Chinese Room Step 2: Nobody is Outside!

March 18, 2015

Last time I started talking about John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, and I claimed that “Searle-in-the-room” looks like a homunculus. So Step 1 in figuring out the Chinese Room must be to get rid of that homunculus, I think. And now we’re ready for Step 2, which involves yet another homunculus.

Rafters of the Todaiji Temple in Nara - April 3, 2014

Rafters of the Todaiji Temple in Nara – April 3, 2014 (Enlarge)

See, the thought experiment postulates real-live Chinese people outside the room. But who are those Chinese people? And how do they know Chinese? Just by magical spirit-consciousness? That’s a pretty unsatisfying answer. It doesn’t explain anything.

In fact, the Chinese people outside the room also look like homunculi, just like Searle-in-the-room. And a homunculus argument is a fallacy, of course. So if you’re serious about analyzing this thought experiment, you must get rid of all the homunculi. If you’re serious about understanding how the mind works – or how a digital computer can never be a real mind – then you must get rid of all the homunculi.

This time it’s pretty easy – all you have to do is think of those Chinese people as so many separate Chinese Rooms in their own right. Now we’ve got a collection of Chinese Rooms exchanging messages with each other. They’re all connected in a nice network so they can pass electrical signals back and forth among themselves. This way Searle’s original room is not unique, but it’s just one of many.

And remember, Searle isn’t really in his room. There’s no homunculus in a Chinese Room, as I tried to show last time. So we’re not just putting all the Chinese people in boxes. We’re saying all those Chinese people are the boxes themselves, with their instruction books, which are really sets of electronic IC chips.

OK, that’s Step 2 toward understanding the Chinese Room argument. Like Step 1, this merely clears away some possible confusion, so it does not solve the puzzle of the Chinese Room. Getting rid of homunculi just makes Searle’s thought experiment easier to figure out, and it emphasizes the stark contrast between mere symbol-shuffling and actual, meaningful thought.

Next time I’ll talk about the actual meaning of the Chinese Room, and I’ll show how to get semantics from syntax. So stay tuned!