Searle's Chinese Room

Curtiss Leung bofftagstumper at
Tue Apr 4 20:06:00 PDT 2000

Hi Brad:

You wrote:

> Searle's argument proves that a collection of
> electro-chemically activated cells can fulfill the
> functions of a mind without anything within the
> collection comprehending *anything.* That means we
> have no basis for believing that brains "think,"
> i.e. engage in cognition. Now, do you have any
> response to this argument? Or, rather, does the
> collection of cells in your head that simulates
> cognition produce an output?

It's the other way around. Saying that something -- be it electro-chemically activated cells or a computer programmer -- can "fulfill the functions of a mind without comprehending *anything*" is a functionalist position, which Searle ATTACKS -- see his review of David J. Chalmers's _The Conscious Mind_ in the _New York Review of Books_ for March 6, 1997, for example.

In an earlier article for the same rag (which I don't have handy, sorry about that), Searle glosses the Chinese Room argument as follows:

1. Computers programs have syntactic but not semantic content; 2. Minds have semantic content; 3. Therefore computer programs are not minds.

But there's something weird about Searle -- because in spite of all his attacks on cognitive science, functionalism, et cetera, the position he holds is a materialist one:

<quote mongering> Let us now return to our 'dilemma'. The first horn claims that if we think of the relation between the mental and the physical as causal we are left with a mysterious notion of causation. I have argued that this is not so. It only seems so if we think of mental and physical naming two ontological categories, two mutually exclusive classes of things, a mental world and a physical world. But if we think of ourselves as living in one one which contains mental things in the sense in which it contains liquid things and solid things then there are no metaphysical obstacles to a causal account of such things. My beliefs and desires, my thirsts and visual experiences, are real causal features of my brain, as much as the solidity of the table I work at and the liquidity of the water I drink are causal features of tables and water. (Searle, _Intentionality_, p.271) </quote mongering>

Now, why he holds this view but then goes out of his way to attack everyone else's effort to advance a brain based account of mind (yeah, functionalism can deny subjectivity -- or "1st person experience" to use the _chic_ term -- but I don't see why it has to; it could merely provide a framework for investigations, e.g., "look, we don't have the neuroscience right now to pin down intentional/representational states in the brain, so let's just look at consciousness in terms of inputs and outputs") beats me. -- Curtiss

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