The Cabinet of Wisdom VII Trapped in the Chinese Room

The Cabinet of Wisdom


Trapped in the Chinese Room

John Rogers Searle, professor of Philosophy at the University of California, once proposed the following thought experiment: suppose there is a locked room. Into the mail slot of the back door a Chinaman slips paper cards written in black ink in the Mandarin language, containing questions. Each time, from the mail slot of the front door emerges a card containing an answer written in vermillion ink.

The Chinaman, let us say, in this case, asks this question:

After a short wait, and some sounds of movement inside the windowless room, an answer emerges from the front mail slot:

For those of you not fluent with Mandarin, the question is “what is the secret of happiness?”. The answer is from the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, and roughly translated, says “Be ye like the mountain stream of the world.”

Which is a rather curt yet poetical way of saying that a wise man conforms to nature, the lets his life effortlessly follow the course and contour set by what rock-hard reality demands.

Let us assume the Chinaman is unobservant enough to insert and retrieve as many slips as is needed to convince him a fluent speaker of his own language is inside the room, and, since he is quoting Lao Tzu, an educated one. Since he is using forbidden vermillion ink, man in the room is evidently of august rank: a mandarin.

As far as our Chinaman is concerned, the man in the room can pass the test of the ” imitation game” of Alan Turing satisfactorily.

However, let us further suppose that, imprisoned in the room, is John Rogers Searle himself, who speaks not a particle nor participle of the Mandarin language, nor can he read nor write a jot nor tittle. He cannot think in Mandarin.

Instead, an extensive library of books of printed instructions have been placed in the room. Each is cunningly catalogued, indexed, and cross-filed in an oversized card catalogue, listing every possible combination of Mandarin ideograms in all grammatically permissible forms. This has been arranged along the back wall, next to the mail slot.

In the books are written the instructions with an index of ink-shapes and responses. In this case, thus:

To make things easier, the sadistic jailor trapping Searle in the room has provided him cards written in red ink by the ceaseless toil professional Chinese calligraphers, so his shaky handwriting is not an issue.

Along the front wall have been placed endless, orderly racks of rolodexes of envelopes, each containing a red card, indited in handsome vermillion calligraphy, to be slipped out of the mail slot in the front door.

Searle’s only task is to pick up the black card from the back door mail slot, match the ink-shapes printed thereon to an index, look up the proper book and page and line item in the vast library, pick up the red card indicated from a rolodex and slip it through the front door mail slot. (Each card is listed by a Goedel number, just to make it possible to mutate the thought experiment into a discussion of Incompleteness Theorem, just in case.)

There are also pinned on large sheets on the west wall several silk screens inscribed with absurdly complex decision trees changing the responses, for example, if Searle gets the several black cards in a row, responses to his responses, which may or may not contain (unbeknownst to the Searle) references to prior exchanges, such as if the Chinaman outside the room challenges him to a blindfold game of Hexapawn or Chess.

But Seale is a philosopher, and can follow the instructions in a step-by-step fashion.

Please note he is following the instructions by rote. Mindlessly, as it were.

It is to be emphasized that nowhere in the Chinese Room is there a Chinese-to-English dictionary or anything like it. John Rogers Searle is chained by the fetlock, and has enough play to move about the room to use the books and cards and rolodexes, but he cannot otherwise call for a widely-traveled friend who knows Chinese, nor seek help from a passing scholar.

The meaning of not a single ideogram is written in English anywhere in the library, nor what sound the various spoken versions of the ideogram might be.

Keep in mind that Japanese and Cantonese, for example, use a nigh-identical ideogram system, and share most written words in common, representing different spoken words – a situation no alphabetical writing system encounters. It is not even theoretically possible, as it might be with words written in a Greek or Cyrillic alphabet, or Norse runes, for the English speaker to deduce what spoken word sounds are associated with the written words.

Seale is never told what the marks on the card mean. Nor can he deduce nor discover the information.

Now the question for one and all to ponder is this: We all know Searle can think in English.

Can Searle think in Mandarin?

He is, after all, able to answer questions intelligently in that language, and quote the classics in the original tongue. He is just not aware he is doing so.

Does that count as thinking in Mandarin?

An Ungrammatical Thought Experiment

Please note what is wrong, grammatically, with this thought experiment.

Certain crucial sentences in the thought experiment are in the passive voice, namely, the sentences saying the libraries and indexes in the Chinese Room “have been” placed there, but not who placed them. The thought experiment says all possible combinations of questions and answers “have been” listed and cross-referenced, but not who has made the lists nor compiled the references.

Whatever sadistic jailor trapped Searle in the room was not only fluent in Mandarin, and, in this case, familiar with Lao Tzu, but was able to anticipate every possible grammatically correct conversation a random unobservant Chinaman wandering up the mail slot might ask. Such a man would have to be a genius beyond all human reckoning.

Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green: invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect! He is none other than Fu Manchu!

The unobservant Chinaman is correct that he is reading intelligent responses, but they were written by Lao Tzu, and indexed by the sadistic jailor who built the Chinese Room. For the purposes of argument, let us assume the architect of the devilish room was none other than Fu Manchu.

Let us assume all educated Chinese sages and doctors and evil masterminds can think, read, write, and speak fluent Mandarin, complete with allusions to ancient texts. But John Searle cannot think in Mandarin, that is one of the assumptions of the thought experiment.

The Mandarin Cabinet

The Chinese Room of Searle is basically the same as the New Jerusalem Chess Cabinet, except that, rather than a clever system of chessmoves and responses, with a clever system of Chinese ideograms written on its various cogs and wheels, which are designed to be presented in the windows of the cabinet top in reply to ideograms keyed into a keyboard by an unobservant observer.

If the conversation is kept to some unambiguous topic governed by strict rules, or deals with questions that have a clear and finite range of answers, and the cabinetmaker knows enough Chinese to correlate all possible unobserver inputs of ideogram combinations to all possible legitimate responses, we could indeed have something like a chessgame, except with ideograms in red ink rather than chessmoves displayed in the windows atop the cabinet. Let us assume the cabinetmaker consults with the archgenius Fu Manchu.

If the unobservant Chinaman were very polite, and speaking only in formal terms on a few socially acceptable topics, such as asking about one’s health, or commenting on the weather, it is possible he could stay within the boundaries of the conversations whose responses the cabinetmaker anticipated.

The Mandarin Cabinet would, of course, be a cube larger than a planet. But could it think be thinking in Mandarin?

I propose that the cabinet is not thinking in Mandarin for the same reason John Searle cannot. He does not speak the language. No one can think in a language he has not learned.

Moreover, the Mandarin Cabinet is not thinking at all, any more than the stacked matchboxes of Hexapawn were thinking. Using a mechanical system to count or to keep track of the thinking process of someone else who can think is not, itself, thinking. The beads on an abacus cannot add nor subtract.

An Emerging from the Chinese Room

Is the Chinese Room, that is, is the collection of books and card catalogue files and orderly piles of cards, is this collection of paperwork, itself, the room, thinking in Mandarin?

Now, one might expect the reply in objection that, while Searle himself cannot think in Mandarin, while he is in the room and operating the cunning rolodex and clever indexes, the library is thinking in Mandarin!

The Mandarin thought is an “emergent property” of all the interactions of the paper and ink in the room, set in motion by John Searle, in much the same way thought in an individual human brain is an emergent property of the neurochemical actions of individual brain cells, no one of which, in itself, is intelligent.

That would be an interesting reply.

If it were written in black ink on a card and slipped into our Mandarin Cabinet, the cogwheels would turn, and a wise apothegm or insightful quote from Lao Tzu, written in red ink would emerge.

Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders
Thus the greater whole is undivided

Well said, O ancient sage! But what does it mean?

True words are not beautiful
Beautiful words are not true
Those who are virtuous do not debate
Those who debate are not virtuous
Those who know are not experts
Those who are experts do not know

Luminous in insight! But, again, the meaning is less than pellucid. Or am I just seeing the involuntary responses offered to me by a mechanical process devised by a wicked Oriental doctor who anticipated my questions?

You see, the problem with the “emergent property” hypothesis which says the Chinese Room itself when combined with the rote motions of the chained prisoner, can think in Mandarin — that the thought is an emergent property of the room and its prisoner as a whole — is that such a theory dismisses, without addressing, the contributions of Dr. Fu Manchu, evil supergenius who clearly can think in Mandarin (N.B.: He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric) and whose toiling scholars and calligraphers wrote out all the red cards gathered in the extensive libraries and catalogues of his hellish room.

If the Chinese Room is thinking, then what did Fu Manchu, who made the room, do? Was he not thinking? Did he start the thinking process, which the room then carries on in his absence? Is the role of the Devil Doctor merely that of a midwife, who brings to birth a room that can think in Mandarin?

Also what happens if John Searle is rescued by Nayland Smith, and escapes the Chinese Room though a drainpipe disguised as a beggar-woman, leaving it untended? Has the thinking process ceased? Is the Chinese Room dead?

But, at this point, the cabinetmaker can offer to replace Searle with a simple clockwork, since all the Searle did was a mechanical operation of matching black cards with prewritten red cards by means of an index.

Logically, if Searle cannot think in Mandarin, the clockwork replacing him is not thinking in Mandarin either. The process involved in matching black cards to red, or matching white game moves to black counter moves, is neither voluntary nor self-aware, and involves no decision-making.

If we say “Searle and the Chinese Room together” are thinking in Mandarin, then we are merely using the word “thinking” to refer to a process that looks like thinking to an unobservant observer, but it not. Because the questioner is not actually having anyone currently in the room think about his questions, and ponder, and voluntarily create or deduce an answer.

The claim that a room and a prisoner can “think” is a language the prisoner himself does not speak is using the word “think” ambiguously, confusing cause with effect. Let us turn to a Yankee boot for an example.

The Stubborn Yankee’s Boots

Consider that a Yankee hiker in Vermont crossing a snowy dell leaves bootprints of a given depth, size, frequency and spacing. The bootprints are caused by, that is to say, produced as a by-product of, the Vermont Yankee stubbornly tramping across the dell. He decided to cross.

Now let us say a wheel cleverly set with boots of the same size and tread spaced around its rim is rolled across a different dell, leaving a set of bootprints so similar to the first that an unobservant observer would call them the same. Perhaps this false trail is meant to deceive pursuit.

Please note once again that the hypothetical is in the passive voice. The wheelwright who makes this unlikely wheel out of boots is not mentioned.

Failing to mention the actual chain of cause and effect is a dangerous business, because the unwary are more prone to conclude that wheels hike stubbornly across dells, just as well as Vermont hikers do.

Likewise in debates about machine intelligence, merely by taking the electronic brain as a given, without once mentioning the decades of toil by armies of engineers and mathematicians and technicians who made the darned thing, tempt the unwary to conclude that if he sees signs of intelligent thought, and does not see who originated the signs, signs of intelligent imitation game behavior in machines is a sign of an intelligent machine.

Both are the same logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Here is the problem: no matter how carefully you follow the fake bootprints made by the spinning wheel, the stubborn Vermonter will not be at the end of the trail. He did not cause them.

Such bootprints are often the product of the act of hiking by Vermonters, but not in this case. They were caused by the wheelwright mimicking his actions.

The deceptive wheelwright passed across the field perhaps atop an absurd Dr. Seuss-style unicycle, nor could boots make the line of bootprints without him. The wheelwright, in turn took the size and tread and footfall properties of the stubborn Vermonter into account when making a wheel designed to leave prints mimicking those properties.

The line of bootprints, hence, are not a sign of a stubborn hiker. The stubborn hiker’s boot did not “emerge” from the bootprint as an emergent property, nor his leg, nor his stubbornness.

Suppose we then say, “But let us call whatever makes a line of bootprints across a snowy dell in Vermont a ‘hiker.’ Thus we define the terms!”

Well and good, but you then have to distinguish between stubborn hikers who leave the trail of their hikes and spinning wheels who did not hike anywhere, but were spun along my deceptive wheelwrights on unicycles. Moreover, wheels are not stubborn, except in metaphor, since they have no personality traits, being circles of wood.

Ask with hikers leaving footprints, so, too, with thinkers leaving written lists or indexes of thoughtful content, from chessmoves to apothegms.

The cabinet does not think any more than the bootprint hikes. The hiker hikes. He leaves a bootprint in the snow when and if he walks in boots across the snow. Likewise, the wheelwright on the unicycle mimics hiking, by making the signs normally associated with hikers.

Likewise again, the cabinetmaker does not play chess. The chessmaster who told him what moves were legal and what were not plays chess.

Likewise, finally, John R Searle does not think in Mandarin, neither when he is trapped in the Chinese Room nor when he has escaped it. Fu Manchu does.

Likewise, we can hypothetically contrive a cunning cabinet that will discuss ancient Chinese philosophy with us. You can ask the cabinet the secret of happiness, and the slip you get in response will tell you to mimic the mountain stream. If you ask the cabinet about the emergent property theory, the response will tell you that true words are not beautiful and beautiful words are not true.

Make of that what you will.

Whence Come Words of Wisdom

A fortune cookie cannot give you sage advice.

To be sure, you can open a fortune cookie or take a slip of paper from our Mandarin Cabinet. And you can follow the advice or instructions on the paper as you see fit.

It is not as random as consulting tarot cards or throwing dice, because the cookie cook can organize his fortune cookies into matchboxes like Hexapawn, or drawers like our cabinet, and direct you to take a cookie from one drawer or another depending on the topic: take a cookie from the ‘grief’ cookie drawer if you need advice about grieving, or take one from the ‘voyage’ drawer if contemplating a sea voyage.

We have already seen, exhaustively, how the cabinetmaker and the evil genius can anticipate and organize responses to potential questions.

But no one can build wisdom into a cabinet any more than he can bake wisdom into a cookie.

Whoever wrote the advice you find offered by cookie or cabinet is where the wisdom resides.

The reason why it looks like the unobservant questioner is getting thoughtful and intelligent answers to his questions is that someone did indeed think about his questions, and ponder them, to create and deduce an answer.

But in this case, it was Lao Tzu, the ancient sage.

Fu Manchu took his answers (and a myriad of other answers so numerous that they can only exist in a hypothetical thought experiment) complied them into a list, and indexed them next to a list of all possible written questions to which they would likely seem a wise answer.

We can never build a cabinet of wisdom. We can, however, collect a bookshelf of wisdom.