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John Searle Talks to Google

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John Searle gives a nice talk at Google about real intelligence vs. machine intelligence. The conversation is interesting for a number of reasons, including some historical background of Searle’s famous “Chinese Room Argument.”

First, the question of whether computers are conscious is a common one in the Intelligent Design debate, and Searle does a good job showing why computers are not conscious.

Second, the interaction between Searle and the rest of the community is a toned-down replica of the debate that the mainstream ID community has with the evolutionary biology community. Searle, not being an expert in computer science, asked basic questions that anyone might come up with reading a basic book about the subject. These questions, thirty years on, have yet to be answered, yet they were seen as preposterous at the time. Still today, the materialists seem to ignore rather than answer his argument.

Along the same lines, Searle notes that early on people were constantly trying to snow him with techno-babble. They would say, “well, your model doesn’t include X, so it is irrelevant,” where X is something like a power supply. Searle didn’t always know what X was, but after five minutes of investigation, it becomes obvious that X is totally irrelevant to the argument, and is just a matter of some person trying to assert their authority in the matter, not really answering the question.

Third, it is interesting to me that the way that Searle gets most legitimately beat up is by not taking his own argument seriously enough. He believes that humans are machines – he follows materialism. Kurzweil’s argument essentially goes like this – the causal powers of the brain aren’t any different than the causal powers of electronics, and if you can map one to the other in an equal logical footing, why aren’t they equivalent? Searle basically just sidestepped it by saying (rightly) that neuroscience has no idea how the brain works, so you can’t say that you know how to replicate it. But if we are just machines, Kurzweil’s argument stands – we *can* implement consciousness on machines.

However, if you take the chinese room argument more seriously that Searle does – that we *must* be more than machines to hold a semantic component – then Kurzweil’s argument simply falls on its face.

Part of me thinks that this is why materialists like Searle are given a higher place in academia while they would probably never invite Plantinga to give a similar account (though they both cover the same conceptual space) – with Searle, since he is a materialist, he never fully challenges their conceptions. Additionally, Kurzweil always has an out – if we assume that everything is material, then we know that there is no causation beyond the material by simple implication. However, if you bring in someone who believes in a larger causative universe, then your argument is left without foundation.

Anyway, I did not watch it to the end (I’m 45 minutes in but I have other things I need to do today), but I thought that both the general significance of the Chinese Room argument to ID, the intellectual similarities of the struggle between simple, basic, obvious questions and people who want to assert their authority rather than answer them, and the general problems of materialist assumptions with reality meant that it was worth the opportunity to post.

Anyway, let me know your thoughts, and especially if anything interesting happens past the 45-minute mark.

17 Replies to “John Searle Talks to Google

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    So this still comes down to the position that the hard problem of consciousness is still hard? “Hard” as in “we still don’t know one way or the other”?

    I don’t view the computer I am typing this comment into as being conscious and I don’t know of anyone that does. I am not aware of any researchers into even the most advanced forms of AI as claiming that they have achieved artificial consciousness. Is there anyone who has read such a claim?

    I should also say that I am instantly put on my guard when I read or hear critics attack “materialism” and “Darwinism”. Anyone familiar with these topics, especially those with tertiary-level education, should be aware that “materialism” is an obsolete concept in philosophy and “Darwinism”, meaning Darwin’s original theory of adaptation through random mutation and natural selection, is no longer the whole of current evolutionary theory. Implying that they are is disingenuous and suggests someone pursuing an agenda rather than simply exploring legitimate alternatives.

  2. 2
    johnnyb says:

    Seversky –

    I find your comment quite amusing. You seem to be mad that (a) I am combatting materialism, and (b) that I believe there are a significant number of people that hold to materialism.

    First of all, (b) is simply wrong. Materialism still holds a very large contingent in academia (as does neo-Darwinism). This talk is proof positive. Even Searle can bring himself to separate from materialism. Additionally, even if people decide that they aren’t materialists, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they instantaneously stop thinking like materialists. For any large academic endeavor, such thinking gets ingrained in people’s minds, and even after a theory is disproved and every agrees it is disproved, aspects of it still linger on.

    Also what is amusing is that you think that the “hard” problem of consciousness is that we don’t know what creates consciousness. If that’s what you think, you (like many others) have grossly misunderstood the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness is that the stuff of physics (not just the stuff as in “here are the elements” but even the concept of elements) doesn’t have anything mind-like in it at all. It’s not even possible to conceive of how to make a connection.

    Let’s compare it to, say, time-travel. I don’t believe time-travel is possible, but I *do* have a conception of how it might be done if it were. The concept of time and space maps to the time and space objects, and I can see that if I move X from one point in time and space to another point in time but at the same space, I will have achieved time travel.

    There is simply no comparative way to map consciousness. The stuff of physics simply is not the same thing we are describing with consciousness. It is possible that someone may come up with an answer, but it won’t be with anything that we would today recognize as physics (for instance, if someone posited a mind-first view of reality – that would indeed connect the pieces, but it wouldn’t look like physics).

    I find it amusing overall that you seem to be agreeing with us, but mad that we are having the conversation. Or, perhaps, your view is more materialistic and neo-darwinistic than you let on, but you want to leave those below the surface and prevent the criticism. You want to drop the label because of its implications.

    If you are not a materialist, then do you think that real AI is possible using Turing machines on the right program? If so, how does that comport with not being a materialist? Or are you using the word materialist in a different way than I am familiar with?

    As far as computers and AI, there are *many* who say that AIs will become sentient as they become more powerful, and that processing power or algorithms are all that is necessary. Searle’s Chinese Room Argument shows that this is not the case.

    One other note – even if neo-Darwinism was not held by mosts biologists (I would argue the reverse), most of academia has not been on top of developments in evolutionary theory over the last two decades, and are still operating on the assumption that neo-Darwinism is true. If that is the case, then shouldn’t we all be ripping on neo-Darwinism together to make sure that this information about the demise of neo-Darwinism gets out?

  3. 3
    Origenes says:

    Seversky: Anyone familiar with these topics, especially those with tertiary-level education, should be aware that “materialism” is an obsolete concept in philosophy …

    Daniel Stoljar on behalf of the Stanford website disagrees with you:

    Physicalism is sometimes known as ‘materialism’. Indeed, on one strand to contemporary usage, the terms ‘physicalism’ and ‘materialism’ are interchangeable. But the two terms have very different histories. … materialism as traditionally construed is not a linguistic thesis at all; rather it is a metaphysical thesis in the sense that it tells us about the nature of the world. … therefore, there was a clear reason for distinguishing physicalism (a linguistic thesis) from materialism (a metaphysical thesis). … physicalism is not a linguistic thesis for contemporary philosophers—and this is one reason why the words ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ are now often interpreted as interchangeable.
    [plato.stanford.edu]

  4. 4
    Neil Rickert says:

    Second, the interaction between Searle and the rest of the community is a toned-down replica of the debate that the mainstream ID community has with the evolutionary biology community.

    I don’t think that’s true. The ID folk are typically making an anti-materialist argument. But Searle is not at all anti-materialist.

    I’ll add that I usually enjoy listening to Searle, though I don’t fully agree with him.

    I see that he is now saying, in effect, that computers don’t really compute. It’s just that we interpret them as computing. I’ve been saying that for a long time, though I see it as a side issue.

    However, if you take the chinese room argument more seriously that Searle does – that we *must* be more than machines to hold a semantic component – then Kurzweil’s argument simply falls on its face.

    I see the problem here, is that people don’t agree on the meaning of “machine”. Personally, I don’t think we are machines. But I also don’t believe that there is anything mystical or supernatural going on. In the view of some folk, that there is nothing mystical or supernatural implies that we are machines. Obviously, I disagree what those folk mean by “machine”. But there does not seem to be a good clear definition of “machine” that can settle these disagreements.

    While I don’t think we are machines, I also don’t think we are “more than machines”. We simply do not have criteria available that would allow us to say “we are more than machines” or “we are less than machines”. We are unable to make such comparisons.

  5. 5
    Origenes says:

    Neil Rickert: I usually enjoy listening to Searle, though I don’t fully agree with him.

    Do you not fully agree with Searle or do neurons in “your” brain not fully agree with Searle? Or are the two the same?
    If it is the case that that the neurons in “your” brain don’t fully agree with Searle, then is that disagreement based on chemistry alone? If so, in what sense can this be considered a rational disagreement?

    It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter.”
    [Haldane, “When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays – 1927]

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert says:

    Origines: Do you not fully agree with Searle or do neurons in “your” brain not fully agree with Searle?

    I do not fully agree with Searle. I have no idea whether the neurons agree, though I am inclined to doubt that individual neurons have the capability of either agreeing or disagreeing.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Neil Rickert:

    I do not fully agree with Searle.

    So?

    Quantify your agreement/disagreement.

    Calculate your agreement/disagreement in terms of neurons per stance.

  8. 8
    Origenes says:

    Neil Rickert:

    Origines: Do you not fully agree with Searle or do neurons in “your” brain not fully agree with Searle?

    I do not fully agree with Searle.

    – What do you mean with “I”, if not the neurons in the brain?
    – Is your disagreement with Searle caused by (neuronal) chemistry alone? If so, in what sense can this be considered a rational disagreement?

    … let us suppose that brain state A, which is token identical to the thought that all men are mortal, and brain state B, which is token identical to the thought that Socrates is a man, together cause the belief that Socrates is mortal. It isn’t enough for rational inference that these events be those beliefs, it is also necessary that the causal transaction be in virtue of the content of those thoughts . . . [But] if naturalism is true, then the propositional content is irrelevant to the causal transaction that produces the conclusion, and [so] we do not have a case of rational inference. In rational inference, as Lewis puts it, one thought causes another thought not by being, but by being seen to be, the ground for it. But causal transactions in the brain occur in virtue of the brain’s being in a particular type of state that is relevant to physical causal transactions.
    [Reppert]

  9. 9
    Neil Rickert says:

    Mung: Quantify your agreement/disagreement.

    43

    This is ridiculous. I can detail my disagreements. I cannot quantify them. There is no agreed way to count.

    My main disagreements:
    (1) Searle does not understand the Systems reply.
    (2) Searle thinks that consciousness needs a scientific explanation. But it doesn’t. Rather, it is a philosopher’s problem, not a scientist’s problem.

    In a bit more detail: Neuroscientists can investigate what the brain is doing. They see what it looks like from the outside. But conscious experience is what it looks like from the inside.

  10. 10
    Neil Rickert says:

    Origenes: What do you mean with “I”, if not the neurons in the brain?

    “I” refers to the whole person acting in an environment. I am a skeptic of “brain in a vat” ideas. I am also skeptical of brain/mind identity hypotheses.

  11. 11
    Origenes says:

    Neil Rickert: “I” refers to the whole person acting in an environment.

    Incompatible with materialism. Is “the whole person acting in an environment” a conglomeration of chemicals interacting with chemicals? If so, there is simply no ground for the theistic notion of a “whole person” — as one thing — who “acts”; suggesting free will or at least some sort of top-down causation.

    More generally: a “whole person who acts” cannot be grounded by blind particles in motion.

    FOR SOLID EVOLUTIONARY REASONS, WE’VE BEEN tricked into looking at life from the inside. Without scientism, we look at life from the inside, from the first-person POV (OMG, you don’t know what a POV is?—a “point of view”). The first person is the subject, the audience, the viewer of subjective experience, the self in the mind.
    Scientism shows that the first-person POV is an illusion. Even after scientism convinces us, we’ll continue to stick with the first person. But at least we’ll know that it’s another illusion of introspection and we’ll stop taking it seriously. We’ll give up all the answers to the persistent questions about free will, the self, the soul, and the meaning of life that the illusion generates.
    The physical facts fix all the facts. The mind is the brain. It has to be physical and it can’t be anything else, since thinking, feeling, and perceiving are physical process—in particular, input/output processes—going on in the brain. We can be sure of a great deal about how the brain works because the physical facts fix all the facts about the brain. The fact that the mind is the brain guarantees that there is no free will. It rules out any purposes or designs organizing our actions or our lives. It excludes the very possibility of enduring persons, selves, or souls that exist after death or for that matter while we live. Not that there was ever much doubt about mortality anyway.

    THE ILLUSION THAT THERE IS SOMEONE INSIDE that has thoughts about stuff is certainly as old as the illusion that there are thoughts about stuff. They almost certainly evolved together as a package deal. But if the physical facts fix all the facts, there can’t be a me or you inside our bodies with a special point of view. When it fixed the facts, physics ruled out the existence of selves, souls, persons, or nonphysical minds inhabiting our bodies. It’s easy to see how it ruled them out, much easier than it is to see the illusion of aboutness that fostered them. Seeing the illusion of self helps loosen the hold of the illusion of purpose, plan, and design. If there is no one to cook up and carry out plans, purposes, and designs, then they couldn’t be real, could they? As for free will, it’s also hard to see its point without a self to have free will.

    There is no self in, around, or as part of anyone’s body. There can’t be. So there really isn’t any enduring self that ever could wake up morning after morning worrying about why it should bother getting out of bed. The self is just another illusion, like the illusion that thought is about stuff or that we carry around plans and purposes that give meaning to what our body does. Every morning’s introspectively fantasized self is a new one, remarkably similar to the one that consciousness ceased fantasizing when we fell sleep sometime the night before. Whatever purpose yesterday’s self thought it contrived to set the alarm last night, today’s newly fictionalized self is not identical to yesterday’s. It’s on its own, having to deal with the whole problem of why to bother getting out of bed all over again.

    [Rosenberg, The Atheist Guide To Reality, Ch. 9 & 10]

  12. 12
    Neil Rickert says:

    Origenes: Incompatible with materialism.

    I am not a materialist. I’m some kind of behaviorist (but not the BF Skinner kind).

    Is “the whole person acting in an environment” a conglomeration of chemicals interacting with chemicals?

    No. Maybe a conglomeration of behaviors (including chemical behaviors, information behaviors, cognitive behaviors, physical behaviors), but not merely a conglomeration of chemicals.

    And I’m not a fan of scientism, nor do I agree much with Alex Rosenberg.

  13. 13
    Seversky says:

    johnnyb @ 2

    Seversky –

    I find your comment quite amusing. You seem to be mad that (a) I am combatting materialism, and (b) that I believe there are a significant number of people that hold to materialism.

    First of all, (b) is simply wrong. Materialism still holds a very large contingent in academia (as does neo-Darwinism). This talk is proof positive. Even Searle can bring himself to separate from materialism. Additionally, even if people decide that they aren’t materialists, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they instantaneously stop thinking like materialists. For any large academic endeavor, such thinking gets ingrained in people’s minds, and even after a theory is disproved and every agrees it is disproved, aspects of it still linger on.

    Daniel Stoljar, in the entry on Physicalism from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which Origines quotes in another post, writes:

    Some philosophers suggest that ‘physicalism’ is distinct from ‘materialism’ for a reason quite unrelated to the one emphasized by Neurath and Carnap. As the name suggests, materialists historically held that everything was matter — where matter was conceived as “an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist” (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). But physics itself has shown that not everything is matter in this sense; for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Lange 1865, Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983). So it is tempting to use ‘physicalism’ to distance oneself from what seems a historically important but no longer scientifically relevant thesis of materialism, and related to this, to emphasize a connection to physics and the physical sciences. However, while physicalism is certainly unusual among metaphysical doctrines in being associated with a commitment both to the sciences and to a particular branch of science, namely physics, it is not clear that this is a good reason for calling it ‘physicalism’ rather than ‘materialism.’ For one thing, many contemporary physicalists do in fact use the word ‘materialism’ to describe their doctrine (e.g. Smart 1963). Moreover, while ‘physicalism’ is no doubt related to ‘physics’ it is also related to ‘physical object’ and this in turn is very closely connected with ‘material object’, and via that, with ‘matter.’

    I don’t agree with the implication by Stoljar that the distinction between “materialism” and “physicalism” is trivial. In the context of religious attacks on so-called materialistic science or materialism, the older, cruder notion of matter given in the Berkeley quote is what is implied and needs to be corrected. Just as does the canard of “Darwinism”, that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the be-all and end-all of the current theory of evolution.

    Also what is amusing is that you think that the “hard” problem of consciousness is that we don’t know what creates consciousness. If that’s what you think, you (like many others) have grossly misunderstood the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness is that the stuff of physics (not just the stuff as in “here are the elements” but even the concept of elements) doesn’t have anything mind-like in it at all. It’s not even possible to conceive of how to make a connection.

    Actually, we seem to be in agreement here. I understand the hard problem of consciousness to mean that we don’t have an materialist/physicalist account of how our experience of consciousness arises from the neurological activity of the physical brain. All we observe is that, for example, the death or destruction of the physical brain coincides with the end of the associated consciousness, that stimulation of the physical brain by implanted electrodes or transcranial EM fields are reported to induce changes in conscious experience by the subjects and that the cognitive deficits in Alzheimer’s disease, for example, are associated with physical changes in the brain. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, we have no observations of a consciousness existing apart from a physical substrate like a brain.

    There is simply no comparative way to map consciousness. The stuff of physics simply is not the same thing we are describing with consciousness. It is possible that someone may come up with an answer, but it won’t be with anything that we would today recognize as physics (for instance, if someone posited a mind-first view of reality – that would indeed connect the pieces, but it wouldn’t look like physics).

    Again, I agree with the suggestion that we may well need a different physics to explain the material/physical basis of consciousness.

    I find it amusing overall that you seem to be agreeing with us, but mad that we are having the conversation. Or, perhaps, your view is more materialistic and neo-darwinistic than you let on, but you want to leave those below the surface and prevent the criticism. You want to drop the label because of its implications.

    I don’t think I’m mad about the conversation. In a previous post, I described my position, slightly tongue-in-cheek, as atheistic materialism version 2.0 (a/mat 2.0) meaning I hold a physicalist/naturalistic view of the universe which does not include belief in a god. I can’t absolutely rule out the existence of a god or a designer but I don’t see any compelling evidence for one and, for all practical purposes, I act as if they don’t exist.

    If you are not a materialist, then do you think that real AI is possible using Turing machines on the right program? If so, how does that comport with not being a materialist? Or are you using the word materialist in a different way than I am familiar with?

    It depends what you mean by AI here. We have been talking about consciousness. I believe that one day there will be an artificial consciousness but I have no idea how it might be achieved. Neither will anyone else, of course, until we have a materialist/physicalist theory of same.

    As far as computers and AI, there are *many* who say that AIs will become sentient as they become more powerful, and that processing power or algorithms are all that is necessary. Searle’s Chinese Room Argument shows that this is not the case.

    Yes, “will become”. Nobody is saying we are there yet

    One other note – even if neo-Darwinism was not held by mosts biologists (I would argue the reverse), most of academia has not been on top of developments in evolutionary theory over the last two decades, and are still operating on the assumption that neo-Darwinism is true. If that is the case, then shouldn’t we all be ripping on neo-Darwinism together to make sure that this information about the demise of neo-Darwinism gets out?

    What other disciplines think of current evolutionary theory is as irrelevant as what biologists think of string or multiverse theory. In fact, I am often surprised by just how wide of the mark otherwise accomplished academics can be. That said, biologists should be doing all they can to ensure that others understand the current state of evolutionary thought. Does that mean “ripping on Neo-Darwinism”? I don’t know. Does teaching contemporary physics mean “ripping on” Newtoniam mechanics?

  14. 14
    Origenes says:

    Neil Rickert: I am not a materialist. I’m some kind of behaviorist …

    Behaviorism doesn’t entail a position on what reality consists of. In my book you might just as well have stated that you are a republican.

    Neil Rickert:

    Origenes: Is “the whole person acting in an environment” a conglomeration of chemicals interacting with chemicals?

    No. Maybe a conglomeration of behaviors (including chemical behaviors, information behaviors, cognitive behaviors, physical behaviors), but not merely a conglomeration of chemicals.

    Without a ‘person’ as an overarching binding principle there is no coherency that grounds your “whole person acting in an environment”. IOWs if ‘person’ is reducible to uncontrolled behaviors of various items then it does not make sense to speak of a “whole person acting in an environment”.

  15. 15
    Neil Rickert says:

    Origenes: Behaviorism doesn’t entail a position on what reality consists of.

    We don’t actually know what reality consists of. People don’t agree on the meaning of “reality”. For that matter, we don’t know what matter is. That’s why I am neither a materialist nor an immaterialist.

    I’m also not a reductionist.

    May I suggest that you stop trying to compartmentalize me. If you have something to say on the actual topic, then post that. Otherwise you are just sidetracking the discussion.

  16. 16
    Origenes says:

    Neil R: We don’t actually know what reality consists of.

    Some people understand that fermions and bosons fail to ground all of reality and therefore hold that materialism is false.

    Neil R: People don’t agree on the meaning of “reality”.

    Why do you care what people agree on? Understanding is not a social enterprise.

    Neil R: For that matter, we don’t know what matter is.

    We should all know what it is not: it is neither conscious nor thinking nor sentient nor teleological.

    Neil R: That’s why I am neither a materialist nor an immaterialist.

    Doesn’t follow.

    Neil R: I’m also not a reductionist.

    Yet, by your own admission, you are an evolutionist. Evolution reduces organisms to accidental trait / gene carriers which succeed on the basis of chance.

    Neil R: May I suggest that you stop trying to compartmentalize me. If you have something to say on the actual topic, then post that. Otherwise you are just sidetracking the discussion.

    Rather than sidetracking the discussion, like some do, I am consistently building on this excellent observation of JohnnyB:

    He [Searle] believes that humans are machines – he follows materialism.
    However, if you take the chinese room argument more seriously that Searle does – that we *must* be more than machines to hold a semantic component …

    Computers (and human beings as perceived by materialism) do not understand things, because “they” are not persons — there is no one who understands — and second because rationality is not grounded by parts acting according to laws.

  17. 17
    Neil Rickert says:

    Origenes continues with more off-topic sidetracking. I will not further respond to his comments.

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