- This religious diatribe against AI, masquerading as a serious scientific argument, is one of the wrongest, most infuriating articles I have ever read in my life. It is matched in its power to annoy only by the famous article "Minds, Machines, and Godel" by J. R. Lucas (1961).
- Searle's trouble is one that I can easily identify with. Like me, he has deep difficulty in seeing how mind, soul, "I, " can come out of brain, cells, atoms. To show his puzzlement, he gives some beautiful paraphrases of this mystery. One of my favorites is the water-pipe simulation of a brain. It gets straight to the core of the mind-body problem. The strange thing is that Searle simply dismisses any possibility of such a system's being conscious with a hand wave of "absurd." (I actually think he radically misrepresents the complexity of such a water-pipe system both to readers and in his own mind, but that is a somewhat separable issue.)
- The fact is, we have to deal with a reality of nature - and realities of nature sometimes are absurd. Who would have believed that light consists of spinning massless wave particles obeying an uncertainty principle while traveling through a curved four-dimensional universe? The fact that intelligence1, understanding, mind, consciousness, soul all do spring from an unlikely source - an enormously tangled web of cell bodies, axons, synapses, and dendrites - is absurd, and yet undeniable. How this can create an "I " is hard to understand, but once we accept that fundamental, strange, disorienting fact, then it should seem no more weird to accept a water-pipe "I. "
- Searle's way of dealing with this reality of nature is to claim he accepts it - but then he will not accept its consequences. The main consequence is that "intentionality" - his name for soul - is an outcome of formal processes. I admit that I have slipped one extra premise in here: that physical processes are formal, that is, rule governed. To put it another way, the extra premise is that there is no intentionality at the level of particles. (Perhaps I have misunderstood Searle. He may be a mystic and claim that there is intentionality at that level. But then how does one explain why it seems to manifest itself in consciousness only when the particles are arranged in certain special configurations - brains - but not, say, in water-pipe arrangements of any sort and size?) The conjunction of these two beliefs seems to me to compel one to admit the possibility of all the hopes of artificial intelligence2, despite the fact that it will always baffle us to think of ourselves as, at bottom, formal systems.
- To people who have never programmed, the distinction between levels of a computer system - programs that run "on" other programs or on hardware - is an elusive one. I believe Searle doesn't really understand this subtle idea, and thus blurs many distinctions while creating other artificial ones to take advantage of human emotional responses that are evoked in the process of imagining unfamiliar ideas.
- He begins with what sounds like a relatively innocent situation: a man in a room with a set of English instructions ("bits of paper") for manipulating some Chinese symbols. At first, you think the man is answering questions (although unbeknown to him) about restaurants, using Schankian scripts. Then Searle casually slips in the idea that this program can pass the Turing test! This is an incredible jump in complexity - perhaps a millionfold increase if not more. Searle seems not to be aware of how radically it changes the whole picture to have that "little" assumption creep in. But even the initial situation, which sounds plausible enough, is in fact highly unrealistic.
- Imagine a human being, hand simulating a complex AI program, such as a script-based "understanding" program. To digest a full story, to go through the scripts and to produce the response, would probably take a hard eight-hour day for a human being. Actually, of course, this hand-simulated program is supposed to be passing the Turing test, not just answering a few stereotyped questions about restaurants. So let's jump up to a week per question, since the program would be so complex. (We are being unbelievably generous to Searle.)
- Now Searle asks you to identify with this poor slave of a human (he doesn't actually ask you to identify with him - he merely knows you will project yourself onto this person, and vicariously experience the indescribably boring nightmare of that hand simulation). He knows your reaction will be: "This is not understanding the story - this is some sort of formal process!" But remember: any time some phenomenon is looked at on a scale a million times different from its familiar scale, it doesn't seem the same! When I imagine myself feeling my brain running a hundred times too slowly (of course that is paradoxical but it is what Searle wants me to do), then of course it is agonizing, and presumably I would not even recognize the feelings at all. Throw in yet another factor of a thousand and one cannot even imagine what it would feel like.
- Now this is what Searle is doing. He is inviting you to identify with a nonhuman which he lightly passes off as a human, and by doing so he asks you to participate in a great fallacy. Over and over again he uses this ploy, this emotional trickery, to get you to agree with him that surely, an intricate system of water pipes can't think! He forgets to tell you that a water-pipe simulation of the brain would take, say, a few trillion water pipes with a few trillion workers standing at faucets turning them when needed, and he forgets to tell you that to answer a question it would take a year or two. He forgets to tell you, because if you remembered that, and then on your own, imagined taking a movie and speeding it up a million times, and imagined changing your level of description of the thing from the faucet level to the pipe-cluster level, and on through a series of ever higher levels until you reached some sort of eventual symbolic level, why then you might say, "Hey, when I imagine what this entire system would be like when perceived at this time scale and level of description, I can see how it might be conscious after all!"
- Searle is representative of a class of people who have an instinctive horror of any "explaining away" of the soul. I don't know why certain people have this horror while others, like me, find in reductionism3 the ultimate religion. Perhaps my lifelong training in physics and science in general has given me a deep awe at seeing how the most substantial and familiar of objects or experiences fades away, as one approaches the infinitesimal scale, into an eerily insubstantial ether, a myriad of ephemeral swirling vortices of nearly incomprehensible mathematical activity. This in me evokes a kind of cosmic awe. To me, reductionism4 does not "explain away"; rather, it adds mystery. I know that this journal is not the place for philosophical and religious commentary, yet it seems to me that what Searle and I have is, at the deepest level, a religious disagreement, and I doubt that anything I say could ever change his mind. He insists on things he calls "causal intentional properties" which seem to vanish as soon as you analyze them, find rules for them, or simulate them. But what those things are, other than epiphenomena, or "innocently emergent" qualities, I don't know.
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