. That's the power of the computer, it just shuffles symbols. It just manipulates symbols. So I am a computer for understanding Chinese, but I don't understand a word of Chinese.

book cover/publication of Searle's Reith Lectures, *Mind, Brains and Science.* You can see this point if you contrast Searle in Chinese with Searle in English. If they ask me questions in English and I give answers back in English, then my answers will be as good as a native English speaker, because I am one. And if they gave me questions in Chinese and I give them back answers in Chinese, my answers will be as good as a native Chinese speaker because I'm running the Chinese program. But there's a huge difference on the inside. On the outside it looks the same. On the inside I understand English and I don't understand Chinese. In English I am a human being who understands English; in Chinese I'm just a computer. Computers, therefore -- and this really is the decisive point -- just in virtue of implementing a program, the computer is not guaranteed understanding. It might have understanding for some other reason but just going through the steps of in the formal program is not sufficient for the mind.

And so the computer program, then, has not explained consciousness.

That's right. Nowhere near. Now, that isn't to say that computers are useless and we shouldn't use them. No. Not a bit of it. I use computers every day. I couldn't do my work without computers. But the computer does a model or a simulation of a process. And a computer simulation of a mind is about like computer simulation of digestion. I don't know why people make this dumb mistake. You see, if we made a perfect computer simulation of digestion, nobody would think, "Well, let's run out and buy a pizza and stuff it in the computer." It's a model, it's a picture of digestion. It shows you the formal structure of how it works, it doesn't actually digest anything! That's what it is with the things that a computer does for anything. A computer model of what it's like to fall in love or read a novel or get drunk doesn't actually fall in love or read a novel or get drunk. It just does a picture or model of that.

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