John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Dialog with an Empty Chinese Room

There is an old joke about a bum who drops a quarter in an alley but is looking for it under a streetlamp. Why look there, and not where the quarter was dropped? Oh, replies the drunk, the light is better over here!

A reader writes in and asks for empirical proof of God's existence. I replied that such a thing is not possible and not imaginable. One cannot and will not see visible proofs for invisible things.

 Even witnessing a miracle does not empirically prove an Intelligence was using events in visible nature to testify to what is beyond nature. Even if you saw the Red Sea part, and walked between the waters as if between two crystal walls, all that would prove is that the Red Sea parted. Maybe Ra did it; maybe Martians; maybe force fields from Atlantis; maybe the law of gravity hiccoughed; maybe it happened for no reason. When the towering waves collapse back on the Pharaoh's chariots with hideous slaughter and ruin, you can say that was a coincidence.

You cannot prove the parting of the sea was deliberate, because deliberation is invisible. You cannot see the event had meaning, because "meaning" is not a color. It is not a thing seen with the eye. It is a thing understood with the understanding. You can see water, measure its volume, temperature and mass. You cannot see the meaning of the parting of the Red Sea, unless you understand who parted it and why. To you, it is a singular, non-repeated event, a coincidence without meaning: the gibberish of nature.  


The limitation of empiricism is that it only speaks to empirical things. Empiricism is silent on the matter of whether human consciousness is real, morality is real, geometry is real, economics is real, truth is real, beauty is real, or even whether the rules of logic are real. These are all things that cannot be proved, or even addressed, by the empirical method.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." Fine. But the property 'self-evidence' is a logical category, and has no mass, and so cannot be measured by a balance scale, and no length, and so cannot be measured by a yardstick, and no duration, and so cannot be timed with a stopwatch. The Rights of Man are likewise immune to yardstick, scale, and stopwatch. I can weigh and measure Peter and Paul, and see whether their height and weight are equal. But how can I tell whether their rights and rank and dignity are equal? If Peter is a Peer, he can only be tried by Parliament. If Paul is a slave, he has no right to a jury trial, and no right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Measure that for me with a yardstick, Empiricists! Or don't you believe in the equality of Man? Or are these things neatly separated in your mind, one airtight compartment from another, with no bothersome logic communicating between them?

Empiricism is also silent on whether or not the empirical method is real.  The empirical method is something that assumes logic, assumes the sense are accurate, assumes the noumenal reality behind the phenomena is consistent, universal, and unchanging. It assumes that there are laws of Nature and that the laws of Nature do not vary from place to place or time to time. It assumes the categories of cause and effect, essence and accident. It assumes a moral standard of accuracy in reporting and honesty in thinking. And so on. One cannot use the empirical method to prove any of the apriori axioms, definitions or common notions on which the empirical sciences are founded any more than you can rest your basement atop your attic.

A fortiori, the empirical method is silent on supernatural reality of any kind. God is a Spirit. You cannot see God with your eye any more than you can weigh Ash Wednesday in the right pan of the balance and Easter Sunday in the left, to see which one weighs more. "Wednesday" refers to a duration of time. It does not have weight.

The reader asks:

So if we cannot verify the spiritual world within the physical, how can we verify it? What measurement should we then use to ascertain the rationality of our assumptions and conclusions?

Well, we cannot verify even the material world by means of empiricism. Empiricism assumes that the material world is objective and rational, governed by cause and effect, and logically self-consistent; it does not prove these things. Why are you asking me to build a tower to heaven without bricks or lumber when I cannot even build a toolshed, if you do not give me the bricks or lumber needed to do the work?

The question about measuring rationality had me stumped. Logic is something we use when we think logically, and something we ignore when we think in a sloppy fashion. It is not something open to doubt, and it is not something doubtful open to proof.

How do you demonstrate to a skeptic that reasoning is useful, either by demonstration or by not demonstrating it? Does not demonstration require and presuppose reason? Will the skeptic be convinced by an illogical string of words, or perhaps a series of noises without meaning, such a trumpet blasts or drumrolls? Any objection that can be answered with a loud noise is not a logical objection, and need not be a concern of philosophers.

My answer for the other part of the question was this:

You yourself are a spirit. How is it that you are thinking and talking? How is it that you are deciding to write some words and not other words?

For that matter, what is a word? The word is not the idea to which the word points: "2" and "Two" and "ii" all point to the same concept, but they are not that concept, because there are many symbols that mean two, but there is only one concept.

When you ask what measurement we use to ascertain the rationality of our assumptions, I can only point to the tools you already use in your daily life, every hour: reason, experience, conscience.

His startling reply was this:

I am thinking and talking because I am a machine that through its course of operation moves certain appendages and acquires a result.

Yes, you can only prove the scientific method through the scientific method. I've run through the argument before. I would simply note that the scientific method has also produced computers in the long run, which is sufficient enough for me to take the basic axiom (the universe is mechanistic and repeatable) on faith.

I point out the illogic involved in using the scientific method to prove the scientific method, but he does not or cannot reply.

A little later he says:

You are assuming that curiosity has a final cause. You are assuming my curiosity has any will behind it. Therefore, my suggestion that I have no such will seems to be a logical contradiction, because of the earlier assumption. How do you know I'm not a Chinese room?

For those of you who don't catch the reference:

The Chinese Room argument is a thought experiment and associated arguments designed by John Searle (Searle 1980) to show that a symbol processing machine like a computer can never be properly described as having a "mind".

Searle asks his audience to imagine that many years from now, people have constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. The computer takes Chinese characters as input and, following a program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it easily passes the Turing test. In other words, it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a human Chinese speaker. …. The conclusion that proponents of artificial intelligence would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does.

Now, Searle asks the audience to suppose that he is in a room in which he receives Chinese characters, consults a book containing an English version of the computer program, and processes the Chinese characters according to the instructions in the book. Searle notes that he does not, of course, understand a word of Chinese. He simply manipulates what to him are meaningless squiggles, using the book and whatever other equipment is provided in the room, such as paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. After manipulating the symbols, Searle will produce the answer in Chinese. Since the computer passed the Turing test, so does Searle running its program by hand: "Nobody just looking at my answers can tell that I don't speak a word of Chinese," Searle writes.

Searle argues that his lack of understanding goes to show that computers do not understand Chinese either, because they are in the same situation as he is. They are mindless manipulators of symbols, just as he is. They don't understand what they're "saying", just as he doesn't. Since they do not have conscious mental states like "understanding", they can not properly be said to have minds.

Myself, I cannot read about the Chinese Room argument without the bitterest laughter. Turing, and others of his ilk, have simply set themselves an impossible task, a stupid task. They are looking for the quarter under the streetlamp, and not in the alley where they dropped it. They are looking for empirical, material, visible evidence of a mental and spiritual and psychological reality.

Only a radical solipsist would even regard the question as pressing. If the computer is self-aware, then it is aware of itself and is, indeed, aware of its self-awareness. If the computer cannot demonstrate its self-awareness through the process of passing an empirical test, that is a fault (and a stupid fault) of the test.

The test to be used in not the Turing test but the McNaughten Test. In law, if a defendant pleads insanity, it must be shown, for him to be shown leniency or these grounds, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or did not know it was wrong. Finding out whether Skynet or Colossus is capable of moral reasoning is much more important than finding out whether it is intelligent.

The people who love and are loved by the intelligent computer will know it has a soul the same way you know the writer of a love-letter has a soul: not my measure the physical properties of the ink-shapes on the perfumed page, but by reading the words, knowing their meaning, and understanding them by means of the faculty called understanding.

What? Are you saying intelligent computers cannot fall in love? I know people like that too. Too bad for them. If lovelessness is the problem faced by an A.I., proving itself to be self-aware to a fool (like Turing, who deliberately closes his eyes not all non-empirical evidence) will be the least of Robby the Robot's problems.

It is this faculty, the understanding, that meat machines and radical empiricist pretend does not exist, even thought they use their understanding in the act of arguing the point. A solipsist understands other people exist when he talks to other people, telling them that they do not exist, and when he reads books by other solipsists, telling him they do not exist. The only answer to a solipsist is, "To whom are you talking?"

All a radical materialist is, is a solipsist who takes the next step down the road of folly, and becomes convinced that neither you nor he actually exist. The only answer to a radical materialist is, "From whence come the words issuing out of your mouth?"

But enough about the Chinese room. Back to my conversation with the poor soul suffering the delusion that he is a machine.

My reply was too long to fit in a comments thread. I post it here instead.

"That is, you are assuming that curiosity has a final cause."

That is not an assumption: it is a deduction. Curiosity is directed toward the end or goal of satisfying curiosity. A falling stone or spinning cog in a clockwork does not have an end a goal, because it is not self-aware. Describing the parabola of a falling stone tells us  nothing about the goal-directed behavior of a stone, precisely because there is nothing to tell. Stones have no goal-directed behavior. They are not alive. They do not think, act, decide.

So, to put it more clearly: (1) all physical properties whatsoever can be reduced to, or expressed in terms of length, mass, duration, current, temperature, luminous intensity, moles of substance. (2) Curiosity cannot be expressed in terms of, or reduced to, any of these. (3) therefore curiosity is not a physical property.

"You are assuming my curiosity has any will behind it."

That is not an assumption I am making. You can be curious against your will, depending on how much self-control you exercise over your curiosity. But curiosity is a motive, and it moves toward an end goal or final cause, because that is the definition of motive. All passions, whatever else they are, are motives. Hunger is a motive toward food, thirst toward drink, fear toward avoiding what one fears, hate toward combat with what one hates, love toward companionship, curiosity toward knowledge.  Motives are mental realities. Inanimate objects are moved by outside forces, not by internal motives. They do not do things because they want to. We do.

Wanting something logically implies the satisfaction of that want to be its final cause. The definition of "final cause" is that it is the causes that motivates the action toward the end desired.

"How do you know I'm not a Chinese room?"

If the man who set up the Chinese room had enough foresight to anticipate all my questions and all your answers, that he is the one I am addressing. If you are a Chinese Room, I am not talking to you, because you do not exist.

When I get a love letter from my wife, I don't actually think the piece of paper is talking to me. When I type a message into a computer, and get back a response, even a complex response, I am reading the words the programmer typed it, and set the machine to show to me under certain conditions. But no matter how complicated the Chinese room, or the computer game, or the letter, there is always someone behind it, some mind who originally wrote the words.

But this is all to one side. I am not asking you to convince me you exist. I am asking you to stop pretending that you are not convinced you exist.

The question is, can you seriously, to yourself, without giggling, convince yourself you are a Chinese room?

If you do, whom are you convincing?

Who is being convinced?

What is the process of conviction? How is it done? By logic, or by something else?

How can you believe in that the scientific method is a valid means to convince a reasonable mind to decide your statements about the physical world are accurate, if, at the same time, you also believe that there is no such thing as accuracy, as statements, as decisions, as minds, as validity, as methods, and as belief?

For accuracy is not a physical property: it refers to a relation between mental symbols and the objects those symbols represent. We call correct representation accurate and incorrect or unliteral representation inaccurate. We call the symbols by which the mind contemplates, when reduced to subject-predicate form, statements. We call deliberate actions of the mind decisions, and, because reasoning is deliberate, we call the process of thinking and talking deliberately about statements the process of deliberation. The mind we call that internal reality which is aware of external reality through perception and reflection, and also self-aware of internal reality through introspection or thought.  Validity is the condition when statements fulfill a priori rules of logic, for we know axiomatically that reality is self-consistent. A method is a means selected to achieve an end sought: in philosophy or science methods consist of epistemological methods, that is, a means of verifying verities. A belief is a statement whose final cause is to be valid and verified, that is, it is a thought meant to reflect reality.

None of these mental realities (accuracy, statements, decisions,  minds, validity,  methods, belief) can be reduced to physical reality (length, mass, duration, amperage, temperature, luminosity, substance).

Come now: your comments have passed the absurd and verged into the insane. You have decided to make the attempt to make certain statements to convince me that you (your consciousness) do not exist. But things that do not exist cannot make statements, do not make decisions, do not write words, do not put together arguments.

Here is the reason why you can believe in God with absolute, apodictic certainty: the absence of a belief in God has led you to being unable to believe in anything else. You mind is now a void. You are a machine. You have no soul. You are not alive nor dead, merely a cloud of atoms vibrating and moving with no purpose and no sense.

Those are your two options: being and nothingness. Since you cannot logically choose nothingness, you must chose being.

Machines are irrational. They do not think. They are clockworks, moved by a spring. The gears turn and cogwheels wheel. That is all. There is no thought involved. A machine can be oiled or rusted, broken or fixed, but it cannot be rational or irrational, honest or dishonest. A clock that runs slow is not "lying" about the time. Pocketwatches do not giggle and try to fool their owners out of malice. A sundial is not being honest when it tells the time on a sunny day, and is not dishonest on a cloudy day.

If your axioms lead you to the conclusion that you are a machine rather than a moral agent capable of reading this sentence, thinking about it honestly and rationally, and answering it honestly and rationally, then your axioms are false.

You cannot think you are not thinking when you think you are not thinking. In order to think the thought "I don't think" you must think.

Dorothy asks the Scarecrow, "How can you talk, if you haven't got a brain?" The Scarecrow ponders that a moment, and answers, "I don't know. But it seems to me that people without brains do an awful lot of talking!"

Now, this is a joke in a musical comedy, and we are right to laugh. But now, in real life, you are telling me that you are really a Scarecrow, a Chinese Room, a Machine. When I ask you, "How can you talk, if you haven't got a brain?" you do not and cannot answer the question.

You are asking me what physical evidence can prove to you that God exists, and yet your standard of evidence is so deranged that you cannot even prove to yourself that you exist.

You are being as totally irrational as it is possible to me: you write direct and manifest self-contradictions, statements which, merely by writing them down and meaning what they say, prove that they themselves are false. "I am a machine" is not a sentence that a machine can deliberately mean to write, because machines do not deliberate meanings and attempt to convey them by writing. 

You might say it is irrational to believe in the existence of God without evidence. From anyone but you, I can answer that question without laughter. You, I cannot answer because I must laugh like Jove himself. Believe in the existence of for God without evidence? You cannot believe in the existence of yourself with evidence, overwhelming evidence.  

Without God, you are a machine, and your life is meaningless. I do not mean you are unhappy, I mean literally, your thoughts and actions and words have no meaning. They are gibberish. Sounds signifying nothing.

There may be atheists who can erect a theory of the world that is both rational and godless. You are not one of them. Your world-system is irrational and godless. Believing in God is the only thing that can save you from believing you are a machine. Those atheists who are rational face a different choice. For you, your choice is between sanity and nonbeing.

Fear not. It is less difficult to believe in God, the necessary being, than it is to believe in one's own self-nonexistence. If you actually believe in your own self-nonexistence, you already have faith muscular enough to make a mountain jump into the sea.

Believing in the mysteries of our faith is as nothing compared to believing in the mysteries of your faith. Trust me. You have already swallowed a camel. Swallowing bread and wine is nothing compared to that.

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