The Biological Chinese Room (?)

I am getting ready to head out to New York Medical College to give Grand Rounds in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences on the Neurobiology of Consciousness. I am leaving in just a bit but as I was getting ready I had a strange thought about Searle’s Chinese Room argument that I thought I would jot down very quickly. I assume we are all familiar with the traditional version of the argument. We have you (or Seattle) locked in a room receiving input in a foreign language and looking up proper responses in a giant rule book to return the proper output. In effect the person in the room is performing the job that a computer would taking syntactic representations and transforming them according to formally specified rules. The general idea is that since Searle doesn’t thereby understand Chinese that there must be more to understanding it than formal computation.

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in going over the myriads of responses and counter responses that have appeared since  Seattle first gave this argument but it did occur to me that we could give a biological version of this that would target the biological nature of consciousness that Searle prefers. Indeed, I think it also would work against Block’s recent claim that some kind of analog computation suffices for phenomenal consciousness (see his talk at Google (and especially the questions at the end)). So the basic idea is this. Instead of having the person in the room implement formal computations, have them implement analog ones by playing the role of neurons. They would be sequestered in the room as usual and would receive input in the form of neurotransmitters. They would then respond with the appropriate neurotransmitters. We can imagine the entire room is hooked up in such a way that the Chinese speaker on the outside in speaking normally, or typing or whatever, and this gets translated into neural-chemical activity which is what the person in the room receives. They respond in kind and this gets translated into speech on the other end. Seattle still wouldn’t understand Chinese.

So it seems that either this refutes the biological view of consciousness or it suggests what is wrong with the original Chinese Room argument…any thoughts?


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