||7th September 2010 06:46 PM
The Chinese Room Thought Experiment
Here's an interesting thought experiment proposed by John Searle in 1978
Let us suppose you have a room with a slot in one wall, and inside is an English-speaking person sitting at a desk. He has a big book of instructions and all the pencils and scratch paper he could ever need. Flipping through the book, he sees that the instructions, written in English, dictate ways to manipulate, sort, and compare Chinese characters. Mind you, the directions say nothing about the meanings of the Chinese characters; they only deal with how characters are to be copied, erased, reordered, transcribed, and so forth.
Someone outside the room slips a piece of paper through the slot. On it is written a story and questions about the story, all in Chinese. The man inside doesn't speak or read a word of Chinese, but he picks up the paper and goes to work with the rulebook. He toils and toils, rotely following the instructions in the book. At times the instructions tell him to write characters on scrap paper, and at other times to move and erase characters. Applying rule after rule, writing and erasing characters, the man works until the book's instructions tell him he is done. When he is finished at last he has written a new page of characters, which unbeknownst to him are the answers to the questions. The book tells him to pass his paper back through the slot. He does it, and wonders what this whole tedious exercise has been about.
Outside, a Chinese speaker reads the page. The answers are all correct, she notes---even insightful. If she is asked whether those answers came from an intelligent mind that had understood the story, she will definitely say yes. But can she be right? Who understood the story? It wasn't the fellow inside, certainly; he is ignorant of Chinese and has no idea what the story was about. It wasn't the book, which is just, well, a book, sitting inertly on the writing desk amid piles of paper.
So where did the understanding occur?