# Man as Chinese Room

In the previous posts in this series, we discussed how devastating Searle’s Chinese Room argument was to the premise that our brains are digital computers. He argued, quite convincingly, that mere symbol manipulation could not lead to the rich understanding that we seem to enjoy. However, I refused to be convinced, and found the so-called systems response more convincing. It was the counter-argument saying that it was the whole Chinese Room that understood the language, not merely the operator or symbol pusher in the room. Searle laughed it off, but had a serious response as well. He said, “Let me be the whole Chinese Room. Let me memorize all the symbols and the symbol manipulation rules so that I can provide Chinese responses to questions. I still don’t understand Chinese.”

Now, that raises an interesting question — if you know enough Chinese symbols, and Chinese rules to manipulate them, don’t you actually know Chinese? Of course you can imagine someone being able to handle a language correctly without understanding a word of it, but I think that is stretching the imagination a bit too far. I am reminded of the blind sight experiment where people could see without knowing it, without being consciously aware of what it was that they were seeing. Searle’s response points in the same direction — being able to speak Chinese without understanding it. What the Chinese Room is lacking is the conscious awareness of what it is doing.

To delve a bit deeper into this debate, we have to get a bit formal about Syntax and Semantics. Language has both syntax and semantics. For example, a statement like “Please read my blog posts” has the syntax originating from the grammar of the English language, symbols that are words (syntactical placeholders), letters and punctuation. On top of all that syntax, it has a content — my desire and request that you read my posts, and my background belief that you know what the symbols and the content mean. That is the semantics, the meaning of the statement.

A computer, according to Searle, can only deal with symbols and, based on symbolic manipulation, come up with syntactically correct responses. It doesn’t understand the semantic content as we do. It is incapable of complying with my request because of its lack of understanding. It is in this sense that the Chinese Room doesn’t understand Chinese. At least, that is Searle’s claim. Since computers are like Chinese Rooms, they cannot understand semantics either. But our brains can, and therefore the brain cannot be a mere computer.

When put that way, I think most people would side with Searle. But what if the computer could actually comply with the requests and commands that form the semantic content of statements? I guess even then we would probably not consider a computer fully capable of semantic comprehension, which is why if a computer actually complied with my request to read my posts, I might not find it intellectually satisfying. What we are demanding, of course, is consciousness. What more can we ask of a computer to convince us that it is conscious?

I don’t have a good answer to that. But I think you have to apply uniform standards in ascribing consciousness to entities external to you — if you believe in the existence of other minds in humans, you have to ask yourself what standards you apply in arriving at that conclusion, and ensure that you apply the same standards to computers as well. You cannot build cyclical conditions into your standards — like others have human bodies, nervous systems and an anatomy like you do so that that they have minds as well, which is what Searle did.

In my opinion, it is best to be open-minded about such questions, and important not to answer them from a position of insufficient logic.

# Minds as Machine Intelligence

Prof. Searle is perhaps most famous for his proof that computing machines (or computation as defined by Alan Turing) can never be intelligent. His proof uses what is called the Chinese Room argument, which shows that mere symbol manipulation (which is what Turning’s definition of computation is, according to Searle) cannot lead to understanding and intelligence. Ergo our brains and minds could not be mere computers.

The argument goes like this — assume Searle is locked up in a room where he gets inputs corresponding to questions in Chinese. He has a set of rules to manipulate the input symbols and pick out an output symbol, much as a computer does. So he comes up with Chinese responses that fool outside judges into believing that they are communicating with a real Chinese speaker. Assume that this can be done. Now, here is the punch line — Searle doesn’t know a word of Chinese. He doesn’t know what the symbols mean. So mere rule-based symbol manipulation is not enough to guarantee intelligence, consciousness, understanding etc. Passing the Turing Test is not enough to guarantee intelligence.

One of the counter-arguements that I found most interesting is what Searle calls the systems argument. It is not Searle in the Chinese room that understands Chinese; it is the whole system including the ruleset that does. Searle laughs it off saying, “What, the room understands Chinese?!” I think the systems argument merits more that that derisive dismissal. I have two supporting arguments in favor of the systems response.

The first one is the point I made in the previous post in this series. In Problem of Other Minds, we saw that Searle’s answer to the question whether others have minds was essentially by behavior and analogy. Others behave as though they have minds (in that they cry out when we hit their thumb with a hammer) and their internal mechanisms for pain (nerves, brain, neuronal firings etc) are similar to ours. In the case of the Chinese room, it certainly behaves as though it understands Chinese, but it doesn’t have any analogs in terms of the parts or mechanisms like a Chinese speaker. Is it this break in analogy that is preventing Searle from assigning intelligence to it, despite its intelligent behavior?

The second argument takes the form of another thought experiment — I think it is called the Chinese Nation argument. Let’s say we can delegate the work of each neuron in Searle’s brain to a non-English speaking person. So when Searle hears a question in English, it is actually being handled by trillions of non-English speaking computational elements, which generate the same response as his brain would. Now, where is the English language understanding in this Chinese Nation of non-English speaking people acting as neurons? I think one would have to say that it is the whole “nation” that understands English. Or would Searle laugh it off saying, “What, the nation understands English?!”

Well, if the Chinese nation could understand English, I guess the Chinese room could understand Chinese as well. Computing with mere symbol manipulation (which is what the people in the nation are doing) can and does lead to intelligence and understanding. So our brains could really be computers, and minds software manipulating symbols. Ergo Searle is wrong.

Look, I used Prof. Searle’s arguments and my counter arguments in this series as a sort of dialog for dramatic effect. The fact of the matter is, Prof. Searle is a world-renowned philosopher with impressive credentials while I am a sporadic blogger — a drive-by philosopher at best. I guess I am apologizing here to Prof. Searle and his students if they find my posts and comments offensive. It was not intended; only an interesting read was intended.

# Problem of Other Minds

How do you know other people have minds as you do? This may sound like a silly question, but if you allow yourself to think about it, you will realize that you have no logical reason to believe in the existence of other minds, which is why it is an unsolved problem in philosophythe Problem of Other Minds. To illustrateI was working on that Ikea project the other day, and was hammering in that weird two-headed nail-screw-stub thingie. I missed it completely and hit my thumb. I felt the excruciating pain, meaning my mind felt it and I cried out. I know I have a mind because I felt the pain. Now, let’s say I see another bozo hitting his thumb and crying out. I feel no pain; my mind feels nothing (except a bit of empathy on a good day). What positive logical basis do I have to think that the behavior (crying) is caused by pain felt by a mind?

Mind you, I am not suggesting that others do not have minds or consciousness — not yet, at least. I am merely pointing out that there is no logical basis to believe that they do. Logic certainly is not the only basis for belief. Faith is another. Intuition, analogy, mass delusion, indoctrination, peer pressure, instinct etc. are all basis for beliefs both true and false. I believe that others have minds; otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing these blog posts. But I am keenly aware that I have no logical justification for this particular belief.

The thing about this problem of other minds is that it is profoundly asymmetric. If I believe that you don’t have a mind, it is not an issue for you — you know that I am wrong the moment you hear it because you know that you have a mind (assuming, of course, that you do). But I do have a serious issue — there is no way for me to attack my belief in the non-existence of your mind. You could tell me, of course, but then I would think, “Yeah, that is exactly what a mindless robot would be programmed to say!”

I was listening to a series of lectures on the philosophy of mind by Prof. John Searle. He “solves” the problem of other minds by analogy. We know that we have the same anatomical and neurophysical wirings in addition to analogous behavior. So we can “convince” ourselves that we all have minds. It is a good argument as far as it goes. What bothers me about it is its complement — what it implies about minds in things that are wired differently, like snakes and lizards and fish and slugs and ants and bacteria and viruses. And, of course, machines.

Could machines have minds? The answer to this is rather trivial — of course they can. We are biological machines, and we have minds (assuming, again, that you guys do). Could computers have minds? Or, more pointedly, could our brains be computers, and minds be software running on it? That is fodder for the next post.

# Brains and Computers

We have a perfect parallel between brains and computers. We can easily think of the brain as the hardware and mind or consciousness as the software or the operating system. We would be wrong, according to many philosophers, but I still think of it that way. Let me outline the compelling similarities (according to me) before getting into the philosophical difficulties involved.

A lot of what we know of the workings of the brain comes from lesion studies. We know, for instances, that features like color vision, face and object recognition, motion detection, language production and understanding are all controlled by specialized areas of the brain. We know this by studying people who have suffered localized brain damage. These functional features of the brain are remarkably similar to computer hardware units specialized in graphics, sound, video capture etc.

The similarity is even more striking when we consider that the brain can compensate for the damage to a specialized area by what looks like software simulation. For instance, the patient who lost the ability to detect motion (a condition normal people would have a hard time appreciating or identifying with) could still infer that an object was in motion by comparing successive snapshots of it in her mind. The patient with no ability to tell faces apart could, at times, deduce that the person walking toward him at a pre-arranged spot at the right time was probably his wife. Such instances give us the following attractive picture of the brain.
BrainComputer hardware
ConsciousnessOperating System
Mental functionsPrograms
It looks like a logical and compelling picture to me.

This seductive picture, however, is far too simplistic at best; or utterly wrong at worst. The basic, philosophical problem with it is that the brain itself is a representation drawn on the canvas of consciousness and the mind (which are again cognitive constructs). This abysmal infinite regression is impossible to crawl out of. But even when we ignore this philosophical hurdle, and ask ourselves whether brains could be computers, we have big problems. What exactly are we asking? Could our brains be computer hardware and minds be software running on them? Before asking such questions, we have to ask parallel questions: Could computers have consciousness and intelligence? Could they have minds? If they had minds, how would we know?

Even more fundamentally, how do you know whether other people have minds? This is the so-called Problem of Other Minds, which we will discuss in the next post before proceeding to consider computing and consciousness.

# The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

It is not easy to review a non-fiction book without giving the gist of what the book is about. Without a synopsis, all one can do is to call it insightful and other such epithets.

The Age of Spiritual Machines is really an insightful book. It is a study of the future of computing and computational intelligence. It forces us to rethink what we mean by intelligence and consciousness, not merely at a technological level, but at a philosophical level. What do you do when your computer feels sad that you are turning it off and declares, “I cannot let you do that, Dave?”

What do we mean by intelligence? The traditional yardstick of machine intelligence is the remarkably one-sided Turing Test. It defines intelligence using comparative meansa computer is deemed intelligent if it can fool a human evaluator into believing that it is human. It is a one-sided test because a human being can never pass for a computer for long. All that an evaluator needs to do is to ask a question like, “What is $tan(17.32^circ)$?” My \$4 calculator takes practically no time to answer it to better than one part in a million precision. A super intelligent human being might take about a minute before venturing a first guess.

But the Turing Test does not define intelligence as arithmetic muscle. Intelligence is composed ofhighercognitive abilities. After beating around the bush for a while, one comes to the conclusion that intelligence is the presence of consciousness. And the Turing Test essentially examines a computer to see if it can fake consciousness well enough to fool a trained evaluator. It would have you believe that consciousness is nothing more than answering some clever questions satisfactorily. Is it true?

Once we restate the test (and redefine intelligence) this way, our analysis can bifurcate into an inward journey or an outward one. we can ask ourselves questions likewhat if everybody is an automaton (except us — you and me — of course) successfully faking intelligence? Are we faking it (and freewill) to ourselves as well? We would think perhaps not, or who are theseourselvesthat we are faking it to? The inevitable conclusion to this inward journey is that we can be sure of the presence of consciousness only in ourselves.

The outward analysis of the emergence of intelligence (a la Turing Test) brings about a whole host of interesting questions, which occupy a significant part of the book (I’m referring to the audio abridgment edition), although a bit obsessed with virtual sex at times.

One of the thought provoking questions when machines claim that they are sentient is this: Would it be murder tokillone of them? Before you suggest that I (or rather, Kurzweil) stop acting crazy, consider this: What if the computer is a digital backup of a real person? A backup that thinks and acts like the original? Still no? What if it is the only backup and the person is dead? Wouldn’tkillingthe machine be tantamount to killing the person?

If you grudgingly said yes to the last question, then all hell breaks loose. What if there are multiple identical backups? What if you create your own backup? Would deleting a backup capable of spiritual experiences amount to murder?

When he talks about the progression of machine intelligence, Kurzweil demonstrates his inherent optimism. He posits that ultimate intelligence yearn for nothing but knowledge. I don’t know if I accept that. To what end then is knowledge? I think an ultimate intelligence would crave continuity or immortality.

Kurzweil assumes that all technology and intelligence would have all our material needs met at some point. Looking at our efforts so far, I have my doubts. We have developed no boon so far without an associated bane or two. Think of the seemingly unlimited nuclear energy and you also see the bombs and radioactive waste management issues. Think of fossil fuel and the scourge of global warming shows itself.

I guess I’m a Mr. Glass-is-Half-Empty kind of guy. To me, even the unlimited access to intelligence may be a dangerous thing. Remember how internet reading changed the way we learned things?

# Death of a Parent

My father passed away early this morning. For the past three months, he was fighting a heart failure. But he really had little chance because many systems in his body had started failing. He was 76.

I seek comfort in the fact that his memories live on. His love and care, and his patience with my silly, childhood questions will all live on, not merely in my memories, hopefully in my actions as well.

Perhaps even the expressions on his face will live on for longer than I think.

Death is as much a part of life as birth. Anything that has a beginning has an end. So why do we grieve?

We do because death stands a bit outside our worldly knowledge, beyond where our logic and rationality apply. So the philosophical knowledge of the naturalness of death does not always erase the pain.

But where does the pain come from? It is one of those questions with no certain answers, and I have only my guesses to offer. When we were little babies, our parents (or those who played the parentsrole) stood between us and our certain death. Our infant mind perhaps assimilated, before logic and and rationality, that our parents will always stand face-to-face with our own enddistant perhaps, but dead certain. With the removal of this protective force field, the infant in us probably dies. A parent’s death is perhaps the final end of our innocence.

Knowing the origin of pain is little help in easing it. My trick to handle it is to look for patterns and symmetries where none existslike any true physicist. Death is just birth played backwards. One is sad, the other is happy. Perfect symmetry. Birth and life are just coalescence of star dust into conscious beings; and death the necessary disintegration back into star dust. From dust to dustCompared to the innumerable deaths (and births) that happen all around us in this world every single second, one death is really nothing. Patterns of many to one and back to countless many.

We are all little droplets of consciousness, so small that we are nothing. Yet, part of something so big that we are everything. Here is a pattern I was trying to findmaterially made up of the same stuff that the universe is made of, we return to the dust we are. So too spiritually, mere droplets merge with an unknowable ocean.

Going still further, all consciousness, spirituality, star dust and everythingthese are all mere illusory constructs that my mind, my brain (which are again nothing but illusions) creates for me. So is this grief and pain. The illusions will cease one day. Perhaps the universe and stars will cease to exist when this little droplet of knowledge merges with the anonymous ocean of everything. The pain and grief also will cease. In time.

# Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I don’t get symbolism. Rather, I do get it, but I’m always skeptical that I may be getting something the author never intended. I think and analyze too much instead of just lightening up and enjoying what’s right in front of me. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit like those tourists (Japanese ones, if I may allow myself to stereotype) who keep clicking away at their digital cameras often missing the beauty and serenity of whatever it is that they are recording for posterity.

But, unlike the tourist, I can read the book again and again. Although I click as much the second time around and ponder as hard, some things do get through.

When I read Siddhartha, I asked myself if the names like Kamala and Kamaswami were random choices or signified something. After all, the first partKamameans something akin to worldliness or desire (greed or lust really, but not with so much negative connotation) in Sanskrit. Are Vasudeva and Givinda really gods as the name suggests?

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Siddhartha is the life-story of a contemporary of Buddha — about 2500 years ago in India. Even as a young child, Siddhartha has urges to pursue a path that would eventually take him to salvation. As a Brahmin, he had already mastered the prayers and rituals. Leaving this path of piety (Bhaktiyoga), he joins a bunch of ascetics who see the way to salvation in austerity and penances (probably Hatayoga and Rajayoga). But Siddhartha soon tires of this path. He learns almost everything the ascetics had to teach him and realizes that even the oldest and wisest of them is no closer to salvation than he himself is. He then meets with the Buddha, but doesn’t think that he couldlearnthe wisdom of the illustrious one. His path then undergoes a metamorphosis and takes a worldly turn (which is perhaps a rendition of Grahasthashrama or Karmayoga). He seeks to experience life through Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and Kamaswamy the merchant. When at last he is fully immersed in the toxic excesses of the world, his drowning spirit calls out for liberation from it. He finally finds enlightenment and wisdom from the river that he had to cross back and forth in his journeys between the worlds of riches and wisdom.

For one who seeks symbolism, Siddhartha provides it aplenty.

• Why is there a Vaishnava temple when Siddhartha decides to forgo the spiritual path for a world one? Is it a coincidence or is it an indication of the philosophical change from an Advaita line to a patently Dwaita line?
• Is the name Siddhartha (same as that of the Buddha) a coincidence?
• Does the bird in the cage represent a soul imprisoned in Samsara? If so, is its death a sad ending or a happy liberation?
• The River of life that has to be crossed — is it Samsara itself? If so, is the ferryman a god who will help you cross it and reach the ultimate salvation? Why is it that Siddhartha has to cross it to reach the world of Kamala and Kamaswamy, and cross it back to his eventual enlightenment? Kamala also crosses the river to his side before passing on.
• The affection for and the disillusionment in the little Siddhartha is the last chain of bondage (Mohamaya) that follows Siddhartha across the river. It is only after breaking that chain that Siddhartha is finally able to experience Nirvana enlightenment and liberation. Is there a small moral hiding there?

One thing I noticed while reading many of these great works is that I can readily identify myself with the protagonist. I fancy that I have the simple greatness of Larry Darrell, and fear that I secretly possess the abominable baseness of Charles Strickland. I feel the indignant torture of Philip Carey or Jay Gatsby. And, sure, I experience the divine urges of Siddhartha. No matter how much of a stretch each of these comparisons may be. Admittedly, this self-identification may have its roots more in my vanity than any verisimilitude. Or is it the genius of these great writers who create characters so vivid and real that they talk directly to the naked primordial soul within us, stripped of our many layers of ego? In them, we see the distorted visions of our troubled souls, and in their words, we hear the echoes of our own unspoken impulses. Perhaps we are all the same deep within, part of the same shared consciousness.

One thing I re-learned from this book is that you cannot learn wisdom from someone else. (How is that for an oxymoron?) You can learn knowledge, information, datayes. But wisdom — no. Wisdom is the assimilation of knowledge; it is the end product of your mind and soul working on whatever you find around you, be it the sensory data, cognitive constructs, knowledge and commonsense handed down from previous generations, or the concepts you create for yourself. It is so much a part of you that it is you yourself, which is why the word Buddha means Wisdom. The person Buddha and his wisdom are not two. How can you then communicate your wisdom? No wonder Siddhartha did not seek it from the Buddha.

Wisdom, according to Hermann Hesse, can come only from your own experiences, both sublime and prosaic.

# Zen and Free Will

Neuroscience has a finding that may question the way we think of our free will.

We now know that there is a time lag of about half a second between the momentwetake a decision and the moment we become aware of it. This time lag raises the question of who is taking the decision because, in the absence of our conscious awareness, it is not clear that the decision is really ours. This finding has even cast doubt on our notion of free will.

In the experimental setup testing this phenomenon, a subject is hooked up to a computer that records his brain activities (EEG). The subject is then asked make a conscious decision to move either the right hand or the left hand at a time of his choosing. The choice of right or left is also up to the subject. The computer always detects which hand the subject is going to move about half a second before the subject is aware of his own intention. The computer can then order the subject to move that handan order that the subject will be unable to disobey, shattering the notion of free-will.

Free will may be a fabrication of our brain after the real action. In other words, the real action takes place by instinct, and the sense of decision is introduced to our consciousness as an afterthought. If we could somehow limit our existence to tiny compartments in time, as Zen suggests, then we might not feel that we had free will.

Ref: This post is an edited excerpt from my book, The Unreal Universe.