The problem with the chinese room

The problem I see with Searle’s Chinese Room is in the instruction manual. My mind boggles at an instuction manual that could actually explain the entirety of a language, but I would have to say that if such a manual could be written, and if the room operator could memorize the manual, then you would have to say the operator knew Chinese.

Take a maximally simple example. Instead of Chinese, have one instance of basic math. When the operator receives the symbol (1) he records it on his tape, and if the symbol is adjacent to another (1), return an answer of (2) and erase the tape, otherwise do nothing.

In this example the room is basically computing 1+1. If we ask whether the operator would then ‘understand’ that 1+1=2, I think the answer would have to be yes. It’s just that the operator would know ONLY the fact that it actually computes and nothing else.

Going back to Chinese, if we ask the operator something like “Why are sunsets so beautiful?”, the instruction manual that the operator refers to would have to include within its design higher order relationships if it is going to give a ‘human’ answer. If the operator were somehow able to memorize this instruction manual, then it would have to be said that the operator understands Chinese (as well as what a sunset is, what people find beautiful, etc.). The problem is that such a manual would be nearly infinite in size and complexity, and so it is pretty much unimaginable that a person could understand chinese this way, but in theory I believe that the ‘knowing’ of Chinese resides in implementations of the rules of the rule book.

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~ by jneuhaus on June 11, 2008.

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