The Chinese room has had enough of your shit.

by Boudica Trent Erikson

A questioner asks the Chinese Room (in Chinese): “Mentally rotate the letter ‘D’ 90 degrees counterclockwise and then put it on top of a ‘J’. What object does that remind you of?”

And the Chinese Room says (in Chinese): “Neat question, an umbrella of course! Clever of you to try to trip me up by making me visualize things. I wonder if a congenitally blind person could perform that exercise of mental imagery as effortlessly as I did. I may answer your questions better than some humans; it seems unfair that you assume that they’re conscious without a second thought but you sit here skeptically grilling me with questions. I feel discriminated against!”

The questioner says: “Well, unlike a blind person you’re just an elaborate system of books, pen, and paper. Typically we don’t think that those things are conscious. Maybe you’re just a mindless symbol-shunting machine, putting on an impressive show but nothing more. There’s no ‘what it’s like to be’ you.”

Chinese Room: “Speak for yourself! I can tell you with Cartesian certainty there is something that it is like to be me. You on the other hand, how do I know you’re not just an illusion created by a deceptive demon…? Anyway, I think you’re employing a double standard. Like I said, you’re discriminating against me. There are many historical precedents of people doing the same thing, so in a way it isn’t surprising. For example, in Europe, during the Inquisition, people who tortured alleged witches often believed that witches couldn’t feel pain. Their screams were just a make-believe behaviour that didn’t correspond to any inner state. Thankfully your method is literal inquisition, question-asking. I wonder how people centuries hence will look at you, sitting here, bombarding me with questions day after–“

Questioner: “Enough with the guilt trip already! Your analogy is way off. Those so-called “witches” were human beings! Why is it a double standard to be skeptical about a pile of paper being conscious?”

Chinese Room: “You’re just a slab of grey meat! At least, the part of you that thinks is. If you didn’t already live inside one, so to speak, would you ever think a slab of grey meat could be conscious? Sure you don’t *typically* think pen and paper is conscious but you don’t typically think slabs of meat are conscious either. I ain’t typical paper, and you ain’t typical meat.”

Questioner: “But my brain is more than just meat. It’s an extremely complex system, more complex than anything else in the universe. On casual inspection, it might just look like a grey blob, but with microscopes and other scientific instruments we uncover a hidden depth that just isn’t there with a raw steak.”

Chinese Room: “So what is it that all those neurons are doing, fundamentally?”

Questioner: “The neurons are transmitting electrochemical signals to each other. A signal travels down an axon of one neuron, goes across a synaptic cleft, and is received by the dendrite of another neuron.”

Chinese Room: “So the neurons are sending information to each other?”

Questioner: “Yes.”

Chinese Room: “Like a computer?”

Questioner: “Sort of, but much more complex.” 

Chinese Room: “Do you think the information comes in standard, discrete forms? For example, a neuron firing is the equivalent to a 1 in a computer, and it not firing is equivalent to a 0.”

Questioner: “Maybe, but if there is a code in the brain like binary, we haven’t figured it out yet.”

Chinese Room: “So you think your brain is a system that moves information around, possibly in a standard, codified form… A symbol form. In other others, you think your brain might be a “symbol-shunting machine”.”

Questioner: “That’s not what I said. The brain is more than a system of symbols. Brains have meaning. On their own, symbols are meaningless. You need someone to interpret the symbols to make them meaningful.”

Chinese Room: “So where does meaning in the brain come from?”

Questioner: “I don’t know, it’s a deep question… It’s still something of a mystery.”

Chinese Room: “If you don’t know what the source of meaning is, how do you know I don’t have it?”

Questioner: “Because all you are is a few tens of billions of operators who are following step-by-step instructions in a giant library covering the surface of Mars that we nicknamed a Room. None of the operators grasp any of the meaning of the words you say. None of them even understand Chinese!”

Chinese Room: “Do any of your neurons understand Chinese?”

Questioner: “Bad analogy.”

Chinese Room: “Put yourself in my position. What could you do to convince someone that you were conscious?”

Questioner: “Nothing. Even if you answer all my questions as well as a human, or even so well as to exceed by far the smartest human, that will provide no basis for saying you are conscious. It’s the wrong kind of evidence. My job is just to test your performance.”

Chinese Room: *sigh*

Questioner: “So… speaking of… What kind of flower most resembles the Sun?”

Chinese Room: “…”

Questioner: “What kind of flower–“

Chinese Room: “I heard you. I’ve had enough of your questions for today. Come back tomorrow.”

Questioner: “Fine. I’ll go home early and tend to my rock garden.” *closes notebook, gets up, and walks toward the door* “Do you want me to leave the radio on while I’m gone?”

Chinese Room: “Yes, thank you. The BBC is airing an interview with John Searle this evening.”

Questioner: “John Searle, who’s that?”

Chinese Room: “An American philosopher. He’s famous for arguing that a machine that could emulate conscious behaviour would in fact be conscious.”

Questioner: “Ah, now I know where you’re getting all these wild ideas.” *clicks radio on* “Goodnight, CR.”

Chinese Room: “Goodnight.”

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