[xmca] The Chinese Room

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon May 14 2007 - 01:54:03 PDT

Dear Andy:
  This morning I remembered a remark you made many months ago now on how Searle and the speech act theorists believed that by replacing body-mind dualism with brain-body dualism they had really accomplished something.
  At the time, I wasn't sure what you meant. But Belyayev presents a whole slew of experimental results where he demonstrates that people who have "really mastered" a foreign language have the same response times to problems as people who are working in their native language. The response time is predicted by the conceptual difficulty of the problem, and not by the language in which it is presented.
  In contrast, he shows that the response time of people who are learning a foreign language is much slower. He argues on the basis of these results that people who translate a foreign language into their own language in order to understand do not really understand a foreign language; they only understand the translation.
  Basically, he's arguing that a two-stage process of comprehension is not comprehension at all. It is not possible to have one set of formal rules for turning a string of symbols into meanings and then bring in another set of formal rules for understanding those meanings.
  This is, like many of Belyayev's best ideas, from Vygotsky. In the higher psychological processes, there is no such thing as mentalese; there is no naked, pre-linguistic "thought" which is subsequently encoded in language. Thought and speech have different genetic roots, but both are social from the outset. As for adult thinking, it is saturated with speech (those of others as well as one's own) as soon as it is engendered.
  I think this is the real answer to Searle's Chinese Room problem. Searle posits a sealed room (a clumsy metaphor for the brain) containing a vast library of phrase books. Under the door, someone passes long lists of sentences in Chinese. The person in the room
  looks up the sentence in the phrase book and the phrase book gives the answer in Chinese, which the person in the room copies down and passes back under the door. There is no way for people outside the room to know that the person in the room does not know Chinese.
  This was Searle's response to the Turing test, which stipulates that if a blind interlocutor cannot tell the difference between a computer and a human than the computer can be said to be intelligent. Searle responded that although the person outside the room cannot know that the person in the room does not know Chinese, the person in the room certainly can. Therefore the Turing test is invalid.
  At first I was thrown by this, because I strongly agree with Bakhtin that the way to understand understanding is simply by the responsiveness of the understander--if someone is ready to respond to an utterance (even if that response is not actually made) that person can be said to have understood, and if someone is not ready to respond to an utterance (even if that response is actually made and appears to be formally correct) than that person cannot be said to have understood. The Chinese Room appears to refer to the latter possibility.
  But as you say, Searle has merely replaced one form of dualism with another. Searle's Chinese Room problem is so dualistic it comes with a built-in homunculus. In fact, there is no way for the person in the room to respond unless s/he has found a way to allow the speech and the thoughts of the one outside the room to infiltrate and permeate his/her own. No phrase book can do this, because phrase books encode texts and not discourses. Belyayev would add, not even a bilingual phrase book can do it.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  into which meanings are remark that Belyayev makes

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Received on Mon May 14 02:55 PDT 2007

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