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Are We in a Chinese Room?

'We know how to respond, but we don't know why.'

Credit to Pat Perry

Philosophy is one of the things that I think truly makes humans, well, human. It goes beyond simply having a consciousness, instead, it leads to us questioning what consciousness even is. How do we truly know that what we are experiencing right now is truly us? 

What if we are simply responding to stimuli just like our muscles do, with no 'thought' behind it, simply an action that has to follow after another action? What if that is just how our brain works?

Such 'what ifs' started to plague my mind mostly due to one certain little argument, or thought experiment in a way, known famously as the Chinese Room.

To those who are unfamiliar with this, I shall attempt to set the idea up for you: 

  • A person is trapped in a room, completely sealed off from the outside. No windows, no light, only a locked door and some bookcases filled with countless books. Upon closer inspection, all of those books are simply Chines phrasebooks, with a series of questions and answers all written out only in Chinese—no English in sight.
  • The person has no clue what anything even means in those books, but before thinking upon it for too long, they get a slip of paper through a door, which asks a question.
  • Of course, the person has no clue who the person asking the question is, or what the note even says, but none the less picks up the note and responds with one of the replies from the phrasebook.
  • Soon, more and more notes follow on from that, countless exchanges between the person in the room and the mysterious note sender.

Of course, the philosophical ideas behind it start just now. The note sender has no clue that the person in the room can't speak Chinese, after all, all of the replies they got were accurate and made perfect sense—no reason to doubt that the person is Chinese and understands it.

However, we know that the person is not, in fact, Chinese, they were simply copying out an answer from a database of countless possible answers, successfully fooling the note-sender that they were, in fact, fluent in Chinese.

The general conclusion to this thought experiment is that this is what AI does. AI just pulls out countless possible answers from a whole database of answers programmed into it, fooling others into thinking that the AI has a consciousness.

But of course, if we follow that logic, AI does not really have consciousness. After all, if you're just picking out answers from a phrase book, you don't really understand what you are doing, after all.

However, I want to go a step further.

What if, this was not just how AI thinks? What if, this is how humans work too?

Think of all the times that you have placed your hand on a hot pan, and quickly moved it away. All the times that your back hurt if you bent a certain way. All the times that your head hurt after watching too much TV?

All of this, can be summed up by the Chinese Room too.

All that it is, is your nerves sensing stimuli, and going to your brain to search for the right response to this certain stimuli. "Oh, that temperature felt really hot. That ain't good, we should move the hand away before it gets burnt."

And of course, your body does that, without thinking about why it does that at all.

Isn't that oddly similar to the Chinese Room? We know how to respond, but we don't know why.

What if we take that a step further. What if all the times that we get asked, "Oh, how is your day?" our brain just goes through a phrase book of possible valid answers and picks one, such as "My day's gone real shit."

What if this 'Chinese Room' state of mind, not only fools the outsider—the note sender—but also fools the person sending the notes—us?

Of course, there are lots of flaws with my philosophy:

  • Where did we get this phrasebook?
  • What about the person sending the notes, do they have a phrase book too?
  • Does any of this really matter?

And of course, I don't have answers for those, no one does. 

And that's what is so great about it. What's so great about philosophy and life in general—there are no answers, and that is a truly beautiful thing.

Make of life what you will. Are we like AI, or is there something more to us humans?

None of the answers truly matter, so there is no wrong answer.

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