Searle's Chinese room

David Glenn dglenn at
Thu Apr 6 10:12:45 PDT 2000

>From a conversation with John Searle in _Speaking Minds: Interviews with
Twenty Eminent Cognitive Scientists_ (Princeton U. Press '95):

Q: So you think that the metaphor of the mind as a computer program will disappear after a few years, as did the metaphor of the mind as a steam engine?

Searle: I think it is going to be with us for a while, because we do not know how the brain works. The brain is the most important organ. It is where we live, so to speak. And we would really like to know how it works. We do not know how it works, so we fasten onto metaphors. In Western history we have thought, successively, that the brain must be a catapult or a steam engine or an electric circuit or a switchboard or a computer. And God knows what people will come up with next. Until we get a science of the brain, we will always have these desperate and pathetic metaphors. And I just do not know how close we are to having a science of the brain. Maybe we still have a long way to go.

Q: What, in your view, would constitute a breakthrough in the science of the brain?

Searle: The most important scientific discovery of our time will come when someone discovers the answer to the question "How exactly do neuro-biological processes in the brain cause consciousness?" In broad outline we now think that it must be a matter of variable rates of neuron firing relative to specific neuronal architectures. But, of course, this is only a tentative hypothesis, as any causal hypothesis must be. It might turn out that we overestimate the importance of individual neurons and of synapses. Perhaps it will turn out that the crucial unit is a column or an array of neurons. But what is important is that we are looking for causal relationships. Many people object to my solution of the mind-body problem with the argument that we do not have an idea of how neuro-biological processes could cause conscious phenomena. But that is not so different from the situation we were in with other "mysterious" phenomena, like electromagnetism. In terms of Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism had no place in the conception of the universe and seemed mysterious. But with the development of a theory of electromagnetism, the metaphysical worry dissolved. I believe it will be the same with consciousness. The problem is to figure out how the system, the brain, works to produce consciousness; and that is an empirical-theoretical issue for neurobiology.

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