Chinese Room Step 3: Pumping Out Electricity

March 25, 2015

We’re still analyzing John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, and now we’re ready to cut straight to the explanation. Yes, we got rid of two confusing homunculi in Step 1 and Step 2, so now we’re ready to say what’s really right or wrong with the Chinese Room as a model of the brain.

Hamada Butsudan Shop, Asakusa - Sept. 8, 2013

Hamada Butsudan Shop – Asakusa, Sept. 8, 2013 (Enlarge) All kinds of Buddhist decor and mini shrines for home or office.

In fact, nothing is wrong with the Chinese Room as a digital model, a processor of symbols. Once you get rid of the two homunculi, the Chinese Room really does process symbols in the same way actual brains do. Both the Chinese Room and a real brain take input, process it via myriad switching channels, and produce output. Both do so in the same way.

The problem is that a real brain does more than just process symbols. Real brains also take action and cause things to happen in the real world. So the question is how real brains have causal powers in the real world while the Chinese Room does not. Or as Searle would say, how can you ever get semantics from mere syntax.

Electric motors

The answer is that the brain is not just digital, but also analog. The brain’s inputs and outputs are electrical currents, after all. That electricity can carry symbolic information, like a digital signal, but in addition to whatever signal it carries, the electricity is also real analog electricity. And it can make muscles move.

So that’s the answer, because when muscles move, that’s in the real world, which means it’s not merely symbolic syntax. It’s actual meaningful semantics.

Not just a model, but also the thing itself

Searle sometimes uses the example of digesting a pizza: A computer model of a stomach can perform a great simulation of pizza-digestion, but it can never digest an actual piece of pizza.

Searle also uses the example of a heart: A computer model of a heart can only ever pump simulated blood, not real blood.

So in the same way, Searle is claiming that his Chinese Room is just a simulation of a brain that can’t possibly do what a real brain does.

Well, wait a minute – what does a real brain do? Searle never quite says. Stomachs digest food, and hearts pump blood. You might say brains “think,” but what exactly does that mean? We get into an endless philosophical argument trying to define thought or knowledge or consciousness. But there’s really a much simpler answer – Brains pump out electrical signals.

There you have it. Hearts pump blood through the body, which has various physical effects in your real-world body. In the same way, brains pump out electrical signals that also have physical effects in your body insofar as they cause your muscles to move.

So does the Chinese Room!

Remember back in Step 1 where we said the Chinese Room’s input should not be slips of paper but electronic signals on wires? The output is also electrical. And that’s just like a real brain!

Thus, you might suppose that the Chinese Room also has causal powers in the real world, just like our human brains. The Chinese Room can do real actions by virtue of its analog electrical output current.

On the other hand, I think Searle’s Chinese Room is still missing something vital, and the Chinese Room really can’t do what real brains do – unless it has that extra something. It’s not anything mystical or spiritual; it’s a straightforward physical thing.

Stay tuned for next time.