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The Chinese Room Thought Experiment

Imagine that you carry out the steps in a program for answering questions in a language you do not understand. I do not understand Chinese, so I imagine that I am locked in a room with a lot of boxes of Chinese symbols (the database), I get small bunches of Chinese symbols passed to me (questions in Chinese), and I look up in a rule book (the program) what I am supposed to do. I perform certain operations on the symbols in accordance with the rules (that is, I carry out the steps in the program) and give back small bunches of symbols (answers to the questions) to those outside the room. I am the computer implementing a program for answering questions in Chinese, but all the same I do not understand a word of Chinese. And this is the point: if I do not understand Chinese solely on the basis of implementing a computer program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis, because no digital computer has anything I do not have.

This is such a simple and decisive argument that I am embarrassed to have to repeat it, but in the years since I first published it there must have been over a hundred published attacks on it, including some in Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained....The Chinese Room Argument—as it has come to be called—has a simple three-step structure:

  1. Programs are entirely syntactical.
  2. Minds have a semantics.
  3. Syntax is not the same as, nor by itself sufficient for, semantics.

Therefore programs are not minds. Q.E.D.

Links Related To The Chinese Room Thought Experiment

2003 Aug 13 The Turing Test Doesn't Work
“The Turing Test is really not a measure of consciousness -- nor does it actually measure anything about the computer being evaluated, in fact, if anything, the Turing Test is actually a measure of the intelligence of the human who is evaluating the computer.” By Nova Spivack.
Is Consciousness as Fundamental as Space, Time and Energy?
“I have a hunch that nobody ever creates consciousness, rather it can simply be channeled using the appropriate type of 'circuit.'” By Nova Spivack.
Are We Living in a Simulated Reality?
“No amount of fancy programming can magically create self-awareness. Because even if a machine is wired up so as to be able to sense and react to its own state, nothing about that results in it having any inner experience of itself.” By Nova Spivack.
Aug 14 A Book from the Sky
“A Book from The Sky took the artist over three years to complete. The installation is comprised of printed volumes and scrolls containing four thousand characters individually 'invented', designed and cut into wood-blocks by the artist. The result is a set of four hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls that carry a huge body of text that resembles Chinese characters but is in fact unintelligible.”


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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