Individiual Understanding Essay

This essay has a total of 1848 words and 8 pages.

Individiual Understanding

Individual Understanding

I agree with functionalists, specifically the strong Artificial Intelligence (AI) camp,
concerning the concept of understanding. While John Searle poses a strong
non-functionalist case in his AChinese Room@ argument, I find that his definition of Ato
understand@ falls short and hampers his point. I criticize his defense that understanding
rests on a standardized knowledge of meaning, but not before outlining the general
background of the issue.

Functionalists define thought and mental states in terms of input and output. They claim
that what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch (input) creates a mental state or belief,
and that particular mental state in turn creates our reaction (output). If I see it=s
raining outside, I believe that if I go outside I will get wet, and therefore I take an
umbrella with me. The functionalists define a mental state strictly through its cause and
effect relationships, through its function.

This thinking leads to the conclusion that the human brain is little more than a big,
complex computer. All we humans do is take input, process it, and accordingly create
output, just like a computer. In fact, functionalists who support strong AI go so far as
to say that an appropriately programmed computer actually has all the same mental states
and capabilities as a human. In AMinds, Brains, and Programs,@ John Searle outlines this

AIt is a characteristic of human beings= story understanding capacity that they can answer
questions about [a] story even though the information they give was never explicitly
stated in the story. . . . [Strong AI claims that m]achines can similarly answer questions
about [stories] in this fashion. . . . Partisans of strong AI claim that in this question
and answer sequence the machine is not only simulating a human ability but also (1) that
the machine can literally be said to understand the story . . . and (2) that what the
machine and its program do explains the human ability to understand the story and answer
questions about it@ (354).

While strong AI claims that a machine can understand just as a human understands, Searle
himself disagrees. He claims that a strictly input-output system, such as a computer is,
cannot understand anything, nor does it explain humans= ability to understand. In
criticizing strong AI, Searle creates his famous AChinese Room@ argument: suppose that
Searle was locked in a room with a large batch of Chinese writing. Here, Searle knows
absolutely no Chinese, but he does understand English fluently. For Searle, AChinese
writing is just so many meaningless squiggles@ (355). Then, someone slips under the door
another set of Chinese writing, but along with it an English rulebook. The rulebook shows
Searle how to simply correlate one Chinese symbol with another, identifying them only by
shape and not by meaning. Searle then strings together his meaningless Chinese symbols
according to the English rulebook, and slips his Awriting@ under the door. More Chinese
symbols come in, and in response Searle simply pieces new ones together and sends them
back out.

The question at hand: does Searle understand Chinese? If he becomes good enough at piecing
the symbols together, a native Chinese speaker outside the room would say yes, Searle does
understand Chinese. Chinese questions were sent in, and flawless answers came back out.
There were input (Chinese questions), obvious processing (Searle=s matching symbols
according to the rulebook), and appropriate output (Searle=s pieced-together responses),
just as strong AI proposes. But is this understanding?

Searle claims it is not. He argues that locked in the room, he certainly does not
understand Chinese. AI have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of
[a] native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still
understand nothing. For the same reason,@ Searle claims, A[strong AI=s] computer
understands nothing of any stories . . .@ He goes on to argue that with English sentences,
he knows what they mean, and therefore understands them, but with the Chinese symbols, he
knows nothing of their meaning and therefore does not understand them (357).

One of the many functionalist responses to Searle=s Chinese Room argument claims that
while ASearle may not understand Chinese, the room does.@ This view concedes that in
looking at Searle as an independent individual, he obviously does not understand the
meaning of his Awriting.@ However this response also seems to claim that Searle is not
really independent, but rather a piece of a larger whole, and in looking at the room as a
whole system, there actually does exist an understanding of the Chinese writing.

Inside of the room exist three things: Searle, an English rulebook, and a big batch of
Chinese writing symbols. While Searle, one of the three, may not individually understand
Chinese, the functioning of the three together creates an understanding. The symbols exist
already, but are not structured in any particular order; they need direction to create
meaning. The English rulebook gives that direction, but cannot execute its instructions;
it needs a processing unit. Searle can follow the rulebook=s instructions and give proper
order to the Chinese symbols. As the third and final Aprocessor piece,@ he may not
understand the symbols nor why he places one after another, but an understanding exists in
the working of the three pieces together. According to certain functionalists, therefore,
the room, as a whole system composed of smaller parts, understands Chinese.

Searle is not convinced. His response, he claims, Ais simple: Let the individual [inside
the room] internalize all of these elements of the system.@ Let him memorize all the
symbols, of course not by their meaning but by their shapes only. Let him memorize the
rules of the English rulebook and let him, instead of physically piecing symbols together,
do all the work in his head. AWe can even get rid of the room and suppose he works
outdoors. All the same, he understands nothing of Chinese, and a fortiori neither does the
Continues for 4 more pages >>

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